jasonbwatson

July 14, 2016

Besetting Sins

This past Tuesday, Major League Baseball held its annual Midsummer Classic, the All Star Game. I am a big baseball fan and I love watching the ASG. This year the game was played in San Diego, so there was understandably a lot of celebrating the life of Tony Gwynn, often called Mr. Padre. Gwynn played his entire career with the Padres and then, after retirement, was the baseball coach at San Diego State University, his alma mater. He was a (relatively) local guy (born in LA) who became a hero for the local team. Gwynn was well-liked, a fierce but clean competitor who worked hard and gave his best. He was a 15-time All Star and an eight-time batting champion, ending his career with a lifetime average of .338 and 3,141 hits. Perhaps most amazing of all–he never struck out more than forty times in a season over his twenty-year career. By all accounts he was also a devoted family man. He was a first-ballot inductee into the Hall of Fame, receiving over 97% of the vote. When he was inducted in 2007 I was in the crowd–because he went in with my favorite player, Cal Ripken, Jr. Both Gwynn and Ripken had clean images, clean careers and played their entire careers for their local team. Derek Jeter may well become the last player to be join the HOF having played his entire career with one team when he is inducted, but I can just about guarantee that there will never again be two players inducted in the same year who played their entire careers for one team.

I wanted to give Gwynn his just due, but this is not really about Gwynn ultimately. Instead it is about the example that Gwynn sadly left–an an example that was clearly described in a USA TODAY article in the July 11, 2016 issue. In it, Gwynn’s 2014 death from salivary gland cancer is described. His daughter Anisha is quoted in the article saying, “We tried so hard over the years to get him to quit [using chewing tobacco].” Their efforts were in vain, however. According to the article,Gwynn’s last days were unpleasant to say the least:

Gwynn had growths removed from his cheek in 2001 and 2007 and was diagnosed with cancer in 2010. He had surgery, only for the cancer to return two years later. Again in 2013, the cycle of tumors, surgeries, radiation and chemotherapy treatments started anew. Then came the seizures. Ultimately, Tony Gwynn Jr. said, there was an inoperable brain tumor.

Gwynn was in and out of the hospital for the last two months…the right side of his face paralyzed, his right eye taped shut at night so he could sleep and a walker required for him to leave the house….

Still, the article also states this: “Gwynn refused to listen, still dipping after all the tumors, seizures and radiation treatments, up until the day he died.”

As someone who has never smoked or used tobacco in any way that was hard for me to imagine when I read it. Then. though, I began to think about how I am the same way–as are so many of us. We have a natural tendency to keep doing those things we like even when we know we should not. That is really what sin is, after all–behavior from which we, for whatever reason, derive happiness, contentment, pleasure or satisfaction.By definition sin is coming short of God’s perfect standard of holiness and righteousness. Sin is missing the mark. We sin, though, because we want to. Sin is a choice we make, and it stems from pride, from wanting to do things our own way even when we know we should not. The first sin was committed when Satan tempted Eve to eat of the forbidden fruit by telling her that it would make her like God. That was a lie, of course, but Eve thought yielding to the temptation would result in pleasure or satisfaction that would not come by obeying God’s command. And that, whether we like it or not, is why we all sin today.

Thanks to the sin of Adam and Eve we are all born with a sin nature, and when we behave in the natural we do things our own way–read, not God’s way. Everyone one of us is guilty of sin; the Bible makes that explicitly clear. Thankfully, God loves humankind enough that He sent His Son Jesus to pay the just penalty for our sin, and that forgiveness is available to all who accept His sacrifice in their place. Then, sin is forgiven and bondage to sin is severed. Some people like their sin too much, though; they do not want to repent of their sin and give it up because they think that the benefits of the sin are worth it–the pleasure and satisfaction sin provides outweighs the consequences they think. Or maybe they simply deny that the consequences of sin exist, though I assure you they do. God told Adam that if he and Eve ate of the forbidden fruit they would die and they did. They died spiritually immediately and physically eventually–and death entered the world.

