Thursday, May 31, 2012

Central Teaching/Moral Improvement

My article from this week's Algona Upper Des Moines on the central thing in Christianity:

Q:  What is the main thing in Christianity—the central idea or goal around which everything else revolves?  What is the place of things like a changed attitude or moral improvement in Christianity?

If a Sunday School teacher were to ask her students to answer this question with a single word, they would most likely give the answer that Sunday School students always give when they don’t know the answer:  “Jesus.”  On this occasion, that answer would be correct.  Now, since every teaching of Christianity either comes from Jesus or points to Jesus, it will be necessary to answer an additional question:  “What did Jesus come to accomplish?” 

The purpose for which Jesus came was to forgive sins, resulting in eternal life for all who would trust in Him.  He accomplished this by living perfectly and dying innocently as our substitute, therefore fulfilling the law of God and suffering the punishment of God in our place.  The consequence of this is that all who rely on Him and His life and death in their place are credited by God with a perfect life and as having the punishment for their sins already served, with the result that at death their souls rest with Christ at death and then they will live forever after the Resurrection on the Last Day.

Because this is thoroughly a gift from God to the Christian, we call this God’s grace, and this grace is distributed to humans through Churches where the message of Jesus is taught and proclaimed from the Bible, and Baptism and the Lord’s Supper are administered as means through which this grace, won by Jesus, is delivered to individual Christians. 

Everything else which follows in Christianity is built upon the foundation of those two truths.  Unless God forgives sins, none of the other blessings found in Christianity are relevant, because if one remains a sinner in God’s eyes (and even one imperfection renders that judgment) everything else, whether good deeds done by the individual or positive attitudes experienced by the individual, are immaterial. 

The place of our moral improvement or positive attitude in Christianity is as a result of having sins forgiven.  God’s forgiving is not merely a step on the way to a greater goal of moral improvement, but instead, moral improvement is an inevitable consequence of one’s sins being forgiven by God.  God does desire us to live morally and be empowered to deal in a healthy way with the challenges of life, but it is not the central thing in Christianity.

Regrettably, dislocating moral improvement in the life of the church occurs all too frequently—either by improperly elevating it to the goal and central aspect of Christianity, or by disregarding it entirely as unimportant, and it is precisely this dislocation that is at the root of many of the disagreements among Christians about moral issues today. 

One camp desires to approve and encourage any act that individuals feel in their hearts is moral, even when there are clear Scriptural prohibitions to the contrary; while another adamantly defends The Bible’s moral commands, but in doing so, at least gives the appearance, if not outright stating, that certain sins are worse than others—a clearly un-Scriptural position.  Both of these equal-but-opposite errors occur because moral improvement has been dislocated in the life and teaching of a Church or its members. 

When Christian morality is held up as a good and important thing; but the grace and forgiveness of God through Christ alone, and the delivery of it to the gathered saints, are retained as the most important goal and central activity of the Church, steady balance is retained and the truth shines forth.  Whenever these priorities become dislocated, the foundation becomes unstable and the truth is obscured.

Thursday, May 17, 2012

Pastoral Absolution

My article from this week's Algona Upper Des Moines about the validity of public absolution:

Q:  When visiting a church on Sunday, I observed that the congregation began the service with a Confession of Sins, and at the end of that Confession, the pastor said to the congregation, “I forgive you all your sins, in the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit.”  Can the pastor forgive sins or only God?  Does the pastor also have the power to refuse to forgive sins?

The Confession described here is the opening element of services in many liturgical churches.  It functions in much the same way that private confessions do, but in this case, confession is done generally, as a group, with specific individual sins recounted only silently rather than named individually to the priest or pastor. 

Much like private confession, the pastor’s declaration of forgiveness is, in Martin Luther’s words, “just as valid and certain, even in heaven, as if Christ our dear Lord had dealt with us Himself.”  Even though this may be an uncomfortable thought for many individualistic do-it-yourself Americans, and even though all who trust Jesus have their sins forgiven, the idea that God desires to deliver forgiveness in specific ways, which involve pastors, also is Biblical. 

In Matthew 16, we see Jesus promise this authority to Peter, saying, “I will give you the keys of the kingdom of heaven, and whatever you bind on earth shall be bound in heaven, and whatever you loose on earth shall be loosed in heaven.”  In this case, Jesus promises that this authority will be given in the future, and makes the promise to Peter individually.  However, when Jesus fulfills this promise, as recorded in John 20, saying, “As the Father has sent me, even so I am sending you…  Receive the Holy Spirit. If you forgive the sins of any, they are forgiven them; if you withhold forgiveness from any, it is withheld,” He grants this authority not only to Peter, but to all of His disciples, and by extension to the pastors who would follow them in coming generations. 

