Are we being Ahab?

Micaiah continued, “Therefore hear the word of the Lord: I saw the Lord sitting on his throne with all the multitudes of heaven standing around him on his right and on his left. And the Lord said, ‘Who will entice Ahab into attacking Ramoth Gilead and going to his death there?’ “One suggested this, and another that. Finally, a spirit came forward, stood before the Lord and said, ‘I will entice him.’ (1 Kings 22:19-21, NIV)

I’m always intrigued by how God does things in the prophetic books.

Here, we find YHWH seated in the throne room surrounded by the throngs of heaven and looking for one of them to come up with a plan that will get the king of Israel to enter in a war that will lead to his death. It raises interesting questions for me. The first being, why doesn’t God just strike Ahab down?

Equally interesting to me is that God sends the spirit to deceive the prophets of Israel, but when Micaiah inquires of the Lord, the truth is revealed. God who had a spirit put lies into the mouths of the 400 prophets, would not lie when Micaiah sought out the Lord.

Ahab and Jehoshaphat are aware of the unreliability of the 400 because they seek out Micaiah after hearing the rousing encouragement to go to war with Aram, which would breach a three-year peace. Is it that the 400 are the court-appointed prophets of the king, yes men who exist to approve what the king wants? Are they the successors to the 400 who Elijah faced down in his earlier conflict with Ahab? Such men are useful to a king, but no help when things really matter and truth is required.

The exchange between Ahab and Jehoshaphat before Micaiah is brought forward may shed some light for us. Ahab said he did not want to bring in Micaiah because he only says bad things and never good. Jehoshaphat admonishes Ahab for that attitude, and yet Jehoshaphat does end up going to war with Ahab, even trying to protect his fellow king by trading clothing with him.

It is an interesting and rich story.

It leaves me wondering where the church — specifically the piece of it in which I reside — is seeking to inquire of the Lord and where we are listening to the voices of the prophets that we put in place to tell us what we want to hear. Who are the 400 and who is Micaiah?

Or, as Jesus is our prophet, are we listening carefully to him or turning our backs when he says bad things about us that we do not wish to hear. Are we being Ahab all over again?

I am a goat

 “When the Son of Man comes in his glory, and all the angels with him, he will sit on his glorious throne. All the nations will be gathered before him, and he will separate the people one from another as a shepherd separates the sheep from the goats. He will put the sheep on his right and the goats on his left. (Matthew 25:31-33, NIV)

In a conversation over on Morgan Guyton’s blog, he asked me whether I ever felt as if I deserve eternal torment.

It was a good question. Like all good questions, it brought something from my own life into clearer focus. It pointed out to me that I analyze the situation from the other side. I don’t start with the assumption that I deserve paradise and God must prove the case if he would take it from me. I don’t put God in the dock. Continue reading

The eternal damnation of Kirk Douglas

In Harm’s Way is an old movie, but an interesting one to reflect upon from a pastoral point-of-view. In the movie, Paul Eddington, played by Kirk Douglas, is a skilled naval officer with deep flaws. He drinks too much and has a volcanic temper. Near the end of the movie he rapes a young nurse. When the woman commits suicide, he runs off on a suicide mission of his own that secure vital information for the American forces.

He is part hero, part villain, although the movie clearly gives him respect for the qualities that make him useful in war.

I’m sure most people don’t ask this question, but I found myself wondering about the eternal fate of the Eddington character. Of course, he is fictional, so this is hypothetical. And, of course, were he not fictional, it is not my job to judge the living and the dead. That job is taken already. And yet, I was musing about this.

Eddington’s rape of the nurse surely is not outweighed by his other good qualities.

At the resurrection, when the sea gives up its dead, and Paul Eddington stands before the throne, do his rape of that girl and other sins outweigh whatever good qualities and virtues we might say he had? Does he partake of the life in the heavenly city or is he cast into the lake of fire?

I can hear multiple arguments.

If we have a high view of holiness, then it is hard to imagine any option other than the lake of fire. Other than a worldly sense of honor and loyalty, we see little in his character that sounds like Jesus. Even his self-sacrifice was fleeing the consequences and shame of his crime.

But then I think of Abraham haggling with Yahweh over Sodom and Gomorrah. For the sake of even a handful of righteous people, won’t you spare the city, Abraham asks. And God agrees. For the sake of what is good in Paul Eddington, will God spare the man whose evil is plain to see?

It is enough to make me sympathetic to the Roman Catholic creation of purgatory and Rob Bell’s recoiling over the notion of eternal torment for temporal sins. Given a choice between heaven and hell, I’m not sure where to put Eddington for eternity. I suppose that is why I do not have the job of deciding such things.

Do I make broad what is narrow?

“Enter through the narrow gate. For wide is the gate and broad is the road that leads to destruction, and many enter through it. But small is the gate and narrow the road that leads to life, and only a few find it.” (Matthew 7:13-14, NIV)

These words were brought to mind recently listen to someone opine about the love of God. The gist of the argument this person was making was that if God loves us, he would never hold against us such minor things as the kinds of sins most of us do. It would really be unfair and disproportionate to leave in the power of the devil those who do not conform — or aspire to conform — to a high standard of holiness.

And as pleasing as this sounds to my ears, I cannot avoid thinking of Scripture passages that appear to say the very opposite. The above from the Sermon on the Mount stands out the most clearly to me.

The biblical witness appears to describe a black and white choice. With apologies to Adam Hamilton, the Scripture does not appear to see much gray. There is a way of life and there is a way of death.

