The Disappearance of Bible Study

20160319-Bible-3The Importance of Study

Education is considered the ticket to success. If a young person finishes high school but doesn’t go on to post secondary education of some kind, most people will consider their chances of achieving career and financial success very slim. Thus, high school students are being strongly encouraged to do post secondary education and many of them do, otherwise the message is clear: if you don’t have a university degree or a college diploma you will never get a good paying job.

Even after students complete university, many of them will continue into graduate and post graduate work before starting their careers. Many who do embark on their respective career paths after their undergrad will get an masters degree in their field part time or enter into an MBA program while they are working. Depending on career aspirations, the drive to acquire more education can be almost never ending.

Getting a formal education involves many things: books to buy and read, labs to do, assignments to complete, lectures to attend and so on. One of the major activities that students will have to do as part of their education is to study. Many students hate studying, mainly because it takes a lot of time to do and requires an enormous amount of concentration that is usually accompanied by outright frustration. Students have to study because students have to write exams. One cannot pass an exam unless one has mastery over the material and that comes primarily from studying.

For Christians, a key component of their spiritual development and training is Bible study. The Bible is so indispensable for Christian growth and development that it is impossible for any disciple of Jesus to walk with Him without a generous and continuous intake from His Word. As Paul wrote to Timothy,

“All Scripture is God-breathed and is useful for teaching, rebuking, correcting and training in righteousness” – 2 Timothy 3:16

By study, I mean study, not reading. Studying the Bible is very different from reading the Bible. High school and university students know the difference. They know that reading their textbooks and their lecture notes once or twice is insufficient to gain mastery over the material and do well in their exams. Even if they had a photographic memory they would know the data cold but to really know a subject goes beyond committing the simple facts to memory. It means understanding what those facts mean, how they interrelate with other facts and how they can be applied in different situations. Students know that they need to study the material over and over again. Through studying, a student knows the nuances and particulars of the subject. Their exams test them on the understanding not the memorization.

The same applies to the Christian who wants to experience significant growth and communion with God. Simple readings of the Bible, while good and important, cannot take a person into a deeper understanding of the Word and of God. The Bible must be studied.

What is Bible Study?

So what is meant by studying the Bible? It can mean many things but it basically comes down to three actions: observing what the text says, interpreting what the text says and applying what the text says. Into these areas come all the tools and techniques that are used in doing a proper study of the Bible such as the use of concordances, Greek and Hebrew dictionaries, general Bible dictionaries and surveys and even commentaries. It also means taking the time to look at the text, ask questions of it, find answers and writing down your findings. The details on proper Bible study are beyond the scope of this essay but the point is there is more to it than just reading. Once you move beyond mere reading, the great treasures contained in the Scriptures will be found that would be easily missed.

The Bible Study Challenge

Most Christians do not have personal Bible study as part of their spiritual routine. Many struggle with Bible reading and prayer and to add personal study on top of that seems to be even more difficult. Yet, every Christian must ask themselves if they are already devoting time in the study of other things. What about those who are studying for their MBA part time while juggling the demands of a job? What about those taking golf lessons and practicing on the driving range on a regular basis? What about those who are taking guitar lessons and practicing on a daily basis? If Christians are finding time for these kinds of study in order to advance their career or to pursue personal interests, why is time not being taken for the timeless Word of God? If we really have a desire to accomplish something, we will take the time and effort to study in order to achieve it. Do we have the desire to pursue Christ through the Bible that radically?

My challenge to all disciples of Christ is to take up a personal project in doing a study of one book of the Bible, something short and achievable such as the the book of James or 2 Timothy. Spend at least an hour a week studying a book verse by verse, chapter by chapter and seek to find the treasures buried within. Use whatever tools you have on hand and record what the text is saying, the questions you asked, the answers you found and the gems you discovered. I can guarantee that you will not be disappointed and that, over time, your walk with the Lord will deepen.

2016 © Ed LeBlanc

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The Decline of Bible Reading

20160310-Bible Cover

People of the Book?

According to Islamic tradition, Jews and Christians are referred to as “the people of the Book”, in this case, the Book being the Bible. Christians have been known as the people of the Book, not just because the Bible is their holy book, the book of ultimate importance to the faith, but also because they are a people who read, study, meditate, memorize and talk about the Book. Being “people of the Book” means people engaged with the Bible.

The Canadian Bible Engagement Study (CBES) conducted by the Evangelical Fellowship of Canada (EFC) in 2013, casts some doubt if Christians in 21st century Canada can still hold on to that ancient title. The study, called Confidence, Conversation and Community: Bible Engagement in Canada, conducted a survey of 4,474 Canadians on their views on how they engage the Bible in their lives. The full report can be read here.

Regular Bible reading has been on the decline in Canada for several decades and the CBES report bears this out but what the report has to say about those who self identity as Christians is of particular interest. As more Canadians don’t consider themselves Christian, it is understandable that this group pays little attention to the Bible but are Canadian Christians far behind?

Taking Christians as a whole, the report’s findings were remarkable. For those who identify themselves as Christian, six percent read the Bible daily, six percent read it a few times a week and only three percent read it once a week. Astonishingly, 70 percent of Canadian Christians seldom read or never read the Bible. This kind of survey result would seem to indicate that Christians are no longer the people of the Book and might be called the people who ignore their Book.