This is not to say, however, that pastors may grant or withhold forgiveness according to their own whim or based on their own standards.  Instead, they are called to grant and to withhold forgiveness solely as a reflection of what God has already determined by God in heaven, which the Greek words John writes in these verses make clear.  In private confession, this means that pastors forgive those who acknowledge and repent of their sins, but withhold from those who refuse to acknowledge their sins or repent of them.  Since pastors are not capable of judging anyone’s heart, they must base their actions on what is declared or confessed by the person seeking forgiveness.  Likewise in public confession, the absolution is given under the assumption that those confessing are confessing sincerely. 

Additionally, pastors do not forgive sins as independent agents, nor do they have the power within themselves to forgive or withhold sins.  Instead, they have been called to a particular office to act on behalf of Jesus and His Church, and their authority to forgive sins is exercised in the congregation “in the stead and by the command” of Jesus, as is stated in the absolution itself.  Another way to say it is that when the pastor is forgiving sins, Jesus is forgiving sins; or that Jesus forgives sins through the pastor. 

So, it would not be possible for a pastor to improperly keep God’s forgiveness from getting to a person or to effectually grant forgiveness when the person was unrepentant.  If it would happen that a pastor were to attempt to act in violation of Jesus command or apart from the proper authority to do so, the warnings and promises of Scripture would still prevail respectively for the benefit of the repentant and the condemnation of the unrepentant, in spite of a mistaken or improper act of the pastor.

Thursday, May 3, 2012


My article from this week's Algona Upper Des Moines about demonic activity through technology:

Q:  Can Satan use electronic devices, such as computers or televisions to tempt humans?  Would a demon come to someone through one of these devices?  What you would recommend to someone who thinks this is happening?  Could this really be the case, or might they be hallucinating?

The topic of demonic activity is one that we in the United States often disregard, but there are real beings—both good and evil—in spiritual realms.  Scripture is quite clear that the demonic world is real and that it is not something to take lightly. In fact, the Bible even attributes such things as false religions (1 Corinthians 10) and false doctrine (1 Timothy 4) as actually being the work of demons, done for the purpose of misleading people in regard to spiritual things.

The most important thing to remember when speaking of demons is what their purpose is--to lead people away from trusting in Jesus. Sometimes they do this deliberately and obviously, such as by tempting a person to curse God or commit sin. On other occasions, they might work more deceptively in quite the opposite manner--by leading a person to be moral or religious, but to rely on their morality or religiosity instead of the sacrifice of Jesus to receive God's blessing.   

Additionally, we often mischaracterize how a demon might appear.  Because demons intend to deceive their victims, not merely scare them, and because they desire to do spiritual, not physical harm, it is highly unlikely that one will ever encounter an oozing, screeching, visible being such as those portrayed in many supernatural dramas on television.  Instead, one may only observe the temptation or false idea itself without detecting the demon which inspired it.  In any case, it may at times be very clear that spiritual forces of evil are at work, while at others, they may be quite invisible, subtle, and deceptive.

Regarding the specific case of digital communication being the medium for demonic activity, I would not rule it out, but I imagine the mechanism is slightly different than many would imagine.  So, for example, it seems unlikely that a demon would possess a digital device or communicate directly with a person through it. However, it is highly likely that a demon would tempt a person to misuse a digital device in a way that would lead people away from Jesus.

An excellent example of this would be internet pornography or similarly inappropriate digital conversations. These would be perfect illustrations of the sort of thing a demonic force would love to have a person become entrenched in, and I have heard anecdotal evidence that many (men especially) have experienced demonic encounters that are directly or indirectly connected to habitual inappropriate uses of the internet. Obviously, this is just one of many ways in which they might tempt a person to sin by misusing technology, and the particular temptation might vary from person to person, manifesting in things such as habitual electronic gambling or neglect of one’s duties as a parent or employee in favor of wasteful internet use.

To summarize, it is entirely possible that a demon would use the TV, internet, or other forms of technology as a means to lead a person into something that will serve as an obstacle between them and Jesus. The best way to discern what one is experiencing in a particular circumstance would be to find a competent, Biblical, and trustworthy pastor in order to describe the problem in detail and seek his guidance.  Because situations like this are so individual that no generic response will be able to do justice to the situation, personally involved pastoral care is the best resource.