Atonement: God wants to save everybody!

by K.W. Leslie, 04 August
ATONEMENT ə'toʊn.mənt noun. Action which fixes a broken relationship, such as paying a penalty, replacing a damaged item, or painting over defacement.
2. The atonement: Jesus’s payment for humanity’s sins through his death.
[Atone ə'toʊn verb, atoning ə'toʊn.ɪŋ adjective.]

Sin significantly ruined our relationship with God. Not irreparably; God can fix anything. And he did.

Occasionally some preacher will break down the word atonement thisaway: “At-one-ment. God makes himself and us one.” It’s pretty close to the right idea. There used to be a word in English, onement, which means unity. Christian preachers started adding the at- prefix to describe our relationship with God: We’re unified now. What was broken is now fixed.

The word English-speakers used to use to describe this was propitiation, one which still appears thrice in the King James Version Ro 3.25, 1Jn 2.2, 4.10 to translate ἱλασμός/ilasmós. But like most old-timey words, people don’t understand what it means, and most dictionaries define propitiation as “something which appeases a person or god.” Like an offering, a good deed, a ritual sacrifice. Something karmic—and God does grace, not karma.

Good karma can’t do it anyway. You can’t undo a sin. You can undo its consequences, but you can’t undo the initial act of selfish rebellion. You could try to be so good, your good deeds outweigh your evil ones, but here’s the catch: We’re already supposed to be that good. We’re supposed to have no evil deeds in the balance. It’s like putting a single drop of snake venom into a glass of drinking water: You wanna drink it now? Better have epinephrine handy; and you still might die.

So propitiation is an inaccurate way to describe how God fixed things. But far too many Christians still totally describe it that way: “We outraged God, but we temporarily appeased him with ritual sacrifices… till Jesus permanently appeased him with his self-sacrifice.” Makes God sound all bloodthirsty. Well, we get bloodthirsty when we’re outraged, so we totally project that upon God. But that’s not who he is.

Ilasmós is the Greek translation of כִּפֻּר/khippúr, a Hebrew word y’might actually know because of the Jewish holiday Yom Kippur. It comes from another word, כֹּפֶר/khippúr, “plaster.” When there’s a crack or hole in the wall, you put some plaster or putty or spackle on it, paint over it, and you’re good as new. And that’s the word God used in Exodus to describe what the ancient Hebrews’ sacrifices represented to him. Their sins poked holes in God’s relationship with them. The holes needed plastering. It’s a really simple metaphor: Sin breaks stuff, and plaster patches it good as new.

No, not entirely new. And God doesn’t actually want entirely new. Entirely new, means entirely new people: Instead of sorting us out, God’d just kill us, then replace us with exact replicas. But these replicas wouldn’t be us; they’d be twins, clones, copies. God doesn’t want copies. He wants us—repaired.

Plaster makes a wall as good as new. Yeah, if you want to nitpick, a repaired wall won’t necessarily have the same strength as a new wall. But this depends on what you patch it with. If you poke holes in drywall, then patch it with concrete, the patch is far stronger and heavier than the rest of the wall. In fact the rest of the wall will have trouble supporting the concrete… unless you gradually replace everything with concrete. (Which is a whole other metaphor to play with. Have fun with it.)

Christ Jesus sacrificed himself for us, and since Jesus is God it makes God himself our plaster. We have him embedded in us, in much the same way the Holy Spirit was sealed to us when we first turned to God. But don’t play with that metaphor too much, lest you get the idea it’s okay to poke holes in your life so God can putty them with more of himself. We’re not meant to keep on sinning so we can get more grace. Ro 6.1-2 Instead look at your life as a wall full of holes—patched over by God. We might imagine it as flawed; we can’t get past the idea of all those holes beneath the paint. But God considers it a perfectly good wall. It serves its purpose: It keeps out the wind and rain. It keeps prying eyes from looking through it. It keeps listening ears from hearing better through it. It provides shelter. We can hang pictures on it. And so on, till the metaphor breaks down and we just get silly. But you get the idea.

God wants us, and our relationship with him, repaired, back to the way he originally meant things. He doesn’t want to knock us down and start again from scratch.

Atonement for everyone.

Humanity can’t save itself, ’cause we’re too corrupt. We’re hopeless… unless someone else intervenes. And it’s kinda obvious where I’m going with this: God intervened, became the man Jesus, died for our sins, 2Co 14-15, He 2.9 paid our fines, 1Ti 2.6 and reconciled the whole world to himself. 2Co 5.19 He plastered over our sin-damaged lives, and declared us forgiven.

By “whole world” I mean what the authors of scripture meant: The whole world. Everybody.

Seriously, everybody. Every human, past and future, near and far, vastly wicked or relatively “good”: We’re forgiven. God didn’t wait till we repented first; it feels like that’s when he first acts in our lives, but that’s only because we don’t see the big picture and our place in it. (Turns out he’s been nudging us towards salvation all along.) He doesn’t wait till we’re worthy, ’cause we never will be. He doesn’t wait till we feel he should respond, ’cause we feel all sorry for our sins and want him to forgive us. He simply decided to forgive the whole world, and did.

No, not just Christians. Not just monotheists. Not just “good people.” Definitely not just Americans. Everybody.

John 3.17 NIV
For God did not send his Son into the world to condemn the world, but to save the world through him.
 
1 John 2.2 NIV
He [Jesus] is the atoning sacrifice for our sins, and not only for ours but also for the sins of the whole world.
 
1 John 4.14 NIV
And we have seen and testify that the Father has sent his Son to be the Savior of the world.
 
1 Timothy 2.3-6 NIV
3 This [prayer for all] is good, and pleases God our Savior, 4 who wants all people to be saved and to come to a knowledge of the truth. 5 For there is one God and one mediator between God and mankind, the man Christ Jesus, 6 who gave himself as a ransom for all people. This has now been witnessed to at the proper time.
 
2 Peter 3.9 NIV
The Lord is not slow in keeping his promise [to return], as some understand slowness. Instead he is patient with you, not wanting anyone to perish, but everyone to come to repentance.

If we want God, we never have to worry, “Well maybe he doesn’t want me.” He absolutely does. Jesus atoned for everybody because God wants everybody. He made you; he wants you. We’re not so filthy and nasty and offensive to God’s infinite goodness, he shuns us. He doesn’t turn his back when we call to him. He never says, “Well first you gotta get clean” before his Spirit comes to live within us. Yeah we’ll have to clean up afterward, but cleanliness isn’t a prerequisite. Nothing is a prerequisite but faith: We gotta trust God to save us. And he will!

And when Jesus returns to take over the world, it’ll be the whole world. Not part, Rv 11.15 not just Israel, not just the countries which claim they’re Christian nations. Jesus is Lord of all. ’Cause he died for all.

Seriously, everyone.

Yeah, there are those who say it can’t be all. It’s because they misunderstand how God’s sovereignty works.

Those who believe in limited atonement assume if Jesus saved the world, his salvation is so mighty, so overpowering and overruling (and kinda rapey), we can’t help but be saved. Even if we don’t wanna. Even if we want nothing to do with God: God’s will conquers our will and reprograms us so we will become Christian, just as he’s predetermined. It’s a pretty messed-up idea of God… once again, based on how they’d do things if they were God, and backed up by a lot of out-of-context scriptures which make it look like God only saved Christians… and the rest, he passed over. (Or worse: Created just so he could destroy them, as a sick ’n twisted object lesson for the rest of us.)

So let’s look at the scriptures. Remember when the LORD rescued the Hebrews from Egypt? Fed ’em manna in the wilderness, accepted their sacrifices, forgave their idolatry, let Aaron do that scapegoat thing to represent their atonement? No? Read Exodus through Deuteronomy again.

God rescued the Hebrews. All of them. He didn’t leave any of ’em in Egypt, and pick a select worthy few to take to Canaan. He elected the entire nation, freed them all from their bondage, made them a free people who lived under his grace, and offered every single one of them a promised paradise—“a land of milk and honey,” as they called it, ’cause they really liked milk and honey back then.

That’s what unlimited atonement looks like. That’s what he repeated when Jesus died for our sins. The Hebrews became his children, and he their God. Ex 6.7, Lv 26.12 They could have a relationship with him. He wanted a relationship with them. It’s all he’s ever wanted.

Did all of them accept this relationship with him? Sadly, no. Only a handful finally made it to Canaan. Joshua and Caleb most notably, but there were a few others, like the head priest Eleazar. Js 14.1, 17.4 The rest balked at entering Canaan, and as a result died without ever entering it.

’Cause while God offers us infinite, unlimited grace, we can foolishly, rebelliously reject it. That’s a whole other subject, which I wrote about elsewhere. Jesus came to save the world, but some of the world prefers darkness to light, and won’t come to the light and be saved. Jn 3.19-20

Meanwhile, because Jesus atoned for them, those who resist his grace still get to be the recipients of what we Christians call common grace, the blessings God gives to all humanity, and not just Christians. Like life. Health. Decent weather… when we get decent weather. The good works of his Christians spill over into the rest of society, resulting in more charity, freer governments, improvements in society’s infrastructure, technological advancement, better medicine, literacy, social equality and justice, and so forth.

But God wants to give humanity so much more—and Jesus’s atonement makes it possible. For all.

On trusting the bible—but first trusting God.

by K.W. Leslie, 03 August

Whenever Christian apologists write a book on their favorite subject, they either begin by explaining how they know God exists, or why the bible is absolutely trustworthy. It kinda depends on which of the two they consider the higher authority: God, because he inspired the bible; or bible, because it informs us about God.

Custom dictates God should come first, so he does come first in most apologetics books. But not all of ’em, ’cause not every apologist hews to custom. And to be blunt, a number of apologists are total bibliolaters, so they insist it’s vital we establish the bible as an absolute before we can even quote it as an authority.

Thing is, how do we prove the bible’s absolutely trustworthy? Well, here are the answers one apologist offers.

