“Efficacious grace”: When God’s grace turns dark.

by K.W. Leslie, 13 February

Because popular culture tends to define God by his power, not his character like the scriptures describe him, 1Jn 4.8 a lot of Christians do it too. The result is a lot of bad theology, where God’s love, grace, and justice unintentionally (but hey, sometimes very intentionally) take a distant second to his might and glory.

Take grace.

Properly defined, grace is God’s generous, forgiving, kind, favorable attitude towards his people. It’s what reaches out to people who totally don’t merit God’s attention whatsoever, loves us anyway, turns us into daughters and sons of the Most High, and grants us his kingdom. It’s amazing.

But when you imagine God’s single most important attribute is his power… well, grace looks extremely different. It’s no longer an attitude. It’s a determination. You will receive God’s grace, become his child, and be on the track for heaven. Or none of these things will happen, because God’s grace will never touch you, because God doesn’t want you. No we don’t know why; he just doesn’t. No you can’t change his mind; piss off.

I know: Under this redefinition, God’s grace is still amazing… but only for its recipients. For everybody else, God seems arbitrary, and downright cold. Because only a third of the planet considers themselves Christian. (Figure some of them aren’t really, and figure there are those, like Abraham ben Terah, whom God’s gonna save despite their inadequate knowledge of Jesus. I think it’ll still come out to be a third.) This means God’s perfectly fine with two-thirds of humanity going to hell. If so, he created an awful lot of unwanted people… and is deliberately making hell more full than heaven.

Yeah, that’s the usual problem when you make God out to be deterministic: Suddenly his plans for the universe are mighty evil. But hey, determinists don’t care: God wields all the power they could ever covet, and they’re going to heaven. They get theirs.

Calvinists tend to call this deterministic form of grace irresistible grace. Although lately a number of ’em realize just how rapey “irresistible” sounds, so they prefer the term efficacious grace—that if God decides to be gracious to us, this grace is so powerful, so mighty, it will have an effect upon us, and will do as God intends. ’Cause to their minds, the Almighty doesn’t merely want things, or wish for things: He determines things. And since he’s almighty, what force in the universe could possibly stop him from getting his way?

Has God predetermined everything in the universe? Evil too?

by K.W. Leslie, 05 February
DETERMINISM di'tər.mən.ɪz.əm noun. Belief every event is fixed in place by external causes other than human will.
[Determinist di'tər.mən.ɪst noun, deterministic di'tər.mən.ɪst.ɪk adjective.]

I first bumped into the idea of determinism when I was a kid, ’cause my parents let me read Mark Twain. A lot of people assume, thanks to Tom Sawyer, that Twain was a children’s author. Not even close. And in his later years, after so many of his family members died and Twain became more and more cynical, some of the things he wrote were mighty disturbing. What are the chances I read that stuff? Yep, 100 percent.

In Twain’s novella The Mysterious Stranger, some 16th-century German boys encounter a young angel named Satan (named for his uncle—yeah, that uncle) who takes them on adventures. At one point, young Satan introduces the boys to the concept of determinism.

“Among you boys you have a game: you stand a row of bricks on end a few inches apart; you push a brick, it knocks its neighbor over, the neighbor knocks over the next brick—and so on till all the row is prostrate. That is human life. A child’s first act knocks over the initial brick, and the rest will follow inexorably. If you could see into the future, as I can, you would see everything that was going to happen to that creature; for nothing can change the order of its life after the first event has determined it. That is, nothing will change it, because each act unfailingly begets an act, that act begets another, and so on to the end, and the seer can look forward down the line and see just when each act is to have birth, from cradle to grave.”

“Does God order the career?”

“Foreordain it? No. The man’s circumstances and environment order it. His first act determines the second and all that follow after.”

