Thursday, December 11, 2014

Heaven is for Real - A Review

“Heaven is for Real”, written by Todd Burpo with Lynn Vincent
Published by Thomas Nelson, 2010


        Beloved, do not believe every spirit, but test the spirits to see whether they are from God, for many false prophets have gone out into the world. (1 John 4:1 ESV)

       The goal of this paper is to make people aware of the content of the book “Heaven is for Real”.  More specifically, to bring to light the serious  theological problems with the book.  This book, a national bestseller, is being read by leaders and laypeople alike all over the U.S. and, although I have seen some alarms raised, for the most part I have observed general acceptance of the account and statements offered in the book by these people.  I believe this is not only a problem but a terrifying commentary on the state of the church. 
       In a day and age when whole congregations and denominations are sliding or have slid into apostasy the church, more than ever, needs to rediscover (among other things) the reformational call to ‘Sola Scriptura’[1].  At one time the Bible was the church’s standard for faith and practice.  When it came to matters of the nature and character of God, the condition and remedy of man, how to live out our faith and the final destination of the saved and the lost, the Bible was the word of truth and authority and it was final.    
       We are told in the book of Acts that as Paul was sharing the gospel with a particular group of Jews in Berea that they didn’t simply take him at his word, rather they went to Scriptures:

        Now these Jews were more noble than those in Thessalonica; they received the word with all eagerness, examining the Scriptures daily to see if these things were so.  (Acts 17:11)[2]

        The story of Paul’s mission to Berea provides an example all believers should take to heart.  If one reads through the Old and New Testaments it is easy to see that this standard wasn’t isolated to a small group of Jews and one apostle but was likewise the standard of all the Old Testament prophets, the Psalmists the Apostles, the authors of the gospels and even Jesus himself!  How much more should it be the standard of the church, built upon the foundation of the Apostles and with Jesus as the cornerstone[3], in these last days?
My hope is that this review will not be seen as an attack upon the authors or readers but rather as what it is intended to be:  a call to God’s people to regain a high view of Scripture and its Author and to serve as a wakeup call to the church from her apathy.  There are wolves in the fold just as we were warned there would be:

        I know that after my departure fierce wolves will come in among you, not sparing the flock; and from among your own selves will arise men speaking twisted things, to draw away the disciples after them. Therefore be alert… (Acts 20:29-31a ESV)

        We must be alert for anything that will hurt the flock or bring dishonor to our God.  Sometimes this hurt, like a wolf in sheep’s skin, looks innocuous enough but before long the damage has been done and much effort must be put into restoration.  This isn’t something that is the responsibility of the leaders only but of every believer.  We are all priests[4] and therefore, in some measure, bear the responsibility of protecting the flock.  


“Sometimes things become possible if we want them bad enough.”  T.S. Eliot

 “I saw you arrive: you flew. Everyone else was so busy seeing the King off that nobody knew. Except me. I happened to notice you, you flew."   Glimfeather, The Silver Chair, C.S. Lewis.

“What is truth?”  Pontius Pilate

        The first thing I wish to do in the next two sections is establish first that Todd believes his son really did go to heaven.  Indeed, all of the Burpos believe this but since Todd is the author of the book I feel it is important we establish his position on the account.  Second, I wish to make clear Todd’s intention for writing the book, which I believe is to convince the reader of the truthfulness of the account.
       When discussing this book I often hear people say, “I read the book as a fictional account”.  The idea being that if the book is seen as fictional then the extra biblical material can be taken as fanciful and therefore no one need take it too seriously.  The book, therefore, merely serves to be a source of inspiration.  However, I find this approach to be disingenuous at best because it ignores the implicit contract that exists between two parties:  That of the reader and the author.  The author, when he or she writes, intends to convey certain specific ideas to the reader and although there can be a fair amount of play in what the reader takes away from the book there are certain things that are not open for interpretation without the reader putting words (literally) into the author’s mouth[5].  Therefore it is important for us to ask the question, “What did the author intend to convey?”.
        In the book under review it is important for us to understand what Todd Burpo intended to convey to his audience. Did he believe what his son told him to be the truth?  Did Todd believe he was conveying truth to his readers?  It is clear that Todd is concerned with knowing the truth of his son’s experience, a point he makes clear on page 87.  Todd was concerned he might lead his son into saying something he might not have otherwise said. Todd writes, “I didn’t want him just feeding me back stuff to please me.  I wanted to know the truth.”  Todd’s intentions are to discover this truth and, as we shall see, to convey it to an audience.
       But first, before we get to Todd’s account, I want to quote a few passages from the beginning of the book under the title, “Praise for heaven is for real.”  I only include these because not only do they show what other “believers” are saying about the book, but the fact that they are included serves to underscore Todd’s opinion of the information he is offering.  If Todd did not share the opinions of these people it would have been unlikely he would have allowed them to be included in book in the first place.  At the very least he would certainly have spoken out against them elsewhere. Yet, to this date I am unaware he has done so.

“...Take a journey with Colton and Todd as they describe firsthand the wonders, mysteries and majesty of heaven...”  Brady Boyd.

“...I could hardly put [the book] down! Why?  Because I know the author and I believe him.  Todd Burpo gives us a wonderful gift as he and his son lift the veil on eternity, allowing us a quick glimpse of what lies on the other side.”  Dr. Everett Piper,  President, Oklahoma Wesleyan University.

“Colton’s story could have been in the New Testament--but God has chosen to speak to us in this twenty-first century through the unblemished eyes of a child, revealing some of the mysteries of heaven...”  Jo Anne Lyon, General Superintendent, The Wesleyan Church.

“...If heaven is something that intrigues you or troubles you, if you wonder what our lives will be like, then I highly recommend this book.”  Sheila Walsh, WOF[6] Speaker and Author.

As we can see from the above quotes, other readers, including key leaders in Todd’s denomination, believe the Burpos’ account to be an actual trip to heaven.  But what about Todd?  Did he believe his son’s account to be true?  Did he find the truth he was looking for?  I believe so. 
As Todd and Sonja began getting more information about their son’s experience Todd finds himself believing what Colton is telling them.  He writes, “I realized I was starting to accept that, yes, maybe Colton really had been to heaven.  I felt like our family had received a gift…” (pg. 71). 

“I drew in a sharp breath.  [Colton] saw this.  He had to have.”  pg.  67[7]

       Speaking about the tragic death of their unborn child and their struggle to believe, without doubt, that she was in heaven, Todd writes on page 97, “We had wanted to believe that our unborn child had gone to heaven.  Even though the Bible is largely silent on this point, we had accepted it on faith.  But now, we had an eyewitness…” [italics mine].
       I will comment more thoroughly on this particular quote later.  For now it suffices to show Todd and his wife believed their son to be an eyewitness to their daughter who met him in heaven.  Before this the Burpos did not even know the gender of the child.
        Todd appears to oscillate between tentative belief and incredulity throughout the book, although he clearly ends the book as a firm believer in his son’s testimony. So it is understandable if you find yourself confused on this point as you read the book. I think it is better to understand Todd’s commitment to the veracity of his son’s account being an overriding theme throughout the book with his doubts being offered to assuage the reader of their own doubts.  It would be easier to discard Todd’s account if we thought he had believed everything his son said right from the beginning without hesitation.  We might consider him simply as being too gullible.  Instead Todd makes it clear that he himself struggled with doubt but eventually overcame these doubts to arrive at, what he believes, is the truth.
       An example of this is found on page 104. Todd writes, “I believed.  But how could I be sure?”  He then devises a test for his son.  He would ask him something that he knew to be theologically wrong and see what his son had to say about it.  In this case he asks his son what he did in heaven at nighttime when it got dark.  His son correctly assures Todd that there is no night in heaven because God and Jesus light up heaven.  Although it isn’t explicitly stated, it is fairly obvious that Todd felt his son had passed the test with flying colors.
       Finally, on page 148, Todd responds to people who have called their family blessed for what Colton experienced in heaven.  He writes, “In the sense that we’ve had a glimpse through the veil that separates earth from eternity, they’re right.”   Gone now are the doubts that troubled Todd.  Colton has been to heaven and his experience has given him (and all of us) a glimpse of our future home. 
       In moving forward we can rest assured that Todd believes his son’s account to be factual.  It simply will not do for us to read this book with any other understanding.  Why?  First, because the author intends it to be read this way and, more importantly, very few others in our congregations are reading it this way.  They are taking the book at face value:  an actual eyewitness account of heaven.  And because of this they are (or at least in danger of) incorporating the views expressed in this book into their own theological framework, whether intentional or not.  For this reason alone leaders in the church need to be ready to give solid, biblical answers to the questions brought up by the book as well as being ready to counter to any wrong answers given in the book.  