  • Look how many ancient copies of the bible there are! Way more than other books, or contemporary books. That’s gotta mean something.
  • Lookit all the statements the scriptures say about themselves, or other scriptures.
  • Lookit all the contemporary ancient accounts which jibe with the bible. Or all the archeological discoveries which also jibe with the bible. That makes it historical, doesn’t it?
  • Lookit the precise, careful processes the Masoretic Jews and Christian monk copyists used to make sure our copies of the bible are precise duplicates.
  • Lookit how closely the first-century Dead Sea Scrolls line up with the medieval Masoretic texts: Man those Masoretes did a good job of bible preservation.
  • Lookit all the ancient Christians who quote bible—proving not just that there were bibles back then, but since their quotes match the copies of the bible we have, it’s clearly survived down to us intact.

But in these “proofs,” apologists kinda miss the forest for the trees.

Why do skeptics doubt bible? Because they doubt Christians. They doubt Christianity. They doubt our form of Christianity. They doubt God. They doubt all the things which point to bible; stands to reason they’re gonna doubt bible too. Especially since they’ve largely never even read the bible, haven’t a clue what it says, and don’t care enough to bother finding out.

So while apologists are busy trying to explain how the Masoretes invented checksums so they could make sure they precisely copied bible line-for-line, skeptics are busy not caring. So the Old Testament isn’t full of scribal errors. Big whoop. They still think the Old Testament is irrelevant, because they don’t believe the God it describes is even real.

Get it? So, first things first. Before you start discussing the bible’s trustworthiness with anyone, make sure you’re not boring someone who already has their mind made up in the opposite direction.

Which ranks higher: Bible or God?

Like I said, Christian apologists are gonna base a lot of their arguments on bible. Specifically proof texts which defend their points. It’s gonna be the foundation for a lot of their reasoning—so when you build on a foundation, you’d better confirm the foundation is stable. There’d better be some rebar in that concrete, or it’s gonna crack a lot, and pretty much turn into gravel.

But honestly, I don’t focus on the foundation. I focus on the retaining wall. As architects will tell you, the way you make a building earthquake-proof is to not put all your trust in a foundation, ’cause an earthquake’s gonna shake it. You put it in your building’s framework. In smaller buildings like a house, you put a lot of it in the one wall which supports all the other walls. In masonry, you usually put it in your cornerstone.

Not for nothing did the scriptures allude to Jesus as “the head stone of the corner,” Ps 118.22 KJV “the head of the corner,” Mk 12.10 KJV or as Paul put it,

Ephesians 2.19-22 KJV
19 Now therefore ye are no more strangers and foreigners, but fellowcitizens with the saints, and of the household of God; 20 And are built upon the foundation of the apostles and prophets, Jesus Christ himself being the chief corner stone; 21 In whom all the building fitly framed together groweth unto an holy temple in the Lord: 22 In whom ye also are builded together for an habitation of God through the Spirit.

Yeah the apostles and prophets who wrote the bible are our foundation, but Jesus himself keeps the building up.

So when I talk to skeptics, I base as many propositions as I can upon my personal experiences with the living God. On what I’ve seen with my eyes, what I’ve heard with my ears and heart, what my hands have handled. 1Jn 1.1 Y’know, like the apostles did. I use the scriptures to confirm these experiences are valid, same as the ancient Christians did… but I still keep referring to my God-experiences.

Other apologists do it the other way round. They were taught to trust bible more than their God-experiences. Problem is, prioritizing bible over personal experience makes no sense to pagans. They think it means we’re denying reality. And to a degree, they’re not wrong. When we reject God-experiences because we think the bible tells us otherwise, you do realize we’re not following God anymore. We’ve gone another way. The wrong way.

Once I started pointing to my God-experiences, I found certain skeptics really grow irritated with me. Y’see, antichrists have learned all these tactics for debunking the bible, specifically so they can win debates with Christians. We Christians foolishly assume we’re better-prepared than they, walk right into their traps, and instead of sharing Jesus we spend the next three hours defending bible. Whereas in sharing my God-experiences instead, I don’t spring any of their traps. It utterly confounds them; it’s like I’m not playing their game properly. Well I’m not. I’m not here to debate abstractions; I’m here to testify.

Proving the bible is reliable helps convince us Christians to trust it more. That’s why we learn why the bible’s reliable. That’s the only reason why. Learning this stuff so we can convince naysayers it’s reliable? Waste of time. Even if you convince them the bible is well-copied and ancient and historically accurate, they’ll only believe it’s a reliable myth.

Like Homer’s poetry. Ever read the Iliad and Odyssey? Now let’s say these epics were reliably copied, and historically accurate—there really was an Achilles and Odysseus and Hector and Priam, and Troy did get destroyed, and Odysseus did take years to get home. You gonna believe in Zeus now, and worship him? Heck no. Same with pagans who doubt the bible: Its reliability doesn’t do what you’re hoping it will.

So first things first. Show ’em God is real. Show ’em Christ Jesus is the only true way to God. Then they might acknowledge bible.

So the bible has a lot of ancient copies.

Christian apologists love to point out how many ancient manuscripts there are of the bible. ’Cause there are tens of thousands. The New Testament is the most-copied book in antiquity. There are way more ancient copies of the NT than any other ancient book; way more by far. Josh McDowell loves to point out less than 700 ancient copies of the Iliad exist, compared with 24,000 ancient copies of the NT. Evidence That Demands a Verdict vol. 1, c. 4

How does this prove the bible’s reliable? It doesn’t really.

It does prove the bible was popular. As it would be, with Christians. There were a lot of us, and any Christian who could afford to get the bible copied, did. After all, it’s foundational to our religion. Whereas the Iliad is an old pagan poem about a religion which, for centuries, competed with Christianity for followers and power… so it stands to reason Christians wouldn’t be so keen on preserving it. Wasn’t till Greco-Roman paganism was extinct that Christians finally felt the Iliad was safe to read, and wouldn’t convert anyone to Zeusism.

Likewise the billions of bibles published today, in every language we can find, only proves the bible’s popular. Not reliable.

Yet I’ve heard apologists claim this volume implies reliability—and that’s a logical fallacy, an argument which sounds profound but really isn’t. Don’t we keep trying to teach our teenagers that popular doesn’t mean true?

So the bible has very few textual variants.

Christian apologists also love to point out how few textual variants we find in the ancient manuscripts of both Old and New Testaments. Certainly fewer than most ancient books… considering how few copies of ancient books there are.

Certainly fewer than even more recent books. The three earliest copies of William Shakespeare’s Hamlet are extremely different from one another. There’s the First Quarto (published 1603), the Second Quarto (1604), and the First Folio (1623), and they line up for the most part… but they also have some really big differences between them. You may not know this, ’cause if you’ve ever read Hamlet or seen it performed, what you read or saw was a version of the play edited together by textual scholars. Sometimes the scholars were trying to figure out what Shakespeare originally had in the play… and just as often, like the Textus Receptus, they just wanted to make sure all the variants got included. Especially their favorites.

Textual scholars are way more responsible when it comes to today’s original-language editions of the bible. But the most ancient bibles aren’t anywhere near as different from one another as the earliest copies of Hamlet. Take the two oldest copies of the bible there are and compare them: You’ll find very little difference between them. Heck, take copies from the Middle Ages—the result of centuries of making copies of copies of copies of copies of copies—and you’ll find less than 15 percent difference between them. That’s better than the two quartos of Hamlet, both of which were published during Shakespeare’s lifetime.

For that, the Masoretes and monks deserve a lot of credit for making sure so very few errors crept into their copies. (And we Christians will also give the Holy Spirit a lot of credit for getting ’em to preserve his bible.)

But here’s the thing: Of course there were very few variants in ancient bibles. They were made by devout Jews and Christians, who considered these texts the very word of God, and put supreme importance on making sure these were exact copies. Hence they went to so much trouble to make sure no mistakes slipped in. As opposed to someone who was just reprinting Hamlet, which—though a brilliant play—ain’t holy scripture.

Despite how few textual variants there were, any textual variant makes people doubt the bible’s reliability. And no, we can’t just pretend they don’t exist, like KJV-worshipers will. We know better. Antichrists definitely know better. So even though the bible is remarkably well-preserved, how do we know which verses oughta be in there, and which verses oughta be tucked into the footnotes?

Real simple: Look at the oldest ancient manuscripts.

  • If words or verses are missing in all those copies, they weren’t in the originals; they don’t belong in the bible.
  • If they’re missing in most of those copies, put ’em in brackets or the footnotes.
  • If they’re missing in few of those copies, put ’em in the text, but include a footnote saying they’re not in every ancient copy.
  • And if they’re not missing anywhere, it’s all good.

Again: This doesn’t prove the bible’s the authentic word of God. It only makes reasonably sure our original-language bibles are as close to the original texts as possible. Textual criticism isn’t that difficult a science. It only seems impressive and hard ’cause the scholars are dealing with ancient manuscripts and languages. But relax; they know what they’re doing.

So historians and scholars like it.

Christian apologists also love to point out how historians and scholars consider the bible to be a valid, authoritative, useful historical document. After all, it does contain the history of the ancient Hebrews and Christians, and is confirmed many times over by archaeology.

But there’s two problems with making a fuss over this. Yes, historians and scholars consider the bible historical. Now, does it mean they’ve taken its claims about God seriously, and became Christians? For a number of ’em no. They’re still pagans and skeptics. (Or devout Jews and Muslims.) They may take the bible’s history seriously, and use the bible to find archeological sites. But if they don’t wanna believe in Jesus, they’re not gonna. They’re gonna consider the God parts mythology, and the rest useful. Same as we do the Iliad.

Secondly, “Well historians and scholars consider it valid” doesn’t work on skeptical pagans. They don’t care what historians, scholars, scientists, linguists, researchers, and theologians think. They don’t believe in it; that’s all they care about.

Y’notice I keep coming back to the same conclusion: The bible’s a really impressive, very unique book. It has a long, interesting history. Does this prove it true and reliable? No. Does this convince pagans to trust it? No. When they say, “I don’t even believe in the bible,” we’re not gonna win them over by pointing to how neat it is. We gotta introduce them to Jesus. Only then will the bible become anything relevant to them.

