Thursday, December 31, 2009

Do human souls exist before this world?

My article from today's Algona Upper Des Moines about the pre-existence of human souls:

Q:  If Jesus always existed, even before He was born to the Virgin Mary, what about other people?  Do human souls exist somewhere before the person is born in this world?

This is a topic of much speculation in conversations I have heard.  There are many theories and stories about the status of people before they are born, but sadly, most of these bear a closer resemblance to fairy tales than they do to reality.  There is a general consensus that humans exist in a material aspect, called the body, and an immaterial aspect, commonly called a soul or spirit.

Even though one of the most popular of these ideas, called reincarnation, comes from non-Christian religions like Hinduism and Buddhism, it is believed anyway by numerous Americans.  This belief holds that there is really no beginning or end to the existence of the soul.  Instead, reincarnation teaches that a soul moves from body to body, living numerous lives.  A good life would ensure a promotion to a better species in the following life—from a fly to a dog, for example.  An immoral life would result in a demotion in the next life—from a human to a raccoon, for example.

Another category of these stories teaches that a human soul exists in heaven, on other planets, in other spiritual realms, or any of a number of places, before finally being introduced to a body at some definite point in time.  Adaptations of this story portray bodiless human souls being born as a result of some intimate relation between the souls deceased humans.  Others picture these souls spending time with God, conversing with their dead relatives, or any of a number of other imaginative scenarios.  I even encountered one person who was convinced that her child had been given an orientation to earthly life by his grandfather during the short time between the grandfather’s death and the child’s birth.

Still other types of stories portray humans as existing as angels before being assigned to human bodies.  These stories seem to be quite appealing to those who also hold the misconception that people become angels after death.  All of the stories mentioned to this point are no more reliable than fairy tales, and some, in fact, are quite unbiblical. 

Jesus did exist eternally with the Father before He was born, but for those of us who are not God, this is not the case.  God has no beginning and no end.  He has always and will always exist; therefore Jesus also existed from before the creation of the world, even though He would not be born as a man until only about 2000 years ago. 

Unlike God, humans do have a definite beginning, although their existence does not end—even at death.  At the time a human child is conceived by his parents, he exists for the first time—both in body and in soul.  Before this moment, the person does not exist.  Even after death, a person’s body and soul both continue to exist, although separated for a time—the body in the grave and the soul either with Jesus or imprisoned awaiting judgment. 

When Jesus physically returns to earth on the last day, the bodies of all the dead will be raised from their graves and reunited with their souls.  Each person will be judged and will live eternally, in both body and soul, in eternal blessing or eternal punishment, according to their trust in Jesus or lack thereof. 

Thursday, December 17, 2009


My article from today's Algona Upper Des Moines about the Incarnation

Q:  I believe Jesus was a real man who lived around 2000 years ago, but I’ve heard that He is God.  Which is true?

It is correct to conclude that Jesus was a real man who lived in Jerusalem at the time described.  It is also a true statement that Jesus is God.  Jesus is a real person who was fully God, but at the same time completely human.  The Church’s ancient councils described this by saying that He was one person composed of two natures—divine and human.  It is not that he was half God and half human or sometimes God and sometimes human, but at all times He was both God and human simultaneously, and continues to be today.  It is also important to note the distinction that a man did not become God, but that God became a man.

Jesus is called the Son of God by scriptures because God is His Father.  Although there is only one God, He is three persons—the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit.  All are equally God, but there are not three Gods—only one.  Jesus existed as God with the Father and the Holy Spirit eternally, and He is called the Son of God because, by a supernatural act of the Holy Spirit, God is His Father and the Virgin Mary is His mother.  We call this miraculous event the Incarnation, which we remember as we celebrate Jesus’ birth at Christmas.

He was conceived when the Angel Gabriel came to Mary and told her about God’s promise that she would be the mother of God’s Son, and the Holy Spirit caused Jesus to be conceived even though Mary never had an intimate relationship with her fiancĂ© Joseph, or any other man.

Because of the miracle of the Incarnation, Jesus is like all other humans in every way, except for one.  He is sinless.  Hebrews 4:15 says, “For we do not have a high priest who is unable to sympathize with our weaknesses, but one who in every respect has been tempted as we are, yet without sin.” 
While we are inclined to act against God’s laws from our very beginning, this was not so for Jesus because of the extraordinary way in which He was conceived and born.  While we continue to fail at living up to God’s law throughout our lives, Jesus faced every temptation known to humans, but did not sin against God’s law. 
When he had become an adult, and after three years of preaching and teaching, Jesus was executed by being nailed to a cross, and on the third day following His execution, He rose to life again.  By His death, he acted as a substitute for all people in suffering God’s wrath as punishment for sin, and by rising again, He proved that His sacrifice was accepted by God. 

Because God is righteous, He could not leave sin unpunished, but because He is compassionate, He does not desire to punish the people who He created.  So, it was necessary that He arrange a way in which He could be compassionate toward humanity while at the same time satisfying His righteousness.  Therefore it was necessary that God become a man Himself as Jesus Christ, and the Incarnation became reality. 

In order for Jesus to be the substitute to suffer God’s wrath in our place for sin, it was necessary that He be human, because only the death of an innocent human could pay the price for sin.  At the same time, only God could satisfy the requirement of perfect innocence according to His law. 

In the life, death, and resurrection of the God-man, Jesus, God did all that was necessary to save humans from the punishment they rightly deserve for their failure to comply with His law.  In order to accomplish this, it was necessary that Jesus be both God and human, and all who trust in Him for the forgiveness of their sins receive it as a gift from God. 

Thursday, December 3, 2009


My article from today's Algona Upper Des Moines about Cremation:

Q: You mentioned in your last article that Christians bury the bodies of the dead. Does this mean that cremation is not an acceptable option for Christians?

Cremation is becoming a more and more common choice for Americans today, and even though it was also an option at the time the Bible was being written, there are no specific commands for or against cremation in the New Testament.

If there are no specific Biblical commands for or against cremation, we might wonder if it matters whether a body is cremated or buried. There are two things to consider when answering this: What do Christians believe about the body? What do our actions say to others about our beliefs?