But is that the end of the story? The study breaks down the numbers a bit further into Christian traditions. Catholic and mainline Protestant Christians read the Bible far less than their Evangelical cousins. Mainline Protestants and Catholics who read their Bible a few times a week or weekly are in the single digits. Monthly French Catholic readers are in the single digits as well while English Catholic and Mainline Protestant monthly readers are in the double digits but just barely. Evangelicals seem to do much better with those reading their Bibles at least a few times a week at 44 percent, weekly at 51 percent and monthly at 58 percent.

Although some may see this as evidence that Evangelicals have healthy Bible reading habits, the results also tell us that the other half of Evangelicals are not reading their Bibles even on a weekly basis, let alone a monthly one. Mainline Protestants and Catholics have seen weekly Bible reading decline by more than one half since 1996 but Evangelicals have seen daily readers fall by one third in the same period. Evangelicals may be the tradition with the strongest Bible readers but a sizeable number still do not have regular reading habits and the trend in daily readership is not that encouraging.

Followers or Disciples

So why is Christian reading of the Bible falling in such dramatic numbers? The survey found two key factors that affected regular Bible reading amongst Christians: confidence in the Bible and a seriousness about their walk with Jesus.

The survey showed that those who had a strong confidence in the reliability and the authority of the Bible were found to read it once a day, week or month by a wider margin than those who had even a moderate confidence in the Bible. Those who reflected on the meaning of the Bible in their lives, who engaged in discussions about the Bible outside of church activities and who regularly attended worship services, were found to read the Bible much more frequently than those who did not.

The scriptures teach that the Bible, the Word of God, is critical to the spiritual development of Christians. As Jesus famously said to The Adversary, “Man does not live on bread alone, but on every word that comes form the mouth of God”. The Bible is spiritual food to feed humanity’s spiritual soul. If this survey showed that the majority of self identifying Christians in Canada only ate physical food once a week or even once a month, there would be screams of a crisis in Canadian churches. Christians seem to be starving themselves by eating the spiritual food of the Bible very sparsely and yet few within the church seem to be concerned.

What can be done to turn the situation around? Simply telling people to read their Bibles because they need to is an exercise that will fall on deaf ears. Christians who are not reading the Bible regularly need to recognize their own spiritual malnourishment and to see the Bible as true food.

One key way to address this problem is to re-establish confidence in the reliability and power of the Bible. Many Christians have fallen victim to the secular modernist take on the Bible that in effect waters down its reliability and, by extension, its relevance to life. By marginalizing the Scriptures, Christians will turn to other writings to find spiritual fulfillment such as the latest self-help book. Christian leaders need to not only do a bit of apologetics for the Bible in the church but they also need to encourage everyone to share how the Bible has and is changing their lives. The Bible says that it is living and active. Let others share their stories of how it has been living and active in their lives and not just a repository of ancient knowledge.

The second key way to address this self-starvation of the Bible, is to show Christians that Christianity is not about showing up on Sundays and getting to use the title Christian in their spiritual resume. Christian leaders of all kinds need to show to those under their spiritual care that Christ is calling them not be mere followers of Him but to be His disciples.

The words follower and disciple seem to mean the same thing but in reality they are not. In the Gospel accounts, Jesus had plenty of followers who followed him all over the countryside. Those who followed Him did so looking for free food, free healthcare and political freedom from the Romans. But when Jesus pressed them on the cost of following Him to the point of denying oneself and taking up one’s cross in order to follow Him, many left Him. Jesus wanted disciples to deny their lives for Him, not followers who could come and go as they pleased.

Followers of Jesus will treat the Bible as an optional reading lesson. Disciples of Jesus will treat the Bible as the bread of life. Serious Christians will see the Bible as indispensable in knowing Jesus more deeply. Causal Christians will see the Bible as a dusty, boring book that has little relevance to their earthly pursuits. If the church in Canada wants to regain the title people of the Book, she must be willing to disciple her people and show them the riches and treasures contained in God’s Holy Bible.

2016 © Ed LeBlanc

The Decline of Biblical Authority

St John the Baptist ShrineAuthority: The Dirty Word

In his 1974 book, The Authority of the Bible, John Stott opens his book with the following:

“Authority is a dirty word today – dirty, disliked, even detested. I doubt if any other word arouses more instant aversion among the young and the radical of all kinds. Authority smacks of establishment, of privilege, of oppression, of tyranny. And whether we like it or not, we are witnessing in our day a global revolt against all authority, whether of the family, the college, the bosses, the church, the state or God.”

With the chaos of the cultural revolution of the 1960s firmly in his rear view mirror, Stott’s opening paragraph summarizes the attitude and worldview of modern society when it comes to the general principle of authority. Over the past 40 plus years since this book was published, the dirtiness and disgust of authority has been successfully passed on from the Baby Boomers to successive generations and has been firmly rooted in the western cultural ethos of the 21st century.

