P A S T O R ‘ S   B L O G

In all your ways acknowledge Him, And He shall direct your paths. – Proverbs 3:6

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Overcoming Original Sin

Some years ago, I had parked my car, and I was just about to leave it when I noticed a young man on the other side of the parking lot. It was apparent that he was just passing through, but suddenly, quite randomly, he kicked out, smashing a side mirror off the car he was passing. From the way he was walking, it did not seem that he had a reason to target this particular car. I was too distant from him to identify him, and he was long gone before I had a chance to confront him, but I did wonder what made him damage someone else’s property without provocation.

Augustine lived 1600 years ago, and he tells the story that when he was young, he and a friend decided to steal some pears from a neighbour’s orchard. They weren’t hungry and they didn’t eat the pears. They didn’t even like that particular variety of pear, but that didn’t stop them from stealing a significant quantity. Why did they do that?

Augustine, who became a Christian and a theologian, reflected on his actions and drew this conclusion: “I was foul to the core, yet I was pleased with my own condition and anxious to be pleasing in the eyes of men.” In other words, Augustine discovered that he was a sinful human being and he often sinned for no other reason except, perhaps, to impress others. It was from this reflection that Augustine articulated the doctrine of Original Sin. Original sin is defined at the tendency to sin, a tendency that we inherit from Adam. In other words, we are oriented toward sin from our very conception onward.

This idea does not play well with people when they look at little babies. We might hear someone say, “Look at how innocent she is,” when watching their daughter or granddaughter as she sleeps. Little infants do look quite innocent, and it seems offensive to think that that beautiful little child is inherently sinful. But if babies were inherently innocent and did not have the propensity toward sin, then why can they become so difficult after they have celebrated their second birthday? (“The terrible twos” is an oft-used expression, and for good reason.) Do parents teach their innocent children to be rebellious and disobedient? I haven’t met a parent who would admit it. Or maybe their sweet, innocent children learn it from other children, perhaps in the nursery at church? To say that would be to say that other parents taught their children to be sinful, and that would be a false accusation. Even if we could completely protect our children from negative outside influence, they still adopt sinful behaviour.

Of course, not all of us have stolen pears from an orchard or dropped kick a mirror off a random car, but we all do things that are wrong, and we do them for no good reason except that we feel like it, or, even worse, because our peers encourage us to. It may be that we do not really understand why we did what we did, but we did it anyway.

The concept of original sin, namely that we are inherently inclined to commit sin, has long been rejected by secularists in the West and is increasingly being rejected by Christians as well. Replacing original sin is the question which asks, “Is this behaviour caused by nature or by nurture?” If we say, “by nature,” we would say that we do what we do because we are built this way. Or, to use Christian speak, “God made us this way, and there is nothing we can do about it.” On the other hand, if we say, “by nurture,” we can blame our inclinations, even our sinful ones, on our upbringing or on our peer group or on our experiences. Without a doubt, we cannot discount either nature or nurture as being influencing factors on our behaviour, for they both play a role in who we are. A sexually abused child, for example, will more likely become abusive him/herself, and some people, because of the way they are built are far more likely to become alcoholics. (I know of several families where alcoholism is rampant.) Yet, we cannot lay our sinful behaviour either at the feet of nature (how we were brought up) or nurture (how we are built). Even the person with the best environment and the best genetics still sins, so nature and nurture do not explain or give reason for all of our sin.

The best explanation is Augustine’s who said that the root of our sin is found in the fact that we every part of life is affected by the sin that first entered the world through Adam. God did not create sinful human beings, nor did he create an environment which would teach us to sin. Adam did that for us, and we follow in his footsteps.

Thankfully, there is hope. When we speak of Jesus coming to this world to die for our sins, we can name some of the sins we have committed, although if Martin Luther is correct, we remember only a small fraction of them. We are thankful that all the sins we committed are forgiven by God’s grace in Jesus Christ, if we, through faith, ask him for forgiveness. But the death of Jesus on the cross did more than just provide forgiveness for each and every one of our particular sins; it also served to rid our lives of our sinfulness, thus removing even the tendency toward sin. As the Heidelberg Catechism says, the Holy Spirit makes us wholeheartedly ready and willing to serve the Lord. True, we all still fall back into the tendency toward sin, but we also know that as we seek to follow Jesus, the Spirit works in us to make us hate sin more and more, something that Paul alludes to in Romans 7.