In ancient times, cremation was practiced among those that did not believe the body would rise, either because they saw the body as only a temporary fixture or because they saw the body as an undesirable thing which acts as a sort of “prison” that the soul must endure during earthly life. At times cremation was also used in some places as a way of intentionally dishonoring the bodies of criminals, traitors, heretics, and other condemned persons.

Christians, on the other hand, believe that the body and soul together are God’s creation, which He intended to always exist together. Even though the two are separated for a time at death, they will be reunited to live as a whole person for eternity when Jesus returns to judge the living and the dead. Bodies are not buried and cremation avoided among Christians for the purpose of keeping to some religious law.

Instead, Christians care for and bury the bodies of the dead as a way of illustrating what we believe about Jesus—that He is coming back. Placing a body safely in a grave or tomb is a way of illustrating our belief that the dead are not finished with their bodies, but they are merely awaiting resurrection. Because Christians believe that all the dead will rise on the last day, they treat their bodies accordingly.

In Old Testament times, and among Orthodox Jews to this day, burial was considered the only appropriate means for attending to the bodies of the dead. Among the Apostles and the first Christians, burial was also the only way that the bodies of their dead were handled, and burial typically remained the only method for handling Christians’ bodies for over 1800 years after Jesus rose from the dead.

Around a century ago, cremation returned to use after several centuries because of unfounded fears about the sanitation of burying bodies, and was embraced primarily by those who chose it for the purpose of denying Christian teaching about the body or as a way of rebelling against society. A number of people in today’s society find cremation attractive because they are uncomfortable with the thought of their bodies decomposing, but the Bible teaches that when a Christian is in the presence of Jesus, they will not feel fear or sorrow, including over the condition of the bodies they left behind.

Keeping in mind that it is not a sin to choose cremation, because there is no command about it in the Bible, burial is the ideal way for a Christian’s body to be cared for after death, because of the fitting way in which it acknowledges the way Jesus body was first buried, then raised from the dead on the third day. For all who trust in Jesus, their bodies await a similar resurrection on the last day.

Since modern life presents so many financial and logistical difficulties, it may simply not be possible for all Christians to commence with a traditional burial, but in cases where cremation is an unavoidable choice, Christians do still have a way to portray the truth about Jesus resurrection and their own coming resurrection in their deaths. Rather than scattering the ashes or having them kept by the living, ashes can be buried just as a casket would.

Many pastors and religious leaders advise this as the best practice for Christians to follow for the ashes of those who have been cremated because it allows the family to progress in grieving much the same way they do at the graveside service when the body is buried. Additionally, it allows them still to exhibit the idea of putting their body away safely alongside the bodies of those who have gone before them to wait for Jesus to come for them.

Thursday, November 19, 2009

Communication with the Deceased

My article from today's Algona Upper Des Moines about communicating with the dead:

Q: I’ve heard a lot lately about people who have communicated with their deceased relatives. Is this possible, and is it acceptable to God?

In spite of popular superstition, I can say with certainty that it is not possible to communicate with friends, relatives, or any other person who has died.

In the story of the Rich Man and Lazarus (Luke 16), which provides so much of what we know about existence after death, Jesus clearly teaches that communication between the living and the dead is not only forbidden, but also impossible.

This isn’t to say that there aren’t numerous people who believe they have experienced this type of communication or many others who offer (usually for a substantial price) to help other people
also experience it. There are several possible explanations when people claim have this ability or offer this type of service:

The first possibility is that it is simply a mistake or misunderstanding. When a person is experiencing deep grief, suffering from mental illness, or simply following wishful thinking, they may become quite convinced that they have communicated with a deceased person. However, it is clear in scripture that the dead do not remain on earth to communicate with us. (Hebrews 9:27) It is also stated very plainly that those whose souls have left this earth for heaven or hell are not able to communicate with those who remain on earth.

The second possibility is that there is some type of fraud being perpetrated. It is not incredibly difficult for a deceptive person posing as a “psychic” or “medium” to very convincingly appear to be communicating with a person’s deceased loved one. Through pictures, subtle questions, or seemingly innocent small-talk, they can find out enough about the deceased person to be able to give an extremely convincing performance and appear to have fulfilled their promises to ommunicate with the dead.

Third, and most dangerous of the three, is the possibility that it is actually a demon who is being communicated with rather than the deceased person. Satan’s primary goal is not to make us unhappy or force us to suffer. It is to lead us away from trusting in Jesus. He may, in fact give a person precisely what they desire, or at least fool them into thinking they have been given it. One way that he may do this is to offer the appearance of contact with a deceased loved one. Demons (Satan’s angels) may pose as a deceased friend or relative as a means of undermining the faith of a Christian or blocking a non-Christian from turning to Jesus.

The soul of a person who has died is no longer on earth and has no ability to communicate with those who remain here. In addition, God forbids us to seek out this type of communication, because it is a form of witchcraft.

Thursday, November 5, 2009

Heaven or Resurrection?

My article from today's Algona Upper Des Moines about death, heaven, and resurrection:

Q:  I’ve always believed that our souls go to heaven when we die, but recently, I heard that our bodies will be resurrected.  What can we expect after death?

There is often a lot of confusion about what happens after we die, and many ideas, both true and false are circulating in the world.  There are some things we simply don’t know about what awaits us after this life (such as what we will look like, how old we will be, or when Jesus will come back), but there are also several things that we can know with certainty because they have been explained in the Bible.

God created people to have both a body and a soul, but when Adam and Eve sinned, death became a reality, and at death, the body and the soul of a person are separated.  The body remains on earth and is buried or cremated, and the soul goes either to be with Jesus or to eternal punishment. 

Much of what we know about what awaits us after this life, comes from Jesus’ story about the rich man and Lazarus in Luke 16.  There, Jesus shows us that we will maintain our individual identities after death, and not simply cease to exist or be absorbed into the universe collectively. 

Additionally, He reveals that our condition is permanently and eternally determined at death.  This is also explained in Hebrews 9:27, when it says, “It is given man once to die, then to face judgment.”  This also rules out the idea of reincarnation, which proposes that we are brought back as another person or animal to live life again, as well as the myth depicted in popular television and literature that some souls roam the planet haunting the living or attempting to reconcile unfinished business after death.

From the story of the rich man and Lazarus, as well as from chapters 4-6 of Revelation, we find out that we will most likely be aware of the events occurring on earth after our departure.  At the same time, these events will not cause us disappointment or sorrow, nor will they be the center of our attention.  Instead, it will be the worship of God and the experience of His presence that will occupy our time and thoughts. 

