Tag Archives: Apologetics

There and Then, Here and Now, Where and When? A Few Keys to Understanding Prophecy

Moses© Copyright 2003 by Gretchen Passantino

Articles, essays, chapters, books – even commentaries have been written about biblical prophecy. Amidst the plethora of “stuff” about prophecy, some basic characteristics of prophecy have become unknown to most Bible readers. Consequently, most of prophetic scripture is at best a puzzle, at worst an excuse for sensational speculation that discredits not only the speculator, but, sadly and unfairly, the Bible itself. When fictions like the Left Behind series sell 50 million and the few contemporary commentaries stay in print only a few short years, it is no wonder. Here are a few foundational keys to understanding biblical prophecy.

Two basic mis-assumptions plague most people’s unsuccessful attempts to understand prophecy. First, many people think prophecy is the same thing as fortune telling or divination. They think of the ancient Greek customs such as the Oracle of Delphi when they think of prophecy. The Oracle of Delphi was a young “chosen” woman who sat above a smoking fissure in the rock at the Delphi temple, chewed bay leaves, and experienced an ecstatic state that manifested in incomprehensible speech in response to an individual’s specific inquiry of the gods. Then a priest in the temple “interpreted” the message and gave it to the inquirer. The questions and answers were always specific to the individual and the time.[1] For example, an inquirer might ask whether the gods would bless a particular business deal, or whether a particular courtship would be successful. Many people who experience a false “gift of prophecy” misunderstand prophecy in this way. Instead, the bible gives us a picture of prophecy that is rationally received and delivered, is one hundred percent accurate, and involves God’s eternal righteousness, judgment, and mercy.

Oracle of Delphi

Second, many people think prophecy is only or at least primarily about future events regarding God’s interventions in human history. This misunderstanding fuels most of the sensationalistic fiction and non-fiction(?) literature glutting the shelves of most Christian bookstores. This misunderstanding lies behind many Christians’ fears that we are living in the “terminal generation,” the “last days,” that will see worldwide, cataclysmic events in which millions – even billions – of people will suffer and die immediately preceding Christ’s Second Coming. Instead, the biblical examples give us a picture of prophecy that focuses on the eternal covenant between God and man, ratified and fulfilled in the death, burial, and resurrection of Jesus Christ on our behalf. While at first glance biblical prophecy may seem to cover thousands of events and principles, at its core biblical prophecy is simply concerned with God’s eternal salvation plan in his Son.

End of the World

After we lay aside these two common misunderstandings, we can look at what the Bible says about prophecy and understand much more than we once did. There are many books that we recommend on this subject, including Gary DeMar’s Last Days Madness, Milton Terry’s Biblical Apocalyptics, and William Biederwolf’s The Millennium Bible.

The biblical prophet is one who is called by God to give inspired teaching and preaching. He (or she) is primarily a forth-teller and only secondarily a fore-teller.[2] In fact, when one actually analyzes the prophetic passages and books of the Bible, it is evident that fore-telling is a minor part of the prophet’s burden from the Lord. When we understand this important distinction, much of the Bible becomes suddenly more easily understood. It makes sense, then, that Moses is called the greatest of prophets except for Jesus (Deut. 18:15; 34:10; Acts 3:22; 7:37), even though we think of him primarily as the liberator and law giver of Israel. It makes sense that Jesus linked Moses with the prophets who spoke of him, God’s Son (Luke 16:29-31; 24:27, 44). We can understand the words of Philip, who told Nathanael, “We have found the one Moses wrote about in the Law, and about whom the prophets also wrote – Jesus of Nazareth, the son of Joseph” (John 1:45).

TRANSFIGURATION

This emphasis on forth-telling is verified by analysis of the prophetic books of the Old Testament. There are five “Major Prophets,” books representing four authors (Isaiah, Jeremiah, Lamentations – also written by Jeremiah, Ezekiel, and Daniel). They are called the major prophets not because they are the most important, but because they are the largest in size. There are twelve “Minor Prophets,” so named not for any lack in importance, but for their relatively smaller sizes.

When we analyze these 17 books, we find that the vast majority of the texts do not refer to the future at all. Instead, we find the same exact theme often repeated in each book: the story of redemption. This simple story includes that God created us perfect and provided us with everything we needed for perfect life in him. We rebelled against him and earned his righteous judgment and condemnation. Because of his infinite love for us, his mercy and grace, he did not leave us in our sin but provided reconciliation for us in his Son, so that by responding in faith to the power of his gospel, we can repent, be reconciled to God, and enjoy the presence and power of God in this life and for the future (John 3:16-21).

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What do we notice about this timeless story of redemption? Comparatively little of it has to do with the future: it is primarily concerned with the past (God’s creation, our fall), the present (God’s judgment delayed by his mercy through Christ), and the immediate future (will we respond in faith believing or continue in unrepentant rebellion?). The far or final future (enjoying God’s presence and power into eternity) is merely the culmination of the first three “time” elements in the story. In fact, every prophet in most of his (or her – Miriam, Deborah, for example) prophecies includes these four time referents: past, present, immediate or near future, and far or final future. This is what we would expect.

Deuteronomy 13:1-5 gives us the first test of a true prophet of God: even if what he says comes to pass, if he encourages us to worship a false God, or to worship God falsely, he is not to be believed. He is a false prophet.

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Deuteronomy 18:20-22 gives us the second test of a true prophet. (This immediately follows Moses’ declaration of a coming “prophet” who would be greater than him – 15-18 – we know him as Jesus Christ cf. Acts 3:22; 7:37.) In this test we are told that if what the prophet says is going to come to pass does not, then he is a false prophet. While Miss Cleo and her band of dollars-by-the-minute psychics repeatedly fail this test, in the Old Testament, to have even one prophecy not come to pass disqualified one from being a true prophet of God. If it were the case that a substantial part of a prophet’s message was concerned with the far or final future (events hundreds, even thousands of years after the lifetime of the prophet), how could the trustworthiness of a prophet be established? For this test to have any reliability, it must have been the case that an overwhelming portion of the prophet’s messages had to have been about times his hearers could test – the past, present, and near future.

When we analyze the Old Testament prophets, that is exactly what we find. Isaiah, for example, spends most of his time talking about the past. He talks about how Israel had a covenant with God but repeatedly broke that covenant, both while united and by Israel (the northern kingdom) and Judah (the southern kingdom) after the monarchy divided. He talks about many other nations that practiced idolatry and ignored the Lord God Almighty. He talks about how God had already brought judgment against these other nations. All the nations failed to repent and thus deserved God’s judgment.

Isaiah
Isaiah spends the second greatest amount of material talking about the present. He points out all the areas of sinfulness, rebellion, unrighteousness, idolatry, and social injustice in Israel and Judah. He points out all of the examples of God’s patience and mercy, withholding judgment even though it would be just because of Israel and Judah’s rebellion.

Isaiah talks at length about the near future: if Israel and Judah do not repent, God will bring well deserved punishment, judgment, and condemnation on the nations for their continued rebellion. If, however, Israel and Judah repent, God will withhold his judgment and restore the kingdoms to the power and blessings of God. In fact, Isaiah says, both Israel and Judah will refuse to repent. First God will allow Israel to be destroyed as a nation and its leaders taken into captivity because of its greater sinfulness and as a final example to Judah. This all happened during the course of Isaiah’s ministry. Everything Isaiah said about these time periods (past, present, and near future) was tested by his contemporaries (using Deut. 13 and 18), and Isaiah was proved to be a reliable prophet of God.

Once Isaiah had been proven a reliable prophet of God, his listeners were willing to suspend judgment on the comparatively little he says that would occur after the end of their own generation. Isaiah spends comparably less time speaking about the far future. In that time, Judah will fall to foreign destruction just as Israel had already. This judgment of God will last seventy years. Judah will finally repent and beg God for forgiveness. God will extend his mercy and grace to Judah through the pagan king, Cyrus, who will allow the Jews to return to their land, rebuild the temple, and restore their kingdom. This happened within less than two hundred years of Isaiah’s prophetic ministry.

Finally, Isaiah spent the least amount of time speaking about the final future – the time when the entire earth, all of humanity, will be affected eternally by God’s redemption plan in his Son, the Messiah: those who believe and repent will be resurrected to eternal life; those who continue to rebel will be resurrected to judgment and condemnation. This final future time began with the life, death, and resurrection of Jesus Christ (Heb. 1:1-2) and will conclude with Christ’s Second Coming for final judgment and the reconciliation of all things (1 Cor. 15:51-58). The redeemed inherit eternal life, the unrepentant inherit eternal punishment (Matt. 25:46).

The next time you stumble across prophetic portions of Scripture, don’t despair or throw up your hands in confusion. It’s not as mysterious or cryptic as contemporary sensationalists make it. Remember that the prophet always talks mostly about the past, the present, and the near future. Certainly he talks the least (and sometimes not at all) about the far future (after his own generation) or final future (the completion of the redemptive story).

[1] See Colin Brown, gen.ed. The New International Dictionary of New Testament Theology (Volume 3). Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan Publishing House, 1978, 75ff.
[2] Colin Brown, Dictionary Volume 3, 74-92.

