What does it mean to blaspheme the Holy Spirit? Is it possible for a Christian to commit this unforgivable sin? Let’s consider this together.
I’m reading a book by a popular young author who grew up in the Bible belt. From her account, she was part of a fairly easy-going family of believers. As she grew, she became uncomfortable with the fundamentalist beliefs of the denomination of her youth. This discomfort led her on a journey of questioning those beliefs, and, eventually, that journey led her to come to conclusions that were, largely, the opposite of those she heard growing up.
Today, this author would say that it is “naïve” to believe that the account of the creation of the world, the flood and so many other aspects of the Bible—”must be literal to be true.”[1. This is, of course, Rachel Held Evans in Searching for Sunday.] This author isn’t alone in this sentiment, of course. Many in our day—and many in the preceding 150 years—deeply feel the tension particularly between the Christian story and that of scientific naturalism. And many choose to double down on one side or the other.
And I get that. Something that’s helpful for people to keep in mind is that I didn’t grow up with any real knowledge of the Christian story. I didn’t have a category for it beyond a vague reference in Star Trek II: The Wrath of Kahn. So if you’re one who wrestles with this tension, please know I am not unsympathetic. And regardless of the discomfort, we should wrestle with it. We should allow it to be uncomfortable and continue to be so until we are fully convinced.
So, I hope it’s clear that I am all for asking good questions. But good questions do more than question truth claims—they question our questioning, too. And that’s what’s troubling about the notion that it must be naïve to believe certain things. To me, that strikes me as dangerously close-minded thinking in that it doesn’t go far enough to ask deeper questions.
This post isn’t a slam on this particular author (I hope). Instead, I really do just want to consider the kinds of questions we need to ask when we are confronted with a statement like that above—because it’s one we do get all the time, including from ourselves. I find it helpful to consider four questions when dealing with the charge of naïvity:
- Why? Why would it make one naïve to believe these things must have happened in order to be true? Is it because we live in a naturalistic culture, one that tells us that only what is measurable, verifiable and repeatable is true (unless it’s inconvenenient, of course)? Couldn’t one equally argue that it is naïve to believe that these things couldn’t possibly have happened? That water didn’t actually come pouring out from a rock? Or the Red Sea didn’t really part, or that everyone who is described as being possessed by a demon is really just epileptic? (Which, by the way, is incredibly disrespectful to anyone who has epilepsy…)
- What? What does it mean to say that believing this or that actually happened is a sign of naïvity? What are the implications of saying that Genesis 1-2 never happened? What does it mean to say that Jesus didn’t bodily rise from the dead, or wasn’t really born of a virgin? What does it do to the foundation of the Christian faith, and what is left standing?
- When? When does it stop being naïve to believe something is true? When is it that this is no longer applied to earliest chapters of Genesis or the miracles of Exodus through to the end of the Prophets, but to the person of Jesus himself? When does it become naïve to believe in the incarnation and the resurrection? When does it become naïve to believe anything in Scripture at all?
- How? How will I respond? Ultimately, this comes down to two options: will I respond in faith and believe, or will I respond in unbelief and reject?
Curiosity and a hunger for truth are absolutely essential. That’s what motivates us to ask good questions. But good questions don’t let us stop asking questions of a subject, they question our questions. And there’s nothing naïve about that.
Y’know, one of the things I’m looking forward to about the new creation is the opportunity to ask a whole lot of questions. And I don’t mean that in the “When I get to heaven, I’m gonna have a word with Jesus” way, either, because while that’s cute and all… no.
