When God Doesn’t Seem Good: Living with Tough Texts in the Bible

God isn’t always easy to trust. I don’t just mean in the daily lives of living out of faith. I mean even based on what we know of Him, it can be tough to trust Him to be good. Prime example:

This is what the LORD of Hosts says: ‘I witnessed what the Amalekites did to the Israelites when they opposed them along the way as they were coming out of Egypt. Now go and attack the Amalekites and completely destroy everything they have. Do not spare them. Kill men and women, children and infants, oxen and sheep, camels and donkeys.’ “

1 Samuel 15:2-3

Think about that for a moment. Here God, our God revealed in Jesus Christ, says to kill all of the Amalekites without mercy. Even the children and infants. This is not, either, the only time in the Bible that God gives such commands to Israel. There are many tough texts in the Bible, especially in the early Old Testament.. What do we make of that when Jesus said, “Let the little children come to Me,” and John said, “God is love?” Can these things possibly even mesh at all?

According to a growing number of people, the answer is an obvious “no.” Popular thinkers and writers like Peter Enns and Rachel Held Evans are willing to relegate these instructions to the projections of the Israelites onto their God. The character of Yahweh in the Old Testament, as many will now tell you, is a picture of God distorted by the cultural sins and prejudices of ancient Israel.

On one hand, this sounds good. It would be nice to say, as Enns does, that “God lets His children tell the story,” and leave all the uncomfortable bits in the trash bin of Israel’s sin. But is this really viable? Is this a truly Christian way of reading Scripture? I don’t think so. We have to be willing, as far as I can tell, to let God tell His story through His method, namely the Bible, gore and all.

How can we understand these difficult texts, then? How do we reconcile in our minds the God who died for all the Amalekite children and the God who had them executed? Some people don’t try and just live in denial of the tension. Some people divide God’s will into two, with God’s house divided against itself as He pursues both His love for people and His love for His glory. But a truly Christian way of handling these difficult parts of the Bible requires Christ, namely seeing all of Scripture through the life, death, resurrection, and ascension of Jesus Christ. Jesus Himself said that all Scriptures point to Him, and that He fulfills their meaning and purpose.

How does this relate to these hard verses? According to people like Enns, the love of the Cross undermines them. If Jesus is love to such an extent, then Yahweh the Warrior must not be pure revelation but human corruption. Yet this seems dangerous to me, mainly because I believe Jesus and the Apostles treated the entire Old Testament revelation of God as an infallible authority and assumed that portrait in their theology. This even includes His holy wars.

If that “solution” doesn’t work, what does? How do we reconcile these two different views of God? Well, I still point us to the Cross, but in a different way. Instead of undermining the Old Testament violence, I believe the Cross gives us reason to trust God in spite of such things. Yes, God seems to have ordered the wholesale extermination of the Amalekite people, but we should let the Cross teach us that God’s love is even at work here, not that it didn’t happen by God’s plan. Whatever judgment He was willing to inflict on the Amalekite people and children, He willingly suffered Himself for their salvation. If God can perform the ultimate act of love within the horror of His own Son’s unjust crucifixion, surely He can love in anything else.

Ultimately, this all calls for faith. Do you trust that God is good? I do, honestly. I don’t always understand Him, but I trust that He is good. Moreover, I trust that He is good in the revelation He gave us. I trust that He gave us a reliable picture of Himself, even in the tough texts in the Bible, and that this somehow flows with His all-consuming love. How can this be? I don’t have a clue, but like Mary I trust His promise and wait patiently to see what He will do. And even in that I do struggle with this. This is one of the questions that can keep me up at nights, forcing me to surf the web for smart believers with fresh insights. But even then, I wait patiently for God to answer, even if that will not happen before Jesus returns. I can trust Him in the wait, because Jesus proved His love. My prayer is that you can, too.

When God Doesn’t Seem Good: Living with Tough Texts in the Bible

John 7:53-8:11 (Are Today’s Bibles Reliable?)

Not everything in your Bible may have come from the Bible. “What do you  mean, Caleb?” you ask. Well, the Bible has a very long history. It was written over a period of more than 1000 years, and was passed on for nearly 2000 since its completion. The timeframes for when some of the books of the Old Testament were written can at best be narrowed down to several centuries. 

