Friday, October 31, 2008

Happy Reformation Day!!

In honor and memory of the many heroes and martyrs of the Christian Reformation, who gave their lives for the supremacy of Christ and His Word...

"Sola Scriptura, sola fide, sola gratia, solus Christus, soli Deo gloria"
--- "by Scripture alone, by faith alone, by grace alone, Christ alone, glory to God alone"

"The Freedom of a Christian" by Martin Luther

Christian faith has appeared to many an easy thing; nay, not a few even reckon it among the social virtues, as it were; and this they do because they have not made proof of it experimentally, and have never tasted of what efficacy it is. For it is not possible for any man to write well about it, or to understand well what is rightly written, who has not at some time tasted of its spirit, under the pressure of tribulation; while he who has tasted of it, even to a very small extent, can never write, speak, think, or hear about it sufficiently. For it is a living fountain springing up unto eternal life, as Christ calls it in John iv.

Now, though I cannot boast of my abundance, and though I know how poorly I am furnished, yet I hope that, after having been vexed by various temptations, I have attained some little drop of faith, and that I can speak of this matter, if not with more elegance, certainly with more solidity, than those literal and too subtle disputants who have hitherto discoursed upon it without understanding their own words. That I may open then an easier way for the ignorant—for these alone I am trying to serve—I first lay down these two propositions, concerning spiritual liberty and servitude:—

A Christian man is the most free lord of all, and subject to none, a Christian man is the most dutiful servant of all, and subject to every one.

Although these statements appear contradictory, yet, when they are found to agree together, they will make excellently for my purpose. . . .

Let us examine the subject on a deeper and less simple principle. Man is composed of a twofold nature, a spiritual and a bodily. As regards the spiritual nature, which they name the soul, he is called the spiritual, inward, new man; as regards the bodily nature, which they name the flesh, he is called the fleshly, outward, old man. The Apostle speaks of this: "Though our outward man perish, yet the inward man is renewed day by day " (2 Cor. iv. 16). The result of this diversity is that in the Scriptures opposing statements are made concerning the same man, the fact being that in the same man these two men are opposed to one another; the flesh lusting against the spirit, and the spirit against the flesh.

We first approach the subject of the inward man, that we may see by what means a man becomes justified, free, and a true Christian; that is, a spiritual, new, and inward man. It is certain that absolutely none among outward things, under whatever name they may be reckoned, has any influence in producing Christian righteousness or liberty, nor, on the other hand, unrighteousness or slavery. This can be shown by an easy argument.

What can it profit the soul that the body should be in good condition, free, and full of life; that it should eat, drink, and act according to its pleasure; when even the most impious slaves of every kind of vice are prosperous in these matters? Again, what harm can ill health, bondage, hunger, thirst, or any other outward evil, do to the soul, when even the most pious of men, and the freest in the purity of their conscience, are harassed by these things? Neither of these states of things has to do with the liberty or the slavery of the soul.

And so it will profit nothing that the body should be adorned with sacred vestments, or dwell in holy places, or be occupied in sacred offices, or pray, fast, and abstain from certain meats, or do whatever works can be done through the body and in the body. Something widely different will be necessary for the justification and liberty of the soul, since the things I have spoken of can be done by any impious person, and only hypocrites are produced by devotion to these things. On the other hand, it will not at all injure the soul that the body should be clothed in secular clothing, should dwell in secular places, should eat and drink in the ordinary fashion, should not pray aloud, and should leave undone all the things above mentioned, which may be done by hypocrites.

And, to cast everything aside, even speculations, meditations, and whatever things can be performed by the exertions of the soul itself, are of no profit. One thing, and one alone, is necessary for life, justification, and Christian liberty; and that is the most holy word of God, the Gospel of Christ . . .For faith alone, and the efficacious use of the word of God, bring salvation. . . .

Since then this faith can reign only in the inward man . . . and since it alone justifies, it is evident that by no outward work or labour can the inward man be at all justified, made free, and saved; and that no works whatever have any relation to him. And so, on the other hand, it is solely by impiety and incredulity of heart that he becomes guilty and a slave of sin, deserving condemnation, not by any outward sin or work. . . .

Meanwhile it is to be noted that the whole Scripture of God is divided into two parts: rules and promises. The rules certainly teach us what is good, but what they teach is not forthwith done. For they show us what we ought to do, but do not give us the power to do it. They were ordained, however, for the purpose of showing man to himself that through them he may learn his own impotence for good and may despair of his own strength. For this reason they are called the Old Testament, and are so.

For example, "Thou shalt not covet," is a precept by which we are all convicted of sin, since no man can help coveting, whatever efforts to the contrary he may make. In order therefore that he may fulfil the precept, and not covet, he is constrained to despair of himself and to seek elsewhere and through another the help which he cannot find in himself . . . Thus the promises of God give that which the precepts exact, and fulfil what the law commands; so that all is of God alone, both the precepts and their fulfilment. He alone commands; He alone also fulfils. Hence the promises of God belong to the New Testament; nay, are the New Testament.

It is clear then that to a Christian man his faith suffices for everything, and that he has no need of works for justification. But if he has no need of works, neither has he need of the law; and if he has no need of the law, he is certainly free from the law, and the saying is true, "The law is not made for a righteous man" (1 Tim. i. 9). This is that Christian liberty, our faith, the effect of which is, not that we should be careless or lead a bad life, but that no one should need the law or works for justification and salvation. . . .

So, too, His priesthood does not consist in the outward display of vestments and gestures, as did the human priesthood of Aaron and our ecclesiastical priesthood at this day, but in spiritual things, wherein, in His invisible office, He intercedes for us with God in heaven, and there offers Himself, and performs all the duties of a priest . . . . Nor does He only pray and intercede for us; He also teaches us inwardly in the spirit with the living teachings of His Spirit. Now these are the two special offices of a priest, as is figured to us in the case of fleshly priests by visible prayers and sermons. . . .

These two things stand thus. First, as regards kingship, every Christian is by faith so exalted above all things that, in spiritual power, he is completely lord of all things, so that nothing whatever can do him any hurt; yea, all things are subject to him, and are compelled to be subservient to his salvation. . . .

Not that in the sense of corporeal power any one among Christians has been appointed to possess and rule all things, according to the mad and senseless idea of certain ecclesiastics. That is the office of kings, princes, and men upon earth. In the experience of life we see that we are subjected to all things, and suffer many things, even death. Yea, the more of a Christian any man is, to so many the more evils, sufferings, and deaths is he subject, as we see in the first place in Christ the Firstborn, and in all His holy brethren.

This is a spiritual power, which rules in the midst of . enemies, and is powerful in the midst of distresses. And this is nothing else than that strength is made perfect in my weakness, and that I can turn all things to the profit of my salvation; so that even the cross and death are compelled to serve me and to work together for my salvation. This is a lofty and eminent dignity, a true and almighty dominion, a spiritual empire, in which there is nothing so good, nothing so bad, not to work together for my good, if only I believe. And yet there is nothing of which I have need, for faith alone suffices for my salvation, unless that in it faith may exercise the power and empire of its liberty. This is the inestimable power and liberty of Christians.

Nor are we only kings and the freest of all men, but also priests for ever, a dignity far higher than kingship, because by that priesthood we are worthy to appear before God, to pray for others, and to teach one another mutually the things which are of God. For these are the duties of priests, and they cannot possibly be permitted to any unbeliever. Christ has obtained for us this favour, if we believe in Him: that just as we are His brethren and co-heirs and fellow-kings with Him, so we should be also fellow-priests with Him, and venture with confidence, through the spirit of faith, to come into the presence of God, and cry, "Abba, Father!" and to pray for one another, and to do all things which we see done and figured in the visible and corporeal office of priesthood. But to an unbelieving person nothing renders service or works for good. He himself is in servitude to all things, and all things turn out for evil to him, because he uses all things in an impious way for his own advantage, and not for the glory of God. And thus he is not a priest, but a profane person, whose prayers are turned into sin, nor does he ever appear in the presence of God, because God does not hear sinners. . . .

