December 31, 2011

Bible Reading Plans

'Tis the season to think about a Bible reading plan to begin on New Year's Day.  Let me strongly urge this habit upon you - whether you read a lot or a little.  We all need to eat true spiritual food each and every day!  Here are some potential menus for 2012:

Read the New Testament in six months. This plan gives you 1, 2, or (very occasionally) three chapters to read in a day, and will take you through the entire NT by July 1, 2012. Upon completing it, I'd suggest just going right back through again ... especially if you're new to reading through the Bible. Would work well to read in two portions - either morning and evening, or personal and family devotions.  Courtesy the ESV and Justin Taylor.

Read the Bible in two years. This plan, put together by Don Carson, will generally have you reading two chapters a day - one from one portion of Scripture, the other from another (Law, prophets, poetry, gospels, epistles, etc.). Would work well to read in two portions - either morning and evening, or personal and family devotions.  Courtesy of Robert M'Cheyne, Ben Edgington, and Don Carson.

Read the Bible in a year. 2-3 chapters from the OT, usually 1 from the new. A little more time consuming, but well worth it! Again, this plan would work well to read in two portions - either morning and evening, or personal and family devotions.  Courtesy the ESV and Justin Taylor.

Read the Bible in a year, in chronological order. For those of you who always wanted to get the timeline a little more straight in your minds, this is a good plan. It will require reading 3-4 chapters per day. If doing it in one year is too much, just disregard the dates and go at your own pace, circling each completed section as you go along.  Courtesy the ESV and Justin Taylor, via Back to the Bible.

If you're tech-savvy, Justin Taylor has a handy-dandy blogpost with web, RSS, iCal, and mobile ESV versions of these plans, and others.  Scroll down to the spreadsheet table near the bottom of his post.

If having specific dates tied to specific chapters will make you feel guilty when you get behind ... here is an at-your-own-pace-plan:

Read the New Testament at your own pace. If you start in Matthew and read a chapter every day, you'll finish in about 9 months. And, if you miss some days, just pick up where you left off, and know that you have three months' worth of days to catch up, or to go back and re-read a few books that were most intriguing or helpful to you, or to read some of the key books of the OT Genesis, Exodus, Proverbs, etc.).

Again, let me strongly urge the discipline of daily Bible reading upon you. The word of God is our food ... and we ought to eat well!

One other thought ... don't lose heart if you get behind! If we set our Sundays aside for the Lord and for rest, they will provide us great opportunity to catch up on any missed chapters through the week.  Happy reading!

December 19, 2011

Ten Reasons for Christmas

Birthdays are quaint days of paying token honor to friends and family. Celebrations happen. Thanksgivings are made. Gifts are given. Then one day later … life goes on just like before. And for many people, that’s Christmas. We reminisce about Jesus. We set aside a day to honor Him. Then we get back to our normal routine. But Christmas ought to be so much more! Christmas is cataclysmic! It’s the day when the barrier between earth and heaven began to be peeled back. It’s the day when the immortal, invisible God of the Bible took on flesh and pitched his tent among us! That’s not quaint … that’s earth-shaking. Let me remind you why, with 10 reasons God became a man:

1. So sinful men might see God. God, majestic on His throne, cannot even be approached by sinful men (much less seen by them), lest they be incinerated by His holiness. But in Bethlehem, Mary, Joseph, and a group of ragamuffin shepherds laid eyes on very God of very God. And so may we. “No one has seen God at any time; the only begotten who is in the bosom of the Father, He has explained Him” (John 1.18).

2. To testify to the truth. Jesus was born to teach. The crowds were amazed as He spoke for God with authority and understandability. “For this I came into the world, to testify to the truth” (John 18.37).

3. To bring grace and truth together. Truth without grace is hard. And so many legalistic people (Old Testament and New) experience the hardness of the Law without a Savior. But Jesus came, upholding the highest standards of truth … yet lavishing the greatest mercy on people who were unable to live up to them – see John 8. “The law was given through Moses…grace and truth were realized through Jesus Christ” (John 1.17).

4. So He might “save His people from their sins” (Matt 1.21). Sin must be punished. But God wants to set sinners free. So how will He do it? He will lay their sins on another. But who can he find who has no sins of his own to pay for? There is no one like that … unless God Himself, the only sinless one, becomes a man and dies for sins Himself!

5. To be a “light of Revelation to the Gentiles” (Luke 2.32). Up until that holy night in Bethlehem, God’s plan of salvation had been at work almost exclusively among the Jews. But the Babe was born to bring salvation to every tongue and tribe – and that means us!

6. So we might be God’s children. Not only does God forgive our sins and treat us as righteous. He also adopts us as His beloved children. That’s why “in the fullness of time God sent forth His Son, born of a woman … so that we might receive the adoption as sons” (Gal 4.4).

7. To rule the world. The lowly child in the manger came to take over this planet – and your life. “His kingdom shall have no end” (Luke 1.33)

8. To bring peace for the future. Isaiah prophesied that “every boot of the booted warrior in the battle of tumult, and cloak rolled in blood, will be for burning, fuel for the fire. For a child will be born to us, a son will be given to us…” (Is 9.5-6). That baby is going to one day bring about an end to all war, famine, pain, revenge, and evil. What a day!

9. To bring peace on earth now. The angels sang “Glory to God in the highest, and on earth, peace among men with whom He is pleased.” Resting in Jesus, we have peace even now, though the world crumbles around us.

10. To prove that God does the impossible. If God can become man, and confine Himself to a teenager’s womb, surely He can meet you an your “impossible” circumstances as well! For “nothing will be possible with God” (Luke 1.26-38).

December 15, 2011

Ephesians Sermons

We recently completed a relatively quick survey of the book of Ephesians.  If you'd like to listen in, click away!

Ephesians 1.1-2 - "To the saints who are at Ephesus" MP3
Ephesians 1.3-23 - "Every spiritual blessing ... in Christ" MP3
Ephesians 2.1-10 - "Alive together with Christ" MP3
Ephesians 2.11-3.21 - "Brought near by the blood of Christ" MP3
Ephesians 4.1-16 - Out of Many, One MP3
Ephesians 4.17-5.21 - The Christian's Wardrobe MP3
Ephesians 5.22-6.9 - The Christian's Work and Family  MP3
Ephesians 6.10-24 - The Christian's Warfare  MP3

December 12, 2011

Ten Reasons to go to the Mission Field

The task of getting the gospel to the hidden peoples of this earth is not reserved for a select and adventurous few. It is too big for that. It’s a church-sized task. Under God, the whole church in this world should be involved in the Great Commission. All of us should pray fervently for the work. All of us should leverage our dollars to support the work. And though not all of us will go be missionaries … all of us should at least consider going … for the short term, or for a lifetime commitment. So, ten reasons why we should all consider going with the good news:

1. There is no other name by which men can be saved. So says Peter in Acts 4.12. Unless they hear the name of Jesus, the nations perish.

2. There are so many who have never heard. Consider the Siwa ... 30,000 tribal living completely isolated from the world in a steep ravine in the Egyptian desert. None of them have heard the gospel.

3. There are so few who are getting out the message. No one has ever gotten to the Siwa people with the gospel. Generation after generation has come and gone without a Savior. Should we not have the attitude of Paul who said: “I aspired to preach the gospel, not where Christ had already been named” (Rom 15.19)?

4. It’s hard to pray for the nations without being willing to go. Paul taught us to “pray…that the word of the Lord would spread rapidly and be glorified” (2 Thess 3.1). But if we pray that way, we must be ready for God to use us as part of His answer!

5. God will be with you if you go. Jesus sends us to strange, confusing, even dangerous places to make disciples … but not alone. “I am with you always,” He says, “even to the end of the age” (Matt 28.20).

6. You cannot fail in the task of missions. There are many pursuits which you can try and fail. But if your pursuit is gospel missions, you cannot fail. “As the rain and snow come down from heaven and do not return there without watering the earth … so will My word be which comes from My mouth; It will not return to Me empty” (Is 55.10-11).

7. Compassion compels us to go. “Should I not have compassion on Nineveh, the great city in which there are more than 120,000 persons who do not know the difference between their right and left hand?” declares the Lord in Jonah 4.11. Should our compassion be any less?

