Thursday, December 3, 2015

The Unforgivable Sin (& how to avoid it)

My compadres over at ThinkTheology are currently writing a blog series entitled “Follow Me,” working their way through the Gospel According to St. Mark.

And—wouldn’t you know it?—by the luck of draw (or so they tell me), I was asked to comment on Mark 3:20-30. You know, the passage introducing us to the thorny question about the “unforgivable sin.”

This is a fascinating piece of Scripture. People have been wrestling for years over what blasphemy against the Spirit means, and whether or not Joe Average or Jane Anybody, followers of Jesus, might have accidentally committed it.

Charlatans have wielded this section of Scripture like a war club, (ab)using it to threaten anyone who might dare to question the outlandish things they are teaching and doing.

As always, contextnot just the surrounding verses but the whole of Marks gospelprovides more than enough clues as to (a) what Jesus meant, and (b) to whom He was speaking.

At the beginning of this passage, there are two groups of people upset with Jesus: His own family and the teachers of the law.” His family is mentioned first, but it is not until the next passage in the ThinkTheology series (Mark 3:31-35) where they take center stage and Jesus speaks to their concerns. Todays section of Scripture deals with the second group of the offended: the teachers of the law (we could also call them the Legalistic Lecturers, if alliteration appeals to you).

The background context to this chapter:
(a) Jesus healed a man during the Sabbath, which resulted in the teachers of the law blowing their religious gaskets (they were already looking for reasons to discredit Jesus anyway).
(b) Jesus had developed a tendency toward healing people and casting out impure spirits (demons) which inspired many people to put their faith in Him.
And to make matters even worse (from the viewpoint of the legalists), 
(c) Jesus had just commissioned His disciples to preach, heal, and cast out demons as well. (Oh no!you can almost hear the echoes of the Legalistic Lecturers face-palming themselves into unconsciousnessnow its going to spread even further).
Of course, Jesus had been doing the same things since the beginning of His public ministry: preaching about the Kingdom (Mark 1:14-15), healing the sick (Mark 1:32-34), and casting out demons (Mark 1:21-28). And the Legalistic Lecturers had been hounding Jesus ever since He healed a paralytic and (gasp!) forgave his sins (Mark 2:2-7). They didnt like His teaching, or that the crowds were following after Him. They were constantly on the lookout for any way to entrap or discredit Jesus.
Note: Their hearts were completely hardened against Jesus. They would use whatever means necessary to stop Him. To say they were obsessed with His downfall would be an understatement of, shall we say . . . biblical proportions.
And so they concocted the accusation that Jesus ministry was empowered by Satan himself. Strategically, they chose to use the name Beelzebul, because it would remind people of Baal, the #1 idol which had historically plagued the Israelites in the Old Testament.
This was not an off-the-cuff slip of the tongue by the Legalistic Lecturers. This was a cleverly worded denunciation of Jesus miracles by claiming He was possessed by the same evil spirits as Israels enemies (some translations substitute Beelzebul with Satan, but the intent is the same).
Jesus then calls the teachers of the law over for a private chat, and gives them a Lecture of His own. He points out their ridiculous lack of logic in suggesting Satan would intentionally undermine himself. (They were clearly grasping at straws by this point.)

Jesus also drops a not-so-subtle hint: it would take Someone much stronger than Satan to overcome him and plunder his house (take his goods). Jesus miracles of healing and casting out demonsin this chapter aloneserved as clear examples of how Satans house was already being plundered, even before the Cross.

And finally, Jesus calls them on the carpet re: their campaign to discredit Him. They were playing with fire, and not just figuratively. For them to reject Jesus as the Messiah was bad enough, although the consequences were limited to themselves. Trying to dissuade others from following Jesus by accusing Him of being demonically-empowered was inexcusable in the extreme, and punishable eternally.

So, to cut to the chase about whether or not Joe Average or Jane Anybodysincerely trying to follow Jesusmight accidentally commit the unforgivable sin of blasphemy against the Holy Spirit, allow me to suggest the following checklist, based on todays passage:
  1. If you see people coming to faith in Jesus, and
  2. This causes you to become inexplicably enraged, and
  3. You obsessively spend most of your waking hours trying to find or invent ways to discredit Jesus, because
  4. Youve decided its blasphemous for Jesus to forgive the sins of others, and therefore
  5. You work tirelessly to convince people who are interested in Jesus that Hes actually working for Beelzebub, or Satan, or possibly Emperor Palpatine, then
  6. You might be guilty of the unforgivable sin.
Otherwise, just keep following Jesus.