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Help Gretchen Passantino and Answers In Action Save Home & Ministry Base

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We are in critical danger (July 8 sale date) of losing our home & home office & research library to foreclosure. We believe that God wants us to stay in this home/office, continuing to devote the stamina & energy he provides us to Christian ministry as I have for the past 40 years, 17 years in this home. We have exhausted all other options.
ImageWe need $20,000 within the next 2 weeks to save our home from forced foreclosure sale & reinstate mortgages & update property taxes. We need $20,000 over the year to meet our expenses until our Answers In Action has new non-profit status, my early retirement SS begins, & Pat’s hardship VA benefit kicks in. God has called us to ministry focus, me with 40 years of full-time Christian ministry in apologetics & discipleship, Pat with his trauma, combat, & critical medical crisis experience sharing the grace & sufficiency of Christ with others in crisis & trauma. Please pray about helping us to stay in our home & serve the Lord.

We are raising support through direct gifts & gifts through Go Fund Me. Go Fund Me is the easiest way to give on-line, or you can message me for other options (gretchen.passantino@answersinaction.org) or check my FaceBook page (Gretchen Passantino Coburn). Through June 30 ONLY, a generous benefactor has promised to MATCH ANY GIFT OF ANY AMOUNT DOLLAR FOR DOLLAR up to $10,000. Anything you give through June 30 will be doubled by this kind offer.
We are in this precarious position because of the devastating medical crisis my husband experienced 18 months ago, when literally in a heartbeat, he went from our major provider as a painting contractor to a survivor of sudden death cardiac arrest & accompanying anoxic brain injury, unable to work. December 18, 2012 the ER cardiologist was prepared to officially declare him dead, but God gave him new life.  At first I was told his probability of survival was 0.01%, he spent more than a week in a coma, had to learn to talk, swallow, lift his head, move, etc., & was hospitalized for nearly 6 weeks. The road to recovery has been long & difficult, but God’s blessings in the midst of it have been overwhelming. This picture is from Pat’s first anniversary of new life, when we returned to the hospital to thank those God used to heal him.
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The journey has contained many opportunities for serving God. Six months after Pat’s collapse & new life, he was proud to stand with others at the hospital, Hoag Memorial Presbyterian in Newport Beach, & testify for life when they announced they were no longer going to perform elective abortions.
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The Lord called me back to active apologetics ministry, & has brought me many opportunities to share & defend the gospel, including this class at our local St. James Anglican Church. This is my 40th year in full-time Christian ministry as a teacher, apologist, writer, & speaker.
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“Apologetics in the Book of Acts,” a summer in-depth Sunday evening class begins in our home/ministry base on July 6. With the wealth of apologetics explicit & implicit in the Book of Acts, students will be inspired to defend the faith on a daily basis. Our home is not just a home. It is our ministry base, given us by the Lord in 1997, before my first husband, Bob, died. It contains my specialized 8,000 volume research library & has been the location for countless Bible studies, graduate classes, prayer & church services, fellowship & meal sharing.
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Since Pat’s collapse & new life, God has very specifically called & equipped him to support veterans, especially combat veterans, with God’s grace & gospel. Pat is a 2 time combat Vietnam Marine veteran. This latest medical crisis opened up the consequences of his previous trauma stress & gave him the opportunity not only to grow & heal through the stress, but to be used by God to help other survivors of trauma.
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Pat & I call our home “Our Little Hobbit Hole.” It is a sanctuary of the Garden, a reminder & promise of God’s coming renewed kingdom. It not only shelters us from the ravages of the world, but is a refuge for countless others who find the peace, forgiveness, & assurance of the gospel here.
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Our Hobbit Door Pat built for a Middle Earth party a couple of years ago.
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The raised herb garden Pat built for me to spare my permanently injured back. The mural he painted is from The Lay of Luthien, a Middle Earth song about the love between an immortal elf maiden (Luthien) & a mortal man (Beren). She gave up her immortality for him, & he sacrificed his life for her. A metaphor of God’s Great Redemption Story in Christ.
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We call this our “Sam’s Kitchen Garden,” after Middle Earth’s Samwise Gamgee, the gardener of Hobbiton. His love of growing things & his hopeful tender care of the gardens symbolizes God’s creative intention for us humans, created in His image.
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Our fig tree bursts with 100s of sweet, ripe figs every August. It is a continual reminder that God prunes us, nourishes us, & empowers us to bring forth much fruit for the kingdom!
So you see, this is not just a roof over our heads, it is the geographical heart of our family & ministry. Please prayerfully consider praying for us, encouraging us, &/or gifting us either through Go Fund Me or directly (gretchen.passantino@answersinaction.org). And remember, through June 30 only an anonymous & generous benefactor has promised to match every gift of any size, dollar for dollar, up to $10,000. Anything you give will be doubled!
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Revelation, Inspiration, & Illumination: The Process that Gave Us the Word of God, the Bible

                       A Summary of Concepts[1]

                              © Copyright 2003 by Bob and Gretchen Passantino

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 Revelation:From God to man (man hears what God wants written)

Inspiration:          From man to paper (man writes that which God wants written)

Illumination:       From paper to heart (man receives that which God has written)

 Revelation:

We know that God spoke to man, but how did He speak? Hebrews 1:1 says that He spoke to the fathers and prophets in many portions and many ways:

  1. through angels (Gen. 18; Gen. 19; Dan. 9:21-27; Luke 2:8-14; etc.)
  2. through a “still, small voice” (1 Kings 19:11, 12; Ps. 32:8)
  3. through nature (Rom. 1:20; Ps. 19:1-4; Rom. 10:18; Acts 14:15)
  4. through a loud voice (Gen. 3:9-19; Ex. 3:14)
  5. through dreams (Gen. 28:12; Matt. 1:20; Matt. 2:12)

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Inspiration:

What is involved in transferring the voice of God into the vocabulary of man? There are five different areas to be considered: (1) various theories of inspiration; (2) scripture texts on inspiration; (3) implications of inspiration; (4) importance of inspiration; (5) completion of inspiration.

The term inspiration is found only once in the New Testament in 2 Timothy 3:16, 17: “All Scripture is given by inspiration of God, and is profitable for doctrine, for reproof, for correction, for instruction in righteousness, that the man of God may be complete, thoroughly equipped for every good work.”

The Greek word is theopneustos and literally means “God-breathed.”

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 Theories of Inspiration

The natural theory–the Bible writers were inspired only in the sense that a poet or writer is inspired naturally. In other words, that spark of divine inspiration that supposedly is in all men simply burned a little brighter in the hearts of the Bible writers.

However, 2 Peter 1:20 says, “no prophecy of Scripture is of any private interpretation, for prophecy never came by the will of man, but holy men of God spoke as they were moved by the Holy Spirit.”

The mechanical theory–God coldly and woodenly dictated the Bible to his writers as an office manager would dictate an impersonal letter to his secretary.

The Bible is the story of divine love, and God is anything but mechanical or cold concerning inspiration. The Holy Spirit never transgressed beyond the limits of the writer’s vocabulary. We can see this because the highly educated Paul used a larger, more complicated vocabulary than the fisherman, Peter. The Church has never held what has been stigmatized as the mechanical theory of inspiration. The sacred writers were not machines. Their self-consciousness was not suspended; nor were their intellectual powers superseded. Holy men spoke as they were moved by the Holy Ghost. It was men, not machines; not unconscious instruments, but living, thinking, willing minds, whom the Spirit used as His organs….[T]he sacred writers impressed their peculiarities on their several productions as plainly as though they were the subjects of no extraordinary influence.[2]

The content theory–Only the main thoughts of the Bible are inspired. This is the position of the liberal theologian who would cheerfully accept those portions of the Bible which deal with love and brotherhood, but quickly reject the passages dealing with sin, righteousness, and future judgment. But this is contrary to 2 Timothy 3:16 (quoted above). Charles F. Baker writes,

A certain bishop is purported to have said that he believed the Bible to have been inspired in spots. When asked for his authority for such a statement, he quoted Hebrews 1:1, stating that this meant that God spoke at various times in varying degrees. Thus, some spots were fully inspired, others were only partially inspired, and still others were not inspired at all. The bishop was embarrassed when a layman asked: “How do you know that Hebrews 1:1, the one scripture upon which you base your argument, is one of those fully inspired spots?

The spiritual rule only theory–The Bible may be regarded as our infallible rule of faith and practice in all matters of religious, ethical, and spiritual value, but not in other matters, such as some of the historical and scientific statements found in the Word of God.

Jesus said, however, “If I have told you earthly things and you do not believe, how will you believe if I tell you heavenly things?”(John 3:12).

The verbal-plenary theory–All (plenary) the very words (verbal) of the Bible are inspired by God. Matthew 4:4 says, “Man shall not live by bread alone, but by every word that proceeds from the mouth of God.” First Corinthians 2:13 says, “These things we also speak, not in words which man’s wisdom teaches but which the Holy Spirit teaches, comparing spiritual things with spiritual.” Jesus says in John 17:8, “For I have given them the words which You have given Me; and they have received them, and have known surely that I came forth from You; and they have believed that You sent Me.” Jesus says in John 6:63, “It is the Spirit who gives life; the flesh profits nothing. The words that I speak to you are spirit, and they are life.”

 Scripture Texts on Inspiration

2 Peter 1:20, 21; Hebrews 1:1; John 10:35; Matthew 5:18; 1 Peter 1:25; 2 Peter 3:2; 1 Corinthians 2:4; 15:3; 1 Thessalonians 2:13; 4:15; and the verses already referred to above.

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Note: Some people say that when Paul was speaking on divorce in 1 Corinthians 7, he differentiated between what was scripture and what was his own opinion. What is actually the case is that Paul was directly quoting Jesus in the first part, but was “merely” prompted by the Holy Spirit in the second part.