We also know from what Jesus teaches about marriage in the Gospels of Matthew and Mark, that we will not be married or have children after this life.  This is why people are free to remarry after the death of their spouse, and it is reflected in the wedding vows used in most churches when they promise to be faithful “until death parts us.”

When we talk about going to heaven, what we mean is that our soul goes to be with Jesus after we die, and the things mentioned above are all part of the state we typically think of when we talk about going to heaven.  Often people’s understanding of death, and the existence that follows it, stops at this point, but we don’t just “die and go to heaven.”  There is more to the story. 

The third day after Jesus died, He rose to life again, and 40 days later, He ascended into heaven.  At that time, and previously throughout the Gospels, Jesus had promised that He was going to come again.  We are still waiting for this Second Coming happen, and when it does, it will turn a new page in the existence of those who have died. 

When Jesus comes back, He will raise all people who have died, and their bodies and souls will be reunited.  Everyone who trusted in Him to forgive their sins and save them from their well-deserved punishment will live forever in a “new heavens and new earth.” (Isaiah 65-66, 2 Peter 3, Revelation 21) This new heaven and earth will not be like the one we now know, with its sorrows, difficulties, and pains.  Instead, it will be perfect, the way God intended when He first created the world before Adam and Eve sinned. 

In short, the timeline of existence after death looks like this:  A person’s body and soul are separated at death.  The souls of those who trust in Jesus will go to be with Him in heaven, and the souls of those who reject Him will go to eternal punishment.  One day in the future, Jesus will come back, raising all people from death and reuniting their souls with perfected bodies.  Those who trust in Jesus will live forever in these resurrected bodies in a new heaven and new earth.

Thursday, October 22, 2009


My article from this week's Algona Upper Des Moines on Reformation Day

Q:  What is Reformation Day?  How is it remembered?

Reformation Day is a Christian holy day commemorating the events of the Reformation.  Traditionally, Reformation Day was celebrated by most Lutherans, as well as some Calvinist (Reformed or Presbyterian) churches, with an evening service, a meal, and other festivities on the evening of October 31.  On the campuses of many Lutheran and Reformed colleges and seminaries, and in some congregations, this is still the case.  Recently, however, it has become more common for most congregations to simplify their calendars by celebrating Reformation Day on the Last Sunday of October instead. 

This date of October 31 was chosen because it is the day in 1517 when the Martin Luther, who was a Roman Catholic monk and theology professor, nailed the 95 Theses to the door of his church in Wittenberg Germany so that they would be seen the next morning by the people arriving at Mass for All Saints Day. 

At that time, the Roman Catholic Church was the only religion in most of Europe, and also held a large degree of political power.  The 95 Theses were statements of belief which opposed many practices which were common in the church at that time—most importantly, the selling of Indulgences. 

Indulgences were certificates that could be purchased for varying amounts of money to get forgiveness for sins or reduce a person’s supposed debt in purgatory, either for the purchaser or for his friend or relative.  In spite of many common misconceptions, the Reformation was primarily a theological event.  Although it had far-reaching results in culture and politics, the central focus of the Reformation was Christian Doctrine—specifically, whether sins are forgiven by God’s grace (the position of Martin Luther and the Lutherans) or by human actions, such as charity, financial contributions, or moral behavior (the position of the Pope and the Roman Catholic Church). 

Similarly, the Reformation was not really about the Pope or the artistic and ceremonial practices of the Roman Catholic Church, as another misconception portrays.  Lutheran leaders were prepared to acknowledge that the Pope could be considered the rightful leader of the earthly church by human authority (although not by divine authority). 

Lutheran leaders also did not object to stained glass, statues, burning of incense, bowing, kneeling, making the sign of the cross, wearing of robes by priests, or even use of the title “Father” for clergy, although there were some fringe groups who held differing opinions.  Regarding worship, Martin Luther intended to keep as many of the Roman Catholic worship practices as he could, except for those which clearly contradicted Biblical doctrine.  This is why a person, even today, would see so many similarities between Lutheran and Roman Catholic services in most congregations. 

The result of the Reformation was that there were now several different types of Christian churches, each with its own theological ideas, in Europe rather than only one, and the connection between church authority and government was broken.  Many things we know today, such as individual rights, freedom of religion, and the ability to read the Bible in our own language are direct results of the events of the Reformation, but the central theme of the Reformation and of Reformation Day is that people are rescued from God’s punishment for their sins “by grace alone, through faith alone, because of Christ alone,” and not by their own ability or worthiness and that "Scripture alone" was the only source of religious truth.

Q:  Wasn’t Martin Luther a leader in the civil rights movement?

People often confuse Martin Luther and Martin Luther King Jr.  Martin Luther was a German monk and theology professor who lived from 1483-1546 in Germany.  He is known as the “Father of the Reformation” because he was the leader of a movement to correct the theology of the Church of his time (as further explained above).

Martin Luther King Jr., who lived from 1929-1968 in the American South, was also a preacher, but was not a Lutheran.  He was a leader in the civil rights movement during the mid-twentieth century, seeking racial equality in America

Thursday, October 8, 2009


My article from today's Algona Upper Des Moines on Halloween:

Q:  How should a Christian approach Halloween?

There is frequently disagreement among Christians about the suitability of Halloween festivities for Christian families.  The responses can be anywhere on a range from unexamined acceptance to fearful rejection. 

On one hand, Halloween does have a sometimes excessive preoccupation with death and evil.  It can have the effect of trivializing evils of the spiritual realm, such as Satan, demons, and witchcraft, and this is an appropriate concern for Christians.  Critics may even be correct that some American Halloween customs have their origins in the ancient pagan harvest festivals of Western Europe. 

On the other hand, the name “Halloween” itself, as well as the date of its celebration on October 31, actually have Christian origins.  November 1 has long been celebrated by Lutherans, Catholics, and many other churches as All Saints Day.  This day was an occasion in the church for remembering all of the saints, both known and unknown, that is all people who have died with faith in Jesus and are saints because their sins have been forgiven and who now await the Resurrection in the presence of Jesus. 

