I have for years. It’s a consequence of all the drugs that fried my brain and altered the chemicals whooshing around in there – or so I’m told. I go to a Psychiatrist. I have a counselor. I take antidepressants and anti-anxiety medication. In 2019 I will take 2,145 pills to battle my depression and anxiety.
A lot of folks view depression as a character flaw; something you should just “get over.” I wish it was that easy. I honestly don’t have anything that I should be ‘depressed’ by. I have a great life, an amazing wife and beautiful kids I’m so proud of. I’m not homeless. I’m in good health. I have what I need and then some. It isn’t like a I just have some kind of “feeling” I can turn off and on. It isn’t that simple. I’ve prayed and screamed to God so often that I wish it could be like that. It isn’t.
My depression has profound impacts on my life. It makes me not want to get up. It makes me stay up late. It makes me treat my family poorly because I’m irritable. I’d rather stay home and do nothing than go out. That’s pretty hard to pull off if you’re a minister. Most days I feel like I’ve run a marathon when I haven’t even hardly done anything. I prefer quiet. I need a lot of alone time. That’s difficult when you’re a pastor.
I love my calling. I love my job. I love my church. Yet, depression still tries to strip a lot of that away. A lot of folks may misunderstand me because of my depression. I may not seem to pay attention, or I may come across as distant or rude. That’s not on purpose. Some days, it’s all I can do to just breath. I’m often irritable and snap. I promise that is the LAST thing I want to do and I never want to hurt anyone. I am not a social butterfly.
I’m not one of those ministers who can smile all the time and be friendly to everyone at a moment’s notice. I’ve even been told, “You know, for a minister, you’re not too friendly.” Part of that is my introverted nature. The other is just trying to get through the day.
Sometimes I’ll forget to call you or check in if you’re going through something. Some days I might forget any number of things. Things you asked me to help you work through, things you asked me to research for you, or to get you something you needed.
I struggle to get up and preach some mornings because I feel so exhausted that all I want to do is go back to sleep. I struggle to pray – A LOT. Don’t misunderstand. It isn’t because I don’t believe in the power of prayer – I absolutely do! I struggle because I can’t pay attention or I’m fighting being irritable, sleepy, and groggy.
There’s a lot of undesirable effects of the medication. Forgetfulness. Nausea. Headaches. Spacey-ness. Drowsiness. Stomach issues. But, they outweigh the negatives. They also cause some seeming anti-social or uncaring behaviors that are not on purpose. The last thing I want to do is come off as uncaring, inattentive, or hurtful. But understand, that’s just going to happen.
I sometimes wish I could switch my depression off. I hate the feelings it brings. Sometimes it makes me doubt God but mostly it makes me want to be alone. I love playing with my kids. I love hanging with my wife. I love my friends. But, I have depression, and sometimes, without me knowing, or despite my best efforts to fight back, it gets the best of me.
If you’re reading this and struggling with depression, know that you are not alone. Let’s get coffee. Let’s chat. But don’t suffer in silence. There’s a lot of myths and stigma associated with mental health issues. There shouldn’t be. We don’t stigmatize people with high blood pressure or diabetes. Why would this be any different?
If you’re a minister and reading this, know also that you are not alone. You aren’t the only one feeling this way. We take on some of the heaviest burdens and when you add that to your own, it can be overwhelming. Talk to your doctor. Pray with your wife. Speak to your shepherds. Pray. Depression doesn’t disqualify you from the ministry. Lying about it might.
If you want to help, then bring attention to mental health in the church. Let us de-stigmatize it. Let us be aware that almost everyone in the room on Sunday morning (statistically) has some sort of mental illness. Let us get comfortable in sharing that, and helping each other.
I want to close with a story, then a scripture. When I first became a Christian and when I was really struggling with depression and panic attacks while still experimenting and trying to find the medications that worked, I cried out to God. One night, I was so distraught and depressed and I said, “Jesus, why aren’t you helping me? You don’t know how horrible this feels!” I had the Bible in front of me and I opened it up. This was the Scripture my eyes went to:
37 He [Jesus] took Peter and the two sons of Zebedee along with him, and he began to be sorrowful and troubled.38 Then he said to them, “My soul is overwhelmed with sorrow to the point of death. Stay here and keep watch with me.” 39 Going a little farther, he fell with his face to the ground and prayed, “My Father, if it is possible, may this cup be taken from me. Yet not as I will, but as you will.” – Matthew 26:37-39
That’s when I knew that Jesus knows. That He did experience it. And that He went through it. That’s why I believe, as the writer of Hebrews says:
14 Therefore, since we have a great high priest who has ascended into heaven, Jesus the Son of God, let us hold firmly to the faith we profess.15 For we do not have a high priest who is unable to empathize with our weaknesses, but we have one who has been tempted in every way, just as we are—yet he did not sin.16 Let us then approach God’s throne of grace with confidence, so that we may receive mercy and find grace to help us in our time of need. – Hebrews 4:14-16
Jesus knows. And one day, I won’t have depression any more. But today I do, and I will live to help and serve those who do, as well as those who have anything else.
The biggest lie Satan tempts you to believe is that you are a lone. You’re not. You never were. God walks with you. He hasn’t forgotten about you. He loves you. He weeps at the pain we go through. He holds us. He carries us. He is with us. He is God, and He will see us through. Don’t give up.
I started a new Christmas series Sunday called How the Grinch Steals Christmas. I’m using the classic Dr. Seuss poem as the backdrop to point out some of the grinch’s that can steal our Christmas, if we let them.
Here’s the first message. Please share if it blesses you!
Welcome to the third post in the Kingdom vs. Empire series. You can read the first post here, and the second here.
A little note ahead of this post: I understand that what I write is not easy — but it’s also not my idea. I have been wrestling with the ideas of pacifism, non-violence, and the Christian’s role in politics since I came up out of the waters of baptism over a decade ago.
I realize that my opinion will upset, offend, or disturb many, and I’m okay with that. However, it is too important and issue to not discuss. I am a man, not God – and I believe the Bible as His holy word.
