Thursday, November 26, 2015

Churching the State to Justify the Samaritans

For this week's newspapers, I answered a question about the Good Samaritan and Syrian Refugees:  

Q:  Does the Bible offer any principles about what the U.S. Government policy should be on whether to take refugees from Syria and the Middle East?  Are the parable of the Good Samaritan or the Old Testament laws regarding treatment of foreigners relevant to the question?

While many people might read the parable of the Good Samaritan as a moral lesson about charity and how a person should respond to others in need, it is actually about much more.  While it certainly is good to help those who are suffering (which other passages of Scripture reveal), the parable is, first and foremost, about Jesus Himself.  In the parable, the character of the Good Samaritan is not a president or a senator.  In fact, the character of the Good Samaritan is not even any ordinary human.  The Good Samaritan is Jesus!

And the character in the parable that represents humanity is not even the priest or the Levite, but instead, the victim is the character in the parable which plays our role.  Jesus, the Good Samaritan, comes down into our uncleanness to cure and heal us, completely apart from our worthiness or ability to repay.  Understanding this reality completely changes how we approach the parable and rules out its application to a government’s acceptance of refugees, unless we want to suggest that the Government or the president are our savior. 

Many who have attempted this application have also made reference to a handful of Old Testament laws regarding the treatment of foreigners.  The difficulty with this attempt is that those laws were not universal laws given to humanity, but rather, they were given particularly to the nation of Israel.  So, if we were to suggest that these laws carry over into the present day, rather than being fulfilled in Jesus, we would have to apply them not to the United States Government, since it is not constituted by God or committed to serving Him, but rather to the Church. 

Probably the most relevant passages of Scripture in relation to this issue are the New Testament sections that describe the role of government, particularly in Paul’s Epistles.  In these passages, the role of Governments which are not Ancient Israel is consistently described as being to provide safety and stability to their citizens.  The Church, then, has the role of helping those in need under the umbrella of that stable and secure nation. 

So, in the present circumstances, the Government’s role is to do whatever is in the best interest of our nation’s security, even if it is not the most humanitarian choice for those outside of our borders, because its duty is to its own citizens.  If it comes down to helping people from other parts of the globe with the result of incurring a substantial risk to its own citizens’ safety, or providing security to its own citizens while denying help to non-citizens, our government’s Biblically-mandated priority is to protect its own citizens. 

The Church’s role, on the other hand, is to help those in need.  So, if our government should choose to allow the entry of refugees, then Christians are called to demonstrate the Lord’s mercy by helping those who arrive on our shores.  If the government determines the threat to our security is too great, then we are still able to provide help through the hands of our fellow Christians and their Churches in the parts of the world where the refugees find a home. 

The government has its own particular God-given role, and the Church has its own, but as we address these circumstances, it is important to distinguish those roles and apply the proper scriptures to the proper roles as we seek Biblical answers to the questions at hand. 

Monday, November 9, 2015

Does Paul contradict Jesus?

For this week's newspapers, I answered a question about the alleged contradictions between the teachings of Jesus and Paul:

Q:  Do St. Paul’s writings in the Epistles of the New Testament contradict the things that Jesus said as recorded in the Gospels?  Did Paul add to or alter Jesus’ message when he was writing to the churches, and what gave him authority in those churches if he was not a follower at the time of the Resurrection?

This is a recurring accusation during the most recent two centuries of Christianity:  That Paul’s teachings in the epistles do not align with the things said by Jesus during our records of His earthly life and ministry.  The exact accusation often varies, with those on one end of the spectrum accusing Paul of being too doctrinal in comparison to their perception of Jesus as a free spirit whose ministry centered on helping people, and those on the other end of the spectrum accusing Paul of being too lenient regarding matters of the Law—whether those found in the Old Testament or matters of personal holiness—while they believed Jesus to have been more strict about these things. 

Usually this kind of response to the content of the New Testament results in a person diminishing portions of the New Testament in favor of others, rather than trying to reconcile the statements and understand the original intent of Jesus speech or Paul’s writing to discover that they actually do agree.  When it falls short of outright rejection of Paul’s epistles or other New Testament books, this kind of approach to Jesus and Paul usually results at the very least in some imaginative story-telling to explain how the early Church came to a unanimous consensus regarding Paul’s letters if they are actually so far removed from Jesus’ teachings. 

One way in which it is often quite simple to reconcile the teachings of Jesus and Paul that seem to contradict on the surface is to dig deeper into what they are actually communicating.  Since most readers in this part of the world are limited to reading Scripture in English, we sometimes forget that Jesus did not speak and Paul did not write in English, but we are reading a translation of their words.  In translation, there are often not direct equivalents for the words being translated, and English often cannot convey the time and duration as precisely as Greek did.  So, even if we have the most accurate translation possible, a reader might understand the English word differently than the translator intended to use it, or we may miss that a particular statement was made only for a particular circumstance while another was made as a standing, universal proclamation.  The majority of contradiction accusations I see can be solved in this way, and even for those who do not have access to original language training, looking at a verse in multiple reliable English translations sometimes clarifies the intent of the passage. 