In times past, Christian churches began celebrating festivals the evening before their date.  As a result, festivals, such as All Saints Day actually began the preceding evening, resulting in church holidays like Christmas Eve and All Hallows Eve (a.k.a. Halloween).  The name Halloween is an old word that really means “the evening before All Saints Day.” In Lutheran and Reformed congregations, October 31 is also remembered as Reformation Day, because it is the day Martin Luther nailed 95 statements of belief to his church door, beginning the Reformation. 

The first generation of Christians encountered a similar question to the one today’s Christians face regarding Halloween.  In the Roman Empire, the temples of Roman gods doubled as meat markets.  After animals were sacrificed to the false god, the meat was then sold in the market.  In 1 Corinthians 8 and Romans 14, the apostle Paul answers the question of Christians at that time.  He says that, although it would not be acceptable for Christians to worship in those temples, it is not a sin for them to eat meat from the meat markets, because the gods of those temples were really nothing.  At the same time, some Christians, out of weakness, were fearful that eating this meat might be a sin.  He instructs them that they should not go against their conscience by eating the meat. 

This Biblical example is an excellent guide for Christians today in many situations.  Where God has made a command, we seek to follow it.  This means that Christians should certainly avoid any type of witchcraft, destructive pranks, or aspects of the holiday which glorify death and evil, and parents should wisely guide any costume selections made by their children.  On the other hand, there is no harm if children dress like princesses, sports heroes, or what they want to be when they grow up.  Even the carving of pumpkins is nothing more than an innocent art project, which Americans were already doing decades before the Irish brought the superstition of the Halloween Jack-o-Lantern (made from a Turnip) to American shores.  Christians should certainly avoid aspects of Halloween which go against God’s clear commands, but others are a matter of judgment or conscience.

The most important message a Christian can remember about Halloween is that we do not need to fear.  We do not need to fear the power of sin, death and evil because Jesus has conquered all of these by His death and resurrection.  For all who trust in Jesus, even death, demons, and Satan himself are powerless to overcome them because they stand under the protection of the Lord of all creation.  Neither do we need to fear overstepping the regulations of an angry God, because, even though we do desire to please God by our actions, salvation does not rely on our own ability to know and follow a set of regulations.  Paul told the Christians of his day, “The Kingdom of God is not a matter of eating or drinking, but of righteousness, peace, and joy in the Holy Spirit.” (Romans 14:17)  Likewise today, the Kingdom of God is not a matter of carved pumpkins, costumes, and miniature candy bars, but of the peace which comes from relying on Jesus alone for to forgive our sins.

Thursday, September 24, 2009

The Shack

My article from today's Algona Upper Des Moines on The Shack:

Q:  Is the book, The Shack, Christian?  What does it teach about God?  Should I read it?

This is easily the question which I have been asked more often than any other during the past year.  This popularity to which this book has soared seems to be surpassed only by the size of the controversy surrounding it.  The Shack was authored by William Paul Young as a way for him to pass on his understanding of spiritual things to his children.  At the urging of a few friends, he self-published the book in 2007, and has since sold several million copies.

The events of the book are that Mack, the main character experiences a tragic event in his life, following which he is invited and travels to the “shack” which was the scene of the crime, where he meets God, who is portrayed as a large African-American woman (intended to represent God the Father), a young Middle-eastern man (intended to represent Jesus), and a young Asian girl (intended to represent the Holy Spirit). 

Because of the news I had already heard about the book, I knew this unorthodox portrayal of God was coming before I started to read, but I was willing to look further to see what the author had to say before giving up on the book entirely.

Now, before going further, I must say that the evaluation which follows is necessarily very brief, and therefore incomplete.  Readers who desire a more thorough look at The Shack may find my in-depth evaluation at

To begin, there are some details which The Shack initially gets correct as it attempts to describe God and reconcile the idea of a caring God with the suffering and tragedy which afflict the world.  Early on, the book does acknowledge that there is one God in three persons, as well as acknowledging the fact that Jesus is both fully God and fully human.  These facts are in agreement with the Bible and historic Christian teachings.  There are also many isolated quotes from the book, which seem to be refreshingly Christian in a time where much of Christian literature could more properly be called self-help than theology. 

However, as the book begins to deepen its description of God, it factually denies the teachings it first affirmed.  Instead of the Trinity described in the Bible, The Shack actually teaches a concept called Modalism or Sabellianism, which has been rejected by Christians as false for more than 1700 years.  It also gets Jesus wrong in regard to both his identity and mission, and it undermines the truthfulness and authority of the Bible. 

In addition to Jesus and the Trinity, there are also serious discrepancies between The Shack and the Bible in their views of government, authority, creation, God’s law, divine revelation, knowledge of God, sin, grace, vocation, and the Church.

The Shack is often sold as Christian literature, but is its view of God Christian?  According to its vision of the Trinity and Jesus, it is not.  Is its author a Christian?  Perhaps, but if so, he is a seriously misguided one.  Should you read it?  That depends…

For the mature Christian who is strongly rooted in the Bible’s teachings, reading this book with the careful understanding that it is not an accurate portrayal of the true God will not do any harm.  In fact, since so many people are reading it already, I would urge mature Christians to be knowledgeable enough about this book that they can help guide others around its pitfalls.  On the other hand, for those who are young, new to Christianity, or not already well-grounded in the teachings of the Bible, this book should would not be a wise thing to read, because it will  only serve to obscure, rather than reveal, the real truth about God.

The shack is an interesting read, and it does have the potential to make the reader feel good.  Many have even found great comfort in its message.  Unfortunately, it is a misleading comfort because The Shack depicts a different god than that of the Bible and historic Christianity and leads readers away from the true comfort which flows from the death and resurrection of Jesus.

Thursday, September 10, 2009

Hardened Heart

My article from today's Algona Upper Des Moines on the hardening of Pharaoh's Heart:

Q:  What does it mean when it says in Exodus that “God hardened Pharaoh’s heart”?  If God is loving and wants all people to be saved, why would He do that?

The idea of a “hardened heart” is occasionally found throughout the Bible.  When the Bible speaks of a person’s heart being hardened, it means that a person persistently resists God when he reaches out to them through Jesus, the Prophets, or the Apostles, as if their heart had a hard wall around it.  Over half of the instances of this wording are within or in reference to the events between Moses and Pharaoh in Exodus, and the remaining instances of this wording primarily speak of a person hardening their own heart against God or warn the reader not to harden their hearts against God. 

