Is it a sin?

“Is it a sin?”

I’ve heard this question delivered with defiance and with sincere desire to understand. In this vein sometimes one hears, “Is it a sin, or just not recommended?” The question can apply to almost any behavior (or lack thereof) and is typically trotted out in discussion about something different than your conversation partner’s present practice.

“Is it a sin?” is a loaded question both in terms of what it reveals about a perspective too many of us unconsciously share, and in what it suggests may be behind the perspective of the person to whom the question is posed.

But let me put it this way: sin is anything less than the perfect glory of God (Romans 3:23), so yes, doing anything Jesus wouldn’t do is a sin. However, there is therefore now no condemnation to those who are in Christ Jess….shall we continue to sin that grace may abound? God forbid!

So what am I saying? We are swimming in sins of a variety of kinds, some of ignorance, some of weakness, and some of our own deliberate fault; praise be to God that we have forgiveness of these many sins through the sacrifice of His Son on our behalf. So, now that I have no obligation to earn my salvation or to try and improve God’s opinion of me, I am now free to diligently labor to imitate Jesus ever more faithfully over time, as He leads and convicts me, and enabled to do so by the presence and leading of His Spirit in my new man. We are privileged to have His help in gradually re-fashioning our selves back into the image in which we were originally created.

I thought about it this morning, when once again God woke me up 30 minutes before my alarm, and I sensed He was calling me to come spend time with Him. Yesterday, I started praying but stayed in bed… there is this complex mixture of truths that I reflected on as I sat on the edge of my bed and then shuffled downstairs. On the one hand, I realize that God is calling me to live up to the potential for which He created me, and the circumstances of my life will be altered as a result of how faithful or unfaithful I am to His ways. On the other hand, I thought about how I feel when I open my kids bedroom door at 6:30 am and they moan and stretch and then rise to go swim… my feelings are entirely loving and positive–there is no condemnation or impatience in my heart, just love for them–and I pondered the truth that this is how God feels about me as well. And some mornings because I both want what is best for them, but also have compassion on them, I want to just let them sleep…as we did this morning. And I know that this too is what God is like: 

Psalm 103:13–14 

“As a father shows compassion to his children,
so the Lord shows compassion to those who fear him.
For he knows our frame; he remembers that we are dust.”

God’s Holy Days

It is worthwhile to ponder why God created set times for offering worship, appointed times for meeting together, regular appointments to celebrate, remember and anticipate His redemptive action in history. I suspect it has a lot to do with a strange turn of words in Exodus 24:3. The people of Israel stand at the foot of Mt. Sinai, where Moses has gone up to meet with God, and now returns to share with the people God’s instructions for living, and they reply, “We will do and we will hear.”

“Practice is to Judaism what belief is to Christianity. That is not to say that Judaism doesn’t have dogma or doctrine. It is rather to say that for Jews, the essence of the thing is a doing, an action. Your faith might come and go, but your practice ought not waver. (Indeed, Judiasm suggests that the repeating of the practice is the best way to ensure that a doubter’s faith will return.) This is perhaps best explained by a midrash (a rabbinic commentary on a biblical text). This midrash explains a curious turn of phrase in the Book of Exodus: “Na’aseh v’nishma,” which means “we will do and we will hear” or “we will do and we will understand,” a phrase drawn from Exodus 24, in which the people of Israel proclaim “All the words that God has spoken, we will do and we will hear.” The word order, the rabbis have observed, doesn’t seem to make any sense: How can a person obey God’s commandment before they hear it? But the counterintuitive lesson, the midrash continues, is precisely that one acts out God’s commands, one does things unto God, and eventually, through the doing, one will come to hear and understand and believe. In this midrash, the rabbis have offered an apology for spiritual practice, for doing.”[1]

One of the reasons liturgy, prayerbooks, and appointed times are so important to us is that they shepherd us through the ups and downs of a life filled with unknowns, with difficulties, with times that don’t make sense to us from our limited perspective. Not only do they root us in the practices that will envelop, guide and protect us, which will eventually shed light on precisely those things that perplex us, but they also work to remove from us the individuality so prevalent in North American Christianity.

When your doing is rooted in community—everyone I know and love is praying these prayers with me, my ancestors (spiritual and/or literal), my friends, my descendants will practice these same disciplines—it reminds that you are a part of something bigger than yourself and your obsessions. There are times when you benefit from the faith of those around you, even when you might not be sure if you could muster it up yourself. Indeed, Mark 2:5 tells us that it was due to the faith of his friends that Jesus healed the paralytic lowered down through the roof.

