In this issue of Solid Ground I continue with my collection of short vignettes I have collected over the years.
Sometimes useful reflections are the result of hard thinking and hours of wrestling with an idea. Most of the musings below, though, came in a flash of insight. When that happens, I jot the basic idea down on a notepad, napkin, or record it on my phone so I don’t lose it. Then I wait till later to hammer out the details.
It’s a basic rule that’s served me well over the years: Never let a productive thought or idea slip away. Since lightening rarely strikes twice in the same place, I may never think that thought again, so I better save it while I can. The palest ink is brighter than the best memory, the proverb goes.
You won’t always come up with the best answer or rejoinder in the middle of a conversation. You usually walk away, mull it over, replay the conversation in your mind, then think of what you should have said. Save that thought, and you’re ready the next time the topic comes up.
Respecting the Revelation
Some think getting a word from God is a substitute for careful Bible study. But it’s presumption to think the Holy Spirit will simply give you the right interpretation of a text.
Paul said, “All Scripture is God-breathed,” (2 Tim. 3:16)—the word is graphe in Greek. The writings are inspired and authoritative, not the interpretation we think the Holy Spirit is giving us. This is why the words should be our focus, not our feelings.
If you think God is telling you something through Scripture that is not connected to the meaning of the words in their context, it can’t be of God because God chose to communicate through language, not around it.
Yes, the Holy Spirit is our teacher, but that means He illuminates what’s already there. All teachers work from a body of information, clarifying it and passing it on. The Holy Spirit does not give new information not already in the inspired words. The curriculum, so to speak, is standardized for all Christians. Every person has equal access to the meaning. There are no private messages in Scripture.
God took pains to give us an objective revelation in the words of the Bible to protect us from subjectivism. When Christians opt for an anointed “reading between the lines” instead of sound exegesis, it actually shows disrespect for the revelation the Holy Spirit inspired.
Ever Hear of the Ten Commandments?
Have you read the Ten Commandments recently? Take a quick personal moral inventory by asking yourself these questions:
- Have you ever given allegiance to anything else over God in your life?
- Have you ever used anything as an object of worship or veneration?
- Have you ever used God’s name in a vain or vulgar fashion?
- Have you worshipped God on a consistent basis?
- Have you disobeyed or dishonored your parents even once?
- Have you murdered anyone, or even had harsh thoughts about someone (see Matt. 5:22)?
- Have you had sex with someone other than your spouse, or even thought about it (see Matt. 5:28)?
- Have you taken something that wasn’t yours?
- Have you lied?
- Have you hungered after something that didn’t belong to you?
Sound tough? It is. This is God’s Law. These are God’s requirements. Even in grammar school, 60% is a flunking grade, yet who among us has not violated each of these commandments many times, at least in spirit?
Reducing the Ten Commandments to only two doesn’t help, by the way. Jesus said, “You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your mind,” and “You shall love your neighbor as yourself. On these two commandments depend the whole Law and the Prophets” (Matt. 22:37-40). Yet even the best of us violate these “minimal” requirements daily.
In your conversations, use both the Law and the Gospel. God’s Law is the mirror that shows us our need for the Savior. In Paul’s words, each of us is “shut up under sin” (Gal. 3:22). Our mouths have been closed, and we all have become accountable to God (Rom. 3:19). Saved by our own goodness? The Law gives us no hope other than Jesus’ righteousness.
Creating a Potential Life?
A common way to dehumanize the unborn to justify abortion is to call an unborn child a “potential life.” But this is just a rhetorical trick. There is no such thing as creating a “potential life.”
Think about it. First, you could create a potential for life. When a man and woman have sex there’s potential for life to be produced. Second, you could create a life with potential. The person could eventually do something wonderful. But that’s the end of your options. Either your actions have potential to create life, or you create a life with potential, but you never create a potential life.
What could it possibly mean to say, for example, “I just had a potential thought”? You either had a thought or you didn’t. And your thought has some potential for the future or it doesn’t. But you never have a potential thought.