The Bible does say in that “[God] wants all people to be saved and come to a knowledge of the truth.” (1 Timothy 2:4), but that God would also harden a person’s heart against Him is not a contradiction.  Other Old Testament books comment on God’s hardening if Pharaoh’s heart, and clarify what happened.  Samuel points out that Pharaoh actively hardened his own heart against God (1 Samuel 6:6), and Joshua points out that the purpose for which God did this was so that He could save the people of Israel (Joshua 11:20).  Jesus also talks about God hardening the Pharisees’ hearts when they come against Him (John 12:40). 

Two Biblical truths are important to remember when trying to understand why God would harden a person’s heart against Him.  First, if anyone is saved, God always gets all the credit.  Second.  If anyone is lost and condemned, they themselves always bear all of the blame.  In the Bible, God desires to save everyone, but some reject Him.  Sometimes people fear that God might decide to harden their hearts against Him and they will be lost, but it is not necessary to be afraid of this.  God never hardens the heart of those who believe in Him or average unbelievers in the Bible, and it is never done randomly or spitefully. 

The Bible only attributes this action to God on very rare occasions, and in every instance of a heart being hardened in the Bible, it occurs to achieve some greater good.  Pharaoh is hardened so that God can defeat Him and save the people of Israel, who will later give birth to Jesus.  The Pharisees are hardened against Jesus so that they can have Him crucified to suffer punishment for the world’s sins.  Additionally, whenever someone in the Bible is hardened against God, it is always a person who has heard God’s message and seen God’s works, and persistently rejected Him.  God is simply allowing them to have what they already desire by allowing them to reject Him. 

Jesus says in John 6:40, “For this is the will of my Father, that everyone who looks on the Son and believes in him should have eternal life, and I will raise him up on the last day."  God’s will for the events of world history is to save as many people as possible, by all means necessary.  God knows all things, even those which have not yet happened.  Since He knows that Pharaoh will continue reject Him, He can graciously use his opposition, and even Pharaoh’s death, for His glory and to bring about the salvation of others by freeing the Israelites from slavery and even brought some of the Egyptians to trust in Him when they witnessed these events.  Even when God executes His wrath on an individual, he is doing so for the greater purpose of saving a multitude of others.

Thursday, August 27, 2009

Bible Translations

My article from today's Algona Upper Des Moines about Bible Translations:

Q: With so many Bible translations available, which one should I buy? What are the differences between them?

The Bible was originally written in Greek (New Testament) and Hebrew (Old Testament) with a few verses in both testaments being in the Aramaic language. My church denomination and some others still require their pastors to learn to read Greek and Hebrew as part of their training. The English Bibles we read today are translations of these original languages.

When choosing a Bible translation, there are several factors to consider. The two primary factors are accuracy and readability. Buyers also might want to consider the preferred translation used by their church or other Christians with whom they study the Bible. As a Christian advances in their study of the Bible, they often find it beneficial to have several different English translations available to them for comparison.

During a trip to Algona’s local Christian bookstore this week, I was able to count seven English translations available for sale, and as I look at my office bookshelf, I find that I have fifteen English translations of the Bible at my disposal, in addition to Greek, Hebrew, German, and Spanish copies. In addition to these many translations of the Bible text, many of the translations have numerous optional resources, including cross references, study notes, devotional content, and other additional content.

Most pastors and Bible teachers place the accuracy of a translation to be of first importance when choosing a Bible to purchase. Some Bibles translate each word literally, while others may translate several words together in order to better convey the meaning in English. In addition to the varying translations, there are also bible paraphrases, which tell the story in the translator’s own words rather than literally translating. While these paraphrases, such as The Message, and The Living Bible can be easy to understand for casual reading, they are not good choices for deeper study because they rely heavily on the English author’s understanding of the words rather than the Bible’s original way of saying it. Translations such as the New American Standard Bible (NASB), English Standard Version (ESV), and New King James Version (NKJV) are highly respected for their accuracy in translating the Bible.

Although accuracy is an important consideration, a Bible translation also has to be understandable to the reader. For example, the King James Version of the Bible is highly accurate, but some people find it difficult to read because of the older language it uses. The New International Version (NIV), the best-selling Bible translation in America, is highly renowned for its ease of reading. Other translations, such as the New American Standard Bible (NASB) are not very difficult to read and study, but can be somewhat awkward to read out-loud in public. The New Living Translation (NLT) and English Standard Version (ESV) are also known as very readable translations.

A good balance between accuracy and readability is usually the goal. An accurate translation you cannot understand easily and a translation which is readable, but inaccurate will both be poor choices. The guidance of your own pastor, especially if he can read Greek and Hebrew, is a valuable tool in determining which translation is right for your needs. My personal preference in a translation to read aloud publicly or for casual reading at home is the ESV, and my preference for in-depth study is the NASB.

When picking out your new Bible, don’t forget to research all of the available options, such as cover materials, study notes, and other resources. A Bible which is attractive and has the options and resources you desire will be much more appealing to study with regularity. Since my current Bible has begun to literally fall to pieces, I am excitedly anticipating the arrival of my new copy of The Lutheran Study Bible (An ESV Bible from Concordia Publishing House), which I pre-ordered several months ago to be delivered when it is released in October.

Readers are encouraged to submit questions for inclusion in future issues. According to your preference, you may include your first name or submit questions anonymously, and I will do my best to answer your questions as my knowledge and research allow and according to their suitability for publication. You may submit questions by email to or by mail to P.O. Box 195; Burt, IA 50522.

Thursday, August 13, 2009


My article from today's Algona Upper Des Moines about prayer:

Q: What is it that motivates God to hear and answer prayers?