Another difficulty for those who propose a contradiction is that the New Testament itself describes that the 11 original disciples of Jesus had access to Paul’s letters, and they examined him and his message, ultimately endorsing him and approving that He was proclaiming the same thing as they had learned from Jesus.  Likewise, we have no record that any person at the time of the writing or in the following century ever proposed that there was a problem between Paul’s teachings and the things said and done by Jesus.  Instead, it was universally understood that Paul was writing explanation to the churches about what the life, death, and resurrection of Jesus accomplished and how they were to apply this to life in their congregations. 

When the New Testament is read with care to understand the original meaning the authors intended and the history is taken in full perspective, it becomes exceedingly clear that Paul was, in fact, proclaiming the same message as Jesus and pointing people to the authentic Jesus and not to some new formulation that was hijacking Jesus for other goals. 

Questions may be submitted by email to or sent to P.O. Box 195; Burt, IA  50522.

Rev. Jason P. Peterson

Pastor, St. John’s Lutheran Church – Burt

Tuesday, October 27, 2015

Forfeiting Grace to Embrace Sin

For this week's newspapers, I answered a reader question about how many sins it takes for a Christian to lose salvation:

Q:  How much sin can a person commit and still be accepted by God into eternal life at the final judgment?  How much sin should we on earth tolerate before we no longer consider a person a Christian? 

Peter once asked Jesus a question about how many times he should forgive a person who had sinned against him.  Thinking according to the Pharisees tradition of that time, Peter was expecting an answer in the single digits, perhaps seven.  Jesus answer, however, was “seventy times seven.” 

While Jesus’ answer to Peter deals with how many times people should forgive sins committed by and against one another, some of us, like Pastors or parents, are assigned the vocation to take concern over whether a person’s sins against God are forgiven and where the person stands in relation to God.  Even though not in a position of God-given authority over them, a Christian friend or neighbor might also be concerned over where a given person stands in relation to God’s forgiveness because they fear their neighbor may be in danger of suffering God’s eternal punishment for sin for themselves. 

It helps to begin with the fact that Jesus paid for all sin—“the sin of the world” as John says in his Gospel.  Those who rely on Him to forgive them receive His grace, and have no more penalty left to account for on their own.  However, as long as they live this side of the grave, they remain incapable of perfectly refraining from sin.  While we do not excuse sin or treat it lightly, we also acknowledge that this sin too is forgiven, and not merely the sin committed prior to trusting in Jesus. 

Some might wrongly conclude that this teaching of grace then frees a person to live in any way that seems appealing and act in any way which feels right.  St. Paul answers this question in his letter to the Romans, though, by responding to the question of “Should we sin more so that grace might abound?” with the strongest possible denial the Greek language has to offer—“Certainly not!” or “May it never be!” 

Having been forgiven, the Christian is called then to avoid sin and seek to live in agreement with God’s will—even though they continue to fail.  This is why many of our churches begin the week’s services with a Confession of Sins, after which the pastor proclaims God’s forgiveness once again to those who trust in Jesus.  When it comes to how many sins a person might commit before forfeiting salvation, it is not a matter of counting, but even for the Christian remains a matter of faith.  Those who trust in Jesus remain forgiven. 

However, there is a difference between one who commits sin and one who embraces it as a lifestyle or adopts it as an identity.  When those assigned the task of spiritual care examine those under our authority, this is what we consider:  What do they confess?  For those who acknowledge their sin and struggle against it, we act with compassion, pronouncing once again God’s grace to forgive their sin.  On the other hand when faced with those who love and embrace their sin or consider it a defining characteristic of their identity, we must pronounce God’s Law and warning instead, in hopes that they will return and be forgiven, because defending their sin contradicts their claim to trust in Jesus. 

While it remains solely the privilege of God Himself to know the contents of a person’s heart and the status of their soul, we here on earth can observe the words and actions of our neighbor and warn or encourage them with the applicable laws or promises which our Lord has given. 

Monday, October 12, 2015

Earning Blessing

For this week's newspapers, I answered a question about whether faith or obedience are able to earn blessing from God: 

Q:  Does God grant earthly blessings to people based on the sincerity of their faith, and does He bless Christians with health, wealth, or other prosperity based on the degree to which they obey Him?

It would be easy to make conclusions that God’s blessings in this world depend on the performance of the individuals receiving them, because such a conclusion would fit with the majority of religious thought that has taken place around the world throughout history, and would fit with the way that we are used to things working among humans in business and commerce. 

However, no matter how reasonable this conclusion seems in light of our earthly experience with other authorities, the Lord who has revealed Himself as the Trinity of Father, Son, and Holy Spirit does not operate on those same principles. 

When various religions make propositions about earning a god’s blessing, they are operating under the assumption of a deity that does not desire to do good to us, but that we need to achieve a certain level of obedience in order to force his hand.  On the other hand, the God of the Bible is consistently portrayed as one who desires to give and to bless, and we are undeserving recipients of His gracious gifts. 

