Flatlander Faith

Apologetics from an Anabaptist perspective

Tag Archives: salvation

Paul, the master apologist

Being an apologist for the Christian faith may sound like expressing our regrets for being Christians. The true meaning is quite the opposite; it means being able to talk about our faith without fear or embarrassment, and to always be ready to “give an answer” (apologia) to those who ask about it.

The apostle Paul believed that the salvation that had been freely given to him made him a debtor to others. He owed it to the civilized and the uncivilized, the learned and the ignorant. (Romans 1:14) to tell them the good news of salvation . His faith in Jesus Christ empowered him to speak and write without shame or reticence (verses 15 & 16).

In order to fulfill this obligation he became all things to all people, able to relate to all people, no matter what their religion, ethnic origin or social status.

He used examples from the popular culture of the day to describe how a Christian should live. The Olympic Games had been held for over 800 years at the time of his ministry. So Paul spoke of Christian life as a foot race, an effort to reach the goal; and he spoke of the training, discipline and temperance that were required of an athlete.“They do it to obtain a temporal crown, we an eternal.”

He spoke of wrestling, explaining that our opponents in the wrestling match of life are not other people, but spirits and powers from the realm of darkness.

The Roman Empire extended over southern Europe, North Africa and Eastern Asia. Roman soldiers were seen everywhere, ready to maintain order. Paul spoke of the discipline required of a soldier and how he must not entangle himself with things that would hinder his service.

In Athens he was brought before the philosopher judges on suspicion of introducing a new god. Athens had many gods but the law forbade anyone trying to add more. Paul began by mentioning the altar to an unknown god and saying that he was just explaining who that unknown god was. He then proceeded to piece together ideas and quotations that were familiar to the Epicureans and Stoics, leading up to a declaration that God would judge the world by one who had been resurrected from the dead. The men sitting in judgement had followed his reasoning up to this point, but now some mocked and others wanted more time to think about what they had heard. One of the judges believed, along with a few other Athenians.

Paul did not try to tell Gentiles that they first needed to learn to think like Jews to understand the story of salvation. He made himself familiar with the Gentile culture and used everyday things to explain Christian faith and life.

We don’t have to immerse ourselves in pop culture in order to follow Paul’s example. Yet, if we hold ourselves completely aloof from the people around us, how are we going to be able to talk to them? A good place to start would be to ask them questions, show an interest in their lives, rather than hoping they will be interested in us.

Peter writes that we should be ready to answer everyone that asks us the reason of the hope that we have. (1 Peter 3:15). Often we will catch subtle hints that people want to know, but don’t quite know where to begin or how to ask. Most people have preconceived ideas about Christians and will try to fit us into the framework of what they think they know. Here is an opportunity, not to unload a long explanation, but to tell a story or make some allusion to how the longings expressed in popular culture are in fact groping towards answers that can only come from faith in Jesus Christ.

Apologetics is best done by building a relationship with others and treating them with respect. We are not teachers with all the answers, just ordinary people with insights gained from our relationship with Jesus and with fellow believers.

Telling about our failures and how we learned from them will put us on the same level as others and make them feel that the kind of Christian faith we have is not something beyond their reach.

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What is a miracle?

canola-field-3436417_640A few weeks ago farmers in our area seeded many fields with tiny, round, black Canola seeds. Before long green leaves appeared and grew large. Then flower spikes grew upwards and little yellow flowers appeared. Now we are seeing golden yellow fields like the one in the picture above.

That little black seed contained coding that enabled it to take nutrients and moisture from the soil and turn them into a plant many times larger than itself. Each flower will form a seed that is an exact copy of the seed from which the plant grew.

Is that a miracle? No; it is a predictable result of putting that seed in the ground. Do I  comprehend how the seed is able to do that? I can explain what happens, the why is beyond me. Only God could build a seed with life in itself and the ability to reproduce itself.

Have you ever thought about how much rain must fall from the sky to produce a crop? One centimetre of rain on one hectare of land amounts to 100 tonnes of water. Canola plants need 20 cm of rain between seeding and harvest to make a good crop. That is 2,000 tonnes of water per hectare. All that water is held in clouds in the sky and delivered to where it is needed.

Is that a miracle? No, it is simply another of the wonders of cration. Solomon described the cycle of water several thousand years ago: “All the rivers run into the sea; yet the sea is not full; unto the place from whence the rivers come, thither they return again” (Ecclesiastes 1:7).

bread-1281053_640

Jesus fed thousands of people with just a few loaves of bread. I expect the loaves looked much like the ones in the picture above, as housewives in Israel weren’t using bread pans back then.