Der Wunderkind: Laying the groundwork for a story to be believed

“Though this be madness, yet there is method in’t.”  Hamlet, William Shakespeare

“Almost thou persuadest me…!”  King Agrippa

        If we want people to believe our story, we first have to convince people it is believeable.  So I don’t fault Todd for attempting to lay the groundwork for a believable story.  After all, having a four year old as your firsthand source can be both a blessing and a curse for a writer.  Yet I sometimes get the feeling he is trying too hard to get his readership onboard.  True, Colton seems like a great kid, but is it to be believed he is as innocent and his eyes as “unblemished” as Todd claims?  It is easy for us to see our own children as the epitome of childhood innocence, but I think if we who are parents are honest we will admit the fallen nature rears its ugly head fairly early on in our children’s lives.   And perhaps it is Todd’s attempts to connect with his readers, many who are parents, using his son’s innocence as an acid test of the story’s veracity which leaves me a bit skeptical.
        In the prologue, on page xviii, Todd tells us, “Colton was in that narrow window of life where he hadn’t yet learned either tact or guile.”   I completely agree with the first part of Todd’s assessment.  Tact not only doesn’t come naturally to children, it is usually completely lacking, much to the horror of most parents.  However, I find the second part a bit hard to swallow.  Colton was without guile?  No deception, no lying, no attempt to alter the truth in any way?  Perhaps.  But as a parent of six children, all who were four years old at one time, I can say unequivocally that Colton must be one special child.  I’m not saying that my kids were habitual liars, but their nature was adamic and it showed on more than one occasion. 
        On page 59 Todd recounts an intense and embarrassing scene at a funeral.  Colton says some things to which Todd tells us, “...Colton was at that age where if something popped into his head, he’d just blurt it out.”   Again, there is nothing wrong with this statement, I only include it because it appears to be a part of an ongoing attempt by Todd to assure us his son has no ulterior motives.  Colton is simply calling it as he sees it.  
        Later Todd has a discussion with Colton and is struck by not only the answers (I’ll be discussing these later) but also by how he responds.  He writes, “I was also struck by how quickly Colton answered my questions.  He spoke with the simple conviction of an eyewitness, not the carefulness of someone remembering the “right” answers learned in Sunday school or from a book”.  Once again, Todd tries to assure us that Colton cannot possibly be lying because he isn’t taking time to come up with the “right” answers.  It is interesting to note in passing that when a person is reciting a rehearsed story they have a tendency to do exactly what Colton was doing, responding quickly. Rehearsal is exactly what allows someone to respond quickly and without thinking about it. I am not saying that Colton is purposefully lying here, only that it isn’t necessarily the best proof of a narrative’s truthfulness.  
        In conclusion I want to emphasize that I am not saying Colton is lying.  In fact, Colton or even Todd’s morality isn’t the point of this paper.  Todd’s statements are simply an ongoing effort on his part to persuade us that what his son is telling him is true and therefore should be believed.  This simply serves to  underscore the conclusion I drew in the last chapter. Todd believes his son really went to heaven and is accurately relaying what he saw.  Todd believes his son is telling the truth because his son could not possibly be lying; it isn’t in his nature.  But we all know that deception is in our nature.  We are, as C.S. Lewis so aptly put it, sons of adam and daughters of eve.  Let’s now turn our attention to what Colton saw while he was in heaven.

A four year old’s take on heaven (according to an adult)

“It's a dream baby, it's a beautiful one, but you know dreams…”  Chris Nielson, What Dreams May Come (movie)

“Death and what came after death was no great mystery to Sabriel. She just wished it was.”  Sabriel, Garth Nix

       I believe that I’ve established sufficiently that the Burpos believe that their son went to heaven, saw the things he did and have accurately conveyed what he saw.  I also believe I have established that it is Todd’s intention to convey this “truth” to his readers.  WIth that out of the way, I wish to discuss some of the things that Colton saw.
       On page 63 we are told by Colton (via Todd) that Jesus had a rainbow colored horse even though scripture tells us that Jesus actually has a white horse.

        Then I saw heaven opened, and behold, a white horse! The one sitting on it is called Faithful and True, and in righteousness he judges and makes war. (Revelation 19:11 ESV)

       Perhaps he has more than one?
       On page 65 Todd asks his son what Jesus looked like.  The description Colton gave was:

* Jesus had “makers” on his hands.  On page 67 we find out that Colton was describing the nail imprints. 
* Jesus wore a white robe with a purple sash going from his left shoulder to his right hip.
* He had brown hair and beard.
* His eyes were “pretty”.   Later we find out they were blue (see below).
* He wears a crown with a pink diamond in the middle.

      Later on Colton saw a painting by a young prodigy named Akiane Kramarik that he claims looks like the Jesus he saw.  Akiane Kramarik hears God speak to her regularly and she claims he helped her draw the painting by providing dreams of Jesus and an actual male model to use as a basis of her “Prince of Peace” painting.

       Todd insists that his son could not know these details.  Yet his explanation is striking:

“I knew he wasn’t making it up.  I was pretty sure neither Sonja nor I had ever talked to Colton about what Jesus wore at all, much less what he might be wearing in heaven.  Could he have picked up such a detail from the Bible stories we read to the kids?...But again, the stories in the Bible storybooks we read to him were very narrative-oriented, and just a couple of hundred words each.  Not at all heavy on details, like Jesus wearing white…” (pg. 68)

       It is incredible that for a boy who grew up in church with a father who was also a pastor, going to Sunday school and interacting with other Christian families, that Colton never once saw a picture of Jesus.  It is also strange that the “Jesus” he describes fits quite well with the stereotypical Jesus portrayed in children’s stories, including the “markers” on his hands. 
Interestingly enough Todd tells us on page 66 that he had read to Colton from the Arch series bible storybooks.  A simple search on the internet for the Easter story brought me to a page where I could order an Arch book, the cover of which has a prominent picture of Jesus in white robe, brown hair and beard and “markers” on his hands[8]. In fact, I found no less than five Arch storybooks about the resurrection, including one about the crucifixion, Crucifix and all!  Yet Todd insists that there is no way for Colton to have gotten the descriptions he had from any other source but heaven.  Perhaps the Burpos didn’t have any of these particular books.  Maybe none of the relatives and Christian friends and church family had any of these books.  Or perhaps Todd simply forgot that Colton, like most small children, have what amounts to a photographic memory, with the simplest and briefest visual cues leaving impressions that can be recalled for many years, sometimes even into adulthood.  
In fact, on page 117, Todd tells us that the kids would come with him on his visitations.  In this case it was a nursing home.  I spent a number of years working in nursing facilities and although I don’t know what things looked like at the one Todd brought his son too, I personally saw numerous pictures of Jesus, including crucifixes, in a number of the rooms.  Could Colton’s memory have been influenced by something he saw in a resident’s or patient’s room?
       Simply put, there is simply no way to guarantee that Colton never saw certain things that left impressions which were recalled during his surgery.  Considering how stereotypical Colton’s Jesus is, it seems more likely that he was recalling memories from storybooks and paintings then an actual encounter with the King of Kings.
        On page 68 Todd concludes this chapter in which Colton describes Jesus with the question, “How could my little boy know this stuff?”.  Todd is attempting to give his readers the sense of mystery he was experiencing during this time.  However, after raising six children, the only mystery for me is how could Todd not see the answer to his own question?  Todd himself gives a number of clues as to how Colton knows this stuff and yet he misses the obvious and instead chooses to believe his son actually visited heaven and is, at four years old, able to accurately convey what he saw.  The very thing, I must add, the Apostle Paul was unable to do[9].
        Chapter thirteen goes on to give even more details concerning heaven.  Besides the usual meet-n-greet (which we really don’t get from scripture but rather quaint folk stories of heaven and various popular movies and t.v. shows), starting on page 73 Colton tells us that people have halos, they have wings with which everyone flew and Colton’s was too small but Jesus didn’t have wings but moved up and down like an elevator.  And while Colton was in heaven, Jesus had him doing homework. In chapter eighteen, on page 103, we learn that the Holy Spirit is “kinda blue” and Gabriel sits at the left hand of God. 
       In chapter twenty-two Todd deduces from Colton’s testimony that no one grows old in heaven (pg. 123).  Previously we learned that Colton met his sister in heaven and she was about his height recognizable as his sister (pg. 95).  However, she died in utero, so I can only surmise that people do age, but they never grow old.  We can also conclude that older people regress in age when they get to heaven because in chapter twenty-two we are told Colton met his grandfather and he appeared to be in his twenties even though he died at a much older age! 
There are a number of other observations, but I think these will suffice.  Todd tries hard to make these things jive with scripture, but that fact is none of the things Colton is reporting have strong, if any, scriptural basis whatsoever.  Could they be true?  Of course.  It could also be true that we will all find ourselves living in mansions, driving around in sports cars, eating twinkies and playing football for eternity.  In fact, you could make up pretty much any scenario you like and provided it isn’t directly contradicted by scripture, it could be possible!   Which brings me to the next thing I want to talk about,  our view of scripture.