Seriously though, I have a ton of questions I would love to have answers to eventually. They’re not questions which affect my faith all that much. They’re the curiosity ones about events in history, the background of certain books of the Bible, and how Jesus really feels about King James Only-ism… (Kidding. I’m pretty sure I already know that last one.) But of those, there are three that, at this moment anyway, I’d love to have an answer to eventually:
1. Who actually wrote Hebrews?
Seriously, I would love to know who actually wrote this. From what I understand, the early tradition was that it was Paul (a view still held by many today), but other contenders in the debate include Apollos, Barnabas, Luke, and, as generally advocated by progressive and/or revisionist scholars, Priscilla.[1. This theory was first put forward by Adolf von Harnack, who also rejected the historicity of John’s gospel, so there’s that.] Who do I think? Honestly? I don’t know. My gut says someone with connections to Paul. I’m certainly intrigued by the Lukan authorship theory, haven’t had an opportunity to investigate heavily. Maybe this book would be helpful?
2. Was Paul really a poor verbal communicator?
I’ve seen this charge in numerous books and sermons, but it’s never sat right with me, mostly because of the Bible itself. Something important to keep in mind is that the references to Paul’s being a less than stellar orator appear when he is addressing the charges of false teachers and “super-apostles” in cities like Corinth. And call me crazy, but I suspect those dudes were probably fond of lying a little bit… I lean “no” on this. I suspect, based on the Scriptural evidence (particularly the sermon extracts found in Acts), that he was a very good preacher. But do I know for sure? Not really. But I’d love to find out.
3. What’s the one thing we all got wrong that might surprise us?
Let’s face it: none of us should ever claim to perfectly understand or interpret the Bible. Thankfully, very few of us (at least that I’m aware of) actually do this. While there’s much we can know—and we should strive to know as much as we can—there’s guaranteed to be something we’re either going to misinterpret, misunderstand or overlook entirely, despite the basic clarity of the Scriptures on its essential message. I wouldn’t be surprised if whatever it is is something ridiculously obvious. So it’d be interesting—and honestly, humbling—to learn what that thing is.
Like I said at the beginning: these are not epic, faith-changing questions. They’re curiosities. Questions that pop into your head periodically when you’re reading or getting ready for bed. Will I lose sleep if I never have an answer to them? Probably not. But do I believe there is an answer to each? Absolutely. And I look forward to the day when I get to learn the answers to these questions, and a thousand more besides.
Last night, I helped out as a table leader for a course we’re running at our church, and one person at my table was really interesting. Fairly new to anything surrounding Christianity, he was smart as a whip, answered lots of questions, and had some surprising insights. It was cool to see what he was getting out of the experience so far.
I was pleased with how things were going. And then as we talked about the concept of sin and why Jesus would say something so extreme as to cut off your hand or foot or gouge out your eye if it causes you to stumble, for it would be better to go through life maimed than be cast into hell (see Mark 9:43-47), I eventually asked about whether or not we can do something good enough to make up for our sin.
Mostly silence. Then finally a hesitant yes from my new friend. If we do something wrong, we can cancel it out with something good. So we talked about that a little more—not with me saying, you’re wrong and here’s why, but asking questions and giving examples from my own life.
Finally, as I could see he was starting to get irritated, he asked me, “Why do you keep asking me the same question just in different ways?”
What I told him was pretty simple: I wanted him to think about the answer he was giving.
See, I needed him to think about whether or not it made sense given the rest of what we’d talked about that night (and if it would still made sense after we were done the course). And sometimes the best way to do that isn’t to outright say, “You’re wrong and here’s why.” Sometimes you need to get someone to the point that they’re willing to ask the question behind the question.
This, I think, is why Jesus kept responding to questions with questions. I think it’s why we keep getting posed the same questions over and over again in the Scriptures. It’s not because Jesus was being evasive any more than I believe the authors of Scripture—and ultimately the Holy Spirit—were being obtuse.
It’s that we need to really feel the weight of the problem before we can see the answer.
Our natural bend is to think that we can do enough good to make up for our bad. We have an intrinsic sense of justice within us—an understanding of an eye for an eye, or a tooth for a tooth, if you will. But what the Bible consistently points us to is the fact that we cannot balance the scales on our own. There is no amount of good deeds that can make up for the wrong we’ve done (or the right we’ve failed to do). We can’t do this because the problem we face doesn’t lie in our actions, but in our hearts. And we can’t change our hearts.