In his sermon on the two verses at the top of this post, John Wesley pointed out just how broad the way of death is:

For sin is the gate of hell, and wickedness the way to destruction. And how wide a gate is that of sin! How broad is the way of wickedness! The “commandment” of God “is exceeding broad;” as extending not only to all our actions, but to every word which goeth out of our lips, yea, every thought that rises in our heart. And sin is equally broad with the commandment, seeing any breach of the commandment is sin. Yea, rather, it is a thousand times broader; since there is only one way of keeping the commandment; for we do not properly keep it, unless both the thing done, the manner of doing it, and all the other circumstances, are right: But there are a thousand ways of breaking every commandment; so that this gate is wide indeed.

Now we recoil at this description of God and our status before him. I have long lost count of the number of people who have told me that talking about sin with people is the surest way to turn them away from God. I have to admit that all the talk and my own natural inclination to get along with people and not offend has kept me from preaching about the topic nearly as much as John Wesley would have me do it.

In the end, though, my people pleasing side just cannot shut up the voice of Scripture. Both testaments speak of the holiness of God in very clear terms. Neither describes a large mushy gray area between the way of life and the way of death, the holy and the unholy, the righteous and the wicked. As much as we Wesleyans like to talk about both/and, the Scripture trades in a lot of either/or talk about these issues.

So, then, how can I be a faithful preacher and proclaimer of Scripture and not draw attention to passages such as Matthew 7:13-14 and the other places where Scripture teaches us to mind where we tread?

Fish for the furnace

Again, the kingdom of heaven is like a net that people threw into the lake and gathered all kinds of fish. When it was full, the pulled it to the shore, where they sat down and put the good fish together into containers. But the bad fish they threw away. That’s the way it will be at the end of the present age. The angels will go out and separate the evil people from the righteous people, and will throw the evil ones into a burning furnace. People there will be weeping and grinding their teeth. (MT 13:47-50, CEB)

Two thoughts that I cannot escape based on the many passages similar to this in the New Testament.

Thought 1: There will be a sorting, a judgment. In that sorting we find only two categories ever mentioned. We find no gray, middle category of mostly righteous or only sort of wicked people. At least not one I can find anywhere in the New Testament. The Bible, however, is not really clear on where the fault line is between the good fish and the bad. Much of the differences among Christians might be fruitfully analyzed in terms of how bad a fish you have to be before they think you are heading for the furnace.

Thought 2: It is not my job to do the sorting. This is the work of Jesus and his angels. The net will haul us all in together. While I don’t think such a realization is an excuse to ignore church discipline, it is a relief for those of us who sometimes mistakenly assume Jesus appointed us to go around sniffing the fish to figure out which ones have gone bad.


An Earnest Appeal: The pardon of Christ

In a previous post, I wrote about the nature of faith as described in John Wesley’s “An Earnest Appeal to Men of Reason and Religion.” Here we look at the role of Christ in the religion of love that Wesley expounds in that pamphlet.

Wesley had described faith as like growing a new set of spiritual eyes. It is by grace being given the perception of God and the things of God. When we have this faith, Wesley wrote, we experience a radical change that breaks sin, implants peace, and saves us.

But this talk of being saved by faith must have raised some objections. Where was the work of Christ in this faith and religion that Wesley was describing? The answer to this question lead to some of the more interesting passages in the entire pamphlet.

Wesley’s argument on this topic arises out of his discussion of assurance. In describing faith, he closely connects it with assurance, which makes sense as he defines faith in terms of Hebrews 11 — a confidence or evidence or conviction of things not seen. Having confidence in the love of God is the very definition of faith as Wesley describes it here.

But that confidence arises not, again, from some sort of intellectual assent to a doctrine or argument. The confidence arises as we experience the love of God. That love that we experience — Wesley will use the words know and feel — is the love of a forgiving and pardoning God. We know that God loves us because we have witnessed by faith the forgiveness of God.

Pardoning love is still at the root of all. He who was offended is now reconciled. … A confidence then in a pardoning God is essential to saving faith. The forgiveness of sins is one of the first of those things whereof faith is the evidence.

Wesley writes elsewhere of the atoning work of Christ and the death of Christ as the meritorious cause of our justification. Here, however, he contends for the experience of Christ’s forgiveness rather than the doctrine of it.

In some circles, the description of it all these concepts — faith, pardon, the nature of religion — appears to run like this. We hold a mental commitment that Christ died for us. This is called faith. Because of this faith, we appropriate the forgiveness of sins that Jesus accomplished on our behalf on the cross. This makes us new creatures. We strive to live as God’s people.

This is how I hear it working for Wesley, at least in this pamphlet. We are blind. We do not see God. Even if we are zealous for every outward thing of religion, inside we are dead and blind to God. As a consequence, we are ill at ease. We are anxious. We are not happy in God. We are sin plagued and sin sick. By the grace of God, our dead eyes are opened. Our deaf ears are unstopped. We come to see and hear what before was hidden from us by sin. Among the things that we witness are the forgiving and pardoning love of God through Jesus Christ. Because he loves us, we find our hearts filled with the love of God, spilling over and out to the love of every man, woman, and child. And as we abide in this love, we grow in holiness.

The notes Wesley plays are the same as most evangelical theology, but the arrangement and key are different.

At least, this is how I read his argument in this particular piece of writing. My reading may be off, or he may have later modified his own understanding, but I find his approach defies the easy formulas that I often see us trying to cram him into. This is why I keep reading him.