I expect that it was done so simply as to be almost imperceptable. Jesus broke a large piece off a loaf and gave it to one of the disciples. When he went to break off another pece to give to another disciple the loaf in his hand was about as big as before he tore anything from it. The disciples had the same experience. They kept breaking smaller pieces off the large piece in their hands and there was always more to break off. After everyone had eaten there was more bread left than there had been at the beginning. Now that was a miracle.

Jesus could have asked for a thousand loaves of bread to appear in the midst of the crowd. Think of the tumult as each one tried to grab some for himself. That was not His way. He blessed the bread and broke it to give to the people and it was clear to all that He was the giver. Most miracles occur quietly, almost unseen.

A few years ago Doctor Kevin Dautremont wrote in his blog of such a miracle. A young man had been a Christian, but became angry and bitter when he developed cancer and had to have one of his legs amputated. He turned away from God and from his family.

He was in palliative care and near the end when Doctor Kevin was called to see him. The young man’s voice had previously been almost inaudible, now he asked in a clear strong voice for help to stand. He stood on his remaining leg, looked at his mother, smiled and said “I’ve been with Jesus. And we were running.” Then he laid back on the bed, closed his eyes, and died.

Doctor Kevin asked: “Is there a greater miracle than a heart changed? A soul saved? A prodigal returned to the loving arms of His Father?”

You can read the full text of Doctor Kevin’s blog article here.

Truth or heresy?

The Roman Catholic Church endeavoured to destroy all evidence of the faith of those whom they persecuted. Nevertheless, much can be learned from their accusations against those they called heretics.

For instance, here is the accusation of Peter of Cluny against Peter de Bruys: “They deny that infants who have not yet attained the years of understanding can be saved by the baptism of Christ; and say that the faith of another cannot help those who cannot use their own faith; for, according to their view, not the faith of another, but one’s own faithsaves with baptism, because the Lord says: He that believeth and is baptized shall be saved; but he that believeth not shall be damned.”

What shall we say of one who considers such a statement to be heresy?

Spiritual mourning

Blessed are they that mourn: for they shall be comforted.

There is an obvious way of understanding these words. We encounter sorrow and loss during our lives that are cause for mourning, and we can find comfort in Jesus that is not available anywhere else.

  • But these seemingly simple words also contain a far deeper meaning:We need to mourn for our own sins, like David: “Against thee, thee only, have I sinned, and done this evil in thy sight: that thou mightest be justified when thou speakest, and be clear when thou judgest.” (Psalm 51)We need to mourn for conditions in the church: “For first of all, when ye come together in the church, I hear that there be divisions among you; and I partly believe it” (The apostle Paul to the church at Corinth). “Nevertheless I have somewhat against thee, because thou hast left thy first love” (The message in the book of Revelations to the church at Ephesus). Jesus wept over Jerusalem.
  • We should grieve for Christians who are separated from a truly spiritual church fellowship. “Woe to them that are at ease in Zion, and trust in the mountain of Samaria. . . but they are not grieved for the affliction of Joseph” (Amos 6:1-6). We often hear the first part of verse one and think that is the message. But God gave Amos a burden for those in the apostate kingdom of Israel, led by the tribes of Manasseh and Ephraim, sons of Joseph, because they were separated from the true worship of God in the temple at Jerusalem. God sent Hosea to Israel with the message that God sorrowed for wayward Israel just as Hosea sorrowed for his wayward wife.
  • We should grieve for conditions in the world we live in, not only for those in faraway lands, but also for the people who are our near neighbours. “For all the law is fulfilled in one word, even in this; Thou shalt love thy neighbour as thyself” (Galatians 5:14). “ But whoso hath this world’s good, and seeth his brother have need, and shutteth up his bowels of compassion from him, how dwelleth the love of God in him?” (1 John 3:17).
  • The apostle Paul said “For I know that in me (that is, in my flesh,) dwelleth no good thing.” This leaves us no ground to think of ourselves as better than others. We cannot serve the Lord with that kind of thought in our minds. First, we must grieve for our sinfulness, weakness and inadequacy. Then we see others as being the same as we are. We are in a world ruled by hostile spiritual forces and we have no strength in ourselves to overcome those forces. Our only hope is Jesus Christ.

“The LORD is nigh unto them that are of a broken heart; and saveth such as be of a contrite spirit” (Psalm 34:18). Isn’t that the meaning of the beatitude quoted above?