Because of this, things can change. Before the days of computers, printing presses, and trivia nerds, copying writings was a very difficult, time consuming, and tedious process. So naturally errors would creep in (even some errors in modern published works go largely  unnoticed and uncorrected). These aren’t anything significant in most cases. Many different small mistakes show up in old copies of Scripture. Someone copying down the phrase “the Lord Christ” may have written “the Lord Jesus Christ” out of habit. A sleepy scribe might flip the order of parallel phrases (“roses are red, violets are blue” might become “violets are blue, roses are red”). Someone translating Numbers might accidentally drop a couple of names from a genealogy.

Fortunately for us, most of these errors can be found and corrected. There were, after all, very few times when only one copy of a book of the Bible was in circulation. Especially in the New Testament, several copies would be going around and being copied at once. So most of the time if there is a copy error in one copy, we can check other copies from other places and times to figure out what the right words are. With so many copies, we can usually fix the problems. Some ancient copies of Romans, for example, have “Amen” at the end of Romans 15:33, while some do not. Which is right? Well, most of the copies, including the oldest ones, include “Amen,” while only a handful do not have it, so it probably was originally there. 

Many different small mistakes show up in old copies of Scripture. But with so many copies, we can usually fix the problems.

Unfortunately, not all of the issues in copies of the Bible are so easy. Sometimes the copies are split 50/50 on how a certain verse goes. Sometimes only a few really old copies say one thing, while a lot of copies from way later down the line say another. In these cases more work is required to figure out what the right text is. Sometimes entire verses are in question. A lot of this came into more popular discussion with the arrival of the NIV, since it was the first of the popular modern translations and made many decisions on these questions differently from the KJV. For more on that, you can check my older post “Why Does the NIV Leave Out Verses?”

Today I specifically want to address one of the more serious cases. There are two places in the Gospels where whole paragraphs are in question. The most prominent of these is John 7:53-8:11, commonly known as the story of the woman caught in adultery (the other is Mark 16:9-20). We all know how it goes. The Pharisees bring a woman to Jesus saying she was caught in the act of committing adultery (that must have been pretty awkward). They remind Him that the Law says to stone women who do this. So what will He do? He writes on the ground (some say listing the sins of the people there), tells everyone that whoever is sinless should cast the first stone, and they all leave one at a time. Finally the woman is forgiven and sent away to sin no more.

Most copies of John from before the sixth century do not include the story of the woman caught in adultery, including one of the oldest copies of the Gospels ever found.

The problem here is that nearly all the evidence indicates that this story was not originally part of John’s Gospel. It breaks the flow in a way that you can see a much smoother story by skipping from 7:52 to 8:12. It contains many Greek words that John rarely or never uses elsewhere. While most copies of John from after the eighth century include this story here, most of the ones from before the sixth century do not, including one of the oldest copies of the Gospels ever found. Some copies of the Gospels from a thousand years later puts this story at the end of Luke. Still another set of copies from that time puts it after John 7:36.

Now, when the Greek copy of the New Testament they used to translate the KJV was put together, no one knew this whole story. Many of the older copies of the New Testament we have now hadn’t been discovered yet. So the KJV and the NKJV after it all include this story in its traditional place, and so it became popular and part of the normal Christian picture of Jesus. People use it to argue theology and practice. Pacifists, defenders of the faith against those who say we should obey the Law of Moses, and those who oppose the death penalty bring this passage up. But it doesn’t seem to be from John.

So what do we do here? Is this story a fake? Did it never happen? Are our modern Bibles not even reliable? Can just anything in the Bible be axed like this?

Calm down if you’re as panicked as the person asking these questions in my head. First off, as I said before, there are two places in the Bible (mainly the New Testament) which question anything more than at most a single sentence. Beyond that, we can prove with the number of copies we have that our modern texts are over 90% reliable, and that none of the questions or variations in them actually have an important impact on doctrine or Christian living. So we are on safe ground for what we believe and do being Biblical so long as we practice good interpretation. We don’t need to worry that the whole Bible will fall apart, because we have solid evidence in history that there have been few changes.

We can prove with the number of copies we have that our modern Bible texts are over 90% reliable.

But still, what about this story? Well, even if it wasn’t part of John, it is old. Early Christian writers mention it from even before we have any copies of it. They considered it Scripture. Moreover, it certainly sounds like something Jesus would do, and most scholars who believe the New Testament is reliable also believe that this passage probably did happen. So where did it come from? No one knows for certain. It did probably come from an early apostle or other disciple. Some people have made convincing arguments that Luke wrote it, maybe separate from the rest of his Gospel.