Only God can. And this is why Christ came—not only to bring forgiveness of sins for all who believe, but to give all who believe new hearts, new desires, new affections. A desire to love and please him that simply doesn’t exist without him placing it within us.
That’s what he wants us to get. That’s why he keeps asking the same question. So let’s keep asking it to, because eventually it’ll drive us to the answer we need.
photo credit: Tell me…when will the grey, dark and snowy days end? via photopin (license)
Maybe it’s me, but the idea of naming “names”—calling out a specific pastor, teacher or author as promoting false doctrine and heresy—has increasingly felt awkward to me. Part of the reason, I suspect, is that I’ve seen very few examples of it done well. Generally, those naming names seem to be folks that Paul warns about in the pastoral epistles—men who love to stir up controversy and division who we should have nothing to do with (1 Tim. 6:4; Titus 3:10). They appear to jump on a video clip, a poor choice of words, or a seven year old blog post and go to town. This is why on any given day, you can find just about anyone—whether J.I. Packer, John MacArthur, Augustine, or Jesus himself—declared a heretic by someone on the Internets. Frankly, it gets so ridiculous at times that I can completely understand why people would never want to say anything that would even suggest that someone might be a false teacher.
Yet, as I study the Scriptures, I find that I cannot easily go there. The authors of Scripture take false teaching very seriously and so must we. Indeed, throughout the New Testament, we see numerous examples of specific men named as false teachers—as traitors to the gospel.
Paul tells Timothy that Hymenaeus, Alexander and Philetus are among those who have made a shipwreck of their faith and swerved from the truth (1 Tim. 1:20; 2 Tim. 2:17-18). Their “irreverent babble,” he says, will spread like gangrene among God’s people. Their false teaching is like an infection that must be treated with the utmost seriousness and efficiency. Failure to do so will result in the infection spreading. The apostle John warned his readers of Diotrephes, “who likes to put himself first, [and] does not acknowledge our authority” (3 John 9). This man, who was apparently influential among John’s audience, refused to acknowledge the authority of apostolic teaching, becoming an authority unto himself (sounds familiar, doesn’t it). And Jesus himself warned of the Nicolaitans and their presence in Ephesus and Pergamum. He hated their works and commands those who hold to their teachings to repent or be caught on the wrong side when he would come to make war against them (Rev. 2:6; 15-16).
So if we look at these New Testament examples, we can say with reasonable confidence that the answer is yes—it is right and biblical for a pastor to warn against a specific teacher. But also notice that the answer isn’t quite as simple as we’d like it to be.
First, we must be careful to not declare a particular individual a false teacher unless the body of evidence warrants such a charge. Paul commanded Timothy that he should not “admit a charge against an elder except on the evidence of two or three witnesses” (1 Tim. 5:19). This is good advice. In our context, that means that an out-of-context quote from six years ago cannot qualify as confirmation of a teacher being a heretic. However, if the body of evidence strongly points in a particular direction, then it may be prudent to openly condemn that teacher’s doctrine.
Second, while the biblical authors clearly treat false teaching and teachers with dreadful earnestness, it is always addressed within the context of a specific local church. When Paul warned Timothy of Hymenaeus, Alexander and Philetus, he was giving him warning of men who would impact Timothy’s ministry in Ephesus. He didn’t warn Titus of these men. John, likewise, wrote specifically to Gaius. And Jesus said nothing of the Nicolaitans in his messages to the church in Smyrna, Thyatira, Sardis, Philadelphia or Laodicea. Their error didn’t directly affect these churches in the way that it did Ephesus (with their positive rejection) and Pergamum (with their foolish acceptance).
This is instructive for our own day. While there might be a very real threat to the gospel, it may not actually be relevant to our particular local church. If we know that a particular author is widely read among our congregations and we know that he or she holds views that are opposed to the gospel, then it is right to warn the congregation of their teaching. But to name a particular individual who has no influence within our churches may have more in common with gossip than contending for the faith.