“They that sow in tears shall reap in joy. He that goeth forth and weepeth, bearing precious seed, shall doubtless come again with rejoicing, bringing his sheaves with him” (Psalm 126:5-6).

No room for boasting

Blessed are the poor in spirit: for theirs is the kingdom of heaven.

For we brought nothing into this world” (1 Timothy 6:7). The Apostle was talking about material things, but I don’t think it does his words any violence to say that no one of us came into this world with any pre-qualifications for salvation. In that respect, we are all equally impoverished.

Perhaps we had parents who were genuine Christians in word and in life, and grandparents and great-grandparents. And they all belonged to a church that was firmly grounded on the unadulterated gospel of Jesus-Christ. That’s wonderful. It’s something for which to be thankful.

But it’s not something to boast about. Their faith is not transferable. I get no credit for the faith of someone else; my salvation is solely based on my relationship with Jesus Christ.

I was not saved because I was “raised in the church.” That gave me an opportunity to hear the gospel. But many others have had the same advantage and spurned it. There are many who grew up with the light of the gospel shining all around them who are now walking in darkness.

Others who grew up in the darkness of this world are now walking in the light. And are probably much more thankful for it than those for whom the light has been an everyday reality as far back as they can remember.

It is well and good for those who have been raised in Christian homes to be thankful. But there is only a fine line between thankfulness and boastfulness. When we talk much about our Christian heritage and think that it sets us apart from the common run of humanity, we are no longer poor in spirit. And to those around us who may be seeking for spiritual light, we are apt to be more of a hindrance than a help.

For who maketh thee to differ from another? and what hast thou that thou didst not receive? now if thou didst receive it, why dost thou glory, as if thou hadst not received it?” (1 Corinthians 4:7).

The spiritual riches that we enjoy are not our own. We did not inherit them. We did not acquire them by wisdom, by doing the right things, or by any other means at our disposal. These riches came from admitting that we were impoverished, blind and unable to help ourselves. Let us rejoice and be glad in them. But let’s forget the boasting.

Follow on to know the Lord

A teenage girl is convinced that she is pregnant and about to become the mother of baby Jesus, even though her mother, her doctor and an ultrasound all assure her that she is not pregnant at all. Why is this news? I suppose the media think this is one more way of poking fun at Christians, even though no real Christian would believe such a thing. Wouldn’t it be much better to pull a veil of respectful silence over the poor young lady and her delusion?

Granted, there are some credulous people who claim to see the face of Jesus in a blotch on the wall and are convinced it is a sign of something or other. Even if Jesus said He was not in the business of giving signs.

A lady of our acquaintance called us and ecstatically announced that she had been about to light a cigarette when she heard an almost audible voice saying “Stop!” She was convinced that our Lord had singled her out for a special touch of His grace. But she went ahead and lit that cigarette and many more after it.

A man had an unmistakable message from God in his younger years, calling him to repent. He never did repent, yet he went to his grave believing that he had a special relationship with God, because God had once spoken to him.

The missing element in all these accounts is the failure to follow on to know God. Visions, dreams and voices could be genuine attempts by God to get our attention. But they do us no good if we do not follow on to know Him.

God does not save us in our sins. He asks us to repent so He can forgive us and set us free from the clutch of our sins. He is not trying to take all the pleasures of life away from us, He wants us to exchange the pleasures that have painful consequences for everlasting joy. He promises to give us a more abundant life. But we have to follow on to truly know Him to experience that abundant life.

Raised eyebrow Christians

I was going to write supercilious, but that’s just a fancy latin word meaning raised eyebrows. So I decided to speak plain English.

There was a time in my mid-twenties when I was quite sure that everyone who claimed to be born again thought they were better than anyone else. Then there came a time in my life when everything was going wrong, at work and in my personal life. I wanted to run away and start over somewhere else, but I had already tried that a few years earlier and it didn’t work. My troubles were my own doing and there didn’t seem to be a way out. I mulled this over and over in my mind. There is much more to the story, but I finally came to the point of believing that God was real and I was a sinner. I prayed for forgiveness and for help to find a way through my troubles.

The only immediate change I was aware of was that the turmoil was gone and I believed I could find a way through my troubles. Over the next few weeks I realized that more had changed, my attitude, the things that I thought were important and the things I wanted to read. Eventually it sunk in that this was what the Bible called being born again.

Years have passed. After many years of being a born-again Christian, I see that I am also in danger of being one of those raised eyebrow Christians who thinks he is better than others.The gospel is so plain and simple, why can’t they grasp it? Why do the short-lived pleasures of the world have such a grip on them?