The idea of being locked into a fixed future depresses the boys. But the angel Satan cheers them up by pointing out how, because he’s an angel and exists outside this chain of cause-and-effect, he can interfere, and change their futures for the better. To the boys’ dismay and horror, Satan’s idea of “better” doesn’t look at all like theirs: Some die prematurely, some go mad, and in one case a person lives a long, happy life… but goes to hell.

Later in life I discovered Twain, or Sam Clemens as he was known in his private life, grew up Presbyterian. Must’ve been paying attention to all the Calvinism taught in those churches. Because Calvinism is pretty big on determinism.

Determinism, the belief we’re all victims of circumstance—and that even our free will is bound to do as circumstances have conditioned it to do—wasn’t invented by John Calvin and the Calvinists. Nor even St. Augustine of Hippo, whence Calvin first got the idea. It predates Christianity, predates the Hebrew religion, predates the written word. Humans have believed in it since they first saw one rock topple another, and thought, “What if all of life works like that?” Every religion has its determinists.

Fake goodness. (Yes, it can be faked.)

by K.W. Leslie, 30 January

It’s been long taught the opposite of goodness is badness, or evil. That’s not precisely true. The proper opposite of goodness is non-goodness. Which can take the forms of active evil, apathy (i.e. standing around doing nothing when we could be doing good—or stopping evil), or hypocrisy (i.e. pretending to be good when we’re not really).

We humans don’t like to think of ourselves as evil. Even when we totally are: We seek out ways to justify our misbehavior. Good excuses, like “It wasn’t my responsibility,” or as Cain ben Adam put it, “Am I my brother’s keeper?” Ge 4.9 KJV Semantic justifications, like “It’s not technically doing evil, and here’s why,” like you’ll find in theodicy whenever determinists try to explain how their view of God doesn’t really make him culpable for all the evil in the cosmos. Our self-preservation instinct means we’ll do our darnedest to defend ourselves… or get high so we don’t ever have to think about it.

The usual route I find Christians take when it comes to fake goodness, is misdirection. Misdirection’s what stage magicians use when they want you to stop paying attention to what they’re really doing, and focus instead on something interesting or distracting—like a pretty assistant, sharp knives, or a white tiger. We Christian misdirect by pointing away from our own lack of goodness… and point at someone else’s lack of goodness. You know, like when Adam was in trouble and pointed to Eve, or Eve passing the buck to the serpent. Ge 2.12-13 Little kids figure out this technique pretty early in their lives: “Well but he set the garage on fire, which is way worse than what I ever did.” Because hey, with some of the dumber parents, it works.

Be good. It’s what God expects of his kids.

by K.W. Leslie, 29 January
Ephesians 2.4-10 KWL
4 God, being rich in mercy, loves us out of his great love.
5 Us, being dead in our missteps.
He makes us all alive in Christ: You’re saved by his grace.
6 He raises us and seats us together in the highest heavens, in Christ Jesus—
7 so he can show the overabundant riches of his grace in the coming ages,
in kindness to those of us who are in Christ Jesus.
8 You’re all saved by his grace, through your faith.
This, God’s gift, isn’t from you, 9 isn’t from works; none can boast of it.
10 We’re his poetry, creations in Christ Jesus,
for doing the good works which God pre-prepared. We should walk in them!

Too often Christians get the idea that once God saved us—once we said the sinner’s prayer, and gained free admission to God’s kingdom—there’s not a whole lot left for us Christians to do. We don’t have to earn heaven; we don’t have to do anything. We can just kick back, bask in the knowledge of our election, and wait for the sweet release of death—to be followed by the joy of resurrection and eternal life.

Yeah, no. God’s expectation has always been that now that he’s saved his people, we follow him.

True of the Hebrews after the Exodus. Remember when he rescued them from Egyptian slavery? (If not, read Exodus, or at least watch The Prince of Egypt.) The LORD saved the Hebrews—and as a saved people, he granted them his Law. If they were gonna be known as the LORD’s people, they’d better act like the LORD’s people should, and “be holy because I’m holy.” Lv 11.44 After all, how are they “the LORD’s people” if they’re no different than any other people? How are we Jesus’s people if we don’t actually follow Jesus?