Here you will ask, "If all who are in the Church are priests, by what character are those whom we now call priests to be distinguished from the laity?" I reply, By the use of these words, "priest," " clergy," " spiritual person," "ecclesiastic," an injustice has been done, since they have been transferred from the remaining body of Christians to those few who are now, by a hurtful custom, called ecclesiastics. For Holy Scripture makes no distinction between them, except that those who are now boastfully called popes, bishops, and lords, it calls ministers, servants, and stewards, who are to serve the rest in the ministry of the word, for teaching the faith of Christ and the liberty of believers. For though it is true that we are all equally priests, yet we cannot, nor, if we could, ought we all to, minister and teach publicly. . . . This bad system has now issued in such a pompous display of power and such a terrible tyranny that no earthly government can be compared to it, as if the laity were something else than Christians. Through this perversion of things it has happened that the knowledge of Christian grace, of faith, of liberty, and altogether of Christ, has utterly perished, and has been succeeded by an intolerable bondage to human works and laws; and according to the Lamentations of Jeremiah, we have become the slaves of the vilest men on earth, who abuse our misery to all the disgraceful and ignominious purposes of their own will. . . .

And now let us turn to the other part: to the outward man. . . .

Although, as I have said, inwardly, and according to the spirit, a man is amply enough justified by faith having all that he requires to have, except that this very faith and abundance ought to increase from day to day even till the future life, still he remains in this mortal life upon earth, in which it is necessary that he should rule his own body and have intercourse with men. Here then works begin; here he must not take his ease; he must give heed to exercise his body by fastings, watchings, labour, and other regular discipline, so that it may be subdued to the spirit, and obey and conform itself to the inner man and faith, and not rebel against them nor hinder them, as is its nature to do if it is kept under. For the inner man, being conformed to God and created after the image of God through faith, rejoices and delights itself in Christ, in whom such blessing have been conferred on it, and hence has only this task before it: to serve God with joy and for nought in free love.

But in doing this he comes into collision with the contrary will in his own flesh, which is striving to serve the world and to seek its own gratification. This the spirit of faith cannot and will not bear, but applies itself with cheerfulness and zeal to keep it down and restrain it . . .

These works, however, must not be done with any notion that by them a man can be justified before God—for faith, which alone is righteousness before God, will not bear with this false notion—but solely with this purpose: that the body may be brought into subjection, and be purified from its evil lusts, so that our eyes may be turned only to purging away those lusts. For when the soul has been cleansed by faith and made to love God, it would have all things to be cleansed in like manner, and especially its own body, so that all things might unite with it in the love and praise of God. . . .

On this principle every man may easily instruct himself in what measure, and with what distinctions, he ought to chasten his own body. He will fast, watch, and labour, just as much as he sees to suffice for keeping down the wantonness and concupiscence of the body. But those who pretend to be justified by works are looking, not to the mortification of their lusts, but only to the works themselves; thinking that, if they can accomplish as many works and as great ones as possible, all is well with them, and they are justified. Sometimes they even injure their brain, and extinguish nature, or at least make it useless. This is enormous folly, and ignorance of Christian life and faith, when a man seeks, without faith, to be justified and saved by works. . . .

We may see the same thing in all handicrafts. A bad or good house does not make a bad or good builder, but a good or bad builder makes a good or bad house. And in general no work makes the workman such as it is itself; but the workman makes the work such as he is himself. Such is the case, too, with the works of men. Such as the man himself is, whether in faith or in unbelief, such is his work: good if it be done in faith; bad if in unbelief. But the converse is not true that, such as the work is, such the man becomes in faith or in unbelief. For as works do not make a believing man, neither do they make a justified man; but faith, as it makes a man a believer and justified, so also it makes his works good. . . .

So, too, no good work can profit an unbeliever to justification and salvation; and, on the other hand, no evil work makes him an evil and condemned person, but that unbelief, which makes the person and the tree bad, makes his works evil and condemned. Therefore, when any man is made good or bad, this does not arise from his works, but from his faith or unbelief . . .

Lastly, we will speak also of those works which he performs towards his neighbour. For man does not live for himself alone in this mortal body, in order to work on its account, but also for all men on earth; nay, he lives only for others, and not for himself. For it is to this end that he brings his own body into subjection, that he may be able to serve others more sincerely and more freely . . .

Yet a Christian has need of none of these things for justification and salvation, but in all his works he ought to entertain this view and look only to this object—that he may serve and be useful to others in all that he does; having nothing before his eyes but the necessities and the advantage of his neighbour. . . .

Here is the truly Christian life, here is faith really working by love, when a man applies himself with joy and love to the works of that freest servitude in which he serves others voluntarily and for nought, himself abundantly satisfied in the fulness and riches of his own faith. . . .

Hence in the Christian life ceremonies are to be no otherwise looked upon than as builders and workmen look upon those preparations for building or working which are not made with any view of being permanent or anything in themselves, but only because without them there could be no building and no work. When the structure is completed, they are laid aside. Here you see that we do not contemn these preparations, but set the highest value on them; a belief in them we do contemn because no one thinks that they constitute a real and permanent structure. If any one were so manifestly out of his senses as to have no other object in life but that of setting up these preparations with all possible expense, diligence, and perseverance, while he never thought of the structure itself, but pleased himself and made his boast of these useless preparations and props, should we not all pity his madness and think that, at the cost thus thrown away, some great building might have been raised?

Thus, too, we do not contemn works and ceremonies—nay, we set the highest value on them; but we contemn the belief in works, which no one should consider to constitute true righteousness, as do those hypocrites who employ and throw away their whole life in the pursuit of works, and yet never attain to that for the sake of which the works are done. . . .

Ephesians 2:8-9: "For it is by grace you have been saved, through faith—and this not from yourselves, it is the gift of God— 9not by works, so that no one can boast."

Wednesday, October 29, 2008

Leaving Islam Means Death...

Church and mosque in Jerusalem

There's a widespread belief that the penalty for leaving Islam is death - hence, perhaps, the killing of a British teacher last week. But Shiraz Maher believes attitudes may be softening.

Ziya Meral's parents disowned him when he converted from Islam to Christianity.

"They said 'go away, you're not our son.' They told people I died in an accident rather than having the shame of their son leaving Islam."

Shiraz Maher
Shiraz Maher (right) presents Could I Stop Being a Muslim? on Radio 4 on 22 April at 2000 BST, repeated 27 April at 1700 BST.
Or listen to it on the BBC iPlayer

Born and raised in Turkey, he decided to convert to Christianity after moving to university. He knew telling his parents would be a difficult moment even though they're not particularly observant Muslims, and he planned to break the news to them gently.

In the end, events overtook him. Before heading back to Turkey for the holidays, Ziya briefly visited a Christian summer camp where he was filmed eating a bowl of spaghetti.

The first his parents heard of his conversion was when they saw Ziya on the national news being described as "an evil missionary" intent on "brainwashing" Turkish children.

His parents decided they would rather tell people that he was dead than acknowledge he was a Christian. And Ziya, who now lives in the UK, is not alone in this experience.

Sophia, which is not her real name, faced similar pressures when she decided to become a Christian.

Coming from a Pakistani background but living in east London, 28-year-old Sophia spoke about the extreme cultural pressures her family put her under.

Hashem Aghajari
Hashem Aghajari, a history professor in Tehran (pictured), was sentenced to death for apostasy in Nov 2002
He had said Muslims should not follow clerics "like monkeys"
The sentence sparked off a month of student protests and was quashed by Iran's Supreme Court
Abdul Rahman began a new life in Italy after his trial for apostasy in Kabul collapsed

"They kept saying: 'The punishment is death, do you know the punishment is death?'"

In the end, Sophia ran away from home. Her mother tracked her down and turned up at her baptism.

"I got up to get baptised, that's when my mother got up, ran to the front and tried to pull me out of the water.

"My brother was really angry. He reacted and phoned me on my mobile and just said: 'I'm coming down to burn that church.'"

For Sophia and Ziya, a lot of the prejudice they faced seemed to be borne out of cultural ideas, which are particularly ingrained in the South Asian community relating to notions of family honour.

Student demos in Iran
Aghajari's death sentence sparked protests and a review

But it's too easy to say this is just a cultural problem. Dig a little deeper and you find that there is a theological argument which advocates the death penalty for apostates, which has serious implications for British society.

Last week, British teacher Daud Hassan Ali, 64, was shot dead in Somalia. His widow, Margaret Ali, said her husband was targeted by Islamists who "believe it is ok to kill any man who was born into Islam and left the faith".

Those renouncing their faith for atheism or agnosticism are viewed in a similar way to those who adopt another faith.

A poll conducted by the Policy Exchange last year suggested that over a third of young British Muslims believe that the death penalty should apply for apostasy.