As a result of that cultural revolution, esteem in the reliability, trustworthiness and authority of the Bible by the wider culture has eroded dramatically. Once upon a time, people who hardly went to church or rarely read the Bible, held the Scriptures in great esteem. This general submission to the authority of the Bible was one of the hallmarks of the cultural force of Christendom upon much of the West. With the rapid collapse of Christendom, the general belief in the authority of the Bible has collapsed as well.

Authority: Challenged since the Dawn of Time

Simply stated, biblical authority is the recognition that what the Bible says is not only true but authoritative in that it must be obeyed over the wisdom and authority of Man. The Bible is authoritative in that it is the Word of God and reveals the character, wisdom and will of God. Because God is omnipotent, omniscient and all holy, He is worthy of humanity’s worship and obedience. As a consequence, God has authority over Man. If the Bible is the divine will God communicated to Man, it too has authority over Man. The Bible itself claims authority every time it says “Thus saith the Lord God”. When God speaks, humanity is to listen and adhere.

The challenge to biblical authority is nothing new and in fact goes back to the dawn of humanity, in the Garden of Eden, where Satan’s first words to Man was “Did God really say?” Satan’s first words were a sly and subtle attempt to discredit the authority of God’s word. The consequences of Man’s rejection of the authority of God’s Word in the Garden were catastrophic.

Throughout the history of Old Testament Israel, the authority of the Word of God was constantly challenged by the Israelites who regularly flouted that authority through their disobedience. Again, the consequences of the rejection of God’s authority were disastrous for the nation.

Authority: A Collapsing Belief

Biblical authority has collapsed in mainline liberal Protestant denominations and is collapsing in evangelical churches at an alarming rate. In mainline Protestant denominations, that rejection is based on a common consensus that the Bible is a flawed and very human set of documents. The writings are errant and thus lack the full and complete inspiration of God. Because of this belief, that the Bible is more human than divine, it is subject to the judgment of Man in determining how far its authority and reliability can go. In reality, biblical authority in mainline circles no longer exists as it is always trumped by the authority of human wisdom and the need for ancient scriptures to accommodate the desires and whims of modernity.

Mainline liberal Protestants have few qualms about admitting this publicly and many believe it is necessary to dispose of such authority in order to make the Bible and Christianity more attractive to the outside world. Theologian Marcus Borg believes the church needs to adopt a post-critical naivety view of the Bible where its accounts are true but their truth doesn’t depend on facts. In his view, we all do our own picking and choosing of what is authoritative in the Bible anyway, but we must do it responsibly, prayerfully and as a community. Borg’s approach sounds reasonable and even humble but in divorcing truth from facts, he is creating a “relative” truth while still retaining Man as the chief authority over the Bible but in a more politically correct and less arrogant fashion.

Although some evangelicals are courting the mainline liberal Protestant view on biblical authority, others are doing so in a manner that attempts to retain an appearance of submitting to its authority. Instead of saying the Bible is a flawed document that no longer merits our total submission, such evangelicals are using the tools of exegesis and hermeneutics to show that the interpretations of the “difficult” parts of the Bible are not what we originally thought they were. Thus, the evangelical is able to proclaim the authority of the Bible and acknowledge submission to it but at the same time develop an escape hatch to evade those sections that are too repulsive to be submitted to. Thus the tools of exegesis, hermeneutics, cultural studies, etc. are used to develop novel interpretations that defang the authority of the Bible in selective and convenient ways.

One can say the difficult passages of the Bible are an issue of hermeneutics and, in many cases, this is the real issue. However, it is interesting to wonder if deeper motivations are at work to use novel interpretations to dispose of the unpleasant passages. Is it any coincidence that the current re-interpretations of biblical passages on sexual morality within evangelicalism are occurring at the same time the sexual revolution is reaching its high water mark in western culture?

Cultural pressures on western evangelical churches are enormous, pressures that are influencing and forcing churches and Christians to abandon the clear teachings of Scripture and embrace the spirit of the age. But western churches can learn something from churches in parts of the world where Christianity is under great persecution. Last year, a group of young Christian men were videoed kneeling on a Libyan beach just before they were to be beheaded because of their faith in Christ. Their lives could have easily been spared. All they had to do was renounce Jesus as their Saviour and Lord. Yet, they did not. Instead, they submitted to the authority of Jesus’ words in Matthew 10:32-33:

“Whoever acknowledges me before men, I will also acknowledge him before my Father in heaven. But whoever disowns me before men, I will disown him before my Father in heaven.”

They paid for that submission to authority with their very lives. Can we in the west do any less while we bend the plain meaning of biblical texts that we don’t want to submit to and believe in?

The game of using novel forms of interpretation to dispose of unpleasant biblical passages can be addressed by a direct question. If it could be proven to the ultimate satisfaction of any rational believer that a particular passage of scripture means something that we do not like or believe in because it sounds so anti this or anti that and is offensive to our ears, would we still submit to it? If our answer is no, then there is no point in debating exegesis or hermeneutics. It simply means that we do not want to obey God in everything He desires. If this is the case, we need to question how much Jesus is really Lord of our lives and how much we are truly faithful in submitting to His Word.

The authority of the Bible is critical for the future of the church and for the world the church has been sent to with the gospel. If the church is to totally compromise in this critical area, she will become a part of the world and the hope of the good news of Jesus will flicker out.

