Category Archives: The Gospel

Lessons on Forgiveness from Charleston

One of the family members said, “But if God forgives you, I forgive you.”  Was she wrong to speak this way?

The united testimony of the Charleston families offering forgiveness in the name of God was confounding and incomprehensible to some, and perplexing even to some Christians. Were families of the victims in Charleston wrong to offer Christian forgiveness to an apparently unrepentant killer? One of the family members said, “But if God forgives you, I forgive you.”  Was she misrepresenting God’ forgiveness?

I think these are essential questions for the church to grapple with.  Christians have a witness before the world that is being watched carefully.  As I argued in my previous article, I believe the Charleston family members gave a powerful and theologically appropriate testimony  before the world.  The issue of forgiveness is at the very heart of the Christian gospel.  Through Christ, God forgave and reconciled sinners to Himself.  So Christians are to be like God in being a forgiving, gracious people.  But to do so in a way fitting and pleasing to God, we should biblically consider the issue of forgiveness as we try to correctly answer questions such as: what is forgiveness, to whom it is offered and on what basis, what does human vs. divine forgiveness accomplish, etc.

Defining Christian forgiveness

According to the Merriam Webster dictionary to forgive is to: a) to stop feeling anger toward (someone who has done something wrong); b)  to stop blaming (someone); c) to stop feeling anger about (something) ; d) to forgive someone for (something wrong); e) to stop requiring payment of (money that is owed).

When we forgive someone, we let go of resentment, anger, or blame; we let go of the claim for requital we have towards someone who’s wronged us.  Another aspect of forgiveness is granting relief from payment.  This touches on the legal concern– does forgiveness remove the guilt incurred when someone wrongs another?  We will explore this question further in order to highlight the difference between human and divine forgiveness.

Christian forgiveness goes beyond merely letting go of anger, resentment, or bitterness, since it even returns good for evil. We see this expressed in such verses as, “Repay no one evil for evil” (Rom. 12:17). “Beloved, never revenge yourselves, but leave it to the wrath of God” (12:19). “If your enemy is hungry, feed him, if he is thirsty, give him something to drink” (12:20). “But if anyone slaps you on the right cheek, turn to him the other also” (Matt. 5:39).

So we turn now to the question of to whom is this extraordinary Christian forgiveness offered, and what does it accomplish.

To whom is Christian forgiveness offered?

There are various types of Christian forgiveness:

  • God offers forgiveness to the sinner who repents of their sins through Christ, accomplishing the salvation of sinners (Acts 2:38);
  • Christians offer forgiveness to other Christian brothers and sisters, as commanded, with a view towards reconciliation of relationship (Eph 4:32, Col 3:13);
  • Christians follow the example of a merciful Savior and offer love (including forgiveness) towards enemies , with a view towards softening the heart of the enemy by pricking his conscience (Luke 6:35; Rom 12:20);
  • The Church forgives the repentant sinner to restore them back into fellowship; or withholds fellowship until the sinner repents (Matthew 18:15-17).

Human forgiveness of personal harm vs. divine forgiveness of the guilt of sin

The forgiveness believers offer does NOT remove sinful guilt from the person we forgive. Only God can remove the permanent guilt of sin, and this is contingent upon the person repenting through Christ.

Some confusion in the debate on forgiveness perhaps arises from not taking into account the biblical distinction between the personal forgiveness Christians are commanded to express to others for sins and harms committed against them (or even sins committed against loved ones which in turn impact them) vs. the divine forgiveness God offers to the repentant person, which not only forgives but also removes the guilt of the sinner.  Christians are called to the former, but only God offers and accomplishes the latter. Believers offer mercy and forgiveness to others, even to enemies, because we have been mercifully forgiven by God for a vast multitude of sins (Matt 18: 21-35). Christian forgiveness therefore becomes a reflection of the mercy and grace of God towards all.  But the forgiveness believers offer does NOT remove sinful guilt from the person we forgive. Only God can remove the guilt of sin, and this is contingent upon the person repenting through Christ, who at the cross paid the penalty for sin for all who respond to Him (Luke 13:5; Rom 4:7-8; Rom 8:1).

Loving and forgiving enemies in the name and power of Christ
Therefore, when believers in obedience to God forgive those who trespass against them (Matt 5:12); forgive as we have been forgiven (Col 3:13); and love enemies (Matt 6:44-45), the love and forgiveness offered is not communicating that those forgiven are now excused of the guilt of their sins.  For the Bible says unless a person repents through Christ, they will have to bear the guilt of their sin themselves, by suffering the eternal wrath of God (John 3:18).

