Recommended Reading

The following is a list of books that, up to now, I have read and consider worthy of recommending to others. I may not agree with all of the contents or style, but they were so good that I am not only keeping them, but reading them all again.

The Bible I recommend here is the New Revised Standard Version, with Apocrypha. It’s a solid version and the Apocrypha is sadly absent from most other modern editions.

1) The Call to Discipleship, by Karl Barth. An excellent short work for deep devotional reading. Considerations of what it means to live a life of true discipleship.

2) Reflections on the Psalms, by C.S. Lewis. Not only a review of the Biblical psalter, but also a clear explanation of Mr. Lewis’ approach to the inspiration of Scripture, known as “partial inspiration.”

3) Dogmatics in Outline, by Karl Barth. The heart of neo-orthodox doctrine in a relatively brief format.

4) Living Jesus: Learning the Heart of the Gospel, by Luke Timothy Johnson. A reasonable approach to the what the canonical New Testament has to say about the person and work of Jesus of Nazareth.

5) The Openness of God, by Clark Pinnock and others. This work lays out the basis for open theism from several perspectives. Open theism essentially holds that God does not know exactly what will happen in our future, as it is still “open” by His decree. In other words, one of the ways God has limited Himself with regard to creation is concerning knowledge of the future.

6) The Inescapable Love of God, by Thomas Talbott. A remarkably well-reasoned defense of universalism from philosophical and biblical angles.

7) How I Found Freedom in An Unfree World, by Harry Browne. This excellent text truly serves as “A Handbook for Personal Liberty.” Not Christian in orientation, but parallels to a biblical viewpoint can be found, and this book should not be overlooked by anyone looking to live optimally.

New Jersey Registration

The car my wife drives was still registered in New Mexico, although we live in New Jersey. We had New Jersey insurance on it, but hadn’t been able to get information from the lender on how to do the release of title. When I eventually got it pieced together that in New Jersey you get a form from the DMV and fax it to the lender, and when I was finally able to get the fax number from Capital One (the lender), the New Jersey government was in a shut-down because of a budget crisis.

The shutdown ended after a week, and so I went to Lodi the following Thursday to get the form, then turned around and faxed it right away. I had to be fast, because the New Mexico registration was expiring at the end of this month. I could only do DMV business on Thursday, because Lodi is the closest to my work, I usually don’t leave work until after 6pm, and Lodi has later hours on Thursday (they close at 7:30 Thursdays).

Repeated calls to Capital One got nowhere. I was on hold for less than five minutes every time, then shoved off into voicemail without speaking to anyone. I left several messages, but no one ever called. Capital One Auto Finance has terrible customer service, in my experience over the past two years.

The day before yesterday was Thursday, the last day of the month I’d be able to go to Lodi without missing work. I worried about it all day, having no news about whether the title had come in. I decided I’d go and find out after work. What else could I do?

As I was walking out of work, I checked my cell phone voicemail. One message. It was from the DMV: “…your title has come in, you have thirty days to complete registration.”

And that was that. The DMV was crowded, of course, but I was still able to fork over a little over $86 and walk out with New Jersey plates and registration. What a relief. I’d hate to think about my wife coming back from Brazil this week and having to drive a car with expired out-of-state registration.

Everything’s nice and legal now.

Reincarnation and Christianity

In someone else’s blog I read about the blogger’s hairdresser being an eclectic person, holding to a number of different beliefs including reincarnation. This individual also claimed to be Roman Catholic. The problem is that Christianity and reincarnation are incompatible. It’s like trying to sew a denim patch onto a cotton bed sheet. It’s a mismatch that does justice to neither.

Of course I understand the appeal of reincarnation. As a teenager trying to find my faith, I spent a long time more or less holding to this belief or at least hoping it was true. When I came to faith in Christ, though, I discovered that it wouldn’t work.

The message of the Gospel is that humanity is in a fallen state.That is to say, individually we are alienated from a holy God by our sins, but in his love God has made a way to reconcile us to himself. In the atoning life and death of Christ, we were ransomed from our sins and shown a new way to live. In fact, we understand that in putting our faith in Christ, deciding to turn away from anything that goes against God’s will and nature, and being immersed in water, we are entering into a new life (Romans 6).

