Wednesday, January 25, 2012


Abraham and Grace

When I was 16 and a junior in high school, I had a job working after school at a bakery, Sunrise Pie Company.  The owner was an old Greek named Chris, who addressed his employees brusquely in his thick accent.  Though at first I was fearful, I soon found out that his heart was softer than his speech.

On payday Chris would walk around handing out our checks for our week’s work.  He came to me on my first payday and held out to me my first paycheck.  I reached out and grasped it between my thumb and the fingers of my right hand.

“Thank you.” I said.

Immediately, Chris pulled it back.  “Didn’t you earn this check?” he growled.

“W-w-well, y-y-yes.”  I stammered.

“Then why did you thank me?  You don’t have to thank me for something that you earned.”

That day I learned something about the difference between grace and works.

Searching the Old Testament for examples of grace we find Abraham, the father of the Hebrew nation.  His story is found in the first book of the Bible, Genesis, but he’s also mentioned in 17 of the 39 Old Testament books and 11 of the 27 New Testament books.

The Apostle Paul writes of him extensively in his letters to the Galatians (chapter 3) and to the Romans (chapter 4), he is seen as one of the heroes of faith in Hebrews 11, and while James only speaks of him in a brief four verses (2:21-24), what he says is significant.

Interestingly, in all of these accounts, we find the word “grace” mentioned only twice (Romans 4:4, 16), even though we could say that it underlies Abraham’s whole story.

Both Paul and James make reference to the statement in Genesis 15:6:  “And he believed in the LORD (Yahweh) and He credited it to him as righteousness.”  However, they are apparently quoting from the Septuagint (LXX) which adds Abraham’s name and substitutes the name “God” for “the LORD.”

Since Romans 4 is where we find our subject “grace” specifically mentioned, I’d like to go there.  Verses 1-5 read:

1)     “What then shall we say that Abraham, our father according to the flesh has found?  2)  For if Abraham was declared righteous by works he has a boast – but not before God!  3)  For what does the Scripture say? 

‘And Abraham believed God and He credited it to him as righteousness.’

4)   Now to the one who works, the wage is not credited as grace, but as something owed.  5) But to the one who doesn’t work, but believes in the One who declares the ungodly righteous, his faith is credited as righteousness.” 

Paul in Romans had been speaking of God’s grace at work.  He has explained in very vivid language, quoting the (Old Testament) Scriptures, that all are sinners, whether they are Jews or Gentiles (non-Jews), and stand condemned before God.  Mere knowledge of Scripture is no plus.  God judges impartially.  But God has supplied a way for people to be declared right (or justified or acquitted) before Him through the death of His Son.  This way of gaining right standing is appropriated through faith.  It is nothing new, Paul explains; it has been God’s way all along, even in Old Testament times.

So in chapter 4, Paul argues his claims, using Abraham as his example.  He poses a hypothetical situation:  Abraham being declared right by God on the basis of his good works.

Abraham was the great man of the Old Testament.  We might say that if anyone could be declared right on the basis of what they’ve done, it would be him.  And if he did, he would have something to boast about.  Paul even seems to be suggesting that this was possible.  But he very clearly adds the qualifier:  “not before God.”

Verse 4 contains that truth I learned many years ago at Sunrise Pie Company.  Chris was doing me no favor when he paid me.  I earned it.  If I (or Abraham) could earn my way into right standing, I would not need the grace of God.  But grace tells me I can’t earn it.  As 3:21 says, “All sinned and keep falling short of God’s glory.”  That includes me – and Abraham.

And verse 5 brings it down a bit clearer yet.  It gives the “qualifications” for being right with God.

·         I must recognize that I am ungodly.  The ungodly are the only people that God credits with righteousness. 

·         I must be one who is not working for that righteousness or right standing with God. 

·         I must believe.  I must place my belief in God’s promise, just as Abraham did.  Of course, the promise for this day involves Christ and His death on the cross. 