Jesus commanded believers, “Love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you, so that you may be sons of your Father who is in heaven. For he makes his sun rise on the evil and on the good, and sends rain on the just and on the unjust (Matthew 5:44-45).” Are not enemies to be defined as those who unrepentantly do evil against us?  Yet Jesus tells us we are to love these persons. Can we love these enemies without forgiving them? It seems to me the answer is no, for Christian love undoubtedly encompasses and includes forgiveness.

So when we offer forgiveness to others (believers/unbelievers; repentant/unrepentant) for harms done against us directly or indirectly– we are forgiving the hurts and harm, but not saying or doing anything in regard to their guilt before God. God Himself will judge the sinner’s guilt and execute justice on sinners in several ways.

Again, there are some distinctions among the scenarios of forgiveness.  When it comes to salvation, God forgives only the one who repents and turns to God through Christ, while the Church may only restore the repentant back to fellowship. But when it comes to forgiving personal harms, the Christian attitude is to be magnanimous and unconditional, for we have received an incomprehensible, overflowing, never-ending mercy.

Knowing God’s sovereign justice and amazing mercy helps us forgive, even our enemies

When believers forgive, it is with this knowledge– that God will fully punish all sinners and all sin, executing perfect justice.

“Vengeance is mine” says the Lord (Deut 32:35; Rom 12:19; Heb 10:30).   First, He sovereignly appoints earthly authorities to protect the public peace and to execute earthly justice (Rom 13:4).   So for example if the accused Charleston killer Dylann Roof is found guilty of murder, the system should render an earthly sentence for his crime.   As we see from Romans 13:4, this is part of the execution of God’s justice by means of earthly authorities He established.   Nevertheless, this earthly punishment does not remove spiritual guilt before God.  A person may pay the earthly price in the form of a legal punishment for a crime committed, yet this won’t justify them in the court of God’s justice.  Since all sin is ultimately against God, each must pay sin’s reckoning to God– and we pay either through the mercy of Christ Jesus who takes away our sins through His reconciling death on the cross, or pay by suffering in hell the eternal consequences for our sins. Either way, God’s justice will be executed.

So when believers forgive, it is with this knowledge– that God will fully punish all sinners and all sin, executing His perfect justice.  This is one of the reasons we must forgive– because not forgiving is a form of personal vengeance. And we also forgive while understanding that we too would have justly and deservedly been condemned for our sins and received God’s eternal wrath, but through Christ were mercifully spared and reconciled to God.  Being the recipients of this gracious, unmerited love and mercy, we must in turn graciously offer unconditional forgiveness to others for the sins/harms they have committed against us, with prayerful hope that those whom we forgive may be moved to also repent and turn to God for mercy (Rom 12: 14-21; Matt 5:43-48; Matt 6:12-15; Eph 2:1-5; Eph 4:31-32; Col 2:13-14; Col 3:13).

The Christian’s standard for love and forgiveness is Christ

The world might say, “Don’t forgive your enemies unless they repent.”  Or, don’t forgive them at all, depending on the nature of the crime.  But friends, we are not of the world!

Friends, Jesus teaches that the believer has been given a much higher standard than the world for its behavior. The world system is based on the “tit for tat”, “eye for an eye”, “you scratch my back, I’ll scratch yours” principles.  The world says “love your friends, hate your enemies”.  The world never rises above that which is natural (1 Cor 2:14).  Nor does it rise above the sinful and weak flesh, as it has no power to do so (Rom 8:7-8).  So the world might say, “Don’t forgive your enemies until they repent.”  Or, don’t forgive them at all, depending on the nature of the crime.   But friends, we are not of the world!   We are called to a supernatural life in Christ!   We have the indwelling Spirit of God.   Therefore we are to be perfect, as our heavenly Father is perfect (John 15:19; John 14:16-17; Matt 5:48).  What then is more like God-like and perfect, than forgiving our enemies?  Recall what Jesus did and said as He suffered upon the cross, an innocent man, being punished unjustly by His enemies. “Father, forgive them, for they know not what they do (Luke 23:34).