2016 © Ed LeBlanc

Christian Lukewarmness – Book Review: Crazy Love: Overwhelmed by a Relentless God by Francis Chan (2008)

Crazy LoveCrazy Love is a book about the Christian’s relationship with God but in particular, it is a book about the serious state many North American Christians are in regarding their relationship with God.  At the crux of it is an incorrect view of who God really is and a failure to grasp his eternal, holy, all powerful and all knowing nature.   As a consequence, many Christians place themselves in the centre of their lives and rather than the Lord Jesus.

Chan tells his readers to get over themselves:

To be brutally honest, it doesn’t really matter what place you find yourself in right now.  Your part is to bring Him glory – whether eating a sandwich on a lunch break, drinking coffee at 12:04 am so you can stay awake to study or watching your four-month-old take a nap.  The point of your life is to point to Him.

Within that realization is the truth of the great love God has for His children and the love we are to have for Him.  If we grasp who God really is, Chan argues that our lives should then be characterized by a great transformation. But there are distractions.  As Chan puts it pointedly “Are we in love with God or just His stuff?” God’s stuff, His material creations that He has provided to us for our sustainment and enjoyment, often serve as distractions or worse as idols.

In probably the most pointed part of the book, Chan recalls Jesus’ parable of the sower and cautions the reader “Do not assume you are good soil.”  He believes most churchgoers in America are the soil that chokes the seed because of the thorns; those worries, riches and pleasures of life.

Then Chan makes this stunning statement:

A lukewarm Christian is an oxymoron; there’s no such thing.  To put it plainly, churchgoers who are “lukewarm” are not Christians.  We will not see them in heaven.

Chan points to Revelation 3:15-17 where Jesus talks about the lukewarm within the Laodicean church and that He is about to spit them out of His mouth (3:16).  Chan says many believe this passage is talking about the saved but Chan argues how could the saved be spitted out of Jesus’ mouth?  In other words, Chan does not see this as a form of discipline but an outright rejection, an “I never knew you. Away from me you evil doers.”

But is this interpretation correct?  Looking a little further in Revelation 3:19, Jesus says to the church at Laodicea, “Those whom I love, I rebuke and discipline. So be earnest and repent. ”  It seems here that Jesus is saying His statement on the spitting out of His mouth to be more of a correction than a rejection.  He still loves those whom are lukewarm but will spit them out as a form of rebuke and discipline, not a taking away of their salvation.

This corresponds to Paul’s first letter to the Corinthians where he details a set of serious spiritual and moral problems that many in the church are participating in.  Some, such as incest, are so serious one could question if these people really are true believers in Jesus.  Yet Paul calls them brothers, expresses love to them and never questions their salvation.  He affirms in his letter that God has called them into fellowship with His Son Jesus Christ while at the same time rebuking them and calling on them to repent.

Chan follows up with another bombshell:

In an earlier draft of this chapter, I quoted several commentators who agreed with my point of view.  But we all know that you can find quotes to support any view you want to take. you can even tweak word studies to help you in your effort. I ’m not against scholarship, but I do believe there are times when we come to more accurate conclusions through simple reading.

Rather than examining a verse and dissecting it, I chose to peruse one gospel in each sitting.  Furthermore, I attempted to do so from the perspective of a twelve-year-old who knew nothing about Jesus.  I wanted to rediscover what reasonable conclusions a person would come to while objectively reading the Gospels for the first time.  In other words, I read the Bible as if I’d never read it before.

This is the weakest point in the book.  In order to defend his conclusions on what it means to be lukewarm in the faith, Chan relies on an exegetical defence from the Gospels.  However, he sabotages that effort in two areas.

In the first area, he says he was prepared to quote several commentators who agreed with his conclusions but he decided not to so for the odd reason that you can find quotes to support any view you want to take.  Although this may be true to a certain degree, it does not invalidate the use of the thoughtful and rigourous findings of others who have seriously studied the scriptures. In effect, Chan is committing one of the gravest mistakes of contemporary evangelicalism: the personal interpretation of the Bible while ignoring 2000 years of serious biblical exegesis and scholarship by saints who have gone on before us.  Chan decides to ignore the work of others and rely solely on his own reading of the Bible, as if that gives his conclusion greater objectivity.  If anything, it is an example of subjective hermeneutics.  He himself says that one can tweak word studies to help you in your effort. How do we know that Chan didn’t do such “tweaking” in his simple reading of the Gospels?

In the second area, Chan didn’t want to examine a passage by dissecting it but to read each gospel in a single sitting and to do so like a 12 year old for the first time.  It isn’t at all clear how this method of exegesis is superior to doing proper basic Bible study.  Chan gives little in the way of explaining how this method provides greater objectivity than pondering the verses over and over again to see what Jesus is saying.  It would appear that Chan is saying simple Bible reading is superior to in-depth Bible study but he fails to provide arguments as to why this is the case.

Chan concludes:

Jesus’ call to commitment is clear: He wants all or nothing.  The thought of a person calling himself a “Christian” without being a devoted follower of Christ is absurd.