This is particularly true in spiritual matters, where God forgives sins as a pure gift because of the crucified sacrifice of Jesus, but it also applies to the many earthly blessings over which we have limited control, such as weather, the growth of crops, or good health.  Jesus comments on this with His words in Matthew 5 that God makes the sun to shine on both the evil and the good and the rain to fall on the righteous and the unrighteous alike. 

We can also observe that in this life, those whose faith appears deepest do not always experience perfect health or abundant wealth.  Instead, they may sometimes suffer more than others while those who commit vile acts seem to prosper.  Many of the heroes of the Bible are perfect examples of this, as the Apostles and Prophets often faced fierce opposition and the majority of them died for their faith rather than experiencing earthly success. 

There is one sense in which this is true, but it functions in a natural way rather than a supernatural one.  This is because the creator of the world in which we live is also the giver of the laws by which we are commanded to live in it.  As a result, a great deal of suffering and tragedy can be avoided when God’s laws are obeyed.  So, for example, the God who created nature, the body, and family relationships gives laws which, if obeyed, would allow a person to avoid many conflicts, diseases and disorders, while the probability of numerous natural consequences increases dramatically when a person chooses to depart from that law. 

Ultimately, understanding this truth may help a person avoid a great deal of false guilt that might arise if they did live faithfully yet see their desires unfulfilled or find themselves experiencing suffering or tragedy.  It also serves to remind us that as long as we live in this world, our obedience will remain imperfect and we will still face trials and suffering, but we look forward with hope to a resurrected life which we receive as pure gift and in which these things will be no more.  Even though the promises we do see of abundance and prosperity in Scripture are left partially and unevenly fulfilled in this world, they will be fully and completely fulfilled in the New Creation to come. 

Monday, September 28, 2015

All you have to do is... Seriously???

For this week's newspapers I answered a question about whether humans have free will and to what extent:  

Q:  Is it true that humans have a free will, or are our life and eternity laid down by another power which causes us to be destined for the events which happen? 

This is a question which both religion and philosophy have both struggled over the course of centuries, and among Christians, it has historically been the source of some of the most heated disagreements about doctrinal matters. 

Since for people who live in the Western world, particularly in the United States, much of our way of life is founded on the ideas of freedom and opportunity, we often get the impression that this freedom applies in all areas of life. 

When we are talking about earthly things, this is true for the most part.  The majority of the time, humans do have free will when it comes to merely earthly matters.  So, when it comes to what we eat, where we live, the things we purchase, what we will do for an occupation and how we will carry out that occupation, humans have a free choice, provided the choices of their fellow humans do not impose upon them. 

However, the Bible makes clear that in spiritual matters, circumstances are far different.  Some of the highlights among these include Paul’s statement in the book of Romans, quoting from the Psalms, that “No one seeks God” and “No one does good, not even one,”  along with the prophet Jeremiah’s statement that the human heart is deceitful above all things. 

Paul also makes statements throughout the books of Romans, Galatians, and Ephesians that salvation is “by grace,” that is that it is a pure gift.  Now if our salvation is a pure gift, except that we must exercise an act of free will to make a choice, then it is no longer pure gift, but rather the result of the human work of making a choice. 

In response to this, some have suggested that there is no free will at all in humans.  They conclude that humans have no free will at all in spiritual things, and some even extend this to earthly things to the extent that all things are caused and determined by God with humans merely carrying out what has been decreed. 

This oversimplifies a highly-nuanced teaching of Scripture, though, whether we apply this idea, called determinism or fatalism, to only spiritual things or to all of life.  Simple answers are always attractive, but rarely manage to answer the question with the full depth of Scripture. 

The witness of the Bible’s authors is consistently that God receives full credit for any person whose sin is forgiven and that they played no role in earning or deserving that gift.  However, when speaking of those who receive the punishment their own sins deserve, God never receives the blame, but that blame is rather squarely assigned to the person who committed the sin. 

There is also a distinction regarding whether the question is asked of a Christian or of an unconverted person.  For those who are apart from Christ, it is as if they possess a free will, but it is restrained to only choose evil in spiritual matters, and in capable of choosing good.  However, for those who have been given the gift of trust in Jesus, that will has been un-chained from that point forward, the new person created through faith and Baptism does indeed have a free will, although it continues to struggle against the old sinner that still dwells within them for the remainder of their natural life. 

Ultimately, humans do possess a free will, which all people are able to exercise in merely earthly matters, but none at all as it touches on salvation; and even after being freed by the Holy Spirit’s work it continues to struggle against sin’s restraints until they depart this life to await the final Resurrection with their Lord. 

Sunday, September 13, 2015

Born in the Wrong Body?

My article for this week's newspapers answers a question regarding the unity of the body and soul and those  who would suggest one is superior or that the two can be mis-matched:

Q:  Is it possible for a person to be “trapped in the wrong body” or for there to be a mismatch between who they are physically and spiritually?

It used to be that when a person said, “I am a marathon runner trapped in a sumo wrestler’s body,” or “I am a 29 year old trapped in a 70 year old body,” that it was merely a figure of speech that a person was using to indicate that their attitude did not line up with their physical attributes. 