Until recently, I would have shared that view, but since personally rejecting extremism myself, I've been re-examining the issues which I once regarded as conclusive.


I was staggered to learn that the Quran does not say anything about punishing apostates and that its proponents use two hadiths instead to support their view. Hadiths are the recorded traditions and sayings of the Prophet which, in addition to the Quran, provide an additional source of Islamic law.

The hadiths which relate to apostasy are linguistically ambiguous and open to interpretation. Distinguished scholars told me that the hadiths actually speak about a death penalty for treason, not apostasy. And even then, they stressed the punishment is discretionary.

I believe the classical law of apostasy in Islam is wrong and based on a misunderstanding
Usama Hassan
Scientist and imam

Dr Hisham Hellyer is a Fellow of the Oxford Centre for Islamic Studies at University of Oxford, and has researched classical Islamic law.

He believes the death penalty punishment is no longer applicable and should be suspended under certain circumstances.

Usama Hassan, a Cambridge-educated scientist and an imam, goes further and says the classical scholars were wrong in how they interpreted the Quran. He is unequivocal in denouncing those who advocate the death penalty.

"I believe the classical law of apostasy in Islam is wrong and based on a misunderstanding of the original sources, because the Quran and Hadith don't actually talk about a death penalty for apostasy."

Last year Egypt's Grand Mufti, Ali Gomaa, unequivocally told the Washington Post that the death penalty for apostasy simply no longer applies. It provoked a flurry of debate in Egypt and the wider Middle East.


The idea of killing apostates has become a resurgent theme in recent years, a fact closely-related to the increasing politicisation of Islam since 9/11.

It epitomises the "us and them" mentality felt by many Muslims between themselves and the West. And there's an uncomfortable conclusion to all this.

Muslim attitudes towards apostasy are a metaphor for the wider struggle taking place within Islam
Shiraz Maher

If there is a death penalty for treason, then who defines what treason is?

Earlier this year a group of men from Birmingham pleaded guilty to charges of conspiring to kidnap and behead a British Muslim solider because they regarded him as a traitor. Joining the British army was to them treason against Islam.

So while the debate surrounding one aspect of apostasy continues, it is simultaneously throwing up an entirely new series of challenges around other issues including what should be considered treason against Islam.

When Ziya talked about what happened to him, he was just finishing a report on the experiences of apostates, called No Place to Call Home. He had interviewed 28 apostates in six different countries as part of a year-long research project.

His report found that although the death penalty is rarely applied through the courts, apostates still face gross and wide-ranging human rights abuses at the hands of the state, radical groups and local communities."

It seems that Muslim attitudes towards apostasy are a metaphor for the wider struggle taking place within Islam, between those who argue for a progressive form of Islam and those who argue for more dogmatic interpretations.

Attitudes to apostasy may be a useful barometer for judging where it's headed.

Tuesday, October 28, 2008

More Stories from India You Won't See in the News...

A Christian stands inside a vandalized church in Orissa, India.

Their story must be told. From Gospel for Asia, "Persecution of Christians is a Way of Life in India"

Every day, Gospel for Asia missionaries and Bible college students make a calculated choice to serve Jesus, knowing that they could be beaten or even face martyrdom for their Christian faith.

Raju in Uttar Pradesh is one of them. So are Vikram in Delhi and several Bible college students in Maharashtra.

Anti-Christian extremists do not like the fact that Raju's church in Uttar Pradesh has grown to more than 150 believers. And two weeks ago, they found a way to let him know it.

Around 7 p.m., returning home from visiting new believers, Raju was attacked from behind by an extremist mob of 10 people piled on three motorbikes. The radicals pushed him down and kicked him repeatedly in the face.

Raju's own motorbike fell on him, fracturing his hand. He was also left with injuries on his face from the kicks. He was unconscious for about five hours and unable to speak for a while after being admitted to a hospital. He was released several days later and is doing much better, but doctors have advised him to rest for a few more days because of internal injuries.

Every day, Gospel for Asia missionaries and Bible college students make a calculated choice to serve Jesus, knowing that they could be beaten or even face martyrdom for their faith.

In Delhi, GFA missionary Vikram leads a church of 80 believers. The Lord is also touching many more with the love of Christ through him. Not surprisingly, radical anti-Christians are not happy to see so many worshipping the Savior. They recently threatened Vikram, demanding that he not conduct any more worship services there.

"If you do," they warned, "we will do the same things that are going on in Orissa."

They also threatened the owner of the house Vikram rents, telling him that if he continues to let the missionary rent there, they will destroy it.

Vikram is being watched, and he knows he needs to be careful. For now, his church is still meeting, just at a different location. And by God's grace, so far he and those around him have been protected.

In Maharashtra, three Bible college students faced opposition while handing out tracts on their field internship. Local members of an extremist group began to speak out against them, claiming that the men were trying to forcibly convert people. They went to local police and filed a complaint, forcing the authorities to arrest the missionaries-in-training.

That evening, the police came to the believers' home where the men were leading a prayer meeting to make the arrest. When they heard of the incident, Gospel for Asia leaders appealed for the men's release by contacting a person in higher authority, who assured them they would have the police station release the men immediately.

For safety reasons, the police authorities waited until the next morning to let the men go. Local believers arrived at the police station, ministering to the students with love and food.

GFA leaders ask for your prayers for these missionaries and Bible college students in various parts of India as they joyfully serve Jesus, seeing many lives touched through their sacrifice.

Pray for Raju as he recovers from his injuries, and that this will happen quickly so he can continue his ministry at full strength. Pray for protection, encouragement and strength for Vikram and his church believers. Pray that the Bible college students in Maharashtra will be strengthened in their faith as they continue their training in the calling God has given them.

And give the Father thanks for such laborers who, like the Apostle Paul, are choosing to not count their lives as dear to them for the sake of the One who gave His life for them.

Saturday, October 25, 2008

Understanding the Genealogies in Matthew and Luke

One thing I love about the study of apologetics is that if I am willing to put in the time and effort to study the Word, the answers to my most nagging questions will eventually be teased out of the text.

Take, for instance, the differences in the genealogies of Christ as recorded by Luke and the apostle Matthew. Now, granted, when lengthy lists of unpronounceable names show up in the Old Testament, my natural reaction is to stifle a yawn and buzz through them with gritted teeth. I may be a theo-geek, but that just about tests the limit. I'll be the first to admit that knowing Samlah from Masrekah was the grandfather of Baal-Hanan frankly doesn't do much for me.

However, if we are talking about Jesus, I sit up and pay attention.

Why does the genealogy of Christ matter so much? For one thing, fulfilment of Messianic prophecy stands or falls on His lineage. If uninterrupted descent from David (who lived about 1000 - 900 B.C.) to Jesus can be proven and verified from more than one source, it goes a long way in refuting skeptics' denial that Christ was the Messiah. For another, several sources documenting an unbroken human lineage in a manuscript as ancient as the Bible would provide yet another argument for it's validity.

Besides providing strong evidence of the Bible's historical validity, the human ancestry of Jesus reveals much about the impartial character of God -- He used all kinds of messed up people in His Son's family tree. Jacob was a deceiver. Rahab was a prostitute AND a Moabite, (as was Ruth), the most cursed of all pagan nations. David committed murder and adultery (and by extension, Bathsheba was an adulteress). His son Solomon turned to paganism and was responsible for the division of the kingdom. Manasseh was one of the most evil kings Judah ever had. There were more than a few bad apples on the family tree of our Savior.

As any student of Scripture has noted, the genealogy listed by Matthew differs from Luke's after David. From Abraham to David (Luke goes all the way back to Adam), they are almost the same, but diverge at David. For years, this question troubled me and seemed to cast doubt on the Bible's inerrancy. With some study, I have found that there are several very good explanations for the apparent discrepancy. Evidently, there was more than one way to trace a genealogy in ancient clan-based societies. One type of genealogy in a royal lineage recorded legal heirs to the throne (which, according to many scholars, is what Mathew used), whereas Luke traces the direct bloodline of Joseph to David.