Wednesday, October 14, 2015

Pray the Change

“For this reason, since the day we heard about you, we have not stopped praying for you.”

If the Apostle Paul sent me a letter, telling me that he and his co-workers were constantly praying for me, I’d feel pretty encouraged. Actually, I’m encouraged, touched, and grateful when anyone tells me they’re  praying for me. When I was in college, letters from my grandparents often closed with, “we pray for you daily,” which always warmed my heart.

When Paul wrote to the Colossian church, he goes beyond simply saying he’s praying for them, and gives us a window into exactly what he prays on their behalf. Given that Paul writes under the Holy Spirit’s inspiration, it’s worth taking a closer look at what the Spirit inspired Paul (and all leaders) to pray about.

“We continually ask God to fill you with the knowledge of his will through all the wisdom and understanding that the Spirit gives, so that you may live a life worthy of the Lord and please him in every way: bearing fruit in every good work, growing in the knowledge of God, being strengthened with all power according to his glorious might so that you may have great endurance and patience, and giving joyful thanks to the Father, who has qualified you to share in the inheritance of his holy people in the kingdom of light. For he has rescued us from the dominion of darkness and brought us into the kingdom of the Son he loves, in whom we have redemption, the forgiveness of sins (Colossians 1:9-14).”

Let’s unpack this short prayer.

Paul begins with praying that the Colossians (and us) will be filled with the “knowledge of His will.” Typically, we 21st century people tend to read “God’s will” and translate it as “vocation/calling.” We’re kinda weird that way – always equating God’s will with work, rather than our character development as disciples of Jesus.

Read the whole phrase again: “We continually ask God to fill you with the knowledge of his will through all the wisdom and understanding that the Spirit gives, so that you may live a life worthy of the Lord and please Him in every way.”

God’s will = living a life worthy of Him. Of course, “pleasing Him in every way” has practical implications for our vocation, ethics, morality, etc., but that’s the out-working of our calling, not the calling itself.

Paul then gives us some immediate examples of what that will look like:

  • “bearing fruit in every good work,
  • “growing in the knowledge of God,
  • “being strengthened with all power according to his glorious might so that you may have great endurance and patience,
  • “and giving joyful thanks to the Father, who has qualified you to share in the inheritance of his holy people in the kingdom of light.”

That’s a fascinating list of spiritual outcomes in a life worthy of God, pleasing Him in every way:

  • Good works. Thoughts and prayers should always be coupled with action.
  • Growing in knowledge. Some people may advocate for a theology-lite approach to faith, but that’s not what Paul says is pleasing to God.
  • Strengthened by His power so we can be patient and have spiritual endurance. It’s tempting to read “strengthened by His power” and assume it’s about us becoming spiritual giants. In reality, it’s asking for the spiritual strength we’ll need to endure whatever life throws at us.
  • Have a continual sense of awe, wonder, and thankfulness. The “joy of our salvation” isn’t just a poetic phrase from the Psalms – the simple fact that we’re saved, forgiven, and accepted by God should be a source of perpetual joy.

And then, to underline his point, Paul concludes his short prayer with a truly inspiring reminder: “For he has rescued us from the dominion of darkness and brought us into the kingdom of the Son he loves, in whom we have redemption, the forgiveness of sins.”

In this brief summation, Paul – and the Spirit – remind us of our true identity: a company of the redeemed and forgiven. Try praying that over yourself and your loved ones, and see what kind of difference prayer makes.

Tuesday, June 23, 2015

Vineyard? It’s ... Complicated

“What can you tell me about your involvement with the Vineyard?”

The question hung in the air, the chasm between us suddenly gaping like a bottomless pit.

Ah, and there it is, I thought to myself. The “Vineyard” question.

I was enrolled in seminary, upgrading my Master's degree to what’s known as “M.Div. equivalency” (prerequisite to pursuing a Doctor of Ministry degree) at my alma mater. I'd approached one of my professors with the idea of developing a course there. He suggested that I submit a written proposal and my ministry resumé, which led to an interview with one of the vice-presidents of something-or-other.

Then it got weird.

The interview was clearly going nowhere from the get-go, and I couldn’t put my finger on why. Several reasons for the VP’s reluctance were voiced:

Only people with doctoral degrees could design or teach courses. 

I mentioned the name of a part-time teacher who didn’t hold a doctorate.

