The Futility of Knowledge and Wisdom

For in much wisdom is much grief: and he that increaseth knowledge increaseth sorrow.  Ecclesiastes 1:18 
These words were written by the sage and philosopher king, Solomon. They contradict the quote from Hannah Arndt and the spirit of the age. Whose words ring more real?  My money is on Solomon. 

But if his words are true, why are they true? Why does knowledge and wisdom increase sorrow. Isn’t it said that the solution for all human maladies is education?

Arndt’s statement assumes a good heart and that evil always redesides outside if me. Solomon knew that evil was innate in the human individual. (2 Chronicles 6:36). Just because we know does not mean we do. In fact knowledge has no power over the will. The human will, untouched by the divine influence of grace, is not naturally subject to the law of God. (Romans 7:13-25; 8:7).  We see this illustrated on the daily news. 

Therefore knowledge provides only a reason to do right.  It requires the will, empowered by divine grace from the Holy Spirit alone, to make knowledge beneficial and practical and real. 

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Sunday Synchronicity

For many years it seemed that my activities and experiences on Sunday were out of synch with my life the remainder of the week. Sunday life means attendance at church where we sing hymns, receive communion, give an offering and hear a sermon.  Since these are strictly Sunday activities it  felt as if  my spiritial life  didn’t fit with or was foreign to “normal” life. But is this accurate?  I’ve begun to challenge that notion. 

Just because Sunday activities are different than Monday thru Saturday activities doesn’t make Sunday life out of synch with the rest of our week. In fact, a very strong case can be made that worship activities on the Lord’s day contributes to a more synchronized life rhythm. Worship without labor becomes irrelevant or at least unproductive; but labor without worship deteriorates into a chasing of the wind. We need both work and worship to be balanced. In fact, a truly Christian worldview attaches spiritual value to every mundane task-even that of eating and drinking. 

With that said, most days my heart prefers the rhythm of Sunday. 
 

Having Grace

Grace as a human quality is resiliency in trouble; it is kindness in response to criticism;  gentleness returned for harshness. It is treating others well when they haven’t earned it. 

Grace is not a natural human quality. Gracious living is only possible when we ourselves receive grace from God first. No grace coming in means no grace going out. Supernatural grace to respond in kindness, gentleness and resiliency comes by the disciplines of prayer, humility and servitude. 

Oh how we need grace! 

A Rx for Life’s Poison 

I remember the energy, the thrill, the wonder of youth and early days of ministry.  There was a conviction that the Word of God and Holy Spirit could work through me to change lives and even the world.  The call of God was on my life. I took that call  seriously. Caring for and deivering the Word to the congregations under my care became the fulfilling of that calling. Hope was alive.  Plans were big. 

But over the years life’s unexpected ingredients were being added to the elixir of joyful salvation. 

  • Ministry disappointments brought disillusionment 
  • Financial pressures created anxiety
  • Cultural shifts threatened uncertainty
  • Personal failures created shame
  • Relationship losses inflicted sadness
  • Family pain caused frustration 
  • Marriage conflict added loneliness 

These ingredients were mixed together in a poisonous brew and I was forced to swallow. The nasty concoction embittered my soul, destroyed my hope, drained my energy and stole my vision. I became cynical. I learned to build walls to hide behind. A sinister shadow of discontent crept in. A heavy fog suggesting God’s disapproval and disappointment seeped into me.  Was I in danger of forfeiting something sacred or had the exchange already happened without me realizing it?   Not only had I lost the enthusiastic joy of ministry but I had also allowed the joy of personal salvation to die. 

Surely I’m not the only servant of God who has ever been poisoned by the heartaches of life. There must be others out there. Have any of them swallowed this brew and avoided the sour stomach.  Is there an antidonte available or is my condition terminal?  

The Apostle Paul comes to mind. He drank  the poison too but seemed to survive without the belly ache I got. How?  How could he say in Acts 20:24 “But none of these things move me…”?

