Knots, Keys, and the Kingdom

Jesus empowered His Church “to bind and to loose,” promising that “whatever you bind on earth shall be bound in heaven, and whatever you loose on earth shall be loosed in heaven” (Matthew 18:18). His words sound more like a Boy Scout lesson on knots than profound spiritual truth. What did Jesus mean?

Jesus spoke of Church discipline, teaching that the decisions of the Church on earth reflect eternal truths. Church discipline represents just one of three tools Jesus called the “keys of the kingdom” (Matthew 16:19). Keys lock and unlock, and the Scripture teaches that preaching, the sacraments, and Church discipline all lock and unlock the Kingdom of Heaven.

Every time a pastor preaches the Gospel, he promises life eternal to those who repent and believe. He also promises judgment and punishment to those who refuse. His preaching therefore unlocks heaven to all who believe and locks it to all who don’t. The same is true when he administers baptism or the Lord’s Supper. To those who trust Jesus, heaven’s doors stand open. To those who don’t, they swing shut. Church discipline offers the same choice. Repent and heaven opens to you. Harden your heart and it closes.

No man controls the eternal destiny of another, and the Church never twists God’s arm by its pronouncements. Rather, the Church binds and looses that which already has been bound or loosed in heaven, pronouncing in this realm the truth of that realm. Long before Jesus commanded the Church to bind and loose, the Scripture declared that repentance is necessary for salvation and hard-heartedness reaps judgment. Heaven has bound—that is, condemned—sin and rebellion, and has loosed—that is, blessed—repentance and faith. The Church employs the keys of the kingdom faithfully when it binds and looses that which heaven has already bound and loosed.

No knots needed.

Missions, not Philanthropy

Some say, “Give a man a fish and you feed him for a day, but teach a man to fish and you feed him for a lifetime.” Either way the man will age and die. Men do not merely need a fishing rod. Men need resurrection.

Missionary activity aimed exclusively at a ministry of deeds offers the spiritual equivalent of a fishing rod. Jesus modeled compassion toward the poor and needy, and the Church must imitate Him. James 2:15-16 asks, “If a brother or sister is poorly clothed and lacking in daily food, and one of you says to them, ‘Go in peace, be warmed and filled,’ without giving them the things needed for the body, what good is that?” Christians must meet practical needs. But when the Church contents itself to care only for practical needs the Church betrays its mandate.

If my missionary activity extends a man’s life but also withholds the words of eternal life, then I have only enabled that man to live in sin and rebellion a little longer. He will heap more guilt upon himself in a long life than he would in a short life. In either case he will die. No matter the amount of practical help I offer the end result will be the same. A single problem stands at the root of every man’s physical ills: sin. Sin causes disease, hunger, poverty, injury, and ultimately death. Unless my mission addresses man’s sin problem, all other help I provide only delays the inevitable. If I give a man a fish, he will eat for a day. If I teach a man to fish, he will eat for a lifetime. But if I give a man Christ he will feast upon the Living Bread and live eternally.

The Christian Church cannot offer less than a charity or a philanthropic organization but it must offer more. No charitable organization on earth strikes at the root of poverty, disease, and hunger, but the Church must, offering not merely a temporary reprieve from physical suffering but an eternal resurrection through faith in Jesus Christ. He will eradicate all sin, suffering, and disease, finally putting death itself to death.

Man shall not live by bread alone, and he will never live eternally by learning to bake. The Church must proclaim Jesus Christ, not merely for eternal spiritual life but for eternal physical life as well. Only one cure suffices for all of man’s physical maladies: resurrection. Only Jesus provides it.

On Bullets and Bad Reporting

As I watched the unfolding tragedy of the shooting in Las Vegas, NBC news reported that the gunman used “large caliber” weapons, while an anchor noted that the shooter was 1700 feet away from the concert (it was actually about 1200 feet) and wondered aloud how a bullet could go that far.

Again this morning Savannah Guthrie repeatedly referred to the weapons employed in the shooting as “large caliber.” Neither Lester Holt nor Matt Lauer corrected her. They went to commercial break and came back. She repeated the phrase again and again. Evidently, no one at NBC knows what caliber means, or is able to distinguish it from capacity or muzzle velocity.

At the same time, NBC cut to a local sheriff, who revealed that all the weapons seized were chambered for .308 down to .223 (also designated 7.62 NATO and 5.56 respectively). The former designation is caliber; the latter refers to millimeters. Both refer to the diameter of the bullet.

A .308 is not a large round. You could scour the Internet and not find an intelligent gun owner who would refer to the .308 as “large caliber.” A 45-70 Government is a large round; a .458 Winchester Magnum is a large round; a .500 Nitro Express is a very large round. A .308 is not. When you watch an old TV show, and the policeman draws a .38 Special revolver from his holster, do you think to yourself, “What a large caliber weapon!?” Of course not. And yet a .38 Special is a bigger diameter round than a .308.

A simple Internet search would have revealed to Savannah and Lester and Matt that Savannah was probably referring to high capacity, which describes the number of rounds any given weapon or clip holds. She may even have been referring to rate of fire, which describes the number of rounds per unit of time that a given weapon can send downrange. But what she said—over and over again—was caliber.