This belief in a this-life transformation is in sharp contrast to the concept of reincarnation. In the former, our place in God’s presence is guaranteed after this life by his mercy and grace based on the finished work of Jesus Christ, while in the latter we are condemned to make repeated attempts at life in this universe until we get it right and get ourselves off the wheel of life, death and rebirth.

Another conflicting aspect of the Christian faith is the matter of resurrection. It has always been the faith of the Christian church that Jesus was resurrected shortly after his crucifixion, and that this life he now has is indestructible and ongoing. As he was resurrected, so everyone else will be. in reincarnation people are said to change bodies (in some versions of the belief even species) as we go through the cycle of rebirth, making the physical body less important than the spirit. In Christian teaching, though, the body and spirit are essential to one another.

Essentially, you cannot be an adherent of real Christianity while holding to a belief in reincarnation. The real incompatibility is between the Christian belief in resurrection and the non-Christian concept of reincarnation. It’s either one life or many, but it can’t be both.

“And just as it is appointed for mortals to die once, and after that the judgment, so Christ, having been offered once to bear the sins of many, will appear a second time, not to deal with sin, but to save those who are eagerly waiting for him” (Hebrews 9:27-28 NRSV).

The Covenants

“The law indeed was given through Moses; grace and truth came through Jesus Christ”
(John 1:17 NRSV).

According to accepted Scripture, God has made covenants with creation, individuals and nations throughout history. The two most noteworthy for our purposes are the covenant between God and Israel, and the new covenant made through Jesus Christ. The former was limited in scope to Israel and those who would attach themselves to the nation of ancient Israel, and the latter extends to all people of any nation who accept the Gospel of Christ. The former, according to the Epistle to the Galatians, was like a schoolteacher preparing Israel and the world for the new covenant in Christ.

A lot of people have a hard time accepting this. Most Protestantism adheres to a belief that the ceremonial and dietary portions of the Mosaic law were done away with in Christ, while the moral law still applies. I disagree, as does the New Testament Scripture.

“But Jesus has now obtained a more excellent ministry, and to that degree he is the mediator of a better covenant, which has been enacted through better promises”
(Hebrews 8:6 NRSV).

First, the new covenant is superior to the old. It has “better promises” and certainly a wider reach than the old covenant. The new is also stricter in places than the old, especially depending on how you take the teaching of Jesus regarding divorce, and without a doubt on the topic of murder (Jesus places secret hatred of another on the same level as murdering that person).

“In speaking of ‘a new covenant,’ he has made the first one obsolete. And what is obsolete and growing old will soon disappear”
(Hebrews 8:13 NRSV).

Second, the Scriptures, especially Hebrews, removes any doubt: The old covenant was fulfilled by Jesus, and is no longer the standard. We are living in the new covenant age. That’s why I don’t have to avoid work on Saturday (although I do anyway!), that’s why I can enjoy spam and eggs for breakfast (verboten according to ancient Israel’s law) and that’s why I wouldn’t discourage a man from remarrying his estranged wife if they reconcile. And, if the moral prohibitions of the old covenant still apply, then so do the penalties. If you find a witch or if your son curses you, then they must be stoned to death.

It’s the law.


This morning I received an e-mail from someone in Farmington, New Mexico. The church I worked with there, the one that broke my spirit and got me out of active ministry, has lost another preacher. I don’t know details, and really don’t need to know. Having lived through it, I already know more than I ever wanted to know.

Preachers, avoid Sunrise Christian Church in Farmington, New Mexico. No kidding.

Spirit Baptism, Fire Baptism

Walking to a Bible study in the evening when we lived in Brazil, my family would pass in front of a small Pentecostal church that was having services. They were pretty loud, and the front door was always open, so we could hear everything out in the street. One night we heard them praying in unison, crying out to God to “send fire.”

