Is faith a gift?

by K.W. Leslie, 02 March

Mixing up the types of faith, is why a lot of Christians don’t develop their faith.

Oh, I won’t bury the lead. Is faith a gift? Well, supernatural faith is a gift. The other types of faith? Nah.

I know why various Christians claim faith, all faith, is a gift. It’s usually ’cause it says so in their church’s catechism. Fr’instance the Heidelberg Catechism:

65. It is through faith alone that we share in Christ and all his benefits: Where then does that faith come from?

A. The Holy Spirit produces it in our hearts by the preaching of the holy gospel, and confirms it by the use of the holy sacraments.

Various scriptures indicate that people have faith after hearing the gospel, Ro 10.17 and the writers of the catechisms kinda stretched these verses to imply it was the gospel, and God granting us the ability to understand the gospel, 1Co 2.10-14 which generated the faith in us. It wasn’t our ability to trust what we heard; it was God sorta flipping a switch in us so that now we had the ability to understand and believe.

Um… no. I can see how you’d get that by reading your own pre-existing deterministic philosophy into the bible. But I’m pretty sure if it all comes down to God dropping faith into us, and nothing else whatsoever, Jesus wouldn’t command people to believe or have faith. Mk 1.15, 11.22, Jn 10.38, 14.1, 20.27, 1Jn 3.23 If there’s any truth to the idea God grants us faith, he shouldn’t have to order us to use it: It should just be there, and we should just believe. But we don’t. Some of us struggle. Sometimes we cry out to God for extra help. Mk 9.24, Lk 17.5 And the reason we struggle is because it’s not just there. It’s a trait we have to develop. It’s fruit.

Why do the catechisms get it wrong? Mostly it’s ’cause their authors suck at grammar.

Jesus confuses Antipas Herod.

by K.W. Leslie, 01 March

Luke 23.4-12

All the gospels tell of Jesus’s suffering, but only in Luke do we find this bit about Jesus being sent to Antipas Herod. The other gospel authors skipped it ’cause it didn’t add anything to their accounts. Doesn’t add much to Luke either. But it’s interesting.

It begins right after Pontius Pilatus, at the time Judea’s Roman prefect, was presented with Jesus for crucifixion. Pilatus didn’t see any reason to crucify him, ’cause as John related, he figured Jesus’s kingdom wasn’t any political threat to Rome. (But it did take over Rome all the same.) So he didn’t feel like crucifying Jesus… and a loose comment the Judeans made, gave Pilatus the idea to hand off the problem to Herod.

Luke 23.4-7 KWL
4 Pilatus told the head priests and the crowd, “I find nothing of guilt in this person.”
5 The crowd prevailed over Pilatus, saying this: “He riles up the people,
teaching throughout Judea—having begun such behavior in the Galilee.”
6 On hearing this, Pilatus asked whether Jesus was Galilean,
7 and realizing Jesus was under Antipas Herod’s authority, sent him to Herod,
Herod himself being in Jerusalem on that day.

Now let’s be clear. There was no rule in the Roman Empire which said if you had the subject of another province under arrest, you had to extradite him to that province’s ruler. No custom either. In fact, knowing Romans, they wouldn’t wanna extradite their prisoners, lest it be considered a sign of weakness. So there were only two possible reasons for Pilatus to send Jesus to Herod:

  1. Passing the buck.
  2. Making nice with Herod.

Because they hated one another, Lk 23.12 and we’re not told why. Possibly because Herod figured he oughta be Judea’s king; possibly because Pilatus treated him less than royal, because Herod’s official title tetra-árhis/“tetrarch” Mt 14.1 doesn’t mean “king,” but “ruler of a fourth,” namely a quarter of Israel. Or maybe it was some other silly reason. Whatever; they didn’t get along. But Herod had always wanted to meet Jesus, Lk 23.8 and if Pilatus knew this, it was a significant gesture on his part. More likely, I’m guessing, Pilatus stumbled into this gesture by a combination of dumb luck and procrastination.