Today, however, such claims are regularly stated with the intention of describing what a person believes to be a factual set of circumstances.  News stories abound where such statements are made about a given person’s race, sex, health, or abilities, but those who hear such claims, particularly Christians, would do well to consider the implications of such claims for our understanding of the human person if they would be factual. 

Philosophers in Greek and Roman times often debated whether a person was composed of two or three or another number of components parts.  Such explanations would include component parts such as body, soul, mind, and spirit, and in such systems of thought, it was usually proposed that the immaterial elements made up the real person and the body was portrayed either as incidental or sometimes even like a sort of prison. 

In other parts of the world, a variety of religious philosophies teach that the “real” person is the spirit, which is then born repeatedly through a series of several lifetimes, taking on different bodies.  The common theme between these views of the human person is that they begin with components, move to the idea of the person, then assign one component as the one that is essential to humanity and the others as auxiliary. 

Biblical understanding of humanity, on the other hand, sees the person, although composed of both material and immaterial aspects, as created whole.  This can be seen from the creation accounts of Genesis to Paul’s epistles, and everywhere between.  Any distinction or discrepancy we perceive between these aspects is only the result of a fallen world, and something we will only experience during our mortal lives, because we will be made whole at the resurrection. 

There are times when a person might perceive a difference between the roles or traits that society expects of them based on their outward characteristics, and they make such statements as a way of legitimately challenging the assigned traits which arise from culture rather than Scripture. 

In other cases, particularly those regarding gender, a person may suffer a biochemical irregularity which causes them to, feel, behave, or perceive themselves in ways that do not fit the body they are born with.  In such cases it is not that a wrong combination of material and immaterial elements have been joined in the person, or that one element is the real person and the other a mistake.  Instead, even though they were not created to feel the discord they experience, a part of them is not functioning as designed for them to be comfortable as the integrated human being that they were created to be. 

As Christians navigate these kind of difficulties themselves or help their neighbors who may suffer from such false perceptions, we recognize that they are a whole person, and since we cannot see or understand the inner workings of their immaterial elements, the body God gave them and its genetic code is the only reliable marker of who that person is before God. 

In light of this, we teach that one aspect of the person is not real while the other is false, but that they are a whole person.   Accordingly, we seek to the best of our ability to assist them in embracing and living out their reality as a whole person, and while they endure these struggles in this life, we support and encourage them through the gifts our Lord has given in His Church until our Lord returns to make them whole and align all things as He designed them to be. 

Monday, August 31, 2015

Circumcising Adiaphora

For this week's newspapers, I answered the final follow-up in a series of 3 about what makes and does not make a person sinful by answering how a Christian chooses about what to do when the action is neither commanded nor forbidden by genuine divine laws:  

Q:  If it is not the things we consume or touch, or even our actions, that determine our status before God, then how do Christians choose a course of action in decisions which involve things beyond the Ten Commandments?

When a person understands the fact that their status with God the Father is determined by Jesus and His perfect life and crucified death rather than their own performance, it can be a difficult adjustment because it seems at first to leave a vacuum in the area of ethics and morality. 

However, the Christian still honors God’s law, and even desires to keep it, but as a result of God’s goodness to them rather than as a condition of salvation.  When it regards which actions are a sin, this is guided by the Ten Commandments, as understood in the light of all of Scripture, but there are many choices where none of the options would seem to violate one of these commandments, but a choice still remains to be made. 

Sometimes, there are clear New Testament instructions on a matter, usually dealing with matters of the way the Church carries out its work.  One of the clearest examples of this is Paul’s instructions to Timothy and Titus about the qualifications for pastors and elders. 

In another instance, there was a question about whether the gentile Christians should eat certain meats or do other things that were forbidden by the Old Testament ceremonial law.  The result was that the apostles held a council at Jerusalem and determined that these laws did not apply to Gentiles when they became Christians, but that they should observe a few customs out of respect for their Jewish Christian neighbors. 

Paul Himself had to make a choice about the law of circumcision when he began to enlist the help of non-Jewish men as associates in the mission.  On one occasion, he decided that Timothy should be circumcised like the Jews were according to their law, but on another, he refused to allow Barnabas to be circumcised. 

This is because it was neither commanded nor forbidden that gentiles to be circumcised like Jewish people were before Jesus came, so Paul chose what best taught the people what they needed to understand.  This is what he means when he talks about “becoming all things to all men” in 1 Corinthians 9. 

Because Timothy would be serving in a setting where he would be among Jews, Paul allowed for him to be circumcised so that it would not be an obstacle to his congregation hearing and believing the Gospel.  On the other hand, Barnabas would be serving in a time and place where Judaizers were seeking to force the Old Testament law upon Christians, so Paul refused to allow his circumcision in order to demonstrate the Christians’ freedom from Old Testament ceremonial laws. 

In both cases, Paul made the decision that most clearly provided a path for people to hear and believe the Gospel without the corruption of false teaching—making concessions for the sake of those who might be weak, but standing firmly against those whose pride undermined the Gospel. 