The Fall Festivals are upon us. To many Christians this is an unfamiliar phrase, yet what we often consider the Jewish holidays are never so called in Scripture. Rather, God declares: “These are My appointed times, the times of the LORD that you will proclaim as sacred assemblies” (Leviticus 23:2 HCSB). If, indeed, as Paul wrote in the letter to the believers in Ephesus we, “are no longer foreigners and strangers, but fellow citizens with the saints, and members of God’s household” then it is fitting for us as “children of Abraham”[2] to join Israel in showing up for the appointments God has set.

No, we cannot completely fulfill these festivals, for each included sacrifices and offerings that were to be given at the Temple, yet we can observe and remember them, seeking to find in them the truths God intended for His people to recall and to inhabit.


[1] Lauren Winner. Mudhouse Sabbath: An Invitation to a Life of Spiritual Discipline. Brewster, MA: Paraclete Press, 2003. pp. ix-x.

[2] Galatians 3:6-9

Proverbs 31:10-31

I worked for a couple months at the beginning of this year to translate Proverbs 31:10-31, because I wasn’t entirely satisfied with any of the existing English translations. The following is the result.

Who can find a valorous wife?

  Her worth is far beyond jewels.

Her husband trusts her unreservedly,

  and lacks no good thing.

She brings him profit, not loss,

  all the days of her life.

She seeks out wool and flax,

  and delights in the work of her hands.

Like a merchant’s ship,

  she brings food from afar.

Rising while yet dark,

  she prepares food for her household,

  and portions for her maids.

She considers a field and buys it;

  from the fruit of her labors she plants a garden.

She wraps her waist with a will,

  and flexes her shoulders to the task.

She perceives that her business thrives;

  her lamp never flags at night.

She sets her hand to the loom,

  and her fingers ply the spindle.

She’s open-handed with the poor,

  and extends her arms to the needy.

She has no fear of snow for her household,

  for all her charges are doubly cloaked.

She fashions her coverings,

  her garments of linen and purple.

Her husband is known in the city gates,

  where he dwells among the elders of the land.

She makes clothing and sells it,

  and offers aprons to the merchant.

She is clothed with strength and dignity;

  she can laugh at the days to come.

She opens her mouth with wisdom,

  and the law of steadfast love is on her tongue.

She watches the ways of her household,

  and does not eat the bread of idleness.

Her children respect and bless her;

  her husband also, and he praises her:

“Many women have done well,

  but you shine amongst them!

Charm is misleading and beauty soon fades,

  but a woman who fears the Lord shall be praised.

Acclaim the fruit of her hands!

  May her works praise her in the gates!

Religion or Relationship?

Many today attack religion thinking Christianity is a relationship, and it certainly is! But this is like saying government is bad because our government is bad, but government is a gift of God. The same is true of religion. To say, “Jesus trumps religion,” uses the word “religion” differently than does the New Testament. All other religions disappoint because they are idolatrous and twist the worshipper into the shape of the created rather than the Creator.

James 1:26-27 mentions both vain and true religion. We ought to oppose vain religion, and embrace true religion. Only the life-encompassing pattern of worship prescribed by God will fulfill.

The religion vs. relationship choice, just as the love vs. law choice, is false because all relationships require structure. True religion is the prescribed form of a relationship with God, and an essential part of His plan for the transformation of sin-sickened souls. True religion is not self-defined, but follows a pattern outlined by Scripture.

Imagine, for example, attempting to sustain your marriage without submitting to its form(s). “Honey, it’s okay that I’m going out to dinner with this other lady, because I don’t actually have a relationship with her; it’s you I love.” Well, you won’t have a relationship for long! It’s the same way with God. “God, I’m going to approach you with yoga and marijuana; I’m sure you’ll be okay with it, because it’s still you I’m pursuing.” Sorry, that’s the ways and means of idolatrous worship.

The habits of a religion reveal and affirm what we believe and whom we serve. It is “the binding tendency in every man to dedicate himself with his whole heart to the true God or an idol” (F. Nigel Lee). Religion inaugurates, declares, represents, and rehearses covenantal bonds. We submit to or cooperate with the terms of a religion in our way of life—consciously or unconsciously—because we cannot escape having been made in the image of God: created to worship and serve. We will therefore, either worship God according to the pattern of His character, or worship any number of alternatives (including ourselves) according to the pattern of their emphases.