The problem of original sin, therefore, which is the root of all our sins, is also dealt with at the cross, and we are set free. Our job, then, as followers of Jesus Christ, is to continually root out the individual sins from our lives so that we become more and more obedient to Jesus, becoming like him in all that we do. This process is called “sanctification” (becoming holy), and sanctification is only possible because Jesus also dealt with our original sin on the cross.

~ Pastor Gary ~


Progression or Transgression

From time to time, we hear someone say, “That’s progress.” They may be referring to the discovery of a new cancer drug, or they may be talking about the development of a new subdivision. Often times people will refer to changes in a culture or lifestyle or system of values as being a sign of progress.

The word, “progress,” has its roots in Latin, meaning, literally, to walk (gress) forward (pro). Progress, then, can be thought of as walking/going forward. There are other words that also contain the “gress” part of the word. Regress is the opposite of progress and means, “to go/walk backward.” Retrogress is similar to regress but it means “to go back to something that was before.” Egress (a way to go out) is the opposite of ingress (a way to go in). Digress means “to deviate from where one was going.” Congress is a gathering of people who have a common purpose or, as we could say, are going in the same direction. Aggress means to “to go against.” And transgress is to go or cross over to the other side. All of these are English words, some of which we use regularly and some which we may never use. But they all come from the same root which means “to walk or go or take a step.”

When we hear or use the phrase, “That’s progress,” we have to ask ourselves if what we have observed is really a step forward. Could we be observing regression or even transgression? Or perhaps what is happening is digression or retrogression. Just because something has happened does not make it progress. It may be just the opposite. Pushing back the topsoil on some of the best farmland in the world (in the areas surrounding nearly every major Canadian city, for example), to build subdivisions is called progress, but is it? I suspect that future generations will judge the people of our time for building big houses on tiny lots, thereby destroying environments uniquely suited for producing food. What we define as progress today may actually be considered as regression in the future.

This is just one example, but it does lead us to ask this question: how do we distinguish between progress (walking forward) and some other kind of walking/going? What standard do we use? This question is especially important when it comes to how we not only interact with the world around us but also how we relate to each other. We are told over and over that many of the changes in cultural values and practice (in our day and age, changes in understanding of human sexuality) are a sign of human progress and to speak against these changes is an act of aggression. Because opposition to what is labelled as “progress” is labelled as aggression, voicing one’s beliefs about human behaviour is seen as a transgression, and in every culture, transgressors are worthy of some sort of punishment.

And that brings us to that word, transgress (or transgression). With the exception of the above example (and parallel situations), we rarely hear anyone speak of transgression. To transgress means that we cross over to the other side, and to speak in that way is to admit that another side actually exists. Contemporary thought denies that there are two sides (good and evil), but Scripture speaks of two kingdoms, the kingdom of God and the kingdom of darkness. Adam and Eve, being tempted by the devil, the ruler of the kingdom of darkness, transgressed, meaning they gave into temptation and crossed over to the other side, leaving God’s kingdom and joining themselves to the kingdom of darkness. As transgressors they led the human race into becoming aggressors, so that under the leadership of the devil we, their descendants, actually go against (aggress) God and seek to destroy his work. Our transgression and the resulting aggression are worthy of some sort of punishment. Paul, Romans 6:23, writes that the wages (results) of sin (transgression) is death.

As we well know, once we have transgressed and have become aggressors, it becomes impossible to cross over again to the other side. Just as no general in any army would welcome back someone who went over to the enemy and took up arms against those he own people, so we cannot expect God to welcome back those who went over to the kingdom of his adversary. (Satan means “adversary.”) Once we have transgressed, we cannot regress or retrogress or even egress. That is why the Bible is so adamant when it teaches that it is only because of God’s grace in Jesus who came to this world, the world of darkness but, unlike us, became neither transgressor nor aggressor, yet bore the punishment for being a transgressor, that we can be brought over again to the kingdom of God.

