On Alcohol: Modern Views & Their Flaws

In case you haven’t been a Christian long, let me let you in on a little secret: there’s a lot of disagreement over whether or not Christians can or even should drink alcohol. In fact, if you ask 4 Christians about alcohol, you’re likely to get 5 opinions! Recently a dear friend contacted me to share a 37-page PDF that contained every Bible verse relating to alcohol. It’s the fruit of a year of reading the Bible and he’s just now beginning to study the topic in depth! He asked me and another friend of his if we had any thoughts on the issue so here’s what I told him. I hope that you’ll read this with an open mind and let me know what you think of it.

Regarding the use/consumption of alcohol, the way I see it, there are essentially three stances in modern American Evangelicalism:

  1. All forms of alcoholic consumption are evil.
  2. Light moderation is acceptable, but getting drunk is a sin.
  3. My “Christian freedom” lets me do whatever I want, therefore all things are permissible.

I think all three are flawed and I’ll critique each in turn.

  1. All forms of alcoholic consumption are evil. This view is flawed because, as far as I’ve been able to discern, it’s rooted in 19th & 20th century prohibition-ism and is directly contradicted by the Bible. I’m going to assume we all agree with this, are aware of 1 Tim 5:23 and other similar verses, and can move on. (Truth be told, I don’t know how anyone actually defends this stance biblically, although there are plenty of places online where they try.)
  2. Light moderation is acceptable, but getting drunk is a sin. While this view might be the most prevalent today, I think it is actually more restrictive than the Bible and, for that reason I’m hesitant to adopt this rule. We should never try to be “more biblical than Jesus.” I’ll explain why I believe this in a future post, but first…
  3. My “Christian freedom” lets me do whatever I want, therefore all things are permissible. While it is true that Christ has set us free (Gal. 5:1), he did this so  that we would not fall back into slavery. I think everyone has seen too much “liberty” taken by far too many Christians, especially the doubting world. We all probably know at least one guy (read: young, restless and reformed) who drinks, smokes, and cusses…all in the name of ‘Christian liberty.’ Meanwhile, he has ambitions to go to seminary or to lead in some form of ministry in the future. Personally, when it comes to guys like this, I don’t think his conduct is above reproach (1Tim 3:2). I don’t think he is living in a wise, intentional way that honors God (Eph. 5:16). Nor do I think he cares that he is being a stumbling block to many of his fellow brothers and sisters in Christ (Rom. 14:13, 1 Cor. 8:9). In the end, I think, when it comes to a guy like this, his testimony is tarnished and he is robbed of his credibility because he’s too busy having a good, carnal time. I think John MacArthur said it best: “one cannot be genuinely “Reformed” and deliberately worldly at the same time. The two things are inconsistent and incompatible.” Ironically, I believe guys like this are slaves to their freedoms.

As far as I can tell, those are the three predominant views that most modern Christians subscribe to. If you can think of any others that don’t fall into those three categories, please let me know. Of course, I’ll be writing more on this topic, so very soon you’ll see a 4th view!

Kill Sin. Grow in Grace.

And we know that for those who love God all things work together for good, for those who are called according to his purpose. For those whom he foreknew he also predestined to be conformed to the image of his Son… (Romans 8:28-29a)

All those whom God foreknew he predestined to be conformed to the image of his Son. That’s a mighty big undertaking: from sinner to saint; from wretched to righteous; from villainous to virtuous. It almost seems impossible! No wonder it takes a lifetime. But if you’re like me, you probably know the ultimate destination—to be conformed to the image of Christ—but aren’t sure what the path looks like. Well I think Colossians 3:5-14 provides some highly practical advice.

5 Put to death therefore what is earthly in you: sexual immorality, impurity, passion, evil desire, and covetousness, which is idolatry. 6 On account of these the wrath of God is coming. 7 In these you too once walked, when you were living in them. 8 But now you must put them all away: anger, wrath, malice, slander, and obscene talk from your mouth. 9 Do not lie to one another, seeing that you have put off the old self with its practices 10 and have put on the new self, which is being renewed in knowledge after the image of its creator. 11 Here there is not Greek and Jew, circumcised and uncircumcised, barbarian, Scythian, slave, free; but Christ is all, and in all.