I believe this was Jesus speaking from His perfect humanity, to the very end of His earthly life showing forth the grace and mercy of God towards His enemies, exemplifying His own teaching that we are to love our enemies and pray for those who persecute us.  His heart towards His enemies was one of forgiveness.  Even in the midst of extreme physical and spiritual anguish, Jesus prayed for the mercy of God to fall upon His enemies, that some of them might still be saved. What an amazing, beautiful, merciful Savior we have, so awesome in grace and forgiveness.

We do not and cannot by our forgiveness remove the guilt of any sinner…. But being confident of God’s full justice, and empowered by His amazing love, we too can offer forgiveness to others in the name of Christ.

So brothers and sisters, this is why I was deeply moved by the forgiveness the Charleston families offered a cold-blooded killer.  I was reminded of the Savior.   Surely a killer does not deserve mercy!   Neither do I.   But our God is a God of mercy.   The families showed how God acts towards His enemies.   He “makes his sun rise on the evil and on the good, and sends rain on the just and on the unjust (Matthew 5:45)”  and “God shows his love for us in that while we were still sinners, Christ died for us (Rom 5:8).”  If we are to represent Him as sons and daughters of our heavenly father, let us be like Him in having merciful hearts that express forgiveness in words and actions.  Again, we do not and cannot by our forgiveness remove the guilt of any sinner.  God will execute His justice on all sinners.  But being confident of God’s full justice, and empowered by His amazing love, we too can offer forgiveness to others in the name of Christ.

The challenge of forgiving

Forgiving is not natural to sinful human beings, and even for Christians given a new power and new desires through the indwelling Spirit, forgiveness is still a challenge because of human weakness (see Rom 7).  Certainly if someone repents for their sins the believer is obligated to forgive them ((Matt 6:14–15; 18:23–35; Mark 11:25; Luke 17:3–4; Ephesians 4:31–32; Col 3:13). But the question in this debate has been whether the unrepentant person must be forgiven by the Christian.  I think so, and my argument is summarized in the following points. Christians should offer forgiveness to all, even the unrepentant:

  • For the sake of one’s own spiritual health and relationship with God and others, which will be poisoned by resentment and bitterness if we do not forgive others (Matt 5:23; Mark 11:25; 2 Cor 2:11);
  • As a testimony consistent with the love and grace of God we as sinners have received (Matt 18: 21-35; Eph 4:32; Col 3:13);
  • As a means to possibly win the offender to Christ through offering grace in His name (Rom 12:20-21)
  • To follow the example of Christ, showing ourselves God’s children by the mercy we give the undeserving (Matt 5:44-45)

I close with a quote from the reformer John Calvin:

Assuredly there is but one way in which to achieve what is not merely difficult but utterly against human nature: to love those who hate us, to repay their evil deeds with benefits, to return blessings for reproaches. It is that we remember not to consider men’s evil intention but to look upon the image of God in them, which cancels and effaces their transgressions, and with its beauty and dignity allures us to love and embrace them.

Further reading

Since God withholds forgiveness, can we?

Charleston: Forgiveness without Repentance?

When to Forgive Others

Advertisements

4 Comments

Filed under Controversy, The Cross, The Gospel, Theology

Hate Won’t Win: A Legacy of Christian Love Overcomes Evil

9 victims of charlestown shooting

For many in the American South, attending Wednesday night Bible study is not just a tradition, but a way of life.  Like-minded folks gather for prayer and Bible study mid-week, together drawing spiritual strength and sustenance from God.  Such meetings also often provide opportunities to welcome newcomers, as attendees follow biblical admonitions to welcome the stranger in their midst (e.g., Deut 10:19, Matt 25:40; Rom 12:13).  The Wednesday night gathering on June 17, 2015, at historic black church Emanuel African Methodist Episcopal (AME) in Charleston, South Carolina, was no different. The doors of the church were open to all, and among the 13 black regulars in attendance that night was a 21-year-old white man.

Tragically, this evening of sincere fellowship, worship and prayer would come to a shocking and bloody end. The young white man, having sat with the group for an hour, suddenly drew his gun and opened fire.  In the end, nine people (three men and six women, all African-American) would die, including the church’s pastor.  As the country reels from yet another act of violence involving black victims, the police have called this horrific and violent act a “hate crime” while the city’s mayor labeled it an act of “pure hatred.”  The Justice Department’s Civil Rights Division, the FBI and the U.S. attorney’s office for the District of South Carolina have opened hate crime investigations into the incident.  In the media, some are calling the incident an act of racially motivated “terrorism”, since the killer confessed that by his murderous act he intended to “start a race war.”

