Wednesday, January 25, 2017

Are All Sins Equal to God?

Clarity from Michael Patton at Credo House . . .

During my ordination, one of the questions that I was asked by a seminary professor was “Are all sins equal in the sight of God?” I hesitated. Not because I did not have a strong opinion on this, but because I was not sure what the answer was that he was looking for. Are all sins equal in the sight of God? My ordination may have depended on the answer.
It is very common within popular evangelicalism to answer this question in the affirmative. This was one of the main assumptions in a book that I just recommended last week. Most find this theological concept very appealing and accept it, I am afraid to say, without doing much homework.
I think this tendency to assume that all sins are equal in the sight of God comes by means of three influences.
1) A reaction by Protestants against the Roman Catholic distinction between mortal sins (sins that kill justifying grace) and venial sin (sins of a lesser nature that do not kill justifying grace).
2) A tendency within our evangelistic church culture to express common ground with unbelievers—i.e., if all sins are equal in God’s sight, then your sin is not worse than any other. This way we are not coming across as judgmental or condescending.
3) Some biblical passages that have been interpreted in such a way (discussed below).
I don’t believe, however, that all sin is equal in God’s sight. I believe that telling people all sins are equal to God does serious damage to people’s understanding of the character of God and of the seriousness of sins. There are many reasons for this, but let me start with a reductio ad absurdum and them move to a biblical argument.

A Practical Test

I often ask people who say that all sin is equal in the sight of God if they live according to their theology. Think about this. If all sin is really equal in the sight of God, and one really believes this, then God’s consternation and anger will be equal for whatever sin we commit. Equally important is the fact that our relational disposition before God should suffer equally from the conviction of the Holy Spirit for all sins. Most Christians understand what it means to have a conscience weighed down by unrepentant sin. But this weighing down normally only comes from those sins that we perceive to be more severe. If it is true, however, that all sin is equal in the sight of God and one actually lived according to that theology, then they should be just as troubled spiritually and just as repentant before God when they break the speed limit as when they commit adultery. After all, breaking the speed limit, even by 1 mph, is breaking the law and breaking the law is sin (Rom 13).
But nobody does this. We all see speeding down the road as water under the bridge of God. Apparently our conscience bears witness that it is not as bad as other things, even if we confess differently. Either that or the ability for our theology to actually affect the way we believe and think is non-functional in this situation. 

A Biblical Test

Next (and more importantly) I think that it is biblical and necessary to say that some sins are more grievous in the sight of God than others. This also translates into the non-politically correct assumption that some people are sinners to a greater degree than others. Even though Protestants may not agree with the theology behind the Roman Catholic distinction between mortal and venial sins, there are many instances in the Scriptures where degrees of sin are distinguished.
1. Christ tells Pilate that the Jewish leaders have committed a worse sin than him, saying, “He who has handed me over to you has committed the greater sin” (Jn. 19:11, emphasis mine).
2. Certain sins in the law are distinguished in a particular context as an abomination to God, implying that others are not as severe (e.g. Lev. 18:22; Deut. 7:25, Deut. 23:18, Isa. 41:24).
3. Blasphemy of the Holy Spirit is set apart as a more severe sin than blasphemy of the Son (Matt. 12:31)
4. Proverbs 6:16-19 lists particular sins in such a way as to single them out because of their depraved nature, separating them from others.
5. There are degrees of punishment in Hell depending on the severity of the offense (Lk. 12:47-48).
6. Christ often evaluates the sin of the Pharisees as greater than the sins of others. You strain out a gnat while you swallow a camel (Matt. 23:24). If all sins are equal, Christ’s rebuke does not make any sense. (See also Lk. 20:46-47)
7. Similarly, Christ also talked about the “weightier things of the law” (Matt. 23:23). If all sins are equal, there is no law (or violation of that law) that is “weightier” than others. They are all the same weight.
8. Unforgiveness is continually referred to as a particularly heinous sin (Matt. 6:14-15; 18:23-35).