So in a word, God expects us to be good. To walk in the good works which God pre-prepared. Ep 2.10 To be the creations he always intended.

Goodness is a fruit of the Holy Spirit. When we truly belong to Jesus, we’re gonna make an effort to be good. We’re gonna try to obey God. We’re gonna want to be good. In fact, we’re gonna get frustrated because we’re not as good as we’d wish. We’re not gonna like our sins any more than God does.

Sharing Jesus and sucky Christians.

by K.W. Leslie, 18 January

If we make lousy representatives of Jesus, we’re often extra hesitant to share him with others.

There’s a popular saying among Christians, attributed to Ragamuffin Gospel author Brennan Manning:

The greatest single cause of atheism in the world today is Christians who acknowledge Jesus with their lips and walk out the door and deny him by their lifestyle. That is what an unbelieving world simply finds unbelievable.

It’s popular among wannabe-devout Christians, ’cause it lets us point the finger at irreligious Christians and say, “See, it’s their fault.” (And so much for grace.) But is it true? Has anybody bothered to poll nontheists and ask ’em, “Is that why you struggle to believe in God? Because of Christians who won’t act like Christ?” Have we sought to find out if there’s anything to it? Or is it too comfortable and appealing a “truth” to question?

I mean yeah, irreligious Christians need to shape up and stop treating God’s grace so cheaply. Duh. But I’m loath to park the blame for all the unbelievers in the world upon them. I’ve dealt with nontheists long enough to know better. The reason they don’t believe is ’cause they don’t wanna believe. All their reasons are after-the-fact excuses. Because that’s what humans do. We start with the hypothesis, then pick and choose any evidence which backs it. “The facts speak for themselves” only after we’ve thrown away any facts we don’t like.

Misbehaving Christians have nothing to do with nontheism. Anyone who tells you different, has an ax to grind against misbehaving Christians.

I certainly do, ’cause I used to be one of those misbehaving Christians. I grind an ax against my former self all the time. I tell on all the sins he committed, and use him for illustrations of what not to do. Many Christians do likewise with their former selves: We can do it with impunity, and not appear cruel. ’Cause it’d look totally cruel if we used, say, one of our kids as an example of what not to do. Or some other Christian in some other denomination.

I was a rotten kid in my youth. And yeah, I shared Jesus with people. But I actually got a few of ’em to come to church with me. Despite me. ’Cause that’s how the Holy Spirit works: He takes seriously messed-up humans, and does something good through us. He can, and does, use irreligious Christians to spread his gospel. I know from personal experience as one of those irreligious Christians.

That said, is it ideal when irreligious Christians share the gospel? Of course not. Got way easier to share the gospel when I started to act like Jesus. People don’t mind hearing the good news from good people. But when you’re kind of a dick, the good news doesn’t tend to come across as all that good. Too much hellfire, not enough grace. Too much hate; no love. Too likely to become dark Christianity, dark evangelism, and proselytism. Too likely to reproduce all those bad traits, like Jesus complained about the Pharisees doing with their converts. Mt 23.15

No; ideally we want fruitful Christians to exhibit all the same winsome traits as our Master: Love, kindness, patience, forgiveness, grace, compassion, peace, and joy. Because we’re trying to duplicate that in new believers; not the same fake fruit we find among Christianists, who’ve taken the place of Pharisees in that they’re creating the “sons of hell” nowadays.

Don’t misunderstand me. Irreligious Christians need to repent. But can they share Jesus, his gospel, and his kingdom? Of course they can. God’s used talking asses before, Nu 22.26-30 and apparently he still does.

Doubt’s okay. Unbelief’s the problem.

by K.W. Leslie, 17 January

Doubt isn’t the opposite of faith. Unbelief is.