Grace, as defined before is “the expression of God’s love without condition toward those who do not merit it.”  If I can do anything to merit it, it is not grace.  Grace is not, as some have defined it, “the power and desire to do the will of God.”  All the do-ing is on God’s part.  Even faith is not a work.  It is the receiving of the benefit of Someone else’s work.

Friday, January 20, 2012


In a comment on my previous post (GRACE, III), Canadian Atheist said (among other things) the following: 

“ … you’d have to prove both Jesus as being the son of God and that he existed. Even if you think he existed (which I do) that is not proof that he was the son of God. He was probably a preacher who was voted to be the son of God by a power hungry Emperor. His message was then twisted into what Christians believe today. If you read the Gnostic scriptures, you will see Jesus portrayed as something very different than the NT, heavily edited and mistranslated version that Christians follow today.”

I’ve heard these assertions before, a few of them many years ago, although some have turned up more recently, like the ones about an emperor being in some way responsible for the view of Jesus held by Christians today.  These claims have been developed over the last few decades by a number of scholars, but probably received their greatest popularity through the recent novel and movie, The Da Vinci Code.

So, It would appear that my friend is disparaging my reliance on one Book, based on his reliance on another book (or books).  Interesting.  Is this a faith issue?

It would seem to me that one who denies the existence of God based on the lack of empirical data, would not be so hasty to rely on truth claims that have little, if any, empirical data to back them up.

So, if  I may, I’d like to address some of the claims made above. 

·         The claim that Christians today follow a “heavily edited mistranslated version of the New Testament.”  There is no evidence whatsoever for this assertion.  We have manuscripts of large portions of the New Testament that date back to the middle of the third century, within 160/175 years of the latest estimated dates for its composition.  Though there are textual variations, they differ very little from our present day printed Greek texts.  As a matter of fact, our modern critical Greek texts use those early manuscripts. 

Although there are many modern translations, some more accurate than others, our modern English translations are quite reliable.  The “heavily edited and mistranslated version” is a myth.  Such an assertion would (or should) be denied by even the most skeptical scholars. 

·         “If you read the Gnostic scriptures, you will see Jesus portrayed as something very different than the New Testament …”  I have read a few of them, including the Gospel of Thomas and I can say amen to this assertion.  But I fail to see how this detracts from the truth claims of the New Testament. 

Our New Testament was composed within the first century, even the latest book within 60 years of Jesus.  Though there is much dispute as to precise dating, much of the material in our Gospels came from eyewitnesses. 

The Gnostic scriptures were composed later, probably in the second or third centuries.  The Gospel of Thomas is supposed by some to have been written around 200 which would put it more than a century later than any New Testament writings, even though some believe it may possibly contain some authentic says of Jesus. 

The Gnostic scriptures were the product of a broad school of thinking which combined elements of Christianity, Judaism, Neo-Platonism and other beliefs.  They are inconsistent, not only with the New Testament, but also with each other and present no historical or theological unity such as is found in the New Testament.  They are also merely one segment of a great number of similar writings.  I fail to see how their disagreement with the New Testament is relevant at all to the argument.

·         “He (Jesus) was probably a preacher who was voted to be the son of God by a power hungry Emperor.  His message was then twisted into what Christians believe today.”  I’m assuming that the reference is to the Roman emperor Constantine “the Great,” who reigned from 306-337.  Constantine did establish the toleration of Christianity with the Edict of Milan in 313 and called the Council of Nicaea in 325, which clarified some of the major doctrines of Christianity. 

However, by this time the New Testament writings had been in circulation for over 250 years.  Christianity had already spread throughout the Roman Empire and well beyond.  Beliefs about the Person and Message of Jesus were recorded in the New Testament and in the minds of many, long before the time of Constantine.  There were no changes in the message. 

·         I’m glad we both agree that Jesus existed.  I guess that means we have some agreement in our beliefs.  If we can’t accept the massive evidence of the New Testament and other writings on this matter, I don’t see how we can accept any historical evidence for the existence of any individual of ancient history.