In the Gospel of Luke, Jesus tells a story which illustrates the answer to just such a question:

"Two men went up into the temple to pray, one a Pharisee and the other a tax collector. [11] The Pharisee, standing by himself, prayed thus: 'God, I thank you that I am not like other men, extortioners, unjust, adulterers, or even like this tax collector. [12] I fast twice a week; I give tithes of all that I get.' [13] But the tax collector, standing far off, would not even lift up his eyes to heaven, but beat his breast, saying, 'God, be merciful to me, a sinner!' [14] I tell you, this man went down to his house justified, rather than the other. For everyone who exalts himself will be humbled, but the one who humbles himself will be exalted." (Luke 18:10-14 ESV)

God’s choice to hear and answer prayers is not founded on anything that we do. God does not hear our prayers because of their length, or how often we ask. (Matthew 6:7) He doesn’t listen based on our eloquence or the beauty of our words. He does not even take into account who is praying the prayer, other than whether the person is a Christian. A pastor, elder, or deacon’s prayer is no more worthy before God than that of any other Christian (although the prayers of pastors and Christian friends can be of great help in times of sickness or distress which make it hard for us to concentrate on our own prayers). Even though places like church buildings or chapels help us to focus on God in our prayers, He does not hear our prayers based on the location where we pray.

Nothing we do can force God to hear our prayers, and nothing of our own making renders our prayers more acceptable to Him. Like the Pharisee in Jesus’ parable, we cannot rely on our own goodness or worthiness to have our prayers heard, because no matter how good we are, all people fall short of God’ standard, which is perfection. God hears the prayers of Christians solely because they have been forgiven by Jesus. When God hears the prayers of Christians, He does so only because of what Jesus has done by living perfectly according to God’s law, then being executed by crucifixion, even though He was innocent of any wrongdoing. This is why many church prayers end by saying “through Jesus Christ, your Son, our Lord…” any many Christians end their personal prayers, “in Jesus’ name.”

God is so good to us, that He even gives us the things we need when we forget or neglect to pray for them (Matthew 6:8). He also gives the Holy Spirit to Christians who gives and strengthens our faith in Jesus and helps us to pray, especially in times of weakness (Romans 8:26-27). God not only gives us prayer as a way to bring our needs to Him, but also as a way to thank Him for His blessings and intercede for the needs of our neighbors. He does not command prayer as a rigid duty, but instead, gives it to us as a gracious gift, and He Himself provides everything necessary for our prayers to be heard and answered for those who trust in Jesus.

Readers are encouraged to submit questions for inclusion in future issues. According to your preference, you may include your first name or submit questions anonymously, and I will do my best to answer your questions as my knowledge and research allow and according to their suitability for publication. You may submit questions by email to or by mail to P.O. Box 195; Burt, IA 50522.

Thursday, July 30, 2009


My article from today's Algona Upper Des Moines about Angels:

Q: Are angels real and how much do we really know about them?

Angels have probably been one of the most popular subjects in spirituality over the years. On one hand, angels are real beings, described by the Bible, but on the other hand, some popular beliefs regarding angels are no more than superstition or speculation. Because we see so many examples in the Bible of angels in action, there are many things we can know about them. First, we know that angels were created by God. Because God says in the book of Job that they were present when God “laid the foundations of the earth,” they were probably created on the first day that God began to create the world.

Angels are not just a spiritual phenomenon, but they are individual, personal beings. The Bible shows us that angels have names, such as Michael and Gabriel, but they are neither male nor female and do not marry or reproduce—something Jesus reveals to us in the Gospels. They experience joy when sinners repent, and they exist to serve God and follow His commands.

There are also different types or ranks among the angels. The picture we usually imagine of an impressive glowing angel with wings dressed in white would probably resemble the Seraphim. (Incidentally, the Bible never describes an angel who looks like a chubby, winged toddler.) Seraphim surround God’s throne in heaven and their task is to praise and glorify Him. They are described in Revelation 4 and Isaiah 6. Cherubim are angels who act as servants to God. They assist in carrying out God’s will and His commands in heaven and on earth, as seen in Genesis 3:24 and Ezekiel 1. Another class of angels, described in 1 Thessalonians 4:16 and Jude 9 is the Archangel.

We do not know how many angels there are, but we do know from a statement made by Jesus (Matthew 26:53) that there are at least 72,000. All angels were originally created by God to serve Him, but soon after creation, one angel began a rebellion in heaven, leading one-third of the angels to oppose God. These angels were condemned for their rebellion and are now known as demons. Michael, the Archangel is described as fighting against Satan and the demons.

The angels’ task is to praise God (Isaiah 6, Revelation 5) and carry out His will in the world (Revelation 7 & 14). They defend earthly rulers who God approves (Daniel 6) and destroy the enemies of God’s people (Exodus 14, Acts 12). They watch over the households of believers and guard their children (Job 1, Psalm 34, Matthew 18), and they guard and protect Christians from the time of their Baptism until their death (Psalm 91, Luke 16, Jude 9). When Jesus returns, the angels will separate the condemned from the saved and carry out His punishments against them (Matthew 13 & 25), and they will escort the saved into the eternal life.

One of the most popular myths about angels is that people can communicate with them or seek their guidance. There are even services available where, much like a psychic reading, a person claims that they can connect you with the angels and (for a fee, of course) tell you what they have to say. This sort of practice is entirely contrary to the teachings of Scripture. God did send messages to Mary, Joseph, Zechariah, John, and some of the prophets through angels, but He has never promised that He will do the same for us. Additionally, those Biblical saints heard directly from the angels and did not require the assistance of a “professional.”

Furthermore, Paul informs us in 1 Timothy that, “there is one God, and there is one mediator between God and men, the man Christ Jesus, who gave himself as a ransom for all, which is the testimony given at the proper time.” The fact is that since Jesus has died and risen for us, Christians do not have need of anyone to stand between them and God to assist in communication. Christians have the privilege to hear God’s Word for them directly from the Bible and to speak back to Him directly through prayer. Jesus, not any angel, is the only mediator who can connect us with God the Father.

Readers are encouraged to submit questions for inclusion in future issues. According to your preference, you may include your first name or submit questions anonymously, and I will do my best to answer your questions as my knowledge and research allow and according to their suitability for publication. You may submit questions by email to or by mail to P.O. Box 195; Burt, IA 50522.

Thursday, July 16, 2009

Jesus' Teen Years

My article from today's Algona Upper Des Moines about Jesus' teen years:

Q: What do we know about Jesus’ child and teen years?

The Bible gives us a detailed account of Jesus’ birth in the Gospel of Luke. This is probably one of the most familiar portions of scripture for most Christians because of tradition of reading it on Christmas Eve. It is likely that many readers even memorized portions of this chapter of Luke as a part of their childhood participation in Christmas Eve services. The New Testament Gospels also give us generous amounts of information on the time of Jesus’ earthly ministry, which occurred between His Baptism by John at age 30 and His death, resurrection, and ascension about 3 years later. The time between Jesus’ birth and His thirtieth year, however, does not receive a great deal of attention in the Bible, but it does show us a few memorable events.