Why Do Some Christians Believe that All Sins Are Equal

So where does this folk theology come from? Most people would refer to Christ’s comments in the Sermon on the Mount. Most particularly, reference is made to Matt. 5:27-28 as justification for this way of thinking.
“You have heard that it was said, ‘you shall not commit adultery’” but I say to you that everyone who looks at a woman with lust for her has already committed adultery with her in his heart (Matt. 5:27-28 27).
Is there a difference in the eyes of God between thinking about adultery and actually doing it? Absolutely. If we say anything other than this, I believe we do damage to God’s character and encourage the act based upon its premonition. The point Christ makes in Matt. 5:28 is not that lust and the actual act are equal, but that they both violate the same commandment, even if the degrees of this violation differ. Thus, Christ was telling people – and particularly the religious establishment of the day that thought they were safe because they had fulfilled the letter of the law – that the law runs much deeper. The spirit of the law is what matters. Therefore, if you have ever lusted, you have broken the sixth commandment. If you have ever hated your brother, you have broken the fifth commandment (Matt. 5:22). But, again, the breaking of the principles of the commandment is the issue, not the degree to which it is broken.
This is the same argument that James makes in Jam. 2:10 when he says “For whoever keeps the whole law and yet stumbles in one point, he has become guilty of all.” He is not equating all sin, but showing how any violation of the law, no matter how small, is still breaking the whole of the law because the law is connected to such a degree.

The Absurdity of Such Thinking

Think about this (another reductio): if you believe that adultery and lust are equal in the sight of God, then here are the consequences: any man or woman can justify divorce based upon the fact that in Matt. 5:32 Christ condemns divorce except for marital infidelity. All they need to do is make the safe assumption that their spouse has lusted to some degree during their marriage. This will make their divorce justified and biblical. In the same way, if a man were to lust after a woman on the internet, he might as well commit the actual act since in God’s eyes he already has. Or (while I am on roll), if you have ever lusted after a girl, then you are under God’s mandate to marry her since in God’s eyes you are one with her (1 Cor. 6:16).
I think that this way of thinking is not only wrong biblically, but it also has repercussions that lead to a distorted worldview and to discrediting the integrity of God and the Gospel of Christ.

A Better Way to Put It

It is true. All people are sinners (Rom. 3:23). All people are sinners from birth. But not all sin is equal.
I think this is a safe way to stay humble and accurately represent the biblical witness:
While not all people sin to the same degree, we all share in an equally depraved nature.
In other words, no one is less of a sinner because of an innate righteousness about which they can boast. All people have equal potential for depravity because we are all sons of Adam and share in the same depravity, even if we don’t, due to God’s grace, act out our sinfulness to the same degree.
If you disagree with this, just think—really think—about what you are saying about God. You are saying to an unbelieving world that your God is just as angry about the act of going 56 in a 55 as he is about the act of one who rapes and murders a six-year-old girl. Do you really want to go there? Do you really think this position is sufficiently supported to justify such a belief? Can you really defend it? If the Bible teaches it, fine. We go with the Bible and not with our emotions or palatability decoder. But I don’t believe that a viable case can be made for letting our theology argue for such a belief. I can’t think of many more things in Evangelical pop-theology that is more wrong, more damaging, or more
misrepresentative of God’s character and the nature of sin.
I answered with the above answer during my ordination. I was relieved when I saw the approval of the ordination committee. They were all concerned that I might be one who, even with seminary training, retained this belief that most Evangelicals have. I have often wondered whether or not they would have passed me if I had answered according to today’s Evangelical folklore, saying that all sins are equal in the sight of God. I would hope not.
Others who say the same thing:
R.C. Sproul

Wednesday, January 11, 2017

Recommit to Bible Reading in 2017

It's not too late to get started . . . from the Crossway blog.

A Worthwhile Resolution

The grass withers, the flower fades, but the word of our God will stand forever. (Isaiah 40:8)
For many, the start of a new year produces fresh resolve—more discipline, less sugar, increased efficiency, and the list goes on. However well-intentioned, our level of commitment to goals can tend to ebb and flow with the seasons. Adopting habits and regimens may appear to provide some stability in out-of-control situations, but without Christ, our feet falter on shifting sand.
Whatever you commit yourself to this new year, resolve first to plant yourself firmly on the rock of God's Word. Find refuge and strength in knowing him. Make time to study, meditate, and enjoy the gift of his unchanging truth.
This year will bring heartache and joy, both. It will try you, stretch you, demand of you. Nothing is certain except that God's kingdom has been established and it will last forever. Spend dedicated time knowing God through his Word this year.
Learn more about our reading plans or browse our Reader's Bibles.

