Monday, July 27, 2009

Are there different levels of sin?

Written by me but originally posted here.

This question came from the youth group pickle box. Yes I know that pickles don’t come in boxes but we didn’t have a jar so we had to substitute a box, therefore we have a pickle box. This is one of those questions that have a yes and no answer. Let me start with a bit of simplified background.

The Catholic tradition teaches that there are two different types of sin, venial and mortal. Venial sins are those sins that can be forgiven and do not prevent someone from entering heaven. Mortal sins cannot be forgiven and there are three conditions that must be met in order for a sin to be considered a mortal sin. The conditions are: full knowledge of wrong doing; deliberate consent of the action; and the sin must be of grave matter. These mortal sins separate us from the saving grace of God. This separation is why we need the saving power of the death and resurrection of Jesus Christ.

However, as Protestants, what do we believe the Bible teaches about sin?
Romans 3:23 states “for all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God.” Romans 6:23 states “for the wages of sin is death, but the gift of God is eternal life in Christ Jesus our Lord.” So at this point I think that we agree with the Catholic tradition, we have all sinned and when we commit a sin we are separated from God. But if we back up in Romans a couple of chapters we read in 2:12 that “all who sin apart from the law will also perish apart from the law, and all who sin under the law will be judged by the law.” Paul is stating that even if we do not know God’s law that we are still guilty when we break the law. Compare it to driving down a road at 55 mph not knowing that the speed limit is 45 mph. If you get pulled over by a police officer he can still write you a ticket even though you could honestly say that you did not know the speed limit and did not intend to break the law.

Paul goes even further in Romans 2:14 & 15 and takes away our ignorance argument. He states, “Indeed, when Gentiles, who do not have the law, do by nature things required by the law, they are a law for themselves, even though they do not have the law, since they show that the requirements of the law are written on their hearts, their consciences also bearing witness, and their thoughts now accusing, now even defending them.” Paul is stating that we know when we are doing something wrong even when we may not necessarily have heard that doing it is wrong. James 2:10 states that “For whoever keeps the whole law and yet stumbles at just one point is guilty of breaking all of it.” He goes on to say in 3:2 that “We all stumble in many ways.” Between Paul and James, I think that they sufficiently state that we all commit sin and that just telling a small white lie is the same as committing murder.
Well, they are the same at least as far as separating us from God. No matter what we do wrong, it is enough to separate us from a perfect God. So from this perspective the answer to the original question is no, there are not different levels of sin.

Now, that does not mean that different sins do not have different consequences here on earth. If you tell that little white lie (“Yes I did all of my homework”) is not going to get you into nearly as much trouble if you do commit murder. We even have different levels of punishment for murder based upon a number of different circumstances. So from the earthly consequences perspective the answer to the original question is yes, there are different levels of sin.

I think that we should not over worry about trying to remember each and every sin that we commit. The ones that we can remember will keep us busy enough. What is important is to realize that each and every sin is enough to separate us from God and should not be treated too lightly.

Tuesday, June 30, 2009

Who's Giving?

From George Barna (emphasis added):

Tithing in 2007

Whether they believe in the principle of tithing or not, few Americans give away that much money. In 2007, the research revealed that just 5% of adults tithed.

Not surprisingly, some population groups were more likely than others to have given away at least ten percent of their income. Among the most generous segments were evangelicals (24% of whom tithed); conservatives (12%); people who had prayed, read the Bible and attended a church service during the past week (12%); charismatic or Pentecostal Christians (11%); and registered Republicans (10%).

Several groups also stood out as highly unlikely to tithe: people under the age of 25, atheists and agnostics, single adults who have never been married, liberals, and downscale adults. One percent or less of the people in each of those segments tithed in 2007.

Among all born again adults, 9% contributed one-tenth or more of their income.

The study also showed that Protestants were four times as likely to tithe as were Catholics (8% versus 2%, respectively).

I find that a very interesting in your face to all those liberal Democrats that want to claim that conservative Republicans are cold and calloused when it comes to helping out the poor. We just tend to think that the church might be a bit better at helping than the government.

Wednesday, June 24, 2009

A Psalm of Lament

Of Michael. A Lament.

1 Father, you have walked before me, with me, and you will walk after me.

2 You have been the constant and consistent presence in my life.

3 You have been the one who walks on the dangerous side of the path for my protection.

4 To this end I will glorify you forever and ever; I will sing to your praise day and night.

5 The path that I am now walking down is filled with new trials and struggles.

6 My inclination to try and traverse the trail alone is great; do not forsake me to a lonely journey.

7 I know that thieves and robbers are awaiting me on this path and that they will try and steal my heart away from you.

8 Father, you are my guide that shows me the steps to take.

9 Whenever I have relied on you in the past, you make sure that my footing is secure and stable.

10 You have given me the wisdom to avoid the cliff falls and endless pits in the past.

11 You have given me the insight and ability to help others as well as myself, anything I have accomplished is only because of you.

