Sins which send you to hell?

by K.W. Leslie, 16 January

Quoting from John’s first letter:

1 John 5.15-17 KJV
15 And if we know that he hear us, whatsoever we ask, we know that we have the petitions that we desired of him. 16 If any man see his brother sin a sin which is not unto death, he shall ask, and he shall give him life for them that sin not unto death. There is a sin unto death: I do not say that he shall pray for it. 17 All unrighteousness is sin: and there is a sin not unto death.

This passage has managed to confuse an awful lot of Christians. What’s John mean by ἁμαρτάνουσιν πρὸς θάνατον / amartánusin pros thánaton, “sinning unto death”? Or sinning not unto death?

Both Paul and James wrote that sin causes death. “The wages of sin is death” Ro 6.23 and “sin when it is fully grown brings forth death” Jm 1.15 and all that. They weren’t just speaking of sins which obviously cause death, like murder and suicide and abortion; or sins which indirectly but still kinda obviously cause death, like gluttony or addictions or other lapses of self-control. Popular Christian thinking is that all our sins contribute to the decay, and eventual end, of our lives. Sin is a cancer which eats away at our lives until they finally but inevitably end. And even if we resist temptation—even if we could be as sinless as Christ Jesus—sin is so toxic other people’s sins will kill us, same as they did Jesus.

But when Christians read John’s passage about sinning to death (KJV “sin unto death”) what we tend to think of is the Roman Catholic idea of a peccatum mortale / mortal sin, a sin which is so offensive to God, committing it the same as committing apostasy: We effectively just told God “I’m not following Jesus; I prefer hell.

Now, Catholics believe—same as most Evangelicals, including me—God can forgive all. If you commit a mortal sin, you don’t have to end up in hell; you can repent, so do! Murder’s a mortal sin, but Moses murdered an Egyptian slaveowner, David murdered Uriah, and Paul probably murdered Christians before he became one; all of ’em repented. (Well, maybe Moses repented. Bible doesn’t say.) But if you never repent—if you murdered someone, and if you could redo everything, would totally murder ’em again—Catholics are entirely sure you’re going to hell. Because a real Christian would realize they were wrong, feel sorry for it, and be repentant.

How do Catholics determine what’s a mortal sin, and what’s a non-mortal (i.e. easily forgivable, dismissible, venial sin)? Usually it’s by degree. If popular Christian culture considers it especially bad, and enough Catholic leaders and theologians have denounced it as something that’d particularly get in the way of our relationship with God—if it’s a serious violation of his will—it’d be a mortal sin. It’s not that venial sins don’t degrade our relationship with God, especially when we keep committing ’em. It’s that mortal sins have effectively broken it off.

You want a list? Most people who ask me about this want a list. Here ya go.

  • APOSTASY, obviously. Quitting Jesus definitely won’t get you into his kingdom.
  • ADULTERY—as defined as deviating from heterosexual marital activity. (Not as the Old Testament describes it, i.e. sex with wives and concubines.) Catholics also lump any non-marital sexual activity, divorce, homosexuality, incest, masturbation, polygamy, porn, prostitution, and rape under this category.
  • ANGER, ENVY AND HATRED. Particularly to a degree where people take harmful action, like terrorism.
  • BLASPHEMY, by which they mean disrespecting God, not just slander against God. So this’d include using God’s name as a profanity, sacrilege, and skipping Mass.
  • CHEATING AND FRAUD. Unless we’re talking harmless frauds like pranks, this refers to anything which harms others, like unfair bets, stuff which endangers others’ lives, injustice, lying, perjury, unfair wages, unjust prices, or oppressive interest rates.
  • HERESY. Teaching other than, or sowing doubts in, what Christians oughta believe. This includes encouraging people to defy church leadership, church splits, idolatry, simony, sorcery, and trying to be simultaneously Catholic and another religion. Catholics also include Freemasonry—in part ’cause Masons have historically been anti-Catholic, and in part ’cause Masonic rituals like to dabble in pagan, magic, and Muslim iconography, which creeps Catholics out.
  • MURDER of various sorts; anything which intentionally kills another person. This’d include abortion, euthanasia, and suicide. Catholics also include contraception.
  • SUBORNATION, i.e. getting someone to sin for you, or otherwise encouraging another person’s sins and vices. Likewise gossip, scandal-mongering, or other such things which nudge others the wrong way.

All these things are forbidden, or implied to be forbidden, in the scriptures. You notice many of ’em are taken from the Ten Commandments. So obviously we should resist any temptation to slide into ’em.

Does sin undo our salvation?

The big problem with the idea of mortal sins, is its logical conclusion: If certain sins cut us off from God’s grace, and we never repent, nor have the chance or means to repent… it means if we die with a mortal sin on our souls, we’re not saved. We’re not forgiven, not getting into God’s kingdom, not getting eternal life. Sin unsaves us.

Is that how God’s grace works? No.

Catholics have a slightly different idea of how grace works, than Evangelicals. Properly, grace is God’s generous attitude towards his people. But lots of people treat grace as a substance, a liquid God pours out on us, or a blanket God covers us with; an object not an attitude. And if it’s a substance, it’s a finite substance: It’s not unlimited. There’s only so much of it God’s gonna grant us. So don’t push him!

For Catholics, God gives people all sorts of grace, in all sorts of ways. But he particularly grants us grace through his sacraments. That’s why we gotta do them! Go to church and have holy communion every week—every day if possible—because you need to stay connected to Jesus, and that’s the easiest way to do it. And in response God will pour out more grace. So if you’re feeling low on grace, go to church!

Now yeah, if you go to church you’re certainly gonna notice God’s grace a lot more than in most places. But God’s grace isn’t something he only grants when people are religious. On the contrary: God’s grace is all the more for people who aren’t religious. Sinners can’t be saved unless God finds us, comes and gets us, forgives us, and brings us into his kingdom! And does God go and get ’em because they go to church and participate in sacraments? Nope; he went and got us because he loves us. Loved us before we made any effort to follow him; loved us before we repented of our awful, sinful behavior; loved us before we even knew we needed grace. Loves us in spite of many of us not entirely understanding what grace is.

Loves us in spite of those mortal sins. Wants to save us anyway. Isn’t giving up on us, but the Holy Spirit continues to prod us in the conscience so we’ll wise up and repent. That’s grace.

Romans 5.20-21 NABRE
20B …but, where sin increased, grace overflowed all the more, 21 so that, as sin reigned in death, grace also might reign through justification for eternal life through Jesus Christ our Lord.

So does sin, any sin, cut us off from grace and salvation? Only apostasy. Only intentionally quitting Jesus. Properly that’s how blasphemy of the Holy Spirit works—we deliberately cut himself off from him and his guidance, and refuse to follow him further. Rejecting God is the only way we “lose” his salvation. Which means we gotta mean to do it. It’s not accidental! You’re never gonna stumble into losing your salvation; you can only willfully reject it.

(Or, as is the case with pagans who believe they’re Christian, never have it to begin with. They still need to repent, and actually follow Jesus instead of only following the trappings of Christianity which they like best. But they merit their own article.)

So what’s John talking about?

If John didn’t mean to create this whole designation of “mortal sin,” describing sins that’d send us to hell as opposed to venial sins God can easily forgive, what was he really writing about? For that, we gotta look at John’s culture, not ancient Christian culture nor medieval Roman Catholic culture. John grew up Pharisee.

The Pharisees identified two categories of sin in the Law—all of which God forgives, but all of which still had consequences. For most of ’em, like killing a neighbor’s animal, the consequence was restitution for the sin against one’s neighbor, and ritual sacrifice for the sin against God. And for many of ’em, like killing a neighbor, the consequence was death.

Yep. That’s what John meant by “sinning to death”: Violations of the Law which merited the death penalty.

The United States has such laws too. Largely we’ve limited them to murder, terrorism, and treason. The Law in the scriptures executed people for stuff we’d never execute people over, like breaking Sabbath. Its list of mortal sins is a lot larger than the Catholics’ list—and includes much different things. Anger’s not a mortal sin in the Law. But these things are:

  • Not properly penning an ox, so that it broke out and killed someone.
  • Interfering with temple ritual, or the Levites and priests who do it.
  • Priests being drunk on the job.
  • Going to temple while ritually unclean.
  • Kidnapping.
  • Hitting or cursing your parents.
  • Bestiality.
  • False prophecy, promoting other gods, or spiritualism.

Stuff American culture won’t kill you over—but ancient cultures would and did. Whether you repented or not.

Naturally, many ancient Christians didn’t bother to study the Law, had a lot of biases against the things they considered sinful, and decided it wasn’t too huge of a leap between stuff which got you capital punishment, and things which might endanger your eternal life. Plus threatening people with hellfire goes a lot further when you’re trying to get ’em to stop sinning.

But yeah, it’s wrong. John wasn’t writing about stuff that might put you in hell. Just sins people commit which, in context, are serious crimes. Read it again; I translated it with this idea in mind.

1 John 5.15-17 KWL
15 Once we’ve known God hears us about whatever we may ask,
we’ve known we have the requests we ask of him.
16 When anyone sees their fellow Christian sinning a non-felonious sin, they’ll ask,
and God’ll give life to that person—to those who commit non-felonious sin.
There’s felonious sin: I say this so you’d ask, but not about that.
17 Everything immoral is sin—and includes non-felonious sin.

If the sins they commit are things they really oughta go to prison for, like fraud and thievery and molestation, or even treason and murder, we can’t only pray about it, and figure that’s that. We need to get authorities involved. John wasn’t writing about felonious behavior, but sins between us and God, stuff where authorities don’t need to be involved, and hopefully we have the sense to know the difference.

And regardless of the sins, God can and will forgive all. So relax.

The usual substitutes for being fruity.

by K.W. Leslie, 15 January

How do you know someone’s Christian? Duh; by their fruit.