Finally, we should always remember the goal of “naming names”. You’ll notice that I repeatedly advise condemning a person’s teaching, rather than the person. This is intentional and, I hope, biblical. While Paul names names, even saying he has handed them over to Satan, it is to that “they may learn not to blaspheme.” Jude likewise commands us to show “mercy with fear, hating even the garment stained by the flesh” (Jude 23). Simply, the goal is to bring those who promote false doctrine to repentance, and not simply say “They’re traitors and blasphemers, may they burn in hell.”
While we must always be willing to call false teaching what it is—heresy—we ought to be thoughtful about how we express it in relation to the person propagating that teaching. Hate their teaching, hate the lies they spread, hate the mockery they make of the gospel—but do not transfer that hatred to the person. Rather, pray for them to come to repentance and if you have the means, plead with them personally to return to sound teaching.
So, is it appropriate for Christians to name names? Yes, if it is to the benefit of our congregations and that our desire is to see those false teachers return the fold as faithful followers of Jesus Christ.
I read a silly amount of books every week/month/year, and I’ve realized something:
The ones I enjoy the most are the ones with discussion questions.
Recently my men’s small group has been working our way through The Enemy Within by Kris Lundgaard (it’s a great book, by the way), and one of the most helpful things about it—even more than the content itself—is the discussion questions and application activities.
It’s really easy to read a book (or scan it in some cases) and say, “Yep, I’ve got it. Next!” Especially for me.
I read very quickly, I retain a lot… but if I don’t dwell on the content, it just sits in my head and doesn’t affect my life.
I find that I have to make the time for application. Discussion questions force me to do that, to dwell on the content and chew on its implications.
Now, there are some things that don’t require discussion guides, obviously. If you’re reading Amish Vampire Romance End-Times books, for example—okay, that might require some discussion (but not of the book itself).
I also appreciate how Francis Chan periodically writes, “Okay, stop reading this book, go watch this video here, read this passage of Scripture and look at what it says about XYZ.” That’s smart; it pushes the reader to interact with the text and not just let it wash over him or her.
So what do you do with a book that doesn’t have any questions?
Ask your own!
As a general rule, I have a few questions for every book I read:
- What is the main idea the author is trying to convey?
- How does the author support his/her idea(s)? Scripture, tradition, history, illustrations from real life examples…
- Do I agree with the author’s main idea? Why or why not? And can I support my position with appropriate Scripture? (Questions two and three are essential for anything labeled “Christian Living,” “Spiritual Growth,” or “Theology,” I’ve found.)
- If these ideas are true, what is one practical way I can apply this truth today?
A great book is one that doesn’t just challenge the way you think, but challenges you to think.
Ask questions. Enjoy discussion.
And think about what you’re reading.
Yesterday, Michael Krahn posted a fun top-ten list about one of our favorite subjects: Books! I liked it so much that I copied the idea.
The Bible fits well as the answer to most of these questions, but I wanted to make sure I had some variety.
With that said, away we go!
1. One book that changed your life:
Knowing God by J.I. Packer, which showed me the importance and beauty of good theology
Runner up: Pornified: How Pornography Is Damaging Our Lives, Our Relationships, and Our Families by Pamela Paul
2. One book that you’ve read more than once:
Humility by C.J. Mahaney. I’ve read this 3 times already and am on my fourth.
3. One book you’d want on a desert island: Read More about Aaron likes his bookie-books
Oh My God is a documentary that asks the question, “Who is God?”
The filmmaker, Peter Rodger, travelled to 23 different countries around the world just asking this question. In his travels, he didn’t just ask “experts” to explain their concept or understanding of God. He asked normal folks.
And Hugh Jackman.
Check out the trailer:
Jackman’s quote is pretty interesting:
If you put Buddha, Jesus Christ, Socrates, Shakespeare, Arjuna, Krishna together at a dinner table, I couldn’t see them having any argument.