No matter what the details, we can rest assured that the Bibles we hold in our hands today are pretty solid representations of what God originally gave His people. The story of the woman caught in adultery specifically is probably true, and might even be argued to be actual inspired Scripture. It certainly speaks with the power of the Spirit to the love and forgiveness of Jesus. So no worries. Just keep trusting what God has revealed to us in His Son. Amen!

P.S. Here’s the full text of John 7:53-8:11, if anyone wants it.

So each one went to his house. But Jesus went to the Mount of Olives.

At dawn He went to the temple complex again, and all the people were coming to Him. He sat down and began to teach them.

Then the scribes and the Pharisees brought a woman caught in adultery, making her stand in the center. “Teacher,” they said to Him, “this woman was caught in the act of committing adultery. In the law Moses commanded us to stone such women. So what do You say? ” They asked this to trap Him, in order that they might have evidence to accuse Him.

Jesus stooped down and started writing on the ground with His finger. When they persisted in questioning Him, He stood up and said to them, “The one without sin among you should be the first to throw a stone at her.”

Then He stooped down again and continued writing on the ground. When they heard this, they left one by one, starting with the older men. Only He was left, with the woman in the center. When Jesus stood up, He said to her, “Woman, where are they? Has no one condemned you? ”

“No one, Lord,” she answered.

“Neither do I condemn you,” said Jesus. “Go, and from now on do not sin anymore.”

John 7:53-8:11

John 7:53-8:11 (Are Today’s Bibles Reliable?)

Secure Because Jesus (Can You Lose Your Salvation? Part 2)

My last post on whether or not you could lose your salvation was a bit of a mess. Well, that was mainly because I didn’t know exactly where I was going with it. Since then, I’ve gone through a bit of a paradigm shift. So now I want to approach it differently.

My contention: it is completely impossible to lose (or give up, as some will say) your salvation.

Why do I say this? See, it all goes back to a particular question. The question of whether salvation can be lost or abandoned goes back to the more fundamental question of this: what is salvation based on?

What Salvation Isn’t Based On

Naturally, there are a few different ways that people tend to answer this question. Some people will answer, “My salvation is based on the good deeds I do. If I am a good person, God decides I’m saved.” This cannot stand up to any Biblical scrutiny. We are told repeatedly in Scripture that salvation belongs to God, and comes through the blood of Jesus. It is by grace, through faith, not of works, so that no one can boast.

The next answer you’ll hear is, “My salvation is based on my faith in Jesus.” Yet even this isn’t right. Sure, salvation comes through faith, but that’s not what our salvation is based on. This will probably sound strange to many of you, so hold on a minute while I cross off the other answer people give to this question.

Salvation comes through faith, but that’s not what our salvation is based on.

A final common answer is actually a combination of the previous two. “My salvation is based on my works and my faith. If I believe in Jesus and live a Christ-like life, I am saved.” This doesn’t eliminate the problems of the previous answers, though. It actually makes them worse! The reason for this is that both previous answers contain along with this one a deadly, unbiblical word. What is this word? “My.”

Perhaps my point would be more clear if I changed the question. Instead of “what is salvation based on,” since that usually puts our minds into works vs. faith mode, let’s ask “who is salvation based on?” This changes things. There is only one way to answer this question.

Salvation belongs to our God, who is seated on the throne, and to the Lamb!

Revelation 7:10

Who (And What) Salvation Is Based On

Jesus is the basis of our salvation. This is the clear testimony of Scripture. I could chain together a long list of references for this, but I doubt that I need to because it should be blatantly obvious. Our salvation is based on Jesus. Is it also based on ourselves? Is salvation a little bit of Jesus and a little bit of us? Of course not! Salvation is, as we Protestants like to say, solus Christus, “in Christ alone!” It is all of Christ

At this point I should probably back up for a moment. What does this have to do with our faith? “We are saved by faith, right?” you ask. Well, kind of. We are saved by grace through faith. This grace is the obedient life of Jesus, and it is what saves us, not our faith itself.

Our faith and works flow straight from Jesus’ own faith and works.

See, consider what most of us Protestants would already say about works. We would affirm that our good works cannot save us, but that they happen because we are saved and are the result of the Holy Spirit. And we would also agree that Jesus’ good works are involved in saving us. His righteous life counts on our behalf. The truth is, though, that faith works the same way. We are justified, according to Galatians 2:16, by “the faith of Christ.” (Nerd Note: most modern translations say “faith in Christ.” But the KJV before them and now a growing number of contemporary scholars agree with the more literal translation “faith of Christ” or “faithfulness of Christ.”) Jesus’ perfect faith in God, walking step by step trusting the Father, is part of how His life saves us. Our faith, like our works, are caused by the Holy Spirit, with Jesus’ own faith being what really counts.