Despite weaknesses in his exegetical approach, Chan draws an accurate conclusion.  Contemporary pop theology has produced a weakened definition of what it means to be a disciple of Jesus. Jesus was quite firm about the need for obedience in order to truly follow Him and that it was not simply a matter of calling Him Lord (Matthew 7:21)

Chan writes: “Let’s face it. We’re willing to make changes in our lives only if we think it affects our salvation.”  In other words, the main focus of much of contemporary evangelicalism is ‘am I going to heaven and what do I have to do to get there’.   Going to heaven becomes more important (an anthropocentric view of the faith) than loving the Lord Jesus and following Him (a Christocentric view of the faith).

Chan could be accused of promoting a works-righteousness gospel but he rightly points out that all of us have lukewarm areas in our lives.  The difference lies in striving for obedience and surrender to Jesus day by day, all the while being covered by His grace.  The hardened lukewarm would never concern themselves about the areas of their lives that were not under Jesus’ lordship and it is to those people that Chan is speaking to.  He questions their motivation: Can I go to heaven without truly and faithfully loving Jesus?

Crazy Love highlights the depth of God’s love for His children and how that should motivate the Christian to live for Him and to move out of his comfort zone.  The book is a challenge to all Christians, and those who call themselves Christian, to examine themselves and determine if their lives reflect being a true disciple of Jesus, as the Scriptures define it.

Despite the weaknesses of his exegetical method and view of lukewarm Christians, Chan’s conclusions are consistent with what the scriptures do say about true discipleship and authentic Christianity.  Chan is not advocating a kind of works gospel but rather a true conversion that leads to repentance, dependence and obedience to the Master and Lord.  It is a message that many North American Christians need to hear and heed.

Three out of five stars.

2014 © Ed LeBlanc

Hell Revisited: A Book Review of Erasing Hell by Francis Chan and Preston Sprinkle

erasing hell - Google SearchFrancis Chan’s book on hell is a no nonsense treatment of a very difficult subject. Chan pulls no punches and addresses the subject of hell in a direct and very thorough manner. His examination of hell is rooted in the scriptures and Chan goes book by book, verse by verse to carefully see what the Bible says. It is not a theological text but it is also not a puff piece that lacks intellectual rigour.

Chan doesn’t study hell from an academic ivory tower. Throughout the book, he agonizes over it. At the start, he recalls witnessing the death of his grandmother who was not a Christian:

Even as I write that paragraph, I feel sick. I would love to erase hell from the pages of Scripture.

Does he?

Chan begins by reviewing the writings of contemporary Christians, such as Rob Bell, who deny hell’s existence or who don’t believe God sends anyone there. He wrestles with their arguments and examines them against what the Bible says. Ultimately, he finds their arguments unconvincing and their justifications falling short of what biblical text is saying.

He then proceeds to examine what the entire Bible says about the subject, starting with the Old Testament, what Jesus had to say about hell and what the rest of the New Testament writers wrote. He even goes into great detail on what the Jewish nation in the first century thought about hell in order to give context to Jesus’ teaching on the subject.

Chan’s grand sweep of the Bible leads him to an unmistakeable conclusion: hell is for real and people are there and headed there. Chan’s analysis reveals that almost every book in the New Testament speaks about hell or God’s judgment on those who refuse to believe.  Hell and God’s wrath against sin is not relegated to a single obscure verse but crops up throughout the scriptures.

Chan is not happy with this conclusion but he knows it has to be faced and acknowledged. He warns us:

Expect then that Scripture will say things that don’t agree with your natural way of thinking.

This is a theme he keeps emphasizing in his book: even though there are things in the Bible that we may not agree with or like, doesn’t mean they are not true. Nor does it give a Christian an automatic exemption from believing it and obeying it. I noted this also in my essay A Few Burning Thoughts on Hell.  As Chan says towards the end of the book:

I don’t feel like believing in hell. And yet I do.

Chan submits himself to the authority of scripture, even if he doesn’t feel like it. In treating the subject manner in this way, he provides a major service to the church in his book. The Bible is not a set of options that we can pick and chose from. It is the very authority of God that is to be submitted to. As he writes,

It’s incredibly arrogant to pick and choose which incomprehensible truths we embrace.

Chan’s approach not only applies to how we view hell but everything else the Bible talks about. He also writes:

The more important question is not whether or not you want to, but could you believe these things, if in fact God says they are true?

In the current age where evangelical ambivalence towards biblical authority seems to be more common place, Chan’s exhortation on the matter is a refreshing change.

Chan wrestles with the question of the duration of hell. Do people experience its punishment forever or only for a time until they are annihilated? He concludes that he leans on the side that says it is everlasting but that he is not ready to claim it with complete certainty. Although he points to scriptures that seem to imply a limited duration, he shows much greater scriptural evidence that it is everlasting. It leaves a bit of a curious question on why there is some uncertainty when Chan has already shown overwhelming evidence.

Erasing Hell is a sobering book but a very important one. It should give every Christian pause as to what it means in how they live their lives and how important the gospel really is to their lives. As Chan says:

When it comes to hell, we can’t afford to be wrong. This is not one of those doctrines where you can toss in your two cents, shrug your shoulders and move on. Too much is at stake. Too many people are at stake. And the Bible has too much to say.

Four and a half out of five stars.