It’s a really nice sentiment, the belief that all religions are fundamentally the same (although I’m not exactly sure how Shakespeare fits into the “religious figure” camp), and therefore, they do not stand in conflict.
It’s a nice idea that we hear a lot. Heck, it’s an argument I threw out a lot back in the day. But as nice as it is, it’s not true. Jesus doesn’t allow for it. What we see in the New Testament is that Jesus debates a lot. He challenges the assumptions of the religious leaders of the day, and even those of His own followers, asking them, “Who do you say I am?”
But that’s what makes the movie intriguing to me; it’s asking, perhaps, the most important question we can ever ask:
Who is God?
It’s a question I’m glad Rodger is asking.
I’m curious if he discovered an answer.
UPDATE (08/25): For my thoughts on interpreting providence, read God & The Weather.
Wednesday, a tornado touched down in Minneapolis, Minnesota, much to the surprise of everyone (including weather forecasters). The tornado directly hit the convention center and the Central Lutheran Church at the exact time that delegates of the Evangelical Lutheran Church of America were debating the acceptance of openly practicing homosexuals into the pastoral ministry of the church.
The next day, John Piper offered some possible insights into this occurrence in a post titled The Tornado, the Lutherans, and Homosexuality. This post has caused a lot of controversy over the last few days, but there are a couple of very relevant pieces we need to look at. In his original post, Piper writes:
I saw the fast-moving, misshapen, unusually-wide funnel over downtown Minneapolis from Seven Corners. I said to Kevin Dau, “That looks serious.”
It was. Serious in more ways than one. A friend who drove down to see the damage wrote,
On a day when no severe weather was predicted or expected…a tornado forms, baffling the weather experts—most saying they’ve never seen anything like it. It happens right in the city. The city: Minneapolis.
The tornado happens on a Wednesday…during the Evangelical Lutheran Church of America’s national convention in the Minneapolis Convention Center. The convention is using Central Lutheran across the street as its church. The church has set up tents around it’s building for this purpose.
According to the ELCA’s printed convention schedule, at 2 PM on Wednesday, August 19, the 5th session of the convention was to begin. The main item of the session: “Consideration: Proposed Social Statement on Human Sexuality.” The issue is whether practicing homosexuality is a behavior that should disqualify a person from the pastoral ministry.
The eyewitness of the damage continues:
This curious tornado touches down just south of downtown and follows 35W straight towards the city center. It crosses I94. It is now downtown.
The time: 2PM.
The first buildings on the downtown side of I94 are the Minneapolis Convention Center and Central Lutheran. The tornado severely damages the convention center roof, shreds the tents, breaks off the steeple of Central Lutheran, splits what’s left of the steeple in two…and then lifts.
In his post, Piper offers his thoughts on the specific purpose of this providential act of God, with some strong biblical support. Read More about John Piper: The Tornado, the Lutherans and Homsexuality
Something interesting that’s been coming up over and over again in conversation has been the idea that God gives certain people a free pass.
If a group of people live somewhere where the gospel’s never been preached, they automatically get into Heaven, is one heard a fair bit, but I honestly don’t give it much thought because it’s answered in Romans 1:19-20.
But there’s another idea that gives me pause:
If a child dies very young, before reaching an “age of accountability,” then he or she goes to Heaven.
I’ll admit, I really like the idea of this, but I want to know if it’s true.
So I’ve been doing some research. And aside from (so far) finding that the only place where a doctrine of an age of accountability is clearly defined is within Mormonism, I did find a couple of interesting points:
In Deut. 1:35-36, the Israelites who are about to enter the Promised Land are reminded of God’s judgement on the previous generation, that “Not one of these men of this evil generation shall see the good land that I swore to give to your fathers, except Caleb the son of Jephunneh. He shall see it, and to him and to his children I will give the land on which he has trodden, because he has wholly followed the Lord!” Read More about "Free Pass" Theology