 Implications of Inspiration

As one carefully considers the subject of inspiration, he is led to the following conclusions:

1. Verbal-plenary inspiration does not each that all the parts of the Bible are equally important, but only that they are equally inspired.

2. Verbal-plenary inspiration does not guarantee the inspiration of any modern or ancient translations of the Bible, but refers only to the original Greek and Hebrew manuscripts (the autographs).

3. Verbal-plenary inspiration does not allow for any false teaching, but it does on occasion record the lie of someone (for example, Genesis 3:6). Therefore, we have an accurate record of the devil’s words. As one reads the Bible, he must carefully distinguish between what God records and what He sanctions. Thus, while lying, murder, adultery, and polygamy are found in the Word of God, they are never approved by the Word of God.

4. Verbal-plenary inspiration does not permit any historical, scientific, or prophetical error whatsoever. While it is admitted that the Bible is not a textbook on science, it is nevertheless held that every scientific statement in the scriptures is absolutely true.

5. Verbal-plenary inspiration did not prohibit personal research. The New Testament writer Luke begins his gospel with the following account:

Inasmuch as many have undertaken to compile an account of the things accomplished among us, just as those who from the beginning were eyewitnesses and servants of the Word have handed them down to us, it seemed fitting for me, as well, having investigated everything carefully from the beginning, to write it out….(Luke 1:1-3 NASB).

6. Verbal-plenary inspiration did not deny the use of extra-biblical sources (see Acts 17:28; Titus 1:12; Jude 1:14, 15).

7. Verbal-plenary inspiration did not overwhelm the personality of the human author. The Bible writers experienced no coma-like trance as do some mediums today during a seance, but, on the contrary, they always retained their physical, mental, and emotional powers. See Isaiah 6:1-11, Daniel 12)

8. Verbal-plenary inspiration does not exclude the usage of pictorial, symbolic, hyperbolic, or summary language. This is to say the Holy Spirit does not demand that we accept every word in the Bible in a wooden and legalistic way. For example, a case could not be made that God has feathers like a bird in Ps. 91:4. Here the thought is simply that the persecuted believer can flee to his heavenly Farther for protection and warmth.

9. Verbal-plenary inspiration does not mean uniformity in all details given in describing the same event. See Matt. 27:37, Mark 15:26, Luke 23:38, and John 19:19, about the superscription on the cross.

10. Verbal-plenary inspiration assures us that God included all the necessary things He wanted us to know and excluded everything else. 2 Tim. 3:15-17.

Importance of Inspiration

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Of the three tools involved in the making of our Bible, the tool of inspiration is the most important. This is true because:

1. One may have inspiration without revelation. For example, rather than supernaturally telling Luke what to write in his gospel, the Holy Spirit led him to carefully check out all of the records.

2. One may have inspiration without illumination. Peter tells us (1 Peter 1:11) that the Old Testament prophets did not always understand everything they wrote about.

 Completion of Inspiration

Is inspiration still going on today? Yes, inspiration is still going on today, but with the close of the apostolic age, God led the church fathers to canonize what we know today as the Old and New Testaments. We have all of the information we will ever need regarding God, our relationship to him, and our salvation straight from God to us.

If someone claims to have a revelation from God, we must check to be sure that it is in harmony with God’s word that has already been revealed.

 Illumination:

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We have already stated that without inspiration, no scripture would have ever been written. We may now claim that without illumination, no sinner would have ever been saved. Illumination, then, is that method used by the Holy Spirit to shed divine light upon all seeking men as they look into the Word of God. We need illumination because:

1. We are naturally blind because of sin. (1 Cor. 2:14, Matt. 16:16-17)

2. We are satanically blind. (2 Cor. 4:3-4)

3. We are carnally blind. (Heb. 5:12-14, 1 Cor. 3, 2 Peter 1)

There are two main results of personal illumination: that people are saved and then that the saved people are matured.

 Implications of Illumination

1. The Holy Spirit looks for a certain amount of sincerity before He illuminates any human heart. We are quick to point out that sincerity is not enough to save anyone, and so it is. However, it should be also noted that it is equally impossible for an insincere person to be saved. This first implication is brought out in John 4:24.

Furthermore, it should be stated that no Christian should ever look on illumination as automatic. This is to say, God has never promised to reveal precious and profound Biblical truths to any believer who will not search the Scriptures for himself. See John 20:31, Acts 17:11, 2 Tim 2:15, 1 Peter 2:2.

2. The Holy Spirit often seeks out the aid of a believer in performing his task of illuminating the hearts of others. See Acts 8:30, 31, 35, Acts 17:2, Acts 18:26, Acts 18:28.

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For Further Reading

 Bloesch, Donald G. Holy Scripture: Revelation, Inspiration and Interpretation. Downers Grove, IL: InterVarsity Press, 1994.

 Bruce, F. F. The Books and the Parchments: How We Got Our English Bible. Old Tappan, NJ: Fleming J. Revell Company, 1984 ed.

 Bruce, F. F. The Canon of Scripture. Downers Grove, IL: InterVarsity Press, 1988.

 Carson, D. A. And John D. Woodbridge, eds. Hermeneutics, Authority, and Canon. Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan Publishing House, 1986.

 Demarest, Bruce A. General Revelation: Historical Views and Contemporary Issues. Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan Publishing House, 1982.

 Geisler, Norman L. and William E. Nix. From God to Us: How We Got Our Bible. Chicago: Moody Press, 1974.

 Geisler, Norman L. and William E. Nix. A General Introduction to the Bible (Revised and Expanded). Chicago: Moody Press, 1986.

 George, Timothy, et. al., eds. The Bible Doctrine of Inspiration. Nashville, TN: Broadman & Holman, 1995.

 Trembath, Kern Robert. Evangelical Theories of Biblical Inspiration: A Review and Proposal. London: Oxford University Press, 1997.

 Turretin, Francis. The Doctrine of Scripture. Grand Rapids, MI: Baker Book House, 1981.

      [1] This essay is a summary of the information contained in Norm. F. Geisler and William E. Nix’s General Introduction to the Bible. (Chicago: Moody Press, 1986 ed.). It is meant to outline the arguments brought forth in that book and was used originally as a handout in a class taught by the Passantinos using Geisler and Nix’s book as the textbook. Another approach to the issue is in Norman Geisler’s Systematic Theology Volume One: Introduction and Bible (Minneapolis: Bethany House Publishers, 2002).

     [2] Charles Hodge, Systematic Theology, Vol. 1.

Recommended Commentaries on Ezekiel: The Short List

© Copyright 2014 by Gretchen Passantino Coburn

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Block, Daniel I. The Book of Ezekiel Chapter 1-24 (New International Commentary on the Old Testament). Grand Rapids, MI: William B. Eerdmans Publishing Company, 1997.

Block, Daniel I. The Book of Ezekiel Chapters 25-48 (New International Commentary on the Old Testament). Grand Rapids, MI: William B. Eerdmans Publishing Company,1998.

If I could only have one commentary (2 volumes) on Ezekiel, Block’s 2 volumes would be my choice. Rich combination of historical, literary, theological, & doctrinal information & insights. Non-dispensational. Good focus on Ezekiel as preparatory for the coming Messiah, the Savior not only of Israel, but of the whole world. Don’t be intimidated by the huge page count. This is a resource you will use for reference & select reading, not to start at the beginning & spend the rest of your life slogging through (although I & a few other nuts do).

Hummel, Horace D. Ezekiel 1-20 (Concordia Commentary). St. Louis, MO: Concordia Publishing Company, 2005.

Hummel, Horace D. Ezekiel 21-48 (Concordia Commentary). St. Louis, MO: Concordia Publishing Company, 2007

Being Lutheran in my theology, I probably agree more with Hummel’s 2 volumes than I do any other commentary on Ezekiel. However, Hummel, being Lutheran, also tends to remain silent on some of our most vexing & obscure passages, preferring to heed the old Chinese proverb, “Better to keep your mouth shut & be thought a fool than to open it & remove all doubt.” But also, being Lutheran, Hummel does a superb job of delineating the law (which kills you) & the gospel (which raises you to new life), & of seeing Christ & his redeeming act at the center of every passage.

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Longman, Tremper, David E. Garland, eds., Michael Brown, Paul W. Ferris, and Ralph Alexander, contributors. Jeremiah – Ezekiel (Expositor’s Bible Commentary. Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan Publishing Company, 2010.

This is an excellent non-denominational, non-dispensational approach to Ezekiel. Especially good on history & literature. Not quite deep enough to satisfy me like Block or Hummel.

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McGee, J. Vernon. Ezekiel (Through the Bible). Nashville, TN: Thomas Nelson Publishers, 1995.

This is the only dispensational book in my short list. Yes, he was a dispensationalist through & through, but his pastor’s heart & his calling to proclaim the gospel are at the core of everything, & if you ignore his relation of ancient to modern, you will be richly blessed, my friend. And it’s short enough & simple enough to be a very satisfying appetizer.

Stevenson, Kenneth and Michael Glerup, eds. Ezekiel, Daniel (Ancient Christian Commentary on Scripture). Downers Grove, IL: Intervarsity Academic Press, 2008.

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I had to include this in my short list because of its unique resources. Do you want to know how the ancient church & church fathers understood (or didn’t understand) Ezekiel? Here are all the references from the ancient church writers & preachers on Ezekiel. Lots of different views, lots of ancient historical & theological perspectives, not a lot of consensus or criticism, but that lets you judge for yourself.