Several scholars suggest that Matthew follows the line of Joseph (Jesus' legal father through Solomon; see Matt. 1:6-7, 16), while Luke records that of Mary (Jesus' blood relative through Nathan, see Luke 3:31). In Lee Stroble's well-known book, "The Case for Christ", this was one possibility put forth, but I personally do not think it is very likely. For one thing, tracing a genealogy through the mother's side would have been highly unusual (although Judaic heritage was considered to be inherited through the mother). More importantly, both Luke and Matthew explicitly name Joseph, without any reference to Mary. Update: here is a well-researched defense of Luke being Mary's genealogy; I may have to re-think my stance:

Joseph was clearly the son of Jacob (Matthew 1:16, so this verse [Luke 3:23 - says “son of Heli”] should be understood to mean “son-in-law of Heli.” Thus, the genealogy of Christ in Luke is actually the genealogy of Mary, while Matthew gives that of Joseph. Actually, the word “son” is not in the original, so it would be legitimate to supply either “son” or “son-in-law” in this context. Since Matthew and Luke clearly record much common material, it is certain that neither one could unknowingly incorporate such a flagrant apparent mistake as the wrong genealogy in his record. As it is, however, the two genealogies show that both parents were descendants of DavidJoseph through Solomon (Matthew 1:7-15), thus inheriting the legal right to the throne of David, and Mary through Nathan (Luke 3:23-31), her line thus carrying the seed of David, since Solomon’s line had been refused the throne because of Jechoniah’s sin[Dr. Henry M. Morris, The Defender’s Study Bible, note for Luke 3:23 (Iowa Falls, Iowa: World Publishing, Inc., 1995).].
Assuming, however, that both Gospel writers were tracing Christ's lineage through Joseph, we come to the intriguing question of why Luke names Joseph's dad Heli, while Matthew 1:16 mentions "Jacob, the father of Joseph". To answer that mystery, we need to dig into a study of biblical genealogies. (Hats off to those guys who edit the study Bibles - they've really done their homework).

From the NIV Study Bible's Introduction to 1 Chronicles:

"Analysis of genealogies, both inside and outside the Bible, has disclosed that they serve a variety of functions (with different principles governing the lists), that they vary in form (some being segmented, others linear) and depth (number of generations listed) and that they are often fluid (subject to change).

There are three general areas in which genealogies function: the familial or domestic, the legal-political, and the religious. In the domestic area, an individual's social status, privileges and obligations may be reflected in his placement in the lineage (see 7:14-19); the rights of the firstborn son and the secondary status of the children of concubines are examples from the Bible.....As to form, some genealogical lists trace several lines of descent (segmented genealogies) while others are devoted to a single line (linear genealogies).

Comparison of genealogical lists of the same tribal or family line brings to light some surprising differences. This fluidity of the lists may reflect variation in function. But sometimes changes in the status or relations of social structures are reflected in genealogies by changes in the relationships of names in the genealogy or by the addition of names or segments to a lineage. The most common type of fluidity in Biblical materials is telescoping, the omission of names from a list. Unimportant names are left out in order to relate an individual to a prominent ancestor, or possibly to achieve the desired number of names in the genealogy. Some Biblical genealogies, for example, omit names to achieve multiples of 7: for the period from David to the exile Matthew gives 14 generations (2 times 7), while Luke gives 21 (3 times 7), and the same authors give similar multiples of 7 for the period from the exile to Jesus (Matt. 1:1-17; Luke 3:23-38)."

Additionally, the word "father" is sometimes used more loosely in a genealogy simply to mean "ancestor"; likewise "son of" can also mean simply "descendant".

Matthew's Gospel reflects an apparent fondness for numbers and a concern for systematic arrangement...which shouldn't surprise us; after all, he was a tax-collector by profession! Many of the generations between ancestors were assumed, but not listed, by Matthew, such as the elapsed time between Rahab and David. In Matt. 1:8, he calls Jehoram the "father" of Uzziah, but again, several generations were assumed and "father" clearly means "forefather" here. He may have chosen the number 14 for telescoping his genealogy because it is the numerical value of the name David, although that is not certain. In any case, Matthew's genealogy seems to trace the legal lineage of Christ, as indicated by all the kings listed (beginning with David and Solomon).

This practice of "telescoping" genealogies also helps explain why we don't have to be dogmatic about there only being 4,000 years' worth of generations between Adam and Christ. This is a common argument from the Young Earth Theory proponents, who insist that since the Bible's lineage is recorded without any obvious gaps from Adam to Jesus, that "proves" mankind has been around for only about 6,000 years. Clearly, if Matthew could record a pedigree from the Babylonian exile (626 B.C.) to the birth of Christ (generally set at 6 B.C.) in 14 generations while Luke did it in 21, the history of mankind could easily be recorded with representative names and it could appear to cover only 4,000 years. Nowhere does Scripture claim that the list is exhaustive, and neither should we.

Frankly, it would be interesting to see how the genealogy of Jesus' biological family continued, although it is doubtful the church of the first century would have placed importance on such a record. Obviously we know that Christ Himself did not have human descendants (despite what Dan Brown would have us believe), but He most likely did have quite a few nieces and nephews. Scripture is unequivocally clear that Jospeh and Mary parented other children (mentioned in Luke 8:19, Mark 6:3, 1 Cor. 9:5 and elsewhere), so with four brothers and at least two sisters, Jesus probably had a very large extended family. My guess (and it is purely speculation) is that God, in His sovereignty, did not want anyone to be able to boast or take undue pride in linking his or her pedigree to that of His Son, as Old Testament Israel did in claiming human descent from Abraham. The entire theme of the New Covenant proves that our "adoption as sons" or "being grafted in" (to the tree representing God's family) is based on spiritual, and not biological, heritage.

Tuesday, October 21, 2008

Equal-Opportunity Murderers...They're After American Missionaries as Well

I just received the American missionary's account of the genocide of Christians below through a friend (Thanks, Jen!)It appears to have been written just after the massacres began, late August - early September. I do not have any personal connection with YWAM, but most of their missionaries and participants are very young. Many of them participated in a week-long hunger strike in New Delhi to protest the systematic violence against Christians.

From YWAM's website: "...the United Nations Special Rapporteur on Freedom of Religion or Belief, Ms.Asma Jahangir, presented her initial findings on religious freedom in India which indicated that religious discrimination and violent attacks are on the rise. The All India Christian Council, who helped coordinate the UN visit, recorded an anti-Christian attack in India every three days, on average, in 2007."

(photo from YWAM article library)

Urgent Prayer Request For YWAM (Youth With A Mission) Missionaries In India

This is a request for prayer for YWAM missionaries and their churches in Orissa. The request came from Mable Hurst. Please read and make this a matter of urgent prayer.

"We have never seen anything like this. We knew that Orissa was the most resistant and hostile State in India as far as the Gospel is concerned. And we brushed off the continuous threats and harassment we faced as we went about His work. But none of our staff imagined that they would see this kind of carnage.... And it seems to be totally under the radar of the Western Media [emphasis mine]. Let me explain.... A militant Hindu priest and 4 of his attendants, who were zealously going around the villages of Orissa and 'reconverting' people back to Hinduism, were gunned down by unknown assailants in Central Orissa weekend. Immediately the Christians were blamed. The cry rose up...'Kill the Christians!' And the horror began.... In the past 4 days, we have first hand witness to hundreds of churches being blown up or burned and many, many dozens of Christian tribals have been slaughtered. For no other reason than they bear the name of Christ.

Night and day I have been in touch with our Good News India Directors spread across 14 Dream Centers in Orissa...they are right in the middle of all this chaos. In Tihidi, just after the police came to offer protection, a group of 70 blood-thirsty militants came to kill our staff and destroy the home. They were not allowed to get in, but they did a lot of damage to our Dream Center by throwing rocks and bricks and smashing our gate, etc. They have promised to come back and 'finish the job.' Our kids and staff are locked inside and have stayed that way with doors and windows shut for the past 3 days. It has been a time of desperately calling on the Lord in prayer.

More police have come to offer protection. In Kalahandi, the police and some local sympathizers got to our dream center and gave our staff and kids about 3 minutes notice to vacate. No one had time to even grab a change of clothes or any personal belongings. As they fled, the blood thirsty mob came to kill everyone in the building. We would have had a mass funeral there, but for His grace. In Phulbani, the mob came looking for Christian homes and missions. The local Hindu people, our neighbors, turned them away by saying that there were no Christians in this area. So they left. We had favor.