Save the stats for us bible nerds who already like the bible.

The church café.

by K.W. Leslie, 30 July

Some churches offer refreshments before, after, or even during the service. My current church did, before the current pandemic made us suspend it. At one of my previous churches, one of our pastors’ wives who loved to cook (who became known as our “minister of munchies”) would have so much food available, you may as well skip breakfast at home, ’cause there was plenty of food at church.

But many churches—namely the churches which get so big, refreshment tables get cleaned out within minutes—have decided to go with cafés. They stick it somewhere near the front of the building, and sell coffee and doughnuts—and other drinks, and other foods.

A friend likes to sarcastically call them “concession stands.” To him, the church café is just a money-making scheme… kinda like the moneychangers Jesus had to throw out of temple ’cause they turned it into a marketplace. Mk 13.13-17 In some churches, that’s precisely what their cafés feel like.

But the purpose of this article isn’t to bash church cafés. It’s to remind us of the point of providing food and drink for the people of our churches: Fellowship. Food and drink mean fellowship, and fellowship grows God’s kingdom. In many cases it grows it a lot better than sermons and worship music. You know the saying the fastest way to a person’s heart is through their stomach? Works in church too.

Growing God’s kingdom… or not.

The first Christians used to eat together. It was part of their worship services: Read some bible, talk about what Jesus taught, pray, anoint the sick, have holy communion, and have lunch. Yeah, they were largely hanging out together for a few hours, with some formal parts of the service, and a lot of informal, interactive parts. When we moved out of the homes and into church buildings, we lost a lot of the informality. Particularly the meals.

And the reason churches put out refreshments is to give people a reason to stick around before and after the service… and interact. We gotta wait in line for the coffee urn, and make small talk about weather. We gotta take turns with the toaster, and make small talk about baseball. We gotta semi-sincerely tell one another, “No you take the last strudel… well here, we’ll cut it in half.” And so forth. We gotta talk. And at some part we might actually run out of small talk and get into deep talk.

Whereas with a church with no refreshments? Oh, they bolt for their cars right away. As soon as my current church stopped serving refreshments, people cleared out of the services almost as soon as they were over. Really easy to get ’em out of the building. We have a reputation as a friendly church… and once you take away the refreshments it is so easy to dissolve that reputation.

So do I recommend the practice? Heck yeah.

Doesn’t have to be anything special. Just please, for the love of God, don’t buy Folgers. I know it’s the cheapest coffee there is (unless you have a Costco membership; then it’s usually Kirkland) and there’s a reason for that: It’s not good. It’s what people who don’t drink coffee buy when they gotta buy coffee. Don’t do that to your people. Find out who all the coffee snobs are in your church, and get them to take care of it. They’ll do you proud.

Likewise with the food: Doesn’t have to be anything special either. Discount doughnuts, day-old specials, Little Debbie snack cakes, homemade coffee cake (if anybody likes to bake), finger sandwiches, deviled eggs, a big jar of Tootsie Rolls, whatever. Bring anything. Something is better than nothing, and somebody’s gonna appreciate it.

What if people spill coffee in the auditorium, or otherwise make a mess? Clean it up. If it doesn’t clean out, you’ve either got ineffective cleaning supplies, or inferior carpeting and upholstery. I drink coffee all the time; I’ve spilled a bunch; it only ruins paper. Everything else, it cleans right out of. (Yes, even laptops.)

What if homeless people start showing up to get at the free food? GOOD. Share Jesus with ’em as well as the food. See if you can help in any other ways, while you’re at it. Maybe you can; maybe they don’t want any help; either way, be good news to them.

Switching to a café, and how not to do it.

Now like I said, if your church has a lot of people, you’re gonna run out of food and coffee quickly. So you gotta put some brakes on them, and that’s where money comes in: People aren’t gonna casually swipe all the doughnuts and drink all the coffee when they gotta pay for it.

Churches don’t always realize this is when or why they oughta charge for food. More often they start charging because some church leader says, “What’re we paying for coffee and doughnuts every month?… That much? Why don’t we charge people for them then?” They wanna pinch pennies, or they wanna raise money. So they put up price tags… and in so doing, kill the ministry.

I visited a friend’s church a few years ago. They had a café. They charged $2 for black coffee (same as most places), $4 for mochas and lattés and other coffee drinks; $3 and up for pastries. Roughly the same prices as any other coffeehouse. Because that’s what they were mimicking: Other coffeehouses. Hey, if Starbucks can charge you $4 for a latté, why can’t they?

And I remind you: The point is fellowship. How many people are gonna buy church café lattés? How many are gonna buy church café pastries? (Especially once they ask themselves, “Wait… is that Kirkland coffee? Are those Kirkland pastries? Why am I spending full coffeehouse prices on Coscto food?”) Are the poorer members of your church even able to fellowship at your café? If not, you’re doing it wrong.

A few decades ago my church’s café shut down: It made so little money, and the volunteers didn’t last long, so the church let it go dormant. Then it handed the café over to the Christian elementary school which shared the building—where I was a teacher—so we could use it for fundraisers. We ran a fundraiser or two, but once the fundraisers were over, the café went back to being empty.

Then one summer I was put in charge of it for the school’s summer day camp.

Theologian that I am, I needed to know the purpose of a church café before I ran one. So of course I came to all the conclusions I articulated above: It’s about fellowship.

Not profits. Yeah, ideally you should cover expenses… but there’s no rent, barely any utility costs, you got an all-volunteer staff, so if you sell everything at slightly more than what you paid for it, the prices are gonna be ridiculously low. And they were. I slashed all the café’s prices to a dollar or less. Coffee was now 25 cents. Espresso drinks were $1. Bottled water was also 25 cents. Doughnuts were still a bit expensive, but at 50 cents they sold out fast… and we still had plenty of other, healthier alternatives.

When people discovered bottled water was 25 cents instead the $1.50 they expected, they’d buy multiple bottles. Same with a lot of the other items. And if our 25-cent coffee was Folgers, they wouldn’t care or complain; they’d just be thrilled there was someplace on earth 25-cent coffee still exists.

My principal was worried the café couldn’t possibly make any money with those prices. We did volume business: We made way more money than before. So much so, the church took it back over the next year. (And didn’t learn from my example, hiked the prices back up, and did just as poorly as before.)

During that time, there was a crowd round the café every Sunday. Not just in line: Seated at the tables, eating together, drinking with one another, interacting. Fellowshipping. Talking about the service, talking about life, talking about what God’s done in those lives—being the body of Christ together.

Goal achieved.

Unexamined priorites.

To a point Starbucks tries to encourage fellowship too. Their vision is more secular: They want their coffeehouses to be a “third place,” other than home and work, where people gather and share life together… and while they’re at it, buy Starbucks products. They get the point. Churches don’t. And of all people, should.

Instead, too many of us think of the church café as a side business. Something that’ll raise a little money for the church, to make up for the fact our members aren’t putting enough in the offering. Or because they covet the business coffeehouses get: “Why can’t they hang out at church the way they hang out at coffeehouses?” So they try to duplicate the coffeehouse experience. Poorly.

More often, it’s just because the leadership thinks it’d be really cool to have a coffeehouse in the building. Saves ’em the trouble of going elsewhere for their caffeine fix. So their motive is convenience. Not fellowship, not profit. Hence it encourages little fellowship… and isn’t all that profitable either.

How does a church café grow God’s kingdom? That, and that alone, should be the only thought in mind when churches decided to create a café. How does it help Jesus? Or does it?—’cause in some churches they really don’t. They’re simply a dividing wall between the wealthy, who can afford it; and the poor, who can’t, and feel pushed outside because of it. Would Jesus encourage it as another means of spreading the good news, or would he get the whip out and overturn its tables?

Does suicide send you straight to hell?

by K.W. Leslie, 29 July

Years ago I taught at a Christian junior high. We had the usual classes you’ll find at most schools, plus bible classes and a weekly chapel service. Principals led most chapels, but the last year of our junior high program (before the school phased it out and I went on to teach fourth grade), our principal handed off the duties to various guest preachers. Earnest guys… but let’s be blunt: Some of ’em didn’t know what they were talking about. Some churches have no educational standards, and’ll let anyone babysit pastor the youth.

One of our regular chapel speakers was a youth pastor, the husband of one of our school’s daycare teachers. As far as theology is concerned, my eighth graders knew more. Not just ’cause I trained them; he really was that ignorant.

One week this guy was talking about salvation, and he let slip that if you commit suicide, you go to hell. It wasn’t his main point, but one of our seventh-graders did catch it and question him about it: “You go to hell for suicide?”

“Yes you do,” he said, and went on.

Once the eighth-graders were back in my classroom, one of ’em asked, “You don’t really go to hell for suicide, right?”

ME. “What’re you saved by, God’s grace or good deeds?
SHE. “Grace.”
ME. “Any of your evil deeds gonna send you to hell if you have God’s grace?”
SHE. “No.”
ME. “Suicide gonna send you to hell if you have God’s grace?”
SHE. “No.”
ME. “Okay then.”
SHE. “Well, why’d he say suicide will send you to hell?”
ME. “Because somebody told him that, and he believed it. He didn’t bother to ask questions and get to the truth like you’re doing. He doesn’t know any better.”

Some of the kids were looking in surprise at one another—Pastors can be WRONG?—and if they didn’t know this yet, best they learn it now. We’re all wrong in one way or another. No exceptions. And when you catch someone getting it wrong, ask questions. “Where in the bible does it say that?” usually does the job, although a lot of times they do have a proof text—which they’re quoting out of context.

But I digress. The youth pastor’s belief is surprisingly common among a whole lot of Christians. The rationale is simple… but graceless.

Saved by confession.

Works like yea: You’re saved by grace, right? This, they’ll concede. We don’t save ourselves; God does the saving. So how do we get grace? Easy: We ask God for it, and he grants it.