Students currently enrolled in master’s level courses didn’t have the time to develop or teach a course. 

I replied by giving her the name of a first year master’s level student who was currently teaching. And that, on top of my studies, I was writing the first draft of Post-Charismatic.

The VP shuffled through some papers on her desk, looking irritated. She came to a decision, locked a fixed stare on me, and asked “the V-question.” And that was that. The interview had been over before it even began. The “Vineyard resumé stain” – as one of my friends in a different denomination calls it – was in full effect.

And I realized my proposal was dead in the water, no matter what I said. Did the VP expect I'd denounce the Vineyard in hopes of currying favor?

After a moment of stunned silence, I simply re-iterated what was clearly stated on my resumé: I had previously been a pastor in two Vineyard churches, one in British Columbia and the other in California. End of story.

And end of interview.  

The irony is that even within the Vineyard, it was and is difficult to define what is the “real Vineyard” and what isn’t. The Vineyard has been pulled in a variety of directions, during its early years in particular, and has struggled to maintain its core vision and mission.

Bill Jacksons The Quest for the Radical Middle is an excellent history of the Vineyard. Published in 1999, Jackson writes that by the early 1990s – barely ten years into the Vineyard’s story – leaders were already wrestling with the real Vineyard question. Echoing other voices within the movement, Jackson observes your answer often depended on when you first joined the movement.

As the above image illustrates, the early chapters of the Vineyards story were profoundly impacted by outside influences. These influences—depending on your point of view—either aided or detracted from the Vineyards self-identity as a “radical middle” movement: evangelical in theology and charismatic in practice. 

The “Vineyard resumé stain” that influenced the seminary VP’s reaction ... I have no way of knowing which iteration of the Vineyard was the problem. Power evangelism, the Kansas City Prophets, the Toronto Blessing, or the whole kit ’n’ kaboodle? Had she examined actual Vineyard theology, or just embraced some weird caricature based on the “research” of heresy-hunters? 

A lot depends on your working definition of real Vineyard. I may or may not fit your definition; for that matter, I might be unwelcome in some Vineyards. After all, I wrote Post-Charismatic, which got me into hot water in certain circles for critiquing some charismania excesses and sketchy teachings. And I wrote The Genesis Café, which tempts those in postmodern “you can’t know anything with certainty” circles to eye me with wary suspicion. 

Bill Jackson, author of Quest for the Radical Middle, passed away a couple of weeks ago. News of his death prompted me (and probably many others) to re-read his book. And when I read again the core Vineyard beliefs, I think to myself, “yeah, I’m Vineyard.”

I believe all the Holy Spirits gifts are available today; I believe in the inaugurated eschatology of the “already-and-not-yet Kingdom; I reject hype and hyperbole in ministry; I believe were called to care for the poor and challenge injustice ... the list could go on.

The Vineyard is far from perfect. The extreme charismania camp continues to be well-represented in some circles, and  postmodern semi-liberalism has its adherents as well. But John Wimber’s classic radical middle theology, as articulated in Power Evangelism, also continues. Thats where I still find my connection to the movement.

I only wish, in hindsight, that I'd thought to answer the mind-already-made-up VP’s question by saying:

“Vineyard? It’s ... complicated.

Sunday, May 31, 2015

Fallen from Grace

Fallen from grace ...

Everyone knows what that means.

Somewhere, somehow, someones blown it big-time, committed some heinous action that brought humiliation on themselves, scorn from others, and generally disqualified them in the eyes of everyone (including themselves).

For most people, fallen from grace refers to Adam and Eves game-changing bad choices with forbidden fruit (Genesis 3). Although the Bible never calls their actions a fall from grace," thats how people have referred to it for centuries, and as a summary statement, it works.

But its fascinating to see how fallen from grace is used in the New Testament. The apostle Paul turns the phraseas we tend to use itcompletely on its head, with huge implications for us.

You who are trying to be justified by the law have been alienated from Christ; you have fallen away from grace (Galatians 5:4, emphasis added).

Normally, youd assume that Paul would use the phrase fallen from grace much as we would: somebody has chosen sin over holiness; theyve messed up, somehow broken the rules. 

Instead, Paul tells them (and us) that whenever we try to achieve greater personal holiness by keeping the rules (in this case, the Old Testament law, as some false brothers were advocating at the time), that constitutes falling from grace. 

We tend to approach things perfectly backwards. 