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God Our Mother

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© Copyright 2003 by Gretchen Passantino

           “Can a woman forget her nursing child, and not have compassion on the son of her womb? Surely they may forget, yet I will not forget you” (Isaiah 49:15 NKJV). “When my father and my mother forsake me, then the Lord will take care of me” (Psalm 27:10).

          Dr. Laura Schlessinger is known for her advocacy of second-chance families. She argues that we have two opportunities to experience a good parent-child relationship. The first chance, the relationship into which we are born, we have little control over, and we may well experience a horrible parent-child relationship. The second chance, when we become parents, is our opportunity to have the best parent-child relationship through careful, value-laden choices that give our children the parent-child relationship we may never have had. As much as people have been encouraged and challenged by Dr. Laura’s take, I think there’s an important parent-child relationship she has missed: our relationship to God as our perfect parent.

We have a third – and, in fact, the only significant – parent-child relationship that will never disappoint or fall short of our expectations: Our experience of God as our loving Creator, Sustainer, Savior, and Glorifier. Everything we could conceive of that is good and fitting for a mother to be, that is what God is to each one of us. When I say “God is our mother,” I do not mean to support radical feminism, deconstruct God into a fantastical feminine deity, or change our language about God. Instead, God, who is infinite, eternal, and a-sexual, sometimes identifies himself as a mother to give us a particular kind of idea, a teaching picture or icon, by which we can understand better his creative power, his love, his forgiveness, and his faithfulness.

God, full of sorrow over the rebellious idolatry of Israel, expresses the anguish every mother has experienced as her child turns away from the safety mother has provided: “I taught Ephraim [Israel] to walk, taking them by their arms, but they did not know that I healed them. I drew them with gentle cords, with bands of love, and I was to them as those who take the yoke from their neck. I stooped and fed them” (Hosea 11:3-4). When for the first time we hold the tiny treasure of humanity in our arms at birth, when we focus all of our energy toward providing a safe haven of joy for that tiny life, we experience a tiny taste of the love and care God has for us. He creates us knowing that we will turn away from him, knowing that we will reject his love; and yet continuing to love us so much that “while we were still sinners, Christ died for us” (Romans 5:8).

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God yearns for us to return to his arms as a child runs to mother seeking safety, reassurance and love. He foresaw the return of the Jews in Isaiah’s day, “then you [the Jews] shall feed; on her sides shall you be carried, and be dandled on her knees. As one whom his mother comforts, so I will comfort you; and you shall be comforted in Jerusalem” (Isaiah 66:12-13).

The love of God goes far beyond the greatest love the greatest mother could ever have. It is perfect, infinite, and eternal. At the height of Jesus’ pronouncement of judgment against the unbelieving Jews of his day, he lamented, “O Jerusalem, Jerusalem, the one who kills the prophets and stones those who are sent to her! How often I wanted to gather your children together, as a hen gathers her chicks under her wings, but you were not willing!” (Matthew 23:37).

Moses talks of God’s parental care in similar terms: “For the Lord’s portion is His people; Jacob is the place of His inheritance. He found him in a desert land and in the wasteland, a howling wilderness; He encircled him, He instructed him, He kept him as the apple of His eye. As an eagle stirs up its nest, hovers over its young, spreading out its wings, taking them up, carrying them on its wings, so the Lord alone led him” (Deuteronomy 32:9-12).

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When we understand that God is our perfect Mother, we can rest, secure in the knowledge that He will protect us from evil, give us the power to overcome sin, and keep us in His care and love eternally. The teaching picture of the female bird depicts this refuge best as the Psalmist prays, “Keep me as the apple of Your eye; hide me under the shadow of Your wings, from the wicked who oppress me, from my deadly enemies who surround me” (Psalm 17:8). Safety in the Lord is absolute: “Be merciful to me, O God, be merciful to me! For my soul trusts in You; and in the shadow of Your wings I will make my refuge, until these calamities have passed by” (Psalm 57:1). We can be confident that “He shall cover you with His feathers, and under His wings you shall take refuge; His truth will be your shield and buckler” (Psalm 91:4).

God is our Mother in the very best sense of the term. God’s love for us precedes any human maternal love since God loved us before Eve became the “mother of all living” (Genesis 3:20). Do you want to know how to be the best mother you can? Look to God for His example. Do you long to be loved and cared for by the mother you lost or maybe never had? Look to God – He is your Mother in perfection. Think of the love God has for us: knowing that we would turn from him, rebel against him, sin and break his commandments, he still created us and then provided the perfect sacrifice to restore us to Himself. Better than any human mother, he knows not only the grief of loss and the pain of sacrifice, but also the potential for joy in being a mother: “A woman, when she is in labor, has sorrow because her hour has come; but as soon as she has given birth to the child, she no longer remembers the anguish, for joy that a human being has been born into the world” (John 16:21). God is joyful over you! Rejoice with Him!

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Atheism, Friendship, and Humility

© Copyright 2014 by Gretchen Passantino Coburn

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 Recently a Christian asked me to help him answer some challenges from an atheist friend. The Christian had asked the atheist if he would be willing to discuss the existence of God & the problem of evil on-line. The friend responded that he was completely satisfied with his atheism and that atheism answered all of his questions, so on-line discussion was pointless.

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 First, I believe this atheist was betraying his friendship with the Christian. The two had been good friends for many years. A true friend would not have rejected a friend’s request to discuss a topic that was important to him, especially one that could govern the friend’s world view & life. A true friend, even if he were completely satisfied with his own beliefs, would be willing to discuss them for the benefit of his friend. In fact, the “Golden Rule” tests the character of anyone, believer or not. I suggested the Christian appeal to the atheist’s friendship, demonstrating his friendship by being willing to discuss such an important issue.

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Second, the atheist’s faith in atheism is remarkable in its simplistic assumptions. A reasonable, knowledgeable person will agree that there are many reasonable, intelligent, well educated people who disbelieve in atheism, who believe God exists, who posit arguments, evidence, and reasons for believing in God. This atheist appears to have a blind faith in atheism and in his own mental superiority. There are brilliant individuals such as Albert Einstein, Winston Churchill, Mahatma Ghandi, Max Planck, Stephen L. Carter (law), Michael K. Heller (physics), etc. who are certainly “smarter” than this atheist, & yet they believe in God. Brilliant Christians include William Lane Craig, Alvin Plantinga, Phillip Johnson, Alister McGrath, Condolleeza Rice, etc. (Here’s a list of 50 brilliant people who believe in God.) Humility seems to be in greater evidence among Christians, many of whom are willing to be challenged in their faith, who seek the best evidence & arguments regardless where they lead, & who admit they are open to having their beliefs disproved. If this atheist can be humble enough and honest enough to admit he might be wrong, then he should be open to discussing the issue with his long-time Christian friend. To refuse to do so does not support the truthfulness of his atheism, but merely the pride and egoism of his emotional bondage to atheism.

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True friendship is willing to explore important ideas and beliefs for the mutual benefit among friends. True humility is willing to test one’s own beliefs, to follow the evidence and arguments wherever they lead. True faith is not blind or contrary to reality, but is founded on reason. An atheism that is self-centered, egotistical, and blind is not worth holding.

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The Bare Bones of Noah’s Story

© Copyright 2014 by Gretchen Passantino Coburn

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My virtual mailbox has been crowded with questions about the movie NOAH that opened March 28 2014. I haven’t seen it. I’ve read a lot of reviews, some from people I respect in the arts, the Bible, and/or theology. It was the first place box office winner for its opening weekend, pulling in more than $44 million in US ticket sales. It remains to be seen whether it can maintain that level of popularity, but that’s not my focus here. This is all I’m going to say about the commercial success or failure of the movie.

Many others have commented on the cinematic license taken with the literary text. This doesn’t bother me, since movies almost always take significant liberty with an underlying written text. What works in words may not work at all in visuals and the opposite is usually true, too. I understand the movie misses the great story of redemption foreshadowed in the story, the sinfulness of humanity, salvation by faith, and God’s redemptive faithfulness to the world He has created, including the humans He has created in His image. I also understand there is quite a bit of environmental gospel in the story and that at some points humans are characterized as the enemies of God’s natural world. This is all I’m going to say about the biblical or non-biblical story line of the movie.

Tree Hugger

My focus here is on some of what is absent from the biblical story. I will address some of these significant absences from Genesis chapters 6-10 here.

God's Romance

First, the foundational assumption for biblical interpretation is to understand the main theological theme of the passage and use that to govern all interpretation. The main theme of Genesis 6-10 is not environmentalism, evolution, or human stubbornness. The main theme is God’s Great Redemption Romance Story: that sinful man, judged and condemned in Adam, is nevertheless loved and redeemed by God’s own work by His Spirit in His Representative (Son), and transformed into His fruitful Spouse. Noah is both Adam (the sinner) and Christ (the chosen One). The flood is God’s judgment. The Ark is God’s rescue (Christ on the Cross). Noah’s family and their progeny are the Church, the People of God. The dove and the olive branch are the signs of the renewed and redeemed creation. The sacrifice after the Flood is the Memorial of God’s sacrifice on our behalf. Absent are doctrinal side issues that distract us from this main redemptive theme.