The same thing happened in Balasore. All our dream centers are under lock down with the kids and staff huddled inside and police outside. The fanatics are circling outside waiting for a chance to kill. Others were not so fortunate. In a nearby Catholic orphanage,the mob allowed the kids to leave and locked up a Priest and a computer teacher in house and burned them to death. Many believers have been killed and hacked into pieces and left on the road.... even women and children. At another orphanage run by another organization, when this began, the Director and his wife jumped on their motorbike and simply fled, leaving all the children and staff behind. Every one of our GNI directors that I have spoken to said: 'We stay with our kids... we live together or die together, but we will never abandon what God has called us to do.' More than 5000 Christian families have had their homes burned or destroyed. They have fled into the jungles and are living in great fear waiting for the authorities to bring about peace. But so far, no peace is foreseen.

This will continue for another 10 days.... supposedly the 14 day mourning period for the slain Hindu priest. Many more Christians will die and their houses destroyed. Many more churches will be smashed down. The Federal governmentis trying to restore order and perhaps things will calm down.

We ask for your prayers. Only the Hand of God can calm this storm. None of usknow the meaning of persecution. But now our kids and staff know what that means. So many of our kids coming from Hindu backgrounds are confused and totally bewildered at what is happening around them. So many of their guardians have fled into the jungles and are unable to come and get them during these trying times. Through all this, I am more determined than ever to continue with our goal: the transformation of a community by transforming its children. Orissa will be saved... that is our heart's cry. If we can take these thousands of throw-away children and help them to become disciples of Jesus, they will transform an entire region. It is a long term goal, but it is strategic thinking in terms of the Great Commission.

What can you do? First, please uphold all this in fervent prayer. Second, pass this on to as many friends as you can. We must get the word out and increase our prayer base for this is spiritual warfare at its most basic meaning. We are literally fighting the devil in order to live f or His Kingdom. The next 10 days are crucial. We pray for peace and calm to pervade across Orissa.

Thank you for taking the time to read this. Prayer works!"

Thursday, October 16, 2008

Tortured for his Faith

"Tortured for His Faith" by Haralan Popov is a harrowing yet uplifting account of a Bulgarian pastor's 13-year imprisonment and torture in Communist prisons and concentration camps for proclaiming Christ.

Popov's legacy was one of the most notorious cases of religious persecution in post-WWII Europe. In this autobiographical account, Popov discusses how the kindness of a Baptist friend in pre-Communist Bulgaria led the young atheist to a curiosity about his faith and ultimately his conversion. In 1929, the 22-year-old Popov left for Bible college in England, and returned to Bulgaria with a Swedish wife to serve as pastor, for 16 years, at the largest church in the nation.

In 1944, what Popov describes as a "dark menace" took power. He writes:
"The Communists slowly gained power while our country was lying prostrate at the feet of the Red Army. At first the Communist Party was most cooperative with other political parties and even formed a coalition government. In three years, the other parties were banned, their leaders imprisoned, and the Communist Party was in full control. We had heard of our fellow Christians in Russia and what they had suffered, but little did we know that Bulgaria would become so like Russia it would be called "Little Russia."

For three years, from 1944-1947, the Christians of Bulgaria evangelized day and night to spread the Gospel and build up the faith of the believers, expecting the boon to fall at any moment. "Undoubtedly," he writes, "our feverish work for Christ during this three years "before the storm" caused us to be singled out for the "special" treatment which was to follow in communist prisons. The very intensity of our work during the "calm before the storm" made us marked men. We didn't have long. As soon as the Communists had consolidated their power we knew it would be our time."

Popov's time came at 4:00 am on July 24, 1948. A daily routine of interrogation, beating, psychological and physical torture began for one of many pastors accused of being "spies" and "instruments of imperialism". Afraid of public outcry if the real reason for their imprisonment were known, the government had started a vicious propaganda campaign while systematically replacing Bible-preaching pastors with their own state agents in the pulpits.

For several weeks, the pastor was brutally beaten, starved, and forced to stand motionless staring point-blank at a shiny white wall for days at a time. Popov describes the tenth day of this torture:
"Still the collapse didn't come. I lost all track of time. One day blurred into another. My swollen legs became huge, engorged with blood from complete immobility. My lips were cracked wide open and bleeding. My beard was long, for I had not been allowed to wash nor shave since the day I was arrested. My eyes were balls of fire. Yet, somehow I stood. On the tenth night, sometime after midnight I heard my interrogator snoring as he dozed off. I moved my stiff neck to the right and to the left. Off to the left about six feet away there was a window. Since it was dark outside I could see a reflection in the window, like a mirror. I recoiled in horror. It was a monster's reflection! I saw a horrible emaciated figure, legs swollen, eyes like empty holes in the head, with a long beard covered with dried blood from cracked, bleeding and hideously swollen lips.

It was a grotesque, horrible figure. I was repulsed by it.

Suddenly, it struck me. That horrible, bleeding grotesque figure was me! That "monster" was me.

My numbed mind slowly absorbed this fact and tears came into my eyes. Suddenly, I felt crushed, so alone, so by myself. I felt as Christ must have when He cried, "My God, my God, why hast thou forsaken me?" I couldn't weep tears, but my body heaved with unwept tears. Then, in that moment of total, crushing hopelessness, I heard a voice as clear and distinct as any voice I have ever heard in my life. It said, "I will never leave you nor forsake you..." It was so audible I dared to glance at my dozing interrogator, certain he had heard it, too, but he slept on.

The presence of God filled the Punishment Cell and enveloped me in a divine warmth, infusing strength into the shell that was my body".

At this point, Popov's ordeal was only beginning. In 1949, after many months in prison suffering sub-human treatment and inconceivable humiliation, he and 12 other Protestant pastors were condemned as spies in a travesty of justice known as "The Pastors' Trial of 1949". The interrogators used every conceivable means to break the men and extort false confessions from them, and succeeded in breaking several. Neither Popov nor his brother Ladin would confess to the false charges of espionage in return for a lighter sentence, preferring to die in prison if necessary. They refused to dishonor their Saviour.

For years, the prison administrators tried various tactics to force Popov to renounce his faith in Christ and embrace Communism, to no avail. One of the pastor's favorite methods were the writing assignments his captors gave him, designed to brainwash him into accepting Marxism as ideologically superior. They also demanded essays meticulously detailing past events in Popov's life, in order to obtain information on other "social menaces". Popov effectively turned the tables on them by managing to work the Gospel message into each and every essay he produced for his captors. It became a daily hobby as a stack of paper was thrust into his hands to think of new and inventive ways of evangelizing to the warden. By the time Popov had produced about 2,000 handwritten pages, the prison officials finally tired of this "game" and decided Popov was unredeemable. "I often wonder," he reflects in his memoir, "how many Communists my message reached."

In 1952, the pastor was sent by boxcar with hundreds of other political and religious prisoners to a slave labor camp located on the island of Persin in the Danube. Deliberately left in freezing temperatures as punishments from the guards, many men froze to death, some dying in Pastor Popov's arms. He describes the screams of a starving prisoner being savagely beaten to death by guards for killing a wild rabbit to eat. Of the six thousand prisoners at Persin, only a few hundred survived.

Popov led other prisoners to Christ over the course of his 13-year captivity, at times by tapping out messages between cells. Laboring in a stone quarry, he used 22-pound sledge hamers to break up huge rocks - and started up a Bible class at the quarry barracks, right under the noses of the guards. Popov quips, "Even the ever-present informer evidently didn't report me. I could only conclude that he was enjoying the Bible classes, too." In solitary confinement, he prayed continuously for his tormentors, steadfastly refusing to hate them. Lashed by a guard for not running fast enough, he thought of Jesus being beaten and prayed, "Lord, help me to bear it for Your Name's sake!" When he was finally released from prison, in 1961, his brother explained that he had just passed from a smaller prison into a bigger one. The entire nation had become a police state.

Original Edition - "The Bulgarian Golgotha"

In a chapter entitled "Church Spies Spying on Spies", Popov describes the state of the underground church juxtaposed with congregations reduced from several hundred members to fewer than two dozen. "A police apparatus of total control had reached it's octopus-like tentacles around the churches in a deadly embrace," he writes. Pastors who were "uncooperative" with the state-run strangulation were replaced with puppets of the state who preached no gospel but Communism, attempting to white-wash the evil, atheistic philosophy with humanistic, high-sounding pep talks. The net result would be an undiscerning population unable to distinguish Lenin from Christ. Destroying the church outright would produce Christian martyrs, which would have been detrimental to the Communist agenda. Subtly undermining the Gospel and exerting control over believers was a far more insidious and evil design.