In examination of Paul’s testimony in Acts 20, I see the antidote to this poison. The treatment for life poisoning is primarily a transformation of the mind and heart. Buried in Paul’s goodbye speech to the Ephesians elders, we find 8 treatments which helped him avoid the effects of life’s poisons. Here they are:
Treatment 1: He thought of himself as bound in the spirit. He deserved no special treatment. 
Treatment 2: He considered his life expendable for His Lord. “Neither count I my life dear to myself.”
Treatment 3: He was focused on ministry. “That I may finish my course …and ministry.”
Treatment 4: He gave people to God instead of worrying about their outcome. “I commend you to God and His grace.”
Treatment 5: He prevented covetousness in his  heart. “I have coveted no man’s silver or gold or clothing.”
Treatment 6: He engaged in manual labor to provide for himself. “These hands have ministered to my necessities.”
Treatment 7: He nurtured and practiced generosity of spirit. “It is more blessed to give than to receive.”
Treatment 8: He prayed with his friends. “He kneeled down and prayed with them all.”  

One might speculate that Paul was putting on a good face for the Ephesian elders lest they abandon hope too.  Maybe deep inside he too felt the burn of life’s poison.  But until we try the treatment plan and continue to suffer the effects of the poison, it may be to our advantage to follow the treatment plan. 

Broken Hearts in the Pews

During my morning message yesterday, I noticed two of my congregation members weeping. After the service my Co-pastor sat with them, presumably to comfort or counsel them. Immediately my heart broke with thier hearts. 

The experience brought home to my heart how critical it is for us pastors not to dispose of our duties as hired shepherds. There are real needs, hurts and  struggles our people bring with them to church. One of many opportunities we have as preaching pastors is to shine the gospel light into the dark corners of our hearers. 

I am thankful for my  friend and Co-laborer who RECOGNIZED the need and initiated a moment of ministry in the lives of these two precious people. I am humbled to think that the Lord wants to use me to bring hope and Help to God’s children. It’s sobering to  hold such responsibility. My prayer this morning was that the Lord would help me be faithful to thier souls. 

Planting Seeds of the Kingdom

Every valley shall be filled, and every mountain and hill shall be brought low; and the crooked shall be made straight, and the rough ways shall be made smooth; And all flesh shall see the salvation of God.  Luke 3:5-6


Recent outbreaks of violence between law enforcement and protestors have re-ignited the smoldering racial tensions in America.  They have also reawakened in me a consciousness of how the Church is called to be promotors, even planters, of the Kingdom of God on the earth.  We don’t seem to be doing very well.  

It is obvious that we are in need of racial healing in America.  That healing will not come through political, judicial or legislative channels.  Only when reform is championed by the Body of Christ will there be peaceful healing.  Only the Kingdom of God has the necessary twin values of peace and justice.  We have witnessed the results when people take matters into their own hands.  We get more injustice.  And retribution has never brought healing.  Only forgiveness and peaceful reconciliation can bring the healing we need.  

Here is where the Church has a message straight out of the Gospel of Christ.  The values of the Kingdom of God which the Church is to champion can bring healing to our communities again.  Here are those values:  

1.  Healing starts with me.  I cannot expect the world to change until I change.  I must be responsible for my own behavior.

2.  Healing is spiritual.  It begins with a change in my heart–a change of my attitude, my desires and my values to align myself with the truth of the Kingdom.  There must be both forgiveness sought and forgiveness extended for understanding and healing to be reborn.

3. The Kingdom of God acknowledges the  value of the weak, the helpless and the sick.  It demonstrates mercy, compassion and generosity to those in need.  Who are the weak which the Kingdom of God in me can impact?  

4. The foundation of the Kingdom of God is Love–for friend and enemy (Matthew 5:38-47).  This is an uncommon and inhuman love.  It does not come from a good education or cultured environment.  It comes from a saving relationship with the crucified and risen Christ.  

Only when Christ returns and establishes His kingdom will conditions be perfect again.  But until then, it is up to us to plant the seeds of His Kingdom in broken hearts so all men will see the salvation of the God.

A Theologian Learns to Preach

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I’ve been thinking lately about how my preaching style has changed recently. In previous pulpits, I considered myself to be more of a theologian. My mission with each sermon was to get people to appreciate, embrace and conform to the deep rich truths of doctrine. While it still matters to me that my preaching be Biblically sound and theologically true, I have come to see my listeners less as students needing educated and more as sheep needing nurtured and fed.  So I’m finding that my sermons are less systematic but more human.  Less philosophical and more practical.