Thankfully, the suspect, Dylann Storm Roof, was apprehended in Shelby, N.C. the following Thursday morning, during a traffic stop.  Police believe he acted alone. Mr. Roof has been charged with nine counts of murder and one charge of weapon possession during the commission of a violent crime.  At the hearing, Chief Magistrate James B. Gosnell Jr. said he could not set bond for the murder charges, but set bond for $1 million for the charge of possessing a firearm during the commission of a violent crime. (In cases involving people charged with a capital offense or who face life in prison, only a circuit court judge can set the bond, according to the county.) Gosnell said Roof would appear in court in October and again in February 2016.

In the face of such monstrous evil, the heart and mind struggle to understand, and we may grasp at answers to our questions.  If people simply sitting in church, praying and studying the Bible can be shot down in cold blood, is there any safe place? Why do people hate so much, murdering others simply because of the color of their skin? Perhaps we think, “If only we knew why such things happen, we could prevent such evils from happening.”

At times like this there is much public speculation about causes and solutions.  Is it the alleged easy access to guns in America that makes gun crime violence all too common (as President Obama said to the nation Thursday, suggesting stronger measures on guns are needed)?  Yet others counter the President’s argument, saying that if the right of all to bear arms for protection was heeded such incidents would be fewer.

There is discussion of mental health.  Was this the act of a mentally ill person, or perhaps the act of a man under the influence of addictive drugs?  How do we best monitor people with such issues?

There is discussion of societal influence.  Perhaps hateful agitators behind the scenes manipulated an impressionable, unhappy loner to commit this heinous act of racist violence.  Or perhaps the strongest contributing factor, the thing we most urgently need to address as a nation, is a residual legacy of racism that remains deeply embedded in our culture, unacknowledged and therefore unaddressed. For a start, remove Confederate flags from public display, some say, as these are painful reminders of a legacy of institutionalized racism.

There is also the “What could have been done better?” brigade.  Why were obvious warning signs in this man’s life and behavior seemingly ignored?  Why are such signs so often overlooked?  Maybe hate speech on social media must be more seriously and carefully scrutinized, so that appropriate action may be taken.

Most poignantly, there is often anguished spiritual wrestling.  If God really exists, why so much evil?  If God is all-powerful, why does this he not prevent evil acts like this that cause the innocent to suffer?  Why, especially, does God not stop attacks against those who seem most dedicated to his service?

With all emotions intensified by raw grief, unhealed pain, and bubbling anger, human reasoning is strained.  We seek quick answers and solutions to relieve the gnawing pain we feel.  Solution-makers speak past one another, often unable to find any truth outside their own ideological persuasion.

Is there an easy answer to all these questions?  No.  Yet I believe the answer Christian faith gives is the best place to begin understanding and healing, because it identifies the heart of the matter.

There is a universal truth Christian faith points to as the root issue underlying the evil we encounter in this world, including both evil acts and evil circumstances.  This universal truth is the dark presence of sin in the human heart and in creation.  It is sin that has left such devastating destruction, evil and misery in its wake.  The world is NOT as it is meant to be; this is not the Paradise God originally created.

We ourselves are not who we were created to be, nor what we ought to be.  We are fallen sinners, in need of a Savior. But in the face of horrible sin and evil, Christian faith gives hope and a promise: a new world and a new kingdom have arrived in Jesus Christ, who will again return to establish His permanent kingdom, a kingdom where evil and its effects will be fully eradicated.  All who trust and follow Him will be included in this kingdom.

The story I want to tell in the remainder of this article is one that exemplifies this powerful hope, that is, the power of God through Christ to overcome sin and by His love, to overcome hate.  As Wanda Simmons, granddaughter of one of the victims, Daniel Simmons, declared at Thursday’s bond hearing for the accused killer: “Hate wont win!”

Though I was a stranger to the nine who were murdered, I don’t feel like they are complete strangers.  I feel like I know them in some way,  because they are my brothers and sisters in Christ.  Like believers do, they came together one night to speak of God, to encourage one another and to study the Bible, to find encouragement together in the Word of God and to pray for one another for strength to live out their faith.  I’m sure they are imperfect, because like all of us, they are sinners. Yet enough information has emerged to recognize this was an extraordinary and rather exemplary group of human beings, nine men and women dedicated to doing good with their lives and being of service of others in the community.  So I want to testify to their story, and to applaud the legacy of love they have left behind.  That legacy of love, through Jesus Christ, is indeed our only hope.