Popov's illustration of the social situation and political agenda gives his story depth and context. Understood against the backdrop of hard-line Communism, the methods of interrogation and systematic indoctrination he endured make sense. The danger of the slightest compromise, no matter how easy it might have been to rationalize away in a moment of torture, opens the door to much bigger crises of conscience - and not all in his position were able to pass the test. Popov's is a testimony to an extraordinarily strong faith in God, not only for salvation, but in His power to sustain. Likewise, even given the unbelievable amount of torment he endured, Popov was able not only to refrain from hating his captors, but even to feel compassion for them as ones completely lost in their sin. He noted often that there is no bottom to the depths a human being can sink in utter depravity without Christ. Facing the epitome of evil, he felt sorry for the soul he saw as being used of Satan.

Much like "Voice of the Martyrs" founder Richard Wurmbrand's "Tortured for Christ", Popov writes a detailed account of similar circumstances in the propaganda machine that post WWII Eastern Europe had become. (Wurmbrand was a Lutheran pastor from Romania). While not quite as graphic as Wurmbrand's account in it's description of physical brutality, Popov actually does a better job at explaining the reasoning and tactics behind the psychological mind-games and brainwashing of the Secret Police. Rather than simply condemning them outright for what his Western audience already knew was an insidiously evil social system, Popov draws the reader in by explaining how each leading question was baited in an interrogation; how a simple seminary course description could be twisted to sound sinister in the hands of a skilled propagandist; why the government chose to bide time and systematically destroy the church from within rather than closing them by force.

Written a few years after his release, (the edition I have was published in 1970, although an earlier edition was published in 1967 under the name "Torture and Triumph in a Communist Prison"), the book shows an uncanny recollection of seemingly mundane detail. Transcripts from court hearings could be produced, (at least in theory), but how could Popov remember that he killed exactly 539 bedbugs on his first night in prison? Detailed inventories of seemingly endless days, all with dates, reveal either a photographic memory on the part of Popov or possible embellishment while reconstructing his story. Also notable, Popov never once mentions or alludes to the fact that he was a Pentecostal pastor. In fact, based on his early pre-and post-conversion attendance at a Baptist church in Russe (and his continuous identification with the "Evangelical" church), the reader would logically conclude that he was a Baptist. Nowhere in the book does he discuss sign gifts or argue for continuationism; and his faith was clearly based on sound doctrine rather than subjective experience. If anything, Popov's ultimately triumphant ordeal demonstrates the fallacy of superficial faith based on experience or emotionalism - true roots are needed. His is a story sorely-needed by lukewarm believers today that demonstrates the depth of selfless commitment Christ expects of His true followers. His courage and commitment, given him by the Holy Spirit, was truly remarkable. Looking back on his own thoughts as he neared his release date, Popov wrote,
"I knew that men I had never laid eyes on were serving Christ because I had the opportunity of "tapping" the Gospel to them. I don't label myself a hero or martyr, but as I neared my release and looked back I could honestly and truthfully say that it was worth those 13 years of torture, beatings, starvation, suffering and separation from loved ones to be a "pastor" to the thousands of Communist prisoners my path had crossed."

A Spirit-filled man even we
cessationists love to love

In 1972, Popov founded "Door of Hope International" to help the Underground Church in Eastern Europe and smuggle Bibles (banned by the Communists) behind the Iron Curtain. Nowadays, youth leadership and humanitarian aid is more of the organization's focus in these same countries. Pastor Popov passed away in 1988, and his son Paul (asleep in his crib the night his father was taken away) now heads the ministry, which has expanded it's mission to help the persecuted church in Asian and African countries as well.

Tuesday, October 14, 2008

I Swear I am Not Making this Up...

It's started. The yearly Christian merchandi$e catalogues, replete with kitchy, "Christianized" toys and electronic games marketed at the middle-class Evangelical consumer.

But this year seems to have reached a new level of absurdity.

Meet Sarah, one of three in a line of "God's Girlz", a spiritualized-knock off of the street-wise and secular "Bratz Dolls" that are so trampy that most non-Christian Moms won't let their girls play with them. But never mind. The Bratz are "keepin' it real" and come by their attitude honestly.

This is the blurb below the pictures of these three juvenile jems (one of whom sports skinny jeans, platinum-blond hair and a "pick Jesus" T-shirt, visible over her electric guitar):

"Tired of dolls with a worldly appearance? You'll welcome these "mom-approved" dolls with a perfect fit of faith and fashion! Whether your girls play with nature-loving Hannah, musical Abigail, or worshipful Sarah, they'll love the stylishly modest outfits featuring faith-affirming T-shirts. And you'll rejoice in the biblical message each posable doll communicates. Ages 4 and up."
(emphasis mine).

Stylishly modest??? Ummm...she's wearing a TANK TOP and SILVER LEGGINGS (to the knee). This is Sarah, the "worshipful" one. I wouldn't let my daughter dress that way for Halloween, let alone for worship. But, then again, she's "a princess" (note the crown on her head and explanation on box), so maybe it's all a self-esteem building tactic.

It is not so unbelievable that a manufacturer would make something like this (we are, after all, a very lucrative demographic); what's inconceivable to me is that any woman with a pulse would buy one of these for her daughter.

Seen any absurd merchandise bearing a Christian label lately? Send it in. I love satire.

UPDATE: Barb, they published it over at "A Little Leaven"! Check out the comments:

I'll have to return the favor by thinking up some smart-alec observations about the Jesus nightlight they posted over there.

Amazing Grace: The William Wilberforce Story

...and another one from my unpublished archives....the movie came out a year ago, but is certainly worth adding to your Netflix queue!

The legacy of William Wilberforce is tied to his relationship with John Newton. John Newton, an ex-slave trader turned minister and abolitionist, wrote the lyrics for the hymn “Amazing Grace” and became Wilberforce's spiritual counselor. He set his young protégé on the path of service to humanity. It was only after Wilberforce underwent what he later described as his "great change" or embrace of Christianity, that he became a reformer. Newton knew this to be true, and invoking the deliverance language of the Old Testament Book of Esther, told Wilberforce that it was "for such a time as this" that he had been placed in a position as a powerful Member of Parliament to secure the abolition of the slave trade. It was in the House of Commons,
Newton stated, that Wilberforce could best serve God. – from the “Amazing Grace” website

I waited nearly a year after the release of "Amazing Grace" to watch it - that was how long it took to hit the video rental stores. This Bristol Bay Production is an extremely well-written and uplifting historical film about one of the greatest post-Reformation heroes in Church history.

Go rent it. You’ll be glad you did, and you just might learn enough about British colonial history to impress people at cocktail parties.

The story follows the personal life and career of William Wilberforce (Ioan Gruffudd), a young Christian politician in 18th century England whose lifework was to get the slave trade abolished in Great Britain. He was also a philanthropist. From 131 Christians Everyone Should Know we get a more complete picture of the champion of social justice Wilberforce was: Wilberforce—dubbed "the prime minister of a cabinet of philanthropists"—was at one time active in support of 69 philanthropic causes. He gave away one-quarter of his annual income to the poor. He fought on behalf of chimney sweeps, single mothers, Sunday schools, orphans, and juvenile delinquents. He helped found parachurch groups like the Society for Bettering the Cause of the Poor, the Church Missionary Society, the British and Foreign Bible Society, and the Antislavery Society. He also supported sending missionaries to India - the more the better. My kind of guy. In 1785, when William was 26, he was born again and began to re-think his political career. He was a Member of Parliament in the House of Commons and a good friend of William Pitt , who became Great Britain’s youngest ever Prime Minister at the age of 24.

In a touching scene early in the movie, Wilberforce is shown sprawled in the grass behind his country estate, quietly telling God, “I feel like I need to run away to spend time with you…I’d much rather just sit out here and contemplate a spider’s web [than work in politics] for hours!” When discovered a few minutes later by Richard the Butler, Wilberforce tries to articulate his dilemma, to which the brawny Scotsman blankly replies, “Ye’ve found God, then, Sir?” Still sitting in the grass in his leggings, Wilberforce admits, “More precisely, He’s found me. Do you know how bloody inconvenient that is, Richard?” After a brief philosophical chat, during which Richard reveals that he does more than just dust Wilberforce’s books, the two head inside where we find the dining area over-run with orphans and impoverished beggars whom William routinely feeds.