And every time we pray, let’s be sure to ask God’s forgiveness for every sin we’ve recently committed, and every good deed we’ve left undone. He’ll totally forgive us; we’re clean. Now, go and sin no more. Otherwise… we’ll be unclean again, and now we gotta apologize to God all over again. He’ll forgive us all over again, but do try to stop sinning.

Sounds good? It won’t in a moment.

Now what if we die before asking God’s forgiveness for the most recent batch of sins we committed? Say you just left the accountant’s office after lying a whole bunch about your taxes. Or nothing so dramatic; you just told various white lies throughout the day, and just haven’t got round to confessing them yet. Then you stepped into the street, got hit by a distracted Uber driver, and had no time for a last-second “Save me Jesus!”—you were dead on impact. What happens then?

Right you are: You still got sins on your soul. God forgave everything up to the last time you confessed your sins, but you’re still on the hook for everything since. And God can’t abide sin… oo it’s off to hell with you.

So wait: We can spend our entire lives following Jesus, carefully and devoutly, and one little mishap can plunge us into fiery hell? What kind of grace is that?

Well it’s not grace. It’s good works.

Yep, turns out we imagine we’ve been saved because we regularly performed the good work of apologizing to God for our sins. And I’m not saying it’s a good work we shouldn’t do! The Christian life is meant to be one of repentance. But in this scenario, if there’s any lapse between repentance and death, we wind up un-saved.

This is how graceless Christians think. They don’t view God as loving and forgiving, but harsh and strict, and any little mistake will doom us. They’re the ones who claim suicides are going to hell. Because suicide is self-murder, and murder’s a sin. Ex 20.13 Either they killed themselves quickly, and had no time to repent; or slowly, but they didn’t bother to stop their coming death, so they weren’t all that repentant. Either way, suicides had sins on their souls. They’re going to hell.

Especially since John said murderers don’t have eternal life in them. 1Jn 3.15 Self-murder or not, suicide is considered a hell-worthy sin.

Thus for centuries Christians (more accurately Christianists, worried about how it’d look) refused to bury suicides in church graveyards. ’Cause these people were in hell, right? Why should their bodies mingle with those who are going to heaven? Why should they be confused for saints?

Didn’t matter if these suicides were suffering from clinical depression. (A subject, I should point out, which the average person nowadays still doesn’t entirely understand.) Didn’t matter if they were suffering from chronic pain, or from an abuser they didn’t imagine they could get away from; suffering makes no difference. Suicide is a sin, and puts you in the hot place, where the worm doesn’t die and the fire doesn’t go out. Mk 9.48

Is suicide a sin?

Now, a lot of the reason people today insist suicides don’t go to hell, has nothing to do with God’s grace. It’s because they don’t consider suicide a sin.

Usually it’s ’cause they’re pagan. They don’t care what the scriptures say, one way or the other. They’re sympathetic towards the suicides, and figure they killed themselves because they were suffering in some way. They figure God’ll be kind enough to comfort them in the afterlife after all their suffering on earth. (Well, most of the suicides. Not Adolf Hitler. He’s in hell.)

But the fact is the scriptures never specifically describe suicide as murder. For one very simple reason: If you permit yourself to die in order to save others, you actually are killing yourself. It is suicide. But you’re saving others, so that’s noble, and people immediately overlook the suicide—or even argue it’s not suicide, and can’t be suicide: You’re sacrificing yourself, which is the most selfless and noble thing you can do.

(It’s not actually what Jesus meant by “laying down your life for your friends.” Jn 15.13 He meant submission, not sacrifice. But yeah, dying for them can be a form of submission. Sometimes it applies. Not always though.)

Simply put, the bible puts suicide into a gray area. It always depends on circumstances. Just like homicide: Sometimes it’s murder. Sometimes not: When you shoot an attacker it’s self-defense. When you intentionally poison a rival, it’s just plain murder. Suicide’s the same way, so we gotta look at motives. If you’re trying to end your own suffering, most folks, including a number of Christians, consider it yet another form of self-defense. I don’t always agree: Same as when people shoot “attackers,” there’s often a non-fatal way to deal with the problem. But people didn’t wanna take that route; killing the bad guy is quicker and easier—and let’s be blunt: Some of ’em have always wanted to kill somebody, and this makes it nice ’n legal. Killing yourself has often been called the easy way out, because dealing with pain is hard. But unless they’re nuts, nobody likes pain. So they won’t call it self-murder: To them it’s justifiable homicide.

Now true, some people kill themselves to escape justice. A former pastor of mine shot himself before he could be arrested for fraud. He figured instead of going to jail, he’d go to heaven. That situation is a little hard to be sympathetic about. Hard to classify as self-defense. Hard to not call sin. The pure selfishness of it wipes away any gray area.

Jesus, as we know, came to save the world. Jn 3.17 He did so by sacrificing himself. He wasn’t a victim of circumstances: He was in total control of these circumstances. He could’ve put a stop to his death at any second. Mt 26.53-54 He chose not to.

John 10.17-18 KWL
17 “This is why the Father loves me: I put down my life so I can pick it up again.
18 Nobody takes it away from me; I put it down on my own.
I have the power to put it down, and the power to pick it up again.
I received this commission from my Father.”

But those who consider suicide a sin, do not wanna describe Jesus’s self-sacrifice as that. They’re gonna be outraged by the very idea.

And yet it’s what they themselves have always taught: Jesus was a willing sacrifice. Jesus was in complete control. Jesus is sovereign. Jesus could’ve stopped his death at any time. They’ll say all this stuff about him. They’ll just never say “let himself be killed” is the same as “killed himself.”

…That is, till someone waves a gun in front of a police officer, hoping to suffer “death by cop”—then it’s not the officer’s fault for shooting the apparent criminal. Or till someone signs a “do not resuscitate” form—then it’s not the doctor’s fault for doing nothing to revive the patient.

Fact is, suicide is sometimes sin, sometimes not. In an ideal world nobody should have to, or want to, kill themselves. Should never be necessary in God’s kingdom. But sometimes it happens, and yeah, we can judge the act as sinful or not.

If it’s a sin though, does that mean it nullifies grace?

Grace trumps all.

If suicide is just the latest selfish act in a person’s life, capping off a lifetime of disregarding God’s commands and taking him for granted, culminating a life of fruitlessness and gracelessness, there’s absolutely no evidence God will save this person. These suicides will likely go to hell. I say “likely” because we never know for certain: God can do whatever he wants, including save ’em anyway if he so chooses. Since they’re likely gonna hate heaven—and be very annoyed their death didn’t result in non-existence—I wouldn’t count on it.

But for everyone else: Thanks to Jesus, we know God forgave our past sins, our present sins, and our future sins. Not that this gives us a free pass on future sins: Keep avoiding sin. But when we do sin, we have Jesus, our advocate, who cleanses us. 1Jn 2.1-2

Our real, living relationship with Jesus means we’re not getting sent to hell on a technicality: “Well, you murdered yourself, which is a no-no, and died with an unconfessed sin on your conscience; guess that cancels out everything I’ve ever done since I sealed you with the Holy Spirit, so off to hell with you.” That makes no sense. Might to a legalist, or to anyone so graceless as to throw away a decades-long relationship over one poor decision. But not to God.

God isn’t like that. If we’re his friends—really friends, and not just suck-ups or hypocrites or people who think their orthodoxy will save them—we were never going to hell anyway. Suicide won’t tip the scales against us. Thanks to grace, God threw out those scales a long time ago.

Christianists, justice, and social Darwinism.

by K.W. Leslie, 28 July

In the scriptures justice is defined on doing what’s just—what’s appropriate, what’s fair, what’s right, what’s consistent with the Law of Moses.

And lest you get the idea, “Oh, the Law of Moses; so it’s about breaking commands and meting out punishments,” no it’s not. Read the Law sometime and you’ll notice there’s a lot in there about doing for the needy and powerless, about loving one’s neighbor, about compassion and mercy and grace. Read the Prophets and you’ll see they get on Israel’s case not just for breaking the Law, but for shafting the poor and needy… which is forbidden by the Law. Anybody who thinks the Old Testament is all legalism, and the New Testament is all grace, clearly hasn’t read the Old Testament—or is projecting their own bad attitudes onto it. Plenty of grace in there… called “favor” or “mercy” or other synonyms, but you shouldn’t miss it.

Okay, that’s the bible. In our culture it’s assumed a very different definition. Justice in the United States is about upholding our laws. Particularly about punishing the guilty.

In so doing, justice has become another word for vengeance. Meted out by our government, but it’s still vengeance; check out all the people who push for the death penalty, or who stand outside death row while an execution goes on, pleased as punch that somebody’s getting what’s coming to them. It’s all about karma. It looks nothing like biblical justice.

Hence Christian activists have to distinguish biblical justice from unbiblical justice; from civic justice, which sues fast-food restaurants for making their coffee too hot, and from criminal justice, which gives people life sentences for stealing three cars.

This is where social justice comes in: It’s biblical justice. It’s nothing more than God’s admonitions to his people to do right by the powerless and needy. It’s helping those who can’t do for themselves—which is 180 degrees away from the way our individualist society tends to treat ’em. Society ignores anything Christ Jesus and his scriptures have to say about helping our neighbors, and instead holds to a very selfish, karmic attitude which blames ’em for their own troubles, blames ’em for being unable to escape their troubles, exploits or penalizes or punishes ’em for it, and (on the off chance we realize any of this is evil) justifies itself by inventing “biblical principles” which make it sound like it’s God’s idea.

God’s response to such folks?

Isaiah 1.16-17 KWL
16 “Bathe! Get clean! Get rid of the evil deeds before my eyes.
Stop doing evil. 17 Learn to do good. Seek right judgments.
Straighten out oppressors. Judge orphans fairly. Defend widows.”

Ancient Israel’s worship wasn’t working for the LORD, because they figured they could please him by sacrificing fields of animals to him—not by actually obeying him, and loving his people whom his Son would eventually die for. In Isaiah 1 he expressed his frustration with their rotten attitudes… and since American Christians are so biblically illiterate nowadays, of course we’ve fallen right into the very same behaviors.