But sometimes I hear this very question—“How do you know someone’s really a Christian?”—not just from newbies, but from longtime Christians. People who’ve been Christian all their lives. We’re not talking brief lives either; I got this question from a seventy-something Christian a few years ago. He says he grew up Christian, and I don’t doubt it. Yet he didn’t know how to tell a Christian from the real thing.

What’d he think was the litmus test for Christianity? Same things most people in popular Christian culture imagine:

  • RELIGION. Regularly reading your bible, praying, and going to church.
  • FAITH. Believing really hard that Jesus is gonna save us.
  • SINNER’S PRAYER. Believing because we said the sinner’s prayer once, at some point in our lives—however long ago that was, and regardless of how much growth we’ve done since—Jesus is gonna save us.
  • ORTHODOXY. Believing all the correct things about God. Get anything wrong, and it means you’re heretic and not saved.
  • CONFORMITY. Doing as all the other Christians in our churches do: If they don’t wear jeans to church, neither do we; if they shun alcohol and profanity and makeup, so do we; if they never listen to anything but K-LOVE (and maybe country & western, ’cause a lot of those musicians are Christian) so do we. Act like them, ’cause that’s how Christians oughta act.
  • ZEAL. If we’re on fire for Jesus—if you really wanna be Christian, and get really amped up about all of the above, and are willing and eager to fight anyone on his behalf—then you’re obviously Christian. No fire? No Holy Spirit in you then.
  • INNER PEACE. When we come to Jesus, supposedly he erases all our worries, fears, doubts, and every trouble. That’s what the evangelists claim, so that’s precisely what a lot of Christians point to: “I have peace. So I’m obviously Christian.”
  • NO MORTAL SINS. We can be Christian and commit minor sins, but if we commit really huge sins, like murder or rape or voting for the wrong party, we’re not really Christian. Can’t be. Real Christians don’t do that.
  • BAPTISM. If we got baptized (and confirmed, and never renounce that baptism… well, not in words; deeds kinda don’t count) we’re Christian.
  • SELF-IDENTIFICATION. If people claim they’re Christian, no matter how antichristian they might behave… well they just are. That’s how they self-identify, and no one has any business claiming otherwise. They know themselves best. And we gotta deal with that.

Various Christians accept at least one, and often many, of these litmus tests. If you can pass two of the tests, you can be extra sure you’re Christian. It’s just like using two different brands of pregnancy tests… even though most of ’em are using the exact same chemicals.

But what’s the litmus test in the bible? (The only litmus test, I might add?) Fruit. We gotta be fruity.

And when I give this answer, people’s usual response is “Oh. Well duh.” Somewhere in their brains they already knew fruit’s the right answer, but there’s some kind of mental block which kept ’em from thinking of it. We can blame the devil for it, and many do, but myself I blame irreligion. It’s way easier to take the other litmus tests than work on actual fruit… and you grow fruit by seriously following Jesus, i.e. religion. Good religion, where we do as Jesus tells us; it’s more than merely going to church and reading bible.

It’s something we gotta do.

The seventy-something even knew the proof text in the “original,” by which he meant the King James Version: “The tree is known by his fruit.” Which is a really odd choice of pronoun by the KJV’s translators; male trees produce pollen, not fruit! But stands to reason a bunch of theology profs know bupkis about agriculture… so let’s read that verse in the NKJV instead.

Matthew 12.33 NKJV
“Either make the tree good and its fruit good, or else make the tree bad and its fruit bad; for a tree is known by its fruit.”

Notice that word in the verse, make. The original is ποιήσατε/pihísate, the command “do” or “make.” Because fruit is something we gotta do and make. Because we have the Holy Spirit within us, every true Christian has the potential to produce fruit… but if we never listen to him and never practice the fruit, it’s not gonna grow! It’ll stay little and barely noticeable.

And because it’s barely noticeable, Christians are gonna have to resort to looking for other things which prove we’re Christian. Like adopting our church’s beliefs, or looking back at the first time we asked for salvation, or checking out our fellow Christians and saying, “Well I’m no worse.”

We figure if we score 100 on a Christian aptitude test, we’re all right. So when we stand before Jesus at the End, and he asks us why he oughta let us into heaven, we can point out we’re one of the “whosoevers” in

John 3.16 KJV
That whosoever believeth in him should not perish, but have eternal life.

We figure we can say, “Why yes you should let me into heaven. I held up my end of the bargain: I believed.”

Whereas Jesus will be looking for fruit:

Matthew 25.41-46 KJV
41 Then shall he say also unto them on the left hand, Depart from me, ye cursed, into everlasting fire, prepared for the devil and his angels: 42 For I was an hungred, and ye gave me no meat: I was thirsty, and ye gave me no drink: 43 I was a stranger, and ye took me not in: naked, and ye clothed me not: sick, and in prison, and ye visited me not. 44 Then shall they also answer him, saying, Lord, when saw we thee an hungred, or athirst, or a stranger, or naked, or sick, or in prison, and did not minister unto thee? 45 Then shall he answer them, saying, Verily I say unto you, Inasmuch as ye did it not to one of the least of these, ye did it not to me. 46 And these shall go away into everlasting punishment: but the righteous into life eternal.

It’s not the feeding and clothing the needy per se. It’s the fact fruity Christians will feed and clothe the needy… and fruitless Christians will figure they needn’t bother, ’cause we don’t need to do good works to be saved. Fruity Christians wanna help others. They wanna be generous, kind, compassionate, loving, patient, and gentle. Fruitless Christians would rather tell such people to get a job. Whose hearts best reflect that of the Holy Spirit within ’em? Duh; the real Christians.

Wait! What about grace?

Whenever I talk about fruit as something we gotta do and make, I invariably get pushback from people who don’t wanna do and make. Who point out, “Aren’t we saved by God’s grace, not our works?” Ep 2.8-9 Is my fruit talk just a pretense to slip some works-righteousness into our Christianity?

Okay, grace. Yes, we’re saved by God’s grace. We can’t save ourselves at all; God had to do it. And he does, for no other reason than that he’s gracious. We don’t deserve saving, and can’t earn it. It’s totally true we’re not saved by our works.

But if God truly saved us, there’s some evidence he saved us. A far more reliable evidence than passing a standardized test which any demon could ace. Jm 2.19 In every Christian, God deposited the Holy Spirit to lead us and help us. Ep 1.13-14 And if he’s in there, he’s rooting through our junk, tossing out the bad, upgrading us, producing fruit. Those who have the Spirit, act it. They’re fruity.

Conversely, those who don’t have the Spirit, for God hasn’t saved them, don’t produce fruit. They have no relationship with the Spirit. It’s why Jesus will respond to them, “I never knew you, you lawbreakers; get away from me.” Mt 7.23 Or worse, “You damned people, off with you.” Mt 25.41 Where there should be fruit—charitable actions of the most basic, elementary sort—there’s nothing. There’s only outrage, entitlement, pride, arrogance—they feel they deserve to be included!—and Jesus tells them to piss off.

Harsh? Sure. But Jesus makes it fairly obvious in the gospels: Produce fruit. Real Christians will. How can you call yourself Christian, Christ-follower, student, disciple, or servant, yet do absolutely nothing Jesus commands? or have a character which looks nothing like Christ’s? It should be self-evident. And would be, if there weren’t all these cheap-grace preachers running amok, telling us we needn’t do a single thing for Jesus, and he’ll save us anyway.

Don’t think it is self-evident? Read your bible.

Luke 3.9 KWL
“Plus, the axe lays at the root of the tree right now.
So every tree not producing good fruit is cut down and thrown into fire.”
 
Luke 6.43-46 KWL
43 “For a good tree doesn’t grow rotten fruit, nor a rotten tree grow good fruit:
44 Each tree is known by its own fruit.
You don’t gather figs from thistles. You don’t reap grape bunches from thornbushes.
45 The good person brings up good things from the good treasury of a good mind.
The evil brings up evil things out of an evil mind.
From the mind’s overflow, their mouth speaks.
46 Why do you call me, ‘Master, master’?
You don’t do a thing I say.”
 
Matthew 7.15-23 KWL
15 “Watch out for the fake prophets, who come to all of you dressed as sheep,
but underneath they’re greedy wolves. 16 You’ll recognize them by their fruits.
People don’t pluck grapes from thornbushes, or figs from thistles, do they?
17 So every good tree grows good fruits, and a rotten tree grows bad fruits.
18 A good tree doesn’t grow bad fruits, nor a rotten tree grow good fruits.
19 Every tree not growing good fruit is cut down and thrown into fire.
20 It’s precisely by their fruits that you’ll recognize them.
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 mighty things in your name?’
23 And I’ll explain to them, “I never knew you, you lawbreakers; get away from me.”
 
1 John 1.5-7 KWL
5 This is the message we heard from him and proclaim to you:
God is light. To him, darkness is nothing.
6 When we say we have a relationship with him yet walk in darkness, we lie; we don’t act in truth.
7 When we walk in the light like him, who’s in light, we have a relationship with one another,
and his son Jesus’s blood cleanses us of every sin.

Got the idea?

If we’re not fruity, we have no proof of our Christianity. None. Oh, people will claim otherwise, and try to convince us and themselves. But none of their proofs prove a thing. Many a fruitless Christian (and false prophet) has used miracles to justify their bad behavior. And as Jesus said, many will point to those miracles, claiming a relationship with him which he won’t recognize.

Many a fruitless Christian will point to orthodoxy, to church membership, to the charitable organizations they give money to. Or they’ll point to traits which they claim are forms of love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faith, gentleness, and self-control. There are fake versions of these things, y’know. Usually out-of-control desire, mania or euphoria, tight-fisted control, dismissal, tolerance, apathy, wishful thinking, quietness, and hypocrisy. If we have no evidence of a relationship with God, we’ve gotta invent something to take its place.

But why? Follow God, and fruit virtually grows on its own. And if you lack fruit, turn to God! Repent. Ask him to grow some fruit in you.