Still, some–sorry, all–who accept Christ continue to sin. The frequency and severity of that sin should diminish over time but it will never go away completely. Even the apostle Paul described, in Romans 7, that he continued to do those things he did not want to do and did not do those things that he did want to do. I did not know Tony Gwynn, but I suspect it would be true that he wanted to stop chewing tobacco in a rational, detached way but he could not do it because he was hooked. Like a fish jerked from the water by a hook implanted firmly in its cheek, Gwynn was hooked on tobacco. Whether it was the flavor of it, the feeling it provided or just the act of doing it, Gwynn could not stop. In an of ourselves, none of us can. Sometimes, even when we know in a rational, detached manner that we should, we keep doing it anyway.

So what do we do about this persistent sin?

In a 2008 column in Christianity Today Kevin Miller wrote that God can still work through our “unconquerable imperfections.” Pondered Miller, “Could it be that our frustratingly persistent sins, which abound, lead us to a greater awareness of God’s grace, which so much more abounds?” Sure, that could be. However, Paul also made it abundantly clear (in Romans 6) that we are not to continue sinning in order to produce more of God’s grace. The fact that God will forgive our sins is not permission to keep committing them.

Miller also suggested that persistent sin can produce humility. “So when struggling with persistent sin, take heart. God is at work, and even your persistent failings may work to your good and his glory. Let yourself be humbled by your falls.” That, too, is true; when we keep doing those things we do not want to do we should be humbled by it, frustrated by it and grieved by it. “Wretched man that I am!” Paul laments in Romans 7:24.

This past May Gavin Ortlund wrote, on the Desiring God web site, the following:

Many Christians struggle with “nagging sins” — those entrenched, persistent, difficult-to-dislodge sins that continually entangle us in our efforts to follow Christ. Sometimes we struggle for decades, with bouts of backsliding and despair recurring. Most godly Christians, who have made true progress in their pursuit of holiness, can sing with feeling “prone to wander, Lord I feel it,” or share the lament of Augustine: “I have learned to love you too late!”

I appreciate the way Ortlund stated this because he reminds us that even godly Christians struggle with sin. Like Paul did. Ortlund does not leave it at that, however. He goes on to provide four steps for eliminating those nagging sins from our lives. The first of those steps is simple: hate it.

I have no reason to believe that Tony Gwynn hated chewing tobacco. Quite the contrary, in fact. I have no reason to believe that Lot hated the sin he was surrounded by in Sodom and Gomorrah. In fact, until his angelic visitors were in danger of being gang raped by an angry crowd we have no indication that he hated their sin at all. Even then Lot offered his virgin daughters to the mob. And when the time came for Lot to get out of town before its destruction, Lot “lingered” according to Genesis 19:16. Even after Lot and his family are dragged from the city by angels Lot pleads with them to let him go to the little city of Zoar rather than flee to the hills, and more than a few scholars and commentators think Lot was referring to the fact that Zoar’s sin was not as great as that of Sodom and Gomorrah. We are all good at rationalizing sin and thinking it is not as bad as someone else’s or some other sin we could commit.

The next thing Miller said must be done is to starve sin. Gwynn kept dipping. That means, necessarily, that he kept acquiring it, keeping it handy, having it at the ready when he wanted it. We do ourselves no favors when we say we want to stop a specific sin but we keep putting ourselves in situations to yield. Recovering alcoholics don’t hang out in bars, for example. Matthew 18:9 says that if the eye causes on to stumble the eye should be gouged out. That is a dramatic and unquestionably clear reiteration of the idea of starving sin.

Ortlund goes on to talk about cornering sin and overwhelming sin. That last part, thankfully, we need not do on our own. In fact, we cannot do it on our own. In Romans 7:18 Paul writes, “For I have the desire to do what is right, but not the ability to carry it out.” Bad news… The good news is in the previous chapter, where Paul writes, “But you have been set free from sin…” (6:22).

The point of this is not to pick on Tony Gwynn. I am just like him. To my knowledge he was not a believer. But his life, which ended with him continuing to use the product that killed him right up until the day that it killed him, is an excellent example of where we will go if we try to live life in our own strength. We will continue to do that which harms us, trading the ultimate consequence for the temporary pleasure. May Gwynn’s demise be a lesson to us that we must hate and starve our sin, yield to the work of the Savior in our lives and overwhelm that sin which so easily besets us.