Social justice and Christian history.

Lemme make this clear: Politics is about the pursuit of power. Both the Christian Right and Christian Left are regularly co-opted by politicians so they can gain power. So though I’m about to critique the Christian Right a bit, do not get the idea the Christian Left doesn’t have plenty to critique as well. I’ll discuss them in a bit. But first the rightists.

Historically the Christian Right in the United States has not been on the side of justice. It was on the side of slavery. And once slavery was abolished, it was on the side of segregation and the Jim Crow laws. The Christian Right baselessly believed blacks were “the sons of Ham”—descendants of Noah’s son Ham, who had mocked his father’s drunken nakedness, and as a result his son was cursed with servitude. Ge 9.20-27 As far as they were concerned, black people need to know their place and stay there. Their economy, politics, philosophy, interpretation of history, society, theology, everything, was designed to support their racism. Still does.

For a number of years, the Christian Right’s segregation and racism was largely outlawed and went underground. Oh, it still exists. It’s why black families still can’t move into certain suburbs; it’s why white people get plea bargains and black people go to prison; it’s why cops racially profile blacks, kill them carelessly, and get away with it. And while many in the Christian Right are now firmly anti-racist, many simply assume they’re not racist because they don’t hate blacks and browns—but they’re totally fine with leaving racially biased systems as-is. Because it doesn’t affect them negatively. Just the opposite.

It all goes back to selfishness and unaccountability. That’s always been the desire of sinful people. Slavery and racism gave it a theology, and justified it.

The Christian Right largely clung to their racism till the 1980s, when they realized the only way to join the political mainstream was to set it aside. In the meanwhile the main faction in American Christendom, from the founding of the colonies till the ’80s, was actually the Christian Left.

Most of the social reforms in American history were promoted by the Christian Left. Mostly this was because they believed in postmillennialism—the idea Jesus’s followers have to establish his thousand-year kingdom of God on earth so Jesus can come back and reign over it. (Nope, it’s no more biblical a view than the Left Behind novels.) Hence everything in the Christian Left was about progress, reform, and improvement. Read Charles M. Sheldon’s In His Steps sometime—the novel which popularized the slogan “What Would Jesus Do?”—and you’ll see what the Christian Left looked like in 1899.

Evangelicals and mainline churches were largely Christian Left, as was every evangelistic movement. Even the early Fundamentalists were part of the Christian Left. Yep, you could actually be Fundamentalist and progressive!—an idea today’s conservatives can’t imagine, because that’s how far their politics have compromised them.

Fr’instance. Westminster Theological Seminary in Glenside, California, was founded by J. Gresham Machen, one of the founders of the Fundamentalist movement. Machen firmly believed in government reforms, social programs, and social justice. Westminster’s current president, Dr. Peter A. Lillback, occasionally appears on conservative talk shows to denounce such things. To decry “the roots of social justice.” To claim it’s unbiblical. Conservative Christians regularly assume their founders believed exactly as they do; that they’d be appalled by the directions our society is going. And maybe they would be. But the forebears’ solutions to these problems were not conservative solutions. Nor did they look back to the past, and insist things oughta return to the good old days… which really weren’t that good. They were looking forward—towards Jesus.

Lillback claims justice only applies to individuals, not groups: It’s about resolving individual mistreatment. He points out the words “social justice” aren’t found together in the bible. He’s right; they’re not. They don’t need to be. Look up every instance of justice in your bible and you’ll notice it’s all social: It consistently pertains to groups.

Leviticus 19.15 NIV
“Do not pervert justice; do not show partiality to the poor or favoritism to the great, but judge your neighbor fairly.”
 
Leviticus 19.15 NIV
“Cursed is anyone who withholds justice from the foreigner, the fatherless or the widow.”
Then all the people shall say, “Amen!”
 
Psalm 82.3-4 NIV
3 Defend the weak and the fatherless;
uphold the cause of the poor and the oppressed.
4 Rescue the weak and the needy;
deliver them from the hand of the wicked.
 
Psalm 140.12 NIV
I know that the LORD secures justice for the poor
and upholds the cause of the needy.
 
Jeremiah 22.3 NIV
“This is what the LORD says: Do what is just and right. Rescue from the hand of the oppressor the one who has been robbed. Do no wrong or violence to the foreigner, the fatherless or the widow, and do not shed innocent blood in this place.
 
Luke 18.7-8 NIV
7 “And will not God bring about justice for his chosen ones, who cry out to him day and night? Will he keep putting them off? 8 I tell you, he will see that they get justice, and quickly. However, when the Son of Man comes, will he find faith on the earth?”

Apparently Lillback’s not done any word study on justice. Or he has, but he’s willfully blinded himself to the results ’cause they don’t suit his politics. As a conservative, he’s so fearful of collective responsibility—of communism, socialism, anything which interferes with his right to avoid a movement and do his own thing—that he’s even willing to dismiss God’s movements as Lefty inventions.

Social Darwinism in its place.

SOCIAL DARWINISM 'soʊ.ʃəl 'dɑr.wən.ɪz.əm noun. The idea individuals and groups are subject to the same fight for superiority and supremacy as plants and animals.

“Do for others” is a central tenet of Christianity, Lk 7.12 and “do for yourself” is a central tenet of total depravity. Yet “do for yourself” has also become a central tenet of American philosophy. Independence, individuality, freedom from co-dependence, freedom from external influence, pulling yourself up by your own bootstraps, learning to fish instead of being given a fish, making and running on your own steam: These are all qualities Americans consider admirable, and part of a good character.

But they don’t look like God’s kingdom at all. In his kingdom we’re called to submit to one another, Ep 5.21 love one another, Jn 13.34 encourage and build one another up, 1Th 5.11 and care for the weak. 1Th 5.14 Our churches, the kingdom’s outposts, oughta look like this. They don’t always. Because too many of us are Americans first, Christians second. Or we’re simply Christianist instead: We love the trappings of Christianity, but do our own thing.

Americans have largely adopted the philosophy of social Darwinism. Like animals fighting over prey, the strong will survive, the weak will perish… and that’s fine. It helps ensure only the genes of the strong will be passed down to the next generation. No it doesn’t account for time and chance, which can undermine the results. Ec 9.11 But then again social Darwinism isn’t actually a scientific description of the world. It’s solely a justification for letting the “unfit” perish—however we choose to define fitness.

The reason God calls for justice is precisely because the strong try to dominate the weak. He doesn’t want the strong to get away with sin, simply because they’re strong. Nor for the weak to perish, simply because no one offers them help. He wants Christians to treat both strong and weak equally. To stop favoring the strong, the popular, the winsome, the wealthy, the famous; and dismissing the weak. Especially since it’s the strong who exploit us Christians most. Jm 2.1-9 Historically, God takes the side of the weak against their oppressors. Far be it from us Christians to ever be found on the oppressors’ side—and suffer consequences either in this world, or the next.

We need to ask ourselves which side we’re on. In any issue. Are we helping the needy, or do our politics and personal behaviors do nothing for them, or even fight them? Are we helping the sick? The disabled? The mentally ill? The uninsured? Those people who work 60 hours a week and still can’t afford to support their families? The convicts who’ve served their time, yet still no one will cut them a break? Those people whose other life circumstances mean no one will ever hire them? Are we condemning them for their lack of skills, their lack of education, their lack of citizenship, their lack of drive, or any lack they have?

“They’re not my problem.” Wrong; they are. The default mode of every Christian must be that of a problem-solver. That’s why God gave us the Spirit’s fruit and gifts in the first place: To apply these abilities to others. That’s why the apostles instructed Christians to help the weak. 1Th 5.14 They’re precisely the people whom God’s strength is given to us to help.

This doesn’t always mean we gotta help directly. Sometimes we gotta connect people to better help. Nor does it mean we help con artists who steal what’s meant for the truly needy. Nor is the existence of con artists and lazy people an excuse for doing nothing. A lot of us Christians ought to be more generous with our resources, instead of looking for excuses to be bitter, and give less.

Helping the needy takes God’s side. Dismissing the needy—and helping their exploiters—opposes him. Our choice is clear: We must contribute to social justice, or we’re contributing to social Darwinism.

Satan’s excuses precede lawless Christians.

by K.W. Leslie, 27 July

1 John 3.7-12.

Many of the verses from today’s passage tend to be yanked out of context.

  • “Let no one deceive you” 1Jn 3.7 —used to refer to anything which might trick or mislead Christians, from heresy to the latest internet conspiracy theories.
  • “The Son of God came to destroy the works of the devil” 1Jn 3.8 —treated as though it’s the only reason Jesus came to earth, so certain dark Christians use it to justify their fixation on demonology instead of good news.
  • “Everyone borne of God doesn’t sin” 1Jn 3.9 —used to condemn Christians who do sin, instead of encouraging them (really, all of us) to go back into the light.
  • And of course those folks who wanna interpret the Cain and Abel story to make Cain an irredeemably evil person… instead of recognizing the LORD and Cain had a conversational relationship, Ge 4.9-15 and God obviously wanted to redeem Cain, not destroy him. (Otherwise he’d have destroyed him!)

All right, best I jump into the text before unpacking it.

1 John 3.7-12 KWL
7 Children, let no one deceive you: Doing what’s proper is right, just like Christ is right.
8 Doing sin is of the devil, because the devil sins from the very start.
This is why God’s Son appeared: To undo the devil’s works.
9 Everyone reborn by God doesn’t do sin, for God’s seed remains in them.
They can’t sin, because they’ve been reborn by God.
10 This is how God’s children and the devil’s children are identified:
Everyone who doesn’t act properly, who doesn’t love their fellow Christian, isn’t of God.
11 This is the message you heard from the beginning: We should love one another.
12 Not like Cain, who murdered his brother Abel out of evil.
Why did Cain murder him? Because Cain’s works were evil.
The works of his brother Abel were proper.