8. The command of the Lord constrains us to go. Jesus’ final instructions were: “Go and make disciples of all nations” (Matt. 28.19). It’s awfully hard to “go and make disciples” if we are unwilling to “go!”

9. The example of Jesus urges us to go. Phil 2.5-11 describes Jesus as a great missionary who left His home and came to bring mercy to the nations. Food for thought … The passage begins this way: “Have this (missionary) attitude in yourselves which was also in Christ Jesus.”

10. God deserves to be made famous among the nations. The main reason we do Missions is because God is worthy of being made known. It is wonderful when sinners avoid hell. But even better that they go instead to heaven to forever declare the worth of God! So the task is to help the nations see how beautiful God is: “I will … send … them to the nations: Tarshish, Put, Lud, Meshech, Rosh, Tubal, and Javan, to the distant coastlands that have neither heard My fame nor seen My glory. And they will declare My glory among the nations” (Is 66.19)!

December 5, 2011

Brethren, Pray for us...

We spent a good bit of time, this past Sunday, on 2 Thessalonians 3:1. Paul (the missionary) wrote to Thessalonica (the supporting church) as follows: “Brethren, pray for us that the word of the Lord will spread rapidly and be glorified, just as it did also with you.” What a great text to motivate us to pray for our own missionaries! We unpacked much of what Paul said during the course of the sermon. But allow me, in the lines that follow, to point out one more missionary prayer lesson that I did not mention on Sunday.

Namely, I want you to notice that Paul asked two things concerning the advance of “the word of the Lord” – both that it would “spread rapidly” and that it would “be glorified.” Those are two quite unique requests. On the one hand, Paul wants to see people saved and churches planted in swift succession. After all, the time is short, and people are dying without Jesus. So Paul prays that the word of God would “spread rapidly.” But, on the other hand, he prays that it will “be glorified” as it spreads – i.e. that the message of Jesus will not be trivialized, or watered down, or abridged, or handled carelessly. No! “The word of the Lord” is a treasure! And it must be treated as such; it must “be glorified.”

So Paul wants the best of both worlds – the rapid spread of a deep, profound, glorious gospel! That is not an easy balance to strike. Indeed, my hunch is that almost every missionary leans toward one side of the ledger or the other.

Some missionaries are rightly eager to see the word of God “spread rapidly.” They desire to plant churches as quickly as possible, and to raise up local, indigenous leaders ASAP. And, of course, this is a biblical desire. It’s what Paul himself wanted. But, without the balance for which Paul pleads in 2 Thessalonians 3:1, that rapidity can sometimes lead to a lack of caution and/or discernment. Corners can be cut in order to make Christianity ‘more palatable’. Certain pillars of Christian belief and practice may not be driven as deeply into the ground as they ought, because the missionary is keen to hurry on to the next church plant or village. And leaders can be put in place who are not yet ready to lead – perhaps either theologically, or morally. In other words, it is possible for the word of God to spread rapidly, but not to “be glorified” as it ought; for the gospel to advance quickly, but shallowly … leaving future generations of the newly planted churches to suffer the consequences. People may be saved in the short term, but the church turns to error and even heresy over the long haul because the foundations were not laid carefully enough. The word spread rapidly, but was not adequately glorified.

On the other hand, some missionaries lean quite in the other direction. They want the word of God to “be glorified” – to be carefully, fully, and systematically taught to the native people. They want to make sure they cross every ‘t’ and dot every ‘i,’ and not leave the people with a shallow understanding of the truth. And those are good instincts! After all, they are not merely planting the gospel for this generation, but for the next ten generations, if the Lord tarries. So they must take adequate time to get it right! But this concern to make sure the word of the Lord is carefully taught can become imbalanced if it leads to stagnation; if it prevents missionaries from the desire to see the word of the Lord spread rapidly; if it causes them to drag their feet and to assume that local people will never be able to lead their own churches; or if it causes them to be slow to plant new churches because they’re not sure if they’ll be able to get their theology down pat.

Incidentally, every potential imbalance I have pointed out is a danger, not only for foreign missionaries, but for local churches and pastors, too! So, if the shoe fits, you know what to do with it!

What our missionaries (and pastors, and churches) need is balance. We all need to have a great urgency and a desire to see the Lord’s work done as rapidly as possible … but, at the same time, a great care not to move so quickly that corners are cut and foundations laid hastily. And, O, what a difficult balance that must be to strike! That’s why Paul requests prayer … and why we ought to pray for our missionaries, precisely along these lines – “that the Lord of the Lord will spread rapidly and be glorified.” Will you join me in that prayer?

December 3, 2011

The Perseverance of the Saints

We Baptists are fond of using the phrase “once saved, always saved.” And rightly so! No one will snatch Jesus’ sheep from His hand (John 10.28). God will surely finish the good work He began in us (Philippians 1.6), all the way until Jesus returns. So it is true that once a person is saved he is always saved … and will never lose his salvation.

But “once saved, always saved” is not the whole truth. It’s not only true that once a person is saved, he will always be saved … but that, once a person is saved, he will go on living like he is saved as well! The benefit of being a Christian, in other words, is not simply that God delivers us from sin’s penalty at the last day, but also that He delivers us from sin’s power in the present day. “If anyone is in Christ, he is a new creature” (2 Corinthians 5.17). If anyone is in Christ, therefore, he is surely different than he was before. If anyone is truly in Christ, he will surely grow, and change, and become more like Jesus. He will surely persevere and press on in the faith. That’s what new creatures do!

Yes, true Christians sometimes struggle, and may even have periods of ‘backsliding.’ But if we are genuine, those periods will not be the norm in our lives. If we are true Christians, the overall tenor of our lives will be one of continuing in the faith and growing in Jesus. True Christians do not make a profession of faith, go through the waters of baptism, and then largely disappear from the life and service if the church! No! True Christians are “new creatures” … and their lives show it! This is why the Bible constantly uses the word “if” in relation to our assurance of salvation. Let me give a few examples:

*John 8.31: “If you continue in My word, then you are truly disciples of mine.”
*Colossians 1.22-23: “He has now reconciled you in His fleshly body through death, in order to present you before Him holy and blameless and beyond reproach – if indeed you continue in the faith”
*Hebrews 3.6: “Christ was faithful as a Son over [God’s] house – whose house we are, if we hold fast our confidence and the boast of our hope firm until the end”
*Hebrews 3.14: “For we have become partakers of Christ, if we hold fast the beginning of our assurance firm until the end”

What gives with all the “if’s”? Are the New Testament authors saying that we keep ourselves saved by holding fast, and continuing on in the faith? Do we have to do something to stay saved? No! It is Jesus, remember, that holds tight to His sheep, not the other way around (John 10.28). It is God, not we ourselves, who will finish the work He began in us (Philippians 1.6). And yet the Bible is constantly telling us that we are truly Christians, and that we have been reconciled to God, only “if” we continue or persevere in the faith. How can that be?

The answer is simple: The “if” clauses in the Bible do not signify conditions we must keep to stay saved. They simply signify evidence in our lives that God has already saved us! If God has really saved you, in other words, He will ensure that certain things will be true of you. You’ll continue in God’s word (John 8.31), and in the faith (Colossians 1.21-23). If God has really saved you, you’ll hold fast your confidence in Christ (Hebrews 3.6). You’ll love the brothers and put away sin (1 John). These are the marks of a “new creature”! And it is only “if” we demonstrate the marks of a “new creature” that we can be sure that we are “in Christ.”

Again, let me be clear. The Bible does teach that once we are saved, we are always saved. But it also teaches that, once we are saved, God will demonstrate His work in us by enabling us to persevere in faith and growth and steadfast hope in Jesus. And if we don’t see these demonstrations of God’s handiwork, then we have every reason to doubt whether He has yet begun the good work of salvation in us. For, whenever God begins a good work, He completes it!

December 1, 2011

Why give to World Missions?

The Lottie Moon Christmas Offering® – which supports our missionaries who leave homes, jobs, and family; and who go to remote places to bring the good news of Jesus to lost and dying people – will soon be in full swing. So let me give you ten reasons, which I have shared before, why I love the Lottie Moon offering, and why every Christian should support the cause of world missions. We should all give to world missions because:

1. Knowing Jesus Christ is the only pathway to God. Jesus said that “no one comes to the Father but through Me” (John 14.6). “No one” will be saved without Jesus … including those our missionaries work to reach.