“…But God knows my heart.”

by K.W. Leslie, 28 February

The way I share Jesus is pretty basic: I talk with people. They ask what I’m doing. My answer is nearly always Christianity-related… ’cause that is what I’m doing. Sometimes they have hangups about religion, in which case I change the subject. But far more often they’ll talk about it. Frequently it turns out they’re Christian.

But there are Christians, and there are Christians. Some of ’em are devout. Some of ’em only think they’re Christian. Most often they’re just irreligious: They don’t pray. Don’t go to church. Never read their bibles; wouldn’t know were to begin. (Somehow they found out the bible doesn’t have to be started at the beginning—and ever since, they’ve used this as an excuse for why they never started. Sounds like the options simply stymie them. Maybe we’d better stop telling people they don’t have to start at Genesis, and tell ’em they totally do. But I digress.)

One of my shortcuts for finding out how religious they are, or aren’t: I ask where they go to church. And even though they should totally go, and know they should totally go, a lot of ’em just don’t. “Oh, I went to [big local church] all the time. I admit I don’t now; not as often as I ought to.” Seldom do they ever try to give the rubbish argument Christians don’t need to go. They kinda know that’s heresy.

But recently I bumped into someone who gave this excuse for skipping church.

ME. “So you’ve not gone recently?”
SHE. “No, I admit it’s been a while. But it’s okay; it’s a relationship, not a religion. And God knows my heart.”

It’s far from the first time I’ve heard the “But God knows my heart” argument. It’s really popular in the Bible Belt. “Yeah, I fully admit I [insert heinous sin] on the regular. But God knows my heart.”

Yes, God knows we have good intentions! Buried in us somewhere, deep down… ’cause they’re clearly not visible for anybody to see, or even deduce. But they’re in there, and that counts for something, right?

Yeah, you just keep telling yourself that. It’s how people eventually find themselves in this predicament:

Matthew 7.21-23 KWL
21 “Not everyone who calls me, ‘Master, master!’ will enter the heavenly kingdom.
Just the one who does my heavenly Father’s will.
22 At that time, many will tell me, ‘Master, master! Didn’t we prophesy in your name?
Didn’t we throw out demons in your name? Didn’t we do many powerful things in your name?’
23 And I’ll explain to them, ‘I never knew you.
Get away from me, all you Law-breakers.’

Except it’s even worse than Jesus describes it.

Yeah, worse. Read it again. Jesus is chiding people who prophesy in his name, throw out demons, do miracles. In other words, they do stuff. They minister to others—or try to. Problem is they’re “Law-breakers”—they don’t do what Jesus tells us to when it comes to loving God and our neighbors. They presume they have a relationship ’cause they’re ministers. They don’t, ’cause they’re not at all religious about their relationship.

Now these folks who figure God knows their hearts? Not even ministers. They don’t do miracles. Might not even believe miracles happen any more, or imagine God only grants such power to the super-devout, which they’re not. They got any evidence of any relationship with Jesus at all? Super nope.

God knows your heart? Yes indeed he does. And he knows it’s full of crap. Same as most of the Christians around you. You’re not really fooling anyone.

Jesus gets flogged.

by K.W. Leslie, 27 February

Mark 15.15 • Matthew 27.26 • Luke 23.16 • John 19.1

Jesus’s flogging was definitely part of his suffering. But it’s actually not one of the traditional the stations of the cross. I know; you’d think it was, considering how much time Mel Gibson spent on it in The Passion of the Christ, where they beat the hell out of Jesus—as if there was anything of hell in him. But nope; traditionally the stations of the cross began with Jesus getting his cross, ’cause they’re the stations of the cross, not Jesus’s pre-cross sufferings. They’re part of St. John Paul’s list though.

And no, there’s no historical evidence that the Romans beat Jesus more than usual. The only details we have about his flogging is that he had a flogging. Takes up only a sentence in all four gospels.