That being said, I still long to be able to better connect the average pew sitter with doctrinal glory. For instance whose soul wouldn’t (or shouldn’t) be aroused upon contemplation that Jesus is God incarnate;  that Scripture is the literal and perfect message of God to mankind; that communication with God is not just possible but can be a regular occurrence, accompanied by the inner assurance that God has heard your prayer and is already at work?  

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Truly we might reason that anyone content to maintain a poker face while being drenched in the eternity of God just might be a spiritual  swine unworthy of sacred pearls. 

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So how can the minister who is trained in the divine doctrines present the Word in a manner which magnifies the glories of Christianity without oozing his hubris or confusing his hearers? 

First it must be said that theology  must be couched in application. Truth is not given for the mind alone but for the heart and hands. Even the most theological of theological truths can be applied. Take for example the great truth of election. Scripture explains that God chose to save us (Eph 1:4; 1 Thess 1:4. 1 Peter 1:2). The point of this doctrine is not that some are elected and some are not. Rather election means God was not obliged or tricked  into saving us.  Salvation is intentional. Therefore our salvation was not accidental. It was not coincidental. It was planned and we were chosen by God. One application we can make is that we should resist the urge to take credit for our salvation.  Without Him choosing us we could never be saved. Further we should act out our salvation in the light that God is not just tolerant of us but has embraced us purposefully. This should produce humble confidence and joy in us.

Secondly? we cannot avoid theology or doctrine in Scripture. Every passage is by nature theological. Thoughtful prayer can Illuminate our spirit and mind to see how the theology of each passage applies to life. Theology is so often like a code which underlies a software program–invisible but necessary for the software to operate correctly.

Lately in sermon preparation, I have been letting the theology and doctrine come to me rather than me seeking it out. My focus has been more on the message to the heart and as I find that message, usually a great theological truth emerges for exploration. 

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To avoid over salting our sermons with theological hubris or spiritual pride, I recommend that we guard our use of technical terms unnecessry for clear communication. The use of terms like sublapsarianism, Docetism, or anthropomorphic may be appropriate in a lecture format where we may be trying to stretch and inform students but our sermons are not typically expected to be lectures. John Wesley described a good sermon as “sublimity and simplicity together, the strongest sense and the plainest language!”  His practice was to read his sermon to a servant who would stop him each time he used a term she did not know. At which he would change his term to a simpler one.

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Isham Holland, patriarch preacher of the Church of God (Holiness), once said that a sermon is supposed to help people.

In closing let it be said that where theology and doctrine arises let us not insist it sit down. And where it is content to remain silently present in sitting position let us not draw undue attention to it. Let our sermons be messages linking sublimity with simplicity.  Let our sermons help people. Let our sermons be more like a floodlight enlightening the pathway of people and less like a fireworks display which captures their attention for a few moments, only to fade from the longterm memory of the listener.

Is Thanksgiving a Distinctively Christian Practice?

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Rockwell,Thanksgiving

Thanksgiving is here again.  Unfortunately, its proximity to Christmas has turned it into a warm up act to Black Friday.  To add to that, the NFL has successfully established itself as a Thanksgiving tradition just as fitting as the Macy’s Thanksgiving Day Parade and grandma’s pumpkin pie.  Indeed one could also argue that the annual tradition of feasting in honor of “Thanksgiving” is itself a diversion from the original spirit and purpose of the holiday. But my purpose is not to complain about how this wonderful Christian holiday has been supplanted by Shopping and football.   Instead, I want to re-introduce the notion that Thanksgiving is a Christian holiday.

Webster to whom we Americans have turned for the official meaning of words for the last 175 years, defines “Thanksgiving” as a the act of giving thanks, a public acknowledgement or celebration of divine goodness; a prayer expressing gratitude.”  Note the distinctly religious and even Christian flavor of this definition, suggesting that true thanksgiving includes a conversation between man and God.  Thanksgiving in its purest and most rational form is spiritual and recognizes the goodness, providence and mercies of God.