Why do I find it so hard to remember that I was once like they are? Even the apostle Paul needed to remind himself what kind of man he had been before he met the Lord on the road to Damascus. He reminded others, too, of what they had been: “Such were some of you.”

I need to remember that if it was possible for me to be saved, it is possible for anyone. I need to communicate that to others, not just by words but by attitude and action. I am not made of any better material than others, they are not made of inferior material, the only difference is forgiveness through the blood of Jesus Christ and the guidance of the Holy Spirit.

And I need to ditch the Christian jargon. It has become so familiar, but there was a time when it was an unknown language that made me feel that Christians though they were above me.  I don’t want to make someone else feel that way.

Don’t second guess your repentance

To repent is to rethink, or change your mind. In religious terms, repentance toward God means to reconsider the way you have been living, ask God to forgive you and resolve to live differently with the help of the Holy Spirit.

This is a complete change in a person’s way of thinking and is not something that one can decide to do upon a whim. The first step in repentance is to feel the need to repent and that must come from God Himself. People live the way they do because they believe this is the best way to get what they want out of life. It isn’t until the Holy Spirit opens their eyes to see that all the trouble they have encountered in life is the result of bad decisions they have made that it is even possible to consider living differently.

Feeling sorry for what you have done is not repentance. That is, it does not automatically lead to changing course and doing things differently. Yet feeling sorry for what you have done is the first step toward repentance. It is important to distinguish between feeling sorry for yourself and feeling sorry for what you have done.

There are a few places in the Bible which speak of repentance in the simpler sense of a change of mind. Esau sold his birthright to his younger brother for one meal, and doesn’t seem to have grasped the consequences until Jacob received from his father the blessing due to the firstborn son. The Bible says “For ye know how that afterward, when he would have inherited the blessing, he was rejected: for he found no place of repentance, though he sought it carefully with tears” (Hebrews 12:17). I believe the “place of repentance” spoken of here does not refer to repentance toward God. Esau just wanted his father to change his mind and give him the blessing he thought he deserved, but it was too late.

There are verses in the Old Testament that say that God repented. This does not mean that God was sorry for something He had done, or intended to do, but that God changed His mind because of changing circumstances, either the rebellion of mankind or the entreaties of one of His servants.

The apostle Paul speaks of “repentance not to be repented of.” When we have repented of a life of sin and turned around to follow God, it would be folly to once again change our mind and go back to our former life.

Verla’s first prayer

Verla didn’t know what to think when a group of Mennonites came to sing for her husband. Neither did they for that matter; they did not know the people in this house.  However, someone had suggested they sing for this dying man and so they did. Verla and the children stayed in another room until the strangers left. They came back several times before cancer took her husband and she lost a little of her uncertainty.

When the Mennonite congregation had Vacation Bible School the next summer, they invited Verla’s children and they went. The connection to these people grew a little stronger, friendships began to form.

One day Verla noticed a sadness in one of her new friends and asked why. Her friend said she had been thinking about the future and about how she and Verla would not be together in heaven unless something changed. Verla asked what she needed to do to change that and her friend explained a little about repentance and the way to find forgiveness from God.

“I’ve never prayed in my life, I don’t know how,” Verla responded. “Is it OK if I just call God on the phone?”

Putting her fist beside her face like a phone receiver, with thumb and little finger extended, she began: “Hello God, this is Verla. I’m sorry, I’m sorry,” and began to confess the things she had done which she knew were wrong, finally breaking down in sobs. When the sobbing had ended, Verla knew that God had heard, and answered.

Now if Verla was going to be a Christian, there was not going to be anything half-hearted about it. None of her clothes were fit for a Christian to wear, so she asked the sisters of the congregation to help her make a whole new wardrobe. The change in Verla’s life was almost too much at first for the four teenagers in her household, but gradually they accepted the change in their mother.

Her daughter began to pray for a new dad. Someone suggested that she should rather pray for a husband for herself. Yet the time came when Abe, a lonely widower whose children were all grown, proposed to Verla. Her children were afraid that this tired, soft-spoken old man would be no match for their fiery mother.

Yet the marriage was a happy one. Abe was rejuvenated, learning to laugh and enjoy life more than ever before. Verla relaxed in the security of Abe’s love and became a gentler and happier person than she had been before. (The daughter did find a husband, too, or rather was found by him.)