2. There are over 6,600 unreached people groups in the world today, comprising 2.84 billion (with a ‘B’) souls (according to The Joshua Project, via the 2010 edition of Operation World). In other words, over 40% of the world’s populous lives in regions where there is little or no chance to hear the gospel of Jesus Christ. “How will they believe in Him whom they have not heard? And how will they hear without a preacher” (Romans 10.14)? And how will there be a preacher if we do not support missionaries?

3. “The harvest is plentiful, but the workers are few. Therefore beseech the Lord of the harvest to send out workers into His harvest” says Jesus in Matthew 9.37-38. And it seems only right, doesn’t it, that if we are going to ask God to send missionaries, we should be willing to support them.

4. God has blessed us so we can bless the nations with Jesus. There’s a reason why God made you and me Christians in America: so that we’d have more money than most of the world … to sink into missionary purposes! “God blesses us, that all the ends of the earth may fear Him” (Psalm 67.7)!

5. If we neglect God’s work, moths will eat our money! Not literally, perhaps … but money has a way of disappearing when God’s people use it unwisely. Therefore … “store up for yourselves treasures in heaven, where neither moth nor rust destroys, and where thieves do not break in or steal” (Matthew 6.20).

6. Missions is a fool-proof investment. God promises that people “from every nation and all tribes and peoples and tongues” will worship Jesus in heaven (Revelation 7.9). The task will be accomplished, and therefore your money will not be wasted! More than we can say for Wall Street!

7. Sacrificial giving is rewarded. When we give greatly to something greatly worthwhile, God returns our generosity with joy, and often with more resources for more generosity! “He who sows bountifully will also reap bountifully” (2 Corinthians 9.6)!

8. We are Christians because someone supported a missionary. Most of us have our ethnic roots in Europe and Africa, a few in S. America or Asia. Guess how the gospel got to many of these places? A missionary came with a Bible under his arm and a prayerful, generous support team in his homeland! Let’s make sure many more missionaries arrive in many more places with Bibles under their arms and generous support teams back home!

9. Our missionaries are worthy of our support. Most of our missionaries are away from family, some with little Christian fellowship, often in danger, yet serving the Lord faithfully in the middle of nowhere. That is why John said “we ought to support such men” (3 John 8).

10. God is worthy of the worship of the nations! Ultimately, we support missions because God is worthy of being made famous! People from every tribe and tongue ought to worship Him! The missionary task, therefore, is to win the multitudes to Jesus so that God’s praises will be sung as loudly as they ought to be sung! Here are God’s missionary marching orders: “Bring my sons from afar and My daughters from the ends of the earth, everyone who is called by My name, and whom I have created for My glory” (Isaiah 43.6-7)!

May God give us grace, once again this Christmas, to invest in His glory among the nations!

October 31, 2011

The English Bible and the Protestant Reformation

Since it's Reformation Day, I thought I'd re-post another article from a couple years back.  It was also the introduction to yesterday's sermon, from Psalm 119.24, entitled "Your Testimonies are my Delight."

“Our Father which art in heaven hallowed be Thy name.” So many of us know those words so well. Our parents or Sunday School teachers taught them to us decades ago … and we can still remember them now – twenty, thirty, forty years on. But did you know that there was a time when those parents and Sunday School teachers could have been burned alive for teaching you those lines from Matthew 6?

It’s true. That is exactly what the Roman Catholic Church was doing in the early 1500’s. Not only was it politically expedient, in the middle ages, for the common man to be prevented from reading the Bible in his own language … but the Church itself realized that many of its practices could not be found in the Scriptures, and would actually be unmasked as heretical and soul-destroying if normal people could actually read God’s word. So the Bible – by both church and political laws – was kept locked in the Latin tongue that almost no one could read. And if you were caught reading, possessing, or reciting the newly (and illegally) published English version … the penalty was uniform: death by burning at the stake.

That was the fate that numerous people suffered in England – for reading or possessing the Bible in English! Included among them were seven parents, in 1519, who dared to teach their children the Lord’s Prayer in their own language.

It may distress some Christians that the Ten Commandments are being systematically removed from public display. But that is almost like nothing in comparison to the 1500’s! We can still display the commandments in our homes and churches. We can still own, read, and teach the Bible freely. We can stand on Fountain Square and read it aloud if we want. But here were seven parents who died for teaching Matthew 6.9-13 to their children … in English. It is absolutely unthinkable. And yet it was real. And it happens, in other nations with other languages, even today. And, oh, how we should pray that God continues to give His suffering people strength.

But as we approach the 494th anniversary of the beginning of Protestant Reformation (10/31) … we should thank God for these martyrs for the English Bible. Yes (praise God!) Luther, Calvin, and others rediscovered the biblical and liberating doctrine of salvation by grace, through faith in Jesus alone (and not by works of the law). But we English speakers might have totally missed the blessing were it not for a few brave men and women who dared to get the Bible into English – against the law. Men like John Wycliffe, William Tyndale, and Miles Coverdale translated it – and Tyndale was martyred for doing so. Countless cloth workers smuggled the English Bible into England hidden in bales of cloth sent over from the European continent. And then there were those brave men and women who lost their lives for simply possessing the word of God. Their deaths were not in vain. For such cruelty always arouses the attention of the public to the injustices of those in power … and fans the flame of hunger for God’s word, and for justice!

So this October 31; this Reformation Day – remember these English translators, cloth-workers, and martyrs. And thank God that we have the Bible – and the message of salvation, full and free in Jesus alone – in our own language!


To read more on this topic, check out Piper's bio on William Tyndale (where I got most of this info).

Martin Luther and the Protestant Reformation

This is a re-post from several years back.  It's a familiar story, too.  But it's worth repeating on this 494th anniversary of Luther's nailing His 95 Theses to the church door in Wittenberg.

In July 1505, a careless and superstitious German college student was traveling through the countryside in the midst of a tremendous thunderstorm. Suddenly, a bolt of lightning burst from the clouds and struck the ground so near him that it knocked him off his feet. Frightened and superstitious, he cried out “St. Anne, save me and I will become a monk!” Two weeks later, having survived the storm, he kept his vow and entered the monastery. His name was Martin Luther.

As is the case when you enter the monastery, Luther had a lot of time to think about himself and about God. And the more he thought, the more he realized just how short of God’s standard he fell. He began to hate himself for it. And, in a desperate attempt to make things right with God, he dove head-first into the strict life of the monastery. He read and prayed laboriously. He spent hours in confession, desperately trying to remember every sin he had ever committed—and ended up hating himself even more because he could not remember them all! He fasted constantly, sometimes for days on end. He sometimes disciplined himself by spending freezing winter nights sleeping in the cold with no blanket. He would later say, “I kept the rule so strictly that I may say that if ever a monk got to heaven by his sheer monkery, it was I. If I had kept on any longer, I should have killed myself with vigils, prayers, reading, and other work.”

Despite all his efforts, Martin Luther could find no peace with God. He was terrified of God and saw Him only as a Judge, eager to punish. Historian Bruce Shelley describes Luther’s first service of the Mass like this:

In the midst of saying his first Mass, said Luther, “I was utterly stupefied and terrorstricken. I thought to myself, ‘Who am I that I should lift up mine eyes or raise my hands to the divine majesty? For I am dust and ashes and full of sin, and I am speaking to the living, eternal and true God?’ No amount of penance, no soothing advice from his superiors could still Luther’s conviction that he was a miserable, doomed sinner. Although his confessor counseled him to love God, Luther one day burst out, “I do not love God! I hate Him!”[1]

Now why did Martin Luther come to a place where he hated God? Why did he feel so condemned and so unloved by God? The reason is because, all his life he had heard much about God’s righteous judgment on sinners. But he had never heard that God is also the One who freely forgives. He had never heard that forgiveness of sins was an absolutely free gift! Everything that Martin Luther had ever been taught by the priests led him to believe that it is up to us to get right with God by virtue of our own good works…and Luther found himself completely unable! So, he was undone. And he hated this God whom he believed was so exacting and so unmerciful!