Of course, brief paragraphs on a webpage can never encapsulate nine lives, nor the impact they have made.  Here we can only briefly list their names and a bit about them (sources: this CNN article and other online articles listed below). The point, as we will see, is that in their time on earth these folks lived well and made a contribution to the betterment of their fellow human beings. They point the way for us all.

  • The Rev. Clementa Pinckney, 41, was a state senator and the senior pastor of Emanuel.  Heclementa-pinckney was married to Jennifer Benjamin and the father of two children, Eliana and Malana.  His colleague, Rep. Mark Sanford, a former governor of South Carolina , paid great tribute to him. “He was a remarkable human being,” Sanford told CNN’s “New Day.” “He had a gravelly, deep voice — a radio announcer’s voice, if you will — and he approached life with that same level of gravitas.” He called Pinckney “a man of character… He was a God-fearing man, a family man.”
  • Tywanztywanza-sandersa Sanders, 26, graduated from Allen University in 2014 with a degree in business administration. The 26-year-old died heroically, trying to save his aunt, Susie Jackson, also one of the victims.  This was a young man seemingly intent on going places. His cover photo on Facebook featured only words in light letters set against a dark background. They said simply: “Your dreams are calling you.”

Cynthia_Hurd_small1434648310

  • Cynthia Hurd, 54, worked with the Charleston County Public Library for 31 years.  A library statement said she “dedicated her life to serving and improving the lives of others. ” The Library closed all 16 of its branches Thursday in honor of Hurd and the others who died in the shooting. Her brother, Malcolm Graham, a former state senator, called Hurd a woman of faith, saying it was “typical” of her to be at the church on Sunday. She lived with her husband Steve in the east side of Charleston.
  • Sharonda Coleman-SingleSharonda Singleton and sonton was a speech therapist, a pastor at Emanuel AME Church, and a girls’ track coach. She was part of an athletic family, her husband Christopher Singleton a former football player at Tennessee State, and her son, Chris, born in 1995, a baseball player for Charleston Southern University. Coleman-Singleton also had two younger children.  Fighting off tears, Chris Singleton described his mother as “a God-fearing woman (who) loved everybody with all her heart. Love is always stronger than hate,” he told reporters.
  • Susie Jackson, 87, the oldest victim, was a cousin of Ethel Lee and a longtime member of the historic Charleston church, her grandson told CNN. Tim Jackson remembered his grandmother as a “very helpful person.” She was a choir member and on the usher board of the church.  Her son, Walter Jackson, said his mother was a “loving person” who had “no animosity toward nobody.” He reported that when he moved away from his home in the projects on the East Side, his mother gave his room to two young people who needed shelter in the neighborhood. “She took in others,” he said. “She was just that type of person.”
  • Rev. Depayne Middleton-Doctor, 49, was a minister at Emanuel AME, a school administratordoctor-mug at Southern Wesleyan University, a passionate Christian and the mother of four daughters.  She had a Master’s degree in management, and was an experienced grant writer and a consultant for school districts.  The Rev. George McKain recalled Middleton-Doctor as an enthusiastic singer with “a heart for missions, Christian education, loving all people (and) respective of all generations.  She could just bring out the praises of God and was a delight to know, a joy and a light in the midst of darkness.”
  • Retired pastor Reverend Daniel L. Simmons Sr., 74, was also on the staff at Emanuel and regularly attended the Wednesday night Bible study sessions.  He survived the initial shooting at the church, but later died during surgery.  According to a statement issued by his family, Rev. Simmons was “a distinguished man who served his God, country, and community well. His dedication to his profession and the AME church left a legacy for many to follow.  A loving father and grandfather, he was very proud of his family including the mother of his children, Annie Simmons, his two children Daniel Jr. and Rose Simmons, and his four grandchildren. Alana, Daniel III, Ava, and Anya Simmons.”
  • Myra Thompson, 59, was a Bible study teacher and wife to Reverend Anthony Thompson, vicar at Holy Trinity REC in Charleston. According to family friend Bishop Alphonza Gadsden, who had known Thompson for a decade, Myra “was a person who loved the Lord. Her every objective was to please Him in all that she did. She was teaching Bible study when she was killed.”
  • Ethel Lance, 70, was sexton (custodian) of Emanuel, a church she attended most oEthel Lancef her life. From 1968 to 2002, she worked as a custodian at Charleston’s Gaillard Municipal Auditorium. A former colleague, Cam Patterson, was quoted as saying, “She was funny and a pleasure to be around. And she was a wonderful mother and grandmother.”

