The first time I heard the name of John Calvin was in my high school Social Studies textbook, and it wasn’t a positive introduction. It said something about his belief that people were fundamentally bad and that God chose to love some but not others. Maybe it said more than that, but I don’t remember. What I do know, is I immediately disliked him and wondered how anyone could like this Calvin fellow.
Calvinism is a dirty word in many circles. Even among Calvinists, being called a “Calvinist” can seem like something of a slur. I have already explored some of the path that led me to embrace Calvinism, so I won’t do that here. I also don’t want to write in order to try persuading others to change their doctrinal positions. This article addresses some stereotypes of Calvinists and focuses on what Calvinism isn’t while next week’s article will highlight what Calvinism is.
The question “Where was Jesus born?” is surprisingly tricky. The easy answer is, “In Bethlehem.” Yes, but where? The typical nativity scene features the holy family in a stable that looks like a barn, separate from the Inn, where there was no room. But is this accurate? Most historians and scholars say, “Not so much.”
This is a question that I’ve seen pop up more frequently on social media this year than in previous years, so I figured I’d take some time to lay out the facts and present some of the more popular theories.
What We Know
We know that Jesus was born in Bethlehem, there was no room “in the inn,” and that he was wrapped in swaddling cloths and laid in a manger.
“And Joseph also went up from Galilee, from the town of Nazareth, to Judea, to the city of David, which is called Bethlehem, because he was of the house and lineage of David, to be registered with Mary, his betrothed, who was with child. And while they were there, the time came for her to give birth. And she gave birth to her firstborn son and wrapped him in swaddling cloths and laid him in a manger, because there was no place for them in the inn.”
Luke 2:4-7 (ESV)
Aside from these basics, there’s a lot of detail left open: Why were they turned away from “the inn?” Why was there a manger, does that mean they were in the barn with the animals? Where did people in ancient Bethlehem keep the animals? These types of questions have led to a few different theories about where Jesus was actually born, which are briefly summarized below. Continue reading
Nearly ten years ago my cousin Vinnie (I love typing that) told me I should start an online church for people who were open to Christianity but wouldn’t actually go on Sunday mornings. This was long before live-streaming was accessible and few churches had an “online campus.” Now it is fairly common for churches to offer live-streaming of their services today. Recently, Judah Smith’s The City Church has caused a buzz by announcing the launch of a new church: “the phone in the palm of your hand.” Watch their announcement about ChurchHome below.
There are generally two type of responses to creative initiatives like this. Some will call it heresy and will shout, “That’s not church!” Others will hail it as a creative and relevant effort to reach unbelievers with the gospel. Instead of neatly fitting into either category, I want to walk through a few ways both groups might have a good point. Continue reading
The problem of pain and suffering is probably the greatest cause for people losing faith. That makes sense. It does seem like a good God who is also an all-powerful God should snuff out suffering and prevent it from ever happening. Terrible things happen to some really wonderful people, and it doesn’t always make sense. So how can we continue to live by faith and trust in God?
The existence of suffering comes down to these three realities:
- We are not robots. God created us with freewill. Every Christian believes this (not only Arminians). It is incredibly ironic to criticize God for allowing suffering while also shaking your fist at him and telling him to stay out of your life. You can’t have it both ways… God gave us responsibility, and we need to own that.
- We make a train wreck of our lives and of the world. Pointing all the way back to the first humans, Adam and Eve, we have a way of choosing sin over righteousness. We aren’t as sinful as we could be, but we are all sinners and that has effected everything in our world: our relationship with God, with others, with ourselves, and with nature. We know things aren’t “the way they’re supposed to be,” but our efforts often make things worse, not better. God must intervene somehow.
- God has a greater dream for our lives than we could imagine for ourselves. While we try to define a successful life by our bank account, or family, or power, or influence, or whatever… God has a greater dream for us. The truth is, our dream is not too big for God, but too small! Because of sin, there will be a day of judgment to make things right, and suffering is often God’s warning light calling us to repentance now before it’s too late.
I was in college when I read a book that captivated me. It was an apologetics book where a theology professor was writing letters back-and-forth with his atheist father, and he carefully and winsomely explained his Christian views. The problem was, some of those views were radical reinterpretations of what the Bible teaches. Because of this book there were a number of significant doctrines that I misunderstood for years. Since then, I have grown more discerning and careful about evaluating what I read and listen.