Christians are called to similar commitments when faced with present customs and behaviors that are matters of controversy, but don’t relate to the sins specified in the Ten Commandments.  This would include things like alcohol or tobacco use, many expressions of language, and displays of wealth, among many others.  The Christian’s goal is to make such choices in the way that avoids being an obstacle for the Gospel or which tears down obstacles placed by others. 

So, when we make choices, we try to do what would be least confrontational to our neighbors who are offended by certain things because they are misinformed or fearful, but when confronted with opponents who seek to enforce their choices upon us out of pride, then we are called to stand against them so that our neighbors’ freedom and confidence in the Gospel would not be assaulted. 

Questions may be submitted by email to or sent to P.O. Box 195; Burt, IA  50522.

Rev. Jason P. Peterson

Pastor, St. John’s Lutheran Church – Burt

Monday, August 17, 2015

Abusing the Root of All Prohibition

For this week's newspapers, I answered a follow-up question to last week's answer about whether physical things can be inherently sinful:  

Q:  If it is not certain substances or objects which are the source of sinfulness, then what about alcohol, drugs, tobacco, gambling, and other things which play a role in so many problems in society?  Does the same method apply to examining the morality of actions? 

This question has made frequent appearance in English-speaking Christianity, particularly here in the United States.  Since so many societal ills involve abuse of alcohol, drugs, or other substances, people sometimes conclude that if you could rid society of the substance, you could eliminate the problem. 

Likewise, with actions, they often conclude that since an action has caused problems for some people in some circumstances, that the action itself must be evil—or at least in decrying the abuse of the action, they give the appearance that the action itself is a sin. 

However, such an approach is not in step with the worldview of Scripture or of the historic way the Church has approached such question.  Instead, honest analysis reveals that the problem is not with objects, or in some cases actions, but rather with the impure desires and motivations which drive people to misuse them.    The problem is not in the use or possession of the things, or the performance of many actions, but in their abuse. 

So, for example, the Old Testament frequently used wine as an illustration of joy and celebration and made other positive references to alcohol consumption, and St. Paul even instructed Timothy to use wine to aid with digestion.  Meanwhile, in the very same books of the Bible, the authors warned against drunkenness—the misuse of alcohol. 

Similarly, there are many prescription medications that are beneficial when used as prescribed, but harmful if misused.  Even in the case of illicit drugs, it is not as if sin was written into the chemical compound, but because the person is harming their own body by their use (5th Commandment), disobeying lawful authority (4th commandment), and treating God’s blessing of the body in a wasteful manner (7th Commandment). 

Sexual intimacy provides an excellent example where this idea can be applied to an action.  When it occurs between a husband and a wife in the context of marriage, it is a blessed thing which results in numerous benefits to the relationship of the couple, the foremost of which is the potential of conceiving a child. 

In contrast, when it is used in any other context, it results in spiritual harm, as well as increased risk of several kinds of physical and emotional consequences.  Similar to the way it is with things above, it is not the action which is sin, but the wrong use of the action. 

Consider also the popular saying that “Money is the root of all evil.”  This thought by many to be a saying from the Bible, but in reality it is a misquotation of a Biblical statement, which really says, “The love of money is the root of all evil.”  The misquoted statement attributes the sin to the object of money, but the genuine statement rightly blames its wrong use, by loving it, as the real problem. 

The Prohibition era in our country provides an excellent case study in this principle.  The Temperance movement advanced the idea that ridding the country of alcohol would result in a utopian society that was free of the problems people felt were most pressing at the time.  In reality, people obtained alcohol in other ways, discovered other substances to abuse in its place, and violent organized crime began to flourish as a direct result of what was intended to be a beneficial reform. 

Ultimately, it is this way with all sins.  Scholars of the commandments have rightly observed that every other commandment really points back to the First, “You shall have no other gods.”  Whenever a person misuses an object or an action, they are treating it as a god—no different than someone who bows down before a carved idol. 

The 2nd through 8th Commandments describe particular ways in which this occurs, and the final commandments about coveting bring the idea full circle by revealing that even the desire to have or do those things which one does not have the right to have or do is itself a sin even though the thing has not been obtained or the action accomplished. 

Thursday, August 6, 2015

Do not Handle, Do not Taste, Do not Touch!

My article from this week's newspapers answers a question about whether there are certain things that can make a Christian unrighteous by having contact with them:

Q:  Are there certain things that would be sinful for Christians to consume, hear, see, or come into contact with like there were in the Old Testament?  If so, what would those be? 

It seems that human understand instinctively that something has gone wrong in this world and that living here comes with a certain degree of spiritual danger.  In an effort to remedy this, prohibitions on contact with certain items in the physical world are a common feature among religions throughout the world. 

A common example is eating the meat of certain animals, or meat at all.  For others, they see certain places as forbidden or certain words that should never be uttered.  They may even propose that those who hear forbidden words or see others committing a forbidden act or come too close to a forbidden thing are made unholy or unclean by their contact. 

The Old Testament laws given to Israel bear a resemblance to the description above, but those who read them closely will discover that there is a distinct difference in the way that they approach this compared to the religions of the world. 