Mark 15.15 KWL
Pilate, wanting the crowd to stop it, released bar-Abba to them.
He handed over Jesus, who’d been flogged, so he could be crucified.
Matthew 27.26 KWL
Then Pilate released bar-Abba to them.
He handed over Jesus, who’d been flogged, so he could be crucified.
John 19.1 KWL
So then Pilate also had Jesus flogged.

Fraghellósas/“who’d been flogged” Mk 15.15, Mt 27.26 is in a verb tense called aorist: It happened, but it’s not past tense, so we don’t know when it happened. It didn’t necessarily happen after Judea’s prefect Pontius Pilate sent Jesus to his death; it might’ve happened before. Probably did, considering John records Jesus getting flogged and crowned with thorns before he was sent to be crucified, not after.

Jesus doesn’t actually get flogged in Luke, but Pilate implied that was the plan:

Luke 23.16 KWL
“So, once punished, I will release him.”

’Cause flogging was how Romans “punished” criminals… unless their crime was considered so grievous, the Romans would just crucify them. And they were pretty quick to crucify people too. Yep, flogging was the lenient punishment. Whereas in our culture, flogging is illegal, for obvious reasons.

Christian leadership and age discrimination.

by K.W. Leslie, 26 February

If your church lacks young people in leadership, it’s gonna lose all its young people. Just you wait.

Arguably Timothy of Lystra first met Paul of Tarsus when he was a teenager; old enough to come along with the apostles on their travels, but young enough for Paul to think of him as a son. Pp 2.22 When Timothy became the leader of a church in Ephesus in the 60s of the Christian era, Paul would’ve been in his 50s and Timothy in his 30s—certainly old enough to lead, but certainly not the oldest guy in that church. Quite possibly not even the one who’d been Christian longest, since Paul had evangelized Ephesus years before he ever met up with Timothy.

In any case being in your thirties meant it was necessary for Paul to make this comment in his first letter to Timothy:

1 Timothy 4.12 KWL
Nobody gets to look down upon your youth!
Instead become the faithful Christians’ example in word, lifestyle, love, faith, and purity.

Because people will look down on your youth.

I know from experience. When I was in my thirties, I was asked to run the church’s preservice bible study. Our head pastor felt I was up to it. Others not so much, ’cause they wanted to run it. Yep, all the participants were older than me. But I had three advantages over them:

  1. I became a Christian in my childhood. The rest became Christians as adults. So set our physical ages aside: I’d been Christian about 10 years longer than most. There was only one fella who’d become Christian in 1975, same as me. Of course you can be spiritually mature at any age… but when you get so worked up over something as minor as the youngster leading the bible study, y’ain’t showing any such maturity.
  2. Trust me: When you’re leading a bible study, it helps when you can actually do bible study. I’d been to seminary, so I knew how. The others knew how to do bad word studies, and quote popular Christian authors. For all the good that does.
  3. Our pastor did after all ask me to lead the group.

Admittedly, I didn’t let their hangup bother me any. I figured if it bothered them badly enough, they’d quit the group. They didn’t, and stuck with me for a year and a half. So no, don’t get the idea I was wringing my hands over their disapproval, and constantly meditating upon 1 Timothy 4.12 to keep my spirits up. My spirits were fine. Studying to prepare the lessons was teaching me all sorts of useful stuff. Hopefully teaching them this stuff too.

But as Paul stated elsewhere in his pastoral letters, the main qualification for Christian leadership is good character. They gotta be trustworthy people. Hence his advice to Timothy: Become an example in word, lifestyle, love, faith, and purity. Be a solid Christian. Be of good character. If you’ve got that, age won’t matter to anybody but people who lack good character.

Yeah, I know. Lots of Christians lack good character. That’s why young people aren’t often put in charge of things. Either they themselves lack character, or they have plenty but the other leaders don’t.

Yahweh. (Or Jehovah. Either way.)

by K.W. Leslie, 19 February

The primary name of God… and its English translation.

Because our culture is largely monotheist, even when we refer to the lowercase-G “god,” we nearly always mean the One God, the Creator, the Almighty. Other gods, like Baal or Thor, haven’t even crossed our minds; if we do mean them, we have to spell out they’re who we meant. Most of the time, if you say “god,” you aren’t even thinking about them. (Nor thinking of the One God either, but that’s another issue for another day.)