Perhaps this is the position some of you are in this very moment: hoping to get right with God through being good, and finding yourself incapable of being good! You are frustrated. You feel like God will never be satisfied and you will never measure up. And you find it very difficult to love a God like that!

If that is where you are, I have good news for you. After ten years of struggling, Martin Luther finally found hope and forgiveness. And he found it in Romans 1.16-17 where the apostle Paul writes:

I am not ashamed of the gospel, for it is the power of God for salvation to everyone who believes, to the Jew first an also to the Greek. For in it the righteousness of God is revealed from faith to faith; as it is written, he who is righteous by faith shall live.

Luther discovered two important things as he studied these two verses:

1.It is the “gospel”—the good news of Jesus’ death and resurrection—and not our good behavior, which “is the power of God for salvation.” We are saved by Jesus’ good works, not our own!

2. This salvation is available to “everyone who believes.” Or as verse 17 puts it, “He who is righteous by faith (as opposed to good works) shall live.” We become right with God, not by doing good works, but by believing in God’s Son!

Now, do you know what happens when we discover God’s mercy and grace toward sinners? Let’s let Luther describe it. Upon discovering the free gift of salvation through faith in Jesus, He said: “I felt myself to be reborn and to have gone through open doors into paradise!” When we realize that God wants to give us salvation as a free gift; and when, therefore, we stop trying to earn God’s favor, we gain peace with God. We no longer hate Him. We no longer see Him as our Condemner but as our Friend. We walk through open doors into paradise! That will happen for you today if you will but believe in God who saves the ungodly!

That is what happened for Martin Luther. And when he published his discovery on this date—October 31, 1517—God used this rediscovery of God’s free gift of salvation to begin a spiritual revival in which thousands of people found the same peace that Martin Luther found; the same peace that I hope each of you will find and share with others. Let’s pray that this would happen for someone today…

[1] This quote, the other quotes in this section, and the specifics of historical detail come from: Shelley, Bruce. Church History in Plain Language. (Dallas: Word, 1982), pages 238-239.

October 24, 2011

Not Even One

This article was written about 6 years ago.  I think I could "amen" it even more loudly now than then.

Tobey and I were talking this week with someone about what I’ve learned the last five years or so. Particularly, what have I learned about being a Christian. Here is my answer: I’m really not a good person. That is what I’ve learned. Of course I’ve learned other things. But that may be the main one: I’m really not as good as I thought I was.

Now I definitely grew up believing that everyone was a sinner. I’ve known Romans 3.23 as long as I can remember. But I think my attitude through much of my growing up years was that I (and my church-going compatriots) were among the sinners who really weren’t all that bad. There were sinners…and then there were SINNERS. And I was definitely in the lower-case sinners club.

Did I need God’s grace and forgiveness? Sure. Everybody does. But those people out there sure needed it a lot more than I did! I was one of those who sinned every now and again. I needed forgiveness sprinkled in here and there. But basically I was pretty good.

I really think that this is what I thought it meant to be a Christian. Now, of course, I wouldn’t have described it exactly this way. I would have spoken in terms that almost all Bible-believing people do. “Are you a sinner?” “Well of course, we’re all sinners!” “Do you need a Savior?” “Certainly. Everybody needs a Savior.”

Now, while these statements are correct, do you see that they are woefully inadequate? Being a Christian is not simply believing that we are all sinners—but that I myself am a terrible sinner! Being a Christian doesn’t simply mean we accept that all people need the Savior—but that I myself am in desperate need of His sacrifice on my behalf.

And for goodness sake, being a Christian doesn’t mean that I think I’m one of the lesser sinners. One is not a Christian because he has his act together, goes to church, and is a pretty nice person. But sadly, that is what many, many people, who go to church every Sunday believe.

Again, they would never go so far as to say: “I am saved by my good works.” No, No. That would be heresy. But many of the same people who would never claim to be saved by works would also be unwilling to admit of themselves: “I am not a good person. I am a bad person.” But isn’t that what the Bible says? When the Bible proclaims: “there is none righteous, not even one…there is none who seeks for God…there is none who does good, there is not even one” (Rom. 3.10-12)—isn’t it talking about me?

If I am honest with myself, I do not have to look very deeply into my heart, my thoughts, and my actions to discern that the Bible speaks truth here. But only when I do am I a candidate for God’s grace. For Jesus didn’t come to call the righteous, but sinners.

October 10, 2011

Faith Alone?

In the church tradition from which we come, we are accustomed to being taught (correctly) that we are saved by faith alone. Many of us who grew up in church had verses like Romans 3.28 stamped on our memories: “For we maintain that a man is justified by faith apart from the works of the Law.” And even those of us who haven’t been in church that long have at least had this truth ingrained on our minds—we are saved by faith in Jesus, not by doing good works. How true!

But as we’ve matured in faith; as we’ve read our Bibles, many of us have come across a bit of a trip-line in James 2. Check out verse 24: “You see that a man is justified by works and not by faith alone.” ‘WHAT? Justified by works?! That can’t be right, can it?’ Well, not only can it be…it is. It is right there in the Bible. And it seems like Paul and James are arguing on two totally different sides. And we might think that if we did not believe that God wrote the Bible. But since we believe God told both Paul and James what to write, their writings must somehow blend together to make one cohesive truth. And I believe they do…

What Paul is saying is clear—faith alone saves. James would agree. He’s just flipping the faith coin over so we can see what is on the other side—namely, good works. James knew that faith alone saved. He was simply pointing out that true saving faith is always accompanied and demonstrated by good works.

The people of other centuries explained this two-sided coin with a phrase that went something like this: It is faith alone that saves, but saving faith is never alone. In other words, if all you had was faith in Christ … that would be good enough to make you right with God; good enough to swing open the door of heaven. But the truth is that, when God grants a person faith, He always gives it in a package deal with love, a desire for holiness, and the Law written on our hearts.

Perhaps an illustration would help. Say the cabinet above your stove becomes so warped from steam that it is completely jammed shut. Try as you might, you cannot pull it open and get to the food inside.  But along I come and give you a multi-purpose tool—a screwdriver, knife, fingernail file, allen wrench, box-cutter, and scissors all in one, pocket-knife type of contraption. So you unfold the screwdriver, turn the screws that hold the cabinet's hinges in place, remove the hinges, and off pops the door.

Now it would be totally correct to say: “The screw-driver alone got me into the cabinet.” No one would argue that. Neither the scissors nor the knife enabled you to get to your Cheerios. But those tools DID come in the package deal with the screw-driver. You couldn’t have gotten one without the other.

The same is true with faith. Faith in Jesus alone gets you into a relationship with God. Loving your neighbor, going to church, paying your tithes could never do that. But those kinds of things DO come in a package deal with faith. You cannot have one without the other!

And to carry the illustration further, remember that opening a shut door is not the only use for that screwdriver. It’s also helpful in putting up shelves, hanging pictures, and installing your air-filters! So it is with faith. Faith does not stop working when it believes on Jesus and the door of heaven swings open. It continues as a day-by-day trust in the Lord. And it is that day-by-day trust in the Lord that allows us to give money away, pray for our enemies, study our Bibles, etc. If we trust the Lord to bless our obedience, we will follow Him whole-heartedly—and good works will be the inevitable result! So not only is saving faith accompanied by a desire for good works…but it also positively produces the good works!

So we may both “maintain that a man is justified by faith apart from the works of the Law” and at the same time “see that a man is justified by works and not by faith (that is alone) alone.” Because true faith is never alone, but always shows up with its friends!

October 3, 2011

Satisfied?