John wrote this right after he defined sin as violating the Law. Parts of the Law are still totally valid. (The ritual sacrifice and ritual cleanliness parts are redundant, and the rules for native Israelis and Israel’s descendants don’t apply to nonresidents and gentiles.) Following those valid parts is still what God expects of a saved people: Now that we belong to Jesus, be like Jesus. He didn’t sin; we shouldn’t sin.

So John went on to say his readers shouldn’t let themselves get tricked into thinking otherwise. ’Cause plenty of us have been deceiving ourselves for years. Like the Christians who are anti-Law, who think Jesus nullified God’s Old Testament commands and therefore nothing’s a sin anymore. John cuts right through this rubbish: If you don’t resist sin, if you don’t behave as God’s children ought, you’re not one of his children. “Everyone reborn by God doesn’t do sin.” 1Jn 3.9 He doesn’t, so we shouldn’t.

No, this doesn’t mean Christians never ever sin. Of course we do. Hence grace. The proper idea, reflected in some translations, is N.T. Wright’s “Everyone who is fathered by God does not go on sinning.” 1Jn 3.8 NTE We don’t continue in a lifestyle of sin; we don’t wanna live that way. We want to follow Jesus!

And people who legitimately wanna follow Jesus, crack open their bibles and find out what Jesus taught so we can follow him. What they’ll invariably find is Jesus took the Law, expounded upon it, and closed all the Pharisee loopholes. We’re not to follow the letter of the Law, like any lawyer, politician, or activist judge; we don’t twist it till it suits us. We’re to follow the original intent of the Law, “the spirit of the Law,” the will of the One who gave it. How does Jesus interpret it? ’Cause we do that.

Those who don’t really wanna follow Jesus, but only look like they do: They prefer loopholes. The bigger the better. They like to quote “Christ is the end of the Law,” Ro 10.4 but they don’t mean, as Paul does, that Christ expresses it better than the Law does itself; they mean Christ ended it. Or “He taketh away the first [Law], that he may establish the second [Law],” He 10.9 not just updating the old covenant with the new, but abolishing it altogether, so that breaking the Law is no longer sin, 1 John 3.4—

1 John 3.4 KWL
Everyone who commits sin also commits an act against the Law.

—notwithstanding.

No, this passage isn’t about perfectionism either. John isn’t claiming Christians don’t sin anymore. He already objected to that idea in chapter 1. What he’s stating, is real Christians try not to sin. We no longer consider a lifestyle of sin to be acceptable. “Not perfect, just forgiven” simply isn’t good enough! We have God’s seed in us, the Holy Spirit within us, leading us away from sin and selfishness, and towards Jesus. If we’re following him, we recognize sin is the opposite direction. We don’t make excuses for it any longer!

And if we do make excuses for it… well we’re not God’s children. Really we’re Satan’s.

Children of the devil.

I translated John a bit literally: Ἀπ̓ ἀρχῆς ὁ διάβολος ἁμαρτάνει/ap arhís o diávolos amartánei, “from [the] start, the devil sins.” John used present tense, not past; not aorist. The devil sins now.

Yeah, this isn’t how this verse has been traditionally interpreted. Most translators tend to put it in past tense:

  • KJV “…for the devil sinneth from the beginning.”
  • CSB, NKJV “…for the devil has sinned from the beginning.”
  • ESV, ISV, NIV, NRSV “…because the devil has been sinning from the beginning.”
  • GNT “…because the Devil has sinned from the very beginning.”
  • NLT “…who has been sinning since the beginning.”

This is one of those instances where Christian theology has bent our interpretation of the bible, rather than reading the text itself and beginning from there. John clearly wrote in present tense, but translators keep throwing it into past tense because they keep fixating on the story of the Fall: At the beginning of history, either before Adam was created or shortly after, Satan must’ve revolted against God and got thrown to earth, Rv 12.7-9 because here he is in paradise, in the form of a serpent, tempting Eve. Ge 3.1-5

So when your average translator reads ap arhís/“from [the] start,” their brains immediately leap to that start, and adjust the verb tense accordingly. And incorrectly. They get us to miss an important truth about how temptation works.

Don’t get the wrong idea: When we humans sin, that’s on us. We make the decision to do wrong. Blaming the devil doesn’t cut it. Eve tried it, Ge 3.13 and it didn’t work then either. We have free will; we never have to sin. God always provides his kids a sin-free option.

But when we sin, we usually adopt an excuse. Whatever loophole justifies us, excuses us, blames someone else, makes us feel we’re an exception to the rule, makes us feel like the good guy in the story. “Jesus did away with the Law,” or “I simply didn’t see any other option; I had to choose the lesser evil,” or “I’m not trying to achieve salvation by works,” or “I’m not a legalist,” or whatever. None of these excuses are new; they’ve been around forever. They predate John.

Guess where every last one of ’em originated? Duh; Satan.

Satan doesn’t have to actually be there, at the moment of temptation, nudging us to do evil. (Nor any other devil. Satan’s not omnipresent, remember? If you’re tempted by a devil, it’s not necessarily the devil—who’s probably tempting somebody more important.) But Satan set up all the common human arguments for why we’re not all that bad. Those arguments do its job for it. Once we humans embed the excuses in our heads, we can pretty much sin on autopilot. Satan sins first; we sin thereafter.

The bulk of the devil’s followers aren’t Satanists. They’re dupes, suckers, marks, the easily confused, the heavily prejudiced, the inattentive, the apathetic, the shallow thinkers, the gullible, the irrationally angry. They’re not using a lot of brainpower. They don’t need to. And they think their knee-jerk reactions, their gut instincts, are the right responses. Some of ’em even claim God put these reactions in ’em.

The devil ropes these suckers into believing there’s some sort of Christian foundation for the evil they do in Jesus’s name. Next, the sucker sins. Both bear responsibility for the sin. But here, John forewarns the Christian: Don’t let anyone deceive you. Proper Christians follow Jesus and his Law. False Christians, the devil’s unwitting followers, don’t.

Loving one another, as opposed to murdering one another.

When people read the Cain and Abel story, where the first murder took place between the first brothers, Ge 4.1-16 they constantly skip over the fact Cain heard God. And talked with him. And heard God’s answers. Cain heard God better than many Christians nowadays hear God. And no, this isn’t because these were prehistoric bible times, when just anybody could hear God: This is because Cain and God were much closer than, sad to say, many Christians and our God. Yeah, Cain murdered his brother. That was evil. Even so. Moses and David were murderers; Paul got people killed. Nobody’s irredeemable. Not even Cain.

John pointed to the story of the first murder, ’cause the writers of the scriptures regularly liked to point out hate leads to murder. Mk 7.21, Ro 1.29, Jm 2.11, 4.2 In our day murder is illegal, and prosecuted by the state… unless cops do it, but that’s a tangent let’s not go down today. In John’s day murder was also illegal, but there were no prosecutors: If you wanted a murderer dealt with, the victim’s family had to have influence with the government. Otherwise they’d get away with it—and a lot of murderers did. Some of those murderers were even right there in the church.

Murder’s a heinous crime, and for that reason murderers go out of their way to justify themselves. Nowadays it’s self-defense, or the victim “got what’s coming to them,” or otherwise karmically deserved it. The murderer was simply restoring balance to the universe. Life for a life, Dt 19.21 or something they consider just as valuable as life… like their honor, or their personal code of ethics, which assigns the death penalty to all sorts of offenses.

Because of how often murder took place in the first century, the bible’s various statements against murder aren’t just hypothetical worst-case scenarios. They aren’t just subtle reminders of how hate and murder are connected. Mt 5.21-22 The two are connected. People back then murdered their enemies. In some countries people still murder their enemies. Warlords and dictators do. Even criminals in our country do. And think they’re right to… and need to be reminded they’re not. Especially when they consider themselves Christian, as (believe it or not) some ganglords do.

Sheltered American Christians tend to reinterpret the anti-murder sentiments in the bible, to reflect their world where murder seldom happens. Hence “don’t murder them in your heart”—don’t hate anyone so much, it’s like they’re dead to you. Yeah, that’s one way to look at it too. We shouldn’t hate anyone that much. But John wrote to a culture where murder isn’t a metaphor, murder isn’t hypothetical. People murdered Christians for being Christian. And in a heat of passion, anybody might murder someone else, exactly like Cain had. We all have it in us to do something just as extreme, just as regrettable. Don’t delude yourself.

’Cause it’s the self-deluded who usually wind up becoming—to their great surprise and horror—murderers. If you know you have a temper, no matter how successful you’ve been thus far at keeping it under control, take steps to make sure it never escapes you. Those who tell themselves, “No; I never would; people are naturally good” never take such steps… and sometimes become the folks who “snap,” of whom everybody later says, “I never knew she had it in her.”

We should love one another, and reject hate in all its forms. Hate’s typically the product of sin. Cain’s works were evil because he refused to recognize the danger in him, even though God warned him his sin “has stretched out for you.” Ge 4.7 He was in denial, and the consequences of his denial were terrible. It could happen to us too. Sin stretches out for all of us.

Mammonists versus God.

by K.W. Leslie, 23 July

Luke 16.8-15.

the Shrewd Butler Story, Jesus commended the butler for using his boss’s money to generate goodwill instead of profits, and his moral was for his followers to do likewise.

Mammonists stumble all over this story. To them the point of money isn’t to use it as a resource, but to accumulate it and gain power by it. To their minds the butler was completely untrustworthy. He was already accused of squandering it, Lk 16.1 and then he turned round and deliberately squandered it by changing his boss’s debtors’ receipts. Lk 16.5-7 He made it look like he collected more money than he actually had; like his boss was owed less than he truly was; and he did it to benefit himself instead of enriching his boss—which was his job, wasn’t it? He embezzled from his boss. He stole. He’s a thief. There’s a command against theft in the bible somewhere; it’s one of the bigger ones!

So Mammonists really don’t know what to do with Jesus commending this butler… except to conclude, “I guess Jesus appreciates shrewdness over goodness.”