To begin with, Genesis describes several centuries where the Law of Moses is not in force, yet people like Noah, Abraham and Sarah, Isaac, Jacob and his twelve sons are not regarded as any less accepted because they do not have it or follow it.  This seems to indicate that these laws are for a certain time, place and purpose rather than being universal decrees.  

In addition, the objects and actions they forbid are not treated as defective in themselves, but they are to be avoided to teach a greater truth about sin.  So the people avoid touching lepers or certain animals and they follow certain grooming rituals as a way of showing them that sin corrupts them and must be cleansed. 

The ultimate goal of all of this was a promise given as early as the third chapter of Genesis that a particular descendent of Eve would one day arise to provide the permanent remedy for sin. 

When Jesus arrives, he disregards all of the extra regulations the Pharisees had made regarding what to avoid and how to wash if one might have contacted something or someone who was unclean.  He tells them, “There is nothing outside a person that by going into him can defile him, but the things that come out of a person are what defile him… Whatever goes into a person from outside cannot defile him, since it enters not his heart but his stomach, and is expelled?”

We also never see him go to the priests or the temple to be cleansed after he touches and heals a leper or someone with an unclean discharge or a demon.  This would have been required not only by the Pharisees but also the Law of Moses.  However, Jesus could not be made unclean, therefor had no need for cleansing.  Instead, his inherent cleanness flowed out to the person to heal them rather than their uncleanness being transferred to him. 

When the Apostle Paul was confronted with people who thought that Christians ought to avoid consuming or coming into contact with certain things, he responds by writing, “Therefore let no one pass judgment on you in questions of food and drink... “Do not handle, Do not taste, Do not touch” …These have indeed an appearance of wisdom in promoting self-made religion and asceticism and severity to the body, but they are of no value in stopping the indulgence of the flesh.” 

Jesus and Paul both demonstrate that what causes our problem with God is not what comes into us from outside but what comes out of our own hearts and desires.  For Christians, it is not a thing itself that is bad, such as food, drink, sexual intimacy, or any other earthly element, but rather when it is used in a way that is inconsistent with the Creator’s will.  The sin comes not from the earthly thing, but from our sinful desire to misuse it against our neighbors, against our own physical and spiritual well-being, and against the Lord who gave it. 

Monday, July 20, 2015

Sins, Debts, and Trespasses

For this week's newspapers, I answered a question about the different lengths and translations of the Lord's Prayer in English-speaking churches:

Q:  Why do some churches say the Lord’s Prayer with the line, “Forgive us our debts” while others use “Forgive us our trespasses,” and why do some stop with “deliver us from evil” while others have an additional line afterward?

While the Lord’s Prayer is considered the universal prayer among Christians because it was given by our Lord Himself, the differences noted in the question are matters of text and translation. 

The account of the giving of the Lord’s Prayer is told twice in the Bible—once by Matthew, and once by Luke.  Many ancient manuscripts of Matthew’s account include the line “for thine is the kingdom and the power and the glory forever and ever.  Amen” at the end of the prayer.  The ancient manuscripts of Luke, in comparison, do not typically show this line.  In fact, many of the manuscripts of Luke are also missing the line, “but deliver us from evil.” 

These differences between Matthew and Luke’s recording of the Lord’s Prayer account for the diversity of length in the prayer.  The most likely explanation is that the line, “deliver us from evil” is original to the prayer, but that those who copied Luke’s Gospel accidentally omitted it on a few occasions. 

The longer ending of Matthew’s prayer probably arises because as it was used in the liturgies of the early church of the first century, similar to the way that “Glory be to the Father, and to the Son, and to the Holy Spirit, as it was in the beginning, is now, and ever shall be.  Amen.”  is typically added to the end of Psalms among Christians. 

Since Matthew’s Gospel was intended as a catechism for instructing people who had come to Christianity from Judaism, he would likely have included the prayer in the form it was said in the liturgy.  Some liturgies of the time even included an even longer ending “…and the glory, of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit for ever.  Amen.”  And on rare occasions, an ancient copy of Matthew is even found with this very long ending included in the prayer. 

So, when churches use a longer or shorter version of the Lord’s Prayer, it is primarily just the difference between the version of the prayer recorded in Matthew and the version recorded in Luke—and both are Biblical. 

The difference between “forgive us our debts” and “forgive us our trespasses” is one of translation in addition to synonyms used for sin by Matthew and Luke.  The Matthew version uses a Greek word very similar to the English word “debt,” while the Luke version uses the word that is the typical word for “sins” in the New Testament.  Some more modern attempts at translating the Lord’s Prayer have even attempted to use the translation “forgive us our sins, as we forgive those who sin against us,” but they have not been widely accepted. 

When the word “debts” is used in the Lord’s Prayer, it is because that particular translation is based on the King James tradition of translating the Gospel of Matthew.  The translation of “trespasses” has its roots in the Tyndale Bible and the Book of Common Prayer, which pre-date the King James Bible by several decades, so it is actually the older translation into English, although it may seem new to some who grew up hearing the petition with the word “debts.” 