In Ecclesiastes 6.7, King Solomon penned these wise words: “All a man’s labor is for his mouth and yet the soul is not satisfied.” A powerful proverb—especially coming from a man whose appetite was fed with every pleasure known to man. Consider what Solomon is really saying:

1. Getting what you want will never satisfy you. Oh sure, eating more, owning more, vacationing more, feeling more…all these things may satisfy some temporary desires. They may make your body or mind happy for a season. But Solomon says that gratifying these desires will never satisfy the deepest part of a person—his soul. The soul is where the deepest longings exist. The soul is where the most painful agonies cry out. And in the end, it is often true that the people who are most wealthy and most gratified have souls which are least healthy and least satisfied! And Solomon ought to know. He was Bill Gates and the President of the United States all rolled into one—the wealthiest, most powerful man in the known world. Listen to his self-description in Ecclesiastes 2.4-10:

4I enlarged my works: I built houses for myself, I planted vineyards for myself; 5I made gardens and parks for myself and I planted in them all kinds of fruit trees; 6I made ponds of water for myself from which to irrigate a forest of growing trees. 7I bought male and female slaves and I had homeborn slaves Also I possessed flocks and herds larger than all who preceded me in Jerusalem. 8Also, I collected for myself silver and gold and the treasure of kings and provinces I provided for myself male and female singers and the pleasures of men--many concubines. 9Then I became great and increased more than all who preceded me in Jerusalem. My wisdom also stood by me. 10All that my eyes desired I did not refuse them I did not withhold my heart from any pleasure, for my heart was pleased because of all my labor and this was my reward for all my labor.

Solomon had possessions (v.4-6), power (v.7), money (v.8a), sexual gratification (v.8b), fame (v.9a), wisdom (v.9b), pleasure (v.10a), and success (v.10b). Yet with all this, his soul was not satisfied. Read what he says in 2.11: “Thus I considered all my activities which my hands had done and the labor which I had exerted, and behold all was vanity and striving after wind.” Which brings me to my second point from Ecclesiastes 6.7:

2. Working for what you get will never satisfy you. Now that goes exactly contrary to the American way of thinking doesn’t it? We’ve been taught to think that the only things worth having are the things you have to work for. But Solomon says it isn’t so. He says that a man’s “labor” is, in the end, not satisfying to the soul.

When you work for something, the end result is that you get simply what you deserve. You earn a wage. And no one turns cartwheels when they get their same old paycheck on a Friday afternoon. But what if, when you get that paycheck, your boss has, out of the goodness of his heart, given you a $100 bonus? Then you get excited! So Solomon is right. The things worked for aren’t what exhilarate the soul. It’s the free gifts that truly make the heart glad.

So what is the point? Solomon’s point is simply this: Soul satisfaction comes neither through temporary, earthly gratification…nor through sweat and toil. Actually the opposite is true. Soul satisfaction comes as we: (a) Cease aiming to satisfy ourselves, and start aiming to be satisfied in God; and (b) Stop trying to work for everything we get and realize that satisfaction—forgiveness, purpose, relationship with God, and eternal life—is a free gift through the life and death of Jesus.

To boil it down to a simple question: Are you working for yourself…or resting in Jesus? The eternal satisfaction of your soul depends upon how you answer!

October 1, 2011

September 30, 2011

Is my Bible Accurate?

All of this talk about Bible translation can be very instructive and edifying. But if we are not careful, it can also be quite disconcerting. With questions swirling in our heads about whether the KJV is based on the best Greek Testament; or whether the NIV’s translation theory is faulty, we may find ourselves wondering if we’ve been misguided all these years by faulty Bibles. So let me address that in this final article.

Have you been misguided by your Bible translation? Probably not. Yes, there are translations (such as those printed by the Jehovah’s Witnesses and Mormons) that intentionally change key words to promote their heresies. But chances are you haven’t been reading those versions. Probably you’ve been reading one of the following: the KJV, NKJV, ESV, NASB, HCSB, NIV, NRSV, or NLT. As I have been saying for the past five weeks, they are not all created equal. Some of them (particularly the NASB and ESV) are head and shoulders above the rest. But, if you grew up on the KJV or the NIV; or if you’ve been reading the NLT because of its ease of access, you will not have imbibed any heresy.

Here’s the mercy of God for you – though all translations have been put together by fallible men and women; and though there are noticeable differences in many of them … not one of those differences (in the mainstream translations mentioned above) will change the way a person believes about the cardinal doctrines of the faith.

Yes, the KJV has a few extra verses at the end of the book of Mark. The same is true in John 8, and in a few other spots. But the truths taught (or not taught) in those verses do not make or break the Christian faith. For the most part, the KJV’s additional verses just say the kinds of things that may be found in other places in the Scriptures.

And yes, the NIV and NLT sometimes frustrate me by telling me what they think Paul means instead of what he actually says. And sometimes, by doing so, some of the nuances Paul probably had in mind get ‘lost in translation’. But overall, even though they shouldn’t be interpreting for me, these translations get the interpretations basically right. You won’t be led into any serious errors if you’ve read the NIV your whole life long.

I hope that’s a relief to you. Surely there are better translations and worse ones. And yes, if you read one of the lesser ones, you will miss out on some things that God intends to give you. But I haven’t written this series of articles to undermine your confidence in the English Bible, but to strengthen it. I believe that, if you understand what you are holding in your hands, and how it was translated, and from what Greek manuscripts, and so on … you’ll actually be more confident that it really is possible, without knowing a word of Greek or Hebrew, to know exactly what Moses, Ezekiel, James, Paul, and John wrote … indeed, what the Holy Spirit wrote through them! I believe that, if you understand how translation works, and why it ought to work a certain way, you’ll see with all the more clarity the importance of reading from a good translation. And the better the translation, the better you’ll understand God’s word. And the better you understand God’s word, the more you will love Him; the more you will find yourself under the Spirit’s gracious influences; and the more you will grow into conformity to His Son. That’s worth a lot of effort … and a good translation!

What about the King James Version?

Once we have settled the question of what kind of translation we want to use, we still have a question to answer. Which specific one? When thinking about word-for-word translations, we English speakers have four or five marvelous options (KJV, NKJV, ESV, NASB, and HCSB to name the ones that immediately come to mind). But which one shall we use? Most Christians are content with any or all of the above. But there is a minority who prefer the King James above all others, and who insist on using it alone. Some would even go so far as to argue that it is uniquely inspired. We have already shown that to be a misguided assumption.

‘But what about all the differences between the KJV and the modern translations?’ it is sometimes argued. ‘Is it not obvious that modern translations have left certain things out of the Bible?’ These are questions you may have been asked by a KJV-only proponent. At their best, these questions are well-meaning, but uninformed.

Did modern translators really leave things out of the Bible? And would they have done so, as some KJV-only proponents argue, as a grand conspiracy to change Bible doctrine, lessen our appreciation for the deity of Jesus, etc.? No, and no. So then why do the modern translations (especially in the New Testament) not include certain sentences, words, and sometimes whole verses or passages that appear in the KJV?

Well, remember that the New Testament came to us in Greek, not in Elizabethan English. Understand, also, that no one possesses the original copies of Luke in Luke’s own hand-writing, or of Galatians in Paul’s own script. All of the Greek manuscripts that exist today are handwritten copies of the various books of the Bible, produced from the first century AD and onwards. And, as we said about Bible translators before, so we now say of Bible copyists – they are not infallible. Sometimes, when we compare a handful of copies of the gospel of Matthew, for instance, it becomes obvious that one of the copyists inadvertently skipped a word or two. Other times it would appear that an overzealous copyist added a few of his own explanatory notes to the biblical text – notes which were sometimes thought by later copyists to have been part of the original text, and were therefore copied down as though they were!

What this means is that Bible scholars and translation teams have to sift through all the thousands of ancient Greek Bible manuscripts, comparing these aberrations, ‘typos’, and so on … and by careful consideration, come to studied conclusions about which manuscripts contain the most accurate copies of the infallible originals. There are men and women who have given their whole lives to this pursuit, gathering together the thousands of ancient Bible manuscripts available to us, and piecing them together into the most accurate final product possible.  Thank God for them!

And, as in any scientific study, the larger the sample size these men and women have to work with, the more accurate the results. The more manuscripts the Greek scholars have, the easier it is for them to piece the New Testament together accurately.

What does this have to do with the KJV? Well, as you may know, the KJV was produced in 1611 – four hundred years ago this year! But at that date, the men who had pieced together the New Testament had only six or seven ancient Greek manuscripts to work with. And so they took the handful manuscripts they possessed and put them together into a Greek New Testament – from which Luther’s German Bible, the KJV, and several other versions were translated. And let me say, with everyone else who has ever known anything about this subject … they did a masterful job! The King James is a marvelous English Bible translation! And it is highly accurate to the Greek manuscripts its translators had to work with.