Read this with the understanding of, “He might be wrong.” Read your Bible, test the scriptures, and pray. But most importantly, let the Holy Spirit guide your convictions and beliefs, not traditions. With that being said, let us finish this series.
There is an episode in the Gospels that we’ve read many times but have a tendency to just skim through. It’s the part where the crowd chooses between Jesus and Barabbas. By tradition, Pilate freed one prisoner every year at Passover, so he asks the crowd to choose.
I can imagine (speculative) the behind-the-scenes drama that unfolds as Pilate and Caiaphas (the High Priest) converse on the situation and its solution. These two power players, one political, the other religious, needed each other. Despite their contempt for one another, the needed each other to maintain their positions of power. You’ll recall in the Gospels that Pilate had two very notable prisoners who were both condemned to be executed: Jesus of Nazareth and Barabbas. I can imagine Pilate asking Caiaphas which one should be released. At that moment, Caiaphas was presented with a choice. Let’s look at the two.
Barabbas was a famous, heroic Jewish patriot. He was willing to lead a war of independence against Rome. He was arrested for murder and inciting a riot to induce a violent revolution.
Jesus, in stark contrast, was a preaching the revolutionary idea of the peaceable kingdom of God that is founded on love and forgiveness.
#PLOTTWIST: There is a fascinating plot-twist that we often miss from that day. It has everything to do with who the crowd chooses to free. Did you know that Barabbas was not his entire name? His full, legal name was Yeshua Bar-Abba. His literal name was Jesus, son of the Father. Jesus of Nazareth is up against Jesus, Son of the Father.
Pilate admonished the High Priest to choose wisely. and then it is taken to the people for a final vote:
21 The governor again said to them, “Which of the two do you want me to release for you?” And they said, “Barabbas.”22 Pilate said to them, “Then what shall I do with Jesus who is called Christ?” They all said, “Let him be crucified!” (Matt. 27:21-22, NIV)
The choice was made: the people and the Sanhedrin wanted a violent messiah, not a peaceful one. The wanted the freedom fighter to lead a revolt, not a Prince of Peace to bring restoration.
Jerusalem Goes to Hell
In Bulgakov’s book, The Master and the Margarita, Bulgakov’s Pilate makes a shocking statement to Caiaphas in his retelling the story:
“Remember my words, High Priest: you are going to see more than one cohort here in Jerusalem! Under the city walls you are going to see the Fulminata legion at full strength and the Arab Calvary too. Then the weeping and lamentation will be bitter! Then you will remember that you saved Bar-Abba and you will regret that you sent the preacher of peace to his death!” (pg. 36)
That fictional Pilate reminds us of the historical reality: Just one generation after the crucifixion, Jerusalem finally got its war of independence…and it was left as a smoldering Gehenna.Forty years after the resurrection, Jerusalem was thrown head-long into a hell of Roman warfare and the ceaseless bombardment of roman Catapults that launched 100 pound payloads day and night. Most of the city died violently while some starved and the rest were enslaved.
However, in real-life it was not Pilate, but rather Jesus that told of this fate that was coming upon Jerusalem. That’s why we have this interesting verse as Jesus enters the city for Passover week:
41 And when he drew near and saw the city, he wept over it,42 saying, “Would that you, even you, had known on this day the things that make for peace! But now they are hidden from your eyes.43 For the days will come upon you, when your enemies will set up a barricade around you and surround you and hem you in on every side44 and tear you down to the ground, you and your children within you. And they will not leave one stone upon another in you, because you did not know the time of your visitation.” (Luke 19:41-44, ESV)
1st Century Jerusalem rejected the Prince of peace and suffered horribly. The “city of peace” became a smoking heap of rubble “where their worm never dies and the fire is never quenched” (Mark 9:48).
Their awful destiny could’ve been avoided, but only if they were willing to release their white-knuckle death grip on the pattern on violence and see the world through the eyes of God.
History tells us of their choice, and sadly they clung to the old lie of Satan and the ways of Cain…and not one stone was left unturned in “God’s city.” In rejecting the Prince of peace, Jerusalem had gone to hell.
So what about you and me? Will we end any better? Do we recognize “the things that make for peace?” Do we recognize that Jesus is Immanuel? Do we have the audacity to believe the Prince of Peace of longs to lead his creation back to His peaceable kingdom?
At this point, I fear that we do not…not most of the time, anyway. It seems that we have buried our heads and cannot fathom the world that exists other than the way it does today. Our own imaginations have been commanded and hijacked by the principalities and powers of this dark world. As Walter Brueggemann describes it:
“Our culture is competent to carry out almost anything and imagine almost nothing.”
So here we are…twenty centuries after Caiaphas, who for the sake of his nation, and Pilate, who for the sake of his empire, condemned the Prince of peace to death in favor of retaining the things as they are: the normalcy of violent revolution and militaristic empire.
And where are we ? Wars continue to define us. Freedom remains a euphemism for the power to conquer and kill. Violence is still seen as a legitimate way of changing the world…and I suggest all of this is nothing more than an outright betrayal of Jesus and his ideas.
I am still holding out hope. How? Because Jesus’ story is still told. On that Friday twenty centuries ago, the representative of the superpower ideology and the high priests of the cooperative religion rejected Jesus. He was condemned, sentenced, tortured, crucified, and pronounced dead and buried in a cemetery that bore the official Imperial Seal of Rome. But that’s not the end.
That Sunday the ideas and ideals of the Prince of Peace were vindicated through the Resurrection! The Resurrection changes everything! If Jesus had stayed in the grave with its seal of Rome, Jesus’ ideas would’ve died with Him. But the resurrection changed everything!
Easter Sunday is the ultimate and tangible manifestation of the triumph of the peaceable Kingdom of Christ. Easter redeems it all.
Isn’t it time that we let go of our assumed agreements with Pontius Pilate, Caiaphas, and their worn-out, death-dealing ideas?