Abe & Verla’s happiness lasted 12 years, then Alzheimer’s took Verla away from Abe. Abe died two years later, but Verla lasted eight more years. She quietly breathed her last a week ago and the funeral was three days ago. The minister who had baptized her 35 years ago came to preach the funeral sermon. The children from both sides shared many happy memories, and many humourous happenings, that had marked the marriage of their mother and father. All because one day Verla decided to call God on the phone.

The fulness of times

Solomon’s reign was the golden era of Israel.  All the promises of God were fulfilled in the natural sense.  The son of David built the glorious temple and God showed His acceptance by sending fire from heaven to consume the sacrifices.  Solomon’s reign was a reign of peace over all the territory promised by God to the descendants of Abraham, Isaac and Jacob.  News of the wisdom and wealth of Solomon spread everywhere.

Israel never again regained the glory it had known in Solomon’s time.  The kingdom was divided, there followed good kings and bad kings, the people often tended to idolatry.  Through it all there remained a belief that this land had been given them by God and the temple remained the spiritual focal point of the people of God.

Finally the accumulation of disobedience and sin was too much and God permitted the people to be taken into captivity and the temple to be destroyed.  The prophets had foretold this devastation, but they also told of a time of restoration.  Often these promises included the Gentiles in God’s plan.

The people returned from Babylon, rebuilt Jerusalem and rebuilt the temple.  According to the Babylonian Talmud, the new temple lacked five things found in Solomon’s temple: the Ark of the Covenant; the sacred fire sent from God to consume the sacrifices; the Shekinah or pillar of smoke and fire showing God’s presence; the spirit of holiness (or prophecy); the Urim and Thummin by which God had made known His will.  Yet the temptation to worship the gods of the heathen was gone and the true worship of God was restored.

Zerubbabel was the first governor after the return from Babylon.  He was of the lineage of David, but could not be king because Judah was now a vassal state of Persia.  The lineage of David’s descendants was faithfully recorded in expectation of the day when a son of David would again sit on the throne.  Shortly after the return, the canon of Old Testament Scripture was completed with the inclusion of the histories recorded by Ezra and the prophecies of the last prophets.

The destruction of the temple had left a void in the worship system of the Jewish people.  Synagogues appeared during or shortly after the Babylonian exile and have continued ever since.  There is no command in the OT for weekly worship, nor instruction on how to organize or conduct such meetings.  Synagogue is a Greek word that does not appear in the Old Testament, except in Psalm 74:8 of the AV where it is used to translate a Hebrew word.  The synagogue was a place for weekly meetings on the Sabbath day when the Scriptures were read and expounded.

Other events happened on the world stage that caused great distress to the Jewish people.  Alexander the Great conquered a territory extending from Greece and Macedonia south to Egypt and eastward to northern India and Afghanistan.  He established many new cities in the conquered territories, all named Alexandria.  Kandahar, Afghanistan was one of those cities and appears to retain some trace of his name.  Trade throughout the empire was stimulated and Greek became the common language of trade.  Upon Alexander’s death, his empire was divided in three and ongoing wars between the competing empires often involved battles for control of Judah.

During this time, Jewish leaders saw the need for a Bible in the Greek language and 70 scholars gathered in Alexandria, Egypt to make this translation.  This is called the translation of the seventy, or Septuagint, and is the Bible quoted by Jesus and the apostles in the New Testament.

The next great empire to rise was Rome.  Julius Caesar conquered southern Europe, including Greece, and extended the empire as far south as Egypt.  The Greek language remained the international language of commerce throughout the Roman Empire.  Rome added something new that enhanced trade and travel — a well-developed road system connecting all parts of the empire and rigorous law enforcement that made trade and travel much safer than ever before.

Now the “fulness of times” had come.  The stage was set for the appearance of the Messiah, the true Son of David who would establish an eternal spiritual kingdom that would never end.  This was not the Messiah the Jewish leadership was looking for, yet the evidence was all there in the OT prophecies for those who could see.  Now was the time for the fulfilment of the salvation of which the OT sacrifices had only been a symbol and for the blood of the spotless Lamb of God to sprinkle the heavenly mercy seat.

When this was done and the earthly temple and kingdom had again been taken out of the way, the good news of salvation could be carried to people throughout the Roman Empire.  A common language existed, there was a translation of the  Old Testament Scriptures  in that language and a protected road system to facilitate travel.  A system of weekly meetings for reading and expounding the Scriptures in the synagogues became the familiar model for worship services of the early church.

So many events, which had seemed to be meaningless tragedies at the time, are now seen as the hand of God preparing the way for the coming of His Son into the world, the spread of the gospel and the establishment of the church.

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