Because of its use in the Book of Common Prayer for Anglican worship, “trespasses” became the default translation of all the natively-English traditions of Christianity.  For Lutherans (who spoke German upon arriving in America) and Catholics (who conducted the Mass in Latin until recent years), they also picked up the translation “trespasses” upon beginning to worship in English, making it the majority version of the prayer in the present day. 

Regardless of the translation, though, the meaning of the petition is the same.  When we sin, we trespass against the boundary of God’s law, and sins committed by humans create a debt that we owe both to God and the neighbors we sin against, which can only be paid back by Jesus crucified death.  Each of the words emphasizes a different nuance of this truth, but all point to the same problem and the same Savior who is its remedy. 

Wednesday, July 8, 2015


For this week's newspapers, I answered a reader question about displaying flags in church:  

Q:  Why is the American flag often displayed in the sanctuary of churches?  Is it appropriate to have a symbol of the nation in the midst of the worship of God, or does it violate the separation of church and state? 

In spite of the fact that flags have been present for as long as most presently-living individuals can remember, the installation of flags in church sanctuaries is actually a relatively recent and primarily American development. 

The earliest Christians would certainly not have had national symbols among them when they gathered, because they were considered criminals by the Roman Empire for refusing to worship Caesar as god, and throughout Medieval Europe, flags and other national symbols were typically considered something for the ruling classes, and not displayed among the common people or in their churches. 

When the American Revolution began, patriotic sentiments rose among citizens, churches with a more uniquely American ethos began to see the flag displayed outside of churches, sometimes draped from the pulpit for certain occasions and carried in Sunday School or Vacation Bible School processions.  This grew in frequency during the Civil War, but was still not common among more internationally oriented churches, such as Lutherans, Orthodox, and Roman Catholics. 

The two World Wars of the 20th century, and the racial and ethnic biases that accompanied them, are largely responsible for the wider acceptance of flag display inside of church buildings, even moving them from the entryways or fellowship halls right up into the front of the church itself.  Today, there is no Canon Law regarding flag display, and it is left to the Diocese or Congregation to decide among Roman Catholics.  Flag display is more disputed among the Orthodox, who do not typically have as close a relationship with governments as the Roman Church. 

For Lutherans, who were some of the last holdouts against flag display, and other people who were ethnically German, World War 1 was the advent of flag display in their churches as a way of refuting accusations that they were sympathizers with the Kaiser in Germany because they still conducted services in German.  In World War 2, flag display became nearly universal in order to avoid similar accusations, and German worship also declined rapidly at this time in favor of English. 

The final volley which cemented flag display in churches was the Flag Day proclamation in 1954, in which President Eisenhower signed the act adding the words “under god” to the Pledge of Allegiance.  Coupled with the patriotism which accompanied the Cold War, this convinced most of the remaining holdouts to end their opposition to flag display in churches, and the Russian Orthodox also began adopting flag display at this time because of accusations of Soviet sympathies for conducting services in Russian. 

Today, support for flag display in churches is common, but not as common as it was in the Cold War era.  One concern raised about the display of flags in churches is that it gives the appearance that the nation or its government are being worshipped or that they have a place equal to or nearly-equal to God.  Others raise the objection that the Church is an international body which is composed of all nations, and therefore the appearance of loyalty to a particular nation is inappropriate. 

Others are uneasy with the possibility of giving the appearance that the church endorses the actions of the nation.  This fear arose in the past during wars which might have been considered unjust.  Similar concerns are rising again today when the laws of the nation are becoming more at odds with the teachings of the Church, and the likelihood that the government will become openly hostile to certain churches and their members is rising. 

On the other hand, some point to the fact that obedience to lawful authority is a virtue promoted in the Fourth Commandment and that the New Testament encourages believers to submit to governing authorities, assuming it obvious that obedience to God outweighs loyalty to the nation. 

Today, with a population of pastors and members who are farther removed from the two World Wars and the Cold War, we may very well see more careful examination of the practice of displaying the national flag in churches, but the ultimate conclusion and how that will impact continued display of the flag remains to be seen.  

Monday, June 8, 2015

Can Yoga be Baptized?

For this week's newspapers, I answered a question about Christians doing Yoga:

Q:  What is the source for Yoga exercise and are there any spiritual components to it?  Are there any concerns that Christians should have with engaging in Yoga?

When many North Americans think of Yoga, the image that comes to mind is the slow movements, static postures, and controlled breathing of demonstration videos and popular exercise classes found in the Western world.  Although this discipline gives a first impression of the foreign and exotic, most would not immediately detect anything obviously spiritual about these exercises. 

However, the origins of Yoga are deeply spiritual.  They originate in India and the surrounding area centuries ago, and served as a method of spiritual advancement in the Hindu religion.  In Hinduism, it is taught that people experience many lifetimes in this world through reincarnation, and their experience of subsequent lives is based on Karma—a measurement of guilt they build up based on their actions in previous lives.

Because adherents to Hinduism desire to have a better life in their next incarnation or to escape the cycle of reincarnation entirely and give up their individual identity and be reabsorbed into the divine, they developed a set of spiritual disciplines called Yogas which they believe will achieve that goal. 