The word “religion” comes from the Latin word religare which means “to bind” or “to tie.” The root of the word is lig-, from which we get our words “ligament” and “ligature.” Though light and easy there is a yoke for Christ followers: a binding tie which serves to guide us. There is a reason we are servants; we are not free but a doulos (bondservant). We are not our own; we were bought with a price.

The relationship we have with Christ is founded upon a covenantal/judicial word-act (not incidentally compared to marriage in Eph 5:31-32), and as a covenant it comes with terms. Terms we cannot satisfy on our own, therefore they were satisfied for us, in order that “the righteous requirement of the law might be fulfilled in us, who walk not according to the flesh but according to the Spirit.”

Assuredly, Christianity is a relationship with Christ. But there is no relationship with Christ outside of his covenant promises and action. A covenant is, by definition, a relationship established upon certain bonds, and each covenantal relationship has behaviors that are required for participants. Our covenant with God depends upon His faithfulness alone, but our covenantal obligations are in no way thus diminished. We now pursue them with freedom rather than condemnation, but our release from condemnation does not remove the goodness of the way prescribed by our Suzerain (see http://www.fivesolas.com/suzerain.htm).

“I am the way, the truth, and the life” indicates that in the worship of Jesus one gets true religion: a container for your worship, attitudes, thoughts, and practices that will produce blessing if it is followed and cursing if it is thwarted. Even though it is good for image-bearers to follow this religion, they cannot thus earn their salvation. However, on the other side of having been justified, the religion of the Jesus Way (described from Genesis to Revelation) is a good and perfect gift that we embrace to our benefit, and as a necessary part of the abundant life God has designed and described. Grace is opposed to earning but not to effort and the variety of efforts God prescribes to us as containing life is true religion: the only one that will satisfy.

There are only two religions: Christianity or Paganism. Paganism comes in many forms, but they all boil down to a rejection of the Sovereign Authority of God and a rejection of His religion: a covenantal tie to Him that acknowledges His all-encompassing Rule, and enjoins upon us a way of relating to and serving Him. To reject religion as bad is to deny one of God’s gifts, and to inescapably embrace a syncretistic blend of His way and our preferences: a new gnosticism which inevitably devolves into idolatry.

Nehemiah or Noah?

Dear Brothers and Sisters,

Our country is burning; we ought to have this degree of urgency: the home (country) you live in is burning—not smoldering, burning.

If you don’t think so, read this article from the New York Times: Bigotry, the Bible and the Lessons of Indiana.  Note these frightening words, “…church leaders must be made to take homosexuality off the sin list.”  Did you catch that? Not ‘must be persuaded,’ but “must be made.” Compelled. Forced. Your children are already being labeled bigots; not will be some day—are now being ostracized and the society prepared to marginalize and eradicate them in the near future.

And it’s not as if this article is alone, nor even rare…this is the growing consensus—even amongst a rapidly growing number of Christians (and so-called Christians).

What must we do? First, we must recognize where we are, and just as importantly, how we got here. To that end, please read this article by Douglas Wilson: “Our Transgressive Daisy Chain.”

That article is a desperately needed call to clarity and to action. So what do we do?  I believe the best plan of action I’ve yet seen can be digested in the following series of articles (also a book) by Joel McDurmon: “Restoring American One County at a Time.”

The above should coalesce all faithful believers around this common cause. Listen! God will raise up either a Nehemiah or a Noah. Would you not rather see the walls rebuilt than the place destroyed?

Finally, note these words from the NYT article, “Then there’s the 2014 book “God and the Gay Christian” [sic] by Matthew Vines, who has garnered significant attention and drawn large audiences for his eloquent take on what the New Testament —which is what evangelicals draw on and point to — really communicates.”

Did you catch that? What is the real origin of the Church’s failure? The bifurcation of the Bible, and only by Recovering the Unity of the Bible will we be able to lay a foundation capable of bearing the load of the walls in such desperate need of repair.

How did the repair of Jerusalem’s walls begin? Nehemiah received a message similar to the one you’ve just read. “The remnant…is in great trouble and shame. The wall of Jerusalem is broken down, and its gates are destroyed by fire.”

May we respond like Nehemiah:

“As soon as I heard these words I sat down and wept and mourned for days, and I continued fasting and praying…”O LORD GOD of heaven, the great and awesome God who keeps covenant and steadfast love with those who love him and keep his commandments… let your ear be attentive to the prayer of your servant, and to the prayer of your servants who delight to fear your name, and give success to your servant today, and grant him mercy in the sight of this man.”