Killer and lone gunman Dylann Roof confessed to police his intention was to “start a race war”, yet he “almost didn’t go through with it because everyone was so nice to him.”  Yes, this group of fine men and women he so mercilessly executed met him with kindness, and they leave behind a powerful legacy of love and kindness through their lives.  It is one strong enough, let us hope, to help bring healing to a nation divided and tense over racial issues.  We can see their legacy demonstrated, in the powerful words of love, mercy and forgiveness victim’s family members offered the killer at the bond hearing this past Thursday afternoon.  Read below their poignant, often eloquent words:

Nadine Collier, daughter of victim Ethel Lance

“I just wanted everyone to know.  To you, I forgive you. You took something very precious away from me. I will never get to talk to her ever again. I will never be able to hold her again, but I forgive you, and have mercy on your soul. … You hurt me. You hurt a lot of people. But if God forgives you, I forgive you.”

Relative of Myra Thompson

“I would just like him to know that… I’m saying the same thing that was just said: I forgive him and my family forgives him. But we would like him to take this opportunity to repent. Repent. Confess. Give your life to the one who matters most: Christ. So that He can change it, can change your ways, so no matter what happens to you, you’ll be okay. Do that and you’ll be better off than what you are right now.”

Felicia Sanders, mother of Tywanza Sanders

“We welcomed you Wednesday night in our Bible study with open arms. You have killed some of the most beautiful  people that I know. Every fiber in my body hurts and I’ll, I’ll never be the same. Tywanza Sanders was my son. But Tywanza Sanders was my hero. Tywanza was my hero…. but as we said in bible  study… May God have mercy on you.”

Wanda Simmons, granddaughter of Daniel Simmons

“Although my grandfather and the other victims died at the hands of hate, this is proof– everyone’s plea for your soul– is proof, that they lived in love and their legacies will live in love. So hate won’t win. And I just want to thank the court for making sure that hate doesn’t win.”

Sister of DePayne Middleton Doctor

“Depayne Doctor was my sister, and I’d like to thank you on behalf of my family for not allowing hate to win. For me, I’m a work in progress. And I acknowledge that I am very angry. But one thing that DePayne always enjoined in our family … is she taught me that we are the family that love built. We have no room for hate, so we have to forgive. I pray God on your soul…may God bless you”

Friends, whether Mr. Roof obtained a gun legally or illegally, was or wasn’t mentally deranged, was a pawn of hate groups or unduly influenced by racist society, the fact remains there have always been those who simply commit evil acts, even in the face of massive goodness and kindness.  This indeed is the story of how Jesus Christ was treated.  A man of God, He came from heaven with the message of God. From a heart filled with love and compassion, He reached out to the stranger, touched the leper, healed the sick, all the while announcing the good news of the arrival of His kingdom, a perfect, spiritual kingdom not of this broken, sinful world, but pointing ahead to the world to come.  He was not saying earthly needs are unimportant– indeed, He demonstrated how much God cares for human needs and human suffering by miraculously healing and providing for immediate physical needs.  Yet at the same time, He conveyed that all the good deeds and miracles He did in the name and power of God were but a foretaste of a greater, everlasting spiritual good.  He wanted His followers not to focus on the temporal, but on the eternal, to trust God with all their needs– earthly and spiritual. He demonstrated by His words and deeds and fulfillment of prophecy, that He was the long-awaited Messiah. Yet, this God-man, who only did good to all, was consistently attacked by evil men, falsely accused of wickedness, unjustly condemned, and at last crucified naked, alongside criminals, having first been viciously beaten and mocked.  In His hour of greatest human need, His friends and closest followers abandoned Him, fleeing to protect their own lives (now that, is my story).  Sin infects us all.  Even those who follow Jesus Christ so often abandon, disown, and distance themselves from Him.  We do so because, though we have received the great mercy and grace of God through Jesus Christ, we remain weak and sinful in ourselves.  Indeed, as the sister of victim Depayne Middleton-Doctor testifies, we are all a “work in progress.”  Friends, she is right.  the Christian is a work-in-progress.  Yet the Bible addresses us as saints, not because we are already perfect, but because God sees us as perfectly righteous through the lens of His perfect Son, Jesus Christ.

