Was Christ’s Death Just an Inspiring Example?

John Stott: “the death of Jesus is more than an inspiring example. If this was all there is to it, much of what we find in the Gospels would make no sense. There are those strange sayings, for instance, in which Jesus said he would ‘give his life as a ransom for many’ and shed his blood….. ‘for the forgiveness of sins’. There is no redemption in an example. A pattern cannot secure our pardon.

Besides, why was he weighed down with such heavy and anxious apprehension as the cross approached? How shall we explain the dreadful agony in the garden, his tears and cries and bloody sweat? ‘My Father, if it is possible, may this cup be taken from me. Yet not as I will, but as you will.’ Again, ‘My Father, if it is not possible for this cup to be taken away unless I drink it, may your will be done.’ Was the ‘cup’ that he hesitated to drink from the symbol of death by crucifixion? Was he then afraid of pain and death? If so, his example may have been one of submission and patience, but it was hardly one of courage. Plato tells us that Socrates drank his cup of hemlock in the prison cell in Athens ‘quite readily and cheerfully.’ Was Socrates braver than Jesus? Or is it that their cups contained different poisons? And what is the meaning of the darkness, and the cry of abandonment, and the tearing from top to bottom of the Temple curtain in front of the Holy of Holies? There is no way of understanding these things if Jesus died only as an example. Indeed some of them would seem to make his example less commendable.

Not only would much in the Gospels remain mysterious if Christ’s death were purely an example, but our human need would remain unsatisfied. We need more than an example; we need a Savior. An example can stir our imagination, kindle our idealism and strengthen our resolve, but it cannot remove the stains of our past sins, bring peace to our troubled conscience or restore our relationship with God.

In any case, the apostles leave us in no doubt about the matter. They repeatedly associate Christ’s coming and death with our sins:

Christ died for our sins according to the Scriptures (1 Corinthians 15:3).

Christ also suffered once for sins, the righteous for the unrighteous, to bring you to God (1 Peter 3:18).

You know that he appeared so that he might take away our sins (1 John 3:5).

Here are the three great writers of the New Testament, the apostles Paul, Peter and John unanimous in linking his death with our sins.”

Quoted from pages 109-110 of John Stott’s classic Basic Christianity, (2008).

Understanding the Origins of the Universe

How can we understand the origins of the universe? This is an important question that great minds have probed into for centuries. The problem is, of course, no one was there to witness it all….except for God. “In the beginning, God….” We are not left with the impression that anyone else was there. Later on in the chapter this is confirmed with the creation of man. By the time Adam and Eve come on the scene, the created order was all in place. What that tells us is that God was the only person who witnessed the creation of the universe. Therefore, if we are going to understand the origins of the universe, we must trust God’s self-revelation.

The Scriptures have much to say on this, but perhaps a good place to start is Hebrews 11:3. “By faith, we understand that the universe was created by the word of God.” The world was literally created by the word of God. In Genesis 1 we see how God spoke, and everything came into being. God said, “let there be light, and there was light.” This same pattern is followed throughout the rest of Genesis 1. The Psalmist picks up on this in Psalm 33:6 and writes, “By the word of the Lord the heavens were made, and by the breathe of his mouth all their host.”

So how did God created the universe? BY HIS WORD! By the breathe of His mouth. All He had to do was speak and the created world came into being. But it gets even more amazing – God didn’t have any pre-existing materials to create with. If you were to tell your neighbor that you could make something out of nothing, they would think you were nuts, and, they’d be right.  If you want to make a chair, you don’t go “abra cadabra” and poof – there it is. No, you need certain materials, certain tools, and then you have to form and fashion them in a particular way. You can’t make that chair out of nothing.  There’s only one person who has ever performed such a work and that’s the Creator God and person of Jesus Christ.  The bible says that it is God “who gives life to the dead and calls into existence the things that do not exist.” (Romans 4:17) And Psalm 90:2 tells us, “Before the mountains were brought forth, or ever you had formed the earth and the world, from everlasting to everlasting you are God.”  So before the creation of the heavens and the earth, God existed. And then at a particular point in time, God made something out of nothing. This is sometimes referred to as “Creation Ex-Nihilo.”

Going back to Hebrews 11:3, the only way we can understand creation is “by faith.” I know that answer does not satisfy everyone out there, but it is biblical truth. There is a sense of mystery in terms of how God “spoke” (Genesis 1) the cosmos into existence. But we must believe that God created all things, and now sustains all things. Like we read in Revelation 4:11, “Worthy are you, our Lord and God, to receive glory and honor and power, for you created all things, and by your will they existed and were created.”