How to study your bible.

by K.W. Leslie, 13 January

When I was a kid, I went to a Fundamentalist church. Say what you will about these folks: They’re big on studying the bible. Not all of ’em know how to do it properly—and they definitely didn’t teach me how to do it. (Man alive was I over-dependent on the notes of my Scofield Reference Bible!) But I gotta give ’em credit for making a serious, earnest effort just the same. They really wanted to know what was in there, and rightly believed every Christian should.

Yet even while I was in that church, I discovered I knew way more about the bible than others. Not ’cause I’m a genius or anything, although I do have a really good memory. I knew more simply because I read the bible. I read the commentaries in the bible, plus everything about the bible I could get access to: I studied.

And most Christians honestly don’t. Most humans don’t. As soon as we get out of school—whether high school, university, or grad school—we figure we never, ever have to study again, and don’t. We quit. We’re done. We might make exceptions for something important, like our contractor’s license, but we’re done. Study the bible? Nah. We’ll leave that for experts; pastors can study the bible. When we wanna get something profound out of the scriptures, we only expect to get ’em one of three ways.

  1. Somebody else has to say it. Like a favorite preacher or author, whom we trust to say reliable things. (Trust based on what? Well, that’s another discussion.)
  2. It’s gotta be a clear, obvious statement in the bible. Something anyone could find, like a penny on the sidewalk.
  3. It’s a God-inspired idea which unexpectedly pops into our heads, like a bolt of lightning from a blue sky, as we’re reading the bible. Illumination, some call it.

But study? Go digging out truths from the text? Never gonna happen.

There’s a common but false assumption God’s kingdom, because it runs on grace, arrives by grace: We don’t have to make any effort. Just take the talent God gave us, bury it in a field, and it’ll grow like an acorn into a tree filled with shiny metal discs. Wisdom will just come to us naturally. After all, there’s no shortage of people posting pithy platitudes on Twitter.

Here’s the quandary: Which of these platitudes are true, and which of them are merely clever… but wrong?

’Cause I’ve heard loads of platitudes. So have you. I’ve been a Christian for more than four decades, and listened to sermons every Sunday morning, many Sunday and Saturday and Friday and Wednesday evenings, many mini-sermons by bible study leaders and prayer group leaders and college professors, many sermons in chapel at schools I’ve gone to or taught at, and of course sermons on the radio or podcasts. I have no idea how many Christian books I’ve read, both before and after seminary. Or how many posts on Christian blogs.

There’s a lot of advice out there. Most of it looks like good Christian advice. But it only looks good: Much is junk, is misinformed, is misleading, is foolhardy, is ignorant, is dark Christianity, is heresy, or is hypocrisy disguised under thick Christianese.

And some of it is pure Christianism: It’s pop psychology, godless politics, Mammon worship and social Darwinism, ulterior motives disguised as devout Christianity. It’s totally wrong—but sounds good. Sounds wise, familiar, benevolent… and totally appeals to our bratty inner child, so we repeat it.

How do we know the difference? Well, unless we have the supernatural gift of discernment (which in my experience, the Holy Spirit uses to point out false teachers, not bad theology), we gotta discern stuff the old-fashioned way: We gotta know our bibles. And not just superficially. We gotta study our bibles. We gotta buckle down and do our homework.

But we don’t wanna.

“But I’m not a bible scholar!”

Embracing ignorance is a childish thing to do… and you’ll notice there are a lot of childish people out there. Christians included.

And they’re gonna stay childish. When they refuse to study their bibles, they’re not gonna grow as Christians. They’re not gonna grow the Spirit’s fruit. They’re not gonna become spiritually mature. They’re content to be the least in the kingdom… ’cause hey, they made it into the kingdom! They assume maturity comes with age. Lemme tell you, it so doesn’t. I’ve met many who think Christian senior citizens should automatically become church elders. But some of these seniors have only been Christian a few years, so they know no better than anyone who’s only been Christian a few years. Others, after a lifetime of refusing to grow, have no kindness, no patience, no goodness: They’re old brats.

No, bible study isn’t how we grow the Spirit’s fruit. There are a lot of fruitless know-it-alls. I’ve been one. But one of the traits of a person who is growing the Spirit’s fruit, is they’re gonna want to know God better. And they realize how we get to know God better is by studying the bible he inspired. Study what his prophets and apostles wrote. Study what Christ Jesus taught. Study.

If we wanna grow in Christ, we can’t solely depend on other Christians’ interpretations. It’s just not good enough. It makes us dependent on them for our spiritual growth; not Christ. And when they’re wrong (and they will be; we all are), not only do we stay wrong: We’ll have no clue we’re wrong, for we’ve never learned to tell the difference. It’s why people stay in cults for decades.

Other Christians can, will, and should supplement our knowledge. But each of us needs to step away from the secondhand sources, and go firsthand. All of us have to become bible scholars.

No, it’s not just for pastors and academics. It’s for every Christian. Just like prophecy. If, in order to understand the bible better, we research its original text, the ancient history behind it, the Christian philosophies (there are more than one) about the bible, we count as bible scholars. Doesn’t matter if we’re paid to do it. Doesn’t matter what our day jobs are. (Does to academics, but only because they’re trying to keep their day jobs.)

Doesn’t matter whether you’ve gone to seminary either. I have, but many of my pastors haven’t. And didn’t have to: They do their homework. When they put together sermons, they use many of the same resources I do, and do just fine—better than the vast majority of preachers I’ve heard. A seminary degree definitely helps, but anybody can study the bible once they learn how.

Yes, you’re gonna need to start buying books. Yeah, you’re gonna have to dabble in biblical languages. (Relax; you don’t have to learn the whole language, although you do need to learn enough to know how to use the languae appropriately.) Thanks to the internet, you have access to way more bible study resources than has any generation in history. What used to cost scholars a fortune (and I know, ’cause it cost me a fortune before this stuff went online) anyone can call up on their phone, even in countries which heavily censor the internet. Study is far easier and faster than it’s ever been. Lack of resources and lack of time: No longer an excuse.

It’s not gonna make you popular with the willfully ignorant.

One of the negative side effects of democracy—the correct belief all people are politically equal—is the incorrect belief all people oughta be equal in everything. Like wealth and prosperity: Everyone oughta be equally rich or equally poor. Or like knowledge: If you know more than me, for some reason that’s wrong of you, and you need to be taken down a few notches. What, you think you‘re better than me? You ain’t better.

This is the attitude bible scholars constantly, regularly get from non-scholars. People figure anyone who knows more than they, by default, is a know-it-all. “Knowledge puffs up,” Paul said once, 1Co 8.1 and they take it upon themselves to deflate such people. So expect backlash.

One of our duties as bible scholars, is to explain what the scriptures mean. Which I do. Either here on TXAB, or in one of my church’s small groups, or when people pick my brain one-on-one. And occasionally I butt heads with people who hate my interpretations. They grew up believing otherwise. They didn’t ask my opinion because they want to know something; they just want me to confirm what they already believe.

And when I challenge their beliefs, many go into fight-or-flight mode, and choose fight: They wanna debate. They wanna ruin me: Or ruin me: Get me publicly rebuked, get me fired, get me excommunicated; the only reason they don’t try to get me whacked is because they still think that’s a line you don’t cross. For now. The people who killed St. Stephen didn’t have any such line, and some people wonder if there should even be such a line.

Plenty of Christians claim they appreciate constructive correction. This is a lie. They absolutely hate it. They don’t wanna be wrong. (It’s human nature!) They’ve invested a lot of time and effort in their ideas, and don’t want it to be time wasted. If you don’t believe in miracles, and spent your whole life avoiding charismatics and our churches, it will blow your tiny little mind when God drops an honest-to-Him miracle upon you. You’d barely accept him—much less me.

So they won’t surrender their cherished false beliefs without a fight. Humility ain’t that common. And I blunder into such fights when I least expect it: I’ll state something which I figure is a very simple statement, and just my luck: Someone in the room believes just the opposite, decides she’s right and I’m Satan, and it’s time to do holy war. (Nope, I’m never given the benefit of the doubt: “He made a mistake somewhere.” People jump directly to “He has a demon.” Did it with Christ too, y’know. Jn 10.20) Doesn’t matter if I can point to bible verses: She’s believed this her entire unexamined life, loves this belief, never heard otherwise, and therefore I must be Satan.

Or it’ll blindside me this way: Somebody else will state something, figure I’m the token bible scholar in the room and turn to me for affirmation: “Isn’t that right?” Oh, I hope to God it is. I hate being put on the spot this way. ’Cause sometimes it’s not! And sometimes it’s really not the right time for correction. I once had a pastor single me out and ask “Isn’t that right?” in mid-sermon. He wasn’t. But in our congregation that day was a kid whom I was trying to lead to Jesus, and I didn’t want my pastor’s train of thought derailed by this minor error. So I mumbled something non-committal, corrected him privately later, and he’s the kind of guy who’s so humble he emailed everybody in the church and apologized for his minor mistake. My point though: Learn when to be right, and when to shut up and be right later.

Immature people always attack the messenger. So don’t be surprised when immature Christians do likewise: “I reject your ‘head-knowledge,’ because I’m speaking from ‘heart-knowledge,’ which is true knowledge.” No, that’s truthiness: Stuff you feel is true, and wish were true, but you have no facts and reason to back you up. Certainly no in-context bible verses. By “head-knowledge” these folks mean cold, hard, heartless facts. True, facts oughta be spoken in love and compassion. Ep 4.15 But without love, facts don’t become nothing: I do. 1Co 13.2 Facts are still facts—and truth isn’t in those people.

Christianity isn’t, and never has been, about what we wish were true. Wishful thinking ain’t faith. Christianity is actual truth God revealed through Christ Jesus: True whether we like it or not. As bible scholars, we gotta find it, regardless of what the wider Christian culture likes better, and recasts as truth. That’s why we study the bible: To find truth. The scriptures point to it. We wanna know it. God offers to give it. And a superficial reading of the bible only provides it superficially. You want deeper truth, you get deep.