12 Put on then, as God’s chosen ones, holy and beloved, compassionate hearts, kindness, humility, meekness, and patience, 13 bearing with one another and, if one has a complaint against another, forgiving each other; as the Lord has forgiven you, so you also must forgive. 14 And above all these put on love, which binds everything together in perfect harmony.

There are two simple–simple, not easy–tasks in this passage!

  1. Putting off.
  2. Putting on.

While incredibly simple, this is a challenging process that, by the Grace of God and with the power of the Holy Spirit, will take you the rest of your life. In Christ Formed in You, Brian Hedges calls this two-step process ‘mortification’ and ‘vivification.’ Hedges devotes an entire chapter to the concept of mortification, and he defines it by saying, “Simply put, mortification is killing sin. This includes putting to death both sinful actions (deeds) and the sinful motivations (passions and desires) which produce them” (Pg. 135). He also devotes an entire chapter to vivification, but he very simply defines it as “a lifelong, active, imitation of Jesus” (150).

Thus, the idea is that we mortify—or put to death—everything that has to do with the flesh and we vivify—or bring to life—everything that is of the Spirit. With those two categories in mind, look at this list from Colossians 3:5-14:

  • Mortify or put off:
    • Sexual immorality
    • Impurity
    • Passion
    • Evil desire
    • Covetousness/Idolatry
    • Anger
    • Wrath
    • Malice
    • Slander
    • Obscene talk
    • Lying
  • Vivify or put on:
    • Knowledge of God
    • Compassionate hearts
    • Kindness
    • Humility
    • Meekness
    • Patience
    • Forbearance
    • Forgiveness
    • Love

Now, here’s where the idea of putting off/putting on actually gets practical. It starts with a simple realization: For every vice, there is an equal and opposite virtue. Here are a couple examples: lust vs. purity; greed vs. generosity; selfishness vs. serving others; gossip vs. discretion; anger vs. patience, etc.

A common problem is that many Christians only focus on their vices. We try over and over to ‘put off’ those vices only to find ourselves discouraged and backslidden. They become frustrated because they seldom (if ever) focus on the corresponding virtues, which is why they fail to see progress and become discouraged.

It’s as though their goal is to “not be fat.” They focus their complete attention on “not being fat” all the while forgetting that they should instead focus on proper diet and exercise. Jesus told a parable about this that used to really confuse me. Both Luke 11:24-26 and Matthew 12:43-45 record this parable and essentially Jesus tells the story of an unclean spirit that a person kicks out of their house. The spirit later returns to find the house has undergone some home improvement projects but is still empty. So he settles back in and the house is in a worse state than it was in the first place. This is how it is when we try to just kick out a vice without filling our house with the corresponding virtue.

So here’s a two-part challenge:

  1. Instead of only focusing on putting off impatience, also focus on putting on patience. Instead of focusing only on putting off lust, also focus on purity. Instead of focusing only on putting off being greedy, focus also on putting on generosity. Take the time to write down the name of a specific vice you’re struggling to put off, and then write down the specific virtue you hope to put on to replace it.
  2. Confess that struggle to a fellow Christian and seek their accountability. You have nothing to be ashamed of because we all struggle with our own sins. If you believe you’re the only one struggling, you are believing a lie. Destroy the power of the flesh by bringing it out into the light.

And let the peace of Christ rule in your hearts, to which indeed you were called in one body. And be thankful (Col. 3:15).

C. S. Lewis on Real Forgiveness

Real forgiveness means looking steadily at the sin, the sin that is left over without any excuse, after all allowances have been made, and seeing it in all its horror, dirt, meanness, and malice, and nevertheless being wholly reconciled to the man who has done it.

C. S. Lewis, Essay on Forgiveness, (New York: MacMillan Publishing Co., 1960).

Selfish Ambition and Vain Conceit

It was the second half of 2005. I was 19, had just arrived at my first duty-station of Alaska, and had some big plans. First of all, I was going to sign up to go to the Air Force Academy. I had made this decision because, after listening to multiple general officers tell their stories, I realized that the Academy was my best shot at making general. I figured I would give the Air Force 30 or so years before retiring and figuring out what I wanted to conquer next. If I had to pick one word to describe myself, it would have been ambitious. I was willing to do whatever it took to make sure I was successful in my military career.