So what am I saying? Are our faith and works nothing, just inventions of the Spirit, that have nothing to do with salvation? Not exactly. The most important thing the Holy Spirit does is make us “in Christ.” We become united to Him as members of His body through the Holy Spirit. So our faith and works flow straight from Jesus’ own faith and works. His salvation life comes to us through the Spirit, so that we can believe and do good deeds in His power. We become part of the life He lived (and lives!), and that life is the basis for our salvation.

To try to explain this topic in much detail and counter any objections would take longer than I have time for here. But at the core I think it is a simple and Biblical truth: Jesus saves. Our salvation all comes from Jesus, from beginning to end. It is based 100% on Him, with our faith and works coming from Him, too. So even if our faith and works aren’t good enough, even if we don’t believe enough or do enough, they are based on Jesus’ perfect faith and works which save us anyway.

So What About Losing Salvation?

If you’ve followed along so far, you should see where I am going with this. If salvation is not based on our own faith or works, then there is simply no space for us to lose it or give it up. If Jesus is the basis for our salvation, and He believed perfectly, worked perfectly, and remained faithful even to death, then our salvation is eternally secure because of His eternally perfect life! We are secure because Jesus.

So, if this is the case as I’ve said, then what do we make of people who believe for a time and then abandon the faith? Quite simply, they have no connection to Christ. They never did. Jesus’ life cannot be extinguished. No matter how hard we try, if we are truly connected to Jesus through the Holy Spirit, that can’t stop. It’s not even in our control. Your will can’t overcome a changed nature united deeply to God Himself through Jesus. So anyone who stops believing never was united to Jesus. That doesn’t necessarily mean they didn’t believe at all. Certainly that had some kind of faith, otherwise Jesus and James could not call it “faith.” But this faith is not of the Spirit, and does not flow from Jesus’ own faith. It is a faith of the flesh, corruptible and altogether insufficient. It cannot save, and it cannot reach up to bring God down. This faith, paradoxically, resists the Holy Spirit and seeks to establish its own salvation without love and union with Jesus.

Anyone who stops believing never was united to Jesus. Their faith is a faith of the flesh, corruptible and altogether insufficient.

A lot of these ideas in the last couple of paragraphs really need further explanation and reference to Scripture. Unfortunately, I don’t have the space left to do that in this post without going way past the average reader’s attention span, so I’ll save it for a part 3. But hopefully this will be helpful. Remember that if anyone is in Christ, he is a new creation, and nothing can take that away, because it is based on the unchanging perfection of Jesus, not the ever-changing imperfections of yourself.

Secure Because Jesus (Can You Lose Your Salvation? Part 2)

The Nicene Noggin

I really have two different audiences for this blog. One of them is people who are very interested in theology, philosophy, and nerd stuff. The other is everyone else, especially those Christians I know doing daily life without needing lots of technical blahs. For a long time there has been a necessary tension between writing for these two audiences, trying to keep the more technical stuff more approachable for the less technical reader, and trying to keep the more normal stuff interesting enough for more technical readers. 

Because of this, I’ve moved to a segregated blog. Not, obviously, racially. I now have the normal Nicene Nerd blog, and I’ve created a separate section called “The Nicene Noggin.” This is for all of my more technical posts, for people who are more interested in details of theology and philosophy like I am.

While I have moved a handful of older posts to that section, my first post made specifically for the Nicene Noggin is Salvation and Certainty Revisited. If you check it out, you’ll probably notice that I made no attempt here to make it especially accessible. This is liberating in writing on such matters. My normal posts will remain on the level of popular speech, so hopefully this will help everyone.

Until next time, all. Solus Christus!

The Nicene Noggin

Salvation and Certainty Revisited

[This whole post is a follow-up of two earlier posts. First was I’m Not 100% Certain I’m Going to Heaven (And That’s Okay) and the second was Clark Is Certain He is Going to Heaven. Make sure to read them if you haven’t!]

Some time ago, I argued against the possibility of true, epistemic certainty of salvation. You cannot be 100% certain of salvation, I argued, because you cannot have 100% certainty of anything you experience, period, even of the existence of the Bible, God, or anything beyond your own mind.