The New Testament documents make up the earliest and largest body of evidence we have, not only for the existence of Jesus, but also for His life, teachings and work.  They also are our most accurate evidence for the early church and for how His life, teachings and work were understood.  We don’t need to seek later claims nor the pronouncements of emperors.

And, if this is so, then perhaps we need to examine the claims that Jesus made, as recorded in the New Testament, especially the Gospels.  If we do, we will find that He was more than simply “a preacher.”  He claimed to be one with God the Father and to have existed before His birth.  He claimed to be the Messiah and the only way to God.

Of course, we can deny that He made these claims, even though the evidence says that He did.  Or we can say He was delusional.

Or perhaps we can simply accept His claims as true.  I do.

Tuesday, January 17, 2012


Grace after Grace 

“Because from His fullness we’ve all received, and grace after grace.
Because the Law was given through Moses;
grace and truth came about through Jesus Christ.”
John 1:16, 17

A few comments on translation:
·         The word translated “fullness” (Greek – pleroma) here probably has the same meaning as it does in Paul’s letter to the Colossians (1:19; 2:9), the completeness of Christ’s Deity.
·         The word I translated “after” is usually translated “upon.”  It is the Greek word anti, which usually means “instead of.”  It is used in the Greek Old Testament (LXX) of a king succeeding his father.  (So and so reigned anti his father so and so.)  In other words we receive a succession of graces.
·         The word I translated “came about” is a form of the Greek word ginomai.  It doesn’t simply mean “came” in the sense of “arrived,” but often has the idea of “come into being,” which I believe is the sense here.

John has been talking about the preexistence and deity of “the Word” (1:1, 2), as well as His incarnation (1:14).  In verse 17, he tells his readers who the Word is known as in His human form:  Jesus Christ (Messiah).  In verse 16, he says that Jesus is the source of graces which come on us in succession.

But in verse 17, he makes a radical claim.  He draws an analogy between Moses and Jesus and their accomplishments.  Moses was the giver of the Law.  And certainly those who have read the first five books of the Bible know the accounts of the giving of the Law at Mount Sinai.  Of course, there was law before Moses, but he is the one through whom God delivered His covenant Law to Israel.

In similar fashion, though God had always been characterized by grace and truth, it is the Word, Jesus Christ through whom God brought His grace into being.

Of course, we know, from reading the Gospels, as well as from our own experience, that Jesus is the embodiment of grace and truth.  But it seems that John is speaking of even more than the New Testament experience.  It was through the Word, the One who is referred to by Christians as the Second Person of the Trinity, that God exercised His grace in the Old Testament.

The next verse adds to this claim: “No one has seen God at any time; the unique God (some manuscripts have “Son” here) who is in the Father’s bosom, He has explained Him” (1:18).

From this, it would seem that we could conclude that in those instances where God appeared in the Old Testament, it was the Word, the Son, the Second Person of the Trinity that was seen.  So then, God’s appearances and His works of grace in the Old Testament period were actually the appearances and works of the Son.

Wednesday, January 11, 2012


The Grace of God

In our first discussion on the topic of grace this past Sunday, I asked the class members to give a brief definition of grace.  There were many given and I wrote them all down on the board as quickly as I could.  One that came up was “a communicable attribute of God.”  I liked that one, even though it didn’t really define, but rather categorized the word.  I feared, however, that those who were not familiar with theological terms might fear that Grace was something for which they might need to be inoculated.

So a few brief definitions are necessary.
·        God’s attributes are His “distinguishable and essential characteristics” according to one theologian.  We might say that His attributes are simply what/who He is.
·        Some would place these into two categories:  God’s incommunicable attributes – those which belong only to Him, such as His self-existence, His infinity, His immutability – and His communicable attributes – those He shares to some extent with His created beings (us), such as knowledge, wisdom. Etc.