It was about then that I first read Philippians 2:3, which says “Do nothing out of selfish ambition or vain conceit, but in humility consider others better than yourselves.” Uh oh. I had the sudden and horrifying realization that all my plans were nothing more than “selfish ambition.” Truly, at that point the only thing that motivated me was “vain conceit.” I was selfish and conceited; and I knew it. But, truth be told, I wasn’t really sure what else to do or how else to be.

But then it got worse! I made the mistake of joining a Bible study group that happened to be working through 1 John and I ran across this: “The world and its desires pass away, but the man who does the will of God lives forever (1 John 2:17).” Not only had I realized that all I cared about was myself, but now I realized that all my goals and plans were ultimately pointless because they were unlikely to outlive even my short life. I would never leave a legacy because I would never actually devote myself to a lasting cause. So what did I have to live for? What could be my purpose?

Just when I thought things couldn’t get any worse, God delivered the death-blow to my pride when I decided to start reading through the Gospels for myself and was pierced by this arrow: “But seek first his kingdom and his righteousness, and all these things will be given to you as well (Matthew 6:33).” I realized that I had a choice: either build up God’s eternal Kingdom, or pour my life into building a castle of sand that would quickly be washed away by the waves of time.

My motives: selfish and conceited.
My plans: pointless and ephemeral.
My ‘kingdom’: short-lived and pitiful.

It all came to a head one night. It was a Saturday night in the Fall of 2005 and I was just a little drunk. I was looking at the second half of my strongly made Jack & Coke—mostly Jack with a dash of Coke, really—and I was trying to calculate how much of it I could drink and still be sober for choir practice the next morning (yup, you read that right). If I finished the drink, they’d probably be able to smell the alcohol on my breath and either way I would definitely feel terrible. So there I sat, 19 years old—which meant I was drinking underage, by the way—trying to figure out how drunk I should get when the Holy Spirit whispered three words in my ears. They were three words I’d ignored for at least 3-4 years up until that point but deep down inside I knew them to be true. In fact, those three words had bothered me ever since I started going to church in high school and claiming to be a Christian while still smoking pot, popping pills, drinking alcohol, cussing like a sailor, and messing around with girls. Those three words: “you’re a hypocrite.” Somehow I had managed to ignore those words while I pursued idol after idol: an Air Force career, impure dating relationships, worldly success. But at last, the Holy Spirit convicted me; I was “cut to the heart” as Luke said in Acts 2:37. I realized that I was on a path that would never lead me to an intimate relationship with God; I was on a path that would never make me the man I always wanted to be. I was pursuing idols, not God. It was time to try something else.

And so I did. And I haven’t looked back since. So what’s holding you back? Are you building your own short-lived kingdom or are you devoting your life to an eternal Kingdom? Are your plans eternal or vaporous? Are your motives selfish or selfless? I can’t answer those questions for you, but I promise you one thing: Seek first his kingdom and his righteousness, and all these things will be given to you as well.

Therefore, since we are surrounded by such a great cloud of witnesses, let us throw off everything that hinders and the sin that so easily entangles, and let us run with perseverance the race marked out for us. Let us fix our eyes on Jesus, the author and perfecter of our faith, who for the joy set before him endured the cross, scorning its shame, and sat down at the right hand of the throne of God. (Hebrews 12:1, 2)

Book Review: Water From a Deep Well

I have mix feelings about Water from a Deep Well: Christian Spirituality from Early Martyrs to Modern Missionaries by Gerald Sittser. On the one hand, it’s very well written and goes to great length to explain some of the major traditions from the history of the Church. On the other hand, it didn’t go deep enough to put many of these disciplines into practices. It was very wide but sometimes very shallow. Even more concerning, I felt like some of the traditions were “all bad.” What I mean by “all bad” is that I didn’t feel like a couple of the traditions were redeemable and would have been better off left out of this devotional survey of Church history.

For example, I didn’t find the chapter on icons and saints to be as helpful as it could have been. Spiritual heroes are great and we find them in the Bible, so my objection isn’t there. What I found unnecessary was how in-depth the author went into iconography. Biographies are great because they give us practical examples of what it looks like to live for Christ, but I didn’t feel comfortable with the adoration that icons received. To be fair, the author remains very impartial in his discussions, but I feel like he sacrificed discernment for the sake of neutrality. Simply by virtue of including iconography, he has provided an implicit endorsement of its use. The book is marketed and even self-described as a book that will take us into some of the valuable things from our past we’ve forgotten and should recover. For this reason, if something was included in the book, it was implicitly endorsed. I disagreed with some of the “old ways” that were endorsed.