Presenting Sola Scriptura (and guests)

      “Unless I am convinced by the testimony of the Scriptures or by clear reason (for I do not trust either in the pope or in councils alone, since it is well known that they have often erred and contradicted themselves), I am bound by the Scriptures I have quoted and my conscience is captive to the Word of God"  Martin Luther before the Diet of Worms, April 18, 1521

Do not add to his words, lest he rebuke you, and you be found a liar. Proverbs 30:6
       The views we hold of scripture make a huge difference in what we believe. One major tenant of the doctrine of scripture held throughout the ages of the New Testament church is the sufficiency of scripture[10].  The Baptist Confession of 1689 says it best in article six:

“The whole counsel of God concerning all things necessary for His own glory, man's salvation, faith and life, is either expressly set down or necessarily contained in the Holy Scripture, to which nothing is to be added at any time, either by new revelation of the Spirit, or by the traditions of men.”

       But more importantly, this doctrine finds its origins in Scripture itself.  In 2 Tim. 3:15 we are told they are able to make us wise unto salvation and in verses 16-17 we are told scripture is able to equip us for every good work.  The effect of scripture in our salvation is also emphasized in passages like James 1;18 and 1 Peter 1:23.   Passages such as Deut. 4:2, 12:32 and Prov. 30:5-6 give explicit and stern warning against adding to God’s revelation.  Considering the nature of the book under review, the passage in Revelation is apropos:

        I warn everyone who hears the words of the prophecy of this book: if anyone adds to them, God will add to him the plagues described in this book, and if anyone takes away from the words of the book of this prophecy, God will take away his share in the tree of life and in the holy city, which are described in this book. (Revelation 22:18-19 ESV)

       Does Heaven is for Real add to God’s revelation contained in the Bible?  Absolutely!  I believe the last section established this fact unequivocally. But why is this particular doctrine so important?  Because without it people are free to add whatever they like to scripture and call it authoritative.  This is exactly what the Church of Rome did and what eventually resulted in the Reformation.  Think about it, without this doctrine how are we to judge the truthfulness of anything we are told concerning God, heaven, hell or our faith?   Without this doctrine it becomes a free-for-all and anything goes.  This is why this doctrine was central to the reformation and why it continues to be a necessary doctrine today.  WIthout it the church is doomed to be tossed about by every wind and wave of doctrine and there would be nothing anyone could do about it.
       Heaven is for Real offers a neatly packaged, emotive story that tugs at our hearts all the while teaching unsuspecting believers that there are accurate, truthful sources outside of scripture that can teach us about God, heaven and even salvation that he himself never revealed to us in scripture.   The disaster for the church is that many thousands of believers have swallowed this lie hook, line and sinker.  But it doesn’t end there.  Not only have people been deceived into accepting a low view of scripture, but they have also been deceived into accepting a low view of theology in general.  I would like to discuss this next.

Theology according to a four year old

        Colton, we are informed by his father, has an almost cherub innocence.  He is apparently incapable of lying, deception or being deceived.  And to top it all off he has spent facetime with Jesus, sitting in the presence of God and the Holy Spirit, carousing with John the Baptist and (re)uniting with once dead family members.   So what better person to teach us proper theology, right?  At least, that appears to be Todd’s position.  And this, above all else, is what worries me the most.  When we go beyond what scripture teaches, allowing for sources of our theology to come along side or even replace scripture, we position ourselves upon a slippery slope.  And once on that slope the descent can be at a breakneck speed.       
        My first clue that this descent was taking place was on page 111 when Todd asks Colton, “ you know why Jesus died on the cross?”.  Colton’s response is not surprising but Todd’s is.  Colton responds, “Well, Jesus told me he died on the cross so we could go see his Dad.”.   For a child to say something like, “Jesus died so we could go see his Dad” isn’t really that surprising considering the source:  a child raised in church, in a Christian family with a father who is a pastor.  However, his claiming direct communication from God should surprise us.  Could Jesus communicate with people directly, face to face?  Sure.  But does he?  I don’t believe so.  At least not when it comes to sharing the gospel and not in the way Colton experienced it. Colton’s experience is a long way from the so-called, “small, still voice” or leading of the Holy Spirit many claim.
        Most people will argue along the lines that because God spoke directly to people after his resurrection, he also does it today.  Does the scriptures really affirm this?   Actually, after the resurrection and Pentecost, when the Holy Spirit came, we don’t see this very often at all.  In fact we only see this twice.  The first time is in Acts chapter nine when Jesus speaks to Paul.  The second time is in the book of Revelation when Jesus speaks to John.  Yet people use these two instances to justify their argument that Jesus chooses to do this on a fairly regular basis.
        But there is another reason I doubt the validity of such accounts.  In Romans we are told:

        How then will they call on him in whom they have not believed? And how are they to believe in him of whom they have never heard? And how are they to hear without someone preaching?  (Romans 10:14)

        The point in the above passage isn’t that preaching is the only way God will bring the gospel to people, but that people will bring the gospel to people.  This is in keeping with the words of our Lord in the giving of the great commision and the sending out of the seventy-two[11].  But it is underscored by the fact that this is exactly how the church operated in the New Testament.   In fact, there is an interesting account in the tenth chapter of Acts when Peter was sent by God to the household of a centurion named Cornelius.  Cornelius, a God-fearing gentile, sees a vision of an angel[12].  But instead of telling Cornelius about Jesus and the good news, he tells him to send for Peter.  It is Peter who God uses to preach the gospel to Cornelius and his household.  Here would have been a perfect opportunity for the angel or even for Jesus to appear and tell someone about the good news, yet it doesn’t happen.  Why? Clearly it would appear this is not the way God wants things done.  This is why missions is so vital.  Without people being sent out to bring the good news to the nations people will continue to die and go to hell without even a single opportunity to hear the gospel. 
        In verse seventeen of the same chapter we are told what they are to be preaching:  So faith comes by hearing and hearing by the word of Christ.  In essence, the gospel, which is recorded for us in scripture.  This passage, emphasizing the role of the church and the scripture, is why conversion accounts of people being visited by Jesus himself should be considered suspect[13].  There is an epidemic in the modern church of a chasing after the voice of God.  Looking for that “word” that will tell us what to do or inform us of our future.  The result has been a prodigious amount of books, radio shows, t.v. programs and even whole denominations formed as the direct result of extra biblical communiques from...something.  In the meantime the Word of God is being warped and manipulated to serve the ends of these special words of God instead of the testing of the spirits that should be happening using the written Word of God that we already have!
        The fact that Colton claims to have heard directly from Jesus should have raised Todd’s eyebrows.  But it doesn’t.  Even if we are to accept that Colton heard something, the first response should have been to run to the Word of God and start testing.  But this doesn’t happen either.  Instead Todd judges theology and theologians by this vision from his son.  What Todd says next is surprising coming from a pastor, but considering trends in the modern church, perhaps it shouldn’t be too surprising.  He says,

“In my mind’s eye, I saw Jesus, with Colton on his lap, brushing past all the seminary degrees, knocking down theological treatises staked high as skyscrapers, and boiling down fancy words like propitiation and soteriology to something a child could understand…”

       There are a number of difficulties with this statement.  First, is this the gospel?  I’m reminded of a quote attributed to Albert Einstein, “Make things as simple as possible but not simpler”.  Here we have an example of “simpler”.   Yes, Jesus died so that we could be with God forever.  But it is much more than this.  Jesus’ death was a remedy for the fall.  Jesus himself said, “The Son of Man came to seek and save the lost”[14].  But this involved more than simply getting people to heaven.  The only people going to heaven are those who have been saved from, not only death, but the guilt of sin and their sin nature.  They will have been made into new creatures with a new nature, the old sinful nature being nailed to the cross.  If the only reason Jesus came and died was so we could go to heaven just as we are then the question would need to be asked, “Why did Jesus die in the first place if it really doesn’t matter if we were delivered from our sins or not?”.  
        I don’t believe that Colton or Todd are attempting to present a sort of universalism here.  I am simply trying to point out that attempting to boil the gospel down to the least common denominator can lead to some really funky theology.  There is a reason that God saw fit to give us all of the scripture he did.  If the gospel was simply, “Believe Jesus loves you and go to heaven” then the bible in its current form is certainly overkill. God could have done what he needed by passing out buttons or tracks.  However, it is all important, every last word of it.  If it wasn’t then the great commission would look more like, “Go into all the world and tell them that I love them”, the end.   Instead it looks like this:

        Go therefore and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, teaching them to observe all that I have commanded you. And behold, I am with you always, to the end of the age.  (Matthew 28:19-20 ESV)