12 To this end I will glorify you forever and ever; I will sing to your praise day and night.

13 Father, this is the path that you have set before me.

14 Do not allow me to stumble upon it.

15 Father, these are the thieves and robbers that you have allowed upon this path. They will try to destroy me and others. They will try and rob you of your glory.

16 Do not give me over to them.

17 This path is greater than any I have ever before traveled; this path is filled with more cliff falls and endless pits than any I have ever before encountered.

18 Do not let me fall into them, for I alone cannot see them. It is only you that can help me to avoid them.

19 You will forever be my guide and I will continue to rely upon you to lead me.

20 I know that you will hear and deliver those that call upon you and trust in you.

21 To this end I will glorify you forever and ever; I will sing to your praise day and night.

22 You sent your son to die for my sins to provide salvation so that I would not be lost upon my journey.

23 To this end I will glorify you forever and ever; I will sing to your glory day and night.

24 I know that you will never forsake me; you will not stop molding me and shaping me until I am the finished product.

25 To this end I will glorify you forever and ever; I will sing to your glory day and night.

26 You have healed my heart and you have made my soul whole.

27 To this end I will glorify you forever and ever; I will sing to your glory day and night.

28 When I follow you, I do not see harm no matter how tough the trails we have traveled.

29 When I have not followed you, you have restored me when I called upon you name. You have been the faithful one, you have been the strong one, and you have been the merciful one even when I have not deserved your grace.

30 To this end I will glorify you forever and ever; I will sing to your glory day and night.

Tuesday, June 23, 2009

Jon & Kate plus 8 equals disaster

I admit that over the past couple of years watching Jon and Kate plus 8 has been one of my guilty pleasures. It all started off because my wife was watching them and I would sit down on occasion to watch the show. Next thing you know it, I was hooked. The original premise of the show was how this couple coped with the difficulties of marriage and raising 8 kids (twins and sextuplets).

However as the show went on the strain of the marriage came to the front. Now comes word that this celebrity couple is getting a divorce. Not earth shaking news, celebrity couples get divorced all the time, but this celebrity couple is a celebrity couple because they are married and have 8 kids.

Both said that their kids are the most important thing in their lives. But what about their marriage? Wouldn't that in a sense be more important than their kids? It's kind of like saying that the house is more important than the foundation it's built on. Yes you can still have the house but it's much better off with a solid foundation. Same for kids, you can have kids without the marriage but they are better off in a marriage (see here, here and here).

Maybe Jon and Kate should have focused on what was best for their marriage and that would have resulted in them doing what was best for their kids.

Monday, June 22, 2009

Trouble and Promise in the Struggle of the Church in America

In Oxford, England during the year of 1938 the great theologian Karl Barth gave a speech entitled Trouble and Promise in the Struggle of the Church in Germany. In that lecture he spelled out how the Nazi party had offered the Evangelical Church in Germany what seemed like the deal of a lifetime. It was one of those deals that seem too good to be true. The church was offered a favored position in the new state and assured that they would be able to evangelize the 80 to 90 percent of the German people who were not in the church. The only catch was that the church had to recognize that the Nazi party coming to power was divine revelation. And that the church had to put its work, teaching and care under the service of the state, namely the leader of the state. Barth went on to point out how some in the church grasped this offer as if it was from God and others shunned it. He also pointed out that while this trial was out in the open in the German church that a similar but hidden temptation faces every church in every nation. We are able to have favored status among men if we just serve men rather than God.

Jesus faced a very similar set of temptations in Matthew 4. Jesus faced three different temptations; the first was a benefit to his physical appetite, the second was a benefit of personal gain and the third was a benefit of power and glory. Today we will examine the third of these three temptations and how that same temptation still faces us today. Not only does that temptation face us, but there is a very real trouble and promise within that temptation that faces the church in America today.

All too often we as a church seem to be more interested in what God can do for us rather than what we can do for God. We expect God to bless us as a church and a nation. “If we are faithful to God then God will bless us” is our mantra. It’s a mantra that we do not give much thought or the ramifications of what we are truly saying. We have this expectation of God blessing us but our expectation, while we may verbally deny it, is that God will bless us in material ways. We do not think about what we are saying to the non-Christians of our nation nor do we think about what we are saying to the rest of the Christian church in the world when we hold this mantra. Just as a bit of background, the United States has the largest national population of Christians. Yet we only have a little over 11% of the world’s Christian population. And on top of that, the world’s Christian population, which is the largest religion in the world, still only represents less than 1/3 of the world’s total population. So we as American Christians, who are the most visible Christians in the world, need to be very careful about what we say and how we say it.