I’ve been told more than once, “In the scriptures, Jesus came down awfully hard against doubt. How then can you claim doubt is our friend?

’Cause Jesus’s objection wasn’t actually to doubt. It was to unbelief.

Contrary to popular opinion—and way too many bible translations—doubt isn’t the opposite of belief. Unbelief is. Doubt’s not the same as unbelief. Doubt means we’re not sure we believe. Unbelief means we’re totally sure—and we don’t believe at all.

Doubt’s what happens when we sorta kinda do believe. But we’re not entirely sure. So we suspend judgment till we get more evidence. And often that’s precisely the right thing to do. Y’realize Christians constantly get scammed by false teachers, fake prophets, and con artists who tell ’em, “Stop doubting me and just believe!” In so doing they’re trying to keep us from practicing discernment, because if we did use our heads we’d realize what they were up to. They don’t want us to think. Just feel. Follow your emotions, not your head. Ignore the gray matter God gave you, and listen to your brain chemicals… and ignore the fact most of us can turn them on and off if we tried.

Unbelievers definitely try to describe themselves as doubters. I’ve met plenty of nontheists who claim that’s what they really are: Doubters. Skeptics. Agnostics who are intellectually weighing the evidence for Christianity… but we Christians haven’t yet convinced them, so they’re gonna stay in the nontheist camp for now. Makes ’em sound open-minded and wise. But it’s hypocritical bushwa. Their minds are totally made up; they stopped investigating God long ago. They don’t believe; they’ve chosen their side of the issue; they’re straddling nothing.

Real doubt might likewise mean we’ve totally picked a side. There are Christians who doubt, but they’re still gonna remain Christian. (After all, where else are they gonna go? Jn 6.68 They’ve seen too much.) And there are nontheists who doubt, so they’re still gonna investigate Christianity from time to time, and talk with Christians, and try to see whether there’s anything to what we believe. Part of ’em kinda hopes there is. Or, part of ’em really hopes there’s not—but the Holy Spirit is making them doubt their convictions, ’cause he uses doubt like this all the time.

Deacons: Those who serve the church.

by K.W. Leslie, 16 January

As described in the scriptures, the church’s workers—whether we give ’em the title or not.

DEACON /'di.kən/ n. Minister. Might be the leader of a particular ministry, but not the leader of a church: Deacons are nearly always subordinate to the pastor or priest.
[Diaconal /di'ak.(ə.)nəl/ adj., less properly deaconal /di'kən.əl/ adj.]

The word diákonos/“deacon” originally meant “runner,” like someone who runs errands. You know, someone we’d nowadays call a gofer—as in “go fer coffee,” or run any other errands. Deacon first shows up in the bible when Jesus said if we wanna become great, we need to be everyone’s servant. Mk 10.43 Or when he said if anyone serves him, the Father values them. Jn 12.26

Deacon is used to describe the folks appointed to run the early church’s food ministry. Ac 6.1-6 The Twelve didn’t give them any more responsibility than that. But they picked mature Christians, and as a result people recognized these servants as leaders in their own right. Stephen and Philip did some very notable things in Acts.

A deacon means any minister in your church who’s officially or formally in charge of something. Not the volunteers who pitch in from time to time, who run one fundraiser, taught one Sunday school class once, or pitched in on the church’s work day. Deacons are actually in charge of stuff and people. They run the small groups. Lead the evangelism team. Lead the prayer team. Greet visitors weekly. Serve as ushers during the services. Handle the bookkeeping. Clean the building. Answer phones. Teach the classes. Run the kitchen. Preach sermons. Lead the singing. Run the website. Anything and everything: Deacons have duties.

True, many churches have made “deacon” an official title—and the only “deacons” are on the church’s board of directors. Yeah, board members do fit the scriptures’ definition of deacons. But in the scriptures, deacon is hardly limited to board members. Nor is it interchangeable with elders, even though deacons had better be mature Christians. Elders aren’t necessarily put in charge of things. Deacons are.