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Some will argue that such a definition excludes the unbeliever from the practice of thanksgiving; that thanksgiving as a distinctly religious and even Christian exercise should therefore be rejected.  So can an unbelieving, non religious person be thankful without invoking God?  Can Sam Harris, the notable American athiest, engage in true thanksgiving today?  Most would likely say “yes.”  But I would propose a challenge to this response  If you’re curious, read on.

To be sure, I cannot read my own heart very well, not to mention Harris’ mind and heart.  I am sure that Harris, and other unbelievers, skeptics and non-Christians find plenty of good things for which to be grateful on a day such as this.  They can cite the gifts of family, friends, health, and even life itself as treasures for which they can be grateful.  And we might add that we all can and should be grateful for such things.  We shoud recognize those in our lives who have impacted us through their investments in our well-being, our relationship and comfort.  Spouses, parents and children should be thanked for their love for us; Doctors, nurses and other health professionals should be recognized for their service to us;  Teachers, mentors and coaches should be praised for their patience and dedication to us;  civil servants–fire, police–should receive our blessing of gratitude as well.

imageOne can feel gratitude for others without invoking God.  However, this merely “kicks the can down the road.”  For once your spouse, physician or local firefighter is thanked, who do they have to thank?  Traced back to the origin of goodness, every blessing, every gift originates somewhere else.  None of us are first sources of goodness.  We all have had blessings and gifts poured into us.  To simply express thanksgiving to another human being or even to the universe is to shift the duty of thanksgiving off of one creature and onto another.  Only when we acknowledge the goodness of God as a First Source of goodness can we really finish the circle of Thanksgiving.  James 1:17 claims that “…every good and perfect gift is from above and comes down from the Father of Lights…”  Only God is worthy to receive our offerings of Thanksgiving.

Spiritual Attrition

(The impetus of this blog entry was a request for doctrinal clarification posed by a friend whose Sunday School class is studying the topic of backsliding.  No interest in finger pointing or falsifying of positions underlie the post.  Dissenting comments are welcomed as long as they remain respectful, Bible based and charitable)

The debate over the nature of salvation is a long standing one which will not be resolved here. However in an effort to help clarify the conservative Arminian position, I offer the following thoughts for the reader’s consideration.

What examples of spiritual attrition can be identified in Scripture? 

Illustrations from Scripture.
1. Adam and Eve Fell Genesis 3:1-20. What were the results of their fall? Forfeited privileges of the Garden, Lost Spiritual life. Acquired shame. Inherited death.
2. Saul fell 1 Samuel 10:9 vs. 1 Samuel 18:12. What were the results if his fall? Withdrawal of God’s presence and peace. Eventual Forfeiture of the kingdom.
3. Israel fell as a nation and lost their inheritance Hosea 9:3. What were the results of their fall? Bondage in a foreign land. Loss of inheritance. Loss of testimony.
4. Ephesian church was warned to repent and do first works again or have candlestick removed .  Revelation 2:5.

What are some passages relative to the doctrine of Spiritual attrition?

1. Ezekiel 3:20. See also chapters 18 and 33. If the righteous sin their righteousness will not be remembered but they will die in thier sin.

2. Galatians 2:18. If I rebuild the things I destroy I make myself a transgressor. This contradicts the theory of forgiveness of future sins.

3. Galatians 5:4  Anyone who claims salvation apart from faith has fallen from grace.

4. Galatians 6:1 If a brother be overtaken in a fault restore him. 

5. Hebrews 4:1-11 Unbelief will cause us to fail to achieve the salvation promised and we will Fall just like Israel.

6. Hebrews 10:26. Willful sin after receiving the truth negates the sacrifice of Christ and we are in jeopardy of judgment.

7. Hebrews 10:39. We are not those who draw back to perdition (judgment)

8. 2 Peter 2:18-22. There is a real danger of being allured from the truth, entangled by sin  AFTER we come to know Jesus.

9. Jude 24. God is able to keep us from falling into apostasy. The context refers to more than minor failures but moral and spiritual death.

What are some of the reasons from theology and logic concerning spiritual attrition? 

The faith argument.
1. Salvation is always by faith.
2. Faith is always either living or dying.
3. In dying there comes a moment of death.
4. Once the faith dies eternal life dies.
5. To say that we are saved by faith but kept by election is unBiblical.