The United States currently holds the prestigious position of being the preeminent superpower of the world. We are also the overall richest country in the world. Our Gross Domestic Product, which is a measure of the size of our economy is almost double that of the next closest country. We do a very good job of defining status by how much stuff we own. Watch any amount of TV or listen to the radio; both of them make huge amounts of money from advertising, advertising that is designed to get you to buy more stuff. I know that I am particularly susceptible to their wares. Whenever I travel I have a phone, laptop computer, personal game system and an mp3 player that I must bring with me. However did I travel without them? When I was growing up it was rare to ever see a Mercedes or a BMW driving down the street. These rich status symbols meant something. Today it is rare to drive anywhere without seeing multiples of each. While we are not all rich by American standards, most of us are not lacking any real necessity by the world’s standards. In a certain sense, yes God has blessed us as a nation. Yet what does it say to the other nations of the world when we claim to be faithful and therefore blessed? The Christians in Darfur face trials and tribulations that we in America will never even fully understand let alone face. Are they less faithful than us because they are not similarly blessed as we are?

As the richest church in the richest country we have both a position of prestige and power as well as a position of great responsibility. The trouble that faces the church in America today is working hard to maintain and even expand its favored status within our own nation. At times the church does a better job of reflecting the values found in our own country rather than the values found in our Bible. We want to do what is right in the eyes of men rather than what is right in the eyes of God. We are even starting to change some of our core beliefs to better fit into the culture. We fail to speak out regarding politics so that we do not lose our tax exempt status. We would rather save money by not paying taxes than speak to an important issue that is being decided in our political system. Just because the government wants us to keep our faith private does not mean that God wants us to do the same. The trouble is that we come across as greedily wanting to save our own lifestyles rather than our and others eternal lives. While I cannot speak for everyone else, we would all do well to check and see if that particular greedy shoe fits.

However not all is lost. We have been given a position of great wealth and influence which we have a duty to use well. There is a great opportunity for us to do an even greater good than we have already done so far. Churches all across this nation are making a choice to spend their resources on making the world a better place. Now in what is a global recession we have the opportunity to do an even greater good. We have the money and the influence to make tangible changes to problems such as world hunger, the African AIDS epidemic and human rights violations. We should be leading the way in doing these things no matter how unpopular they make us and no matter what they cost us. If we do any less, we are the ones that are less faithful.

Thursday, June 18, 2009

The Gospel and Culture

When I think about the concept of culture the first thing that comes to mind is the nature versus nurture argument. I see culture as the nurture component of the great development debate. It is the environment that is created by the other people surrounding us. I do not mean to suggest that we are merely innocent bystanders in the creation of the culture that we find ourselves in but that our culture (at large) is so influenced by others that our individual influence is miniscule. This also does not mean that a single person cannot cause drastic changes in a culture but that the required effort is usually so overwhelming that it usually costs that person their life. And even in these cases it is usually not a single person that causes the change but rather that person is merely the most visible person in a swell of support for the change. Someone like Martin Luther King cannot change a culture of inherent racism without the tireless and continuing work of others to bring about the change. Bill Gates, who has profoundly impacted our culture in a very different way, did not act alone but had much help. Both cases had to have a certain amount of the public willing to accept the changes that they were both proposing. Yet while the culture is larger than any one person, it is at the same time what you make of it. Culture is the relational influence that is placed upon us and that we in turn place on others.

I can find myself in an almost limitless number of cultures. I am in the culture of the United States of America but also in the culture of the world. And while the USA culture is just a small part of the world culture, the culture of this country is not a single homogeneous glob. It can be divided and subdivided almost endlessly. Every aspect of my life has very different cultures that I influence and in turn influence me. Certain cultures, if I don’t like them can be easily changeable either through influence or even absence. Other cultures may provide intriguing to me and I can work to join those cultures through membership or conformity. I also have a choice to take from my surrounding cultures that which I want and leave behind that which I do not want. I can even choose to be counter-cultural, which has become such a popular idea that being counter-cultural is becoming a popular norm of our culture. While this may seem at odds with the previous paragraph because culture is based upon our relationship with each other, as the culture gets larger and larger the ability of the individual to affect change becomes smaller and smaller.

The one person that had the ability to completely affect culture on a large scale chose not to do so. Jesus understood the importance of relationship so well that in his quest to make a history shifting impact in the culture of the world that he willingly involved others. The Gospel is simply our relationship with God. This is not to say, as I have heard others proclaim, that Christianity is not a religion but a relationship. I would say that it is both; it is the religion that leads to the proper relationship with God. This relationship with God in turn affects our relationship with others. As I see it, the closer I get to a right relationship with God the closer I get to a right relationship with those that I come in contact with. In this way culture and the gospel are intricately intertwined. Because we are all creatures that were created in the image of God, then every culture contains some influence of the gospel.

While the merits of the argument that our country is, or was, a Christian nation can be debated, what I think is important is not whether or not we try to govern this country as a Christian nation but whether or not we as Christians positively influence the relational nature of our cultures. And because culture is made up of relationships and the gospel seeks to mend broken relationships that the intersection and influence of the two on each other cannot be understated. It is not merely a one way street but rather a very dynamic relationship between the two. I have found the struggles between Christianity and culture throughout the history of the church to be very interesting and how we see different reactions by the church to when culture has more influence on Christianity than vice-versa. I see culture and gospel not just as an interesting topic but rather I see their intersection as what ministry is all about.