Totally wasn’t the case 3,400 years ago, when “god” was more of a generic word for any being who was mightier than mere humanity. Heck, some kings even claimed they were gods. So when you said “god,” you had to spell out which god, and that was the issue when God sent Moses to go rescue the Hebrews from Egypt. Which god was sending Moses?

Exodus 3.13-15 KWL
13 Moses told God, “Look, I go to Israel’s sons and tell them, ‘Your ancestors’ god sends me to you.’
They’ll tell me, ‘What’s his name?’ What do I tell them?”
14 God told Moses, “EHYÉH ASHÉR EHYÉH.”
He said, “You’ll tell Israel’s sons this: ‘EHYÉH sent me to you.’ ”
15 God further told Moses, “You’ll tell Israel’s sons this: ‘The LORD is your ancestors’ god.
Abraham’s god, Isaac’s god, Jacob’s god. He sent me to you.’
This is my name forever, to remember me by from generation to generation.”

Ehyéh/“I’m being” was a familiar word to the Hebrews, although it’s more a word you use with an adjective to describe yourself: “I’m being silly,” or “I’m being aggressive.” God went with “I’m being what I’m being” because the names and titles we choose for ourselves tend to define us—and God reserves the right to define himself any way he chooses. God is who he is. We don’t get to decide what he is.

The related word YHWH also means “I’m being,” but you’ll notice the bible never, ever uses it in that generic way. It’s only used to identify the One God. That’s his name. That’s the one he chose for himself, until he became human and chose to go by the Aramaic name Yeshúa/“YHWH saves” in the New Testament. Different name, but same being.

The reason I spell YHWH in all capitals is because we don’t actually know how to pronounce it. “Yahwéh” is an educated guess, based on the word ehyéh. And you might notice most Americans don’t even pronounce “Yahweh” correctly: We put the accent on the first syllable, American-style, and make it “Yáhweh.” We’re supposed to pronounce it like in the U2 song.

Of course the usual English translation of YHWH is “Jehovah,” which doesn’t even try to pronounce it correctly. Although originally it did.

How to do a word study.

by K.W. Leslie, 16 February
WORD STUDY 'wərd stə.di noun. Learning the scriptures’ definition of a word through its use in the text.

In the churches where I grew up, when people talked about “doing bible study,” they really meant doing a word study. They weren’t actually studying the bible—by which I mean read a story or section of the scriptures, look at its literary and historical context, analyze the original language, determine what it meant to the people who originally wrote and read it, and determine how this info is relevant to us today. Much as you’d study any work of history or literature—but somehow the definition of “study” got changed in church into looking up all the instances of a word in the bible.

Well you are using a bible, and you are studying.

But properly they were doing a word study: They chose an individual, significant word, found in the bible. Like grace. Or gossip, redemption, repentance, longsuffering and any of the other fruits of the Spirit; any words which have a particular importance to Christians. They’d try to dig out that meaning and understand the word better.

And that’s good! We should understand those words better. You’d be surprised (or annoyed) at how many Christians don’t know the definitions of words we use all the time. I already told the story of a pastor who didn’t know what a soul is. He’s hardly the only Christian who should know better, doesn’t, and has resorted to guessing. A little word study would help such people.

Problem is, few Christians are taught how to effectively study a word. They think the process solely consists of looking up a word in the dictionary. (If they’re feeling daring, they’ll look it up in a Hebrew or Greek dictionary. Like the dictionaries in the back of a concordance.) Then they read a few verses with that particular word in it, so they know “what the bible says” about that word. They read the dictionary definition into those verses, and maybe get some “insight” as a result. And now they feel all knowledgeable, profound, and spiritual.

Outside of Christendom, only schoolchildren will claim they “studied” when all they really did was look up a word in the dictionary. Come on, Christians. Let’s do some actual study, shall we?

“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.