Monday, January 9, 2017

5 Truths About Great Ministry Leaders

Spot on insight from Eric Geiger.  Just read a couple of books by Eric, one on discipleship and another on leadership that there very good.  Theologically sound and organizationally helpful.  
Recently during annual reviews with my team, I asked each person who reports to me to offer me feedback through the lens of “start, stop doing, and keep doing.” What am I not doing that you would like me to start doing? What am I doing that you wish I would stop doing? And what am I doing that is important to you that I keep doing? Through this process, I always learn a lot about myself, what matters to people on our team, and adjustments I should make in my leadership. I have a team filled with great leaders. They are incredible, and the feedback they gave me reminded me of five things about great leaders:

1. Great leaders love high expectations.

None of the leaders on my team placed “high expectations” in the “stop” category. It was only placed in the “keep doing” category. Great leaders love high expectations because they want to be a part of something significant. Because great leaders hate stagnation, they want to be pushed to do their best work.

2. Great leaders love to learn.

The most common response to the “keep doing” question revolved around leadership development, around challenges to the team and the books and articles I ask people to read. Great leaders love to learn because they know that as they are developed, the people they serve benefit.

3. Great leaders love to learn together.

Not only do the people on my team love to learn, but they also love to learn together. Great leaders love learning together because they know others have a lot to offer. Great leaders love community because they understand they do not have all the answers.

4. Great leaders want spiritual leadership.

Spirit-filled leaders are the best leaders because people benefit greatly from leaders who are filled with love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness, and self-control. Thus, great leaders want to be shepherded spiritually. They want someone to remind them of who they are and to point them to the great mission and the One whom they ultimately are serving.

5. Great leaders want strategic leadership.

Great ministry leaders aren’t expecting to get compensated for having group devotionals all day. They aren’t expecting you to facilitate their daily devotional. While they love spiritual leadership, they also want a leader who offers direction and a plan to get there.

Friday, January 6, 2017

The Pastoral Mess of 2016

reat pastoral wisdom by James White.  Not everything that glitters is gold . . .

The headline for many for 2016 was that it was the year they couldn't wait to come to an end.
Depending on your view of things, the reasons seemed endless:
A ruthless political season, the deaths of many famed celebrities, mass shootings, racial division… and the list goes on.
But there was another reason for many to lament the past year: the crash and fall of pastor after pastor, many of them in the "celebrity" category. I won't name the names here – you probably know them – but you can read a sampling of those who come to mind herehere and here.
Most were young, relatively unmentored (or even unschooled) entrepreneurial church planters, rapidly platformed for being young, hip and "successful," and the "fruit" of their ministry was deemed an affirmation of their personal integrity and the worthiness of their platform.
Can anyone say, "trainwreck inevitable"?
It prompts me to suggest four truths, followed by four pleas.
First, the four truths:
Truth #1: Young and hip does not mean wise and insightful. It doesn't even mean you have the latest insights into how to be effective and relevant. In truth, it doesn't mean anything. Some of the most effective churches reaching Millennials and Generation Z are led by those in their fifties or even older. And their jeans aren't skinny. And those older, seasoned leaders are the ones who have true wisdom and maturity to bring to bear.
Truth #2: Numerical fruit is one of the weakest signs of a leader's walk with Christ, much less God's hand of anointing on an individual ministry. The fruit of the Spirit is love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, gentleness and self-control. It is not crowds and book deals, speaking engagements and followers on Twitter. God brings fruit because… well, God brings fruit. And it's often in spite of the leader's walk with Christ that He does it, not because of it. How else do you explain so many leaders of "successful" ministries being revealed for shadow lives?
Truth #3: Church planting in order to plant a church and extend the gospel to a fallen world is a good and noble thing; church planting to establish a platform for fame and fortune, acclaim and notoriety, is not. Even worse is when that church plant is designed to remove personal accountability, rather than provide it. Such self-created vehicles are destined to be driven into self-created ditches.
Truth #4: We are all sinners, but there is a difference between sin that we at least attempt to resist, and sin that is brazenly and unblushingly pursued and embraced. Even worse is when those in a position of leadership feel above the very teachings on sin that they propose to others.
Why propose these four truths? Because failing to embrace them has seemingly led to many of the downfalls among those leading churches.
With that being said, here are four pleas that might make 2017 a better year:
Plea #1: Please, can we slow down the platforming? Conference organizers seem more intent on getting the "next, next" person on their docket than whether that person has been tried and found worthy to be platformed. We are perpetuating the Christian "celebrity culture," and when it vomits on us through epic falls and fails, we have only ourselves to blame.
Plea #2: We must recapture the lost art of mentoring, and the lost value of being mentored. Church leaders should be apprenticed before assuming leadership. What that apprenticeship should entail can be a robust conversation, but that it should take place in some form or fashion should be without question. The danger of much church planting today is that young leaders can arbitrarily bypass any kind of preparation and simply create their own church/ministry and appoint themselves senior leader.
Plea #3: Church structure must provide accountability. While I am an advocate of creating church structures that release the gift of leadership (freeing it from the unnecessary constraints of bureaucracy), the current pattern seems to be creating – through church planting – structures that allow a leader to assume an unchallenged, unaccountable role that is autocratic, dictatorial and imperial.
Plea #4: We must regain the lost dynamic of repentance. We are all called to follow the conviction of the Holy Spirit and the truth of Scripture into repentance over sin. To repent is not simply to experience regret or even remorse. It is to enter into "metanoia" – the true turning from a course of action. This is when you realize what you've done, regret it, experience authentic remorse over it, and then seek to turn from it.
Granted, we all struggle with repetitive sin. This is not to diminish the scandalously inexhaustible depth of grace that God is only too willing to bestow upon those who continue to authentically confess that sin and seek forgiveness. But part of that confession must entail the commitment to repent, no matter how imperfect that might play out. What is perhaps most disturbing of the many stories of fallen leaders is how unrepentant they seemed to be as they engaged their double-life. There seemed to be more presumption regarding God than fear.
And perhaps that is what I feel seems to be missing most in so many leaders, and what I know needs continual cultivation in my own life: the healthy, grace-informed fear of the living God who will not be mocked.
Here's one pastor ready to renew and recommit himself to that bottom line so that 2017 won't be like 2016.
James Emery White