It takes diligent study. It takes showing God we mean business. It means demonstrating to him we can handle his revelation. It means we study the historical context of the scriptures, study Greek and Hebrew were necessary, and no playing connect-the-dots like a conspiracy theorist, hoping to extract truths about the bible by treating meaningless coincidences like they’re profound revelation. They called this λογομαχέω/logomakhéo, “word-slicing,” back in bible times, and Paul brought it up to Timothy:

2 Timothy 2.14-19 KWL
14 Remind them of these things, objecting (before God) against overanalyzing words.
It profits no one; it’s a catastrophe for listeners.
15 Push yourself to stand before God as worthy:
A worker who doesn’t embarrass himself, who uses the word of truth properly.
16 Stay clear of unholy talk or foolishness,
for it’ll grow more ungodly behavior, 17 and their words will spread like rot on a field.
Yménaios and Fílitos are examples, 18 who went way off center about the truth,
saying the resurrection already happened, overturning certain people’s faith.
19 Still, God’s solid foundation stands, having this seal: “The Lord knows who’s his,” Nu 16.5
and “Get away from wrongness, everyone who names the Lord’s name.” Is 52.11

Steer clear of the temptation to embrace “new facts,” which are often just old heresies in new packaging. Stay away from angry teachers, scholars who are trying to get famous by being extra controversial, preachers who like to get into fights, anyone with iffy fruit. Look for teachers with good character. Read their stuff first.

Finally, how to study a bible.

It’s really not that hard. Here’s a general outline of the steps to take. This’ll get you started.

PICK YOUR BIBLE PASSAGE. If you wanna study an entire book, great. But unless we’re talking a really short book (and sometimes even then; some of John’s shorter letters are awfully deep) it’ll take time. Break it down into segments which are small, manageable, and reasonable. Study ’em one at a time.

Me, I prefer a paragraph at a time. (Meaning original-language paragraphs, not the way different bible translations put ’em into paragraphs. But relax: You don’t need to learn biblical languages. They really help, but they aren’t mandatory.)

Pick the bit you wanna study. Got it? Good.

RESEARCH ITS BACKGROUND. Before you study any book of the bible, or even just a passage of the book, you really oughta know about the whole book: Who wrote it? Why’d the author write it? What’s its point? Who’s it to? What’s it about? What type of literature is it?

When you read a Civil War novel, it really helps when you know a little about the Civil War. Helps more when you know more. Same with Victorian-era novels: Learn a bit about the Victorians. Same with autobiographies: When you read Julius Caesar’s Commentaries, you oughta know about the Roman Republic (and how it’s not the same as the Roman Empire). And same with the bible: Know enough bible history for your book to make sense.

Christians assume, because these books are translated into 21st-century English, we’re reading about people who speak our language and live in our culture. They didn’t. These books were written between 34 and 20 centuries ago, almost entirely in the Middle East, in foreign languages, to foreign cultures, who knew absolutely nothing about us and our way of life. We gotta learn about them.

So… what’s the historical background of the people in the book? How about the historical background of its readers? What’s their popular culture like? What sort of things might they know, or be expected to know?

Yeah, there’s a crazy amount of detail we can study in learning the background. It’s why bible scholars never figure our job is done: We keep learning about biblical history. Historians and archeologists are always discovering new stuff. We try to keep up.

But if you want a brief introduction to any book, get a decent bible commentary on that book. Read its introduction.

READ IT IN AS MANY TRANSLATIONS AS YOU CAN. Look at every way other scholars have rendered this passage into English.

Lots of people skip this step, and stick to their favorite bible translation. Or they think the solution is to get a translation which is as literal as possible, like the NASB or ESV; or stick with the Amplified Bible ’cause they figure it includes every possible translation option. (It doesn’t.) Or they embrace a crazy doctrine that their translation is the only one infallible. No no no. This is the 21st century: There are dozens of translations at your fingertips on the internet. Read as many as you can.

This is not a search for “the best translation.” Nor for a translation which best suits your idea. A lot of Christians make this mistake, and don’t realize what they’re doing is bending the scriptures to suit them. We do just the opposite: Bend ourselves to suit the scriptures.

What we’re doing is looking for the general consensus: In what ways do all the translators agree? What do all the translations have in common? Which ideas are exactly the same, in every version?

Some verses are ridiculously easy to translate. So every translation will agree. Other passages are controversial, so you’ll find half translate it one way, half another. Look at both options. Or there will be three or four or 20 options; compare all of them. Don’t forget the footnotes: Certain bibles include “Some translations have…” followed by another way it could read, and that’s another option to consider. Sometimes there are textual variants.

So… do these differences significantly change the meaning of the verses? Or are they just extra words?—like referring to Jesus as “Christ Jesus” instead of just “Christ” or “Jesus.” Most variants are really nothing more than that.

In doing this, you’re gonna get really familiar with your passage. Good. You need to. Meditate on it too, when you meditate.

You may find different translations split your passage into different sentences and paragraphs. Again, look at the consensus. (And maybe you’ll have to adjust where your passage starts and stops.)

Once you have a good idea of what most translators think the passage means, pick the translation which does the best job. If no single translation does the best job, go ahead and put it together yourself: Pick one sentence from the NIV, one from the NKJV, a clause from the ISV, a word from The Message. Yes, it’s okay to do this, but you need to be able to defend every clause you include: “Most translations use the word ‘propitiation,’ and so did I.” Not “I just liked that word way better.”

LOOK UP ANY SIGNIFICANT WORDS. And here’s where we bust out the Hebrew and Greek: If there’s a significant, theologically-loaded word in your passage, look it up in the original language.

No, don’t look it up in an English-language dictionary. When preachers tell you how the American Heritage Dictionary defines a word in their bible passages, they’re doing it wrong. God help you if they start quoting Webster’s. Which Websters? Any dictionary can call themselves Webster’s. The name isn’t copyrighted, y’know. But all an English dictionary does is say we mean by that word. Not what the bible’s authors meant by it. An original-language dictionary does the job. Again, bible software and bible websites will help you out.

When preachers tell you how Strong’s or Brown Driver Briggs or the Theological Dictionary of the New Testament defines it, then we got a bible scholar. Assuming they’re not misusing the dictionary. The point isn’t to discover secret, unknown-before-now meanings to the bible. It’s so we understand this passage better with these words’ proper meanings.

NOTE HOW IT FITS WITH ITS BOOK. Another common mistake is people study a passage, then immediately interpret it for what it means to them, not for what the author was trying to say to their audience. They don’t care about the author. Nor the intended audience. They wanna get stuff out of it. (Sometimes stuff they can beat others over the head with.) It’s very selfish.

Where’s the verse fit within the big picture of its book? If it’s a gospel, how does the verse point to Jesus or his kingdom? If it’s one of the Prophets, how does it point to God? If it’s a New Testament letter, how does it teach the church to think and behave? If it’s a psalm, how’s it praise God? Those are general concepts: Each book will have its specific agenda, and you need to look at how each verse furthers that book’s agenda.

THEN LEARN FROM IT. Once you understand what your passage means, and what it said to its original audience, then you can look at what lessons you can take from it.

I’ll warn you now: After all the time you put into your study, you might expect to get something really profound out of it. And you usually will. But sometimes it’s really not all that deep. I know; people assume all scripture is weighty, and can inspire thousands of sermons. “God is love” 1Jn 4.8 sure can. But “Abraham lived between Kadesh and Shur” Ge 20.1 not so much.

(Well, yet. If you ever go to Israel, and you’re traveling between Kadesh and Shur, being face-to-face with the physical context of the scriptures might knock you flat. But this’ll only be true after you’ve studied your bible and have the verse in you. If you don’t, it won’t.)

And that’ll do ya.

If you want a more thorough outline on how to study the bible, one of the best books I’ve come across is Gordon Fee’s New Testament Exegesis, a thin little book which’ll show you, in detail, how to take apart a passage from the New Testament. The same principles apply to the Old Testament too. Lots of colleges use it for good reason. Mine didn’t, but my professors obviously read it, ’cause they taught all the same ideas.

And of course I’ll go into more detail in future articles. Stay tuned.

We’re wrong about God, y’know.

by K.W. Leslie, 12 January

One of my favorite Peanuts strips goes a little something like this. (I liked it so much I used to include it in the Theology banner.)


Peanuts, 9 August 1976. Peanuts Worldwide

Theology is the study of God. If we’re gonna follow God we gotta study him. Gotta find out what he wants, what he expects of us. Heck, gotta find out if he’s even a “he,” and we’re not using the wrong pronoun. (Fastest way to yank the chain of certain Christians: Use a different one. But let up after you’ve freaked them out a few minutes. Be nice.)

Square One of theology is humility, the recognition of who we truly are. And who are we?

Well the most common Christian response to that question is “Um… nobody really.” Which isn’t entirely true. That’s the answer we give ’cause our fellow Christians expect it of us… and it’s hypocrisy, because we don’t really have that low an opinion of ourselves. It’s false humility: Pretending to be what we deep down know we’re not. If we truly thought we were nobody, we’d figure ourselves totally unworthy of God, and never bring ourselves to study him. There are actual Christians who do have such a low opinion of themselves, and they don’t study him, which ain’t good.

So let’s set the B.S. aside and get honest: We suspect we can know God, or at least know him better. And that’s good! God wants us to know him better. It’s why he sent us Jesus. To answer that “Who are we question definitively: It’s why he made us adoptive daughters and sons of the most high God. Jn 1.12 That ain’t nothing. We’re precisely the people who should study God.

Theology is the birthright of every Christian. Any Christian who doesn’t bother to investigate our Father is destined to have a really sucky, substandard, dysfunctional relationship with him. Which surely isn’t what he wants. Hope you don’t either.

So yeah, we need to get into theology. We need to study God. All of us. You included.

Right standing versus right knowledge.

Here’s the problem: Too many of us Christians presume we already do know God.

No, not comprehensively. God is huge. God is significantly different than we are. God is spirit instead of physical, so forget about sitting him down in a lab and taking his blood pressure: He’s impossible to study through the physical sciences. Absolutely everything we know about God, he’s had to tell us through Jesus and his prophets. And considering how massive and mighty he’s revealed himself to be… well, we may know a whole lot, but in proportion to the hugeness of our almighty Subject, we know next to nothing.