As a young child, Jesus’ is visited by three Magi from the East who came to worship Him and to bring Him gifts of gold, frankincense, and myrrh. We often see these wise men portrayed in Christmas decorations and manger scenes as being present at the stable where Jesus was born, at the same time as the shepherds, but the Gospel of Matthew tells us that their visit came somewhat later than the shepherds, while Jesus was a young child. As a result of the attention brought by the Magi, King Herod, became afraid for his throne and sent soldiers to Bethlehem in an attempt to do away with this “new king” which the Magi were seeking, but God rescued Jesus and His family from this threat by warning Joseph in a dream and instructing him to flee to Egypt with Jesus and Mary.

From these events, we know that Jesus spent His infancy in Bethlehem, but His early childhood years would have been lived in Egypt. When King Herod died, Joseph again received a series of dreams which instructed Him to return to Israel, and ultimately to settle in Nazareth, which we typically think of as Jesus’ home town. The Bible also portrays Jesus and His family as faithful worshippers of God who observed the sacrifices, feasts, and festivals specified in the Old Testament and even traveled on pilgrimages to Jerusalem to do so. On one of these trips to Jerusalem for Passover, when Jesus was twelve years old, the family realized while they were returning to Nazareth that Jesus was no longer with them. When they went back and found Him, He was at the temple, discussing theology with the priests and teachers there, who were amazed by His knowledge.

Several books outside of the Bible try to fill in these years of Jesus’ life with other stories, such as one where Jesus strikes a playmate dead, then at the pleading of Joseph, raises him back to life. In another account, Jesus is portrayed as making a bird from clay, then bringing it to life. These other “gospels”, such as the “Gospel of Thomas” are commonly believed to be forgeries, though, because they were written several centuries after Jesus life and by people who were not eyewitnesses to the events.

After Luke tells the story of Jesus at the temple he says that, “Jesus increased in wisdom and stature and in favor with God and man.” The most likely reason that so little is said about Jesus’ childhood years in the Bible is that they were completely normal. He grew physically, learned, and acted like any of the other children. In fact, his early life was so normal that when He returned to Nazareth to preach later in life, the people there were surprised and did not accept His authority because they just saw Him as “Mary’s son.”

There is, however, one exception to the ordinary nature of Jesus’ childhood years. The book of Hebrews tells us that Jesus was “tempted as we are, yet without sin.” While Jesus life as a child and teenager was completely normal, it was lived differently than ours because He kept God’s commands perfectly, while we fail to do so throughout our lives. It is this perfect life that He lived, which makes him an acceptable substitute to be crucified for us, and it is because of this sinless life that death could not hold Him and He rose again on the third day.

Readers are encouraged to submit questions for inclusion in future issues. According to your preference, you may include your first name or submit questions anonymously, and I will do my best to answer your questions as my knowledge and research allow and according to their suitability for publication. You may submit questions by email to or by mail to P.O. Box 195; Burt, IA 50522.

Thursday, July 2, 2009

Tiller Killing

My article from today's Algona Upper Des Moines about the killing of George Tiller and Lutheran stances on abortion:

Q:  Dr. George Tiller was recently murdered in Kansas because of his notoriety for performing late-term abortions.  Does the Bible approve of this type of killing?

Dr. Tiller was a nationally known figure in the controversy over abortion because of his willingness to perform abortions for reasons and at times when many other doctors would have declined to do so.  The position of the Bible, which has been affirmed by Christians throughout history, is that all human life is to be valued and respected from conception until natural death.  This means that any intentional killing of another person (except for the execution of convicted criminals, justifiable wars, or legitimate cases of self-defense) is murder.  Accordingly, Christians have typically considered both abortion and euthanasia to be contrary to God’s commands. 

Even though the majority of Christian churches throughout history have seen abortion as contrary to God’s will, there has also been near-unanimous consensus that lawlessly killing those who perform abortions is equally sinful.  This is seen in the teachings of St. Paul in the book of Romans, when he instructs Christians not to overcome evil with evil, but to “overcome evil with good.” (Romans 12:21) He also says, “Repay no one evil for evil, but give thought to do what is honorable in the sight of all.” (Romans 12:17 ESV)  During the 1990’s, a rash of bombings and killings at abortion clinics prompted responses from national pro-life groups condemning violence against abortion providers, and following the murder of Dr. Tiller, U.S. pro-life groups again issued statements condemning the actions of the killer. 

Q:  According to the news stories, Dr. Tiller was killed while serving as an usher at a Lutheran church.  Do Lutherans approve of the practice of abortion?

In their statement on the events surrounding Dr. Tiller’s death, Lutherans for Life stated, “While George Tiller was a member of a Lutheran denomination that does not officially oppose abortion, it should be noted that almost all other Lutheran denominations do take an official stance that opposes abortion and asserts the God-given value of human life from conception to natural death.”
There are presently more than 20 different Lutheran church bodies in the United States.  The two largest of these groups, are the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America (ELCA) and The Lutheran Church—Missouri Synod (LC-MS).  All of the Lutheran congregations in Kossuth County, except one, are members of one of these two denominations. 

According to M. Z. Hemingway of, Dr. Tiller was, at one time, a member of a LC-MS congregation.  When the congregation began the process of excommunicating him for his refusal to turn away from his actions of aborting babies, he sought membership in a congregation of the ELCA.  While the LC-MS retains the position of Christians as early as the first century A.D in opposing abortion, the ELCA has a much more lenient position on the matter.  While not all individuals within the ELCA support this position, the church body’s official position, as laid out in their “Social Statement on Abortion” is neutral, if not somewhat favorable, toward abortion, and the health plan provided to church employees includes broad coverage for the procedure.  It is in light of these differences that Dr. Tiller was able to hold a leading position in a congregation of the ELCA, but was in the process of being excommunicated when he left the LC-MS. 

While the majority of Lutheran church bodies do oppose the practice of abortion, they do not condone actions such as Dr. Tiller’s murder.  Instead, they seek to change hearts and minds by proclaiming the message of Jesus, which promises forgiveness to all who trust in Him and turn from their sin, including women whose past includes an abortion and the doctors who have performed them. 