If we go back to the beginning of Hebrews 11 and verse 1, we see that “Faith is the assurance of things hoped for, the conviction of things not seen.” Now compare that with verse 3. “By faith we understand that the universe was created by the word of God, so that what is seen was not made out of things that are visible.”  You can’t miss the parallel here, or should we say the contrast? Verse 1 – the conviction of things not seen. Verse 3 – so that what is seen was not made out of things that are visible. So we have…. seen and not seen – visible and invisible. If you are a doubting Thomas type of person, then ask yourself this very simple question. Where did that material world come from? How did it originate? A typical modern answer is – the big bang theory or evolution, which I’m sure you are familiar with. But that theory still doesn’t answer a very basic, fundamental question – where did all that star-stuff (in the words of Carl Sagan) come from that was involved in the big bang? How was it created? How did it come into being? Going back to Hebrews 11, if you want to understand the origins of the cosmos, then it starts with faith. There is no other way to explain the created world. There is no other way to explain the seen, but by the unseen. There has to be a first cause to everything, and the Bible tells us that first cause was God.

At the beginning of time God set the world in motion. He spoke the universe into existence. And the way He did it is totally unique. What is seen (that being everything around us) was not made out of things that are visible. God didn’t create from pre-existing materials. No, He created everything, out of nothing. And as Christians, we understand this by faith.

Many have said this before, but I will just echo their thoughts. It takes a lot more faith to be an atheist (someone who doesn’t believe in God) than it does to be a theist (someone who believes in God). And while we must believe, by faith, in the Triune God and in His Word, there is evidence all around us. The apostle Paul writes, “For what can be known about God is plain to them, because God has shown it to them. For his invisible attributes, namely his eternal power and divine nature, have been clearly perceived, ever since the creation of the world, in the things that have been made. So they are without excuse.” (Romans 1:19-20)

What about you, friend? Have you accepted God’s self-revelation? Let me encourage you to start with what the Bible tells us about the origins of the universe (or any subject for that matter) and then allow God to confirm His testimony through the created world and “the things that have been made.”

The Apologetic of a Transformed Life

I once read the story of a pastor who was invited to debate an atheist. The pastor agreed to debate on one condition – that the atheist would bring 50 people who had been transformed by being atheists. The pastor in turn would bring 50 people who had been transformed by the power of Jesus Christ. As you may have guessed, the atheist admitted he would not be able to find that many people impacted by rejecting Christian theism.

 

As you seek to give an answer for the hope that is within you (1 Peter 3:15), please don’t forget about the power of testimony. Please don’t forget about what Christ has done in your own life, but also in the lives of millions upon millions of people the world over. Like the blind man healed by Jesus, we can confidently say as Christians, “One thing I do know, that though I was blind, now I see” (John 9:25). It is only Jesus Christ who has the power to transform and heal our sin-sick lives. By all means, we must seek to present a rational defense of the Christian faith, just don’t forget that there is a place for testimony in our apologetics.

 

No one has ever been transformed by rejecting the existence of God. But millions upon millions of people have been transformed by the rescuing power of Jesus Christ. As the Scriptures remind us, “if anyone is in Christ, he is a new creation. The old has passed away; behold the new has come.  All this is from God, who through Christ reconciled us to himself and gave us the ministry of reconciliation” (2 Corinthians 5:17-18). So lets get to work, telling the world what Christ has done for us.

Making Sense of Evil and Suffering

Whenever disaster strikes, such as the recent tornadoes in Oklahoma, or evil happens, such as the recent Boston Bombing, the question inevitably arises – why does a good and loving God allow evil and suffering in the world? This is an important apologetic question and one we must wrestle with as Christians. If you are talking to an atheist, it will no doubt be hard to dialogue. Most people are not atheists, however, and they bring theistic assumptions to the table such as the existence of God and His involvement in the affairs of the world. This means you have some common ground to build upon, at least with most people. Here are a few things to keep in mind as you seek to think intelligently about this subject and then dialogue with those around you.

First off, we live in a fallen world. The sin of Adam and Eve and the fall of man (Genesis 3) had devastating consequences on all of their offspring, including us. There is not an hour that goes by where we don’t feel the effects of the fall and we are most clearly reminded of this in the midst of tragedy.