Wednesday, January 4, 2017

7 Ways to Improve Your Writing

As I work on my doctoral project, I am also working on my writing skills.  Here is a helpful article for writers . . .

Over the last 8 years, I’ve worked hard to improve my writing. I’ve worked as a consultant for a writing center, as a grader, researcher, and editor for many professors, I’ve written a lot and published some, but most of all I’ve absorbed everything I could learn to improve my writing. Here’s a few of my top ways to improve your writing.
7 Ways to Improve Your Writing
1) Read George Orwell’s essay “Politics and the English Language.” Right now. Like, stop reading this right now and go read Orwell.
2) What? You didn’t read Orwell yet? Stop and go read it. Ok, now, the second way to improve your writing is to say everything as succinctly as possible. Think of concision as a way to love your neighbor: why waste their time with unnecessary words? Stop saying “The fact that…” and just say “That…” Don’t say “With regard to,” say “Concerning…,” or just drop the topic line and start directly with your main statement. But don’t only lower your word count; also lower your syllable count. Don’t use large words when small words suffice. As Orwell says (didn’t you read his essay yet?), “Never use a long word where a short one will do.” One of the best resources for concision is Strunk and ’s little book Elements of Style.
3) Avoid the passive voice. In academic writing the passive voice is often difficult to avoid, but try to express a subject with an active verb as much as possible. Instead of “This problem is often viewed as significant,” try “Commentators view this problem as significant.” Instead of “This passage has been interpreted five different ways,” try “Scholars have interpreted this passage in five different ways,” or use an intransitive verb, “Five interpretations have emerged from this passage.” Using active verbs with subjects adds more color to your writing.
4) Whenever possible, use verbs instead of nouns to express events. Rather than saying “it took five months for the construction of the wall,” say “they constructed the wall in five months.” Like #3, we’ve expressed a subject and a verb which brings the agents into focus, and we have avoided the simple noun “construction” which packs less punch than “they constructed.”
5) Develop a one-sentence thesis. If I were to wake you up at 3 am at night (what in the world am I doing in your house at 3 am?) and ask you the thesis of your current research paper, you should be able to tell me in one sentence (and not a Pauline run-on, either).
6) Read good prose. This tip isn’t mine, but it’s the tip Carl Trueman repeats over and over. “Read Dickens.” Now if any of us had time to sit down with a Dickens novel…
7) Edit laboriously. Authors today are churning out book after book, much of it recycled material in slightly altered or updated form. The same primary evidence is hashed out, with the only additional material being commented on the slightly earlier comments of other scholars on that primary evidence. In such a publish-or-die academic culture, laborious editing is rare. Strunk and ’s book inspired me with the story about one of the authors’ father, who wrote for a living and edited every single week to strike every single unnecessary word from his writing. Every week he edited right to the deadline, and every week he was unsatisfied with the final product. He really cared about the words he was putting out there and wanted his audience to have the best experience possible reading his prose.