I’m not “allegorizing” the “plain meaning” of the Bible. I believe in the complete accuracy of the Bible as God gave it and meant it to be understood. When the Bible is recording history, it is accurate history. When it is recording science, it is accurate science, etc. But underlying and overarching every kind of text (historical, scientific, poetic, epic, narrative, metaphorical, etc.) is God’s Great Redemption Romance Story in part or in whole, in type or anti-type, in anticipation or remembrance. Once we fix this theological bedrock in our interpretive framework, many of the questions we ask of a particular text are completely irrelevant and it is no wonder they are not addressed exhaustively (if at all) in the text.

Have you ever tried to relay an experience to someone and he or she keeps interrupting you to ask irrelevant questions? Maybe you want to talk about how somebody cut you off on the freeway and only God’s grace saved you from causing a fatal five car pileup. Does it really matter what color the offending car was? Or what was being advertised on the billboard next to the freeway? Or what was in your fast food meal that spilled all over the seat and dash when you slammed on your brakes?

Let’s look at the story of Noah from a similar perspective. If the main story is God’s Great Redemption Romance Story, does it matter if the entire geographical globe was flooded or could the “whole earth” mean the whole area occupied by humans? Our theological bedrock requires the second, but the first is irrelevant to the theology.

If the main story is redemptive, does it matter if Noah and his wife or his sons and their wives had other children who were or were not taken into the ark and saved from the Flood? Theology teaches us that all have sinned (even Noah, his wife, his sons, their wives, and any other of their descendants) and that all of us deserve judgment (flood). All of them deserved to be condemned in the Flood and none of them deserved to be saved from the Flood.

If the main story is redemptive, then any who were saved from the Flood were saved by God’s mercy and grace, by the redeeming sacrifice of His future coming, dying, and rising Son. Yes, it says Noah “found favor” with God, “walked faithfully,” and was “found righteous.” But remember our theology: we find favor in Christ, we walk faithfully in Christ, we are found righteous in Christ. Our salvation and rescue from judgment is not derived from our seeking God’s favor or creating our own faith or doing righteous acts: our salvation and rescue from judgment is derived from Christ’s perfect representative life, death, and resurrection. He is the one who is favored by God, who is faithful, who always acts righteously. Our favor, faith, and righteousness are products of our salvation, not generators of our salvation. Noah, his wife, his three sons and their wives were saved in spite of the fact that they were just as disfavored, unfaithful, and unrighteous as everyone else (including any other family members who may have lived then). They were saved in spite of their sinfulness, not because of their sinlessness.

Absence

Second, a sound principle of biblical interpretation (indeed, all literary interpretation) is that one must not presume that absence of evidence presented is evidence of absence. Confusing? Here’s an example: If I were to say “I worked on an article today,” that simple statement wouldn’t be evidence of absence of any other activity I did today. In the same way, if one gospel says “one angel was at the tomb” on Christ’s resurrection day, that isn’t evidence against another gospel’s “two angels were at the tomb.” (In fact, if you have two angels, you always have at least one angel.)

Let’s apply this to the story of Noah. For example, I’ve been asked, if Noah were really 600+ years old, and his sons were also old, then how could it be that neither Noah and his wife nor his sons and their wives had any other children? Wouldn’t it be reasonable to think Noah had other sons, and unreasonable to think he had no daughters, including not a single daughter who was “righteous” as his three sons were? If you read the five relevant chapters of Genesis carefully, you will not find any text excluding Noah or his sons from having other children, either before the Flood or while they were on the ark. The point of the story is that God chose eight individuals from among the sinful class of all humanity to rescue from his Flood judgment. Any other descendants or siblings are irrelevant to the theological point of God’s selection of certain individuals for saving from the Flood. Remember, this is an event that points us to the Main Event. Whether “true believers” drowned in the Flood is irrelevant: the drowning of a “death-doomed body” (Romans 8:11) is a tiny calamity compared to that same person’s eternal life and final resurrection life in a resurrection body.

God's Work in Us

Third, absent from the Genesis story of Noah are works that qualified Noah or his family members to receive God’s rescue from the Flood. Noah built the Ark, preached God’s coming judgment, gathered the animals, and put his family inside after God chose him, not in order to be chosen by God. Noah’s obedience was a consequence of his salvation, not a means to attain his salvation.

Yes, Noah “found favor” with God (Genesis 6:8) and was saved from the Flood even though he was a sinner. Just as Mary “found favor” with God and was chosen to bear the Son of God even though she was part of sinful humanity. And just as Job “found favor” with God, who restored him to “full well-being” (Job 33:26). Job did not earn God’s favor, God blessed him with His favor as an application of his grace and mercy long before the historical time of His Son’s sacrifice. Look at the sequence in Psalm 84:9-11. In verse 9, the psalmist asks God to look “with favor” on His anointed One (the Messiah). In verse 11, the psalmist rejoices that God looks “with favor” on “those whose walk is blameless.” Who is blameless? Only One is actually blameless: Jesus the Messiah who took our sins on Himself on the cross and rose from the dead, the “firstborn” of all those saved (Luke 2:52). The psalmist and all others of faith (whether before, like Noah, or after, like Peter, Paul, and Christians throughout all ages) find “favor with God” by being “in Christ.” (See especially the term “in Christ” or “in Him” in Ephesians 1.)

Yes, Noah “walked faithfully” (Genesis 6:9), but this was accomplished by God’s work in His Son, not by anything Noah accomplished on his own. Remember, Jesus is the lamb slain from before the foundation of the world (Revelation 13:8). Paul argues (Romans chapter 4) that Abraham was saved, not by works, but by faith, noting that he was “declared righteous” in Genesis 15:6, before he had done any works, that is, before he was circumcised (Genesis 17:24).

Summary

In summary, there are features significantly missing from the biblical account of Noah (Genesis 6-10) by the Holy Spirit’s design to keep our focus on the glorious story of redemption it depicts and prefigures. Absent are side issues like the precise geographical extent of the Flood or whether rainbows ever appeared before the Flood. Absent are designations of whether anyone else in Noah’s generation inherited eternal life either after drowning in the Flood or after being included but unmentioned in the Ark. The Ark event is an earthly example of a spiritual reality: the Flood stands for eternal judgment; drowning stands for eternal death; living in the Ark stands for salvation; landing on the mountains of Ararat , offering a sacrifice, and planting a vineyard stands for God’s renewed creation and fulfilled kingdom.

There are other significant absences in this event and in the rest of God’s Word. The absences are not meant to withhold God’s Gospel from us, but to focus us on His Gospel. The Word of God is given to us, not to satisfy our every idle curiosity, but to display God’s Great Redemption. Second Timothy chapter two declares that the Word of God is “the Holy Scriptures, which are able to make you wise for salvation through faith in Christ Jesus. All Scripture is God-breathed and is useful for teaching, rebuking, correcting and training in righteousness, so that the servant of God may be thoroughly equipped for every good work.”

Answering Those Who Believe They Have Committed the Unforgivable Sin

© Copyright 2014 by Gretchen Passantino Coburn

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In my more than forty years of Christian apologetics ministry, questions about the “unforgivable sin” continue to recur. Those who pose the questions are not indifferent to God. Nor do they hate God. Instead, they invariably grieve their loss and they despair of salvation. We have a classic Answers In Action article addressing the particular scripture passages that confuse readers. This article is much more focused on the principles behind such confusion and despair. It is derived from a response I composed to plea from someone who feared for his soul, but is generally applicable to anyone who believes he or she may have committed the unforgivable sin.

First, I commend those who continue to pursue relationship with God in spite of their fear, confusion, doubt, and despair. This is a characteristic of a human heart experiencing the saving power of the Holy Spirit, not a heart that has refused God’s grace and forgiveness and hardened itself to salvation. In other words, someone’s persistent concern and return are proof in themselves that he or she has not committed the unforgivable sin.

Two features are most common in those with this unresolved struggle: (1) They give undeserved and misunderstood weight to their continuing sinfulness, and (2) They elevate their subjective experience of each moment over the objective truth of the gospel, affirmed by the testimonies of God’s Word and God’s people (both through time and in personal relationship with other believers).

Many in this uncertainty point to their repeated and continuing sinfulness as evidence they have never been and never can be saved. This is contrary to the testimony of God in His Word. Until we die and are resurrected and brought completely into God’s fulfilled kingdom, every single one of us will continue to sin. Martin Luther has a well-known observation that can be summarized like this: If you have no desire to sin and are not sinning, check your heart & your breath to see if you are still alive. In the same way, if you are not grieving over your sin and longing for forgiveness through Jesus Christ (especially as distributed in the Lord’s Supper), check your heart and your breath to see if you are still alive. Repeated and continuing sin is not an evidence of the absence of salvation.

In other words, it is the common, biblical experience for believers to experience the seed of sinfulness with which they are born and which continues to live in them until the resurrection; but it is also the common, biblical experience for believers to experience the seed of regeneration, to have remorse and seek forgiveness and reconciliation with God. Sadly, for those who despair, it seems easier to “believe in” his or her “sinful seed” than to “believe in” his or her “seed of life,”

This brings me to my second main point: As long as one gives more trust to his or her own subjective fear, and less trust to the testimony of the Spirit through His Word and His people (the community of believers local & universal), he or she will be “tossed about by every wind of doctrine.” Such a one has no objective anchor for the soul. The “bedrock of the sea” that will hold our “anchor” firm is God Himself (and His Word), who loves each one of us so much that even while we were loyal to sin, He gave His beloved and only Son to pay the price for us & bring us back to Him (John 3:16 and Rom. 5:1-5). He desires and commands an intimate, personal, and unique relationship with each of us through His Spirit. The “anchor” that keeps each of us connected to the bedrock (God) is God’s community of believers, not only universal but also local and intimate through relationship with believers in fellowship, worship, and knowledge of God’s Word.