       Which brings me to the second difficulty I have with Todd’s statement.  It appears to promote an anti-intellectualism.  I’m not saying one needs to go to a seminary or university to know anything about God.  Yet nor do I believe the Bible promotes a form of holy idiocy either.  There seems to be a pervading idea that to be ignorant is to be more holy and, inversely, to be intellectual is to be incapable of understanding the high things of God.   Not only does history flatly deny such a proposition (Jonathan Edwards, John and Charles Wesley, A.B. Simpson, Ravi Zacharias, John MacArthur, Wayne Grudem, etc., were or are very intellectual men), but God chose an extremely intellectual and learned man to write a third of the New Testament!
       Words like propitiation found their way into our English language, including a number of modern translations of the scripture, because men of God over hundreds of years studying the scripture came to the conclusion that no other word quite fit in explaining that precious work our Lord did on the cross.  To throw that history, thought, prayer and study by godly men away is to do ourselves and the church a great disservice. 
       It is also noteworthy that very few children are even quoted in the the entire bible as saying anything substantial. I can only think of two:  Samuel in the O.T., and Jesus in the N.T.[15] and that is it.  The rest of the bible is written by adults, some of them quite old.  Some are priests, others shepherds, others poets, some kings, tax collector, doctor and an ex-pharisee. But they are all adults.  So if God saw fit to proclaim his gospel using adult men through the writings of the entire New Testament,  should we be so quick to disparage his method and put theology into the hands of a four-year-old?
       I’m not against trying to make things understandable to as many people as possible.  But you can only go so far before the real message disappears.  Children should be told about Jesus and his love for them, but the fact is most children will be intellectually incapable of understanding the gospel or most of Jesus’ teachings and the ramifications of what he did.  Does this mean they cannot be saved?  Of course not.  Salvation is a work of the Holy Spirit and he can save whomever he likes whenever he likes.  However, if an adult claimed to be born again but knew nothing about propitiation (the definition not necessarily the word), did not understand anything about sin, the Father, the Holy Spirit or what exactly he was being saved from, nor did he demonstrate a life of progressive holiness we would have serious doubts about his claim to have been born again.  Yet many parents claim their kids have been born again because they said yes to a few basic questions and said a simple prayer. These same parents are then surprised when these children get a bit older and live a life that looks more like hell than heaven, thinking the whole while that they have merely strayed from the Lord.  The terrible truth being that their children were never born again in the first place.  This is why it is vital we get this right the first time and stop playing around with the gospel.  With Paul, we must be able, at the end of the day, to say:

        Therefore I testify to you this day that I am innocent of the blood of all, for I did not shrink from declaring to you the whole counsel of God. (Acts 20:26-27 ESV)

        The result of this sort of degradation of God’s methods for teaching the things that concern him, including his gospel, becomes more evident later on.  After learning from Colton, who is now two years older, that everyone in heaven carries swords, Todd’s wife asks, “why?”.   They are told by Colton that it is so they can keep Satan out of heaven.  Todd makes an attempt to get this revelation to jive with scripture by referencing the tenth chapter of Daniel.  After all, here is a fight against an angel and a prince so that must mean what Colton is saying is true.  If it feels like we’ve just made some sort of intellectual leap of faith to get from the Bible passage to Colton’s explanation, then you are not alone. 
        Todd then writes, “Theologians generally take this to mean some kind of spiritual battle, with Gabriel fighting dark forces.  But how did a six-year-old know that?  Yes, Colton had had two more years of Sunday school by then, but I knew for a fact that our curriculum didn’t include lessons on Satan’s living arrangements.”   Ignoring the mystery of why Todd cannot understand how his son came up with this information, I want to focus on what Todd just wrote concerning what the Bible states and the theologians say.   Notice that they actually agree.  The Bible says there was a battle between the angel and the prince, later joined by Michael.  The theologians believe this is some kind of...well...battle between two angels and the prince.  All this to prove the theological assertion by Colton that everyone in heaven (you and me someday), minus Colton, carries swords to keep Satan out of heaven.  Again, if you can’t make the connection don’t worry, there isn’t one.  The bible never tells us we are going to be carrying actual swords nor does it tell us we are responsible for keeping Satan out.  In fact, it actually tells us the complete opposite.  The first and second chapters of Job clearly paint a picture where Satan does, at times, go to heaven.  But I guess it all depends who you believe:  the bible or the child eyewitness.  In this game one must submit to the other and repeatedly we see the Bible taking a knee.
        The final result is inevitable. On page 112 Todd asks his son, “Hey, do you wanna preach on Sunday?”  Here, at least, we cannot fault Todd for being logical.  His decision to allow his son to preach is a fairly typical response when it is decided personal testimony is more important than consistent biblical exegesis and practice. 


I don’t believe Todd is trying to give the Bible the backseat.  I think he honestly believes his son’s testimony and experience has biblical backing and that everything he has written has passed the test.  This is the true danger that lies in books like Heaven is for Real.  The emotions, the experience, the cherub like child,  the father who is a pastor and the mother who lost a child all combine to present a story that almost makes us ashamed to ask if it is biblical.  After all, aren’t there bible verses peppered throughout the book?  Doesn’t the father show us how Colton’s experience lines up with scripture?
        The fact is, when Todd’s story is held up to scripture it is found wanting.  Not because it contradicts scripture (it does that too at points), but because it is impossible to prove or disprove much of the story from scripture.  It is extra biblical.  This presents two problems.  First, is it real?  This is an important question.  Remember, Todd isn’t presenting a work of fiction.  He actually believes what he is presenting is a true, eyewitness account of his son’s trip to heaven.   Also keep in mind that we don’t have the Bible to tell us it is real.  We only have the testimony of a four-year-old (Actually, the story is given over a few years following the events described in the book) given to us through his father who never wrote some of the earlier stuff down.  Therefore we must decide for ourselves if it is true or not on the merits of the story itself.  But therein lies the rub.  If we decide it is true then we have effectively added to the scriptures.  Remember, much of what we are told is never described in the Bible.  Therefore it is extra revelation.  We will be forced, in this case, to agree with one of the leaders in Todd’s denomination, quoted at the beginning of this paper, when she wrote, “Colton’s story could have been in the New Testament--but God has chosen to speak to us in this twenty-first century through the unblemished eyes of a child, revealing some of the mysteries of heaven...”.
        This in itself presents a number of problems, but the the greatest is in the form of the question: where do we stop?   If we are going to accept Colton’s extra biblical account of heaven, what about the numerous contradictory experiences that have been, currently are or soon will be best sellers?  They cannot all be right.  The answer to the question, if we are going to be consistent, is that we cannot stop.  It is, as I explained earlier, a slippery slope.
        The other answer we can come up with is that we don’t believe his account.  If we chose this option then we are left wondering what happened.  What did Colton see?  Was it demonic?  Is Colton making this all up? Is Todd making this all up?  We don’t know.  But once again, if we decide that scripture is not going to be our rule of faith and specifically the doctrine of the sufficiency of scripture, then who are we to judge?
        The second problem accepting Colton’s account presents is that it lowers our view of scripture.  It forces us to make scripture subservient to the testimony of man.  Let me here warn my reader that this will happen whether you like it or not.  Once you decide theological matters can be judged on the basis of experience or pragmatism then scripture must take a back seat regardless of how loudly you argue your orthodoxy.  
In closing let me quote from The Glory of Heaven, by John MacArthur.  In this book he offers a much better critique of this book than mine so I encourage you to read it.  But his conclusion is worth considering and one with which I wholeheartedly agree.

“I’ve given this prolonged critique of Heaven Is for Real not because it is the worst of the genre, but because of all the books in this category, it is the most likely to be read and deemed harmless by the typical evangelical. It is not harmless. It denigrates the authority and sufficiency of Scripture; it confounds faith with superstition; it subtly elevates human experience to a higher level than the Word of God; it purports to reveal things about God and the heavenly realm that are not taught in Scripture; and it repeatedly insinuates that the testimony of someone who has been mystically enlightened can be a more effective stimulant to faith than Scripture alone.” (pg. 47)