But that last sentence is key. The King James is accurate to the Greek manuscripts its translators had to work with – six or seven Greek manuscripts, all copied several centuries after the events of the New Testament. But, praise God, in the four hundred years since, over five thousand more New Testament manuscripts have turned up – many of them much, much older than the ones available to the KJV committee in 1611! So modern Greek scholars, in putting together the most accurate Greek New Testament possible, have about 900 times more data to work with. And, as they have studied that data, it has become fairly evident that some of the very ‘typos’ and overzealous notes that I mentioned already were prevalent in the manuscripts that the KJV translation team had to work with.

Put simply, we can now look back and realize that the KJV translators didn’t have as accurate a copy of the Greek New Testament as modern translators have at their disposal. That is no slight on the KJV committee, any more than we fault ophthalmologists from a century ago for not being able to offer contact lenses or laser surgery. As with the eye-doctors, the KJV translators were simply doing their best with the tools they had been given … and working masterfully, as I said. But if God has uncovered more and more data for us to work with, should we not use it … and piece together the best Greek New Testament possible? And, once that work has been done in the Greek (as it has), doesn’t it behoove us to use those better Greek Testaments as the basis for our modern English translations? Surely it does! Thus the existence of the ESV, the NASB, and so on … with their occasional variations from the KJV.

There is no conspiracy to take ‘the real English Bible’ out of people’s hands … but rather an earnest attempt to place the best English Bible into people’s hands, by basing it on the best Greek New Testament. Good, word-for-word, modern Bible translations are simply building upon the exact theories and disciplines employed by their forbears on the KJV committee … only with the kind of data to work with that would have made the men of 1611 salivate. We should be thankful for them. I have a feeling the KJV committee members would be!

September 29, 2011

What God Said ... or what He Meant?

There are two theories of Bible translation – word-for-word, and thought-for-thought. One set of translators seeks to present the English reader with an accurate translation of each Greek and Hebrew word in the Bible. The other takes a phrase or so at a time, determines its meaning, and then renders that meaning into modern English. Which is best? I prefer the word-for-word theory of translation a hundred fold.

First, is it not true that God inspired every word of the Bible? That’s what the Bible says about itself. “Every word of God is tested” (Proverbs 30.5, emphasis mine). “Man shall not live on bread alone, but on every word that proceeds out of the mouth of God” (Matthew 4.4, emphasis mine). Every last word of the Bible is God’s. And every last word is vital for my spiritual nourishment! And, therefore, I want a translation that seeks to translate every word! It’s true that God communicates thoughts to us in the Scriptures. But those thoughts come to us in specific words. And the only way to be sure we have translated God’s thoughts accurately is to translate each word that makes up the thoughts!

Second, I prefer word-for-word translations because I assume that, if God included in His word certain challenging matters, He must want me to understand them. Thought-for-thought translations seek to do away with the difficulties that sometimes come upon Bible readers by re-working or smoothing out the rough parts. But I believe that if God included in His word unusual, technical terms (like propitiation), He must want me to understand them. And if He included Hebrew poetry and imagery in the Bible, He must want me to learn how that imagery works and what it means. In other words, to seek to smooth out what the Hebrew and Greek Bible actually says is akin to assuming that God didn’t give us exactly what we needed when He infallibly guided the writing of His word. I prefer to think that God knew exactly what He was doing when He included some of the more challenging vocabulary of the Bible, and that He has good reason for requiring us to sometimes work hard to understand certain words, or metaphors, or ancient customs that the thought-for-thought translations skim over.

Third, I believe that thought-for-thought patterns of translating are dangerous because the translators end up interpreting the word of God instead of simply translating it. As I mentioned, the process of thought-for-thought translation requires a translator to look at a particular Bible phrase, figure out what it means, and then render what it means in modern English. Do you see the problem? Thought-for-thought translation requires the translator not only to translate the passage, but to interpret it. Instead of simply translating the word “propitiation”, and trusting you to master its meaning, he tells you what he believes propitiation means! But that is not the province of a translator. It is the reader’s job to figure out Bible meaning, not the translator’s!

The problem is not usually that, when interpreting the Bible for us, the translators get it heretically wrong. Most of the time their understanding of what a verse means is not off-the-wall crazy. The problem is that, when you and I read our Bibles, we are led to believe that we are reading exactly what God said through Paul or Jeremiah two or six thousand years ago … not what a team of Americans in Grand Rapids believe God meant. But suddenly, under the influence of this faulty theory of translation, a whole generation of Bible readers is left believing that God actually said X, when, in fact, X was simply the translator’s way of explaining what he thought God meant. Nuances of meaning are lost this way.

For instance, as Leland Ryken points out in his excellent work The Word of God in English, there is a great difference between a word-for-word translation of Psalm 16.6 “the lines have fallen to me in pleasant places” (NASB) and a thought-for-thought version of the same verse: “You make my life pleasant” (CEV). You can immediately see how the latter translation leaves out (and adds in) whole words. But there’s more missing than just a few words. The idea of “lines” is probably the psalmist’s way of making allusion to the boundary lines by which God had divided the promised land when the children of Israel had entered it after forty years of wandering. What a blessing that had been. And now the psalmist is using the language of that time period to say to God: ‘My life is just like that. Just as, in times of old, You apportioned Your people's lots in such a good and kind way, so You have done with my lot in life.’ But that reference to the book of Joshua, and all the imagery it invokes, can be completely lost when a translator chooses not to translate every word.

So what do I want from my translator? Not that he tells me what he believes the Bible means; and not that he simplifies it for me. I want him to give me the whole enchilada, to put in simply. Let me taste and see every single word that God has for me. I don’t want to miss a single flavor or spice!

September 28, 2011

Word-for-Word ... or Thought-for-Thought?

I concluded yesterday’s article by saying that the largest reason, by far, for the discrepancies in our Bible translations is because different Bible translation teams have differing theories on exactly what it means to translate the Bible. Some teams are very concerned to precisely translate every word of the Greek and Hebrew text, even if those words require modern readers to put on their thinking caps. Other translation teams, in the name of readability, seek to take whole Bible phrases or sentences, figure out what they mean, and then put the entire phrase or sentence into modern English.

Which theory is right? The aim of the next two articles is to help you think it through. Today, let me further define (again, in my limited, layman’s terms*) the two basic theories of Bible translation.

On the one hand, there are the essentially literal translations. These are English versions of the Bible whose translators have sought to translate each word of the original Greek and Hebrew. That means, of course, that they even end up translating words that we do not use in our everyday vocabulary (propitiation, mercy seat, eunuch, and so on). The theory is that, if God really inspired these Greek and Hebrew words, then we want to make sure we translate every last one of them … trusting God (often through pastors and teachers) to help people understand the parts that are more difficult for modern English-speakers. Representatives of this school of translation include the King James Version, the New American Standard Bible, the English Standard Version, and the New King James Version.

On the other end of the spectrum are what are often called dynamic equivalent translations (like the New International Version, Today’s English Version, and the New Living Translation). Rather than translating word-for-word, these translations espouse a thought-for-thought way of rendering the Bible into English. In other words, the translator looks at a given Greek or Hebrew phrase, discerns what that phrase says and means, and then renders it into an English phrase that means roughly what the original means. Sometimes this requires explaining a word like “propitiation” instead of simply translating the word itself. Sometimes it means explaining a Hebrew metaphor instead of simply translating the metaphor and leaving the reader to figure out what it means that “the lines have fallen for me in pleasant places.”*  The advantage of doing this, according to proponents of this theory, is readability. Their goal is to spare modern readers many of the Bible’s more difficult portions, and to make the Bible as accessible as possible.

Now let me say that men and women in both camps love the Lord. Men and women on both ends of the translation theory spectrum want to provide people with the best English Bible possible. But, given the wide variation in their theories, and in the subsequent translations they produce, both cannot be right.. So think it out. Word-for-word, or thought-for-thought? Which theory do you believe is best? Why so? Tomorrow, Lord willing, I’ll give you my considered opinion on this matter. Stay with me!