Second, as Christians we need to grieve with those who grieve and weep with those who weep (Romans 12:15). Evil and suffering are sobering realities in this world and it does not do any good to pretend they don’t exist. Sooner or later they are going to touch us in some way or another. It is critically important for us to be there for one another and to minister to one another.

Third, God is sovereign and governs the affairs of the world according to his purposes. “I am God, and there is no other; I am God and there is none like me, declaring the end from the beginning and from ancient times things not yet done, saying, My counsel shall stand, and I will accomplish all my purpose” (Isaiah 46:9-10). How silly it would be to think we could understand all the ways and purposes of God (check out Isaiah 55:8-9). Finite minds cannot comprehend the infinite, but we can have absolute faith and confidence that God knows what he is doing in our own lives and around the globe.

Fourth, God is just and merciful. There are times where God acts in such a way to judge nations and peoples. In our Wednesday night Bible study, we have been working through the Old Testament book of Hosea, where the prophet was preaching to a people on the brink of judgment. Hosea was warning his people (the northern kingdom of Israel) that if they did not repent and turn back to God, they would be judged. History tells us that they were conquered by the Assyrians and sent into exile around the time of the prophet’s death. Bottom line, those who do evil will be judged by God, if not in the present life, then most certainly in the afterlife. But we must always remember that God is “gracious and merciful, slow to anger and abounding in steadfast love” (Psalm 145:8). Time and time again in the Scriptures we see this. After sinning by taking the census, David said, “Let me fall into the hand of the Lord, for his mercy is very great, but do not let me fall into the hand of man” (1 Chronicles 21:13). Following tragedy, we often hear that it was a miracle that more people did not die. But the Christian already knows why – the mercy of God.

Fifth, in the midst of pain and suffering, God ministers to those in need in remarkable ways. Only those who have gone through the fire truly know this. And often God ministers through His body, the church. Christian’s are always on the front lines of mercy and relief efforts around the world. As ambassadors for Christ (2 Corinthians 5:20), we are to be reflectors of God’s mercy to the world.

Sixth, God often uses suffering to sanctify his people. “More than that, we rejoice in our sufferings, knowing that suffering produces endurance, and endurance produces character, and character produces hope” (Romans 5:3-4). We don’t always like this, but God knows we need it and that’s why we can rejoice in our suffering.

Seventh, in the midst of suffering and evil, we must remember to give glory to God. Job is a great example of this. “Naked I came from my mothers womb, and naked shall I return. The Lord gave, and the Lord has taken away; blessed be the name of the Lord” (Job 1:21). Can we really fault the One who is the giver of all good things (James 1:17)? One of my hero’s of the faith, Jonathan Edwards died from a smallpox vaccination at the age of 54. His wife Sarah responded to his death in a letter to one of her daughters. “My very dear child, what shall I say? A holy and good God has covered us with a dark cloud. The Lord has done it. He has made me adore his goodness, that we had him so long. But my God lives; and he has my heart. O what a legacy my husband has left us! We are all given to God; and there I am, and love to be. Your ever affectionate mother, Sarah Edwards.” Even though her husband had died in this unfortunate way, Sarah still gave glory to God.  

Eighth, the reality of evil and suffering make us long all the more for heaven. “He will wipe away every tear from their eyes, and death shall be no more, neither shall there be mourning, nor crying, nor pain anymore, for the former things have past away” (Revelation 21:4). And so we say, “Come, Lord Jesus!” (Revelation 22:20)

Ninth, God suffered Himself. This is the most important point because it shows us the way to the gospel. “But God shows his love for us in that while we were still sinners, Christ died for us” (Romans 5:8). Christ suffered and died! Therefore, “we do not have a high priest who is unable to sympathize with our weaknesses” (Hebrews 4:15). Through his suffering, Christ defeated sin, death, and Satan. In essence, He conquered the powers of evil. He did not leave us in our helpless estate, but rescued and delivered us from the domain of darkness. Praise God!

Penn Jillette on Christian’s who don’t Evangelize

“We have to conclude that a Christian with no passion for the lost is in serious need of self-examination and repentance. Even the atheists have worked this out. Penn Jillette is an avowed and vocal atheist, and one half of the famous comic–illusionist act Penn and Teller. He was evangelized by a polite and impressive man, and had this to say about the experience:

‘I’ve always said, you know, that I don’t respect people who don’t proselytize. I don’t respect that at all. If you believe that there’s a heaven and hell, and that people could be going to hell, or not getting eternal life or whatever, and you think that it’s not really worth telling them this because it would make it socially awkward…How much do you have to hate somebody to not proselytize? How much do you have to hate somebody to believe that everlasting life is possible and not tell them that? I mean, if I believed beyond a shadow of a doubt that a truck was bearing down on you, there is a certain point where I tackle you. And this is more important than that….”