We are all called to be careful readers and listeners, to be on guard against false teachers. Sometimes it might come off as spiritual superiority (“I know better than they do, I’m not falling for it!”) or spiritual arrogance (“I can’t believe you’d read that book”). We need to remain humble even as we grow in our spiritual discernment, but one of my great concerns for Christians today is a lack of spiritual discernment.
There are authors and musicians (yes, our Christian music can easily spread false teaching) who are on the Christian best seller’s list, but they’re false teachers who should be avoided. Sure, maybe their books are really fun to read, their personalities are engaging, and some of their stuff is helpful. But the Bible calls Christians to be spiritually discerning, because there are false teachers who can lead well-intentioned believers astray.
Do false teachers concern you? Do you ask theological questions about the books you read, music you listen to, shows you watch, or teachers you learn from? Sadly, we cannot simply trust anyone who talks about Jesus and quotes the Bible.
A young grade-schooler came home recently with a packet of “Holidays Around the World.” In it, religious holidays were described only according to the ways they’re celebrated. Hanukkah was described as eight days when people light candles. Christmas is a day when Santa Claus comes to deliver presents to children and people decorate with Christmas trees and lights on their houses.
Describing Christmas by pointing to Christmas trees and Santa Claus is like describing Independence Day by talking about fireworks and Uncle Sam.
The gospel is at the heart of Christmas: the gift of salvation through the life and work of Jesus Christ. But why did Jesus need to be fully man and fully God? As St. Anselm asked, “Why the God-Man?” Continue reading
When you think about “heaven,” what comes to mind?
Many people think about about clouds, white light, pearly gates, and eternal happiness. My mind was completely blown when I discovered that Scripture teaches about eternity as a physical life. I had always imagined that heaven would be some disembodied life, floating around as spirits who are worshipping before God’s throne.
But the Bible consistently teaches about an eternal, earthly kingdom where God’s people will live. The New Testament calls this the “New Heavens and New Earth.” Here just a few places in Scripture that point to our future eternal-bodily life.
Every Christian continues to endure temptation and sinful desires… sometimes victoriously, and sometimes we indulge our sinful nature. How should we make sense of this?
Sometimes we can get the impression that once we become Christians our lives are immediately characterized by holiness and purity. But that’s just not the case. Sometimes, yes, the Lord graciously frees us from crushing temptations or addictions; but most Christians experience a more gradual and subtle growth in holiness.
I know some people who have seriously struggled with the question, “Am I really a Christian?” because of their lingering struggles with specific temptations (usually sexual ones). With this in mind, I believe Martin Luther’s theology of Christian identity as “Simultaneously Saint and Sinner” is extremely helpful. Continue reading
Hope is more than a wish. It’s a confident expectation that the future is bright and that good things await. A wish, however, is a shot-in-the-dark… like heading into a test that you didn’t study for, and just wishing to do well. Hope is built on a foundation; wishes float “out there” without any real substance.
The Christian life is built on a foundation of hope, not upon a wish.
The Foundation of Christian Hope
One of my favorite people in the Bible is the Apostle Thomas. After Jesus’ death, all the disciples were in the Upper Room when Jesus suddenly appeared (even though the doors were all locked, because they were afraid of being arrested). The disciples saw Jesus, talked with him, and were astounded that he was alive again. They had heard the rumors, but now they saw him with their own eyes. But Thomas wasn’t there. In days that followed, Thomas would insist that he wouldn’t believe unless he could put his fingers in the holes in Jesus’ hands. That week must have been excruciating for Thomas… feeling hopeless while everyone else is full of hope.
How do we move on after great tragedies? Especially when they seem to happen every week? 27 dead in a church shooting. 8 dead in New York by a man who drive his truck into a bicycle path. 58 dead in Las Vegas at a concert. And that’s all within the last month of this article’s publication.
In a way, asking “How do we move on” is the wrong question. We don’t “move on.” We shouldn’t. But… where do you go from here? How do you continue living without the burden of fear and anxiety at every turn?
People either call for political reform to ensure future safety, or they turn to prayer without seeking worldly solutions. As Christians, how do we think about and process these tragedies?