Even so, way too many of us think we do have his number: We know God. We know how he’d think on nearly every subject. He’s easy to deduce and predict, and many a Christian will presume to speak for him: “God hates that.” “God would never allow that.” “God is gonna punish people for that.” “God prefers this.” “God’s will is for you to do this.” “God’s best is this.” “God is like this.”

How do these people know what God wants and doesn’t want? Well, some of ’em actually do practice theology. They do their due diligence and find out what God says on the matter.

The rest of them have no idea. They’re guessing. They’re projecting. But they sure do look like they know, don’t they? Comes from years of winging it—and nobody ever calling them on their subterfuge.

Those who are winging it, who make “educated” guesses about God and usually get away with it, are usually following the Christianist crowd: They repeat what they heard, and liked, from other Christians. Whether it’s true or not is a whole other deal: They like it. It suits them. It fits within their worldview. It appeals to their personal desires. It sounds correct.

If they’re lucky, it might actually be correct. Loads of us stumble ass-backwards into truth because the Holy Spirit graciously keeps us Christians from going too far afield. But following your gut, by definition, means you’re not following Jesus.

Why do these people nonetheless think they’re on the right path? Partly because the Spirit keeps ’em on a short leash, so they haven’t stumbled into the sort of catastrophes their sloppy thinking oughta produce. And partly because, despite wild error, they justify themselves: “Once I turned to Jesus, he made me right with God. So I’m right. God made me right.”

Yeah, they’re using that word wrong. Justification is the idea Jesus makes us right with God once we put our faith in him. Ro 10.10 But being made right with God, means he’s not gonna let our sins and failures and wrong thinking get in the way of a relationship with him. It doesn’t mean we don’t still have sins, failures, and wrong thinking. “Right,” in this situation, doesn’t mean correct. Two different things. I might have a fantastic relationship with my wife, yet be totally wrong about how she takes her coffee. (“I thought it was cream and two sugars. Since when did you start drinking it half whiskey?”) God forgives all. It doesn’t mean he automatically reprogrammed us with the infallible knowledge of his will. If it did, no Christian would be wrong.

So, back to Square One. Who are we? Daughters and sons of God. But do we know God? Not yet. Not enough. Gotta fix that.

Who does know God? Well, there’s only one person who does. That’d be his one and only Son, who came from the Father. Jn 1.18 He knows God. Where we’re wrong, he’s right.

So that’s the first principle of Christian theology: We’re wrong. Jesus is right. Follow Jesus.

Total depravity, and totally depraved theology.

Various Christians object to my saying “We’re wrong.” They’ll concede we were wrong—but Jesus straightens us out. Now that we have the Holy Spirit, isn’t he correcting us, fixing us, getting the error out of us? Aren’t we getting better? Aren’t we becoming more right?

Sure. But there’s still a buttload of wrongness to overcome.

Y’see, when God originally created humans, we were good. Ge 1.31 Sin undid this. It corrupted us profoundly, warping both us and the world we live on. Instead of being naturally good, we’re naturally self-centered. The self-preservation instinct, which is supposed to simply keep us from giving up and dying, now focuses only on what makes us feel good, all the time—and whatever it takes to get there, even if it means lying, stealing, defrauding, murdering, destroying. True, some of us are gonna balk before going all the way towards sin; we gotta justify it to ourselves first so we still feel good about ourselves. (More self-preservation instinct, y’know.) But all of us are like this. Hence all of us sin.

Christians call this corruption total depravity. Since “depravity” nowadays means “perverted,” people get the wrong idea—“You think every human is a pervert?” No; every human is selfish. Every human looks out for number one. Since some people generously look out for others too, we don’t always recognize their self-centeredness: We don’t realize generosity makes ’em feel good about themselves, or makes ’em justify all the evil they do, or makes ’em think they’ve restored their karmic balance. Most religions do recognize this core selfishness. And some philosophies not only recognize it, they embrace it. Ayn Rand claimed selfishness is good, and many a libertarian has used her thinking to defend their self-worship. Survival of the fittest, you know. It’s the law of nature.

It’s called total depravity because it’s everywhere. Humans aren’t just partially depraved—selfish in some places, selfless in others. Nor did Jesus magically cure us of selfishness when he saved us, much as we might wish he did. On the contrary: He has to command us to love one another. Jn 13.34 ’Cause our thousands of denominations prove we don’t really.

And the Holy Spirit has to grow love in us. And compassion, and self-control. We humans are so bent, the only thing which can unbend us is God.

Provided we truly follow him. Problem is, people don’t bother.

When we first turn to God, we already have some idea of what he’s like. We didn’t come to God with a blank slate: We had our biases and prejudices. “God works like this, not that.” You know.

A lot of these biases aren’t based on God. They’re based on how we wish God is. They’re based on the sort of God we’d like to follow. He likes what we like. He hates what we hate. Really, he’s like the perfect and almighty version of us. But that’s not the real God. It’s imaginary.

Once we buckle down and study the real God, too often those self-centered ideas still pervade our thinking. We always choose an interpretation of God which pays off for us. God tends to still like and hate what we do. If we’re politically conservative, how about that: So’s God! If we’re politically liberal, it just so happens God is too. If we hate the rich, if we don’t approve of homosexuality, if we believe women need to know their place, if we think the needy are victims of society, if we’re furious at sin and lawlessness, or if we wouldn’t want to see anyone go to hell—conveniently enough for each and every Christian, our God, and our churches, think and teach precisely the same things. What good followers we must be!

Hogwash of course. But to be fair, there are people who go to the opposite extreme: They choose to believe God’s their exact opposite. If their knee-jerk reaction is to ignore a panhandler, they figure, “That must be my total depravity. God wants me to be generous to everyone.” So they give to everyone, even though they don’t wanna. And they feel righteous, because they think resisting their flesh is how to automatically deduce God’s will. Thing is, sometimes those impulses aren’t wrong. Yeah, they may be done with wrong motives, or (if we’re lucky) we actually were raised to do the right thing instead of the wrong one. So following God as if every day were Opposite Day is no guarantee we’re following him correctly either.

Okay, so where does that leave us?

Remember, we’re wrong.

Back to the first principle: “We’re wrong. Jesus is right. Follow Jesus.” Personalize it: “I’m wrong. Jesus is right.”

The reason Christians split ourselves into a thousand different denominations is because we don’t think this way. Instead we fight one another. It’s why Christians believe so many very different things about Jesus. It’s why we find Christians in every political party, who figure every “so-called Christian” in the opposition party isn’t really Christian. It’s why we don’t get along, and aren’t unified like Jesus wants. It’s why we don’t follow Jesus to the degree we should. We’re not right. Jesus is right, but we are very, very wrong.

So the first step in the right direction is to admit this. We’re wrong. Make it your mantra: “I’m wrong. Jesus is right.” We aren’t experts on Jesus. If any human being had a valid claim to be an expert on Jesus, it’d be Jesus’s mother, and she didn’t understand what he was up to half the time. Next would come the guys who followed him up and down Israel, taking notes—and they blew it too. His family didn’t get him either. And these folks lived 20 centuries ago. Yet loads of Christians, 20 centuries (and 10 or 11 cultures) removed from these people, who follow him two hours a week instead of all 168 hours, actually have the arrogance to claim we get him. Yeesh.

It’s possible to understand Jesus as well as his first followers eventually did. But this requires two things of us. Humility, of course—knowing we’re wrong—and infinitely more important, the Holy Spirit.

The Spirit is God. Not a part of God, or a lackey of God, or a force of God, but God. The Spirit is as God as God gets. Once we became Christians, the Holy Spirit sealed himself to us, and he’s trying to guide us, comfort us, encourage us, and fix us. We’re wrong, but the Holy Spirit is working to make us right. We just have to stop assuming we already are right, stop fighting the Spirit, and work with him instead of against him.

When we learn truth, the Spirit encourages us to embrace it and make it a part of us. And sometimes we resist him—we don’t like the truth, or find it impossible to believe, or it goes against our politics, or we’re even under some bizarre delusion Christians aren’t allowed to think that way. (Happens a lot.) When that happens, fall back on our mantra: “I’m wrong. Jesus is right.” We need to be more skeptical of ourselves. We’re not infallible: We’re depraved. We’re getting better, but still.

Left to my own devices, I’m selfish, apathetic, looking for the easy way out, looking for the way that gets me the most with the least amount of effort, and looking out for number one. That’s how we humans are. All of us. Christians no exception. If we actually behaved otherwise, do you think our churches would have any of the problems we do? (Other than persecution, of course.) Of course not; we’d act like Jesus wants. But we don’t. And it all comes back to selfishness, to total depravity, to the view, “I’m right. They’re wrong. [Do something biologically disagreeable to] them.”

We have to stop this cycle of arrogant jerk-like Christianity which we see in so many of our fellow Christians—and which they see in us. This starts with humility, the Spirit, and “I’m wrong. Jesus is right.” With that, then we can start looking at theology.

So. Your homework assignment is to memorize that mantra. (I know, “mantra” is a Hindu word. I don’t care. I’m Christianizing it. We get to do that, you know.) Put “I’m wrong. Jesus is right” in your brain. Say it whenever you feel like you know it all. This’ll help us develop the kind of humility God can work with. It triggers growth. So recite it—and grow.

Instead of spiritual warfare… a culture war.

by K.W. Leslie, 09 January

Spiritual warfare is about resisting temptation. It’s about fighting our own self-centeredness, our tendency to produce works of the flesh, and anything which tempts us to choose ungodly, evil behavior. Tempters might be evil spirits, but more often it’s just our own corrupt nature. Regardless, we gotta fight it and follow Jesus.

But to many Christians, spiritual warfare doesn’t look like this at all. It’s about being a “prayer warrior” and praying really hard for things. Because our prayers somehow provide energy to the angels fighting the demons in the clouds above. Or so the Frank Peretti novels tell us.