Undoing God’s grace?

by K.W. Leslie, 12 January

Before I started the bible-in-the-month thingy this month, I was reading a certain book (really, more of an extended rant) about holiness. Written by a guy I know; I won’t say who ’cause I’m gonna criticize him a little. We’ll call him Achard.

Achard spent a chapter ranting about fake grace. Which he didn’t really bother to define… but from what I deduced, he basically means cheap grace.

To recap: Cheap grace is when we take God’s amazing grace for granted: It’s meant to be our safety net for when we screw up and need forgiveness, but we treat it like a bounce house where we can spend hours in mindless fun, sinning away till we’re dizzy and kinda pukey. ’Cause grace!

Now yeah, when we find the cheap-grace attitude among Christians, it’s deplorable. God’s grace may be granted to us freely, but it cost Jesus his life. Treating it with anything other than the deepest gratitude is bad enough. Ignoring how God feels about sin, because we can go on sinning and he’ll just keep granting us grace Ro 6.1 is, to be completely blunt, a massive dick move. That’s not the love we need to show God in response. That’s exploitative, selfish, and depraved. That’s evil.

And therefore, Achard insists, not actually grace anymore. If we exploit his grace, God’s gonna take it back. We think we have his grace; we actually don’t. We’re exactly like those Hebrews in Isaiah 1 who presumed they had God’s grace because they were his chosen people, because they practiced all the festivals and ritual sacrifices he told ’em to practice—and all the rituals made up for their outrageous behavior towards the weak and needy of their community. They made God sick.

Isaiah 1.11-15 KWL
11 “What are your many sacrifices to me?” says the LORD.
“I’m full of burnt-up rams and animal fat.
I’m not interested in the blood of bulls, lambs, or goats.
12 When you come before my face, walk in my courtyard, who requested this from your hand?
13 Don’t bring me empty offerings any more! Incense? It disgusts me.
Calling monthly and Sabbath assemblies? I can’t stand wasteful conferences.
14 My soul hates your monthly and special feasts. They’re a burden to me which I tire of carrying.
15 When you spread your hands, I hide my eyes from you.
When you pray ‘great’ prayers, I don’t listen: Your hands are full of blood!”

Achard is entirely sure if we think grace covers all, we have another think coming. It does not. Grace is only for those people who are actually trying to follow God. Not for those people who figure “Once saved, always saved—so obedience and holiness is optional,” and take the option to practice neither obedience nor holiness. These folks think they’re saved, but their nasty behavior and carnal attitudes have undone their salvation. They unsaved themselves.

Okay. Here’s where Achard and I part ways.

What does your church believe?—your REAL church.

by K.W. Leslie, 10 January

Some Christians do better in a church with more structure.

Recently a pastor friend of mine posted on social media, “One of the core values at our church is…” something. I don’t remember specifically what. Some virtuous practice. All I remember is immediately thinking, “No it isn’t.”

Because it isn’t.

Oh, I’ve no doubt it’s one of his core values. A virtue he no doubt wants his church to have. Probably preaches it in his sermons, includes it in his vision statements, sticks it on the church website. Likely practices it in his personal life.

But as I keep reminding Christians, the leadership of a church is not the church. The people are.

Your pastor’s core values are not your church’s core values. Your leadership team’s convictions are not your church’s convictions. Your statement of faith and official doctrines are not your church’s theology. Because the church is people. And your people believe all sorts of things. And if your people aren’t solid, growing Christians, your church likely believes all kinds of godawful heretic things.

I live in California, not the Bible Belt. A bothersome percentage of Californian Christians believe in astrology and superstition. In Hindu-style meditation and energy forces. That they’ve had past lives, and are getting reincarnated instead of resurrected. That vaccines don’t prevent illness, but crystals and essential oils do.