[1] tr. Scripture alone.
[2] All quotes, unless otherwise noted, from the ESV version of the Bible.
[3] Ephesians 2:20
[4] 1 Peter 2:9
[5] There has been a trend to try and completely dissolve this implicit contract. What the proponents of this view put forward is that the reader is the ultimate judge and jury of what is written and the author has no say in the matter.  The preposterous results of such a methodology should have been enough to dissuade anyone from recommending it.  Unfortunately academia is rarely swayed by such trivialities as common sense and logic.
[6] WOF = Women of Faith.  This is an interdenominational women’s conference. The closest analogy for me would be Iron Sharpens Iron, which is for men.  
[7] Todd repeats this statement on page 100.  Speaking of his son knowing that Jesus sits at the right hand of God he writes, “There’s no way a four-year old knows that.  It was another one of those moments when I thought, He had to have seen this” [Italics his].
[9] 2 Corinthians 2:12
[10] The doctrine of the sufficiency of scripture was almost completely abandoned by the Roman Catholic church with disastrous results.  It was taken up again and made central to the Reformation.  
[11] Luke 10
[12] Many translations (i.e., ESV, NIV, NASB, KJV, etc) have “Lord” capitalized, giving the impression that this “angel” is actually Jesus himself.  However, the Greek word used here for Lord, kyrie, is a general word that can mean “mister” or “sir” (NLT).  The fact that this chapter continually refers to the angel as an angel (vv. 3, 7, 22.  See also 11:13) and never Jesus should cause us to question the capitalizing of “Lord” if only because it tends to lead people to the wrong conclusion as to the identity of the angel. The NLT is probably the better rendering here for vs. 3.
[13] I’ve heard a number of these accounts and without exception they’ve all had the ring of an urban legend.  They typically take place in far off countries and are reported by someone who heard it from someone who knew someone who was in the same city, etc.
[14] Luke 19:10
[15] 1 Samuel 3; Luke 2:49

Sunday, November 16, 2014

The Progressive-Regressive Cycle of the Church

I've been thinking a lot about the nature of the church over the past several years.  I have spent a lot of time either reading about various church settings or traditions or actually spending time in them.  Mostly this has been a result (not uncommon to some) of attempting to find fellowship that reflects most accurately God's will for his church.  This, of course, assumes God has a specific normative for the church today beyond various moral requirements (although many today are, to their great harm, questioning even that).

In the book of Acts, immediately subsequent to the outpouring of the Holy Spirit on a rag tag group of disciples in an upper room, we read:

And they devoted themselves to the apostles' teaching and the fellowship, to the breaking of bread and the prayers. And awe came upon every soul, and many wonders and signs were being done through the apostles. And all who believed were together and had all things in common. And they were selling their possessions and belongings and distributing the proceeds to all, as any had need. And day by day, attending the temple together and breaking bread in their homes, they received their food with glad and generous hearts, praising God and having favor with all the people. And the Lord added to their number day by day those who were being saved.

(Acts 2:42-47 ESV)

It didn't take long after this point for things to begin to degrade in the neonatal church.  Perhaps Ananias and Saphira where more a portent then an example and maybe Simon the Sorcerer was the Adam of the modern day televangelists, but the fact is by the time we get to the letters and epistles we start seeing cracks in the wall.  Something was beginning to "bewitch" the church.  We can even see, in the letters to the seven churches in the Revelation of Christ to John, that the picture was grim, albeit still hopeful (See Revelation 2-3).

Persecution seems to have helped stem the decay, but not long after Constantine declared amnesty for believers and established Christianity as the new state religion the beast seems to have been let out of his cage and the cracks in the wall became something much more desperate.  By the time of the Great Schism between the east and the west in 1054 AD what was the "church" was barely recognizable from the the picture painted in Acts 2.   But then comes the reformation and things start looking up....then shortly after they start looking down as the Protestant edifice is shattered into thousands of pieces, each attempting to explain how their visage best reflects God's intention for his bride.   Not that they always claimed they were the "only one", but they at least claimed they were the best representation of the ideal for the "only one".

This cycle repeated and still repeats today.  The reformation gave rise to the radical reformation which gave rise to Hutterites and Mennonites, Amish, Swiss Brethren, etc.  Various groups springing or fracturing from others and then those others eventually giving rise to their own reformative break-aways and so on.

As I studied some of these different mini-reformations (understanding that the Reformation, even if the intentions were good as well as misguided, gave rise to something that really cannot be called a reformation for nothing was truly reformed) I discovered that a cycle seemed to be happening.  Good to bad to fracture, lather, rinse, repeat.  Is it good?  Bad?  Probably neither or both.  The Cycle shouldn't be happening.  It is bad that these "churches" become bad.  But it is good that some see it and want to make it better.  Yet it seems to me that it shouldn't be this way, that it is, although not unexpected, disappointing to our Father.

Now, I understand that some of these fractures are due to less than noble causes.  Malcontents and heretics will always be with us.  When the wolves come in they will scatter the flock if we are not vigilant.    But I'm not speaking of those events here.  I'm speaking of the continual attempt by some (is remnant too romantic of a word to use now or should I wait?) to get back to the root.  Getting back to the root is really what the word "radical" means.  Do these "radicals" have a case?  And how do they or we keep from going too far or not going far enough?

I also realize that most scholars today say that the book of Acts is not meant to be normative for church practice but rather the story of the Holy Spirit establishing the church.  Although I agree with them to an extent I pull up short of completely discarding it all together as a guide to God's original intentions for his church.  I would not promote Acts as the liturgical standard for the church, but I would feel comfortable asking some questions of it concerning how the church ought to appear to itself and the world looking in.  For example, it appears the the early church had a much simplified form of worship and meeting for the study of scriptures.  It also appears that they lived more as strangers in the world they were ministering to.  I don't mean here the antithesis to the state-church that formed later under Constantine but rather a real  "otherness" that seemed to follow the early church.  And so on.

Anyway, my point behind this post was to posit my idea and give myself a starting point for exploring it and anything related to it fuller.  The idea isn't original, but it is original to me and since this blog is also mine I'll feel free to write as though the idea is original.

Saturday, November 15, 2014

Crucify him! (or, Party on!)

Shortly before Jesus was murdered he spoke the following words to his disciples,

"Truly, truly, I say to you, you will weep and lament, but the world will rejoice, You will be sorrowful, but your sorrow will turn into joy."  (John 16:20 ESV)

Here he was speaking specifically of his death, but I think we can see this played out in today's cultural climate.  Many today are proclaiming the death of God and they rejoice.  They are declaring the death or Christian morals and they are jubilant.  They see Jesus hanging on the cross and they are glad (even if Jesus is a myth).  On the cross means he is dead, and better to let dead prophets and messiahs lie, especially the one called the Lion of Judah.   

We weep, no longer because he is hanging on the cross, for we have seem our resurrected Lord, but because the world is rejoicing at his death and they can't see why his being alive is such a good thing. The world finished demythologizing but not finished patting themselves on the back for their own cleverness and so they party on.  But we weep and they call us party crashers.  And who would have thought party crashing would eventually be ruled illegal (Let me remind you that it soon will be, just in case you haven't gotten the memo). 

But someday we will stop weeping and our own party will begin.  The echos of "Crucify him" will end with a crash and startled gasps - by all - and silence will fall like a curtain.  Rain will fall and wash away the red Solo cups and vomit and the sun will come out only it won't be the sun at all but the glory of the Father and the Lamb.  Then he will wipe away all of our tears.  Jesus comforted his disciples with as much when he wrote:

"So also you have sorrow now, but I will see you again, and your hearts will rejoice, and no one will take your joy form you." (v. 22)

Many of us bought into a wrong idea of these events. Thanks to the Sunday school teachers who were filled with good, albeit misguided, intentions painting a picture of us sitting upon the groovy Jesus' lap and he wiping our tears away with his coat sleeve.   But the real picture is much, much better.  He will appear to us in all of his glory, perhaps like John saw him, on fire and burning brighter and whiter than anything we can imagine and our hearts will rejoice.  Not just because we see him but because he sees us.  He is looking at us and we aren't consumed by his wrath but welcomed with his love.  Tell me, what tear could survive that?

So, party on world.  Your days are numbered.  If you want to see what a real party looks like then take off your festal clothes and put on sackcloth and join us in our weeping.  Don't wait until the real party starts for then it will be much too late; the object of your rejoicing now becoming your undoing. 

Wednesday, November 12, 2014

Welcome to the carpet

Sometimes rebuking someone publicly is needed in the church today.  Sometimes we forget that we aren't the only generation to have to deal with a proliferation of false teachers.  Whenever and wherever the truth is spoken, purveyors of lies are sure to be found in spades.  Because of this the church, if she is going to maintain her purity as a bride without spot or wrinkle, will have to get use to the idea of the public rebuke.

Paul was no stranger to controversy.  In 1 Timothy 5:20 he writes to his young charge:

  As for those who persist in sin, rebuke them in the presence of all, so that the rest may stand in fear. (ESV)

 There a few reasons to rebuke someone publicly.  Here we see that it is for the benefit of the congregation.  That they may stand in fear.  Why fear?  Because they will see that the man of God speaks with the authority from the Holy Spirit, backed by the written Word of God and that those things which are spoken in darkness will be exposed and laid bare in the light.