And to Christianists, spiritual warfare has nothing to do with praying away the demons, nor self-control. Spiritual warfare is solely about fighting Satan and its evil plan.

What’s its evil plan? To take over the world. Didn’t Satan tell Jesus it already ruled the world?

Luke 4.5-8 KWL
5 Taking Jesus up, Satan showed him every kingdom in civilization in a moment’s time.
6 The devil told Jesus, “I’ll give you all these powers and their glory: It’s been surrendered to me.
If I want, I can give it to anyone. 7 So once you worship before me, all will be yours.”
8 In reply Jesus told it, “It’s written you’ll worship your Lord God and serve only him.”

Thing is, Satan’s a dirty liar Jn 8.44 and we can’t trust a thing it tells us, so why should we believe it when it claims to rule the world? Especially since Jesus states he conquered the world, Jn 16.33 and he’s eventually coming back to take possession of it. But meanwhile we run things… and we’ve made a mighty mess of things, and since humans don’t care to take responsibility for our mess, we blame Satan. It wrecked the world; not humans who exploit one another and vote for morons.

Anyway, blaming the devil for everything, and presuming spiritual warfare is about fighting the devil, means logically these Christians think they’re at spiritual war with everything. Seriously, everything. They’re fighting the world—however they define “world.”

In practice, this usually means the things they personally don’t like. Like the opposite political party. Like all the forms of entertainment media they don’t like: Television, movies, music, video games, and certain sections of the internet.

And if they’re bigots, it includes all the people they don’t like. Like foreigners. Coloreds. Rednecks and white trash. The poors. The one-percenters. Queers. Incels. Hippies. Millennials (which they still think means “college students,” ’cause they don’t realize millennials are in their thirties now). Non-Christians. People of other churches, whom they’re pretty sure aren’t real Christians. People who live in liberal enclaves on the coasts, or conservative enclaves in the “flyover states.” Anything “other”—meaning other than them.

However tightly they define their circle, their spiritual warfare consists of fighting everyone else, leaving ’em all alone in the world. It’s just them and Jesus.

Well… Jesus left to join all the people they’re persecuting. But they don’t wanna hear it.

Yep, this is some dark Christian stuff. It’s how Christian terrorists get developed: They think they’re right to even descend to violence in the fight against “evil.” So they build bombs, shoot “bad guys,” and imagine themselves righteous. Hey, didn’t people in the bible kill bad guys? Why not them?

And in so doing, they utterly lose the real spiritual battle. And think they’re victorious as they become less and less like Christ Jesus every day.

Your politics don’t matter.

You may presume I’m writing specifically about people on the Christian Right or Christian Left. Certainly you can think of more examples in the opposition party.

I’m not. I know bigots on both sides. I grew up conservative, so I knew plenty of people who think the entire reason we join God’s kingdom is to become his culture-war foot-soldiers. That’s all they focus on. Meanwhile they make excuses or cover up their own temptations and sins, they don’t develop any fruit of the Spirit, and they don’t rid themselves of their old bitterness, hatred, and anger. Why should they?—they can use ’em to fight the devil!

But in the workplace I’m largely surrounded by progressives, and man do they hate conservatives. Mostly because they’ve got conservative relatives who are jerks, and they imagine all conservatives are like that. (To be fair, many are.) But same as conservative Christians, progressive Christians figure the battle’s with the forces of evil without, not within: They don’t concentrate on overcoming their own selfish impulses, but on political victories, large and small.

So this isn’t a political problem. It’s a human problem. Politics are the distraction. They’re the means by which we figure we can conquer the world… forgetting, ignoring, or even dismissing, the fact Jesus already has conquered the world. (To their minds, he’s simply not conquered it enough. Not to their satisfaction!)

I’ve heard a number of Christians claim politics is the way the devil gets us to miss the point. Ugh… again with the devil. Yeah, I’m entire Satan gets a kick out of the way we self-righteously tear at one another, and enjoys tempting people to join in. But the devil doesn’t have the power to fuel all that rage and bile. That’s humanity. That’s all us. We don’t need a lot of provoking to do what comes, thanks to our fallen nature, naturally. We just need to take our eyes off Jesus.

So don’t.

Our duty is to fight our own sins. Quit being distracted by other people’s sins: Look at your own. Stop getting so angry at their misbehavior that you feel the urge to fight them: Fight your own misbehaviors. Stop putting all your energy into changing the world, and put it into changing yourself. Because until we’re able to conquer our own sins, we’re in no position to tackle the sins of the world. We’re just hypocrites.

Yeah, the sins of the world frustrate me. The misbehavior of my elected government officials outrages me. But what should outrage me is my own misbehavior—the stuff I know better than to do, and you’d think I’d’ve stopped doing it by now! Resisting temptation is a constant fight, and one we can’t let up on. But that’s the battle we must win first. Till we do, we simply contribute to the world’s problems.

Jesus wants us Christians to be fruity.

by K.W. Leslie, 08 January

Yes, I know what “fruity” tends to mean in our culture. No, I don’t care. I’m taking the word back. Fruity fruity fruity.

Fruit is a metaphor we see all over the New Testament for behavior. The way Christ Jesus describes it, if you’re a good tree, you produce good fruit, and a rotten tree produces bad fruit. I’ll quote him:

Luke 6.43-45 KWL
43 “For a good tree doesn’t grow rotten fruit, nor a rotten tree grow good fruit:
44 Each tree is known by its own fruit.
You don’t gather figs from thistles. You don’t reap grape bunches from thornbushes.
45 The good person brings up good things from the good treasury of a good mind.
The evil brings up evil things out of an evil mind.
From the mind’s overflow, their mouth speaks.”

His apostle Paul didn’t care to even call bad behavior “fruit,” preferring to call ’em “works of the flesh.” Ga 5.19 But the scriptures’ general idea is there’s good fruit and bad. People are fruity in one way or the other.

And if we’re truly following Jesus, we should see the good stuff. Right?

John 15.1-8 KWL
1 “I’m the true grapevine. My Father’s the gardener.
2 He lifts off the ground my every branch which doesn’t bear fruit.
He prunes every branch which does, so it can bear even more fruit.
3 You’ve already been trimmed by the message I gave you:
4 Stay in me, and I in you, like a branch which can’t bear fruit all by itself
when it doesn’t stay in the grapevine. When you don’t stay in me, you never produce.
5 I’m the grapevine. You’re the branches. Those who stay in me, and I in them,
produce a lot of fruit. You can’t do anything apart from me.
6 When anyone won’t stay in me, they’re thrown out like a branch:
They wither, are gathered up, tossed into fire, and burned.
7 When you stay in me and my words stay in you,
whenever you want, ask! It’ll happen for you.
8 My Father is glorified by it when you produce a lot of fruit,
and become my students.”

In the quote above, it sounds like it’s possible to produce no fruit, good or bad. Which isn’t better. Jesus tells another story about a fruitless tree:

Luke 13.6-9 KWL
6 Jesus told this parable: “Someone has a figtree planted in his vineyard.
He comes to find fruit on it, and finds none.
7 He tells the vinedresser, ‘Look, for three years I come to find fruit on this figtree.
I find none, so cut it down, for why should it waste the ground?’
8 In reply the vinedresser told him, ‘Sir, forgive it this year, so I can dig and throw manure round it.
9 It might indeed produce fruit… and if not, you’ll cut it down.”

Those who produce no fruit—nothing God can use, anyway—are getting disposed of. “Gathered up, tossed into fire, and burned,” is how Jesus put it. Jn 15.6 Being fruitless is functionally the same as producing bad fruit. God wants fruit!

So if we truly follow Jesus, we oughta be super fruity. Our lifestyles should be filled with christlike behavior. Filled with proof of God’s influence on our lives: We should share his character traits, which Paul called “fruit of the Spirit.” Ga 5.22

And yeah, to some degree we should also see some supernatural stuff. Like miracles, prophecy, healing, and so forth, ’cause God’s kingdom isn’t all about philosophy and talk, but God’s power. 1Co 4.19 Stuff happens when God’s among us. But when he’s not—’cause we won’t include him and never bother to follow him—stuff doesn’t happen, and fruit isn’t visible.

So when a person claims to be Christian, claims to follow Jesus, yet their lifestyle is no different than any pagan who has no relationship with God at all—worse, if they’re jerks, or downright evil, and try to justify their dark behavior and beliefs with Christian-sounding excuses—we’re dealing with hypocrites at best, antichrists at worst. Fakes either way.

The true grapevine.

Why does Jesus call himself the true vine? ’Cause clearly there are fake ones. There’s not just one vine in the vineyard.

There are all sorts of things we Christians feel we oughta plug into. (If you’ll permit me to use an electrical metaphor instead of a farming one.) Some of these outlets aren’t bad things. Getting into bible is good. Sorting out our beliefs, and making sure our theology is solid, is good too. Listening to influential, motivational preachers—either reading their books, watching their YouTube channels, or going to their churches—can be good. Going to church, getting involved in charities, helping the needy, doing good deeds—it’s all good. But plugging into those things is like plugging extra stuff into your laptop’s USB ports. Is your laptop plugged into the wall? No? Then you’re gonna drain its power.

Here’s where I’m going with this: The things we Christians do, which’re meant to bring us closer to Jesus, sometimes don’t really tap into him. Often Christians turn these activities into substitutes for Jesus. When we take Jesus out of our religion, it becomes dead religion. And now let me switch back to Jesus’s vineyard metaphor: Religion ain’t the vine. Fellow Christians aren’t the vine. Our churches aren’t the vine. Our charities either. They’re branches. Jesus is the vine.