In other words, grace is a characteristic of God that is also found in human beings.  He also apparently expects it of us.  But more of that later.

We must recognize that God’s grace, along with His mercy, compassion and longsuffering are related to His love.  As John says, “God is love” (1 John 4:8, 16).  John is not equating God and love, but saying that love is an essential aspect of God’s nature.  Love (agape’) has been defined as “That which seeks the greatest good in its object.”  And this love works itself out in these other aspects.

Recognizing this, we may define God’s grace as “The expression of God’s love without condition toward those who do not merit it.”

Perhaps the Apostle Paul describes it best.  After spending over two chapters in the Book of Romans describing how we – humankind – can make no claim of being right before God, he tells his readers that they are “declared right freely by His grace through the redemption that is in Christ Jesus” (Romans 3:24).  He tells his readers in Ephesus that they are “saved by grace … through faith, and that not of yourselves, it is the gift of God” (Ephesians 2:8).

Of course, we should be careful not to think of God’s grace as something only revealed in the New Testament.  The word grace (Chen) is first used in Genesis 6:8 of Noah.  Notice that God’s grace is mentioned before Noah’s good qualities, probably because it preceded them.

“But Noah found grace in the eyes of the LORD … Noah was a righteous man, blameless in his time; Noah walked with God” (Genesis 6:8, 9).

But it is in the story of the exodus where the LORD not only reveals His grace, but claims it as a characteristic.

The first time we read of His claim of grace is in Exodus 22:27, speaking of mistreatment of the poor.  “… if he cries out to Me, I will hear him, for I am gracious!”

Also Exodus 33:19:  “I will be gracious to whom I will be gracious, and I will be compassionate to whom I will be compassionate.”

Exodus 34:6:  “And the LORD proclaimed, ‘the LORD, a God compassionate and gracious, slow to anger, and full of loving-kindness and truth!”

We often think of the Old Testament as picturing God as a God of justice and wrath, a “jealous God” and it certainly does that.  Yet throughout the Old Testament there is this other picture.  We need to keep both “sides” of God in view.

Monday, January 9, 2012


Religion in the news for the week between Christmas and New Years:  (I’m not making these up).
  • Ultra Orthodox Jews in Bethlehem publicly beat little girls (not theirs) because of alleged indecent dress.
  • Muslims in Nigeria bomb churches and kill Christians; Christian leaders say they have no more cheeks to turn and will defend themselves.
  • Priests of different Christian sects riot and battle one another over territory in the Church of the Nativity.  We are informed that this is a common occurrence every Christmas and Easter season.
Ho!   Ho!  Ho!

And then, of course, there are the usual bombings and riots between Sunni and Shia Muslims, the increased persecution of Coptic Christians by Egyptian Muslims, the harassment of Christians (and Muslims) by Hindus in India, etc., etc.

Are my atheist friends correct:
  • Is religion a cause of violence?
  •  Would violence cease if there were no religion?

Before attempting to answer these questions with a simple yes or no, I believe we need to look at the fact that humankind is characterized by two seemingly incompatible attributes – religion and violence.  Whether one subscribes to the biblical accounts or to the anthropological/historical evidence, or even to the daily newspaper, we are forced to admit this to be true.  So what we see today is nothing new.  People are both religious and violent!

So I believe that we should be cautious in naming one as the cause of the other.  Questions of cause and effect are not always as easy to determine as we’d like them to be.  As I recall from my studies in philosophy and logic, there can be many causal factors leading to any occurrence.  Certainly religion appears to be a link in each of the causal chains leading up to the events mentioned above.  But it is usually not in itself the efficient cause, that triggering event, that which initiates the violent activity.  Often that is some trivial event.  Very possibly religion was the final or purposive cause of some of the events mentioned (i.e., drive out the infidels so that Islam will triumph) but not all.