 Writing again to Timothy Paul instructs him to be ready to preach the word in any and every situation.  It is interesting to note why this is the case:

  I charge you in the presence of God and of Christ Jesus, who is to judge the living and the dead, and by his appearing and his kingdom: preach the word; be ready in season and out of season; reprove, rebuke, and exhort, with complete patience and teaching. For the time is coming when people will not endure sound teaching, but having itching ears they will accumulate for themselves teachers to suit their own passions, and will turn away from listening to the truth and wander off into myths.  (2 Timothy 4:1-4 ESV)

We assume, erroneously, that everyone in our fellowship is a part of the church.  Not only has this never been true, but it will become even more prevalent in the last days that people will have a form of godliness and no true spiritual power.  Why?  Because they will be consumed with themselves wanting only to hear and do what makes them feel good.  Those speaking the truth will be of little interest to them. 

We are seeing this played out in our own times.  Book after book, movie after movie, video after video, all being vomited up from the very pits of hell, and even though these things clearly contradict or even add to scripture, gentle admonishments or loud peals of warning bells go unheeded by those calling themselves the church.

In Paul’s instructions to Titus concerning elders he writes the following.  Note the reason why he is to be a man of the Word:

  This is why I left you in Crete, so that you might put what remained into order, and appoint elders in every town as I directed you—if anyone is above reproach, the husband of one wife, and his children are believers and not open to the charge of debauchery or insubordination. For an overseer, as God's steward, must be above reproach. He must not be arrogant or quick-tempered or a drunkard or violent or greedy for gain, but hospitable, a lover of good, self-controlled, upright, holy, and disciplined. He must hold firm to the trustworthy word as taught, so that he may be able to give instruction in sound doctrine and also to rebuke those who contradict it.

(Titus 1:5-9 ESV)

 But he doesn't stop there.  Continue reading.  

For there are many who are insubordinate, empty talkers and deceivers, especially those of the circumcision party. They must be silenced, since they are upsetting whole families by teaching for shameful gain what they ought not to teach. One of the Cretans, a prophet of their own, said, “Cretans are always liars, evil beasts, lazy gluttons.” This testimony is true. Therefore rebuke them sharply, that they may be sound in the faith, not devoting themselves to Jewish myths and the commands of people who turn away from the truth. To the pure, all things are pure, but to the defiled and unbelieving, nothing is pure; but both their minds and their consciences are defiled. They profess to know God, but they deny him by their works. They are detestable, disobedient, unfit for any good work.

(Titus 1:10-16 ESV)

 Paul actually helps to identify the type of people the elder is to rebuke by giving an real life object lesson.  Of these Paul instructs Titus (and by extension the elders) to “rebuke them sharply”.  Why?  “That they be sound in the faith”.   In fact, Paul seems overly harsh here and I believe many leaders would shy from such language.  But Paul has in mind the damage these people are causing and against what and whom they are fighting.  Perhaps we don’t have a true valuation of what is at stake and whose honor is being impinged upon?

 Some will argue that these people being rebuked are a part of these congregations and therefore under their authority.  However this is not necessarily the case.  First, the context does not have to lend itself to this interpretation.   But more importantly, even if this were true, in our highly mobile society where traveling to the latest conferences and retreats is the norm, not to mention the use of the internet, “local” is a highly subjective concept.   As leaders it is important we address issues that are local in the strict sense of the word, but also keeping in mind that when people bring teachings in the way of books, videos, etc., into the congregation and promote traveling to conferences where heretics, false teachers and false prophets (in short, wolves) will be attempting to indoctrinate our fellow brothers and sisters, suddenly “local” takes on a much broader sense and we must respond appropriately.   

 As I have noted above, the response may need to be public and in the presence of everyone.  There are a couple of reasons for this.  First, when leadership in a fellowship takes a public stance against a false teaching or teacher there is an air of authority to it.  It is here, I believe, that the presence of our Savior is in the midst of two or three.  It is here that what is loosed or bound on earth will be so in heaven (Matt. 18:18-20).   

 Second, one person confronted alone about their favorite false teach will tend to see the confrontation as an attack on their teacher, even when done in love. And even if the person, at first, seems agreeable they are likely to walk away and after further reflection reaffirm their original sentiments. The final result can be a hardening that will be even more difficult to address later.  Additionally the person will be more likely to go and talk to others about why they think their teacher is good.  They may something like, “You should listen to so-and-so.  Oh, there are others in this congregation who don’t like them, but you should listen and judge for yourself.  I think they are from God, etc.”.   If you have an intimate relationship with this person, then the results may be different, however typically leaders are unable to have this sort of relationship with a majority of the congregation and even when they can the final results may be the same.

 Speaking to the whole congregation may not mitigate the hardening (although, people typically respond in a group setting differently than they would privately.  Sometimes for the worse, sometimes for the better).  However, speaking to the whole will help stop the person from going around and talking to others because everyone will know where leadership stands.

 Finally,  in a large congregation it is quite impossible to get to everyone.  In fact, it is unfair to expect a limited number of those in leadership to connect with everyone about a particular issue.  By the time you managed to get to everyone there will have been several other issues that need dealing with.  You would be, as it were, attempting to bale out the sinking ship with a spoon!

 So what is to be done?  If this is only one person and they are coming to you for council, then clearly you don’t need to bring it before the congregation.  However, it might help to teach on the subject and clearly delineate God’s position on the issue.  In this case let the person who came to you know you are going to do this so they won’t be surprised.

 However, I’m thinking of cases where false teaching is being spread around the church via media.  In this case it would be appropriate for the pastor/teacher/prophet to preach on the subject. If you believe you can simply address the Bible’s position (and thus God’s) without addressing the false teachers by name, then good.  However, if this is a serious error and one in which people may be unaware of the the false teacher's position, it is perfectly appropriate to quote this teacher and name them.  This can be used to both make people aware of the false teachers position as well as offering an example of what the antithesis of the biblical position might look like.  

Sunday, November 09, 2014

True Freedom

Today our fellowship showed a short video as a tribute to our veterans.  Before I say what I'm going to say please understand that I mean no disrespect to those who followed their consciences to serve our country.  I may not always agree with our country's political agenda, but I do have a lot of respect for those who have and continue to serve.

The video can be found here:

It was developed by the Beamer Films video company.  In keeping with the growing norm in the christian community this professionally produced video is very well done.  It states its point fairly well and is highly emotive.  It appears, at least in our fellowship, to easily connect with its target audience if the applause at the conclusion was any judge.  But I did take issue with one of its claims.  The narrator spoke about the freedoms that have been fought and bought for by our vets.  I won't argue with that.  But around 00:50 the narrator says,

"Which also includes the God given right to worship our Creator any time, any where.  Which leads us to the other type of freedom, a greater freedom that can only be found in Christ who died as a ransom to set us free. This is a freedom from a life of futility.  Freedom from the tyranny of sin, regret, hate and bitterness.  It is the freedom to love God and  love your neighbor."

Before I give my comment on the above paragraph let me state for the record that I understand this is a short video.  It is extremely difficult to explain yourself in two minutes.  I get that.  So I am not claiming these people are a bunch of heretics or something.  I really don't know one way or the other and given the chance they might be able to rebuttal my comments by clarifying what they meant to say.  I am only commenting on what they said in reference to what I see is the usual mindset in churches today.  In other words, I am not trying to be mean or judgmental.  I am only making some observations and hope these observations will help God's people check their hearts and shore up their theology where it needs shoring up.

There is a patriotism that is so embedded in the American psyche that it influences our theology in such a way that if we are not careful we can propagate something that is, at best, less than accurate.  At worse it can actually become another gospel altogether (although I don't believe that is happening in this video).  The above quoted narration says something that at first seems right but in actuality it goes beyond the Scriptures.  Do we have a "God given right to worship our Creator any time, any where?"   If this is speaking about a theological right, that is one which is the result of our relationship with God, then the answer is 'no'.  We have a command to worship God and him alone (Luke 4:8).  We also know that unless God intervenes we don't even have the ability to obey that command (Romans 3:9-18) let alone a right.  So it really can't be that we have a God give right theologically.  If anything we may rightly call it a privilege, for without God's grace we would never do it in the first place.

How about politically?  It may be the video is speaking about our right as in the freedom afforded us as citizens of this country.  I think an argument can be made that we don't have a right to worship our Creator anytime, anywhere.  Maybe once upon a time we did, but this is less true today.  And according to Romans 13 this lack of freedom is also God given.  What is my point?  We need to be careful to not make the assumption that our freedom to worship comes to us politically.  It does not.  Romans 13 also points out that all government comes from God.  The government of Paul's day was that of a conquering world superpower which gave rise to such people as King Herod, who ordered the death of all the children two and under in his hunt for Jesus, or Titus, who leveled Jerusalem in 70 AD.  War has typically only brought pain, suffering and more war (Someone once said, "He who lives by the sword shall die by the sword") and politics have typically served the politicians more than their constituents (by which I mean the "regulars" and not the rich corporations and and other special interest groups.  I also recognize we all, in some way, benefit, but that benefit is, as it were, runoff. But that will have to be a different post by a different poster).