Since then, I have come to think of this in another light. See, the assumption undergirding my entire previous post was that the only certain knowledge one can have is that which can be rationally deduced. If you cannot prove it with fundamental logical principles, then you cannot know it with 100% certainty. Sure, you can have working confidence, but not perfect knowledge. But now I wonder if that is misguided.

Lacking from my last examination of this question was the concept of union with God the Father, through the Son, through the Spirit. Let us assume for a moment that, regardless of certainty, orthodox Christian doctrines are true. In that case every believer is ontologically united to Jesus through the Holy Spirit, and ontologically united to God the Father through Jesus’ hypostatic union. Therefore each of us has a real, deep connection to God.

Let us also assume that God has perfect certainty. Given that all reality must be contingent on God, and He is indeed the Truth, this makes sense. So if God has perfect certainty, and I have a direct ontological connection with Him, then there is an avenue by which I may attain perfectly certainty.

See, I previously assumed that “I think, therefore I am” was as far as you could go with 100% certainty. “God is 100% certain of all things” is something I would also affirm. But given the reality of union with God through Jesus through the Spirit, “I” now becomes connected to “God” in such a way that perhaps this is possible: “I know x with 100% certainty because this knowledge is mediated to me directly by God, who knows x with 100% certainty.”

If this is the case, presumably through the Spirit we could know with certainty that we are united to God in Christ, at which point we can be assured of salvation. 

“But wait!” someone could object. “You could still have all kinds of rational reasons to doubt salvation, both theologically and philosophically.” Yet this does not negate my point. For not every rational excuse the mind can create negates true knowledge. I could, for example, come up with various objections to the idea that I exist. But while they might have some rational persuasive power, ultimately they could not shake the unconscious certainty that I do indeed exist. This is immediate knowledge which I cannot turn off, though in my mind I could perhaps deny or doubt it.

Likewise, I expect we can have this immediate certainty of salvation through the Spirit deep within, even if it might be unconscious and contradicted by the mind. This would be a good reason why we can experience anxiety and stress about doubting our salvation, for our minds come up with ways to contradict what we actually know for certain, bewildering us.

This is really only a beginning of these ruminations, but I hope they’ll be thought-provoking. I imagine this will lead (at least in my mind) to some more thoughts on reason and faith, and maybe on a defense of having certainty in our senses. Hmm…

Salvation and Certainty Revisited

The Real Problem

As much as I read and write about theology and Christian living, I find myself in a place of wishing I could live up to half of what I find in Scripture. Every time I find a truth about the Holy Spirit, I feel woefully unable to walk in step with Him more. When I perceive the wondrous grace of what Jesus has done for us, I seem too weak to reorient my living and loving to reflect His life. And whenever I hear a convicting message on pray, I despair that I will ever get my prayer life in order.

What is this? Surely the point of God’s Word is not to make us feel trapped in the patterns we’ve been bound to? No, it should be liberating and empowering, bringing life with the power of the Spirit. So why so often doesn’t this change things? I’m not altogether sure, but I know one thing.

The problem is me.

I am the one who, upon being convicted to read Scripture more, instead pulls his smartphone out of his pocket all day. I am the one who, upon realizing he is in desperate need of more prayer with his Father, instead wastes time refreshing websites hoping for new content. And I am the one who, finding that he ought to take more mind of the interests of others, devotes himself to his own interests.

I imagine there are many of you who can relate, who get this. Really, it’s easier to admit behind a keyboard than to someone’s face. I don’t follow through. I quench the Spirit, neglect the Word, and hold back my love. Why? Why? Why? I don’t know, and I wonder. But I know that sin dwells in me, in my flesh, waging war with the Christ-conforming work of the Holy Spirit in me. Sin is remarkably powerful, but I also know that Christ is more powerful still. So why do things work as they do? I don’t know.

But what I do know is Christ. So that I am the real problem, He is the real solution, and since He has redeemed me and made me new, I trust confidently that His Spirit will make my life into His, and His life into mine. After all, what other hope is there?

What a wretched man I am! Who will rescue me from this dying body? I thank God through Jesus Christ our Lord! So then, with my mind I myself am a slave to the law of God, but with my flesh, to the law of sin.

Romans 7:24-25

And I am certain that God, who began the good work within you, will continue his work until it is finally finished on the day when Christ Jesus returns.

Philippians 1:6

The Real Problem