June 22, 2015

One Unchanging Message

Dave Furman wrote an article entitled “The Same Gospel” that appeared in the May 2015 issue of Tabletalk. Furman is the senior pastor of a church in the United Arab Emirates. Based on his location and the description in his article, it seems that his is a culturally diverse church. His comments are specifically targeted at the unique challenges of cross-cultural ministry, by which I mean different ethnic cultures and nationalities. However, in light of recent research and efforts by those who claim to have the most effective approaches for reaching those of different generations within the same culture (such as Gen X in the U.S.), the principles he addresses are just as applicable there.

Early in his article Furman writes,

The gospel changes lives. Though there are certainly cultural differences between the West and the East, we must resist the temptation to change the gospel. If we do, and people respond, then we have won people not just to a “variation” of the gospel, but to a false gospel, which is no gospel at all. Only the gospel of God concerning His Son is the good news. We want people to hear God’s truth and not a deceitful version of the message. The truth is that our sin against a holy God deserves death and God’s judgment. It is only through faith in Christ’s sacrifice for sinners that we will be saved.

I have heard and read a number of arguments for “presenting” the gospel in a way that fits within the culture in which it is being presented. I have always been reluctant of these approaches however because (1) in almost every instance “presenting it” is code for the message itself, and (2) if the message itself is changed it is necessarily different than the message the Bible contains. Something cannot be both different and the same; that is simply not possible. Even many relativists would agree that this is an impossibility. So, if changing parts of the Bible message is necessary to make it palatable to someone then we have a problem. Let me put it this way: I do not like pecans. It’s not that I do not care for them, I really do not like them. At all. How ridiculous would it be then for someone to tell me they would fix a pecan pie for me but leave out the pecans? Whatever I ended up with may well be tasty, but it would not be pecan pie. That is exactly what happens when we alter the gospel message in some way in order to “overcome” or “avoid” elements of the gospel message that are unpleasant, undesirable or even offensive.

I have heard of this working various ways. In some instances, the idea of Jesus being God’s Son is inconsistent with the beliefs and traditions of some cultures, so that wording is changed. In some places, the idea of a blood sacrifice or the idea of sin is objectionable, so that is tweaked or removed. The idea that we are fallen sinners is not a popular notion. It does not create warm fuzzies for anyone. The reality that we cannot work our way to heaven or earn forgiveness of our sins is inconsistent with what we teach and believe in almost every other area of our lives. Why not change the message a little bit to make it more appealing? Some megachurch pastors have said they will not talk about sin because it offends people. Imagine that! The Bible says it will be an offense; the gospel message will be a stumbling block. Whether it is refusing to talk about sin, changing the message to “culturally appropriate” or using bells and whistles (read lights, loud music and silly activities) to attract people to church, the reality is simply that such methods are nothing other than false advertisement. Okay, perhaps the lights, loud music and silly games are not exactly false advertisement, but when we use gimmicks to bring people in so that we can try to slip in the truth for a few minutes in between the stuff we really attracted them with, are we not operating under false pretenses?

Vacation Bible School and other activities designed to appeal to children can fall victim to this approach, too. There is nothing wrong with games, crafts, songs and skits in and of themselves. When those things became the primary focus of a VBS, though, the church is doing a disservice both to itself and to the children it is endeavoring to reach. If a church wants to offer a babysitting service or activity time or drama camp, no problem. Do that–and call it what it is. If a church wants to have a Vacation Bible School, though, the emphasis and most important part of the schedule need to deal with the Bible. (I have been a part of many VBS programs over the years, as a participant, a leader and as a parent of participants. Some of these out-of-the-box programs are much better than others in this regard. Answers in Genesis, for example, produces a program that is very “meaty” and ensures, when properly utilized, that children are receiving solid, in-depth instruction in the Bible. Generally speaking, though, I think VBS curriculum is like school curriculum. By that, I mean that the ultimate success of the instruction will depend far more on the teachers than on the materials being used).