In the same way, pregnancy doesn’t create a potential life. If so, then the problem of that potential life could be solved simply by having a potential abortion. Since a real abortion (not a potential abortion) is needed to end pregnancy, a real life must be involved, not a potential one.
No Tolerance in Relativism
Relativism’s chief virtue is tolerance, or so it seems. A closer look, though, shows just the opposite to be true: the obligation of tolerance is meaningless in relativism.
“Morality is individual,” relativists say, “therefore we ought to tolerate others’ viewpoints and not pass judgment on their behavior and attitudes.” Do you see the contradiction built into the sentence? The word “ought” is a give-away. This attempt commits suicide.
If there are no objective moral rules, there can be no rule that requires tolerance. In fact, if there is no moral truth, that’s a good reason not to be tolerant at all. Why not force my personal morality on others if it’s in my own self-interest and my own ethics allow it?
Moral relativism does not lead to tolerance. It leads to a moral free-for-all.
Good and Bad Deeds in the Balance
God demands we live obedient lives. But what about when we don’t? The most vital issue Christianity answers is, “How can we be right with God when we are not thoroughly good?”
There is profound misunderstanding on this point. Many err in defining goodness according to human standards. God, on this view, is concerned with what kind of people we are “on average.” If the good outweighs the bad—if good is predominant—then God winks at the moral lapses.
But justice never works like that, does it? The law demands that each person obey every law always, not some of the laws most of the time. You can be an upstanding citizen all your life, but a single crime is still going to bring you before the judge.
Further—and this is critical—no amount of good behavior pays for bad behavior. Law requires consistent obedience, and that which is already owed cannot be used to pay off past debts.
God, like all lawgivers, requires nothing less than moral perfection. “But that’s impossible,” you say. You’re right. That’s why we need a Savior. It’s the only way we can be right with God when we’re not thoroughly good.
“Forcing” One’s Views
The charge that Christians are trying to force their views on others when they get involved politically is simply unfair. Christians are citizens, too. We want to make our case in the public square and then submit our views to popular vote—no force, no imposition, just advocacy for a point of view and then a ballot. Within the limitations of the Constitution, the majority rules. That’s the way the game is played.
There is no danger when people are allowed to freely speak their mind, argue for their point of view, make their case in the public square, and then call for a vote. There is a threat to liberty, though, when one group strong-arms another into silence and pushes them off the playing field.
Abortion and Homicide
Some observers denounce the use of the word “murder” to describe abortion. Yet this so-called “rhetoric” is completely consistent with the laws of two thirds of the states in the Union, including California.
California statutes under the category “Crimes against the Person,” defines murder this way: “The unlawful killing of a human being, or a fetus, with malice aforethought” [emphasis mine], with the following exception: “This section shall not apply to any person who commits an act which results in the death of a fetus if…the act was solicited, aided, abetted, or consented to by the mother of the fetus.”
The only difference, then, between legal abortion and punishable homicide in the great state of California is the consent of the mother.
So here’s my question: How does the mere collusion of a mother with a doctor transform her unborn offspring from a person of ultimate value to a worthless castoff destined for the dumpster? What metaphysical magic works this transformation?
However one answers this question, the fact is that abortion is legal in California. But this can’t hide a second fact: Apart from the stipulated exceptions, killing the unborn is still homicide, even in the Golden State. Those who kill fetuses are prosecuted for murder.
On the fundamental issue, then—the innate value of unborn human beings—pro-lifers are not extreme, but in concert with the law’s general assessment of the sanctity of the life of the unborn.
Hitler and Mother Teresa
Would Hitler and Mother Teresa both suffer the same fate if they weren’t Christian? No and yes.
No, because they’d answer for different acts of disobedience before God and, as such, their judgment would be different. Just as there are degrees of sin (Jn. 19:11), there are also degrees of punishment. Jesus said Sodom would fare better than Capernaum in the day of judgment (Matt. 11:24), though each would be condemned.