It bears note also that even if the shooter had been 1700 feet from the concert, it would have made little difference. Again, a simple Internet search would have helped. A round of .223 (5.56) hunting ammunition boasts a muzzle velocity (the speed at which the bullet exits the weapon) of 3000-3500 feet per second. Some velocities are higher. The point is that 1200 feet is 400 yards and men and women in our military routinely train at 500 yards with 5.56 ammunition. The shooter in Las Vegas did not even need to aim. The distance was well within the lethal range of the round, and the terminal ballistics (the speed of the round when it hits its target) was more than sufficient to be deadly.

Now, I am not even a gun guy. I have an old, lever-action hunting rifle. I’m just a man with a computer who can do a simple Internet search. But evidently NBC can’t. I’m not advocating for or against gun control; I’m advocating for competent journalism that spends more time on facts and less on sensationalism.

We, the people, receive this level of reporting because we, the people, accept it.

Baseball, Politics, Race, and the Church

My friend John loves the New York Yankees. He often wears a Yankees’ ball cap, and he enjoys reminding me about the number of championships the franchise has won. I love him in spite of his idolatry.

I jest.

But what if John’s love for the Yankees were in fact idolatrous? What if John identified himself first as a Yankees’ fan and only second as a Christian? How would he listen to, behave toward, or value a Red Sox’ fan who was also a brother in Christ? If John’s primary allegiance were directed toward the Yankees, then what would happen if he met a brother or sister in Christ who hated his beloved Bronx Bombers?

It may sound silly, but this happens in churches every day. Joe Parishioner is a Christian—a genuinely regenerate, Christ-loving man—but political affiliation has become an idol to him. He is a Republican, and cannot imagine that any Christian could be otherwise. When Bob Congregant expresses support for a Democratic candidate, Joe does not merely question his intelligence; he questions his salvation.

Mary Churchgoer is a true believer—but race has become an idol to her—and she views herself as white first and a Christian second. She may be entirely unaware of this until her primary identity is challenged. It goes like this: Her black sister in Christ, Angela Pewsitter, decries what she perceives to be the systemic racism of a predominately white legal system. Mary reacts defensively, for her identity—her whiteness—has been attacked.

But imagine that each brother or sister in Christ, regardless of his or her skin color or political affiliation or baseball team, identified first and foremost as a Christian. If each were a Christian first and all else second, then peace and grace would follow. Joe Parishioner and Bob Congregant could disagree on political matters because these are secondary—their identity resides in Christ, not in political parties. Mary Churchgoer and Angela Pewsitter could disagree about the fairness of the legal system in peace, for neither of them vests their identity in the color of their skin.

This matters because Christians say stupid things. White Christians say and do stupid and insensitive things. So do black Christians. So do Republican Christians and Democratic Christians, and especially Christians who love the Yankees. This side of Glory we will never stop giving each other reasons to be offended. Our only hope is Christ, and in the identity we mutually draw from being His.

If I primarily identify as white and someone questions the character and integrity of white judges, white lawyers, and white police officers, then I will necessarily take it personally. They have attacked my identity, and the people with whom I identify. But if I identify as a Christian, then I can hear those accusations dispassionately, not feeling the need to defend every white person, but instead identifying myself more with my black brother in Christ who shares my faith than with a nameless attorney who happens to share my skin color but knows not my Lord.

In the same way, if I primarily identify as black and someone defends the character and integrity of white public officials over against black accusations of racial injustice, then I will necessarily take it personally. They have attacked my identity, and the people with whom I identify. But if identity as a Christian first—if being black is only a descriptor of my skin and not a definition of my person—then I can listen calmly, not feeling the need to defend every black man against every white man. Many white men share Christ with me; many black men do not.

While the world buzzes with racial antagonism, the Church has the opportunity to demonstrate peace and charity, but only if each of us identifies as a Christian first—only if my allegiance, and thus my identity, is established explicitly in Christ Jesus. Simply put, is your heart more closely knit together with those who share your politics or with those who share your Lord? Does it bond more tightly with those who share your skin color or with those who share your Savior? Examine your own heart, and ask yourself why it reacts defensively when it reacts defensively, and the answer will reveal the idol that has captured your primary allegiance, which must belong to Jesus Christ alone.

I love my brother John because he is my brother in Christ. We share one Lord, one faith, and one baptism, which is a good thing because I can’t stand the Yankees.

Football, and Meaning

Life without God has no inherent meaning.

The universe is a result of chance and time, not Divine design. Life is an accident, not a premeditated miracle. The human species is an oddly upgraded ape, not the very Image of God. Neither life nor death possesses meaning—unless a Darwinian struggle for reproductive success qualifies as meaningful.

People nevertheless create meaning for themselves; we cannot do otherwise.

A man often forges meaning from his work, identifying with his profession. When men in America meet, they shake hands, and inevitably one will ask the other, “So, what do you do?” Sometimes women craft meaning from motherhood, identifying with their maternal role and actions. Others of us identify with and take meaning from our country of origin or ethnicity, our favorite football team—whether it be soccer or American style—our educational institution(s), or our hobbies.