Isn’t it time we took very seriously the revolutionary, life-changing, life-giving ideas of Jesus – the Christ – the One whom God raise from the dead and declared to be Lord and Christ?
Isn’t it time we became as children and used our imagination to once again imagine the radical otherness of the Kingdom of God?
Isn’t it about time that we realize that the peaceable Kingdom of God starts here and not and isn’t reserved for the ethereal “sweet by and by?”
The American Church especially could benefit from a fresh look, maybe even for the first time, of Jesus being liberated from the lens of militaristic empire and its chaplaincy religion.
At this point you’re thinking, “I can’t do this! I can’t rethink or question what I have been taught as long as I have been alive? I can’t rethink everything I’ve ever believed about patriotism, apple pie, freedom, and “God Bless America.”
Sure you can. I am. And it’s not easy. Many will call you crazy. unlearned in the Scriptures, wrong, or dismiss you…but remember…they dismissed Jesus too. Once you extricate Jesus from subservience to a nationalistic agenda, you can rethink everything in the light of Christ.
Will you follow the Prince of Peace? Will you side with the Kingdom? Or will you choose Empire? The ball is in your court.
Welcome to The Kingdom vs Empire, Pt. 2! The Kingdom of God is so radically different from the earthly empires. From the ways it advances, to the ways it protects and defends. I will be the first to admit it is very hard to grow up in a nationalistic fervor of patriotism and history and not get swept up in the empire.
So, when did all of this “muddy-ness” that blurred the Kingdom and the Empire begin? Well, we can track it back to one man: Constantine.
Origins of the Empire
in 312 A.D., General Constantine came to power after winning a decisive battle at Milvian Bridge where he took the symbols of Christianity and, as Brian Zahnd says, “… placing them as talismans on weapons of war.”
Constantine arose as the champion of the Roman Civil War, he ascended the throne of Emperor. In the PR campaign that followed, he credited his victory to the “Christian God.” Very quickly Christianity turn into Christendom as it was instated as the official state religion of the Roman Empire. The Edict of Milan came in February 313, and thus the Holy Roman Empire was born.
Almost instantly the church became the “state chaplain” to the Romans. This new role would set the church on a course that would pair it with national politics and ultimately culminate in some of the darkest parts of church and world history: The Crusades and the Middle Ages.
Both historical events and periods show us how far Christianity drove off the road when it embraced servitude to the Empire over service to the Kingdom. Like I said in my last post, this is exactly what happens when we separate Jesus from His ideas and superimposed Him onto ours.
Separating Jesus from His Ideas
Unfortunately, it is not a thing of the past. We still do this today. for 1700 years Christianity has embraced Jesus as our personal Savior, but completely dismissed His teachings on peace and non-violence. Brian Zahnd describes our situation like this:
“We [Christians] have embraced a privatized, postmortem gospel that stresses Jesus dying for our sins but at the same time ignores His political ideas. This leaves us free to run the world in the way it has always been run: by the power of the sword. Under pressure from the ideology of the empire, concepts like ‘freedom’ and ‘truth’ gain a radically different meaning than those intended by Christ. Freedom becomes a euphemism for ‘vanquishing’ (instead of loving) our enemies; ‘truth’ finds its ultimate form in the will to power (expressed in the willingness to kill). This is a long way from the ideas of peace, love, and forgiveness set forth by Jesus in the Sermon on the Mount.” (Zahnd, Farewell to Mars, emphasis mine)
We too quickly (and too often) forget that it was Jesus ideas that made Him a threat to Empire. Look at our ‘gospel’ today. It’s been sterilized and domesticated. It’s been neutered of its incredible power to transform the hearts and mind of humanity.
If Jesus would have gone around preaching this postmortem, sanitized ‘gospel’ that we preach, I’m not sure He would have much resistance. Pilate would have shrugged his shoulders, released Jesus, and told him to stay home and stop being bizarre. But that’s not what happened, right? Why?
Because Pontius Pilate and Caiaphas knew that Jesus was a threat—Jesus was teaching against the Empire (or as we label it today, a global superpower).
In making Jesus the state chaplain of Rome and Constantinian Christianity, what unknowingly happened is the invention of a Manichean* Jesus who saves our souls but leaves us unrestricted to run things the way we see fit. That’s what we want, right? Especially if that belief has us in a nation that sits atop of the global superpower food chain.
Seventeen centuries of church history suggest that we embrace this all too readily and embrace Jesus as the Savior of our personal (AKA private, individual) soul, but stay largely unchanged by His ideas of Kingdom vs. Empire.
Commenting on this Miroslav Volf says,
“Pilate deserves our sympathies, not because he was a good though tragically mistaken man because we are not much better. We may believe in Jesus, but we do not believe in His ideas, at least not His ideas about violence, truth, and justice.” (Volf, Exclusion and Embrace)
This is where the train screeched off the tracks. A ‘Christian’ Emperor wielding the ‘Christian’ sword of Imperial dominance became a logical way to run things. So, the Kingdom of God was packed up and moved to some detached, after-you-die, ethereal concept that became innocuous. Jesus was downgraded as Savior of the world, to a personal Savior who only cared about what you do privately. I’m not suggesting that Jesus isn’t the Savior of our souls–He is! But it is to help us see that the mission of Christ extends beyond a privatized, sterile, personal religion coupled with some good afterlife paybacks.
Do not forget that Jesus intends to redeem and restore the world! To restore God’s SHALOM, the original perfection and holiness of the Creation, and that includes God’s ideas about love, justice, peace, non-violence, and forgiveness.
The brass tacks of it all boil down to this: Far too many of us believe in the Risen Lord Jesus, but flat-out reject His political ideals–the REVOLUTIONARY ones. We have kept Jesus in the “religion” box to stop Him from interfering in our politics, wars, and laws so that we may, even unintentionally, worship the State as some sort of benevolent deity to fuel our nationalistic zeal and imperial dominance.
Perhaps it would do us well to remember the Jesus of the Holy Gospel, the Savior of all mankind and the Savior of the world. The redeemer of human politics, and the ultimate champion of justice and peace.