Because there are two sides (kingdom of God, kingdom of the devil), we would have to say that anything that does not belong to the kingdom of God is transgression and therefore cannot be called progress. (The kingdom of God is identified as existing in any place where the reign of God is known, and where his reign is known we will also see obedience and trust.) Progress occurs only when God’s reign is restored on this earth. In Galatians 5:16 (paralleled in many other places in Scripture), Paul exhorts us to “walk by the Spirit,” meaning that we align ourselves to “congress” with the Holy Spirit, thus walking/going in the direction God desires us to go. Through the powerful working of the Spirit, we develop into faithful citizens of the kingdom of God, and that is true progress.

Understanding that there are two sides, two kingdoms, helps us understand our current cultural climate. Those who belong to the kingdom of darkness label what they believe as “progress,” even if it is contrary to God’s will, but progress in the kingdom of darkness is transgression from the reign of God and aggression against his kingdom. The devil’s work is to make everyone believe that transgression against God is progress, and if anyone stands in the way of progress, they are an aggressor and should be silenced. Thus, those who stand up for the kingdom of God are labelled as transgressors in our world and transgressors are subject to punishment. Labelling transgression against God as “progress” and opposition to “progress” as aggression has been a very effective tool in the devil’s hands, at least for the past few decades.

So, what is our response? First, we must be careful to distinguish between progress and transgression and identify it correctly. Progress is not progress if it transgresses God’s will. We always need to ask, “Does it conform to God’s will and purposes for this world? To which kingdom does it belong?” Second, we do not shy away from true progress, recognizing that true progress is seen in obedience to God as we keep in step with the Spirit. We remain committed to true progress, building the kingdom of God, no matter what anyone else might say. Third, and most importantly, we do not become afraid, nor do we cave in or compromise. Let’s remember that the ruler of the kingdom of darkness has been defeated, that everything that he passes off as progress will be shown for what it is and destroyed and that, in the end, the kingdom of God will be victorious. Yes, at this time we may be labelled as aggressors by those who are promoting transgression as progress, but let’s remember that to be an aggressor against the kingdom of darkness is to be a servant in the kingdom of God.

True progress is that which is done in the name of Christ, for the sake of Christ and in obedience to Christ. If that means we are labelled as aggressors, so be it. It is better to be identified as an aggressor for Christ against the devil than to become a transgressor and therefore an aggressor against God.

~ Pastor Gary ~


Texts in Context

Define the word, “MAY.” You might need a little bit of help with that, so let me use MAY in a few sentences.

  • MAY is the month after April. (MAY is a month the year.)
  • MAY I go to my friend’s house. (Here MAY means, “Do I have your permission to.)
  • It MAY rain. (Now MAY carries with it the idea of possibility or probability.)
  • MAY missed her bus. (MAY, in this sentence, is a girl.)

There are probably a few more uses for the simple three letter word, “may,” but I think the point is clear: how we define “may” depends on the context in which the word is used. If we don’t read “may” in its context we are not going to be sure that we have the right definition.

The same can be true of an entire sentence. “It looks like May is going to be cold.” Because “May” is capitalized, we can assume that it refers either to the month or the girl. Again, context is important, for in this case, May has left for school without a coat, and the temperature is going to plunge throughout the day. We cannot know what something means for sure without context.

This is why text messages and emails can be dangerous. Sending an address to a friend via a text message doesn’t pose any problems, but if we are trying to communicate something important, something weighty, something that might evoke emotions, a text or email may not be the best method of communication. Often our words need to have a context if we want to be fully understood.

The same is true of the Bible. One of the things we can be quite sure about is that the biblical authors, even as they were guided by the Holy Spirit, knew exactly what they were writing. The biblical authors, all of them, were inspired by the Holy Spirit to put down to paper what the Spirit had put in their minds. We call it “organic inspiration,” meaning that the Holy Spirit did not merely take control of the hands of the biblical authors and force them to write down letters which became words and then sentences and then paragraphs. Rather, the Spirit worked in their minds, and the human authors of the Bible wrote in a style and form with which they were familiar. Even a novice in the Greek language can discover significant differences in the writing styles of Peter and Paul, and we can detect a common thread of who John is in the books that he wrote (the Gospel of John, the three letters attributed to him, and Revelation).