That being said, I do agree with the book’s central anthem:  “There is more. So much more!” It’s easy in a world dominated by the latest Tweet to develop an attention span and cultural/historical perspective like that of a fruit fly. I definitely feel as though the 2,000 year history of the Church is an oft untapped gold mine of examples, testimonies, and lessons that we can learn from. As I mentioned in my review of Thirsting for God, I plan on making it a routine to dig deeper into the rich history we’re all a part of. That being said, I plan on doing so with great discernment so I can “swallow the meat and spit out the bones” as a dear friend of mine has put it.

I think my favorite two chapters of the book were the chapter on the martyrs and the chapter on the Reformation. As Gerald L. Sittser put it, “The martyrs’ fate might not be ours. But their faith and conviction must be” (pg. 48). Sittser makes the assertion several times throughout the book, and I agree, that our lukewarm, self-help Gospel needs to be replaced with an authentic, self-denying faith that seeks to make Christ king of all facets of life. And I feel like the best way to do that is through the method of the Reformers: “returning to one central message [in our preaching and teaching]—Jesus Christ is the very Word of God who came to reveal God and make us right with God” (230). I hope that my faith will be like that of the martyrs and my teaching will be like that of the Reformers.

In the end, I probably would not recommend this book to a young, undiscerning Christian. Nor would I recommend it in its entirety to a mature Christian. Instead, I would likely recommend about half of the chapters while suggesting someone skip the other half. Bottom line, I would only recommend this book to people who are very discerning and who really want to learn about the history of the church in a devotional manner.

Hate Sin.

Recently I ran across this Facebook status from a pastor friend of mine:

Yesterday, I ran across that age-old idea of “Hate the sin; love the sinner.” My response was, “Or just love the sinner?” I’m pretty sure the world doesn’t need anymore of my hatred, nor can I find any scriptural evidence where hatred trumps love.
So, here’s to Love!

First, I’ll say that it is completely possible I misunderstood the intention of that status update and that this blog post is a complete waste of time.

Second, I completely agree that Christians need to grow in love and grace. This is an area where we all fall short because we are imperfect humans. I know this to be true most vividly in my own heart because I know myself most truly. But let’s not throw the baby out with the bathwater!

I think part of loving others more truly though, is by helping them, not tolerating that which is most lethal to them. I love my daughter, which is why, if I saw her playing with a cobra, I would rescue her! I love my wife, which is why, if I saw my wife running across an interstate during rush hour with ear buds in and a blindfold on, I would rescue her!

There were a couple things that I thought were a little unclear in the status. Most specifically, what does the phrase “nor can I find any scriptural evidence where hatred trumps love” mean? Does that mean there are no Bible verses where we’re told to hate something? That’s not true (as demonstrated below). Truthfully, you won’t find something if you don’t look for it.

I’ve spent some time reflecting on this status update and have decided that I very strongly disagree for a couple of reasons (in no particular order).