Paul writes: For through the Spirit we eagerly await by faith the righteousness for which we hope (Galatians 5:5).And yet we  assume that if we work harder to clean up our lives, thenand only then – can we expect more of the Spirits presence. 

Falling from grace has nothing to do with us screwing up. It has everything to do with trying to achieve a holy lifestyle (which isnt optional, just so its been said) by our own efforts, and expecting to receive more of God as a reward for our hard work. 

Paul puts the theological cart back where it belongs with statements like: 

How foolish can you be? After starting your new lives in the Spirit, why are you now trying to become perfect by your own human effort (Galatians 3:3)?

So I say, let the Holy Spirit guide your lives. Then you won’t be doing what your sinful nature craves (Galatians 5:16).

Since we are living by the Spirit, let us follow the Spirit’s leading in every part of our lives (Galatians 5:25).

We start with the Spirit, always. Not with our own feeble human efforts. We didnt enter the Kingdom through our own efforts, nor will we move forward by our own efforts. It's always been about the Spirit. And it always will be.  

Anything else is falling away from grace.

Monday, March 9, 2015

Mis-Diagnosis: Certainty

“False cause refers to an argument where someone cites sequential events as evidence that the first event caused the second (Logical Fallacies).”

Its becoming popular today, if you visit various Christian websites/blogs or see random quotes in your BookFace feed, to find comments reinforcing the following diagnosis:

And, of course, since no Jesus-follower wants to be known as an arrogant know-it-all, therefore certainty in matters of faith must be rejected. 

And many of us have, at some point in our lives, run into some arrogant know-it-alls. And some of them have even been Christians. We werent comfortable around them, and we certainly dont want to become them. And so the False Cause Fallacy can be surreptitiously planted into our thinking.

Aye, but here’s the rub ... (Actually, there are several.) 

Number one, certainty doesn’t cause arrogance. Let me put it another way: arrogance isn't caused by certainty.

Arrogant people can and sometimes do attach themselves to theological certainty, but let’s face it: they’d be arrogant no matter what the topic was. Theology, politics, the Toronto Maple Laffs Leafs …

Second, the opposite of arrogance isn’t uncertainty, it’s humility. When God speaks against pride and arrogance, He never counsels lack of certainty as the remedy, but rather humbleness (James 4:6,10, 1 Peter 5:5–6).

Third, we serve a God who is revelatory by intent. The supreme example being the Incarnation of the Son of God, who “became flesh and blood and moved into the neighborhood (John 1:14 The Message).” When God goes to such great lengths to reveal Himself, doesn’t it seem just a wee bit odd that 21st century peeps are trying to make Him all hidden and unknowable again? 

By all means, let’s flee pride and arrogance. God has no use for it (Proverbs 6:16-19), and actively opposes people who live in it (James 4:6). 

But don’t buy into the logical fallacy lie that says holding your faith with certainty = arrogance. You can be humble, and confident in your faith, all at the same time.

Thursday, January 15, 2015

Multi-Hued Gossip

You’ve probably heard that certain emotions have been assigned their very own signature color:

  • Green [envy].
  • Red-faced [shame/embarrassment].
  • Black-hearted [malicious/cruel].
  • Yellow-bellied [cowardly].

But can anyone tell me which color is best for gossip?

I’m leaning toward a darker, murkier shade of yellow. The base color being yellow makes sense, because gossip is a cowardly attack — a verbal form of stabbing someone in the back. But it should be darker than normal, methinks, perhaps a pool of vomitous sludge.

In other words, if you saw a puddle of it on your kitchen floor, you’d immediately don a hazmat suit while disinfecting your house from attic to crawlspace. After all, it’s pure poison — toxic enough to destroy friendships and community.

“A perverse person stirs up conflict, and a gossip separates close friends (Proverbs 16:28).”

The trouble is, while nobody wants the “town gossip” reputation, too many of us are willing to listen to what they have to say. Let’s get real about this: if we listen to gossip, we’re participating in it.

“Without wood a fire goes out; without gossip a quarrel dies down (Proverbs 26:20).”

Gossip is known by its fruit. It comes in bundles, like software, usually packaged with its closest relatives: “I fear that there may be discord, jealousy, fits of rage, selfish ambition, slander, gossip, arrogance and disorder (2 Corinthians 12:20).”

So, if you value an authentic faith community, the next time you hear a gossip cesspool bubbling nearby — or notice a Gossip Addict on a self-righteous high oozing around the church lobby — treat it like a leaky bucket of radioactive mucus.

Run. You don’t want to get any on you.