The inspiration behind Wilberforce’s driving passion was John Newton (Albert Finney), a minister who had once been captain of several slave ships. During a storm, Newton had cried out to God from the deck of his ship and promised to change his ways. He got out of the trade and became a minister so popular that passers-by would sit outside his church’s windows to hear his preaching, but this new life did not relieve him of the demons that haunted him from his past. We see Newton only briefly in the movie, a broken, reclusive man to whom Wilberforce goes for advice. He bemoans the “20,000 ghosts” who still haunt his dreams, and relays to William the horrors of the slave ships. (Before his death, Newton wrote his autobiography “Out of the Depths” which graphically exposes the slave trade.) Newton wrote the hymn “Amazing Grace”, which Wilberforce sang aggressively one night in a pub to snub a Duke who offered him his slave to settle a gambling debt. Wilberforce never gambled again, but rather made the acquaintance of Olaudah Equiano (c.1745–1797), a former slave who later served a Quaker merchant and earned his own freedom. Played by French musician Youssou N'Dour, Equiano became a central figure in Britain’s abolitionist movement after he wrote his autobiography and began working to sway public opinion on slavery.

Several other historical abolitionists who encouraged and worked alongside Wilberforce were portrayed in the cast, including the somewhat social-anarchist Thomas Clarkson. In the movie, he and Wilberforce get into an argument over the impending French Revolution (which Clarkson supports), but Wilberforce admonishes him never to talk about revolt ever again in his hearing. Loyal to the crown until the end of his life, violence and social upheaval were abhorrent to the idealist Wilberforce, who preferred to reform society by appealing to its sense of conscience and decency.

As interesting and edifying as the movie was, I was a bit disappointed that the script didn’t focus more on Newton and his influence on Wilberforce. Rather than the many scenes of arguing and political discussion in the House of Commons, a scene or two of him preaching would have been interesting. We learn bits of his story from anguished comments he makes to Wilberforce, but none of his dramatic history is shown through flashbacks (although most of the film jumps between Wilberforce’s early career and his later, unsuccessful battles to gain the MPs’ support.) We never see Wilberforce or his wife Barbara going to church, although we know that they were devout evangelical Christians. The best line in the movie came towards the end of Rev. Newton’s life, when the now blind preacher tells Wilberforce two things he has learned: “I am a great sinner, and Christ is a great Saviour.”

The stress of constant travel, speaking and fighting 20 years unsuccessfully against slavery (upon which the British Empire was economically dependent) took a toll on Wilberforce, who developed colitis and a dependency on the opiate pain medicine. We see him fight victoriously through withdrawal with Barbara’s loving support. In the movie, Wilberforce’s wife Barbara Spooner (Romola Garai) shows a lively interest in all things politics, especially the abolitionist cause; but the historical Spooner did not have the same interest in her husband’s career. The couple raised six children together.

Wilberforce continued to fight for abolition until, days before his death in 1833, he saw the institution of slavery abolished throughout the British colonies. This is a wonderful, uplifting movie about a true hero for Christ, and includes a video of Chris Tomlin performing the medley “Amazing Grace/My Chains Are Gone”.

Monday, October 13, 2008

Social Justice: Part of God’s Heart

...and another one from my archives of unpublished "stuff":

“Feeding a man without sharing the Gospel with him is like giving a sandwich to a man on his way to the electric chair…it is, in essence, simply making him more comfortable on his way to hell.” – K.P. Yohannan, Founder, Gospel for Asia

"The man with two tunics should share with him who has none, and the one who has food should do the same." – John the Baptist, Luke 3:11

Here in the United States, Protestantism has largely given way to a post-modern, liberal church where the “social gospel” is preached exhaustively. The term “born again” is usually taboo, as is evangelism (“the dreaded e-word”, as one church I attended called it). The fund-raising pitches each Sunday often take longer than the feel-good humanistic messages, and week after week the flock is subjected to fund raisers and promotions of secular service projects. Before transferring to a Gospel-preaching evangelical church, I commented to another woman, “If I hear one more pitch for Heifer Project, Habitat for Humanity or Crop Walk, I swear I’m gonna scream and jump off a cliff.”

This is my background with “social justice”, and why the very mention of the words has long made me cringe. It is not that helping those in need is wrong or not a part of the Bible; on the contrary, Scripture is clear that we should do all we can to help others. The problem comes in when churches get out of balance in their teaching. All the humanitarian aid in the world is of no use spiritually if the Gospel of salvation is not being preached. Additionally, the oft-heard argument that “a hungry man will not accept the Gospel” is a myth, as the ever-increasing numbers of destitute Asian converts attest.

Of course, it is equally possible to get out of balance in the other direction, too – when conservative evangelicals get so wrapped up in political agendas, church “fellowship” suppers and tract distribution that they forget God’s basic call to compassion. One pastor I know, who champions social programs and humanitarian aid projects under the label of “missions”, mentioned the polarization between the two extremes that needs to be balanced. “Traditionally, conservative evangelical churches have been criticized for not doing enough to help the poor…..feed the hungry, help the widow and orphan….while the liberal churches can be long on mercy but short on sound doctrine. Many in the ministry want to bring the two sides together to work in unity.” A noble goal, indeed. Another pastor, a charismatic whom I greatly respected, once made the comment: “You know….the liberal churches take a lot of flak for their stance on a lot of things, and rightly so – there’s much they’re doing wrong. However, there’s one thing they’re doing right, that we in the Pentecostal church have largely missed the boat on – helping the poor. Social action is a huge part of God’s heart.” While it is so common sense as to be a no-brainer, evangelism and works of mercy were never meant to be in competition – they are both important commands of God and are meant to complement each other.

Recently, I began John Macarthur’s “James” with my church’s ladies’ Bible study. Quite by chance, I began digging into Isaiah in my personal study to dig out the eschatological references. The first week, as I transitioned from my "James" homework into reading the first couple chapters of Isaiah, I noticed something interesting -- there are several very specific parallels in those two books. It seemed like God was taking advantage of my attention span to drive home a couple of points about social justice – the term that made me shudder back at the UCC church. Besides calling us to live out our faith by helping others, both books indicate this does not happen in a vacuum. In both books, the expectation of charity to the oppressed is prefaced by a call to personal holiness.

1) In Isaiah 1:11-20, God stresses the importance of moral purity (which leads to righteous action); NOT the empty religious ritual (which He hates). This is the passage where he tells rebellious Judah how He despises their endless sacrifices and New Moon festivals - not that there was anything wrong with the ordinances themselves; but the people were acting hypocritically and deceiving only themselves. Compare this passage with James 1:19-27...which ends, 25But the man who looks intently into the perfect law that gives freedom, and continues to do this, not forgetting what he has heard, but doing it—he will be blessed in what he does. 26If anyone considers himself religious and yet does not keep a tight rein on his tongue, he deceives himself and his religion is worthless."

2) Isaiah 1:17 echoes James' call throughout chapter one to social justice. God is concerned with how we treat one another as fellow believers. As mentioned above, ONLY focusing on social justice to the extent that the Gospel is neglected leaves the impression that one can work his way into heaven by volunteering enough and helping the "needy". We do have a very real civic responsibility in this world, but a call to compassion doesn't exclude evangelism. It goes above and beyond it. James gives a discourse on what the balance looks like. God, speaking through Isaiah, simply lays it on the line as a command: 17 learn to do right! Seek justice, encourage the oppressed. Defend the cause of the fatherless, plead the case of the widow.

We shouldn't neglect the Word in the name of social justice, or vice-versa. What good is memorizing Scripture if we don’t have love for fellow believers? Isn’t this what Paul meant by “a clanging symbol”? We cannot conjure up the kind of love that motivates us to action on our own – only a deep-seated surrender to Christ and a yielded spirit will allow for this inner transformation. God knows this, and so the first step He’s given us is repenting of our…

3) PRIDE. The age-old problem...and the solution spelled out so clearly in both books. Repentance, purifying your heart, washing your hands - and humbling yourself before God is a MAJOR parallel theme.

Isaiah 2:11-18 speaks of the pride of man being brought low, while James has to say:

James 1:21: "Therefore, get rid of all moral filth and the evil that is so prevalent and humbly accept the word planted in you, which can save you."