Yes, because each person must ultimately answer for his own sins—Hitler for his, Mother Teresa for hers, you and I for ours. Unless, of course, Jesus is allowed to answer for them.
That is the good news: Jesus, though rich, for our sake became poor, that we through His poverty might become rich (2 Cor. 8:9).
Does the Trinity Make Sense?
Some people say the Trinity—the idea that there is one God Who subsists in three fully distinct, but fully divine persons—doesn’t make sense. This depends entirely on what one means by making “sense.”
If one means that the Trinity is irrational, that it violates some law of reason, then the challenge is simply false. There is no violation of the laws of reason in the Trinity. Anyone who thinks so must identify the specific breach of reason in the orthodox teaching on the Trinity (as opposed to misrepresentation, like tri-theism).
One might say that the Trinity doesn’t make sense in that it doesn’t appeal to any sense perception—because the Trinity can’t be pictured in the mind—and they would have a point, but it’s hardly relevant. Lots of real things—God, humor, love, faithfulness—cannot themselves be pictured, yet are clearly intelligible. So it’s no liability that the Trinity is not “sensible” in that way.
This tells you nothing about the truth of the doctrine, of course. That question is answered by a different means: Does God’s own self-revelation give us reason to believe that the doctrine of the Trinity, classically understood, is an accurate and true description, as far as it goes, of God’s nature? The answer to that is clearly yes.
Religion and Science?
The view that “religious” theories should not intrude in science is guilty of at least three logical errors.
First, it commits the either/or fallacy by asserting that a view is either scientific or religious. Design models, though, have evidential support. We see the blending, for example, when we infer a Creator from Big Bang cosmology. A Big Bang needs a big Banger, it seems to me.
Second, it commits the straw-man fallacy by assuming that those who believe in creation make no use of scientific methods. This is not the case since they are happy to present scientific evidence for their view, if they’re allowed. This evidence needs to be addressed instead of disqualified.
Third, it assumes that the reigning scientific views do not have religious significance. This is false. All cosmological views have religious significance. If evolutionary naturalism is true, the only place for God is in the imagination of the faithful.
A bright line between religion and science just isn’t possible. Instead, they should work compatibly, drawing on the strength of each based on the available evidence to give us a total picture of reality.
The Soul Hole
In July 1995, Time magazine made a stunning announcement. In an extensive article on the mind they wrote, “Despite our every instinct to the contrary, there is one thing that consciousness is not: some entity deep inside the brain that corresponds to the ‘self,’ some kernel of awareness that runs the show.” There is no soul, in other words.
How do they know this? “After more than a century of looking for it, brain researchers have long since concluded that there is no conceivable place for such a self to be located in the physical brain, and that it simply doesn’t exist.”
This is one of the silliest statements I have ever read. Your soul isn’t in your body like a pea is in a pod. You cannot open yourself up and find the spot where your soul resides. Physical things reside in physical places. But immaterial things don’t need any space to fit into. If the soul is not physical, then it doesn’t need a physical location.
Further, just because science can’t find souls doesn’t mean souls are not real. It’s like saying, “You told me there was an invisible man in your house. But I went inside and I didn’t see him anywhere.”
This doesn’t prove souls exist, of course. It does show, though, that the failure of science to find the soul tells you nothing about the question one way or another.
Life as We Know It
A frequent response to the evidence against the origin of life by Darwinian evolution is, “All the difficulties with the evolution of life from non-life only apply to life as we know it. But what about other kinds of life?”
This is easy to respond to. “Life as we know it,” is the only life we know of. It’s unscientific, unreasonable, and unfair to postulate some separate form of life that’s unheard of simply because the evidence against the evolution of life “as we know it” from non-life leads to conclusions someone doesn’t like. It’s an example of what I call “phantom argument,” invoking unknown facts to refute known ones. Just as Christians have been faulted for invoking a “God of the gaps,” this alternative becomes “science of the gaps,” or more accurately “science fiction of the gaps.”