Furman later writes, this:

There is no better message that we can share. And so there is no need to change it, distort it, rewrite it, add to it, or subtract from it. If you adjust the gospel, you destroy it. Gospel revision always equals gospel reversal. In a culture that is different from ours and even in dangerous contexts, why would we ever want to risk our lives to proclaim news that has no power unto salvation?

One of the most incredible and powerful evidences of the truth of the gospel message is the transformation that occurred in the lives of the followers of Christ after His resurrection. Where there had been fear, there was boldness. Where there had been cowardice, there was courage. Where there had been doubt, there was certainty. If we are going to go to the time, effort, trouble and expense of sharing a message–whether to children in our own church or to unreached people groups halfway around the world–shouldn’t we at least make sure that we are sharing the truth, the whole truth and nothing but the truth? Why waste the time and effort for anything less?

Finally, not only would it be a foolish waste of time, effort and resources to share message that was less than the truth, it would be unauthorized. Here’s how Furman puts it:

Long ago, before there was television and the Internet, when a military had a big victory the king would send a herald into the town centers of the villages, and they would declare the good news and then run into the next town square proclaiming the victory. The herald had no ability to make the news but only to share what the king had declared. That’s what we are called to do: to take the same gospel as it is and proclaim the good news about what our King Jesus has already done.

May we resist all efforts to alter, abridge, tone down or otherwise manipulate the message that all have sinned, all need a Savior, and God has provided one through His Son–a Son who lived a perfect life, suffered a cruel and undeserved death, was buried, rose again three days later and lives now in heaven with God the Father. Wherever we go, wherever the gospel message may go, may it go in boldness and in truth, unapologetically and unashamedly.

June 4, 2013

Who We Are

WORLD Magazine columnist Janie B. Cheaney is a good writer. I enjoy reading her columns, and I often find them to be well thought out and even thought-provoking. I have also found, however, that I seem to disagree with her at least as often as not. Such is the case again with her column entitled “The heart of the matter” in the June 1, 2013 issue. The subtitle of her column is “Homosexuals and the rest of us sinners are who we are, and that is the problem.” Unfortunately, Cheaney’s premise is wrong, and she makes several assertions throughout her column that are wrong.

Cheaney begins her piece with a quick rundown of some of the more prominent conservatives to have endorsed same-sex marriage. But then she starts the second paragraph with this: “So-called gay rights (for lack of a better term) is the third great civil-rights movement of the last 60 years, and the most vexed. Here’s why: Racism challenged society, feminism challenged the family, but sexual identity challenges our very being.”

I have argued in this space on numerous previous occasions that gay rights is not a civil rights issue, and I was disappointed to say the least that Cheaney has jumped on board with those who say that it is. And the reason that it is not is because the conclusion of Cheaney’s explanation is exactly wrong. Sexual identity does not challenge our “very being.” Our “very being” is that we are human beings created in the image of God. If you want to go further than that we are male and female human beings. But that is the extent of our “very being.” The identities that have been created in recent years, neatly summed up in the letters “LGBTQ” are man-made labels to describe chosen behaviors and preferences, but they are not identities. Cheaney calls them “a range of identities with unfixed borders,” but that is wrong. The unfixed borders part of the statement may be accurate; after all, the Q stands for, depending on who you ask or where you look, “queer” or “questioning,” but means, in either instance, someone who is uncertain of which label fits them.

Still, labels is all they are, not identities. For one thing, identities do not change; the very beginning of the definition of “identity” is “the state or fact of remaining the same one or ones, as under varying aspects or conditions.” They are further not identities because those behaviors abbreviated by LGBTQ describe personal preferences and possibly personal behaviors, but not who a person is. The same is just as true of a heterosexual as a homosexual, by the way. Heterosexuality is defined as, “sexual feeling or behavior directed toward a person or persons of the opposite sex.” Neither feelings nor behaviors are identities. I am certainly not identifiable by my feelings–and thank God for that, by the way! Nor am I identified by my behaviors. You may be able to learn a lot about me by what I do, but none of those things are me. Many labels can be applied accurately to me–husband, father, son, brother, teacher, friend, fan, reader, writer, colleague, employee, and on and on I could go. But if you took away each and every one of those things you would not eliminate me; I would still exist if none of those labels were still applicable, and therefore none of those things are my identity.