No he doesn’t. As I pointed out when I dealt with the story, the butler had full authority over his boss’s estate, and could legitimately do whatever he wished with it. Including forgive debts. He stole nothing. He embezzled nothing. It might be improper, ’cause you certainly can’t afford to do such things all the time. But it wasn’t sin.

…Well, unless losing money is a sin. And to Mammonists, that’s an egregious sin. Isn’t wise at all. Indicates you’re not worthy of having money in the first place, and deserve to lose it all. (There’s a lot of karma-based thinking in Mammonism, ’cause it helps Mammonists justify the iffy things they do to gain and hoard wealth.)

Jesus isn’t Mammonist, and neither are the butler and his boss in the story. They rightly recognize money as a resource, not a raison d’être. It’s a means to an end; it’s not the end itself. By contrast Mammonists figure it is the goal, and the Christians among ’em figure the whole point of turning to Jesus is so we can gain stuff. Mansions in New Jerusalem. Golden crowns full of jewels. Treasures in heaven, which they constantly imagine as material possessions they get to keep forever. And, if they’re into the prosperity gospel, they can even tap into some of that wealth now.

As a non-Mammonist, the plutocrat in the story recognized money—even “filthy lucre,” as I translated τῷ ἀδίκῳ μαμωνᾷ/to adíko mamoná (KJV “the unrighteous mammon”) —is here today, gone tomorrow. Friends can be just as transitory, but when friendship is done right, it doesn’t have to be. And the goodwill his butler generated with his debtors, was gonna come in handy in future—and not just for the butler. It was a wise move, and a wise boss would keep such a guy around.

Luke 16.8-9 KWL
8 “The butler’s master praised the impropriety, for the butler acted shrewdly,
for the children of this age are more shrewd than the children of light of the same generation.
9 I tell you, make yourselves friends out of improper mammon,
so when it runs out, they might take you into their great houses.”

“Their great houses” is how I rendered τὰς αἰωνίους σκηνάς./tas eoníus skinás, “the eternal tents” (KJV “everlasting habitations”). Y’get many Christians who insist it’s about God accepting us into heaven—despite a plural they letting you into plural tents—or the idea that once we get to New Jerusalem, we’re greeted by all the needy people we’ve helped. But properly it’s a euphemism for old money, for great families who’ve been indirectly running the country forever, and they’re the very best friends to have whenever we run afoul of temporal political leaders. That is what the butler was thinking of when he came up with his scheme: He wanted to be taken in by some other plutocrat. Lk 16.4 And it’d be just as shrewd of us Christians to have a few plutocrats in our corner.

Can we handle money? Or really anything important?

Of course Jesus had more to say on the subject of money, and continued:

Luke 16.10-13 KWL
10 “Trustworthy in little things means trustworthy in big things.
Improper in little things means improper in big things.
11 So when you’re not trustworthy with filthy lucre, who will trust you with truth?
12 If you’re not trustworthy with another’s things, who will give you your own things?
13 No slave is able to be a slave to two masters: Either they’ll hate one and love the other,
or look up to one and down on the other: Can’t be a slave to God and Mammon.”

Pharisee logicians taught the principle of light and heavy (Hebrew קַל וחומר/qal v’khomér), which westerners call the argumentum a fortiori, “argument from the stronger [point].” Jesus’s statement “Trustworthy in little things means trustworthy in big things” is a great example of it: If it’s true in a small instance, in a simple case, it’s just as true (and way more consequential) in a big instance, in a complicated situation. If the butler can’t be trusted with money, he can’t be trusted anywhere. If we can’t be trusted with money, we can’t be trusted anywhere.

Mammonists regularly misinterpret this to say we oughta have our financial houses in order. And by “in order,” they mean profitable. We oughta reduce our unnecessary expenses, ’cause they’re bleeding us dry. We oughta eliminate debt, ’cause the interest payments are largely keeping us in debt. Cut up those credit cards! Buy, not rent. Buy used instead of new. Buy generics instead of name-brand items. Use coupons. Squeeze those pennies till Lincoln farts.

Um… was what the butler did profitable? No.

“But in the long run it is,” Mammonists sometimes claim: The goodwill generated by forgiving a few debts, means people are more likely to do business with the boss in future. They’ll think, “He knocked off a few jars of oil from my debt, so I kinda owe him one,” or that maybe he’ll give them another surprise discount in the future. More business, more profits. Shrewd.

And again, not what the butler did. He wasn’t thinking of his boss’s reputation, but his own. He wanted people to think well of him—and if they thought well of his boss instead of him, and didn’t even think of him at all, his scheme would’ve failed. He was offering the debt reduction, not his boss. Spin it all you like into it being good business, good public relations. But you’d be missing the point.

Likewise if you take the other extreme and conclude the butler wasn’t trustworthy. He’d only be untrustworthy if he lied to his boss. He didn’t. His boss would know about the scheme, ’cause it’d be kinda obvious: His debtors had marked up the receipts. Lk 16.5-7 There was no such thing as correction fluid back then: The old amount would be crossed out on the papyrus, and the new one written down. (Or, if they wastefully used parchment for bookkeeping, the old amount was scratched off—but still visible.) Didn’t take a genius to figure out what had happened—and the boss immediately recognized what was up, and found it clever.

Lastly Jesus’s comment about not being a slave to both God and Mammon. I’ve commented more than once how Americans are kinda determined to prove Jesus wrong. We’ve done a lousy job of it so far. We’ve mostly just reimagined Jesus till the version of him we follow approves of all our greed and materialism. But at that point we’re not following Jesus anymore; just our own desires, mainly our desire for wealth.

Mammonist Pharisees.

No surprise, the Pharisees in Jesus’s audience balked at this lesson. Same as Christians do nowadays—the difference being that Christians pretend to follow Jesus anyway. Pharisees figured they could take or leave him, and in this case they figured they could even mock him.

Luke 16.14-15 KWL
14 Hearing these things, the silver-loving Pharisees mocked Jesus.
15 Jesus told them, “You justify yourselves before people—and God knows your hearts.
Those who are exalted before people, are disgusting before God.”

Sounds kinda rude of Jesus, but knowing his character, we know the reason he said this was not to slam his hecklers. It was to warn ’em of reality: Their wealth is not the indication of God’s approval they believed it to be. Some people are wealthy because God enriches ’em. The rest are wealthy because they stole it, inherited it, are idiots who were given wealth by other idiots (but then again I did just mention inheritance), or they got it through dumb luck. Institutional biases keep certain groups poor, and of course the wealthy have rigged things so they can keep their wealth. There’s a lot of unfairness in the system, and people have been tricked into thinking nothing but hard work can overcome it.

But like Jesus said, God knows our hearts. Exalting ourselves in order to justify our wealth, or to justify materialism, or to claim our riches make us better and worthier and greater: God finds it disgusting. Not just because Mammonism is idolatry; because it blinds us to all the sins we commit so we can hold onto our stuff, and put it ahead of God’s kingdom.

The “prosperity gospel”: Mammonism disguised as Christianity.

by K.W. Leslie, 21 July
PROSPERITY GOSPEL prɑs'spɛr.ə.di 'gɑs.spəl noun. The good news that God doesn’t just want to save his people, but bless us materially.

That’s not an ironic definition, folks. That’s legitimately how the prosperity gospel is defined by those who proclaim it. God doesn’t just want us to come live in heaven’s kingdom with him. As we’re headed thataway, he wants us to be materially successful and comfortable.

For totally legitimate reasons, they claim. Remember when Moses was advising the Hebrews to follow the Law in Deuteronomy, and how he said part of the blessings they’d receive for doing so would be material? Oh you don’t remember that bit? Fine; I’ll quote it.

Deuteronomy 28.1-13 KWL
1 “If you happen to listen to your LORD God’s voice,
so as to observe and do every command I instruct you about today,
your LORD God will give you power over every country on earth:
2 All these blessings will come to you and overwhelm you, for you listened to your LORD God’s voice.
3 You’ll be blessed in city, field, 4 the fruit of your belly, the fruit of the ground,
and the fruit of your animals—what your cattle births, or your flocks produce.
5 You’ll be blessed in breadbasket, in yeast; 6 when you enter, when you leave.
7 The LORD will have your enemies which rise against you be struck down in front of you.
They’ll come at you from one direction, and run away from you in seven.
8 The LORD will teach you about blessing in your storehouses, in everything you undertake.
He’ll bless you in the land your LORD God gives you.
9 The LORD will raise you to himself: A holy people, as he swore you’d become.
So observe your LORD God’s commands. Walk in his ways.
10 All the earth’s peoples will see you call upon the LORD’s name, and fear you.
11 The LORD will give you a good surplus, fruit of your belly, beasts, and your ground,
in the land the LORD swore to give your ancestors.
12 The LORD will open his good, heavenly treasury for you:
He’ll give rain to your land in its season. He’ll hand over every deed.
Many nations will owe you, and you’ll never borrow.
13 The LORD makes you the head, not the tail. You’ll go upward, not downward.
So listen to your LORD God’s commands. Observe and do what I’m instructing you today.
Don’t dismiss any words I command you today. Don’t go right or left, to follow or serve other gods.

This passage was addressed to the ancient Hebrews, and applies to whether they as a nation followed the Law in the land he gave ’em. Does it apply to present-day gentiles, not as nations but individuals, who live in all sorts of other lands, Christian or not?

Well, the prosperity-gospel folks certainly believe so. This, they figure, is why God’s made the predominantly-Christian United States so profoundly rich. (Ignoring the fact we’re actually up to our eyeballs in debt, and only look rich. We borrowed our riches.) So if they individually follow God’s commands, refuse to turn right or left away from them, and serve no other gods but the LORD, they’re counting on God blessing them with growth and surplus.

Well… okay, they don’t always figure they gotta follow God’s commands necessarily. But if they follow God’s general principles, and believe really hard, they expect God’ll make ’em prosperous just the same.