In the Holiness and Pentecostal traditions especially, this sentiment is common. “Fire” is seen as a symbol of the Spirit of God, and as a purifier. The imagery is powerful, but it is not accurate to what the canonical Scripture normally means when it uses fire. Consider the following verse:

“I baptize you with water for repentance, but one who is more powerful than I is coming after me; I am not worthy to carry his sandals. He will baptize you with the Holy Spirit and fire. His winnowing fork is in his hand, and he will clear his threshing floor and will gather his wheat into the granary, but the chaff he will burn with unquenchable fire”
(Matthew 3:11-12 NRSV).

Reading this, people often assume that this is one baptism in Spirit and fire. Not so. The immediate context is of a warning of judgment, and in the verses preceding these verses we are told that the ax is already at the root. God’s judgment on the nation of Israel was imminent, according to John the Baptist.

In fact, according to these verses, Christ offers two baptisms. One is in the Spirit, and is granted to those who accept the Good News. These people are identified as the “wheat.” The other is in fire, and is immersion in divine judgment for not accepting Jesus as the Messiah. Those Israelites of Jesus’ day who embraced his message would become his disciples, baptized in His Spirit. This same Spirit is now also offered, according to what we read in Acts and elsewhere, to non-Israelites. If such is the case, then we can only assume that the second baptism is also extended to those who do not accept the message of Christ, whether they be Jews or Gentiles. Judgment, in other words, will come upon all who do not receive Christ.

In any event, before we extend the meaning of these verses too far, I’ll simply summerize and conclude by saying that John the Baptist, as a prophet of God, was warning those Jews and possibly any Romans or other Gentiles present that they had a choice: Divine favor, or divine wrath. The same option remains open to us today.

Unlimited Atonement

“For God so loved the world that he gave his only Son, so that everyone who believes in him may not perish but may have eternal life” (John 3:16 NRSV).

Though raised Roman Catholic, my mother always sent me to VBS at the local Methodist and Baptist churches. It was fun, and I know I learned a lot of the Bible stories from the experiences. I credit the Baptists as being the ones who taught me how to find chapter and verse in the Bible. I distinctly remember being in Methodist VBS and singing “Jesus Loves Me.” Now, as an adult, it seems sweet to hear little children singing this song.

But what if it weren’t true? What if Jesus didn’t love you? What if the song is a lie?

If your church is part of a conservative “Reformed” denomination and you use this song with children, you are wrong. If Calvinism is true, then God does not love all people and Jesus did not die for everyone. You believe in limited atonement, the doctrine that Jesus died only for the “elect,” those whom God arbitrarily chose to save out of the wicked seething mass of fallen humanity. Many of those children you’ve taught to sing “Jesus Loves Me” are singing what can only be a lie. Jesus doesn’t love them, and they are going to hell.

I’m not a Calvinist. I don’t believe any of the Reformed doctrine I’ve described above, and yes I’m trying to be blunt.

It is the teaching of canonical Scripture that Jesus is the Christ, son of the Living God, and that He died as an atoning sacrifice on behalf of the whole world. Now it remains for individuals to freely choose to accept or reject Him.

“For there is one God; there is also one mediator between God and humankind, Christ Jesus, himself human, who gave himself a ransom for all – this was attested at the right time” (1 Timothy 2:5-6 NRSV).

“…and [Christ] is the atoning sacrifice for our sins, and not for ours only but also for the sins of the whole world” (1 John 2:2 NRSV).

I can teach children to sing “Jesus Love Me” with a clear conscience. Can you?

The Covenants According To Jesus

A coworker of mine is “Reformed Baptist.” This means he’s Calvinist. From about 1993 to 1995 I would have found a great deal of agreement with him. This is 2006, though, and I haven’t believed that way for several years now. Among the many beliefs he has that I don’t share, there is the matter of the relationship of the Law to the Gospel. Or, in other words, the relationship of the Old Covenant to the New Covenant. Just last week, this friend quoted to me from one of the Gospels:

“Do not think that I have come to abolish the law or the prophets; I have come not to abolish but to fulfill. For truly I tell you, until heaven and earth pass away, not one letter, not one stroke of a letter, will pass from the law until all is accomplished. Therefore, whoever breaks one of the least of these commandments, and teaches others to do the same, will be called least in the kingdom of heaven; but whoever does them and teaches them will be called great in the kingdom of heaven” (Matthew 5:17-19 NRSV).