And not all violent events have a religious cause, as a study of 20th century history would demonstrate.  Religion was not a cause of the violent purges of Russia, China and Germany.  These were perpetrated by the irreligious, often upon the religious.  (Of course, by a little twist in our logic we could see the persecuted as a cause of the violence inflicted on them; in other words, blame the victim.)  Thus, the answer to the second question would have to be no, violence would not cease if there were no religion.

So what am I, as a follower of Jesus, to say in regard to the first question above (Is religion a cause of violence?), especially as I am reasonably sure that the answer is yes?

It would be tempting to simply claim that these violent actions were all the actions of those who have chosen to worship a false god, not the God of the Bible, that these were those who had turned from the true God to worship one of their own making.  And this would be true of many (see Romans 1:18ff).

But what am I to make of the fact that many of the violent acts perpetrated throughout history have been committed in the name of Jesus Christ, the one known as the Prince of Peace?  What am I to say of the hate that is spouted in His name, or of the present day hate groups that use the name of Jesus?

Again, it would be tempting to say that those who are violent are not followers of Christ, that they are using His name in vain to promote their own hate causes.  And I suppose I would be partially correct in saying that.  Groups with names like “Traditional Christian Knights of the Ku Klux Klan” and “Christian Identity Church – Aryan Nations” have no idea of the heart or ethics of Jesus.  However, I must confess that there are those among Jesus’ followers who are so convinced of the rightness of their beliefs that they are willing to advocate violence on their behalf.

But Jesus nowhere advocated violence.  Even when His life was threatened, He told Peter – who attempted violence in His defense, “Put your sword back in its place.  For all who take the sword will perish by the sword” (Matthew 26:52).

I see some necessary actions on my part and on the part of my Christian brothers.
  • First, we must pray for them:  “Father forgive them, they don’t know what they are doing.”
  • We must personally live out the nonviolent ethics of Jesus.
  • As teachers, we must be concerned to teach, not simply the doctrinal requirements of the Christian faith, but also the ethics that Jesus lived and taught and demanded.
And I believe that many – most – of those who have chosen to follow Jesus do live lives that are nonviolent, that are compatible with His life and  teaching.

Friday, January 6, 2012


I want to thank you for your “Merry Christmas” on my blog post.  I also thank you for your graciousness as we have interacted – even when we have disagreed, as we do frequently.

What is interesting and eye-opening to me is how often you and I have agreed.  You have seen the negatives of Christianity as have I.  In fact, if you will scan through my many posts, you will find that I say many of the same things that you do.  My criticisms come from within my faith while yours come from the outside.  One possible reason for this agreement may be that I often look at my faith, my church, my religion from the outside.  Perhaps this is because as a young person I was often an outsider and still am today among many evangelical Christians (after all, I’m a Democrat).  Or perhaps this is some special (God-given?) ability I have.

Anyway, I am seriously troubled by what I see happening among Christians today – the political pronouncements, the legalism, the rudeness at and intolerance of, those whose behavior or religious or political convictions differ, etc.  All of these, I believe, are symptoms of our failure to genuinely follow Jesus.  I want you to know that they are more of a concern to me than to you.  You can just put them down as evidence of the invalidity of religion.  I have to live with them.

However, please don’t take these comments as an indication that I’m crossing over to your side.  I sincerely doubt if I will do this.  As a matter of fact, the misbehavior I see among Christians actually drives me to a desire to follow Jesus more closely than before.

Nor do I suspect that the things I say will bring you over to my side.  I suppose that you are as committed to the rightness of your cause as I am to mine.  However, I confess that I do pray for your conversion, not to a philosophy or opinion, but to genuine faith in Christ, because that’s what Jesus told us to do.  :^)

A more immediate goal is to simply convince you that the stereotype presented by many “Christian” public figures is not what Christianity is.  There are many of us who do not subscribe to this caricature.

But even more than this, I desire to keep up the dialogue and to build a genuine friendship.  You have already contributed to my understanding and I hope that I have to yours.

Looking forward to further conversation,