2014 © Ed LeBlanc

 

Loving the Sinner, Hating the Sin: An Outdated Concept?

Sin Church and Moonand the Sinner

There is an old saying that many Christians believe in: love the sinner but hate the sin. I’ve heard a few secular humanists scoff at this saying but what does it actually mean and is it true?

The Bible says that every human being has sinned and will sin against God and against others, no matter what their intentions may be. Sin is an ugly and destructive force that destroys people’s lives, damages relationships and sours community. Above all, sin is something that God absolutely hates. Romans 3:23 sums it up, “For all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God.” This has been the human predicament since the Fall.

The Scriptures state that humanity is tainted with the sinful nature and that we have a built-in propensity to do things and think things contrary to God’s will. To paraphrase a current pop culture icon, we were born this way. But if this is so ingrained in the human nature, isn’t rebellion against God just the way we are? Doesn’t everyone simply have to get used to it, perhaps even to celebrate it? Is loving the sinner but hating the sin an outdated concept?

Despite the sinful inclination of the human heart, the Bible is clear: there are no excuses. Just because we are born that way doesn’t mean that we have to live that way. Even though a person may have a propensity to engage in shoplifting now and then or cheat on their taxes every second year, it doesn’t automatically mean that those actions are justified. Both the Bible and the Criminal Code have something to say on these matters. The defence of natural inclination has no standing. Instead, God has directed human beings on how they should live despite how they want to live. Even more, God has provided humanity with the means to overcome their sinful inclinations and live according to His ways through the power of Jesus Christ.

Born this Way

But if people are “born this way”, then why shouldn’t their sinful acts be accepted? One could argue that they have no choice, that is just the way they are. In today’s culture, the prevailing attitude is, if that is the way they are, we have to accept what they do if we want to accept them. In our multiethnic multicultural society, acceptance of people from other cultures is considered a supreme virtue. Society says that in order to accept others you must accept their culture. We are called to see the beauty in other cultures with the long term goal of preventing conflict, hate and war between peoples.

This form of multicultural acceptance has transferred itself into the area of morality and sin. Certain actions considered sinful by the Bible are no longer considered wrong in today’s culture because of this strong link between practice and people. Since accepting people is so important, we have to accept their practices as well, even if we don’t practice them or believe in them ourselves. This attitude has found fertile ground in the area of sexual morality. The acceptance of certain sexual practices and the acceptance of the disposition to those practices must be made if we are to accept the people who do them. In this view, you have to love the sin if you are going to love the sinner.

This belief holds to a tight interrelationship between disposition and being. The old saying, you are what you eat, has been modified to say you are what you do. But what if the “do” is not at all positive? Efforts then are made to make it positive by celebrating what was once considered repulsive. Not too long ago, homosexual acts were considered repulsive, so much so that they were criminalized. Today, these acts are celebrated in parades down the streets of major urban centres.

Let’s take this analogy further: today physical abuse of your spouse is considered repulsive. But if we are to accept spousal abusers, should we not accept their practice and disposition to abuse? Shouldn’t it be celebrated with parades in the streets? It is at this point the logic falls apart. If accepting and loving others means accepting their sin, you then can’t pick and choose what kinds of sin you want to celebrate and others you want to continuing classifying as horrific. This is the end result of integrating the person with the action and disposition.

This failed logic breathes new life into the old saying of loving the sinner but hating the sin. The two can and must be separated. If not, it brings a horrible form of anthropology that equates the value and worth of human beings to their sometimes terrible actions. This form of anthropology has no choice but to whitewash sin into something virtuous. Human beings are more than their actions, more than their disposition, more than their orientation. They possess a worth that is far greater than what the current culture wants to bestow upon them.

A careful reading of the New Testament reveals that Jesus practiced this old saying. He hung around people who were not only despised by their culture but who practiced lifestyles that were truly in rebellion to God’s ways. Jesus was quick to point this out to them. Yet, He saw beyond their lifestyle and wanted to embrace them instead. People have value because they are made in the image of God. Jesus saw value in people that went beyond how they lived and He treated people, not their sin, in a loving way. So much so that He died for them to grant them a life that was far more abundant, rich, free and holy than what there were currently experiencing.

How to Untie the Knot

If Christians are called to make the distinction between the sin and the sinner, how can this be done? The first step is for the church to recognize where is current practicing that tight integration between the sin and sinner and repent from it. In the past, the church classified certain sins so tightly with people that if they committed these sins once or were trapped in them, the church offered no sympathy. The attitude was hate the sin and hate the sinner. Fortunately, the church is seeing the error of her ways and is repenting in how she treats people trapped by sin. Ironically, the culture is following this old error where it now condemns those who do not embrace the connection between the action and the actor with its inverted love the sin in order to love the sinner.

The second step is to learn from Jesus how He dealt with sin and sinners. This requires the church to take itself through a very careful study of the New Testament on what Jesus taught about sin and how He related to people trapped in their sin. The classical doctrines of the sinfulness of man and the value of man in the eyes of God must be looked at again with fresh eyes. Each Christian has to constantly remember one thing: I am a sinner, too.