In Bruce Wilkinson’s book Secrets of the Vine, he rightly pointed out the Father tends the branches which don’t produce. He doesn’t just cut ’em off and burn ’em up right away; he’s gracious you know. When branches touch the ground they’re not gonna be productive: Every living thing on the ground consumes it. So a vinedresser lifts them up (to quote Jesus, αἴρει αὐτό/érei aftó, “he lifts it up”) and ties it to a lattice. This bit tends to be translated “he taketh away” (KJV) with the assumption the vinedresser’s pruning already. Not every interpreter knows viniculture—which isn’t wise considering how often Jesus tells farming parables. The rest of Wilkinson’s book goes on and on about how profound this is: If you’re not fruity, no it doesn’t mean you’re going to hell. God’s still working on you! There; saved you $8.

But hold on there, little buckaroo. If God’s truly working on you, you’re gonna be fruity. Period.

True, maybe you aren’t so sure you’re fruity. We can be awfully hard on ourselves. If so, go find another Christian with an objective viewpoint. If the Spirit’s really in your life, they’ll notice visible fruit. If it’s not there, repent! Stop resisting God, obey Jesus… and check back later. Incidentally the fact you wanna please God, counts as fruit; so there’s that. Just never be satisfied with that. And never stop the self-examination: Test everything, cling to everything good, 1Th 5.21 and repent of the rest.

When we stay in Jesus—when we plug into him like he’s plugged into the Father—Jesus tells us, “Whenever you want something, ask.” Jn 15.7 Many of the Christians who “name and claim” things—who believe we have the power to call things into existence, because supposedly Jesus said so—tend to skip the caveat Jesus attaches to this ability. Jesus could do as he did was because he stayed in the Father. Had he gone his own way (which is really hard to imagine once you get to know Jesus) then made similar demands on the Father, he couldn’t have done squat. Yet Christians pull this crap all the time. We don’t obey Jesus, figuring grace has us covered. We make no effort to stay in him. Yet we expect our wishes to be granted every time we rub God’s magic lamp. Doesn’t work like that. We must stay in Jesus. We conform to his behavior, his way of thinking, and seek his kingdom first. If that’s the goal, we get requests fulfilled. Not as a reward for good behavior, but because we think like Jesus… and we’re not asking for the typical stupid, short-sighted requests of fruitless, irreligious Christians.

As it is, the reason we get our requests met as often as we do, is dumb luck. We’re not that evil, so we ask God for things he can’t really object to. We coincidentally line up with God’s will. Which is pathetic. Our every wish should line up with God’s will. Thus he’ll be pleased and give us his kingdom, and he’ll receive honor because Christians are his true followers.

That’s Jesus’s idea. Let’s implement it. Let’s get fruity.

Why do Christians fast?

by K.W. Leslie, 07 January

Y’know, if fasting weren’t in the bible, we’d have invented it as yet another health fad. Like juice cleanses, or probiotic foods, or making sure everything is gluten-free. (Although it’s ridiculous to see so many product labels now say “gluten-free” on them. Dude, we already know beef jerky is gluten-free… or do we? Have you been secretly adding wheat this whole time?) Anyway you know some lifestyle guru would make a YouTube video, “The food-free diet,” and there ya go. Surprised it hasn’t happened yet.

Of course it is in the bible… which puts it at risk of becoming the opposite problem, where people straight-up refuse to fast because it’s “an Old Testament thing.” Because it’s part of God’s old covenant with the Hebrews which Jesus supposedly voided. Because Jesus even appears to have dismissed fasting as irrelevant:

Mark 2.19-20 KWL
19 Jesus told them, “Is the wedding party able to fast when the groom’s with them?
So long that they have the groom with them, they’re not able to fast.
20 The day will come when the groom’s taken away from them.
Then they’ll fast on that day.”

’Cause you know there are Christians who insist Jesus is always with us; he even said so. Mt 28.20 So they’d interpret “they’ll fast on that day” as only referring to the three days Jesus was dead—and now that he’s alive again, we need never fast again. In fact I’ve heard Christians claim this is the very reason they don’t fast: Why? Christ is risen!

So why do any Christians fast? Well duh, ’cause Jesus did.

Luke 4.1-2 KWL
1 Jesus, full of the Holy Spirit, returned from the Jordan,
and in the Spirit, was led into the wilderness 2 40 days, getting tested by the devil.
Jesus ate nothing in those days, and was hungry at its end.
 
Matthew 4.2 KWL
After fasting 40 days and nights, Jesus was hungry.

And Jesus fasted hardcore: He ate nothing. Wasn’t a Daniel fast. And you know some Christians would totally claim Jesus’s fast was really some form of diet; that he only gave up meat, or bread, or somehow subsisted on a diet of juniper berries and tea. But nope, Jesus ate οὐδὲν/udén, nothing. He obviously drank water, ’cause you’d die otherwise. But no food.

Since Jesus fasted, Christians fast. No, we won’t always go without food. Nor will we go without it for nearly a month and a half; most of us won’t push ourselves beyond a week. In the United States, the popular option is to forego a meal. Nope, not even a full day: One meal. Nope, not even our last meal of the day; we skip lunch, knowing we can make up for it that evening. That’s just how little self-control we have. But the reason we bother to give up something pathetic, then hypocritically act like it was a vast sacrifice, is because we know we should fast… because Jesus fasted.

And because Jesus taught us how to fast:

Luke 6.16-18 KWL
16 “When you fast, don’t be like the sad-looking hypocrites
who conceal their faces so they look to people like they’re fasting.
Amen! I promise you all: They got their credit.
17 You who fast: Fix your hair and wash your face 18 so you don’t look to people like you’re fasting,
except to your Father in private—and your Father, who sees what’s private, will repay you.”

Because fasting’s a prayer practice—it’s about using self-denial so we can focus more intently on God—we’re not doing it to show off, same as prayer. It’s between him and us, and no one else. So we fast privately. Not secretly; it’s okay to admit you’re fasting, and reschedule your business or social occasions till you’re not: Sitting there drinking water, whether you mean to do it or not, is totally showing off.

(Worse: Going to a restaurant, ordering nothing, having your server fetch you glass after glass of water, then not tipping on the grounds you ordered nothing? Not okay. If anything you should tip ’em 30 percent of what you would have spent on a meal. Oh, and do so privately—the other stingy people at your table will use your generosity as an excuse to undertip.)

Jesus taught about fasting because he totally expects us to fast. Really fast. Bad enough that people of his day would dress down and try to look all miserable when they’re going without food; now imagine how ridiculous it’d be if they behaved that way because they were only skipping lunch for a week. Nope; devout Pharisees in Jesus’s day would go wholly without food twice a week. (Devout Christians in the first century did it too.)

Because nothing declares to God, ourselves, and every spiritual force set against us, “God is more important than life itself” like fasting.

Backsliding: We all do it.

by K.W. Leslie, 06 January
BACKSLIDE 'bæk.slaɪd verb. Relapse into bad ways or error.
[Backslider 'bæk.slaɪ.dər noun]

The idea behind backsliding is the road to sanctification isn’t level; it’s uphill. A bit of a climb, too. Paved with gravel instead of asphalt, so on the particularly steep parts, the ground’s gonna slip under your feet a little, especially if you’re standing still. It’s the natural consequence of gravity, so you can’t just stand still. You have to keep moving!

So yeah, in this metaphor the gravitational pull represents our natural tendency towards self-centeredness and sin. If we drop the effort to climb towards Christ—even for a second—we’re gonna backslide.

Now. If the pursuit of Christ is really like this, we Christians oughta be way more gracious and sympathetic to backsliders than we are. I used to hike several times a week, and on every hill there’s always backsliding. On wet days, even with the best shoes, you can always make a misstep and fall on your face. I’ve come back from casual hikes covered in mud, simply because I tackled a hill which looked deceptively easy to scale.

And the Christian walk, if we’re doing it right, is gonna have way bigger challenges than wet hills. We’re gonna fumble. A lot. But we get back up again. We have to; the road home leads up that hill.

Problem is, a lot of American Christians don’t struggle all that hard in our Christianity… and haven’t gone hiking either. So we haven’t thought the metaphor all the way through, and don’t have hiking in mind when we refer to a “backslider.” Or really even know what we’re talking about.

Fr’instance. Back in my high school youth group, a girl became pregnant, and the church gossips were mighty quick to comment how she’d so obviously “backslidden.” Thing is, I knew the girl’s boyfriend. She hadn’t backslidden at all. She had no relationship with Jesus. She was in the youth group because her friends were there. She was in the church’s choir because she was a good singer, and the music pastor liked her talent and let her join. The gossips assumed her attendance, and public on-stage praise of Jesus, meant she was Christian. Nope. Outside youth group and Sunday morning services, she was as pagan as anyone. She was no backslider: She wasn’t even climbing.

The same is true of most “backsliders.” Their Christian walk isn’t uphill: It’s a casual stroll through a shopping mall, as they pick and choose which accessories please them most. If you slide on a level surface, it’s because you never bothered to put on shoes with any traction, or you’re choosing to slide—towards something fun. Might be destructive fun, but it sure looks fun.

These so-called “backsliders” aren’t truly pursuing Christ Jesus. They’re trying Christianity out for a while, trying to see whether it looks good on them. They aren’t moving forward, or uphill. Neither are they sliding back when they put Christianity down and try on something else.

Now I was a backslider. In high school I was a giant hypocrite. But I was pursuing Jesus, however poorly. I’d make a little bit of effort… then stand still and let gravity drag me backward. But I really did want more Christ in my life, and only those of us who make the effort can be truly said to backslide.

And all of us are gonna backslide. It happens. It’s life. So when that happens, we need to encourage one another to get back up and try again. We need to sympathize, because next time it’ll be us. As careful as we may be, we never know when we might be blindsided by a temptation we never prepared for. Or how a small oversight or lapse in judgment can have spectacular consequences. Our churches should be our support systems for every time we make these mistakes, and minister God’s forgiveness.

Sad to say, too often they aren’t. Too many are full of hypocrites who hide our daily failures, and gossip about those who don’t hide so well. We’ll tear into one another like sharks who smell blood. Our response to backsliding must always be, “If it weren’t for God’s grace, that’d be me. Let me help.”

The kingdom of God. Or kingdom of heaven. Same thing.

by K.W. Leslie, 02 January

The central belief of Christianity is God’s kingdom.