When we study a particular book of the Bible (for example, John’s gospel or Isaiah’s prophecy), we not only discover something about the human author, but we also see that the book fits together, that it has an internal cohesion and consistency. In other words, the parts of the book fit together because the biblical authors were not only inspired by the Holy Spirit but they were also thoughtful, sane, thinkers who made it their purpose to communicate an important message.

There is an important implication to this: it is inappropriate to take a particular verse, sentence, paragraph or verse out of context. As is illustrated with the word, “may,” taking something out of context may lead to us wrongly interpreting what is being said. It is very easy to make a verse of the Bible say something it is not meant to say.

Let me give one example: In Philippians 4:13 Paul says, “I can do everything through him who gives me strength” (NIV, 1984 edition). If I take that verse out of context, it is easy to find that it is not true for me. For example, I find it very difficult to change people’s minds, although the verse, taken out of context, seems to indicate that if I find my strength in Christ, I should be able to. And, sadly, I cannot make myself like anything that has bananas cooked into it, try as I might. Again, the verse fails. I am unable to paint a picture, and I cannot get more than a few inches off the ground in the high jump. Frankly, I would be deceiving myself if I said that I could do any of these things if I just found my strength in Christ. So, either the verse is wrong, or I am missing something.

Context makes the verse clear. Paul is writing about his sufferings (he is in prison when he writes Philippians), and he is referring to the work that Jesus Christ had called him to do. Throughout the letter to the Philippians, he speaks about the power of the gospel, and he mentions that because he is in prison, he has been able to witness to his guards, and some of them have come to faith. In other words, Philippians 4:13 is best understood to be saying that when God calls us to a particular task, we will be able to fulfill his calling because he will provide us with all the resources to fulfill our calling. (Incidentally the 2011 version of the NIV recognizes this problem and translates the “everything” as “all this,” making us ask the question, “What is this?” thereby inviting us to look at the context.)

It is very tempting for us to read verses in Scripture without considering the context. We may get them right, but there is also the significant possibility that we miss the intended meaning, and that could lead to making great mistakes about what God is saying to us. That is something we don’t really want to do.

In my years as a pastor, one of the most prevalent ways I find people making this mistake of misreading the Bible is through “prooftexting.” Someone might say, “I believe this (whatever point they are trying to make) because the Bible says so,” and they quote a particular verse. More often than not, in my experience, they have not carefully considered what the verse is actually saying in its context, and they end up making the Bible conform to their beliefs rather than the other way around.

So, how do we avoid the problem of misreading the text? It’s simple, really, for all we have to do is consider the context. What are the surrounding verses saying? What is the line of reasoning of the biblical author? What subject matter does the chapter address? What is the book itself addressing? Is this verse appear in the Old Testament, or is it from the New Testament (and sometimes that makes a huge difference.)

It’s not hard to avoid misreading the text. It’s simple, but it is a lot more work. In other words, we might have to put some effort into completing this rather simple and straightforward exercise. The results will be rewarding if we do. If we don’t, of course, we might be misrepresenting Jesus, and we don’t want to do that..

~ Pastor Gary ~


The Acquired Skill of Listening

Preaching a sermon is an acquired skill, but so is listening to a sermon. This became evident to me in the past few weeks as I have had the privilege of sitting in the pew instead of standing in the pulpit. I may have lost some of the skills of listening to a sermon that I used to possess before I became a pastor.

There are three ways of listening to a sermon, and I will outline them here. The first should be avoided in all places except for a seminary preaching class, but the second and third should be adopted by us all, even those who are preaching.

The first is listening professionally. In preaching classes at seminary, we were all asked to prepare and preach sermons which we would preach in class to be evaluated by our fellow students. We were evaluated on sermon coherence (how the points hung together), delivery, length, and ability to engage our audience. This is called listening professionally, and it is necessary in preaching classes because the exercise helped us become better preachers. Professional evaluation is beneficial to us all: plumbers, teachers, and truck drivers all benefit from the careful evaluation by their peers. It’s one of the ways we grow.

But it is not a helpful exercise when we are in church. Nevertheless, I find myself evaluating preachers and their sermons professionally when I sit in church, and I find lots of opportunity to be critical.