*for more detail on the differences between these two theories, see Leland Ryken's excellent book The Word of God in English.  The "lines" metaphor mentioned above comes from Ryken's observations.

September 27, 2011

"But MY Bible says ..."

Yesterday we began asking the question of why our English Bible translations differ in various places. The first part of our discussion centered on the fact that we are, in fact, reading translations of the original Greek and Hebrew. And translations involve translators – men and women who, hopefully like you and me, are trying to do the best they can possibly do in their work for the Lord; but who, like you and me, have limitations and foibles and so on. This is one reason our translations differ – because different men and women sometimes translate the Greek or Hebrew in different ways.

In this article, let me mention some of the reasons why that may be so.

First, the fact is that the English language is quite sophisticated in its vocabulary and flexibility. In layman’s terms, that simply means that our language has a great capacity for saying the same thing with several different words. So, for instance, one translator may render a certain Greek word as “patient”, while another translator may render the exact same Greek word as “longsuffering”. Both translations are accurate because both “patient” and “longsuffering” have the same basic meaning. And it is this breadth and flexibility of our English vocabulary that accounts for some (though not most) of the variations in our translations.

Second, our Bible versions sometimes differ because, as we said last week, translators are fallible. One translation team may have a better grasp on a given Hebrew word or syntax pattern than another translation team. And thus, while neither team’s translation radically transforms the overall meaning of the verse in question, team B may be able to render the wording just a little more lucidly than team A. And yet, on the next verse, with a different set of vocabulary or syntax, team A may do just a little better job.

Let me say again that, as far as our mainstream English translations go (KJV, NKJV, NASB, ESV, NIV), both team A and team B almost invariably get the translations basically right. So these differences will not be a matter of bad versus good … but of good versus better.

Thirdly, the fact that we are reading translations rather than the original Greek and Hebrew manuscripts requires us to understand that there are different theories of how the Bible should be translated. How exactly literal should a translation be? Should we translate word-for-word, or phrase-for-phrase? When a given Greek or Hebrew sentence is difficult to understand, how much license does the translator have to smooth the wording out and make it readable, even if he has to change the wording up just a bit?

These are questions over which Bible translators and scholars disagree widely. And it is largely because of these differing theories of translation that our Bible versions differ so widely. This is, by far, the biggest reason for the discrepancies in our various translations. There is much at stake at this point – much more than in any issue we have covered so far. Tomorrow, Lord willing, we’ll give an entire article to explaining translators and their theories … and how it affects what, for us, lies between Genesis and Revelation. Stay tuned.

September 26, 2011

Bible Translation 101

Did you ever wonder why your Bible sometimes reads slightly differently than the preacher’s? Or how you can be in a Bible study, and two different people can read the same verse in such vastly differing translations? It’s an important question to ask. After all, if God has really spoken, we want to be sure we have His words in our hands exactly as they should be! And the difference between the translations can sometimes leave us wondering if we really do.

So what accounts for the difference in Bible versions? And why do some Christians see this as a fighting matter? Is it that important? Why or why not? These are valuable questions to consider.

Over the next several days, I am going to attempt to answer some of these questions – to take you on a layman’s tour of Bible translation, explaining the ins and outs of why our English Bibles are the way they are, and even why they sometimes differ slightly. I’m calling it a Bible Translation 101 (or, as I said, a layman’s tour) because that’s exactly what I am when it comes to these things – a layman who understand these things at a roughly introductory level. I am not an expert in Greek, Hebrew, linguistics, or translation theory – just a local pastor who wants his people to be confident that the Bible they read is an accurate English rendering of what God actually said in Greek and Hebrew. In order to be thus confident, it would be good for us to know how we got our Bible, why some translations are better than others, and so on.

Let me start with an introductory point, before moving on to some more challenging matters in the days ahead.

First, at the risk of stating the obvious, let me remind you that the Bible was not originally written in English! No, the Old Testament first came to us almost entirely in Hebrew, and the New Testament in Greek. So, unless you read one of those two languages, your encounters with the Bible are always in translation. And, of course, it was the original Bible authors (and not later translators!) who were specially inspired by God (2 Peter 1.21). So, when we speak of the infallibility or inerrancy of the Scriptures, we are saying that the Greek and Hebrew words of Peter, and Moses, and Luke, and Nehemiah were infallibly inspired by God … not that their English-speaking translators were infallibly inspired by God!

Does that make sense? The Scriptures are inspired in their original autographs; in their original languages. English (or Swahili, or Japanese, or German) translators are not protected from error in quite the same way. Surely we trust that God superintends our translators’ work. But He does not promise to make them infallible like He made Peter, Paul, Moses, and the rest of the biblical authors. And what that means is that we have taken a wrong turn if we seek to enshrine one particular English translation as ‘inspired’, and label all the rest as perverted. In point of fact, none of the translations are inspired, in and of themselves. They are inspired only insofar as they accurately translate the Greek and Hebrew manuscripts which are inspired!

In this regard (as I will go on to point out in the days ahead), not all translations are equally faithful to the original Greek and Hebrew, it’s true. So I am not saying we should not prefer one translation over another. I am simply saying that none of our English translations or translators were protected and guided along in quite the same way as God protected and guided the original Bible authors! And therefore none of them should be enshrined as the Bible for English-speaking people. It’s not the King James or New American Standard translations that were infallibly inspired by God, but the original Greek and Hebrew manuscripts!

That’s the whole reason why this series of articles exist. Since we are not reading the original Greek and Hebrew manuscripts; and since our English translators (excellent and faithful as they almost invariably are) are not infallible, it is worth asking which translations of the Bible render the original Greek and Hebrew most accurately and faithfully.

There are answers to that question. And there are accurate, faithful translations! In the posts ahead, I hope to help you know how to find them.

September 22, 2011

To Play, or not to Play ... on the Lord's Day

A stirring article, from the BBC, on Scottish rugby start Euan Murray ... who will miss his country's world cup match this week because he believes in keeping the Lord's Day set apart for rest and worship.


"It's basically all or nothing, following Jesus" said Murray (pictured on the left). "I don't believe in pick 'n' mix Christianity. I believe the Bible is the word of God, so who am I to ignore something from it?"  Read the whole article here.

September 19, 2011

Your Wagon Tracks Drip with Fatness

“You have crowned the year with bounty, and your wagon tracks drip with fatness.” Psalm 65.11

David’s words, here, are to me some of the most delightful in the Bible. Not for their theological precision or doctrinal clarity. Psalm 65.11 is not that kind of verse. What it is, though, is a marvelous picture of the goodness of God to His people.

Picture what David is saying in the latter verses of Psalm 65. It has been a year of abundant rain (v.9). The soil is soft and blackened with moisture (v.10). And the grain, the grapes, and the flocks cover the hillsides like a cloak (vv.12-13). Every stalk of corn is in full ear. The grape vines are heavy and weighed down with fruit. The sheep are fat, and their coats are thick and white. God has “crowed the year” with His “bounty”!

And here comes the farmer with his wagon, trundling along the dirt road that runs through his farmland, harvesting all God’s goodness into the back of the cart. Indeed, the cart is so overloaded with corn and grapes, with wool and lamb chops; and the freshly watered ground is so soft and pliable, that the wagon wheels are furrowing ruts into the soil as the farmer rides along! “Wagon tracks” are being created by the weight of the blessings piled high in the wagon! Indeed, says David, the wagon is so full that wine and kernels of corn and fat from the mutton are actually running over the sides of the wagon and dripping down the sideboards into the “wagon tracks” below. That’s how bountiful the harvest has been – the wagon is bursting at the seams!

And that, says David, is how bountifully God deals with His people … and in so many ways! His wagon tracks drip with fatness! His blessings to us are pressed down, shaken out, and overflowing! God has spread an absolute feast of blessings before His people!

Sometimes the feast is literally comprised of grapes and corn, of wool and mutton. How blessed we are to be able to sit down to the kind of meals to which we are so often privy? Indeed, church fellowship meals, with all their bounty spread on the long tables, ought to remind us of just how good we have it. God’s wagon tracks, so often, literally drip with fatness and fruit of every kind!