Copied from page 53 of The Trellis and the Vine by Colin Marshall and Tony Payne.

Conversing With a Jewish Man

Last week I found myself in New Haven, Connecticut, home to Yale University. One day while walking downtown, I was approached by a man who asked me a very simple question – “Are you Jewish?” I responded, “No I’m not.” And that was pretty much the end of our brief encounter. I kept on walking but before too long, curiosity got the better of me. Why did he ask me that, I wondered? Do I look Jewish? I turned around and headed back. I needed some answers.

DS: Excuse me sir, why did you want to know if I was Jewish?

JM (Jewish man): Well, if you had said yes, I would have told you a little about your faith.

DS: Let’s just say, for fun, I had told you I was Jewish, what would have told me about Judaism?

JM: I would have told you that you need to keep the law.

DS: The 10 Commandments?

JM: Actually, we have 613 laws that we are to keep.

DS: Do you know all 613 laws by heart?

JM: Hesitates to answer

DS: What if I told you that I’m a bad guy who thinks bad thoughts, says bad things, and sins every day.

JM: I would say you need to try harder and do a better job of keeping the law.

DS: Yes, but how do I know when I’m “good enough” at keeping the law?

I finally told him that I was a Christian. I told him that I (and everyone else) need a Mediator who has already fulfilled the demands of the law of God because no matter how hard I tried I could never fully keep the law. I told him that it’s only through faith in Jesus Christ and His perfect sacrifice that a person can be forgiven of their sins and accepted before God. Not surprisingly, he told me that he did not accept the New Testament teachings about Jesus.

For a couple more minutes, I shared the gospel with him and did my best to show him that Jesus is the Messiah, and that salvation is only through Him (John 14:6, 1 Timothy 2:5). As I shared, he was very quiet and it became clear that he did not want the conversation to continue, so we parted ways.

This dialogue did not at all surprise me. This man was not a Messianic Jew and therefore, rejects Jesus as the Son of God and the path to salvation. So our conversation did not surprise me but it did remind me that it’s all about Jesus. The most important question in the world is – what do you believe about Jesus? Do you accept Him as God’s provision for man’s need or do you reject Him? I can only hope and pray that this Jewish man will come to saving faith and see his need for Jesus, but he must understand that his acceptance before God is not through his own ability to keep the law.

As you well know, it’s not just Jews who reject Jesus. I often encounter people who are ok with God, but they have a problem with Jesus. But the Bible tells us there is no other way. “And there is salvation in no one else, for there is no other name under heaven given among men by which we must be saved” (Acts 4:12). Friends, it’s all about Jesus. You can’t be “ok with God” and still reject His Son. Jesus said, “everyone who acknowledges me before men, I will also acknowledge before my Father who is in heaven, but whoever denies me before me, I will also deny before my Father who is in heaven” (Matthew 10:32-33).

It’s all about Jesus.

Christopher Hitchens and the Myth of Liberal Christianity

I came across something not too long ago that really struck me.  It involved Christopher Hitchens, one of the most well known atheists in the world up until his death last year and a Unitarian minister named Marilyn Sewell. The following exchange took place near the start of their interview:

Sewell: The religion you cite in your book (God is not Great) is generally the fundamentalist faith of various kinds. I’m a liberal Christian, and I don’t take the stories from the Scripture literally. I don’t believe in the doctrine of atonement (that Jesus died for our sins). Do you make any distinction between fundamentalist faith and liberal religion?

Hitchens: I would say that if you don’t believe that Jesus of Nazareth was the Christ and Messiah, and that he rose again from the dead and by his sacrifice our sins are forgiven, you’re really not in any meaningful sense a Christian.

Sewell wanted no part of that discussion so her next words were, “Let me go someplace else.”

Hitchens absolutely nailed it – you can call yourself anything you like, but if you don’t believe that Jesus is the Son of God who died on the cross for our sins and then rose from the dead, you are not “in any meaningful sense” a Christian. In one of the sad ironies of our time, an outspoken atheist grasps the central tenet of Christianity better than many professing Christians do.