  1. Not only is this statement unbiblical, it’s actually counter-Biblical (which is far worse). Scripture is replete with verses that either directly tell us to hate sin or show us that loving God leads to hating sin. Please allow me to demonstrate:
    • Proverbs 8:13: To fear the LORD is to hate evil; I hate pride and arrogance, evil behavior and perverse speech.
    • Psalm 5:5: The arrogant cannot stand in your presence. You hate all who do wrong… (This verse actually makes it sound like God hates the sinner and the sin.)
    • Psalm 11:5: The LORD examines the righteous, but the wicked, those who love violence, he hates with a passion. (Like the previous one, this verse also makes it sound like God hates the sinner and the sin.)
    • Psalm 97:10: Let those who love the LORD hate evil, for he guards the lives of his faithful ones and delivers them from the hand of the wicked.
    • Psalm 119:104: I gain understanding from your precepts; therefore I hate every wrong path.
    • Psalm 119:128: and because I consider all your precepts right, I hate every wrong path.
    • Proverbs 13:5: The righteous hate what is false, but the wicked make themselves a stench and bring shame on themselves.
    • 2 Chronicles 19:2: Jehu the seer, the son of Hanani, went out to meet him and said to the king, “Should you help the wicked and love those who hate the LORD? Because of this, the wrath of the LORD is on you. (This verse makes it sound as though we shouldn’t love those who hate the Lord.)
    • Ezekiel 35:6: therefore as surely as I live, declares the Sovereign LORD, I will give you over to bloodshed and it will pursue you. Since you did not hate bloodshed, bloodshed will pursue you.
    • Amos 5:15: Hate evil, love good; maintain justice in the courts. Perhaps the LORD God Almighty will have mercy on the remnant of Joseph. (This is a direct command to hate evil.)
    • Romans 12:9: Love must be sincere. Hate what is evil; cling to what is good. (Another direct, clear command to hate evil.)
  2. This statement doesn’t actually make sense when you plug specific sins into it. For example:
    • “Love the pedophile but hate pedophilia? Or just love the pedophile?”
    • “Love the hungry but hate starvation? Or just love the hungry?”
    • “Love the naked but hate nakedness? Or just love the naked?”
    • “Love the raped but hate raping? Or just love the raped?”
    • “Love the lonely but hate loneliness? Or just love the lonely?”
    • “Love the Godless but hate Godlessness? Or just love the Godless?”
    • “Love the idolater but hate idolatry? Or just love the idolater?”
    • “Love the sinner but hate sin? Or just love the sinner?”
  3. You can’t “love” a person and NOT hate that which is forever tarnishing and damning their eternal soul. It would be like someone finding out their spouse has an aggressive, lethal form of cancer and simply saying, “I love my wife but don’t hate the cancer that is destroying her body.” Love does not tolerate sin in others (1 Cor. 13:6), but seeks what is best for their soul.
  4. As my pastor so eloquently said, “GRACE and TOLERANCE are different. Grace points us toward truth (Tit. 2:11-14); tolerance let’s us run freely from it. Tricky.” Tolerating sin in someone’s life is not loving them. Loving them is helping them as they pursue holiness.
  5. Christ suffered for sins (1 Peter 3:18), therefore, if we love Christ, we must hate the thing which caused Him to suffer.
  6. Scot McKnight wrote an excellent article a while back. Here are some pertinent excerpts:
    • When we don’t see the gravity of sin, we won’t be reliant upon God for the grace of sanctification and transformation, and holiness won’t be our aim in life.
    • Humans ache to rule the cosmos. They want to be God. The ache to be God and acting as if we are God are what sin is all about.
    • Sin, at its core, usurps God’s place in this world and puts us there instead.
    • Sin damages our self-identity, changes our relations with God from love and trust to fear and mistrust, damages our loving union with one another to become a war of wills against one another, and sin also has cosmic effects—we find the world to be red in tooth and claw.
    • The Bible tells us not only that God is gracious and loving, but it reveals an unforgettable statement in Leviticus: “Be holy because I am holy.” Let us not forget we are summoned by God to make our pursuit in life a pursuit that is simultaneously after love and after holiness.
  7. Sin is toxic. James 1:13-15 and Romans 5:12 are clear where sin leads: death! How can we not hate that which kills everything it touches and alienates us from our Creator?
  8. This was posted by a pastor! A pastor who doesn’t hate sin is like an oncologist who doesn’t hate cancer, a fitness-guru who doesn’t hate obesity, a judge who doesn’t hate corruption, a teacher who doesn’t hate illiteracy, a policeman who doesn’t hate violence, or a fireman who doesn’t hate arson. In effect, what’s the point?

In conclusion, I think that a proper understanding of sin’s blatant affront to God’s character leaves us no option but to hate sin. Our love of God will produce a natural hatred of sin. Love of God is the point, but hatred of sin is an inevitable by-product. So, here’s to love!