The most common persistent sin struggle despairing people experience is pornography. This is to be expected, because pornography is a counterfeit of the personal intimacy God created as the only fulfillment of our relationship to Him and our relationship to others. Pornography substitutes exploitation for self-sacrificing love; physical stimulation for spiritual transformation; transitory climax for enduring devotion. Being filled by sex is not the problem: being empty of God-directed intimacy (with Him and with other believers) is the problem.

The “solution” to this struggle to believe one can be saved is like many biblical paradoxes: it is incredibly easy and simple; it is undeniably difficult and complex. The solution is complete and utter abandonment to God, an emptying of one’s self, a forsaking of one’s own will, a “reckless” throwing of oneself on God, trusting His mercy and grace so much that if He does not “catch” him or her, he or she will be utterly destroyed on the rocks of divine deceit. In one way, it is simple and easy: just give up everything. In another way it is profound and impossible: just give up everything. It is that conundrum that God accepts nothing from us but must have everything from us; that we must surrender to His Spirit but we can’t surrender on our own. Praise be to God that the resolution to this difficulty is that the equation is not equal – it is not “all us” and “all God.” God has “weighted” the equation such that our inability makes way for His ability, and He is eager and able to overcome our inadequacies, not by our act of coming to Him, but by our surrender to receive Him coming to us. Because we are still in this sinful world, in our sin-infected body, with our sin-tainted mind and spirit, we will continue to fall and will consequently surrender ourselves over and over. But the good news is that God is not fickle like we are: while we waver between sin and surrender, He is always there in mercy and grace, forgiving and restoring us. Again, the equation is not balanced: God has the upper hand in love and forgiveness, not us.

What I see missing from most of those who fear they’ve committed the unforgivable sin is that “anchor” of intimate relationship that secures them to the bedrock of the Lord. There is a reason that God established human marriage, a lifelong covenant between two people, as a picture of the relationship between God and us.

1 Corinthians 13:4-8a defines that lifelong covenant as “love.” “Love is patient, love is kind. It does not envy, it does not boast, it is not proud. It does not dishonor others, it is not self-seeking, it is not easily angered, it keeps no record of wrongs.”

“Love does not delight in evil but rejoices with the truth. It always protects, always trusts, always hopes, always perseveres. Love never fails.”

Is this the kind of relationship a fearful one has with God? With other believers? If not, then this is what he or she needs to seek eagerly: not by trying to stir up an emotion or prove oneself, but by practicing living according to its precepts.

Be patient with God: give Him time to display His plan; don’t dictate one’s own plan to Him.

Be kind to God: put the best construction on God’s action in one’s circumstances; don’t assume He is out to exclude someone who yearns for Him.

Do not envy God: act in trust that He is a loving Father; don’t demand the lonely autonomy of someone cut off from God’s guidance.

Do not choose one’s own way over God’s way: many might think going their own way is a sign of humility (they’re not good enough for God) but instead it is a sign of boasting (their sinful inclinations are more powerful than God’s forgiveness).

Focus one’s attention on God: fill the mind and life w/worship and love of God; don’t pretend one is repentant by being obsessed with his or her own sinfulness and fear, and yet neglecting the solution-giver, the Lord Himself.

Practice true humility: C. S. Lewis skillfully describes the difference between proud and humble, “not thinking less of yourself, but thinking of yourself less;” in other words, focus on the Lord and His power and blessings in life, not on one’s own helplessness and fears.

Don’t dishonor the Lord by insisting that the greatness of one’s sinning is greater than the Lord’s greatness to forgive and regenerate: it is contrary to God’s Word to believe that He would reject someone and hold him or her accountable for his or her own sins when he or she is desperate for acceptance and forgiveness through Christ; rather, honor the Lord by honoring His sacrifice through His Son.

Don’t judge the Lord by one’s own subjective, fallible, inadequate judgment: God is the one who promised to forgive the sins of anyone who repents; no individual has the power to exempt oneself from His promise.

Affirm that God’s compassion and loving-kindness is greater than any individual’s anger: even if one thinks his or her devotion to pornography (or any other sin) is extraordinary, in fact it’s always possible (and usually easy) to find others whose sin abounds even more; in fact, God does not limit His forgiveness to those whose sinning is trivial but extends it to those whose sinning is gross. It is not quantity of sin that excludes one from salvation – the tiniest sin is enough and the greatest is not enough – the quality of Christ’s redemptive work covers all.

Stop clutching to both individual recurrent sin and one’s  misjudgment of God: He has promised to keep no record of one’s sins since they are covered by Christ; when someone continues bringing them up (either by remembrance or repetition), he or she is accusing God of being a liar.

Now look at the second paragraph of 1 Corinthians 13: These are the positive features of the intimate, personal, loving relationship God has provided for each of us in Jesus Christ. Turn our back on all the negatives & follow God’s encouragement to rejoice in the truth that salvation is God’s work in Christ, not our work toward Christ; to accept His protection of our salvation, not our own good intentions; to trust the Lord’s love and compassion, not our own fickle emotions; to have confident hope in the finished work of the cross on our behalf, not in our own fallible  intuition; accept the perseverance of the Lord on our behalf, not our own wavering back and forth between obedience and sinning. Finally, practice confidence in the divine love that never fails rather than the unredeemed human love that is counterfeit.

If we practice intimate love relationship with the Lord, we will be drawn inexorably into intimate love relationship (not sexual) with God’s people, the church (both universal and local). We will begin to trust others, rely on their encouragement and support, welcome their assurances and corrections, experience mutual positive involvement in each others’ lives, and begin to identify ourselves with God’s people rather than with those who are aliens to the faith.

If we sincerely practice loving God and loving God’s people (that means making ourselves vulnerable to both God and a local fellowship of believers), the power of sin, fear, and doubt in our lives will begin to lessen. Doing so is not pursuing a subjective, fleeting, transitory emotional experience – I’ve just spent multiple paragraphs defining true divine love.

In conclusion, here are common specific questions fearful people often ask and summary answers to them. “What do I do now?” Move forward boldly and with utter abandon into God’s forgiving and loving arms. “Where do I go now?” To a local fellowship of believers who are truly in love with their Bridegroom, Christ, and therefore can model that love for you. (You know intuitively how to distinguish between those who are generally trustworthy and those who will attack your faith and “punish” you for your failures.) “What am I to believe about salvation?” That it is God’s plan, God’s work, God’s love, and God’s intention, not only for all the others, but also for you. “How do I stop back-sliding?” By learning through practice and association with God’s people to enjoy and occupy yourself with the things of the Lord who is your Lover rather than the things of the world that prostitutes itself. “Can I be free of slavery to pornography?” Yes! When you begin to make a habit of loving God in the 1 Cor 13 sense, you will find yourself falling more and more in love with God and His people and you will experience the true love that will so outshine the transitory counterfeit of pornography that you will look back on it and think, “How could I ever have substituted that pitiful deceit for God’s immense love?” “How can I test myself” must be answered in the negative: you cannot test yourself, a self-defeating subjectivity; but you can trust God’s test confirmed through His church, both the voices of history (like Lewis and Luther) and the voices of those you become intimately personal with in fellowship by God’s love. The true purpose of confession in the church is, in fact, to provide this confirmation of God’s forgiveness to those who are trapped in fear by their subjectivity. Martin Luther said, “Confession embraces two parts: the one is, that we confess our sins; the other, that we receive absolution, or forgiveness, from the confessor, as from God Himself, and in no wise doubt, but firmly believe, that our sins are thereby forgiven before God in heaven” (The Small Catechism).

The Golden Rule Apologetic


A classic article from the late Bob Passantino and Answers In Action

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© Copyright 2003 by Bob Passantino

Nearly everyone is familiar with the “Golden Rule” even if they don’t realize that it comes to us in its perfect form as a command of Jesus: “In everything, do to others what you would have them do to you, for this sums up the Law and the Prophets” (Matthew 7:12). [1] This command to deal fairly with others should govern everything we do as Christians, including how we defend our faith.

Taken within the context of Jesus’s other teachings, the Golden Rule is a minimalist argument, that is, the conduct commanded in the Golden Rule is the least one can do acting in imitation of the love of God. As a matter of fact, in many other places Jesus tells us that the superior commandment is not merely to be fair to others, to treat them as we would like to be treated, but even to excel in love toward others. He tells us to love our enemies (Luke 6:27, 35) and to forgive someone repeatedly (Matt.18:21-22). Jesus Himself provided the best example of this Better-than-the-Golden-Rule: He sacrificed Himself willingly for us while we were still sinners, deserving nothing better than God’s condemnation:

You see, at just the right time, when we were still powerless, Christ died for the ungodly. Very rarely will anyone die for a righteous man, though for a good man someone might possibly dare to die. But God demonstrates his own love for us in this: While we were still sinners, Christ died for us (Romans 5:6-8).

The maximalist argument we could call the “Platinum Rule,” exemplified in Paul’s command to the Christians in Philippi, “Do nothing out of selfish ambition or vain conceit, but in humility consider others better than yourselves” (Phil. 2:3).