Let us not let hate win in our lives.  Let us overcome evil with good, and continue the legacy of love Christ gave us, and that this group of Christians exemplified.  Let us be a light that shines in the darkness of a world that so often rejects Christ because it knows not whom they reject.  As we shine our light, reflecting the one true Light of the world, may His goodness, mercy and compassion be brightly magnified for all to see.

Please listen to and watch the videos below.  The court testimonials, where family members of the victims made emotional statements addressing the killer, and DePayne Middleton-Doctor singing “Oh It Is Jesus”, both brought me to tears as they reminded me of the overcoming goodness of the Savior.

Sources and further reading

The powerful words of forgiveness delivered to Dylann Roof by victims’ relatives

In Charleston, Raw Emotion at Hearing for Suspect in Church Shooting

Remembering the Charleston church shooting victims

The Victims: 9 Were Slain At Charleston’s Emanuel AME Church

Victims of the Charleston church shooting

Charleston victims: 9 lives lost to family and community

Here’s What We Know About the People Who Lost Their Lives in Charleston

Dylan Roof Confesses He Almost Did Not Follow Through With Massacre ‘Because Everyone Was So Nice;’ Victims’ Families Offer Forgiveness

4 Comments

Filed under Controversy, The Gospel, Theology

It’s Time to Get the Gospel Right

The recent conference by John MacArthur, “Strange Fire” has generated a lot of controversy.  It stirs up an ongoing and often heated debate among evangelical Christians on “cessationism vs continuationism”: did miraculous gifts such as tongues, miracles and prophecy “cease” some time after the establishment of the early church and with the canonization of Scripture?  Or are those gifts continuing in operation, and to be sought after and put into practice today?  Unfortunately lack of clarity about terms such as cessationism, continuationism and charismaticism creates confusion as people debate these issues.  Online debates I have been part of often suffer from the lack of clarity.  Since there are varied positions within cessationism and charismaticism, to call oneself a “cessationist” or “continuationist” or a “charismatic” isn’t enough and usually requires further clarification.  Exactly what kind of “cessationist” or “charismatic” are you?   Lisa Robinson has a post right now that addresses this topic, “What is a Cessationist?…or Why I think We Need Another Term“, and I think her post is a helpful conversation opener on this.

Yet I think that what underlies the need for clarity of these terms is something even more fundamental and urgent to our mission as Christians: what is the gospel?  In other words, it seems the believer needs to figure out if charismatics are right or cessationists correct, because these very different positions have such a great impact on our mission of making disciples, and also lead to very practical differences in following Christ.  I encountered a Facebook post about continuationist Mark Driscoll showing up at the John MacArthur conference.  I noticed that several people sympathetic to the continuationist position in their comments on the post were bashing cessationism and Reformed theology with statements I felt were very derogatory as well as inaccurate characterizations of it.  Now perhaps many in the charismatic community who know of the Strange Fire conference feel the same way– that the conference unfairly caricatures the charismatic position.  One of the commenters on the post made this statement:

I am just learning about all of this and still reading. but it sounds to me like two “camps” with different ideas of how the holy spirit should look. they spend all their energy and time on defending “their” way instead of using that time and energy on preaching the gospel to a dying world. seems like they are missing the whole point.

I think the commenter makes a salient point, one that I can sympathize with.  It’s true that believers can be too focused on internal squabbles and get distracted from their main task, which as we know is to preach the gospel and make disciples.  But while we must not pick a fight on every little matter, there are matters too important to our mission to not get right.  In my mind there is no more important issue than getting the gospel right.  What exactly did Christ accomplish for us on the cross?  What should the Christian life look like? Is the believer still a sinner, or a saint who sins?  Must we have all these answers precisely correct before we go out and make disciples? I am not going to attempt in the brief post to answer all of these questions (but perhaps I’ll address them in future posts).