In fact, this video is saying both.  Our right is theological and political.  At 01:28 the narrator says,

"We want to say many thanks to the veterans who have served to preserve our political freedoms which allow us to freely worship our creator who gives us that greater freedom we all so desperately need"

It is true that we do have more freedoms than many countries and that the ability to worship the way we do is, at least in our minds, better than being told we cannot.  But in the end there is only one true freedom and that freedom is found in Christ Jesus (John 8:36).  And that freedom means we are free to worship our Creator any time, any where.  Is this a right?  No. Most Americans will be horrified to learn that we have far fewer rights than we might think.  But it is a privilege and as much as I love our veterans and truly appreciate their sacrifices, we must, as Christians, make sure we understand clearly and can say without hesitation, that true freedom can only come through One who made the ultimate sacrifice for us.  Period.  Yes, let us tell our veterans we appreciate them. But at the same time let's be very careful how we try to mix politics and theology.


Saturday, November 08, 2014

Being the man with the moves

There is a passage in Genesis where Isaac, thinking no one is looking, takes an opportunity to make some moves on Rebecca, his wife.  I'm not a Hebrew scholar (nor am I the son of one) so I can't tell you what this passage looks like in the original language, but the English translations are fun.  The KJV tells us that Isaac was "sporting with his wife".   The NIV and NASB use the word "caressing".  The ESV tells us he was laughing with her.  J.N. Darby can't settle on sporting, laughing or caressing so he goes with "dallying" (Next time you are alone with your honey, ask her if she minds if you dally with her a bit).

Whatever the Hebrew word was intended to convey here is probably not as important as the fact that Isaac was doing something with Rebecca that sent a clear message to Abimelech that they were more than siblings (or really sick, but apparently that thought never entered the king's mind.  Good for him!).

 Issac married Rebecca when he was forty (25:20) and they had their first children - twins - when he was sixty (vs. 26).  Later in chapter twenty-five Esau sells his birthright to Jacob after coming in from hunting, half starved.  We aren't told how old they were but the impression is given they are grown men. I find it hard to believe Esau would have the authority to give away his birthright if they were just boys so let's make an assumption that they were around eighteen (although I think it likely they were older).

So it would appear Issac and Rebecca had been married for about thirty-eight or more years.  Never mind that Rebecca was still a looker at this time.  The important thing to note is Issac still took time out of his day to "sport" with his wife. There are a lot of reasons people stayed together in ancient times.  It would be a bit romantic to assume it was only for love or God they stayed together.  For the women security would have probably been high on the list of reasons.  But this is precisely my point.  Issac didn't have to pay much attention to Rebecca.  She probably would have continued to cook his meals and have his children.  But he didn't see it that way.  He still enjoyed being with her and he let her know it.

Many husbands today take their wives and their relationships for gratned.  Many women stay with their husbands for less than romantic reasons, even when he never gives her good reason to do so.  I remember stopping by a garage-sale with my wife and an elderly man and woman waited on us.  They were clearly husband and wife.  So, wanting to be friendly, I introduced myself to the lady and asked, is this your husband.  She said, "Who?  This a** hole?  Yeah, this idiot is my husband".   It actually got less pleasant the longer we stayed.  We made our purchase and ran away.  We both swore (not that kind of swearing) to not let our relationship get like that.  I think we have both secretly continued to pray, "God, please don't let us get like that!"

However, not getting like "that" takes work.  Getting like "that" is easy but avoiding the tragedy so many find themselves in today involves the man getting off of his (what she said) and doing something about it lest he become a (what she said).  One of the things I determined to do a long time ago is continue to sport with my wife.  Now, that is easy to say when you are first married.  But as time goes on it can take some effort.  Not because she isn't pretty or lovable, but because we are men and we get this stupid idea (O.K., we have more than one stupid idea, but I'm focusing on only one for now) in our head that we are super attractive and that every woman on the planet would want us so this one we are married to should count herself lucky to have a hunk like us.   Like I said, it is stupid.  We aren't that attractive, we are just plain lucky and the sooner we realize that without divine intervention we would still single, the better.

Anyway, my point is that lady we are married to deserves to be treated like the hero she is (for marrying us in the first place and for putting up with us in the second place).  Sport with her.  Flirt with her. Laugh with her. When you walk into a public place grab her hand and smile big so people think that the lady you are with must be famous or something.  Tell her she is pretty.  When you are out in public, catch her eye and make that face that let's her know you are currently fantasizing about her.  Sometimes I even write flirtations notes in church and pass them to her (nothing too steamy, it is church after all).   And don't forget to let your kids see what you are up to once in a while.  They'll squeal in protest, but with a little professional counseling they will get over it.  They need to see how a real man romances the woman of his dreams, even after twenty-plus years of marriage.

The fact is, if we want our marriages to last then, as men, we need to make it happen.  Will it always be easy?  No.  Will it be worth it?  That is entirely up to you.  As for me, I'm headed downstairs to superstitiously sport with my wife while the kids aren't looking.

Friday, October 31, 2014

All Hallows Eve

Albert Mohler has kindly reposted his original article on Halloween.  It is well worth the read.

Christianity and the Dark Side - What about Halloween

My wife and I have chosen to keep ourselves separate from this "holiday".  In the past we have participated in Trunk-or-Treat or "harvest festival" events, but have found that at various levels these attempts at evangelism were feeble at best and only resulted in an excuse for Christians to do what everyone else was doing while feeling better about it.   In the end we have felt that this is one of those occasions where "coming out from among them" was a better testimony.  Why?  Because sometimes it is important to demonstrate that we, the church, are not like the world.

We are sinners saved by grace.  We are part of a fallen race starting with the father we all share with the rest of humanity and yet we all, in some mysterious way, bare the impress of God.   Yet we are not like everyone else.  We have been made new creations.  We have been given new hearts of flesh, we have been sprinkled clean with water and we have been filled with the Holy Spirit (2 Corinthians 5:17; Ezekiel 36:25-27).  This makes us fundamentally different than everyone else.  However, unless this translates into a difference that is recognizable to a dying world it will mean little to those outside our own enclaves and christian ghettos.

For too long we have misused such passages as 1 Corinthians 9 to excuse our love for the world and the things in the world in order to blend in and feel comfortable with the secularization of the church, all the time claiming we are merely becoming "all things to all people".   Has it worked?  I think an honest look at the state of the church today should answer that question.

Tuesday, October 21, 2014

Take a stand already!

Recently a firestorm was ignited by comments made by the pastor of Hillsong, Brian Houston, and quoted in the New York Times.  The Times wrote: "The comments by Brian Houston, the senior pastor of Hillsong, immediately attracted concern from the right and applause from the left..." (The full article here).

I'm not going to comment on the article itself but rather Brian's comments about his comments at the Hillsong website here.   Brian believes himself misunderstood and misquoted (something that media outlets are prone to do from time to time) and he aims to set the record straight.  Unfortunately he fails in his goals.  In what seems to be the trend these days, Brian attempts to clarify his and his church's stand on homosexuality by making vague statements about his position.  

One comment he makes which, on the surface, appear to clarify his position but in the end really doesn't:

"My personal view on the subject of homosexuality would line up with most traditionally held Christian views. I believe the writings of Paul are clear on this subject."

Considering the comments that follow and what appears in the Times article it would have been important for Brian to clearly state what he sees as these "traditionally held Christian views" and what he actually believes Paul to have said on the subject.   Am I being too nit-picky?   No, I don't believe so.  Considering the fact that homosexuals not only attend his church but also have positions within the fellowship it would have been vitally important for Brian to clearly state what he means by staying relevant.  Brian writes:

"I explained that this struggle for relevance was vexing as we did not want to become ostracized by a world that needs Christ."

It is this sort of statement that makes me wonder how far Brian is willing to go in order to stay relevant and to not be ostracized by the world?  Apparently encouraging homosexuals to be a part of the congregation isn't too far.  Why is this a problem?

First,  the Bible makes it clear that we will in fact be ostracized by the world if we follow Jesus:

If the world hates you, know that it has hated me before it hated you. If you were of the world, the world would love you as its own; but because you are not of the world, but I chose you out of the world, therefore the world hates you. Remember the word that I said to you: ‘A servant is not greater than his master.’ If they persecuted me, they will also persecute you. If they kept my word, they will also keep yours. But all these things they will do to you on account of my name, because they do not know him who sent me."

(John 15:18-21 ESV)

Second,  although I welcome anyone to come and hear the message of the gospel and the preaching of the Word of God, we must preach the full council of God and that means preaching for righteousness and against sin.  No one living in sin should feel comfortable in our churches.  Do some remain in our churches, even in leadership positions, living in secret sin?  Of course,  we cannot judge the secret thoughts of the heart.  But when sin is out in the open, when it is clear and unobstructed by secrecy, should these people remain active participants in our fellowships without challenge?  Absolutely not!  