The Yoga exercise with which we are familiar in North America is one of those disciplines, called Hatha Yoga.  There are at least 5 other disciplines that involve meditation, knowledge, work, and spiritual devotion, and a final yoga that uses the methods of the others together to achieve the goal of higher consciousness and realization of the divine. 

Hatha Yoga was originally developed with the understanding that one could use positions of the body to achieve spiritual results.  In particular, by imitating the shapes or postures of elements of nature, Hindus understand that they can appropriate the characteristics of those entities for themselves. 

In light of this, and the growing popularity of Yoga as exercise in our country, many Christians have faced the need to evaluate whether Yoga is advisable for Christians, or whether those who participate are flirting with or actually committing idolatry by engaging in the worship of a non-Christian religion. 

Some have proposed that Yoga can be sanitized of its spiritual elements so that a person can attain the physical and emotional benefits that it claims to offer without concerns of spiritual transgression.  Some have even developed “Christian Yoga” classes that replace the Hindu spiritual elements with Scripture or prayer.  Detractors have responded that athletic science is able to formulate a program of exercise that will achieve superior results without the concerns of the spiritual origins of Yoga. 

Other Christians advocate that Yoga should be avoided completely regardless of emotional or physical benefits it might offer, because it is tainted by its spiritual origins, and that attempts to sanitize it do not render it spiritually neutral.  They argue that because spiritual evil is behind all non-Christian religions, any association with their forms of devotion introduces the risk of spiritual harm, and therefore they are to be avoided. 

They also raise concerns about implications for the witness of Christians to the world, because they believe it gives the appearance of blending religions and communicates that many religions lead to the True God or that divine truth can be accessed apart from Jesus. 

For the Christian, the answer can never be “It’s just exercise, isn’t it?” Instead, it is necessary to contemplate the wisdom of engaging with this spiritual practice of Hinduism in light of their own beliefs about the spiritual world and make an informed evaluation about the effectiveness of sanitizing it of spiritual elements before they conclude how those answers compare to their own conscience as guided by the First Commandment – “You shall have no other gods in my presence.” 

Monday, May 25, 2015

Contemplate or Meditate?

My article from this week's newspapers answers a question about Meditation:

Q:  Is Meditation something that is compatible with the spiritual life of a Christian, or is it a practice that could pose potential spiritual harm?

The word meditation can be found in many English translations of the Bible, the majority of which are in the Psalms, particularly Psalm 119.  Even though the word is used, its context in the Psalms reflects that this is something dramatically different from what we typically mean when we think of meditation today. 

The practice that the word meditation typically refers to is a spiritual exercise which has its source in Eastern religions, particularly Hinduism and Buddhism.  These religions have a fundamentally different understanding of the way that the spiritual world functions than Christians do, and this is reflected in their practice of meditation. 

Meditation as performed and taught in these Eastern religions has diverse outward appearances, and may follow a variety of methods, but their goal and the mechanism by which they purport to function reflects an opposite understanding of the direction in which spiritual ills are cured. 

In Biblical thought, the spiritual problem lies within humans, manifested in such things as selfishness, violence, lust, hatred, and other forms of evil; and the solution to spiritual ills is found outside of us in the cross and resurrection of Jesus, the benefits of which are delivered through God’s Word and the Sacraments. 

In Hindu and Buddhist thought, it is proposed that humans are really one with the divine and the realization of this is found by looking inward through such things as meditation.  So, if the Christian realizes that inside of ourselves we find nothing but sin, filth, and evil, it would be counter-productive to try to seek solutions by looking within oneself. 

The meditation described in the psalms also differs dramatically from Eastern forms of meditation in that it is a thought-filled meditation where one consciously contemplates the content of Scripture to better understand it and discern its message, while Eastern forms of meditation encourage the practitioner to empty oneself of thought to achieve the goal of reaching a supposed higher form of consciousness or awareness which is not accessible through ordinary means.  In fact, contemplation would probably be a more accurate translation of the word the Psalms use, rather than meditation. 

This is also understood by Eastern practitioners to occur because this empty-minded state is said to open one up to the spiritual world around them, which openness then provides a form of enlightenment through interaction with the divine.  However, such a proposition assumes that everything spiritual is good.  In contrast, a Biblical understanding of the spiritual world sees that there are harmful elements in the spiritual world which would deceive and lead us away from what is true, and Scripture repeatedly admonishes people to be watchful and on guard against such things—a state which would not be compatible with the state of spiritual vulnerability created by Eastern meditation. 

While Christian might desire some of the auxiliary benefits often attributed to Eastern meditation, such as relaxation, mental focus, or stress relief, the use of a spiritual exercise from a foreign spirituality which contradicts Christianity would not be and advisable avenue by which to achieve them.  Instead, Spiritual practices like prayer and Scriptural contemplation, along with non-spiritual relaxation and stress-relief techniques from the medical sciences are a more appropriate way to achieve these goals without violating their Biblically-informed conscience or compromising spiritual truth.