Yet I do believe it is part of the task of preaching the gospel message to be able to give accurate and Scriptural answers to these basic, critically important questions.  How can we preach a saving message if the gospel we preach is not real or true or accurate?  The Church is even charged with correcting false teachers/teaching.  How can we do so if we don’t know what the true gospel is?  We’re in the midst of a raging spiritual battle in which the forces of darkness are quite happy if the message we preach is a distortion that leads people away from the true and living God, all the while deceiving them into thinking that Christ is being truly preached.  We have been warned by Christ Himself that false Christs will come (Matt 24:24), and that in the last day many who thought they were working in the name of Jesus will find that Jesus rejects not only their works but them as well (Matt 7:21-23).  This is a very sobering warning.  Time is short, and there are eternal stakes involved if we allow ourselves to be deceived.

In my opinion the popular charismatic message has got things very wrong. It declares that all the miraculous gifts that were part of the early church continue today in the same exact manner as in the early church and are even crucial to the life and mission of the church.  Every believer should be a miracle worker, a prophet, a tongues speaker and a healer, or at least be ardently seeking these available gifts.  The Strange Fire conference looks at the phenomena happening in much of the charismatic world under the lens of Scripture, and finds it unbiblical.  The miracles they claim are happening cannot be verified, the prophecies proclaimed are usually wrong, the tongues are not practiced in accordance with Scriptural guidelines and don’t appear to be real languages, but only gibberish.  Accordingly Phil Johnson charges, it commits “the sin of attributing to the Holy Spirit words He has not spoken and things He has not done.”  Now John MacArthur and Phil Johnson are well aware that there are charismatics who are well-studied, who teach an orthodox view of Scripture, who are not at all guilty of the excesses often found in the movement.  In fact there are even well-known “Reformed Continuationists” like John Piper, Wayne Grudem and others that they esteem very highly for their ministries of the Word.  Nevertheless, these reformed continuationist leaders who are aware of the “strange” phenomena seem very reluctant and reticent about criticizing these aberrant practices.  Over at the Cripplegate blog, Mike Ricardi has posted Phil Johnson’s outstanding message, Strange Fire – Is There a Baby in the Bathwater? and I think Phil really hits the nail on the head when he writes:

But there’s this carefully cultivated, non-committal spirit of indecision that permeates most of the Reformed charismatic and “open-but-cautious” segments of the evangelical community. It is a deliberate agnosticism with regard to discerning spirits.

So the extremists and the charlatans can make any claim or pull any stunt they like with near impunity. The handful of Charismatics who have the most influence in conservative evangelical circles have basically settled into a comfortable indifference. (Remember the line I quoted from Michael Brown earlier? “Why [should] Pentecostal and charismatic pastors renounce extremes in their movement?”) Supposedly “cautious” continuationists watch the procession of charismatic horseplay. They are curious, intrigued, generally nonplussed, but they refuse to make any judgment until after the wheels come totally off the latest bandwagon.

It someone looks into the turbid swamp of charismatic sludge, and thinks that attitude of non-judgmental passivity is the baby, forget it. That kind of smug, deliberate indecision has more in common with double-mindedness than with faith. There are times when staking out a middle position is simply the wrong thing to do. And it is never more wrong than when thousands of people are going around claiming to speak for God but prophesying falsely.

It is time to get the gospel right.  We have been blessed and equipped to complete our mission with the authority and power of the Word of God, “All Scripture is breathed out by God and profitable for teaching, for reproof, for correction, and for training in righteousness, that the man of God may be complete, equipped for every good work (2 Tim 3:16-17).”  Why then do we need to seek after sensational experiences, prophecies, miracles, tongues, especially if, when we stop kidding ourselves and admit the truth, we can see that the things we are seeking after are not authentic?  How does inaccurate, hit-or-miss prophecy help anyone?  How does if further the cause of Christ to claim that healing and miracles are happening when in fact they are not happening?

Does what I am saying deny the power of God?  No, because I am not saying that God will not answer prayer for healing, even in miraculous fashion, nor am I saying that God may not visit us with extraordinary things whenever He wants.  But my charge is not to seek after the extraordinary but to humbly live for Christ.  I seek His power not that I may have ecstatic experiences or by miracle doing prove to an unbelieving world that the God I worship is real, but that I may live faithfully and honor Him in the way I speak and act and live.  The gospel itself is the power of God, and it accomplishes the miracle of raising the dead to life, and we have the privilege of being part of that.

For I am not ashamed of the gospel, for it is the power of God for salvation to everyone who believes, to the Jew first and also to the Greek (Romans 1:16)

3 Comments

Filed under Charismaticism, Controversy, The Gospel, Theology