Of course, while a good method of delivery is important, in seminary we were taught that the content of the sermon is even more important. In one of my preaching classes a fellow student proved himself to be a very capable speaker. His delivery was smooth, clear, concise, and engaging, and the rest of us were all a little envious of his abilities. Sadly, after a closer evaluation, we discovered that his sermons were not closely based on the text he had chosen. In fact, his sermons, after being scrutinized for their biblical faithfulness, were found to be rather empty. Contrast him to a friend and colleague (who has now gone to glory), who I will call Fred (because that is his name). Fred was not a very dynamic speaker. In fact, some had labelled him as boring and tedious. I don’t disagree with that evaluation, but Fred had one wonderful redeeming quality: if I listened carefully and kept engaged, I would always learn something more about the teachings of Scripture.

And that brings us to the second way of listening to a sermon: we must listen evaluatively. From time to time a read a conservative Roman Catholic blog, and I was impressed by the following quote in which a parishioner is speaking to his pastor (priest): “If you don’t pay attention to the Scriptures, then we don’t have to pay attention to you because the only reason we’re here listening to you is that we think you’ll help us understand more deeply the word of God. So, if you don’t help us understand the Word of God, we’re tuning you out.

When we listen to a sermon, we should always listen with one eye on the text, and if the sermon does not come from the text, we are not obligated to listen to it. Some of the best-known teachers of preaching advise that the theme of the text should become the theme of the sermon and the points of the text become the points of the sermon. This keeps the pastor from preaching his own ideas and forces him to preach only what God’s Word says. In seminary preaching classes a sermon would fail if it was not derived directly from the text that was read.

When we listen to a sermon, we should always keep our eye on the text. One of the more controversial changes many churches have made is to project the words of the text onto the screen, enabling the congregation to read the text but to then forget about it as soon as the projector is turned off. This practice gives lots of opportunity for a pastor to deviate from the text without being detected (or to avoid parts of the text that don’t fit his sermon). Those who have thought about the use of technology in the worship service have wondered if it is better that the text not be projected and instead the congregation use their own Bibles or the Bibles that have been provided for them and keep them open for the duration of the sermon. Further, when reading a text, the pastor and congregation should always be aware of the context, the material that immediately surrounds the text and that is possible only an open Bible. One time I heard a sermon in which the pastor read a text and then preached a sermon which was in direct contradiction to what followed in Scripture. Clearly, he had missed the point of the text.

Listening evaluatively means that we listen to the content of the message with one eye on the text to ensure that what is coming off the pulpit is truly from God’s Word.

And that leads to the third way of listening: listening intentionally. If a sermon is not taken from Scripture, we are free to ignore it. Sometimes, of course a sermon that is not biblically based does have good advice, and we can take that advice to heart. I attended a church once in which the pastor talked at length about anger management, and he said some helpful things, but he didn’t base his message in Scripture. It might have been a subject for a counselling session, but it really wasn’t a sermon, and, in my educated opinion, should not have been delivered as one.

However, if a sermon is truly from God’s Word, then we have an obligation to adopt what it says into our lives. This is not exactly the same as “application,” which people seem to want. Rather, more often than not, Scripture, instead of calling us to a changed lifestyle, calls us to a changed way of thinking and a change of heart. In other words, Scripture shapes our minds and hearts first before it shapes our actions. Listening intentionally means that we enter into the sermon with the mindset that we will conform ourselves to the teachings of God’s Word. Listening intentionally means that we come to the worship service with an attitude of humility, willing to be shaped by God the Holy Spirit as he teaches us God’s will. If we listen with the attitude that God has something to say to our hearts, our minds, and our will, and if we are listening with submission, we are listening well.

Perhaps it is this last form of listening, listening intentionally, that is the most difficult. I think most of us can listen professionally, to one degree or another. (That was a boring sermon. His illustrations were really engaging.) We can learn to listen evaluatively, determining if a sermon is rooted in Scripture or not. Listening intentionally is the most challenging because we must put aside our own wills so that we can be conformed to the will of God. Most of us don’t put aside our own wills easily.

For the past 5-6 weeks, I have been listening to sermons instead of preaching. I have listened professionally. That is easy for me. I have listened evaluatively. I am well-trained in that. The skill that I need to (re)acquire is to listen intentionally. But maybe I am not the only one.

~ Pastor Gary ~