All pride springs from the same root: thinking more highly of ourselves than we ought to, and placing our value on superficial things. He continues all through chapter 2 to forbid favoritism, as humans have a tendency to think more highly of themselves and each other judging by materialistic standards. One woman in my Bible study shared how shamed she had been made to feel when using food stamps in a well-heeled community’s supermarket. This is exactly the type of odious pride James is talking about, and flies in the face of the Christ-like compassion God expects of His people. Expository preaching is important, but a humble heart should be the result.

Sometimes 2 Thessalonians 3:10 is misused to justify an attitude of indifference (or even disdain) towards those “taking advantage of the welfare state”: 10For even when we were with you, we gave you this rule: "If a man will not work, he shall not eat." Not only is such an attitude selfish, it is patently unbiblical. Verses cannot be wrenched out of context to justify our own carnal meanness, and Paul’s condemnation of idleness (v. 11), laziness and “mooching” (vs. 6-9) in no way negate a Christian’s responsibility towards the brother (or sister) in lowly circumstances through no fault of his own. (Interestingly, the founder of the Bulgarian Communist Party, Georgi Dimitrov, used the phrase “He who doesn’t work shall not eat” as his party’s motto. My Bulgarian in-laws were quite surprised to learn that it was plagiarized from the pages of the Bible.) Communism is an evil, godless ideology; and is not at all what Paul and James were promoting.

The concept of “noblesse oblige”, or moral obligation of the privileged charitably assisting the less fortunate, originated with Anglo-Saxon aristocracy. Today, while abuses of the welfare system have misconstrued the Biblical basis for this virtue in the minds of many, the American church remains head and shoulders above the rest of the world in this respect. The Gospel must be taken to the ends of the earth, and we in the West are indeed the ones with the burden of responsibility to make it happen. Our AWANA programs must be run, and we should be constantly in the Word in order to correctly divide and explain it (2 Timothy 2:15). However, this in no way lessens God’s call to relive suffering in the world. If we use our means to do so in His Name, we might find our tracts and evangelistic outreaches better received as well.

Matt. 25:37-40 "Then the righteous will answer him, 'Lord, when did we see you hungry and feed you, or thirsty and give you something to drink? 38When did we see you a stranger and invite you in, or needing clothes and clothe you? 39When did we see you sick or in prison and go to visit you?' 40"The King will reply, 'I tell you the truth, whatever you did for one of the least of these brothers of mine, you did for me.'

A Helping Hand

This ran in the Thursday, Sept. 25 edition of my local newspaper. Currently, the British and American representatives of Bulgarian Partners are meeting in Sofia, discussing the outreach's progress and plans for how to proceed. Sure wish I were there instead of here!!

Thursday, September 25, 2008

Church aiding Bulgarian community



Rev. Teodor Oprenov of Sofia and Wolf

After 39 years as a principal with Wolf Coach, Richard Wolf had earned a quiet retirement.

Instead, the Worcester man committed to helping orphans, Gypsies and the destitute families of Bulgaria.

Why would a successful businessman devote such energy to a country and a cause so far away? The answer lies with his father, Paul Wolf, who grew up in an orphanage in the U.S., and with a presentation he attended as a member of Worcester’s First Baptist Church.

Richard Wolf, second from right, and Ken Swenson, right, mission board chairman and head of TABCOM's Mission Explosion program, with four program volunteers in front of Nevski Cathedral in Sofia, Bulgaria.

The elder Mr. Wolf and his wife, Lois, had nine children. He started Wolf Coach in 1967 after a long career in the Air Force, intending to convert buses into motor homes. Instead, the company became a leader in mobile telecommunication, developing vehicles for the National Guard, state and local police, and roughly a third of the news vehicles in the U.S. It became part of L-3 Communications in 2002 and was moved to Ayer. Richard Wolf worked with his father at the company for many years, retiring this past June. Paul Wolf died in 1992.

The memory of Paul Wolf’s experiences as a youth in an orphanage combined with a program of The American Baptist Churches of Massachusetts just a few years ago to push Richard Wolf toward a new path in life.

In 2005, Compassionate Friends, a Littleton group, encouraged TABCOM to include Sofia Baptist Church’s Good Samaritan Foundation as part of its rotating mission support program. TABCOM raised $100,000 for the foundation, which is in Sofia, the capital of Bulgaria. A significant portion of this sum came from Worcester donors.

In 2006, as part of the program, the Rev. Teodor “Teddy” Oprenov spoke at First Baptist Church of Worcester, where Mr. Wolf is a member. Rev. Oprenov, better known as Pastor Teddy, is minister of the Sofia church. First Baptist held a benefit concert, at which the pastor’s daughter Ann-Marie Oprenova performed, as well as an auction, both of which provided considerable funding. AnneMarie, Pastor’s Teddy’s elder daughter, is now 16, and plays the violin at the master’s level, and this was her first international concert. The pastor’s younger daughter, Sophie, is 8.

In 2007, TABCOM completed its support commitment to the program, but Mr. Wolf promised Pastor Teddy that he would continue to help. After a trip to Sofia in 2006 that he describes as when he began his “process of learning,” Mr. Wolf fronted all the money to create Bulgarian Partners USA and to register with the IRS for 501(c)3 nonprofit status. The organization’s goal is to address the root causes of some of Bulgaria’s societal problems by providing education.

Richard Wolf said he sees his father when he looks into the eyes of the institutionalized children of Bulgaria. “As difficult as orphanages were in the 1920s and ’30s in the U.S., there are some similarly tough situations in Bulgaria,” he said.

He has concentrated his efforts on developing the American arm of Bulgarian Partners, a nonprofit that assists the Good Samaritan Foundation. The foundation started as a simple program created by Pastor Teddy and his congregation to distribute food to the impoverished of his country, as well as to minister in orphanages and train Romani, commonly called Gypsy, youths in job skills.

Mr. Wolf describes Pastor Teddy and his wife, Dimitrina (“Didi”) Oprenova, as “principled individuals with a mix of Christian faith and hard-nosed business sense.” He cited the plan for the center to rent offices to local businesses, charging enough to sustain the church’s humanitarian aid work, as an example of the couple’s business acumen. “That kind of realism, blended with faith in action, needs to be supported,” he said. The minister, who is widely respected among Bulgarian Christians for his uncompromising stance on the gospel message, is as passionate about social justice as he is about hermeneutics.

“As a pastor, and as a Christian, I cannot stand by and do nothing. To tell them that we believe in Jesus Christ, we must first show them what we believe,” the pastor contends.

The Good Samaritan Foundation has grown, and with assistance from British and American churches and individuals, is building a six-story complex to house a feeding station and soup kitchen, a job training center, an outpatient medical center, a library, a sanctuary and office space for businesses to rent. Wolf hopes the center will be operational by 2010.

The need for the program has grown as well. The economy of Bulgaria is not good. Since joining the European Union last year, inflation has driven the cost of living up dramatically, beyond the means of most Bulgarians — 36 percent of whom live below the poverty level. Bulgaria is the poorest EU member state, with unemployment among the Gypsies as high as 80 percent. The average salary is $150 per month, and many pensioners live on half that amount. Although 25,000 Bulgarian children are institutionalized (one of the highest rates in the world), the state’s budget to orphanages has been drastically reduced since joining the EU. Rev. Oprenov said last month that the government plans to shut down all the orphanages in Bulgaria by 2010 and “disperse” the children.

Another distressing problem in Bulgaria is human trafficking. According to a 2006 Europol Report, 10,000 girls in Bulgaria are forced into human trafficking each year. With little access to education and no job skills, girls (and boys) in the Gypsy communities and those in orphanages are most vulnerable.

Mr. Wolf continues to seek individuals and churches interested in partnership — which he describes as financial support and more — through informal talks at his church and a few area organizations. He is headed to Bulgaria again in October, and plans to use the information he gathers from that trip to complete a more structured presentation that he will take beyond his church community.

“To write a check is the first step,” he explains. “One of my goals is to help bring people together with the 21st-century tools of communication. Videoconferences bring us face to face with people over there — 21st-century pen pals,” he said. He added that when he does presentations about Bulgarian Partners, he closes by asking for viewers’ trust, as well as partnership. He maintains that the program is a partnership in bringing about change. “We’re not doing it for them; we’re partnering with strong Bulgarian people who want to help one another.”

Mr. Wolf and his wife, Denise, have two grown children, Stephanie Gaudette and Jonathan Wolf, who both live in Worcester.

For more information about Bulgarian Partners, visit