I know; you thought it was Jesus, didja? Most Christians do. He’s the king of this kingdom; Christ means Messiah, which is one of the many titles of Israel’s king. But you’ll notice Jesus, when he preached the gospel, didn’t say he was the good news: The kingdom is.

Mark 1.14-15 KWL
14 After John’s arrest, Jesus went into the Galilee preaching God’s gospel, 15 saying this:
“The time has been fulfilled. God’s kingdom has come near. Repent! Believe in the gospel!”

I know; most folks who say they proclaim “the gospel,” or claim they preach “the gospel,” don’t define the gospel that way. They claim it’s the sacrificial death of Jesus: He saved us, and that’s the gospel.

It’s actually not.

Don’t get me wrong. Salvation is totally important. ’Cause without it, we’d never have access to God’s kingdom, much less inherit it. But salvation’s only the introduction to the gospel. It’s the part which explains why God bothers to interact with us sinners in the first place. Justifying us because we put our faith in him, getting forgiven and saved, being given abundant grace: That’s definitely good news. But it’s hardly the whole story, and not what Jesus preached. He proclaimed his kingdom. Lookit what all his parables and stories were about: Kingdom. Lookit what he told his followers to go out and preach: Kingdom. Mt 10.7, Lk 16.16, Ac 8.12 He wouldn’t stop talking about it!

Church is also important. But we get so focused on church functions (and busywork, and interpersonal drama), we forget the church exists to train us for kingdom living.

Jesus is absolutely important. But he’s primarily important because he rules his kingdom. Worshiping him entails doing kingdom business. Praying to him means getting kingdom instructions. Following him means developing a kingdom lifestyle. Even when he fills us with the Holy Spirit, his goal is to equip us for kingdom work.

The kingdom has been God’s goal since creation. He wanted to walk with Adam and Eve in the garden. Their sin botched that. Ever since, he’s been trying to return us to that level of relationship.

Leviticus 26.12 KWL
“I walk in your midst. For you, I’m God. For me, you’re my people.”

He wants to live with us forever. Permanently. Physically: You may recall God became human, but you may have got the idea this was just a temporary deal so he could die for our sins. Nuh-uh. God became human so he would be human—as limiting as we might consider this—and really live with his people. Walk with us, talk with us, hang out with us, be with us. No more distance. No more separation. Just God and his kids, a king with his princesses and princes.

Yeah, there’s heaven.

The author of Matthew preferred to describe the kingdom as “heaven’s kingdom” (KJV “kingdom of heaven”) rather than “God’s kingdom.” The popular theory is Matthew had a common Jewish hangup about name-dropping God so often. Regardless, we Christians tend to fixate on the heaven part—and assume by “kingdom,” Jesus and the scriptures are really talking about heaven. The afterlife. Paradise.

Popular Christian culture doesn’t help. There’s so much paganism mixed in with our ideas of afterlife. Most of us assume once we die, we go to heaven and stay there forever. No resurrection when Jesus returns; he just takes any Christians left on earth to heaven too. And that’s his kingdom, off in some different plane of existence. Certainly not on earth, not in the here and now… unless you mean having a heavenly attitude or mindset. And even then that’s all intellectual. Not concrete. Not real. Imaginary.

But the kingdom comes from heaven. It’s not limited to heaven. It’s not contained by heaven. It’s not trapped there. Jesus said God’s kingdom has come near. And in the Lord’s Prayer he taught us to pray it come, Mt 6.10 emerge into this world so what’s done on earth matches heaven.

Again, don’t get me wrong. We get heaven too. It’s part of the kingdom. Part. ’Cause when we take heaven and blow it up into the whole of Christianity, things get wonky. It’s like an entire body made of an eyeball. And you’ll notice how heaven-fixated Christians get wonky too: They abandon everything in this world. Yeah, they might give up materialism and greed, and that’s good… but y’notice these people also stop caring about other people. They dismiss the lost and the needy, reject caring for nature and the environment, and focus on nothing but their own heavenly future. So there’s still a lot of greed mixed in to this mindset: It’s like when someone stops washing the car ’cause it’s headed for the junkyard. It’s not really about humility.

The purpose of all the scriptures’ heaven imagery is not because we’re abandoning earth for heaven. On the contrary. Jesus intends to establish heaven here. Just as God came down, heaven’s coming down next. The reason Jesus wants God’s will done here, is because it’s earth’s destiny to become heaven. By acting like heaven’s citizens instead of earth’s, we Christians are to do our part as God establishes his kingdom. Here.

Here. But not here.

Jesus says the kingdom has come, and is already here among us. Lk 17.21

Jesus also says the kingdom hasn’t come yet. That’s why we’re praying for it in the Lord’s Prayer. It’s coming. It’s just not here yet.

Yes, that’s a paradox. One of the many paradoxes in Christianity. Which bugs a lot of Christians who insist our religion has no paradoxes; it’s totally logical and reasonable. That’s their hangup. The reality is God’s kingdom is both here, and yet to come—simultaneously. It’s here already, but not yet.

What’s this even mean? Obviously one of the ways it’s not here yet, is Jesus hasn’t yet returned in his second coming. He will, but hasn’t yet. He’s our king, but he’s not yet ruling the world from a headquarters in Jerusalem. Not yet.

But one of the ways the kingdom’s here already, is when we need resources from Jesus. If we need power, if we need to talk to our king, if we wanna borrow some of his angelic soldiers: We have full access to his kingdom. It’s right here, closer than Mexico is to the United States.

Don’t believe me? Notice what it feels like when Christians grab hold of these kingdom resources and use ’em. When people hear prophecy, get cured of their ailments, and the Holy Spirit empowers us to shout his praises in languages we don’t know: The kingdom is absolutely here. Shockingly so.

Of course, when Christians never bother to tap these resources, God’s kingdom’s gonna feel far, far away. So whether we recognize it’s here, largely depends on the active participation of believing, obedient Christians.

But that’s only the case till Jesus returns. Once he does, his kingdom will fully exist—whether Christians trust and obey, or not. (Although by then, we’ll be resurrected, and we won’t care to do anything but trust and obey Jesus.) After Jesus returns, we’ll have King Jesus on the planet to direct his kingdom personally. And powerfully.

Other kingdoms—and the fake kingdom.

Christians have wanted God’s kingdom to be here so bad, we’ve tried to bring it to earth ourselves.

The utopian view of the End Times was mighty popular among Evangelicals for centuries. It still has many adherents, all of whom think if humanity gets its act together, we might create heaven right here on earth. A kingdom of heaven, so to speak. We’ll solve humanity’s problems and everything will be paradise. What a beautiful world this will be; what a glorious time to be free.

So these utopians make an effort to establish a Christian nation. Or bring us back to our Christian roots (assuming we truly had any). We pass “Christian laws” by adapting biblical commands for our nation’s statutes. (Definitely the moral ones; sometimes even the judicial ones.) We throw in a few extra laws which encourage public piety: Put prayer in the public schools, force businesses to close on Sundays and Christian holidays, require the state to hold to “Christian” definitions of marriage and family and morality. They figure the reason God won’t answer the prayer, “Your kingdom come,” is ’cause that’s our job.

Invariably this goes wrong.

Because Jesus isn’t directly in charge. Humans are. Sinful humans are. Y’see, sinful humans covet power. And we’ll pretend to be whatever we have to be in order to get it. Invariably hypocrites take control of our so-called “Christian nation.” So, expect it to look far less like Christ, and far more like the Beast. Run by legalism instead of grace, fear instead of love, greed instead of compassion, debt instead of generosity. Funding prisons instead of hospitals and schools, pushing the death penalty instead of rehabilitation, manufacturing the world’s most massive warmaking machinery instead of peace. You know, like the United States right now.

Without Jesus’s personal, direct involvement, humans are just corrupt enough to bollix the entire thing. Look at the very best examples we have in the bible: Moses, David, and Josiah. And we all know what sins they committed.

There are very good reasons for the separation of church and state. Put ’em together and you won’t produce the kingdom. You get a state run by fake Christians, and a church full of hypocrites. We’ve seen it happen time and again throughout European history. But either we don’t know history, or we’re naïve enough to think we understand Jesus better than those old dead white guys ever did, so we’ll get it right.

Not that there’s anything wrong with it when Christians vote, run for office, and work in government. Moral people should be involved in government. We need to steer it away from evil as best we can! But when we try to grow God’s kingdom through political might, instead of surrendering all power to the only one able to handle it without it utterly corrupting him (obviously I mean Jesus; duh) we adopt force instead of grace. We using the devil’s methods instead of Jesus’s. We need to keep the state out of the Christianity business. Jesus is the only one qualified to run his kingdom. Till he returns, we have no business creating another monster which Jesus’ll just have to overthrow anyway. Don’t delude yourself into thinking the United States is an exception. That’s treason against our true king.

So in the meanwhile we Christians have dual citizenship, so to speak: We’re part of the royal family of God’s kingdom, and at the same time we live in the “kingdom” of our homelands, and have duties as its citizens. Vote, pay taxes, do community service. But when these kingdoms come into conflict, God’s kingdom must always take priority, period. We don’t put the American flag above the Christian flag on our flagpoles. We don’t support immoral leaders right or wrong, simply because we share a political party. (Well, okay, some brain-dead Christians do. But point out the discrepancy to them, and they’ll sort it out… or expose their real priorities. Either way.) We serve the eternal kingdom, not the one Jesus is gonna replace with his reign.

Kingdom living.

“The Christian life” is simply a synonym for kingdom living. We’re gonna live in God’s kingdom forever, and we need to start behaving like it. We need to adopt that lifestyle and get used to it.

That’s where we kinda slide away from kingdom talk, and get into thinking like God does (theology), behaving like God wants us to (sanctification), accessing God’s power (supernatural), and looking forward to Jesus’s return (End Times). But all of it, all of it, involves the kingdom. Like I said, it’s the central belief of Christianity.

Didn’t realize this? Well, let it sink in.