It is my coworker’s conviction that the moral aspect of the Old Testament law is still in effect, while the ceremonial portions are removed. In a sense, it is like he believes that Jesus renovated and deepened the law. This idea, though, is contradicted by the very verses he quoted.

Notice how he says “I have come not to abolish but to fulfill,” and then follows up with “until heaven and earth pass away…until all is accomplished.”

The Jews would obviously want to know this Rabbi’s opinion of the law, given how he was teaching against their traditions and modifying certain commands in a very authoritative manner. In fact, Jesus here lets them know that he is not simply trying to wipe out obedience to the law. This would be wrong. Israel’s history as recorded in Old Testament Scriptures is full of God’s prophets calling a wayward people back to the Law. No, Jesus didn’t come to abolish, but rather to fulfill. And yes, the Law still exists and can be read, but it is no longer in effect.

Christ fulfilled the law. Jesus accomplished all.

“Then Jesus cried again with a loud voice and breathed his last. At that moment the curtain of the temple was torn in two, from top to bottom. The earth shook, and the rocks were split” (Matthew 27:50-51 NRSV).

Hell House

With my subscription to Netflix, I’ve seen a lot of movies that I wouldn’t have ever spent money on renting from a video store. One I saw this afternoon was Hell House. It’s sort of a documentary of how the Trinity Church in Cedar Hill, Texas puts together its annual Halloween evangelistic program.

A “Hell House” is a sort of haunted house, with a fundamentalist Christian twist. It shows real-life situations of horror and despair, infused with the evangelical message that one must either choose Christ or be damned. Similar houses have sprung up all over the United States, but not without controversy.

One year they did a Columbine scene, and almost every year they apparently show a homosexual dying of AIDS. This DVD actually shows some young people reacting very negatively to the scenes of a depressed girl committing suicide and the HIV scene. One irate guy kept saying that no one could say what is right or wrong (I can, and he’s wrong…chuckle…) and one of his friends said “This is why so many people are turned off to Christianity.”

Um, not so much. Fact is, Christianity in many forms is flourishing around the globe. Oddly enough, some people are positively attracted to the system of absolutes. And, in any case, churches have every right and freedom to declare any message they want, and people have a similar right to go to or avoid events where these churches preach their message. In my opinion, if you go to a church program, you are asking for someone to try to convince you of their faith. Duh.

None of this means I agree with the style or content of Hell Houses, but it is an interesting phenomena. Another aspect that really interests me is how this goes against the perception of conservative churches as too isolated from the hard negative realities of life. Rather than denying that bad things are out there (or in here) and avoiding the question of “where is God,” the Hell House embraces that these things exist and offers the grace of God in Christ as the alternative.

Baptism in Water and the Holy Spirit

There are forms of Christianity that propound a doctrine of two baptisms. Denominations such as the Assemblies of God and the Church of God in Christ are among the clearest in their adherence to a belief in two baptisms, but other evangelical groups such as the Evangelical Free Church and the Southern Baptist Convention also hold Spirit regeneration (baptism) as a separate event from water baptism. The primary difference on this point between Pentecostals and other Evangelicals is that the former generally place Spirit baptism as subsequent to water baptism, and for the latter the opposite is true.

In Ephesians 4:5 we are told that there is “one baptism.” In 1 Corinthians 12:13, the apostle Paul simply states, in the context of a discussion of unity within the church, that all Christians were by one Spirit baptized into one body. From a Pauline perspective, it looks like only one baptism to me. The Johannine community apparently concurs, as we can see in such verses as John 3:5. The faith of the early church, it would appear, was that there is but one Christian baptism, composed of the Spirit of God and water as an immersion into new life in Christ.

Yes, there were two apparent exceptions. There was the day of Pentecost in Acts, as well as the redemption of the house of Cornelius. The first was a dramatic start to the Lord’s church on earth, and the second was a clear message from God that even Gentiles were to be accepted in the new covenant. Other than that, no other exceptions of which I am aware can be found in Scripture.

Christian baptism is immersion in water outwardly, and immersion in God’s Spirit inwardly. More should be said about baptism, and Lord willing, I’ll do it all here in this blog.