The third step is to recapture the essence of what the Bible says about forgiveness, repentance, confession, discipline and restoration. It is critical for the church to recapture all these aspects in order to know how to deal with sin, sinners and the separation of the two. Unfortunately, many have a distorted view of these biblical concepts or are not actively practicing them.

Preserving human value and worth while firmly rejecting sin is not an easy task but it is a necessary one. It is something that God Himself has done through the Cross and it is something that the church must emulate by carefully examining the Bible in order to know how to do this. Hating the sin and loving the sinner is not easy to discern or to do but it is critical. It is not what our culture wants to do but it is what Jesus did when He walked this earth and it is what He requires of those who follow Him.

2014 © Ed LeBlanc

 

The Bible in the Public Square

Parliament Building Tour106The Bible continues to be a widely influential book all over the world.  It has been translated into hundreds of languages, inspired billions of people for countless centuries and, despite its Middle Eastern origins, continues to cross all kinds of cultural boundaries as it is embraced by countless people groups.  The libretto for Handel’s Messiah, considered by some (including this writer) as one of the great masterpieces of Western civilization,  is completely based on the text of the King James Bible.  Hollywood, for good or for ill, continues to use the Bible as a source of ideas for various movie and television projects.

Despite it’s vast historical and cultural influence and authority, the Bible has fallen on hard times in the modern/postmodern Western world.  In certain parts of the West, Bible verses have been removed from some public buildings due to court orders.   Bibles are not permitted in many public schools with the odd exception, such as for literary purposes.    Many in academia and in places of high culture consider the Bible to be an anachronism, a throwback to an ignorant age and an embarrassment to modern sensibilities.  

That embarrassment extends to the reading and use of the Bible in the public square.  When issues of faith and morality are discussed in public forums such as radio talk shows, those who start quoting a text from scripture are typically cut off by moderators or shouted down by others.  The rest simply roll their eyes and tune out.  The Bible may be nice for art, literature, music and the odd movie but it is considered bad form to take it seriously when it comes to issues of public import.  To modern minds, the Bible simply has no place in the public square.

What is a Church to Do?

In generations gone by, quoting the Bible in public and quietly listening to it with a respectful attitude was the cultural norm.  Even people who were not regular church goers always held the Bible in high regard, even in the public square.  Hence, it was easy to discuss what the Bible had to say about issues related to morality and faith.  

How has the church in the West adapted to this relatively new cultural environment?  It usually has taken the form of two polar opposites.  At one end of the pole are those who unabashedly and sometime forcefully, speak the word of God in all kinds of public forums and they are not ashamed to do so.  If they are engaged in public or private conversation about a moral issue, they will not hesitate to read or quote a passage from the Bible that addresses it.  

At the other end are those in the church who do not bring up the Bible in any debate regarding faith or morality.  They appeal to logic, to history, to science, to psychology, to anything except the Bible.  In other words, they attempt to defend a Christian world view of things without mentioning the origin of that world view, namely the Bible.  The belief is that any attempt to quote or speak from the Bible will result in the automatic loss of credibility and authority in speaking a Christian world view in public forums.  In order to keep the conservation going and to preserve a place at the table, best not to say “Thus saith the Lord” on the evening newscast.  

Which of these two approaches is the correct one for the church to pursue?  Are they both ineffective?  If so, is there a third way?  This essay will attempt to demonstrate the shortcomings of these two approaches and propose a third way that can be both effective and faithful to the Bible in the public square.  

Old Fashion Bible Thumping

Evangelists of long ago would stand atop a podium in the local marketplace and gather a crowd around themselves while they preached from the Bible on the good news of Jesus.  In many ways, it was a kind of outdoor church service that was open and very public.  Evangelists and preachers were not afraid to read from the Bible and passersby often stopped to give a listen to what was going on.  Today, most people are not interested in listening to someone shouting out John 3:16 while they are on their way to work or running errands.  The typical person would usually keep their head down, avoid eye contact and quickly walk past.  Feelings of embarrassment and resentment usually set in.  

Is it wise to keep on quoting the Bible when it seems to turn off your audience and no one is listening?  In many parts of North America, quoting the Bible in serious public forums is a sure means of being ignored or laughed at.  Reading what the Bible has to say about sexual morality, the nature of God, etc., is a quick way of being labelled the pejorative Bible thumper.  

So why do some people continue to practice this approach of unabashed public Bible quoting?  One reason is that some do so out of an incorrect attitude that the Bible possesses a certain kind of magic.  If you speak verses into the air, they will somehow cast a spell on the unbelievers and they will be struck down with conviction.  However, the Bible is not a magic potion where Christians can unleash its power at their command.   For others, they believe that what is important is the act of quoting verses verbatim into the air regardless of how people react.  Such an attitude misunderstands what really is important.  Is it to speak the Bible into the air or to communicate the word into the hearts of people in a manner where those hearts can understand it?  To do the former with out the latter is equivalent to a missionary reading or teaching the word on a street corner in Ulan Bator in Spanish to a Mongolian audience.  It may make the missionary feeling good of what he has done however, it would leave the  Mongolians confused.  