Bumper Sticker Slogans
I saw a bumper sticker that said, “If You Can’t Trust Me with a Choice, How Can You Trust Me with a Child?” Sounds clever at first, until you think about it.
There are some choices no one should be “trusted” with in the sense that the decision is up to them. One of them is the choice to kill innocent human beings. Further, no one is “trusting” a mother with her child when she’s carrying her baby. She doesn’t need permission to get pregnant. Because of the nature of motherhood, this is properly out of the state’s control. If it were in the control of the state, many probably should be denied that trust, considering their intention to destroy their own offspring before the baby sees the light of day.
Christian “Faith” vs. Knowledge
For many Christians, faith and knowledge are opposites: The more evidence you have, the less faith involved. The more bizarre and unbelievable the claim, the greater the faith, they say. The greatest faith on that view, then, would be the one farthest removed from reason or evidence.
Two odd conclusions follow from this kind of thinking.
First, apologetics—giving evidence in defense of faith—would actually be detrimental to faith. Yet Peter tells us to always be ready to give an apologia, a defense, for the hope that is in us (1 Pet. 3:15).
Second, if faith and knowledge are inversely proportional (an increase in knowledge means a decrease in faith), then the more evidence against Christianity the better for the faithful Christian. Indeed, believing something you knew to be false because of overwhelming evidence against it would then be a great virtue. God would be most pleased, on this view, with those who, for example, knew the resurrection never happened, yet still believed it did.
The apostle Paul calls such a person pitiful, however:
But if there is no resurrection of the dead, not even Christ has been raised; and if Christ has not been raised, then our preaching is vain, your faith also is vain….and if Christ has not been raised, your faith is worthless; you are still in your sins. Then those also who have fallen asleep in Christ have perished. If we have hoped in Christ in this life only, we are of all men most to be pitied. (1 Cor. 15:13–14, 17–19)
According to Paul, if our belief is contrary to knowledge, we are fools. If we have an unshakable faith in something that is false, then we have an unshakable delusion.
The Fate of the Unevangelized
One question frequently stops Christians in their tracks: “If the Gospel alone saves, then what about those who never heard?” Can God justly convict a man who hasn’t heard about Jesus? Some people hear the Gospel and reject it, but most never hear it. How can God condemn them?
Christians who can’t answer this challenge don’t really understand something vital about sin and mercy. Sin brings guilt. Mercy is a gift. Anyone who is a sinner receives punishment he deserves. Anyone who is saved receives mercy that is not owed him.
Think of this question: Can a judge send someone to jail without first offering him a pardon? Sure. If the criminal is guilty, the judge is justified in throwing him in prison. There is no obligation to offer a pardon to a guilty man.
The same is true of God. He can justly convict a person who has broken His law even though the sinner has heard nothing about God’s pardon in Jesus. God owes no one salvation. He can offer it to whomever He wishes. That’s why it’s called grace.
Christianity Based on Threats?
Some people say that Christianity is based on threats. But what is the threat?
“The threat is,” they say, “that if you don’t believe in Jesus you’re going to Hell. Eternal damnation is the punishment for not believing.”
First, no one is punished for not believing. They are punished, rather, for sinning. There’s a difference.
Second, one might as well say that medicine is based on threats, too. Would it be a “threat” if a doctor told you that if you don’t have an operation to remove a tumor you’re going to die? Hardly. The doctor isn’t threatening you. He’s trying to save you by telling you the truth about a fatal condition. He’s doing you a favor.
People do bad things. God offers forgiveness. Some turn down God’s mercy and face God’s justice. Where is the fault with God? Why is it that when man offers a rescue it’s noble, but when God offers a rescue it’s a threat?
As a thoughtful Christian, always have a pen and paper handy. You never know when your own brainstorms will produce a strike of lightning that’s worthy of being saved and developed. If you keep track of those insights and develop them a bit, soon you’ll have your own collection of pensées to put to use in conversations as Christ’s ambassador.
 Time, July 17, 1995, 52.