See you next time,
*an adherent of the dualistic religious system of Manes, a combination of Gnostic Christianity, Buddhism, Zoroastrianism, and various other elements, with a basic doctrine of a conflict between light and dark, matter being regarded as dark and evil.
I am part of the 9/11 Generation. I can remember where I was when it all went down – I was in Freshman English with Mrs. Fairchild at Parkersburg High School. I watched, with the world, as two towers full of people crashed to the ground.
The following days/weeks/months were a blur of patriotism and nationalistic fervor as we prepared to go to war. This war was a “new kind” we were told…and it would be televised on the 24/7 news networks. I learned who people like Chris Matthews, Bill O’Reilly, Wolf Blitzer, and Tom Brokaw were. I was certainly entertained.
I had no qualms with America going off to war; that’s what we do, right? America went all over the world “Making the world safe and protecting democracy.” At any rate, America was the back-to-back world war champions. It was what I grew up inundated with “American exceptionalism” and military pride that fomented over generations.
I had also grown up being taught that war, America, and Christianity were completely compatible. At the time I didn’t believe in Christianity, so that part was irrelevant. For almost 11 years I watched the War on Terror live on TV from my couch…never giving it a second thought.
But then as I was preparing a sermon several years ago, I read some of the words of Jesus in Matthew and I was absolutely taken back. I had read Scripture through the lens of Western-American Christianity and forgotten that Jesus of Nazareth preached a radically different message than what I previously thought.
This first-century wandering preacher that we divide time by became the incarnation of Isaiah’s ancient prophetic title, “Prince of Peace” and taught a radically different way to be human in a crazy, violence loving world. He taught that the Kingdom of God was (and is) a place first and foremost, of peace.
He taught that while this Kingdom exists in this world, it is completely incompatible with the current systems in place. Why? Because it is a kingdom of peace, and He is the Prince of Peace.
I believe we have made a grave mistake. We believe the Gospel accounts of Jesus and the traditional doctrines of Orthodox Christianity…but we have ripped Jesus out of context to “tame” Him and his ideas to fit our likes and contexts. That, however, is a very dangerous maneuver. Why? Because we cannot divorce Jesus from His ideas and teachings and still claim to follow Him. This is especially true in Jesus’ political ideology. Brian Zhand says,
“The problem is this: when we separate Jesus from his ideas for an alternate social structure, we inevitably succumb to the temptation to harness Jesus to our ideas – thus conferring upon our human political ideas a assumed divine endorsement.” (A Farewell to Mars, Ch. 1)
In doing this, we literally find ourselves dancing in step with the powers and principalities of darkness that govern the systems of the “world” in a contrary fashion to God. This is a system set up and built upon violence, hate, war, fighting, and murder. The travesty of this is that when we participate in this we reduce Jesus to a get-out-of-hell-free card who endorses our own ideas on how to run the world. “This feeds into a nationalized view of the Gospel and leads to a state-owned Jesus.” As a result, since around the 4th Century Jesus became Roman Jesus, then Byzantine Jesus, then European Jesus, then German Jesus, and now American Jesus.
Because of this, we have conscripted Jesus to fit our national agendas and I believe the church MUST reject this now more than ever. We must understand Jesus, not as a nationalistic proponent of politics of the world, but we must re-understand, re-learn about the Jesus, the Prince of Peace who triumphs over idolatrous nationalism and stands directly against the ancient practices of violence and war.
The Power of the Atom
Brian Zhand has some startling conclusions on this:
“Okay. Let’s step back and take a look at where we stand as a people and a planet. It’s easy to imagine that the world doesn’t really change – that it simply marches around the maypole of violence, trampling victims into the mud the same as it ever has. But as true as that may be, something has changed. We are postsomething. If nothing else we are post-1945 when the enlightenment dream of attainable utopia went up in smoke – literal smoke! From the chimneys of Auschwitz to the mushroom cloud over Hiroshima. After 1945, we lost our blind faith in the inevitability of human progress. A threshold was crossed, and something important changed when humanity gained possession of what previously only God possessed: the capacity for complete annihilation. In yielding to the temptation to harness the fundamental physics of the universe for the purpose of creating city-destroying bombs, have we again heard the serpent whisper, ‘You will be like God’?”
Oppenheimer, the father of the Atomic Bomb, upon witnessing it’s first successful test in the New Mexico desert quoted Vishnu in the Bhagavad Gita and said, “Now I am become death, the destroyer of worlds.” It was that day that humanity became gained the literal ability to be “destroyers of the world.”
Here’s my point: in this Post-Holocaust, Post-Atomic civilization if we begin to believe that Jesus’ thoughts and teaching on peace are irrelevant in the age of genocide and nuclear armament, then we are guilty of inventing a false, unbiblical, untrue Jesus…and that leads to a completely irrelevant nationalistically-tainted Christianity.
Clash of Kingdoms
Here’s where this gets real. Jesus has a conversation before his crucifixion with the Roman Governor Pilate. Here’s the exchange as John records it:
33 So Pilate entered his headquarters again and called Jesus and said to him,“Are you the King of the Jews?”34 Jesus answered, “Do you say this of your own accord, or did others say it to you about me?”35 Pilate answered, “Am I a Jew? Your own nation and the chief priests have delivered you over to me. What have you done?”36 Jesus answered, “My kingdom is not of this world. If my kingdom were of this world, my servants would have been fighting, that I might not be delivered over to the Jews. But my kingdom is not from the world.”37 Then Pilate said to him, “So you are a king?” Jesus answered, “You say that I am a king. For this purpose I was born and for this purpose I have come into the world—to bear witness to the truth. Everyone who is of the truth listens to my voice.”38 Pilate said to him, “What is truth?” (John 18:33-38, ESV)
See, in this we miss two things: First, according to verse 36, Jesus Kingdom is NOT of this world. That’s where He explains that if it were, an army of followers would rise up and defend Him…but that’s not the way of Jesus. Second, Jesus’ teaching and life were so radically opposed to the Roman ideas that I’ll bet He was killed (from a purely political standpoint, but we know there was a spiritual reason that was primary) because He said that Caesar wasn’t lord, but He was.