But God’s bounty is even more profound when we consider how He forgives our transgressions (v.3), and brings us near to Himself (v.4), and makes us members of His household. What a blessing that we should be called the children of God; that we should sit at the table of all His spiritual delights; that we should have the new wine of the Holy Spirit living within us; that we should have the grain of the Scriptures to nourish our souls; that we should even be able to feast on the meat of the Word! Truly we have been given, as Paul put it, “every spiritual blessing.” Truly God’s wagon tracks drip with fatness!

And let us not forget that this cornucopia of blessings; this filling up of our spiritual wagons comes to us at the cost of God’s dear Son. It is because He died for us that we are adopted into God’s family. It is because of His great love that we have the privilege of prayer. It is His blood that has sealed our pardon and brought us into this life of blessing! O, there are a great many blessings piled up in the carts of God’s goodness to us. There are a great many things that we find so abundantly supplied that they are practically dripping down the sides of our wagons. But the greatest thing that ever dripped down the sideboards of God’s wagon was the blood of His Son! And if God has given us His Son, then we have bounty indeed!

'How-to' ... Eight Sermons from Romans 12

We recently finished an eight week study of one of the great "how-to" chapters in the Bible: Romans 12. Listen in with us:

Romans 12.1a - "Therefore"
Romans 12.1b - "A living sacrifice"
Romans 12.2 - Renew your Minds
Romans 12.3-5 - A Sober Look in the Mirror
Romans 12.6-8 - "We have gifts"
Romans 12.9-13 - "One another"
Romans 12.9-13 - Holy, Hearty, Hopeful
Romans 12.14-21 - "How to respond to each person"

September 12, 2011

From the rising of the sun unto the going down of the same

“From the rising of the sun unto the going down of the same The LORD's name is to be praised.” Psalm 113.3 (KJV)

It occurred to me, as I read this verse recently, that it could be interpreted in two different ways. I’ve always read these words as geographical description – God’s name is to be praised from the east (where the sun rises) all the way to the west (where it sets). And I still think that is probably the main thing the psalmist had in mind in Psalm 113.3 – geography. ‘Let the Lord be praised from east to west,’ he seems to be saying … ‘because the Lord is above “all nations”’ (v.4).

‘Let God’s name be magnified’ in other words, ‘from the rocky coasts of Maine, where the sun first dawns upon the mainland Unites States each morning … all the way the sandy beaches of San Diego, where the light leaves our shores at the end of the day. Indeed, let the name of the Lord be praised from Auckland, New Zealand to Honolulu Hawaii, and everywhere in between – “from the rising of the sun unto the going down of the same.”’

“The Lord’s name is to be praised” in every geographic location! And that means that God’s people have work to do! Because that name is not yet praised with the geographic pervasiveness that Psalm 113 calls for. Less than one in ten thousand people praise His name in Afghanistan, Turkey, Turkmenistan, Yemen, Morocco, Tunisia, and the tiny European enclave of San Marino. Additionally, there are still 15 languages spoken by over a million people among whom exist no known Christians. And the statistics could go on. There are all sorts of places that exist between the geographic rising and setting of the sun where the name of the Lord is not being praised through Jesus Christ! And so Psalm 113.3 means we have work to do. It is not enough just to sing and read the psalm. We must pray, and give, and go so that its mandate might be fulfilled!

“From the rising of the sun unto the going down of the same The LORD's name is to be praised.” It’s a geographical description, I think … producing a missionary mandate!

But, as I say, it occurred to me that some people might well read Psalm 113.3 with a slightly different twist. It is possible to read the psalmist’s words and think time rather than geography. It is possible, in other words, to hear the psalmist saying something like this: ‘From the time the sun rises in the morning, until it goes down at night, you should be praising God’s name – all day long!

In the psalmist’s time, sunrise to sunset framed many a person’s waking hours. They got up and went to bed with the sun. We’re a little different, of course. We might phrase the idea like this: ‘From the time the alarm clock goes off in the morning, until the time when the lamp goes off at night, “the Lord’s name is to be praised.” A tall task indeed!

As I said early on, I think the geographic, rather than the temporal, is what the psalmist had in mind when he wrote Psalm 113.3. But the previous verse does bring into play the idea of time. The Lord should be praised, the psalmist says in Psalm 113.2, “from this time forth and forever" (NASB®).  So it is possible that verse 3 carries that theme along. We ought to praise the Lord at all times!

But whether or not that’s exactly what verse 3 means, it’s certainly true that we should praise the Lord all day long. From sun up to sun down we ought to magnify the name of the Lord. And we ought to do so whether the sun comes up for us in Cincinnati, OH, or north Mississippi, or New Zealand, or Hawaii, or Turkmenistan, or anywhere in between. “The Lord’s name is to be praised” … in every geography, and at all times!

September 11, 2011

My most Vivid 9/11 Memory

Today is, of course, a day to give thanks. The destruction could have been much worse on that never-to-be-forgotten morning ten years ago. And we should thank God it wasn’t. We should also thank God for the thousands of brave souls who made it so, and who have ensured that our lives have been much safer these last 10 years than we may have then dreamed. We should thank the Lord, too, for souls who may have been awakened to eternity by the events of that awful day, and who are now trusting and serving Jesus because of it. God really did work for good that which was meant as inestimable evil – the half of which working we may never fully know. So today is a day for giving thanks. 

But it’s also a day to remember. We remember, today, the many people who lost their lives that day, and mourn over them. We also remember, in light of their loss, that eternity may be much closer than we sometimes think, waking up in the mornings and heading off to the daily routine. But perhaps, especially, on this tenth anniversary of the 9/11 tragedy, we who are old enough will vividly remember where we were when we first heard the news. We will remember exactly what television set first broadcast those horrible pictures before our stunned eyes. Some of us will clearly remember certain other events that took place on and around that day, too. Sudden tragedy has a way of permanently searing certain normally forgettable circumstances into our memories. 

Let me tell you what I remember most about September 11, 2001. Most vivid in my mind is actually what happened on September 13. That night Tobey and I attended a Passion collegiate conference with Louie Giglio. Yes, we were well past college at that point, but he had made such a profound impact on us that we went to the event anyway, just down the road from my seminary. As you can imagine, there was a different atmosphere in the air than might have normally been the case with several hundred college students in the room. It was sober, weighty. And, of course, the events of recent days were addressed prominently. Here is a paraphrase of what I remember Louie Giglio saying that night:
In the days ahead there is going to be a great deal of discussion about what should be done with the country of Afghanistan. Our government will have some decisions to make. And it’s not for me to speculate about what they must do. But I know this – the likelihood is that thousands of Afghan people, with no access to the gospel, are probably going to go out into eternity in the months ahead. And, before that happens, some of God’s people are going to have to risk their lives in order to walk into that country and take Jesus to them. I wonder if it will be anyone in this room.
I was stunned. I did not do much singing the rest of the night. Was it me? Did I need to go to Afghanistan – at the time the least Christian and most vehemently anti-missionary country on the earth? It was hard to sleep that night thinking about what I might need to do, and what might become of those thousands of people – indeed, what has, now, become of many of them ten years later. 

After talking with my missions professor the next day, we determined that, given the political situation, there was no way on earth any American was going to walk into Afghanistan without military credentials. I took that as God’s ‘no’ to the question of whether I was called to that country. I hope I was right. Thankfully, in the ten years since, the country has opened up significantly. The breaking of Taliban power has allowed the gospel to at least trickle into the country in tiny streams here and there. A few dozen believers before 9/11 have blossomed into several hundred. Not many in a country of 29 million people, I know. But exponentially more than before! That is one of the great Romans 8.28 victories of 9/11. 

So when I think of 9/11, I grieve for America. I hope we never see a day like that until Christ returns. And I pray that our nation might be much more ready for that day of terror than we were for the one ten years ago. Right now we are scarcely prepared. 

But I also grieve for Afghanistan when I think of 9/11 – because, even with all the opening up over the last decade, it is still the least Christian country on earth. Ten years later, there is still great need for workers sent out into the harvest. Would you pray that the Lord of the harvest would send them? 

Finally, when I remember September 11, 2001, I also rejoice for the people of Afghanistan. Although still far behind the rest of the world, the people there are now at least somewhat more politically free. And some of them, having met the Son of God, are (as Jesus says in John 8.36) “free indeed”. I hope you are too.