Cheaney uses a man named Christopher Yuan as an example of her point. Of Yuan she writes, “His identity was inseparable from his sexuality, and by his early twenties he knew he couldn’t change it. He was and always would be gay.” Therein lies the problem, though; his sexuality is separable from his identity.

Cheaney goes on to explain that sin is a matter of who we are. She writes, “‘This is who I am’ unwittingly bears the human soul. Sin is not primarily a matter of what we do but who we are. We are liars, idolators, adulterers, hypocrites, perverts. That is why we lie (to ourselves especially), worship the creature rather than the Creator, stray from our true lover, pretend righteousness we don’t have, and misuse God’s gifts to our own selfish ends. But most of those sins can be hidden, even within the church. The homosexual’s peculiar burden is that his sin can’t be hidden.”

Let’s take that apart a bit. First of all, yes, we are sinners–all of us. Scripture makes it clear that every human is a sinner, and that every human is born a sinner. Sinner, therefore, could accurately be included as part of our identities. And while Scripture also makes it clear that to be guilty of any part of the law is to be guilty of all, that does not mean that every person has actually committed each act. James 2 makes it clear that when we break God’s law in any way we are guilty of it all. James 2:10-11 reads, “For whoever keeps the whole law but fails in one point has become accountable for all of it. For he who said, ‘Do not commit adultery,’ also said, ‘Do not murder.’ If you do not commit adultery but do murder, you have become a transgressor of the law” (ESV). That does not mean, though, that if I have committed adultery I might as well also commit murder. It does not mean that if I have lied I might as well also steal. It simply means that it does not matter which of God’s laws I break, by breaking them I fall short of the glory of God and am therefore unworthy to spend eternity in His presence (Romans 3:23).

However–and this is a very important however–the fact that I am a sinner does not mean I have free license to sin. By God’s grace my sins have been forgiven, and with the leading of the Holy Spirit and my yielding to Him I do not have to live a life of sin. Paul makes it very clear that just because God’s grace enables the forgiveness of sins does not give me freedom to sin (Romans 6). So yes, some sins can be hidden, and some much more easily than others, but the fact that we are born sinners does not mean we have to sin continually, and certainly does not mean that we should sin.

So, to my second point, Cheaney says that homosexuality cannot be hidden. I disagree. If homosexuality is a feeling, it can definitely be hidden. People hide their feelings all the time. If homosexuality is an action it can be both hidden and avoided. Plenty of people throughout history have engaged in homosexual activity and hidden it, I am sure. But the real point is that no one has to engage in homosexual behavior! As I have stated repeatedly, even if I were convinced that people are “born homosexual” (I am not) they still have the choice to practice homosexuality. And this is why gay rights is not a civil rights issue. People can not choose or change the color of their skin, and people cannot choose their gender, either (though with the “technology” available these days they can have it medically changed).

At the end of her column Cheaney quotes Yuan as coming to realization that the Bible does condemn homosexuality as a sin, and that God called him to be holy. “My identity was not ‘gay’ or ‘homosexual’ or even ‘heterosexual,’ for that matter. But my identity as a child of the living God must be in Jesus Christ alone,” she quoted Yuan. And in that regard Yuan is quite right. The problem is that she prefaced that by writing that God “was not calling him to be straight, but to be holy.” The problem is, one cannot be holy and be a practicing homosexual. If the Bible says homosexuality is a sin (it does) and the Bible says that Christians are to be holy because God is holy (it does) one cannot then argue that it is possible to be both holy and homosexual (it isn’t). Am I saying all homosexuals will go to hell? No, I’m not. Homosexuality is a sin, but God forgives the sins of those who ask, homosexuals included.