It wasn’t the man who upset Rome, but the man’s ideas. Pilate understood how powerful this idea was…and Rome knew the power of ideas. Ideas that force change gradually are called progress, but ideas that cause rapid, pattern-shifting, culture moving change create something quite differing: Revolution.
The powers that be hated that. That is precisely what Pilate and the Jews hated about Jesus – the ideas he had were revolutionary and changed the power structure that favored them. That still happens today, by the way.
So what has happened over the past 2,000 years that has caused those of us who confess that “Jesus is Lord” have created a religion that separates Jesus Christ, who died on the Cross for the sins of mankind, from the ideas of the same Jesus who just by existing threatened the structure of human civilization?
Jesus ultimately knew that Christianity would triumph…but not in the way we wish – not by force or violence. It would triumph because of peace and love. It would triumph not by the might of nations or the bombs of civilization, but in the selfless acts of love that cherish life, regard its sanctity and rally to protect it.
We cannot embrace a Jesus who endorses nations to war. We cannot embrace a Jesus who wears an American Flag t-shirt. We cannot embrace empire…and we must repent and embrace the Kingdom of God. We cannot, as a church, any longer afford to ignore the ideas of Jesus – the cost will be more than we can bear.
The Kingdom vs. Empire. It is eternally important.
Blessings as we ponder this together. If this resonates with you, share it with those you love!
In my last post I walked through my understanding of baptism and its role in salvation. I believe water baptism (immersion, not sprinkling) is where you are born again (Rom. 6:1-4) and receive the Holy Spirit (Acts 2:38-39). I don’t believe there is a shred of biblical evidence for the “Sinner’s Prayer” and that it isn’t a Scriptural concept.
The direction I want to go now, is to take various Scriptures used to refute my assertion, and work through them. Again, I’m not trying to pass judgment. I’m simply reading the Bible and taking my cues from there. We’ll stick with the Book of Acts for a bit as we unpack why some normal rebuttals to water baptism being essential to the life of a Christian don’t stand up to scrutiny. I’m using John MacArthur’s article, not to attack him, but because he puts out a lot of Scriptures to make his point. You can find the article here.
Looking at Acts, a common argument to say baptism doesn’t matter too much in the way of salvation is to connect it with the sermons presented. If it were necessary, the argument goes, then wouldn’t it be stressed in every sermon in the book? Sure, we can look at Acts 2 and see Peter telling the crowd gathered at Pentecost, “Repent and be baptized in the name of Jesus Christ for the remission of your sins and you will receive the gift of the Holy Spirit.” And then, we hit Acts 3.
The Sermon at Solomon’s Portico
For brevity’s sake, I won’t paste the entire sermon here, but you can read it here. The argument is, that at the end of this sermon, Peter gives a different take on responding to the Gospel. It seems that Peter makes no link between baptism and salvation. He only includes repentance. Here’s the text:
Repent, then, and turn to God, so that your sins may be wiped out, that times of refreshing may come from the Lord (Acts 3:19, NIV)
In the context of the passage, Peter is preaching in response to the reaction he receives after healing a man through Jesus’ name in front of the Temple. He gives a recap of his sermon recorded in Acts 2, but it’s more pointed and scathing to the Israelites. His message, and this is my paraphrasing: “You killed Jesus. In fact, you let a murderer walk free, so you could pull it off! However, because you were ignorant, God will forgive you”
That’s when Peter says, “Repent, then, and turn to God, so that your sins may be wiped out, that times of refreshing may come from the Lord.” I can understand how this seems to trump the baptism thing. Yet, if I’m being true to the text, I can’t stop at that conclusion. Peter gives a much longer message in Acts 2, but it’s almost identical to his point in Acts 3. Around verse 19, then, when Peter says “repent” without including baptism, isn’t it odd that in Acts 2, repentance is tied, at least in the salvific process, with water baptism? Would Peter contradict himself? Would his teaching be inconsistent? No. It can’t. Why does it seem he does in Acts 3?
Context shows that Acts 3:19 is not the end of Peter’s message. The sermon goes on through the end of the chapter. I don’t think verse 19 has anything to do with leaving out baptism or advocating for it. I believe, that as most early sermons in Acts show us, the Apostles are refuting the people of God (The Jews) for their willful disobedience. He’s not talking only about their crucifying Jesus. He’s recapping their whole history from Abraham to present. He’s telling them to repent as a people because they should have known better. In fact, they should be the first to recognize who Jesus was. Stephen does the same thing later. The point here isn’t Peter giving an “invitation” or “altar call” as we’d call it. He’s rebuking them. I think he’s working on getting to the point that he comes to in Acts 2, but there’s a problem. The sermon, if you’ll call it that, gets interrupted.
As always, when reading the Bible, you must read what comes before it and what comes after. Also, how does it fit into the whole narrative of Scripture? Cherry-picking verses makes for a sloppy bible study. In Acts 4, we see the sermon stopped. The text says,
“The priests and the captain of the temple guard and the Sadducees came up to Peter and John while they were speaking to the people. They were greatly disturbed because the apostles were teaching the people, proclaiming in Jesus the resurrection of the dead. They seized Peter and John, and because it was evening, they put them, in jail until the next day. (Acts 4:1-3, NIV)
Peter doesn’t get to finish the sermon. However, the Holy Spirit apparently does:
“But many who heard the message believed, so the number of men who believed grew to about five thousand.” (Acts 4:4, NIV)
Notice the language here. Does it remind you of something? It should. Acts 24:41:
“Those who accepted his message were baptized, and about three thousand were added to their number that day.” (Acts 2:41, NIV)
If we’re being honest to the text, we see the link here, and it is connected to baptism. Also, the fact that Peter didn’t finish the sermon is critical. He and John are thrown in jail after being forcefully interrupted. Let’s think a minute on this. Can Scripture contradict itself? If it does, it cannot be the word of God. Sure, people point to supposed contradictions as they try to scrutinize the Bible, but those Scriptures are easily rectified. The same is true. Scripture is axiomatic–it explains itself and references itself–it is perfect. Why then, would Peter, inspired by the Holy Spirit, make such a pointed call to action in Acts 2, reaffirm it years later in his epistles, but here in the middle, suddenly just throw it out? He wouldn’t.