What is Paul's teaching on homosexuality (and not just homosexuality)?

Or do you not know that the unrighteous will not inherit the kingdom of God? Do not be deceived: neither the sexually immoral, nor idolaters, nor adulterers, nor men who practice homosexuality, nor thieves, nor the greedy, nor drunkards, nor revilers, nor swindlers will inherit the kingdom of God.

(1 Corinthians 6:9-10 ESV)

It isn't love that allows people in our churches to remain living in sin without hearing and knowing what God has to say about their sin and their destination should they not repent.  It is the complete opposite.  This isn't a time for pastors to make vague statements about their stance concerning sin.  It is vital that we are honest and, like Scripture, to the point for the sake of the sinner.

But Brian's response isn't new.  Over two years ago  Pastor Andy Stanley got into similar hot water when he gave a sermon illustration that raised not a few eyebrows in the conservative church.  Andy's response was similarly vague and dodgy.  And to this day I do not think he has clarified it.

For some odd reason these pastors appear to believe it to be unloving and unbiblical to take a clear stand against this particular sin, even though the bible they claim to adhere to takes a solid and unflinching stand.   Why?   I cannot pretend to judge their motives, but I would encourage every pastor everywhere to truly show their love for their Savior and for their neighbor by taking that stand before it is too late.  To do anything less is to shirk our responsibilities as leaders.  To quote Paul one last time:

Therefore I testify to you this day that I am innocent of the blood of all, for I did not shrink from declaring to you the whole counsel of God. Pay careful attention to yourselves and to all the flock, in which the Holy Spirit has made you overseers, to care for the church of God, which he obtained with his own blood. I know that after my departure fierce wolves will come in among you, not sparing the flock; and from among your own selves will arise men speaking twisted things, to draw away the disciples after them.

(Acts 20:26-30 ESV)

Sunday, October 19, 2014

What is my desire?

Psalm 37:4 says,

Delight yourself in the Lord,
    and he will give you the desires of your heart.

Many read this passage and see in it the key to health, wealth and happiness.  "If I just delight in the Lord then I can have that new car I've always wanted!"  or something else along those lines.   Not only do I think this is the wrong way to think about this passage, I think such thinking is extremely shallow.  It is settling for a stone when you could have a world class diamond!  Not only that but this sort of thinking looks frightfully like what James was thinking about when he wrote,

"You ask and do not receive, because you ask wrongly, to spend it on your passions. You adulterous people!" (James 4:3, 4a ESV)

If we delight in the Lord I believe he will shape our desires to delight in the right things.  If we are constantly lusting after the world and the things that are in the world, then I believe it is a sure sign we are delighting in the wrong things (even the wrong god).

However I see Scripture telling us that there is one thing worth delighting in that is above all else and that thing is not a thing at all but a person.  God himself.  And also if we delight in the Lord then our desire will be the Lord and he will give us himself.  This is something that was promised God's people from the very beginning:

"If you search for the Lord with all of your heart and all of your soul you will find him."  (Deut. 4:29)

The Song of Songs is a great place to see what this "delight" might look like (Yes, I am one of those nuts that believes, along with a great portion of the early church, that this book is best seen as an allegory of Christ and the Church rather than something as simple and crude as a manual of love - although it is a love poem extraordinaire).  Check out this passage from the third chapter that says much the same thing as our text and the passage from the Law:

The watchmen found me
    as they went about in the city.
"Have you seen him whom my soul loves?"
Scarcely had I passed them
    when I found him whom my soul loves.
I held him, and would not let him go
    until I had brought him into my mother's house,
and into the chamber of her who conceived me.

Do we seek him like we delight in him?  Do we find God delightful and desirable?  Or has he become merely a means to some end?

Wednesday, September 03, 2014

The Bible is For Real

Two things happened to me recently.  First, I came into a bit of confrontation with yet another devotee to the book by Todd Burpo, "Heaven is for Real".   Second, in researching material to send to said devotee I ran across an article at Christianity Today titled, "You Probably Love (or Hate) 'Heaven Is For Real' for All the Wrong Reasons".   The article itself presented a major difficulty that also showed up in my discussion and so I decided to address the book by commenting on the article.  The difficulty has to do with where we place extra-biblical revelation in our theological framework.

In the article Kyle writes,

"In this sea of ecstatic experiences, what gives Colton Burpo's story the buoyancy to float to the top of our cultural consciousness? Perhaps it finds just the right mix of preschool innocence and supernatural wonder to grab our attention. But I think it has more to do with its stated objective: To prove heaven exists."

This sort of statement raises alarm bells for me.  Why do we believe heaven is for real?  In fact, let's extend that question a bit further and ask, "Why do we believe anything God has told us in his Word is for real?"   From God himself, to Jesus, to the Holy Spirit, to Salvation, the list goes on.  How can we know any of these things are for real?   The Church's approach to answer any of these questions will tell us a lot.  It could be logic or apologetic, a vision or some four-year-old's visit to heaven.  However I believe underlying anything we might call a proper defense of the Bible must be what God himself says about himself.  Most Christians would, on the surface, agree with that last statement, but I honestly doubt today that many of them really know what it is I'm saying.  Let me show you, in a nutshell, what I mean from...well...the Bible:

And I will give you a new heart, and a new spirit I will put within you. And I will remove the heart of stone from your flesh and give you a heart of flesh. And I will put my Spirit within you, and cause you to walk in my statutes and be careful to obey my rules. You shall dwell in the land that I gave to your fathers, and you shall be my people, and I will be your God. And I will deliver you from all your uncleannesses. 

(Ezekiel 36:26-32 ESV)

This is a prophetic vision of the New Covenant given by the prophet Ezekiel.  Romans chapter eight gives us a New Testament parallel to this idea that God will make us, for all intents and purposes, new creatures. The point is, as Christians, we  shouldn't need to be "convinced" of the truthfulness of what God says because, as creatures who have been called, transformed and filled with his Spirit, we should already know that what he says is true.  Why? Because we are his sheep and we hear his voice (John 10:27).    

The difficulty with the statement quoted above from the article is that it implies that it is ok to seek confirmation elsewhere for the truthfulness of what God has already told us.  It is like saying, "God, I know you said heaven is real in your Word to me, but I really don't quite believe you.  So if you don't mind, could you have another human tell me it is true so that I can believe?"  If you don't see the sinfulness of such a statement then then most of what I'm saying probably doesn't make much sense to you either.

But the article gets better.  Later, in defense of ecstatic experiences and visions, he offers two examples that he hopes will ease some of the tension evangelicals are having with the Burpo account.   They are Francis of Assisi and Theresa of Avila.  The difficulty I have with these examples is that they were both a part of and proponent for a religion that was anything but Christian at the time.  By the time these two come along the Church had apostatized far beyond anything the Apostles would have imagined.  To offer these two as examples is much like offering Joel Osteen and Norman Vincent Peale in defense of a particular doctrine in order to argue its orthodoxy.  It doesn't necessarily invalidate the argument, but it certainly is very odd and in no way should bring the desired effect of comforting the critics of the Burpo account (unfortunately, for many Christians it will do just that).  

The strangest part of the article is that Kyle explains the visions they have which are clearly very much unlike the Burpo account and then candidly admits: "Obviously, these mystical visions are quite unlike Colton's".

What?! So what was the point? Kyle says, "But they show that the value of ecstatic experience isn't exhausted by objective analysis." I'm not entirely sure what that is suppose to mean. Perhaps it means that even though Burpo goes far beyond Scripture, unlike Francis and Theresa, and even though some things are just plain ridiculous and even sacrilegious, there is still some good to be gotten from it? To which I'm compelled to ask, "Why bother?!!" Seriously, if we have the God-breathed very words of God, infallible, sufficient and true, then why do we need the Burpo account in the first place? The answer is simple: when it comes right down to it God's Word isn't good enough. Period.

I would like to think the low view of Scripture held by many in the church today is the result of simple ignorance. And for many I am sure it is. Unfortunately I am afraid that for more than we would care to admit the problem run much deeper. For many it is because what is described in Ezekiel 36 and quoted above has never become a reality. Burpo's account brings comfort because they have never had the Holy Spirit given to live inside of them because they have never been converted. If the first part of Ezekiel 36 had taken place, then consequently the second part would have also and He, the Spirit, would confirm the veracity the Word of God (He did, after all, write it and this is the very thing he was sent to do - John 14:26).

I would encourage anyone reading this post to read Psalm 119 and ask the simple question, "Does this describe my view of Scripture?" I believe it is time for the Church to take a serious look at how she views Scripture and to be truly honest about what she sees. Once this happens and she returns to the Source of all truth using the means he has already provided for knowing that truth, books like "Heaven is for Real" will be seen for what they are, nonsensical and nonessential.