The freedom argument.
1. God’s nature is love.
2. He created us to love Him.
3. Coerced love is not genuine love.
4. Therefore he gave man freedom to choose.
5. Salvation is a love relationship and as such cannot be coerced.
6. We remain free even after salvation.

Closing observations.

Often Calvinists and Arminians disagree over semantics such as the definition of sin. When we dialogue we discover our similarities.

1. At the core of the debate is the nature of salvation. Is eternal life completley God’s Sovereign work?  If yes, then whatever God does is utterly perfect and eternal. It cannot be destroyed or thwarted by man’s sin. If man has any responsibility or participation in salvation, then salvation is fluid to the degree we participate in God’s eternal life.

2. One significant point of disagreement is over the nature of faith. Is faith a work or a quality?  Arminians would say it’s not a work since faith and works are juxtaposed by Paul but synthesized by James. If faith is a work, then salvation must be by works, for we are saved BY FAITH. But Scripture teaches both salvation apart from works and salvation by faith.

3. Another critical question is “What did Jesus provide when He died on the cross?”  Did He pay the debt in its entirety or did He only provide the payment for sin?  This may sound like splitting hairs but humor me and keep reading.  If we choose the former all sin (past, present and future) has been forgiven already. If we choose the latter then it falls upon us to draw from his atonement for our sins.   Failure to do so results in unresolved sin which will bring judgment.  How we interpret the cross will determine how we interpret the nature of salvation.

4. Of course Calvinists believe that the Arminian doctrine of backsliding compromises the power of God and the permanence of salvation. And of course Arminians do not teach that God loses the backslider but that the backslider forfeits his own relationship by committing spiritual suicide.  

5. When does spiritual attrition result in loss of eternal life? Only God can determine that line. Happily the Holy Spirit does not evacuate the believer at the first sign of failure. But if ignored, it seems apparent that He can be pushed out of our lives by negligence and willful transgressions, resulting in the return of darkeness, bondage, and ultimately, death

6. In the long run it is easier for me to concede that a backslidden Christian never was a true believer than to believe that Christians can persist in known sin. However I believe there are ample Scriptural, theological and logical reasons to hold to the fluidity of eternal life and the possibility of spiritual attrition.

Why the Levitical Health Laws

Leviticus 13:2 KJV

When a man shall have in the skin of his flesh a rising, a scab, or bright spot, and it be in the skin of his flesh like the plague of leprosy; then he shall be brought unto Aaron the priest, or unto one of his sons the priests:

One of the most difficult sections of Old Testament literature to wade through has to be the Levitical laws given to Moses by God. Leviticus Chapters 11-15 provide counsel to Israel on variety of health issues, but all dealing with clean and unclean matters.  Chapter 11 prescribes clean and unclean meats. Chapter 12 addresses effects of childbirth upon a woman’s Socio-spiritusl life. Chapters 13-14 provide direction for diagnosing, treating and cleansing leprosy. Chapter 15 covers skin and gland emissions and how they affect the public.

When we consider the doctrine of Biblical inspration, we may not question the authenticity of these teachings but it is a struggle to find something in the Levitical Health Laws which is profitable for instruction in Righteousness.  So why were these laws included in holy Scripture. Why not simply enter them into Israel’s historical documents?

But this genre IS part of holy Scripture and God has good reason to include it. A short answer should include the following:
1. This genre of Biblical literature reinforces the notion that God is concerned about the health and cleanliness of His people.
2. It further illustrates the distinction God makes between the holy and unholy, the clean and the unclean, good and evil. 
3. The sacred rituals involving the cleansing of the body further point to the conclusion that even daily human activity such as eating, sleeping and sexuality have spiritual implications. Jehovah has an interest in every area of human behavior.  He intends for us to encounter Him everywhere always, even in the mundane
4. Further, God has a claim on all human behavior and reserves the right to prescribe or prohibit behavior according to His purposes.
5.  At a time when medicine was less developed than in our day, God gave Moses and the priests insights for diagnosis of deadly contagious conditions which had pandemic  potential.

So while the Levitical Health Laws are no longer observed, they did serve a purpose of protecting God’s people from dangerous health conditions and death.  You may not find practical application from the ceremonial cleansing of the leper but it does show the kindness of God to provide restoration of the untouchables back into society as valuable citizens.