Using this as a rebuttal to prove that you don’t have to be baptized is dishonest. Remember, the Bible wasn’t written with chapters, verses, and subheadings. While handy for reference it often leads us to stop at certain points and ignore context. We can’t do that. I’m not asking anyone to agree with me. I am hoping that this spurs you on to study the Bible more and draw closer to God. Next week, we’ll look at the conversion of Cornelius in Acts 10.
On any average Sunday in just about every congregation that’s meeting, after the sermon concludes, you’ll hear a plea to come to Jesus and give Him your life. Some call it an altar call, my congregation calls it an invitation. Whatever the term, it’s a time where the preacher (usually) gives people an opportunity to accept the Gospel and follow Jesus.
There is nothing wrong with that.
Like most congregations on Sunday morning, you might be asked to walk forward, or sit with your head bowed and repeat a prayer, or maybe a member of the Pastoral Care team will walk you through this thing that has come to be known as “The Sinner’s Prayer.”
The Sinner’s Prayer
It goes like this:
“If you’re ready to receive Jesus Christ as your personal Lord and savior, say this prayer: ‘Father, I know that I have lived my life in sin, but I am ready to turn my life around and turn to you. I believe in Jesus Christ as your Son, who died on the cross to save me and was raised to life again. I invite Jesus into my heart right now to become my Lord and savior for the rest of my life and for all eternity. Thank you so much for your grace and forgiveness. In Jesus’ name I pray. Amen.'”
Reading through that as an orthodox Christian, I can’t see a lot wrong. It’s a good prayer. I am a sinner. I need Jesus. I can’t be saved any other way but through Jesus Christ. I believe all the statements here.
On any given Sunday in most Evangelical Churches in America, people may go forward, or sit in the pew and raise their hands. They repeat this prayer and are assured they are now part of the Body of Christ – the Church. They are told they are now saved and a Christian and therein lies the problem.
This prayer itself isn’t found in the Scriptures. The principle of salvation occurring at the moment a prayer is said by a person, is never found in the New Testament. Ever. The existence of this idea cannot be drawn from any source in the New Testament.
Where did the Sinner’s Prayer come from, then?
I’m not a historian by any means. However, a quick search of church history reveals that the Sinner’s Prayer is unique to America. It began in Puritan circles in the 17th Century and became commonplace in the Great Awakening revival period in the late 1700s-the 1850s. It was cemented as a mainstay through the ministry of Billy Graham in the 1950s and 60s.
If we are going to be intellectually and biblically honest, we cannot say that this practice has been with the church at any other time in her history. However, it became more expedient for ministers to have people say a prayer during these massive revival services because they physically couldn’t meet each person one-on-one to help them.
I realize I’m stepping into a firestorm here. However, well-respected ministers in the American Evangelical churches have begin to speak out against the sinner’s prayer.
The question remains: Can we stop using the sinner’s prayer now?
Back in 2012, David Platt received scathing criticism from a comment he made during an address to the Southern Baptist Convention. He remarked,
“Should it not concern us that there is no such superstitious prayer like the ‘sinner’s prayer’ in the New Testament? Should it not concern us that the Bible never uses the phrases ‘accept Jesus into your heart’ or ‘invite Christ into your life?'”
I understand that Platt later voted on the SBC’s motion to keep using the sinner’s prayer. However, in his follow-up interviews, it seems he wasn’t too thrilled about it.
Francis Chan, in his video companion to Crazy Love says, “After reading just the Bible, would you come to the conclusion that to become a Christian that you would just pray a prayer and ask Jesus to come into your heart…is that really what you would find in here [the Bible]?”
Therein lies the difficult question. Is the sinner’s prayer, and its use in conversion found in the New Testament?
If we just take the Scriptures – no commentary or opinions – if we take it and read it in all of its glory, what do we find? Instead of praying a prayer and accepting Jesus into your heart, here’s what you’ll find:
Therefore let all Israel be assured of this: God has made this Jesus, whom you crucified, both Lord and Messiah.” When the people heard this, they were cut to the heart and said to Peter and the other apostles, “Brothers, what shall we do?” Peter replied, “Repent and be baptized, every one of you, in the name of Jesus Christ for the forgiveness of your sins. And you will receive the gift of the Holy Spirit. The promise is for you and your children and for all who are far off—for all whom the Lord our God will call.” With many other words he warned them; and he pleaded with them, “Save yourselves from this corrupt generation.” Those who accepted his message were baptized, and about three thousand were added to their number that day. (Acts 2:38-41, NIV)
Just reading that, what’s the answer to the question, “What do we do?” Peter says, my paraphrase, “Repent and be baptized in the Name of Jesus. Every person. Your sins will be forgiven, and you’ll be filled with the Holy Spirit.”
We could stop there, taking that as an isolated text. I’d be all for that if it didn’t come up over and over again in the book of Acts. Again, just reading Scripture, here are places to turn to see Peter’s instructions via the Holy Spirit confirmed:
– Acts 2:1-47 The conversion at Pentecost
– Acts 8:9-13 Simon the Sorcerer
– Acts 8:26-40 The Treasurer of Candice (Ethiopian Eunuch)
– Acts 9:1-19 Saul the Persecutor
– Acts 10: 1-48 Cornelius and his family
– Acts 16:11-16 The Purple Dealer (Lydia)
– Acts 16:16-34 Philippi’s Prison Guard
– Acts 18:7-8 Crispus and the Corinthians
– Acts 19:1-7 A Dozen from Ephesus
– Acts 22:2-16 Paul Revisits His Conversion
Again, just reading the text, there isn’t anyone who is born again in Christ by praying a prayer. It’s repentance and baptism in water.