Oh, the Bible Belt ain’t any better. The bulk of ’em might’ve said some version of the sinners’ prayer, but too many still believe the very same things pagans do—that God isn’t a trinity, Jesus is a lesser god but not the real God, and the Holy Spirit is an impersonal force. That people get to heaven on good karma instead of God’s grace—and the reason they’re even going to church is to keep their karma points up.

So your church’s real core values? You’re not gonna find them on the website. You’d have to poll the church to find ’em out. And the poll results might really bother you.

The wicked, deceitful human heart.

by K.W. Leslie, 29 December
HEART hɑrt noun. Hollow muscular organ which pumps blood through the circulatory system.
2. [in popular culture] Center of a person’s thoughts and emotions; one’s mood, feeling, enthusiasm, mood, or courage.
3. [in popular Christian culture] Center of a person’s lifeforce; one’s innermost being; the true self, particularly one’s true thoughts and feelings.
4. A conventional heart shape, as found on a deck of cards.
[Hearted 'hɑrt.ɛd adjective.]
Jeremiah 17.9-10 KWL
9 “The heart is more twisted than everything.
It’s human. Who knows it?
10 I, the LORD, examine the heart and test the kidneys,
to give men according to their ways, the fruit of their deeds.”

The ancients didn’t know much about anatomy. So all the stuff we recognize are part of brain activity, the ancients believed were the function of other parts of the body. The heart, they imagined, did our thinking. The kidneys did the feeling.

Seriously. And why not? When we get excited, our hearts beat faster. When we’re sad or mournful, we feel it in the chest, and not so much the head. They saw a connection between mental activity and the heart. So they deduced it was the cardiac muscle behind our thoughts and feelings… not our thoughts and feelings behind our heart’s behavior. Yep, got it backwards.

What’d they imagine our brains did? Well, they didn’t. Seriously: The word “brain” isn’t in the bible. Y’might find it in various bible translations, but that’s because the translators know what the brain actually does, and decided to swap it for lev or kardía where appropriate. But in the scriptures, when we come across mental activity, the authors kept referring to one’s heart.

  • The thoughts Ge 6.5 or imagination Ge 8.21 of one’s heart: Of one’s mind, really.
  • Saying in one’s heart Ge 11.17, 24.45, Dt 9.4, 18.21 is saying to oneself, in one’s head, or at least privately.
  • One’s heart failed or fainted or was discouraged Ge 42.28, 45.26, Nu 32.7, Dt 1.28 means they lost their nerve.
  • One’s heart was hardened Ex 4.21, 7.13, Dt 2.30 means one’s mind is closed.
  • One’s heart was stirred Ex 35.21, 36.2 is what we’d call a brainstorm.

We still do this in our culture. When we remember, we “search our hearts.” When we rethink things, we “have a change of heart.” When we make up our minds, we “determine in our hearts.” And so forth.

Medical science didn’t realize the brain’s importance till Hippocrates in the fourth century BC, and Galen of Pergamon in our second century. For the longest time, more folks were familiar with Aristotle, who claimed the brain’s job is to cool down our blood. Considering all the bible’s talk about thinking and saying with our hearts, most people up until the Renaissance assumed the heart literally did as the bible describes.

But as I’ve said before, the bible’s not a science textbook. When its authors wrote about other subjects than God, they repeated what their culture had told them. They’d always been taught so, and God saw no reason to correct them: “No, guys, you think with your brains, not your hearts.” He had bigger fish to fry. He even used their terminology: He stated he thought in his heart. Ho 11.8 He was trying to relate to humanity, and it wasn’t the occasion for a biology lesson.

So if you’re worried about the scientific inaccuracy of the scriptures, don’t. Unlike young-earth creationists, we aren’t making anti-scientific claims about human biology based on our overly-literal interpretations of the scriptures. We’re simply reading the bible so we can understand God better. To a lesser degree, we’re also trying to understand the sin-damaged human mind better, and if the bible’s authors persisted in using “heart” to mean “mind”… well, let’s adapt.