If God is not, then none of these possess meaning. If mankind has no meaning, then certainly nothing that mankind does, builds, or enjoys has meaning either. And yet, sensing that meaning matters, we cobble it together from the shattered fragments of modernity, sadly ascribing value to our activities and associations while at the same time denying it to the very human beings who participate in the activities and comprise the associations. The work the man does matters. The man? Not so much.

A man whose sense of purpose—whose meaning—comes from his work loses himself when he loses his job or retires. A woman whose purpose is wrapped up in her children loses herself when they grow up and move away. When meaning is culturally derived, grounded in a profession or an activity or any other association, then it is unstable. It cannot but fail.

And yet, God is. He has created mankind in His image, investing us with inherent dignity, value, and yes, meaning. We mean to His glory.

A man may legitimately labor in any number of professions, but his meaning is to glorify God. A woman may raise many children or none, but her meaning is to glorify God. I might love football—the American kind—and suffer no love for soccer, but my meaning is to glorify God. It is the one purpose that cannot fail. When I retire, my meaning remains. When my children move, my meaning remains, and when my team loses, my meaning remains. I exist for the glory of God, and will continue to exist for His glory forevermore.

I have been created to glorify God, and not only does that truth grant to my life meaning, it also indicates that I will be most satisfied in life when I tie my identity and sense of meaning not to my work or to my children to my hobbies, but to my Creator.

He has created me for Himself, and that means everything.

Bumbling Hands and Wounded Saints

Recently a friend of mine was talking with seminary students about the realities of pastoral ministry. In explaining the many ways in which the most sincere pastor can unwittingly offend his congregants, he related a story in which he apologized to a parishioner, saying, “I am not a righteous man. Jesus is the only righteous man.” Each pastor must remember that truth; each congregant already knows it—or should. It was not an excuse. It is a fact.

Hearing that truth as it played out in another man’s life, I nodded in agreement. “Yes, yes these things happen. No, God’s people are not always gracious to pastors. The pedestal is all too real, and we’re not perfect.” So went my inner monologue. But then, not much later, a person in my own congregation pointed out my very real failings and the very real pain my failings had caused.

I wish I could say that the conversation ended with me pointing us both to Jesus, the Righteous One, but we never really got that far. And so I pray, hoping to begin repairing a bridge that I did not know I had burned, trusting that the Good Shepherd has been better to this dear saint than have I.

When contemplating the mystery of ministry—that God uses broken human instruments to spread the fragrance of Christ—the Apostle Paul asked, “Who is sufficient for these things?” and he did not need to answer. We are all insufficient, but God reveals His might in and through our insufficiencies to demonstrate that “the surpassing power belongs to God and not to us.”

I rest in this truth: “We have an advocate with the Father, Jesus Christ the righteous.” The dear saint whom I have wounded has Jesus. And His shepherding never goes awry; His ministry is perfect, and He can and will care for the very hearts that my bumbling hands have wounded.

That is not an excuse. It is a fact, and a blessed comfort indeed.

An Impotent Grace for All

Thomas Erskine once wrote, “In the New Testament, religion is grace and ethics is gratitude.” Since salvation is a gift, each Christian ought to express his gratitude in the form of an ethical, Christ-honoring life.

Erskine was wrong.

Not because of what he said—it is true that salvation comes through the grace of God, and equally true that each believer should respond accordingly—but because Erskine was a universalist. In his view, everyone was saved; faith in Christ was not strictly necessary. Eternal life with God was, for Erskine, something of a human birthright. Such “grace” is not, however, the grace of the Bible, and it is thus incapable of producing biblical gratitude.

Biblical grace does not consist merely of a pardon for sin that guarantees that the recipient of such grace is saved. It is also a transformative power, which renews men and women in the image of Christ. Without that supernatural renewal, the gratitude of which Erskine speaks cannot and will not materialize in a human heart. Those who reject Jesus remain mired in sin—as such they have no interest in spiritual things, and no desire for the very heavenly glories that Erskine falsely promises.

After all, what will heaven be like? It will be filled with people who love Jesus. Those who reject Him do not love Him. It will be filled with the very worship that those who reject Jesus in this life do not and will not offer Him. All those who dwell in heaven will have been fully redeemed, and as such they will love holiness and hate sin—the very sins to which those who reject Jesus cling. In short, those who are not transformed by the true grace of God in Christ would not enjoy heaven even if it were given to them!

Nothing short of the transformative grace of God, which always proves itself in a living faith in Jesus Christ, can produce an ethic of gratitude. Empty promises of a universal salvation simply leave rebellious people in their rebellion, while offering false confidence that God grants everything but requires nothing.

A biblical ethic strives to do that which most glorifies Jesus Christ, not because of a broad grace that possesses no power to transform the human heart and its desires, but because of biblical grace, which is received by faith, and which transforms those who receive it from glory to glory.

An impotent grace for all is a saving grace for none.