Whether minimalist or maximalist, the command to treat others fairly is a command Christians can’t ignore, even when we are practicing apologetics, which is defending the faith. Years ago I was disturbed by the attitudes and arguments some Christians were using as they defended the faith, arguing with non-believers, cultists, and those of other faiths. Far too often I saw Christians making fun of the beliefs of others, taking unfair advantage of them in discussions, even misrepresenting the truth or their opponents’ arguments if they thought they could get away with it. I began to encourage others to remember the Golden Rule when they were practicing apologetics. At first I called this the “Golden Rule of Apologetics” – the Golden Rule has a place in our apologetics. Although that is true and sufficient, I quickly began to see people respond to my encouragement by using the Golden Rule selectively in their apologetics – when it served their purpose and they thought they couldn’t get away with anything else.

Over the years I have modified my principle and now I call it the “Golden Rule Apologetic” – the only apologetic system worth pursuing is the apologetic system that is governed by the Golden Rule. There is good biblical and philosophical precedent for this principle.

The passage we chose to exemplify the ministry of Answers In Action is 2 Timothy 2:24-25:

And the Lord’s servant must not quarrel; instead, he must be kind to everyone, able to teach, not resentful. Those who oppose him he must gently instruct, in the hope that God will grant them repentance leading them to a knowledge of the truth.

Paul reminds Timothy to be kind and to gently instruct; in other words, to practice the Golden Rule with those who oppose the Gospel.

In 1 Peter 3:15b-16, which actually uses the word apologia (defense or reason), Peter says that one’s apologetics should be governed by gentleness and respect:

Always be prepared to give an answer to everyone who asks you to give the reason for the hope that you have. But do this with gentleness and respect, keeping a clear conscience, so that those who speak against your good behavior in Christ may be ashamed of their slander.

Paul uses the Golden Rule Apologetic with the Epicurean and Stoic philosophers in Athens (Acts 17:16-31). Rather than merely mocking them for their polytheistic beliefs, he treated them kindly and fairly, commending them for their religious respect and using their own poets’ statements as a starting point for declaring the truth of Jesus Christ and his resurrection from the dead.

Paul condemns religious hypocrites in Romans 2 for not following the Golden Rule Apologetic. He argues,

You, therefore, have no excuse, you who pass judgment on someone else, for at whatever point you judge the other, you are condemning yourself, because you who pass judgment do the same things (Rom. 2:1)

Paul contrasts this hypocrisy with God’s Golden Rule by which he continues to extend his grace and mercy to sinners even though they deserve condemnation:

Do you show contempt for his kindness, tolerance and patience, not realizing that God’s kindness leads you toward repentance? (Rom. 2:4).

In the Old Testament the principle I have applied to apologetics is applied to the every day activities of God’s people. Deuteronomy 25:13-16 gives this command:

Do not have two differing weights in your bag – one heavy, one light. Do not have two differing measures in your house – one large, one small. You must have accurate and honest weights and measures, so that you may live long in the land the Lord your God is giving you. For the Lord your God detests anyone who does these things, anyone who deals dishonestly.

Leviticus 19:35-37 parallels this teaching:

Do not use dishonest standards when measuring length, weight, or quantity. Use honest scales and honest weights, an honest ephah and an honest hin. I am the Lord your God who brought you out of Egypt.

This is commonly referred to as the principle of “equal weights and measures.” Remember, to deal fairly and honestly is our minimal obligation under the Golden Rule. To deal generously and better than expected is our maximal obligation which transforms the Golden Rule into the Platinum Rule.

In philosophy a general rule called the “Principle of Charity” reflects the Golden Rule. In philosophy, one should give the most generous understanding and weight to what someone says. For example, if someone states his argument poorly, rather than merely pointing out the logical mistakes he has made, the Principle of Charity demands that his opponent correct the flaws in the argument (if they can be), and then respond to the best form of the argument rather than his opponent’s poor form of the argument. Another application of the Principle of Charity is to replace poor arguments with better arguments. If, for example, a Jehovah’s Witness gives two poor arguments against the deity of Christ, the Christian has the responsibility to give that Witness the best arguments against the deity of Christ – and then show that those arguments do not overturn the truthfulness of the deity of Christ. Those who fail to follow the Golden Rule in philosophy end up refuting “straw man” arguments that don’t properly represent the position we oppose in the first place.

An important part of the Golden Rule Apologetic is that you must not demand of your opponent what you are unwilling to provide. For example, if you are arguing with a Mormon that the Book of Mormon is full of contradictions, you must be willing not merely to cite those contradictions, but also to provide reasonable answers if the Mormon points to supposed contradictions in the Bible. If you launch ten quick arguments against your opponents’ view and then don’t give him time to respond, you cannot fairly complain if he does the same thing to you. On the other hand, if you bring up one argument at a time and spend the time necessary to be sure you both understand each other and where the evidence leads, you should feel free to ask your opponent to have the same patience and single mindedness with you.

You can even use the Golden Rule Apologetic to defend yourself. If your opponent makes fun of and misrepresents your view, you have every right to ask him if he would like you to act that way toward him. I am not saying that you should “pay him back” by mockery and misrepresentation (remember our Platinum goal), but that you bring out your Golden Rule principle to reason your opponent into a fair discussion.

If you apply the Golden Rule Apologetic every time you defend the Christian faith, you will find that those of opposing beliefs will listen more closely to what you say, respect your position even if they continue to deny it, give greater weight to your arguments, and be more willing to examine their own beliefs. You will not only give a good representation of Christianity, you will also be used by God to extend his mercy and patience to others, just as it was extended to you.

The next time you are tempted to perform sloppy apologetics, to mock someone with whom you disagree, or to dismiss opposing arguments without fair consideration, remember the Golden Rule and practice it until it becomes the Platinum Rule in your life.

[1] Other versions are in the Old Testament (see, for example, Leviticus 19:18) and in the writings of other religions (Hinduism, Buddhism, and Confucianism).

Christian Apologetics Is Not the Gospel: It Is Both a Preparation and a Reinforcement

© Copyright 2014 by Gretchen Passantino Coburn

“For I am not ashamed of the gospel, because it is the power of God that brings salvation to everyone who believes: first to the Jew, then to the Gentile” (Romans 1:16 NIV).

“But in your hearts revere Christ as Lord. Always be prepared to give an answer to everyone who asks you to give the reason for the hope that you have. But do this with gentleness and respect” (1 Peter 3:15).

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Defining the Gospel

The gospel, or “good news,” is the death, burial, and resurrection of Jesus Christ on our behalf (1 Corinthians 15:1-5). It is God’s Great Redemption Story – the work of God by the Holy Spirit through the sacrifice of Jesus Christ by which fallen, sinful, broken humanity is reconciled to God and regenerated to become the fulfillment of God’s image in his restored Creation.

The gospel is the reconciliation of humans with God. The working of the gospel is empowered and enacted by God, not humans. While God uses humans to proclaim the gospel, it is God’s power that acts in that gospel to produce repentance and salvation in the recipient of the gospel.

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Defining Apologetics

Apologetics, specifically Christian apologetics, is a defense of the truthfulness of Christianity and its truth claims, centered on the reality of the gospel.

The term apologetics comes from the ancient Greek apologia, used in the legal sense as a defendant’s response to the charges against him in a law court. When Socrates was accused of treasonously corrupting the youth of Athens, his speech in his own defense was called his Apologia. The term occurs in the New Testament specifically by the apostle Paul when he defends himself against the charges of heresy lodged by the Jewish leaders to the authorities (Acts 26:2); in another form in Philippians 1:7 (16) for defense of the faith; in a negative form in Romans 1:20 indicating that reprobates’ sins are indefensible; and most popularly known in 1 Peter 3:15 as not merely the “why” of belief, but the reasoned, argued, evidenced defense of the Christian hope.

Christian apologetics may include defenses such as rational arguments for the existence of God, historical arguments for the reality of Jesus’ resurrection from the dead, scientific arguments affirming God as creator (intelligent design), philosophical arguments for biblical morality, etc.

 

The Appropriate Use of Apologetics

When someone testifies to the gospel, and his or her message is challenged, apologetics is the discourse by which those challenges are met. In this context, apologetics has three main purposes: (1) to hold scoffers accountable for their rejection of the gospel; (2) to remove the roadblocks of ignorance and/or misinformation that impede someone’s serious consideration of the gospel; and (3) to strengthen the faith of the believer (not merely giving the believer facts that support his or her faith, but actually nourishing one’s faith life).

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Apologetics Exposes Resistance to the Gospel

First, apologetics exposes the scoffer’s rejection of the gospel as a spiritual or life issue, not an intellectual or fact issue. It breaks down the walls of defense that disguise someone’s rejection of God.

Most often, when someone is asked why he or she is not a Christian, some kind of an “ant-belief” apologetic is offered: “Christians are just hypocrites;” “How can I believe in a good God when I see so much evil around me?” “That Jesus stuff is ancient mythology;” “The Bible is full of contradictions;” etc. Some people specifically identify themselves as atheists, agnostics, or skeptics and their objections appear more sophisticated: “The existence of God is unprovable;” “Science has done away with the need for people to believe in God;” “The Big Bang explains everything without need to resort to some Creator explanation;” etc. None of these kinds of objections disprove the existence of God. (They may bring into dispute the nature or character of God, the character of those who believe in Him, or the reliability of the revelation attributed to Him. They do not disprove God’s existence.) In fact there are abundant counter-arguments and positive arguments for the existence of God, the truthfulness of Christian theism, the reality of the Incarnation and Resurrection, and the trustworthiness of the Bible.