Let’s look at Acts 22 where Paul is giving his testimony before King Agrippa. He tells them about His encounter with the Lord Jesus on the road to Damascus that Luke records in Acts 9. He is blinded, and then asks God, “What should I do, Lord?” He’s led into the city and waits. Acts 9:9 tells us Paul sat in blindness for three days. He didn’t eat or drink. God sends a man named Ananias to him, he prays, Paul can see again.
Luke records the event:
“Immediately, something like scales fell from Saul’s eyes, and he could see again. He got up and was baptized, and after taking some food, he regained his strength. (Acts 9:18, NIV)
Paul confirms it from his perspective in Acts 22:
“A man named Ananias came to see me. He was a devout observer of the law and highly respected by all the Jews living there. He stood beside me and said, ‘Brother Saul, receive your sight!’ And at that very moment I was able to see him. ” “Then he said: ‘The God of our ancestors has chosen you to know his will and to see the Righteous One and to hear words from his mouth. You will be his witness to all people of what you have seen and heard. And now what are you waiting for? Get up, be baptized and wash your sins away, calling on his name.’ (Acts 22:12-16, NIV)
Why did Peter command the people on Pentecost to be baptized? Why did Ananias instruct Paul? What about all the other accounts? To wash away their sins.
Let’s just say these are isolated occurrence in Acts. Then maybe we could do some hermeneutical gymnastics to move past this. The problem is, however, it isn’t. Some will refute, “But what about Romans 10:9? That contradicts you, Scott.” Here’s the verse:
If you declare with your mouth, “Jesus is Lord,” and believe in your heart that God raised him from the dead, you will be saved. (Rom. 10:9, NIV)
The three keys to bible study are context, context, context. Paul is writing this in what we know as Romans 10. Yet, reading the book, we know that Romans 6 precedes that. If we look at the entire context of Romans, we come to chapter 6 to read this:
What shall we say, then? Shall we go on sinning so that grace may increase? By no means! We are those who have died to sin; how can we live in it any longer? Or don’t you know that all of us who were baptized into Christ Jesus were baptized into his death? We were therefore buried with him through baptism into death in order that, just as Christ was raised from the dead through the glory of the Father, we too may live a new life. For if we have been united with him in a death like his [water baptism], we will certainly also be united with him in a resurrection like his. For we know that our old self was crucified with him so that the body ruled by sin might be done away with that we should no longer be slaves to sin—because anyone who has died has been set free from sin. Now if we died with Christ [How? Context dictates being baptized], we believe that we will also live with him. For we know that since Christ was raised from the dead, he cannot die again; death no longer has mastery over him. The death he died, he died to sin once for all; but the life he lives, he lives to God. In the same way, count yourselves dead to sin but alive to God in Christ Jesus. Therefore do not let sin reign in your mortal body so that you obey its evil desires. Do not offer any part of yourself to sin as an instrument of wickedness, but rather offer yourselves to God as those who have been brought from death to life; and offer every part of yourself to him as an instrument of righteousness. For sin shall no longer be your master, because you are not under the law, but under grace. (Romans 6:1-14, NIV, emphasis mine)
This passage shows two things. The first is our part in baptism. The second is what God sees that we do not when a person is baptized, and why it matters. Paul makes the case that just like Jesus, our spiritual death and burial leads to a resurrection into a new life. This all begins when we are ‘crucified’ and ‘buried’. That’s why Paul alludes to death 16 times in 14 verses! Paul says we are ready to be buried in baptism as soon as we ‘die to ourselves’ You cannot be resurrected until you have been buried and you cannot be buried until you are dead.
This is Paul’s challenge: We must be willing to surrender ourselves. We must die. We must be raised to new life. Paul’s case tells us that happens when we are baptized. You can’t be raised to life if you don’t die. You can’t be buried if you’re not dead. Paul confirms this in his letter to the Colossians:
For in Christ all the fullness of the Deity lives in bodily form, and in Christ you have been brought to fullness. He is the head over every power and authority. In him you were also circumcised with a circumcision not performed by human hands. Your whole self ruled by the flesh was put off when you were circumcised by Christ, having been buried with him in baptism, in which you were also raised with him through your faith in the working of God, who raised him from the dead.having been buried with him in baptism, in which you were also raised with him through your faith in the working of God, who raised him from the dead. (Col. 2:9-12, NIV)
And in Galatians 3:
So in Christ Jesus you are all children of God through faith, for all of you who were baptized into Christ have clothed yourselves with Christ. There is neither Jew nor Gentile, neither slave nor free, nor is there male and female, for you are all one in Christ Jesus. (Gal. 3:26-28, NIV)
In Judaism, circumcision was the marker of being “in covenant” or being part of “God’s people.” If you were not circumcised, you weren’t a partaker in God’s promises. So, in the Colossians passage, Paul shows us that circumcision has been replaced with baptism. That is what puts you “in Christ.” Are there any references to “praying Jesus into your heart in these passages?” Unfortunately, no.
Let’s go over to an older, wiser Apostle Peter. He preaches the first sermon. We read the “invitation” or “altar call” where he tells the people asking, “How can we be saved?” to “repent and be baptized, all of you” (Acts 2:36-38). Does Peter, many years later, stay consistent in his message? Again, just reading the Scriptures, here is what Peter writes:
…to those who were disobedient long ago when God waited patiently in the days of Noah while the ark was being built. In it only a few people, eight in all, were saved through water, and this water symbolizes baptism that now saves you also—not the removal of dirt from the body but the pledge of a clear conscience toward God. It saves you by the resurrection of Jesus Christ, who has gone into heaven and is at God’s right hand—with angels, authorities and powers in submission to him. (1 Pet. 3:20-22, NIV)
Peter brings up Noah’s Ark. It was how eight people were saved from the flood. It was through water that they were “saved.” Peter continues the illustration by telling us that the correlation there is fulfilled in water baptism. The water of Noah’s day, the global flood, was a foreshadowing of water baptism.