Well… okay not all God’s general principles. Plenty of them have no problem with being as dishonest, covetous, and promiscuous as any pagan. They’re kinda focused on a few principles. Namely it’s these three:

  • ACT LIKE GOOD CHRISTIANS. In public, anyway. God wants to make his people rich so that pagans’ll get jealous and wanna become Christian. But it doesn’t work when his people don’t act Christian. So behave yourselves! Quit sinning. Get rid of the negative attitudes, and let everything which comes from your mouth be encouraging and confident.
  • GIVE, AND IT’LL BE GIVEN YOU. Loosely based on Jesus’s teaching about generosity Lk 6.38 but only applied to giving to one’s church. If you give sacrificially large amounts to your church, God’ll reward you tenfold. Or more, depending on the preacher. But giving to the needy isn’t so necessary. God doesn’t wanna give them wealth unless they practice these principles, so no going around him, okay?
  • NEVER EVER DOUBT. Unless you wanna lose your blessing, don’t ever, ever question prosperity beliefs. Not in your mind, not in public, not ever. You gotta believe, and keep believing, that God’s gonna enrich you. Even when he doesn’t. Even when he hasn’t for years or decades.

Stick to these three principles, and watch the riches come pouring in. Guaranteed.

After all, look at the preacher. He follows these principles, and as a result, his church is flush with cash, he has a seven-figure income, he has a Bentley and a Gulfstream and a really nice house, he wears expensive suits and gold jewelry—he’s been blessed! Follow his example, and you’ll be blessed too.

If this sounds like a giant scam to you, that’s because of course it’s a scam.

Stuck in the scam.

And it’s a very-well crafted scam too. It’s had about three centuries of development and fine-tuning, as Americans tried to figure out how to reconcile our riches, or our mad pursuit of riches, with Christ’s teachings.

Since a lot of Pentecostals have adopted it, a number of people think we came up with it. Nah; for a while it used to be called the health-and-wealth gospel, and that predates the Pentecostal movement by a century. But Pentecostals have been pioneers in multimedia, which is why a lot of Christian TV and radio shows are Pentecostal—and of course, all the health-and-wealth preachers who happen to have TV and radio shows, also happen to be Pentecostal.

Like most scams, it works great for the person on top. The pastors who preach prosperity are frequently gonna be prosperous once everybody starts giving to their ministries—and, they hope, giving a lot to their ministries. Way more than the traditional 10 percent; sometimes as much as 60 percent. I’m serious.

It’s intentionally designed to discourage questions and criticism. If you’re legitimately wondering how these “promises” of wealth work, considering their proof texts don’t apply to present circumstances at all, you’re gonna be condemned and rebuked by both the leaders of these churches, and by the people who are striving for prosperity, for your “negativity” and doubt. Even though it’s exactly the right kind of doubt. You’ll be told your doubts cancel out your blessings; you’ll never be prosperous so long that you question the system. And some of ’em are a little worried your negativity might affect them—that if God decides to smite you, he might accidentally hit them too. So quit doing that!

It’s unintentionally designed to encourage undisciplined financial behavior. People imagine their windfall from God is gonna arrive any day now, so they don’t plan ahead. There’s nothing in the savings account. The credit cards are maxed out. They’re already buying all the accoutrements of wealth. They got that ridiculous mortgage and that ridiculous second mortgage. America’s in debt to its eyeballs; their debt level would be up to the eyeballs of someone standing on their shoulders.

Undisciplined financial behavior also extends to their churches. They give loads of money, but pay no attention to how the church, its board, and its leadership handles the money. The pastor’s salary is wholly inappropriate for any person who runs a nonprofit. The pastor’s wholly unnecessary entourage is also well-paid… but most of the projects they’re working on were invented so they could have something to do, and justify their salaries. The church gives far too little to charity, benevolence, and missions. Large sums of money are regularly wasted on frills and perquisites.

The system is also designed to encourage hypocrisy. ’Cause you gotta look good! But you don’t necessarily gotta be good.

If you’re wondering how people can fall for this scam, you gotta remember things look very different from their point of view. Every Christian in their circle has likewise fallen for this scam. So its theology and practice appear to be, as far as they can tell, “normal.” Since they don’t know how to look at the scriptures in context, as far as they can tell the proof texts are totally solid: Isn’t this what every true Christian is supposed to believe? So those folks who claim prosperity teaching is bunk: They’re the ones who’ve been scammed. They’re doomed to live without victory, without prosperity, without success, because of their negative, pessimistic mindset. Of course they don’t believe in a gospel of wealth; at this rate they’re never gonna see wealth.

Yeah, it’s pretty cultlike. So much so, certain Christians claim the prosperity gospel is heresy. But technically they’re not heretics. Prosperity churches (unless they’re oneness churches; some of ’em are) don’t really teach anything contrary to the creeds.

Well, unless you count the fact they’re worshiping Mammon instead of Jesus.

Well they are.

Mammonism is of course the worship of wealth. We call wealth “Mammon” because it’s a convenient way of making it crystal clear we’re talking about idolatry. In the United States, where we’re taught every American has the potential of gaining great wealth, Mammon’s a popular god: Americans devote our lives to getting rich, by hook or by crook; by compromising every other thing we claim to believe in, because everything else takes a back seat to wealth acquisition: Friends, morals, family, even our own freedom. Even, ironically, our own wealth.

And if people identify themselves as Christian, that’s often gonna take a back seat to wealth acquisition too. We’re gonna join a stingy church, which doesn’t give, and doesn’t expect us to give either. Or we’re gonna join a prosperity church, which demands we give, but promises God’ll pay us back in bucketloads. As a reward for our trust and faithfulness (and our silence when we discover it has problems), we’re told God will give us full, unrestricted access to Mammon. All the Mammon we can eat, and rub all over our bodies.

In this way God gets turned into a means to an end. The end, the true object of worship, would therefore be Mammon. We’re supposed to follow God because we want God; we wanna be with him in his kingdom forever. Not because we want mansions, streets of gold, riches, health, and comfort. Not because we expect that stuff in the next age, nor because we’re told we can have that stuff in this age. If you’re following God because you want peace, you’re unintentionally worshiping peace; if you want heaven, you’re worshiping heaven; if it’s ultimately about wealth, you’ve embraced Mammon.

Whoops.

Prosperity-gospel folks are entirely sure this isn’t true: They don’t worship wealth; they worship God! Who’s promised them wealth. And if he never comes through for them with the wealth, they’ll be disappointed, but they’re still gonna worship God. But here’s the thing: They’re entirely sure he will come through for them with the wealth. Maybe, in their heart of hearts, they realize he won’t pony up the dough in this age. But after they’re resurrected, after they’re shown their new home in New Jerusalem, they’re expecting the nicest of mansions. It’ll come eventually. It’s just they figure it’ll come much sooner than that.

So to their minds, wealth and God are a package deal: You get God, you get prosperity. You get the LORD, you get Mammon. Six of one, a half-dozen of the other. Jesus said we can’t serve both God and Mammon, Mt 6.24, Lk 16.13 but prosperity gospel folks figure why serve it when God’ll just give it to us, free? And thus we sorta can serve both God and Mammon. In your face, Jesus!

Okay, that “in your face, Jesus” bit is a lot more blatant than prosperity-gospel folks are willing to be. Instead they’ll just quietly undermine the gospel of Christ Jesus by adopting various views which run contrary to his teachings, but which suit the prosperity gospel just fine.

Disrespecting the needy.

Animals fight for survival and supremacy. The animals which win get to pass down their genes, and the animals which lose, don’t. Charles Darwin figured this was how evolution works: The better genes and traits survive, and improve the species. Capitalists figure the marketplace and workforce works the same way, and call this social Darwinism.

Here’s the thing: In nature, the better genes and traits don’t always survive. Ec 9.11 Quite frequently dumb luck, not survival of the fittest, is how things work. And in the marketplace and workforce, people likewise beat the competition through dumb luck. Or by cheating; there’s nepotism, bribery, blackmail, lowballing the competition, insider trading, rules violation, various unfair advantages, various disadvantages like institutional racism, sexism, ageism, and prejudices against the disabled or the previously incarcerated.

The prosperity gospel claims the only reason you’re needy is because you don’t believe hard enough. The only reason you’re poor, sick, disadvantaged, or in any way not successful nor prosperous, is all your fault. Jesus claimed the good news is for the poor, Lk 4.18 and the prosperity gospel would agree—but with a very different spin on Jesus’s meaning. The good news is for the poor only when you believe really hard. Otherwise it’s really not.

So when people actually are needy, or become needy—a hurricane floods a city, or a tornado or earthquake knocks its buildings down, or a volcano burns ’em away—the prosperity gospel really has nothing to say to such people. According to them, bad stuff doesn’t happen to God’s people. When it does, they can’t really be God’s people, can they? Not anymore, at least; they must be sinning. They stopped believing. Somehow they’re deficient, so God took their stuff away. (Like he did Job—but they consider Job a special exception to teach a special lesson.)

This blame-the-needy-for-being-needy mentality is a very old one. The Pharisees had it, which is why they were so quick to dismiss the guy born blind whom Jesus cured. Jn 9.34 Jesus’s students had picked some of it up from the Pharisees, which is why they initially asked Jesus whether the guy was blind because he or his parents sinned. Jn 9.2 Jesus had to correct them, Jn 9.3 because while we create a lot of our own luck, some of it we don’t. Some of it is just plain meaningless.

But the true gospel is that God loves the needy. That he came to meet those needs.

Prosperity-gospel folks suck at being aid and comfort to the needy. Not that some of ’em don’t try; that despite what their churches and preachers claim, they do know enough of Jesus’s teachings to recognize they need to be generous to everyone, and love everyone regardless of merit, just like their Father. They may not realize the practice of this love violates every principle of the prosperity gospel—that you’re supposed to merit God’s riches by believing really hard!—but it’d seem they follow Jesus a lot more than their teachers do.

And this is the route we need to take when we’re correcting the people who believe in the prosperity gospel: Emphasize the needy. God cares about the needy. They care about the needy. So what’s the deal with a belief system which condemns the needy?