If we would make it evident that our conversion is sound we must loathe and hate sin from the heart; now a man shall know his hatred of evil to be true, first if it be universal. He that hates sin truly hates all sin. Secondly, where there is true hatred it is fixed; there is no appeasing it, but by abolishing the thing it hates. Thirdly, hatred is a more rooted affection than anger; anger may be appeased, but hatred is against the whole kind. Fourthly, if our hatred be true, we hate all evil in ourselves first, and then in others. He that hates a toad would hate it most in his own bosom. Many like Judah are severe in censuring others but are partial to themselves (Genesis 38:24). Fifthly, he that hates sin truly, hates the greatest sin in the greatest measure; he hates all evil in a just proportion. Sixthly, our hatred is right if we can endure admonition and reproof for sin and not be enraged with him that tells us of it; therefore those that swell against reproof, hate not sin; only with this caution, it may be done with such indiscretion and self-love that a man may hate the reprover’s proud manner. In disclosing our hatred of sin in others, we must consider our calling; it must be done in a sweet temper, reserving due respect to those to whom reproof is offered, that it may be done out of true zeal, and not out of anger nor pride.

– Richard Sibbes (via Tim Challies)

What is the most straightforward biblical command?

Could it be that today the most straightforward biblical command for conversion is not, “Believe in the Lord,” but, “Delight yourself in the Lord”?

John Piper, Desiring God, Revised Edition: Meditations of a Christian Hedonist (Colorado Springs: Multnohmah, 2011), 55.

Just Enjoying the Scenery

Imagine, for just one moment, that you’re sitting on the deck of an elegant cruise ship. You’re wearing a nice cozy bathrobe over your swim suit. The stars are out in full force and have perfectly framed the crescent moon. The lunar glow is reflecting off the waves and you’re pretty sure you just saw a dolphin gracefully leap into the air. Perhaps you’re smoking a cigar or sipping a nice cup of tea. You enjoy the warmth as it permeates you. You’re enjoying the briny scent of waves gently lapping against the hull of this mighty ship. The only problem is all the noise!

Apparently the ship–a ship even God couldn’t sink–had a bit of a side-scrape with an iceberg and now everyone is worried about dying. What’s that all about? Their fear is understandable, after all, there aren’t enough life rafts, are there? But you don’t mind because you’re way smarter than all of them. You found a spare life raft and have stowed it away for just the right time. When your time comes, you’ll nonchalantly climb right into your life raft and float to safety. Your real big concern is whether or not you’ll have to get your feet wet climbing into your raft, but hey, not everything comes easy, does it?

But for now, it would be nice if you could just enjoy your robe, cigar, and the evening. Sure, you could fit 8 people in that life-raft, but who wants to go through the trouble of getting to know those people? What if it’s inconvenient? You might have to give up some of your luxuries. What if one of the people you meet annoys you? Or even worse, what if they reject your offer? Surely better to let them perish than telling them you have a life boat.

“For you yourselves are fully aware that the day of the Lord will come like a thief in the night. While people are saying, “There is peace and security,” then sudden destruction will come upon them as labor pains come upon a pregnant woman, and they will not escape. But you are not in darkness, brothers, for that day to surprise you like a thief. For you are all children of light, children of the day. We are not of the night or of the darkness. So then let us not sleep, as others do, but let us keep awake and be sober. (1 Thessalonians 5:2-6)”

Whether we like it or not, we have a very short span of time to make an eternal difference in the lives of those we encounter. Will you simply enjoy the scenery this world has to offer or will you be intentional about how you use this short life you’ve been given? This is a question you must answer every day.

Norman Cousins contemplates contemplation

Our own age is not likely to be distinguished in history for the large numbers of people who insisted on finding the time to think. Plainly, this is not the Age of the Meditative Man. It is a printing, squinting, shoving age. Substitutes for repose are a billion dollar business. Almost daily, new antidotes for contemplation spring into being and leap out from store counters. Silence, already the world’s most critical shortage, is in danger of becoming a nasty word. Modern man may or may not be obsolete, but he is certainly wired for sound and he twitches as naturally as he breathes.

Norman Cousins quoted by Thomas V. Morris, Making Sense of It All: Pascal and the Meaning of Life (Eerdmans, 1992): 36.

Scot McKnight on the damage of sin

Sin damages our self-identity, changes our relations with God from love and trust to fear and mistrust, damages our loving union with one another to become a war of wills against one another, and sin also has cosmic effects—we find the world to be red in tooth and claw.

Every sin damages. Not just the big ones.

Scot McKnight, Why Doesn’t Anybody Talk about Sin?