So, what does Peter tell the Church? How is a person saved? He says, “…and this water symbolizes baptism that now saves you also…” (vs. 21:a). But let us be fair here. Just like the ‘sinner’s prayer,’ baptism, too, can become a mere superstitious ritual. If we believe that water has any magical powers over us, Peter debunks that. He writes that it isn’t the water, or even taking a bath to remove your stank (probably a reference to Jewish ceremonial washings). Instead, baptism isn’t hydro powered. No! It’s resurrection powered! It is being joined to Christ through his resurrection that gives it power (c.f. Romans 6, Acts 2, and Col. 2, etc.).
I hope I don’t come off arrogant. That’s not who I am. I’m not sitting in judgment of anyone. My job as a teacher of God’s word is to simply present it. I have no doubt that many who’ve gone before us had sincere hearts and great devotion to Christ. However I must present the Scriptures, and you have to come to your own conclusion.
Let me leave you with the job description of the church in Matthew and Mark. Jesus says:
Then Jesus came to them and said, “All authority in heaven and on earth has been given to me. Therefore go and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, and teaching them to obey everything I have commanded you. And surely I am with you always, to the very end of the age.” (Matt. 28:18-20, NIV)
Mark records Jesus saying this:
He said to them, “Go into all the world and preach the gospel to all creation. Whoever believes and is baptized will be saved, but whoever does not believe will be condemned. (Mark 16:15-16, NIV)
You might object saying, “Grace is what saves us!” I agree. So does scripture. However, how you get to receive that grace is why baptism matters. You may also say, “You’re making baptism a work. Salvation isn’t based on works.” I agree. Yet, if baptism is a work, it is a work for the one baptizing, not the one being baptized. You are simply submitting to follow after Jesus.
What if what you’ve always believed isn’t believable after all? What if baptism is the original “sinner’s prayer?” If that’s true, then we’ve got to help each other make this a reality. We have to help each other correct this false teaching. We can’t be honest and say that it’s okay to keep using the sinner’s prayer. We cannot be faithful to the text or to Christ if we teach that.
We’ve seen a lot as we’ve moved from Eden and Shalom. The perfection and harmony of Creation were immutably flawless – at least until our ancestors decided they’d make better gods. The great thing is this: God cannot be stopped. We seem to be stuck in a tractor beam that pulls us towards violence as a civilization. How do we connect God and Militarism?
In the narrative of Scripture, God paves the way for Messiah immediately after the Fall (c.f. Gen. 3:16). What I hope you’ve seen is the incredible love of God. He loves us, warts and all. He can take the messes we’ve made and redeem them. From the smoldering ashes of Eden, God began walking us back to Shalom. Even today, as we continue to wade through a never-ending sea of war, God is working to move us back to Him. Jesus showed us the way.
God is clear with His people, both in the Old Testament, and its continuing story in the New Testament, that He values two things above anything else. What are they?
Love and Trust Him Alone
Love your neighbor
Jesus says that the Law (Torah) and the Prophets (Nevi’im) are summarized in those two commands. Through the Law of Moses God begins to set an ideal ethic. Through Jesus, He models it and completes the teaching.
There are lots of things we could point to in the Old Covenant that God wasn’t a fan of. In the sweeping narrative of Scripture, however, God takes people where they are and moves them towards where they ought to be.
Israel, then, is put into a system that improves, morally, the norms of the cultures around them. If we look at Israel’s use of force and violence in comparison with the nations around them, we see that they had a ridiculous policy of warfare. Perhaps the most striking way that God moves them away from the ethos of surrounding cultures, is how God views militarism.
Even when God allows for the use of war, God has a different approach. Israel might have used force, but it was, as Sprinkle notes, “blunt and short” compared to the neighboring countries. In fact, most of the time the sword was kept in storage.
Militarism is a belief that a government or group should maintain a strong military and be prepared to aggressively use it to promote/protect national interests. The surrounding nations in Israel’s time believed in militarism.
Their economic systems reflected it in their policies. High taxation was the norm. That was the cost of being the best. They believed that homeland security was achieved through a strong military. The military was charged with protecting the king or ruler of those nations. Outside attacks were repelled, and inside revolts crushed, and the existence of a monarchical, or king-centered society depended on the strength of the nation’s army. Having a king meant having a warrior who wielded the sword with absolute military control.
Israel’s Strange Military Doctrine
Israel is different. God is their king who owns everything (Lev. 25:23), and He is their army. God does not need protecting or defending of His land – He does it Himself. Later in Israel’s history, the nation is condemned for wanting a king who will “fight its battles” like the other countries had (1 Sam. 8:20).
God even sets in place a divergent economic policy that guarantees Israel cannot support a professional army. God wires a different perspective into the economy of Israel. No taxes could be collected in support of a military – and instead, God commands it all be given to the poor (c.f. Deut. 14:29). When Israel does get a king, God does not allow him to have the means to support an army (c.f. Deut. 17:14-20). It’s fascinating that Israel’s economy is set up in a manner that makes it impossible to support a standing army without violating the whole system itself.
Truthfully, to say Israel had an army would be an overstatement. The Minutemen of the American Revolution would be a more apt counterpart than a developed military. It was a group of people who came together, without a lot of skills and weapons, to show off God’s power and sufficiency.
Why, then, does God want to drive the Canaanites out? I think it was God being critical of the system. Canaan was held together by a militaristic king who fights for (or against) the people. The nations surrounding Israel trust in their king and his army to be their protector, but Israel is commanded to have faith in God. All other forms of “homeland security” – professional militaries, superior firepower, and alliances with other countries – are considered idolatry by God (see Ezek. 16:26-29; 23:6-7, 12; 14-15).
The question for us to ponder is this: What does Israel’s warfare policy have to teach us today?
In the next several posts we’ll dissect this further and look at how it contextually connects to the ministry of Jesus, and to us as well! As always, I welcome your thoughts!