As 1 Peter 3:15 commands us, Christians are to be “always ready” or “constantly prepared” to defend the Christian faith, and when we take this charge seriously, God can use our arguments to expose the scoffer’s resistance to the Holy Spirit. The scoffer, those influenced by the scoffer, and, of course, those believers who challenge the scoffer can then see clearly that the scoffer is rejecting the truth, not clinging to the truth. Romans 1:18-20 tells us that scoffers “suppress the truth by their wickedness, since what may be known about God is plain to them, because God has made it plain to them. For since the creation of the world God’s invisible qualities—his eternal power and divine nature—have been clearly seen, being understood from what has been made, so that people are without excuse.”

Many years ago my late husband Bob Passantino and I were asked by a new Christian to persuade her atheist husband to stop mocking her for her faith and to allow her to attend church and other Christian events. The atheist (we’ll name him John for this story) claimed he embraced the truth of atheism and didn’t need the crutch of belief in a myth like his wife. Bob talked to John on the phone and discovered he was an unsophisticated atheist. John was unprepared to appreciate the force of the apologetics Bob and I were prepared to deliver. So Bob sent John a list of books (this was before the Internet) to educate him in his atheism. All of the books were against Christian theism. Bob challenged John to read and learn more sophisticated arguments in preparation for talking with us. In the meantime, John agreed to stop harassing his wife for her faith. A couple of months later we met with John, who was eager to demonstrate his newly acquired anti-God prowess against us. (Evidently he didn’t consider that Bob, the Christian theist, who had prepared the atheist reading list for him, probably had answers to those arguments.) After several hours of discussion, we had answered all of his new arguments, improved some of his arguments but answered the improvements, and given him even more sophisticated arguments which we also successfully answered. Finally, in the wee hours of the morning, John finally gave up his intellectual subterfuge. He said, “You both have every reason to believe what you believe, and I have no reasons to reject belief. But I will never believe in God! I hate God!” That was the crux of the matter: in his deepest heart, he knew God existed but he hated God and would not surrender to him. As far as we know, he never relented in his rejection of God, but it was evident to us, his wife, and himself that his problem was not intellectual, but spiritual. And he never mocked his wife for her faith or interfered with her practice of it. Apologetics holds people accountable for rejecting the gospel.

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Apologetics Removes Mistaken Assumptions

When someone’s heart is softened toward the gospel, he or she often becomes distracted or confused because of exposure to false ideas about the truth of God, revelation, salvation, and Jesus Christ. That false information can obscure the truth. Like a “magic eraser” sponge, apologetics can wipe away those false arguments. While there is an abundance of evidence for Christian truth claims, and abundance of evidence against contrary world views, unless someone is aware of those arguments, he or she may fail to seriously consider the call of the gospel. Whether one’s spiritual head is turned by an attractive philosophical argument, a scientific conundrum, or a social fad, such diversions rob potential believers of the truth. The apostle Paul described this kind of spiritual blindness in Acts 17, as he addressed the Greek philosophers of Athens, describing their indiscriminate polytheism as ignorance, and proclaiming to them that he would enlighten them about the truth. He preached Christian theism and the reality of the resurrection, concluding, “In the past God overlooked such ignorance, but now he commands all people everywhere to repent. For he has set a day when he will judge the world with justice by the man he has appointed. He has given proof of this to everyone by raising him from the dead” (Acts 17:30-31).

My late husband Bob and I once talked in a mainline Protestant church on the dangers of “New Age” beliefs and practices, including pantheism (God is everything and everything is God), psychic readings, reincarnation, etc. Afterward an older gentleman approached us and loudly announced, “I liked your presentation, although with my hearing problems, I missed a lot. I’m glad you brought up reincarnation. I’m fascinated by it and am trying to recover memories from my previous lives.” He seemed completely unaware that we had criticized reincarnation, refuting it from reason, science, and the Bible. We had the opportunity to meet with him in a quieter setting later and spent quite a bit of time listening to why he was so intrigued with reincarnation and explaining its inadequacies to him. By removing the attractiveness of reincarnation and exposing it as a cruel imagination that punishes people in this life for sins they didn’t even know they committed in a previous lifetime, and which gave no assurance that the cycle of rebirth would ever end, we were able to eliminate the man’s attraction to reincarnation. Then when we gave him the assurance of the gospel and the evidence for the resurrection of Christ, he was drawn to firm confidence in immediate salvation and confident hope for eternal life with God instead. Apologetics erases mistaken false ideas and clears the way for the persuasive truth of the gospel.

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Apologetics Nourishes the Faith of the Believer

Most Christians know that spiritual nourishment, including food for the mind, is necessary for Christian maturity. Most churches emphasize Bible study and education for successful discipleship. Many pastors exhort their congregations to learn the Word of God. Even though apologetics is sometimes treated as the neglected step-child of Christian education, believers acknowledge that defending the faith against rational attack is an important part of Christian living.

Often overlooked is the essential factor of Christian apologetics for the individual believer’s spiritual health and welfare. It is not sufficient for a Christian to know what he believes and why he believes it merely for the purpose of defending the faith or winning the convert. Apologetics is not merely the “supplement” to the Christian diet. It is the spiritual nutrition boost that can complete the spiritual diet and revive the flagging spirit. Rooted in the saving power of the Holy Spirit, the new Christian life must be nourished not only by worship, fellowship, learning the Bible, and prayer, but also by confirming the faith through apologetics.

One of the key apologetics passages for the truthfulness and historicity of the bodily resurrection of Jesus Christ from the dead is in chapter fifteen of the apostle Paul’s first letter to the Corinthians. Most who know apologetics are very familiar with this chapter, which represents an early proclamation of the resurrection dating from between AD 30 and 33, virtually contemporaneous with the event itself. The chapter begins with the strong command of Paul that this gospel of the resurrection has not only saved the Corinthian Christians, but it is that on which they have taken a stand, and it will continue to keep them strong if they hold firmly to the Word: otherwise, they will have believed in vain (1 Corinthians 15:2). How do we “hold firmly” what we’ve been told to believe? By understanding and knowing the strength of the belief. Paul spends the rest of the chapter preaching to the believers the truth of the resurrection and the falsity of its denial. He is not practicing apologetics to non-believers nor primarily equipping believers to combat unbelief outside the church. He is encouraging and nourishing the faith of the believers by proving the resurrection and disproving false beliefs. That is why he ends the chapter by encouraging the believers with the same images with which he opened the chapter – stand firm, let nothing move you, give yourself completely to the Lord’s work, because the reality of the resurrection gives you confidence “that our labor in the Lord is not in vain” (58).

This aspect of apologetics has been sadly neglected even as the last 30 years of American evangelicalism has seen a blossoming of Christian apologetics. Most of our involvement with apologetics has been for the purpose of refuting the opposition, defending the faith, and equipping believers to do likewise. We ought to expand our apologetic commitment and focus more time and attention on the spiritual nourishment apologetics gives believers. To the Jews who believed in Him, he said, “You will know the truth, and the truth will set you free” (John 8:31).

My husband Pat became a Christian as a young man, believing the gospel as it was told to him by his boss, a painting contractor who took him on as a young apprentice. Pat respected his employer, attended church with him and his family, was baptized, and learned about the Bible from a dedicated and wise pastor. But as he encountered the trials and temptations common to man, his faith stumbled. He didn’t know how to answer his non-believing family members when they mocked his faith. He didn’t know why, much less how, to resist temptations to sin when the lures around him seemed so much more tangible than something eternal promised after he would die. Always inquisitive, interested in science, an avid reader, he encountered more and more challenges to the simple gospel he had simply embraced. As he began to learn more about why he believed (he didn’t even know the discipline was called apologetics), he discovered his faith stirring with new growth. Solid apologetics in science confirmed his conviction that everything in the universe, from the expanses of space to the tiniest particle, was created by an intelligent designer. Apologetics in philosophy gave him confidence that it made sense to believe in Christian theism. Historical apologetics strengthened his identification with an unbroken line of apostolic testimony of the life, death, burial, and resurrection of Jesus Christ. Finally, his study of the evidences for the resurrection enabled him to stand firm in his faith, confidently offering the gospel to others with the same promise of resurrection and eternal life that he had received. Pat’s faith is firm, unwavering, confident, and healthy. It’s not all attributable to apologetics, of course, as the Bible gives us a broad range of ways the Holy Spirit strengthens and confirms our faith. But his faith is an example of the kind of strength apologetics “muscle milk” brings to the believer.

Pat is not alone in his experience. After more than 40 years in apologetics, I can testify that for several of my colleagues, apologetics became a life-giving transfusion of spiritual life as they experienced faith-challenging crises in their own lives. I’ve had more than one apologetics friend in the midst of trauma tell me, “If it weren’t for my confidence in the truth of the gospel, I would have abandoned all hope.”

One of the most common scriptures used in apologetics is found in the short New Testament letter of Jude written to Christians in multiple churches of the first century. Jude verse 3 commands the Christians to “contend for the faith that was once for all entrusted to God’s holy people.”

Apologetics is not the gospel, but it has three crucial purposes: (1) It knocks down the pretense of those who reject the gospel; (2) It erases the misconceptions that distract non-believers from the gospel; and (3) It nourishes the faith of the believer.

Let me conclude with Jude’s advice to the Christians about how to use apologetics: “But you, dear friends, by building yourselves up in your most holy faith and praying in the Holy Spirit, keep yourselves in God’s love as you wait for the mercy of our Lord Jesus Christ to bring you to eternal life. Be merciful to those who doubt; save others by snatching them from the fire; to others show mercy, mixed with fear – hating the clothing stained by corrupted flesh” (20-23).