Nehemiah wept, mourned, prayed, and then took action. I have shown you a mirror, do not walk away and forget what you saw, but be a doer of the Word, not a hearer only.

Quiet mid-western town's girl's golf and softball coach tweets.

The Process of Discipleship: Invitation to Imitation

I was praying this morning asking God to show me His divine design for discipleship from Scripture. In other words, “Lord what is your process for discipleship?”

Here’s what I heard: Invitation to Imitation.

Where do we see Invitation?

Psalm 34:8a, “Oh, taste and see that the LORD is good!”

Zechariah 3:10 “In that day, declares the LORD of hosts, every one of you will invite his neighbor to come under his vine and under his fig tree.”

Matthew 22:2, 9 “The kingdom of heaven may be compared to a king who gave a wedding feast for his son, and sent his servants to call those who were invited to the wedding feast, … Go therefore to the main roads and invite to the wedding feast as many as you find.”

Matthew 4:19 “And he said to them, ‘Follow me, and I will make you fishers of men.'”

Matthew 9:9 “As Jesus passed on from there, he saw a man called Matthew sitting at the tax booth, and he said to him, ‘Follow me.’ And he rose and followed him.”

John 1:35-39 “The next day again John was standing with two of his disciples, and he looked at Jesus as he walked by and said, ‘Behold, the Lamb of God!’ The two disciples heard him say this, and they followed Jesus. Jesus turned and saw them following and said to them, ‘What are you seeking?’ And they said to him, ‘Rabbi’ (which means Teacher), ‘where are you staying?’ He said to them, ‘Come and you will see.‘”

John 1:43 “The next day Jesus decided to go to Galilee. He found Philip and said to him, ‘Follow me.'”

Where do we see Imitation?

John 12:26 “If anyone serves me, he must follow me; and where I am, there will my servant be also. If anyone serves me, the Father will honor him.”

1 Corinthians 4:15-16 “For though you have countless guides in Christ, you do not have many fathers. For I became your father in Christ Jesus through the gospel. I urge you, then, be imitators of me.”

1 Corinthians 11:1 “Be imitators of me, as I am of Christ.”

Ephesians 5:1 “Therefore be imitators of God, as beloved children.”

2 Timothy 1:13 “Follow the pattern of the sound words that you have heard from me, in the faith and love that are in Christ Jesus.”

Hebrews 6:11-12 “And we desire each one of you to show the same earnestness to have the full assurance of hope until the end, so that you may not be sluggish, but imitators of those who through faith and patience inherit the promises.”

Hebrews 13:7 “Remember your leaders, those who spoke to you the word of God. Consider the outcome of their way of life, and imitate their faith.”

What should we understand from the concept of Invitation?

In order to invite someone, there must be already in existence something to join. There must be a place, or a group, or a way to which you are inviting.

And what should we understand from the concept of Imitation?

One only imitates that which works. The patterns we teach and which we exemplify must be made of “sound words,” it must be patterned after those who have inherited the promises. “Consider the outcome of their way of life…”

Psalm 145:4 “One generation shall commend your works to another, and shall declare your mighty acts.”

Psalm 78:4-8 “We will not hide them from their children, but tell to the coming generation the glorious deeds of the LORD, and his might, and the wonders that he has done. He established a testimony in Jacob and appointed a law in Israel, which he commanded our fathers to teach to their children, that the next generation might know them, the children yet unborn, and arise and tell them to their children, so that they should set their hope in God and not forget the works of God, but keep his commandments; and that they should not be like their fathers, a stubborn and rebellious generation, a generation whose heart was not steadfast, whose spirit was not faithful to God.”

Mature Christianity

J.I. Packer comments on mature evangelicals, but in many ways his comments apply more broadly to Christians in general.

Immature evangelicals have sometimes settled for a euphoric, man-centred pietism, concerned only with possessing and spreading the peace and joy of ‘knowing Christ as my personal Saviour’ (sadly, these precious words are nowadays a cant phrase), and never appreciating God’s revealed concern for truth and righteousness in church and community. Maturer evangelicals, however, have always recognized that though personal conversion is the starting-point, Christians must learn a biblical God-centredness and seek after ‘holiness to the Lord’ in all departments of the church’s worship, witness and work and in every activity and relationship of human life.*

Would that this understanding would permeate American churches!

*J.I. Packer, “A Kind of Noah’s Ark? The Anglican Commitment to Comprehensiveness” (1981) in J.I. Packer & N.T. Wright, Anglican Evangelical Identity: Yesterday and Today (London: The Latimer Trust, 2008) p. 126.