Thursday, June 18, 2009


My article from today's Algona Upper Des Moines about the Ascension:

Q: If the Bible says that Jesus ascended into Heaven after He rose from the dead, why do we always hear it said that He is present with us now?

The Bible tells us that Jesus died on a Friday afternoon, but rose to life again on Sunday morning. After He rose from the dead, He appeared to hundreds of people, including His disciples, over the course of the next 40 days (Luke 24, John 20-21). On the fortieth day, while Jesus was talking with His disciples, “He began to be lifted up, and a cloud hid Him from their sight.” (Acts 1:9) Several New Testament passages also speak of Jesus as having ascended into Heaven and that He is “seated at the right hand of God the Father…” as many Christians confess in the Apostles’ Creed.

In other places, Jesus promises that He will be with His disciples and all Christians. He says, “Behold, I am with you always, to the end of the age.” (Matthew 28:20). He also promises, “where two or three are gathered in my name, there am I among them.” (Matthew 18:20) When the apostle Paul writes letters to churches in the New Testament, He often includes a blessing which says that God will be with those who read the letter. (Sometimes He says Jesus, other times God, Lord, or the Holy Spirit.)

On one hand, the Gospels and the book of Acts clearly teach that Jesus did ascend into Heaven. On the other hand, Jesus’ own words, as well as the letters of Paul clearly teach that God will be with Christians until Jesus comes again on the last day. How can these both be true?

We know that God is present everywhere. In Jeremiah 23:24, God says, “’Can anyone hide in secret places so that I cannot see him? …Do I not fill heaven and earth?’” Since Jesus is God, He is present in all times and places, but when He makes the promises mentioned above, He is talking specifically to His followers, not to all people. The fact that God is present everywhere is the same for all people whether they follow Jesus or not. The presence Jesus is promising is something special that is not true for the rest of the world.

Sometimes when we are apart from a friend or family member, they say that they are with us in Spirit, and we often speak of deceased loved ones as being with us in our memory. Here, though, Jesus is promising far more than that we will remember Him or that he will be with us “in spirit.” Before Jesus died, He promised His disciples that after He had risen, He would send the Holy Spirit to guide them and remind them of the things He had said (John 14-16), and just before He ascended, He again promised to send the Holy Spirit (Acts 2:8).

Whenever we read or hear the Bible, (or remember what we have read from it, or hear a friend talking about Jesus, hear a song which talks about Him, etc.) God sends the Holy Spirit, through whom Jesus becomes supernaturally present with us.

Furthermore, on the night before He was crucified, Jesus took bread and said, “This is my body.” Then He took wine and said, “This is my blood.” He then instructed His disciples to keep on doing this in remembrance of Him. Whenever Christians participate in the Lord’s Supper (a.k.a. Communion or Eucharist), Jesus body and blood become present in a special way among them. Since Jesus is both God and human, even His human body can be present all over the world at the same time.

When we go about our day, Jesus is present with us, just as He is with every person, but for Christians, Jesus comes to us in an extraordinary way through the God’s Word, the Bible, and when we take part in Lord’s Supper.

Readers are encouraged to submit questions for inclusion in future issues. According to your preference, you may include your first name or submit questions anonymously, and I will do my best to answer your questions as my knowledge and research allow and according to their suitability for publication. You may submit questions by email to or by mail to P.O. Box 195; Burt, IA 50522.

Thursday, June 4, 2009

The Sacraments

My article from today's Algona Upper Des Moines about the Sacraments:

Q:  Why do Lutherans and Catholics have a different number of Sacraments?  Do other Christian denominations share the concept of Sacrament?

In general, there are three conclusions among Christians regarding the number of Sacraments.  Some conclude that there are seven.  Others conclude that there are two, and still others conclude that there are none.  The differences between Christians regarding the number of Sacraments are largely a result of their different definitions of what a Sacrament is. 

Roman Catholics consider the seven Sacraments to be, Baptism, Confirmation, Eucharist, Penance, Anointing of the Sick, Holy Orders, and Matrimony.  The Catechism of the Catholic Church defines Sacraments as, “efficacious signs of grace, instituted by Christ and entrusted to the Church, by which divine life is dispensed to us.”  In addition to Roman Catholics, Episcopal and Eastern Orthodox churches generally agree with this list of seven Sacraments. 

In contrast, Lutherans consider a Sacrament to be a sacred act, instituted by God Himself, using a visible element which is combined with God’s Word to give forgiveness for sins.  Based on this definition, Lutherans usually conclude that there are two Sacraments, which are Baptism and the Lord’s Supper (a.k.a. Communion or Eucharist).  Like Catholics, Lutherans also perform Confirmation, Marriage, and Absolution (somewhat like Penance), although they do not call them Sacraments.  Most Lutherans also ordain their pastors and some practice Anointing of the Sick, although, again, not as Sacraments.  The reason Lutherans do not consider these latter five practices to be Sacraments is because they either do not have a visible element (like water, bread, or wine), or because it is not said in the Bible that they forgive sins.  Most churches of the Calvinist (Reformed or Presbyterian) and Methodist traditions arrive at the same conclusion as Lutherans regarding the number of the Sacraments, although they do so for different reasons.

A third group of churches have significantly different beliefs regarding the Sacraments from those churches already mentioned.  The statements of belief written by most Baptists and Pentecostals, as well as many independent or nondenominational congregations, do not list any Sacraments.  They do still make use of Baptism and the Lord’s Supper, but they see them as symbolic acts of devotion to God which are done by Christians, rather than God’s actions to forgive sins.  As a result of this belief, they use the word Ordinance instead of Sacrament to emphasize this difference of belief.  Some of these churches may also observe the ordination of pastors and anoint the sick, but not as an ordinance or a Sacrament.

All types of Christians continue to keep Baptism and the Lord’s Supper as part of their practices, although there are significant differences about what is happening there.  All Christians still practice marriage, even though not all consider it a Sacrament.  I think it could also be said that nearly all would agree that it is good to pray for the sick (Anointing), ask God’s blessing on pastors (Ordination), teach our beliefs to young people (Confirmation), and forgive sins which are confessed (Penance or Absolution). The disagreement doesn’t seem to be whether these things should be done, but rather what is really taking place, what it should be called, and how it should be done.