Avoiding the Bible

The other end of the pole is the philosophy that the Bible should not be used at all in the public square when debating moral, ethical or faith related issues.  In this view, biblical morality and the Christian worldview can be defended in the public square without even mentioning or quoting the Bible as a source of authority.  Logic, science, reason and other tools can be used instead to buttress the biblical cause.  For example, the immorality of sexual practice outside the bounds of marriage can be defend by the medical, social, mental, relational and emotional consequences that such practices have historically produced.  The attending harm sexually immoral practices produce is sufficient warrant to justify and convince secular opponents of the folly and immorality of such practices.  Thus, using the Bible to demonstrate that sexual immorality is wrong, is unnecessary since it can be shown through other means.  

This approach does have strong appeal.  Since it does not directly involve the Bible, a potential stumbling block is removed in the public debate. It  also gives the church new opportunities of defending the Christian world view to an audience that will now listen as long as the Bible is not involved.  It also has a strong logical and pragmatic element that immediately appeals to western sensibilities.  

Despite its attractiveness, a main drawback to this approach is that it attempts to carve out a Christian worldview in the world without referencing its source, the Bible.  The danger lies in producing Christian views on a secular foundation of logic, reason and pragmatism, something that can change over time and that offers no firm basis upon which to be justifiable over the long term.  This approach may be sufficient to direct people in the right direction but suffers from an inability to lead them to the final destination: Jesus Christ.  

A Balanced Approach

The Word of God is the church’s main tool in proclaiming the good news and presenting the Christian worldview.  However, it is not the only  tool that God has given us in relating to the world.  The church would be remiss to neglect the general revelation of God that is available to all.  Even the Bible makes mention of God’s general revelation in Psalm 19.  General revelation would include areas such as the sciences, logic, etc that God uses to declare about Himself (Psalm 19:1).   

This points to another problem in the argument: it has become binary.  Christians frame the issue in a strict word versus logic argument or a battle between special revelation and general revelation.  The thinking goes that the church must use one but not the other but the church does better by employing both special and general revelation, in its relationship to the outside world, to glorify God.  What is important for the church to keep in mind is the relationship between special and general revelation and the characteristics of each.  

The keys to a balanced approach are contained in the Apostle Paul’s speech in the Areopagus of Athens to Greek philosophers as recorded in Acts 17.  Paul’s speech demonstrates that you can lead people to the truth by using general and special revelation at the same time.  In this situation, Paul was dealing with a nonJewish audience who knew nothing of the Torah, the prophets of Israel or even the God of Abraham, Isaac and Jacob.  To quote the Old Testament to them would have left them totally confused.  Instead, Paul uses logical observation, their own idol entitled “To An Unknown God” and the writings of two of their own poets in an attempt to direct them to the true God of the Universe.   

But in quoting Greek poets, is Paul is showing us that avoiding the Bible in dialoguing with secular minds is the best practice?  Not quite.  Look at Acts 17: 31.  “For he has set a day when he will judge the world with justice the man he has appointed.  He has given proof of this to all men by raising him for the dead.”  Paul concludes his secular apologetic defence by referring to the resurrection of Jesus from the grave.  The resurrection is definitely not a secular, scientific or logic argument.  It is unabashedly supernatural and biblical.  Paul did not directly quote a verse but he did address a biblical concept head on.  

And what was the reaction of his pagan audience?  Verse 32 reads, “When they heard about that resurrection of the dead, some of them sneered.”  When they heard the Bible, some of them immediately reacted like many 21st century western secularists would, with derision.  However, the verse also reads, “but others said, ‘We want to hear you again on this subject.’” Others in his audience had a different reaction and wanted to learn more.  

It would appear that Paul did use that end of the pole that doesn’t use the Bible in defending the Christian world view in the public square.  However, he does not do so exclusively.  Rather, he used secular approaches as a pathway to the special revelation of God.   Paul did use the Bible towards the end of his speech however, he did this without quoting it, showing us that the proclamation of biblical principles is a sound and proper way of communicating the Word in another form.    

It is important to note that before Paul spoke at the Areopagus, he was preaching in the marketplace to Jews and God-fearing Greeks about Jesus and the resurrection. As was Paul’s custom with Jews, he quoted Hebrew scripture.  But some pagans where there and their reaction was “what is this babbler trying to say”?  In other words, they did not understand the Hebrew scriptures or a Messiah.  But when he got to the Areopagus, he changed tactics and started from basic concepts, making way for a more detailed biblical analysis in the future.  Paul started with generalities to whet appetites.

The church must not be embarrassed by the Word of God or hide the Christian faith in the public square.   The church cannot ignore the current environment in the same way that Paul did not ignore the environment of his pagan audience.   The direct quoting of the scriptures many not be the first step in the relationship with the outside world.  The church must exercise wisdom in communicating biblical truth beyond that of picking out a set of proof texts however, she still must communicate biblical truth.  

The church must also move beyond sound arguments of logic and principle.  Such things lay the beginnings of understanding for unbelievers but  the church must then speak more directly about God’s revelation in His word and in His Son.  After Paul’s initial speech at the Areopagus, Acts 17:34 says “Some of the people became followers of Paul and believed.”  To Paul it was not a binary approach but a holistic one of reaching his pagan audience with the aim of leading hearts to understanding and then to repentance and faith.  The church universal would do well to emulate Paul’s example.  

2014 © Ed LeBlanc