My point, though, is that Cheaney is wrong about homosexuality or heterosexuality being anyone’s identity. It simply is not. I also disagree wholeheartedly that homosexual is what anyone “just is.” Who we all are is fallen human beings, created in the image of God but born in sin and therefore ineligible for eternal life. My identity now, praise the Lord, is a sinner saved by grace. And that is a identity anyone can have who is willing to call on the name of the Lord.

March 20, 2012

Casting Stones

Filed under: Spiritual Growth — jbwatson @ 10:11 pm
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Several years ago I attended a conference for leaders of Christian ministries and non-profit organizations in Denver, Colorado. The event included several “big names” in Christian ministry for keynote addresses, including Ted Haggard, who at the time was the president of the National Association of Evangelicals.

Not long after that conference–two months or so, if I remember correctly–I was sitting in my office in Virginia. I do not remember if I read something in print or online, but I saw that Ted Haggard had allegedly been using crystal meth and meeting a homosexual escort for services for several years. I remember feeling instantly upset. I was angry that Mr. Haggard could have, just weeks earlier, stood before an audience of hundreds of Christian leaders to speak about leadership in Christian ministry and his own activities as the pastor of a very large church in Colorado Springs and the president of NAE, all while being engaged in that kind of sin. In fact, I seem to recall walking quickly down the hall to the office of the colleague who had attended the conference with me, showing him the report, and saying something like, “Can you believe this? He stood there in front of that crowd…” Blah, blah, blah. I’m sure I said something that clearly conveyed my judgmental attitude toward Mr. Haggard. I think I was still stewing about it when I returned to my office.

At some point not very long thereafter, though, I felt strongly convicted. I don’t believe I have ever heard the audible voice of the Lord, but my heart was definitely being pricked by the Holy Spirit at that moment. I remember, in the midst of my “righteous rage,” suddenly asking myself, “Who are you to judge him…as if you have never spoken to your staff or taught your Sunday school class with sin in your own life?”

Ouch! It was one of those less-than-pleasant moments of conviction, realizing that I am not nearly as great as I think I am. I, like so many other Christians, had a tendency to rank sin. Sure, I messed up from time to time. I might lose my temper, or be less than forthright at times, or neglect my prayer and Bible reading, or think impure thoughts on occasion, but I wasn’t using drugs, and I certainly wasn’t meeting a homosexual escort! But just like that the prompting of the Holy Spirit had shattered my comfortable opinion of myself. In no uncertain terms, I sensed the Lord telling me that yes, Ted Haggard was a sinner and he had messed up big time, but the same was true of me. Yes, from a human perspective, Mr. Haggard’s sins were more egregious than mine, but God doesn’t look at things from a human perspective.

James 2:10 makes it quite clear: “…whoever shall keep the whole law, and yet stumble in one point, he is guilty of all” (ESV). I had stumbled in more than one point, so what excuse did I have to be judging anyone else? An evangelist friend of mine illustrates this idea quite well by using the example of a window. If I break the window, it really doesn’t matter if I broke it with a pebble or a two-by-four, whether it cracked or shattered; the bottom line is that the window is broken. God’s law is the same. Whether I refuse to correct the cashier who gives me more change that I am owed, swipe a candy bar or rob a bank, it really doesn’t matter, because I have sinned, and I have come short of God’s righteousness (Romans 3:23).

Jesus made it clear to the religious leaders of his day that it is not a good idea to demand judgment for others’ sins when we have our own sin to worry about. With the woman who was caught in adultery the crowd demanded that she be stoned. Jesus sent the crowd scattering when He said that the person without sin should cast the first stone (John 8:6-8). The same principle is found when Jesus said that I ought not focus on removing the speck in another’s eye when there is a log in my own eye (Matthew 7:3-5, Luke 6:41-42).

I am not saying that Ted Haggard’s sin should be disregarded, nor am I suggesting that he should not be held accountable for his actions. Quite frankly, I was dismayed to learn that he left the counseling and accountability group that had been working with him before they felt he should in order to start a new church. But the real point is that I have no right to assume an attitude of righteous indignation and demand justice for Ted Haggard–or anyone else. After all, based on the standard Jesus set, I have no right to cast stones.

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