Tension Leads to Accord: Peter, James & Paul

The big issue that threatened to divide the early Church

Paul wrote to the Galatians to address a grievous error in their thinking. They were holding on to a belief that followers of Christ, even Gentiles, must continue to follow Jewish law. Though Jesus prayed for unity among his followers (John 17:20-23), it was a rocky start for the fledgling following.

To emphasize the gravity of the point, Paul recalled to the Galatians a time when he opposed Cephas (Peter the Apostle, himself) “to his face” over the issue! (Gal. 2:11)

Paul seemed to have a lot of gall, didn’t he? Peter lived with Jesus for 3 years. He was one of the closest people to Jesus during his life. He was there when Jesus died, and he was one of the first people to see Jesus when he returned, risen from the dead.

Paul was never around back then. He despised Jesus and his followers! He was there, holding the cloaks of the people who stoned Stephen to death, and he was hellbent on quashing the “rebellion” of the Jesus followers to the traditions of Judaism… until Jesus dramatically revealed himself to Paul. Then, Paul changed completely and became the boldest of proclaimers of the Gospel.

Still, what gall to confront Peter of all people! Right? First for a little back story.

In my last post, I described Peter’s vision of animals on a great sheet and the encounter with the Roman Centurion that convinced him Gentiles can be saved from their sins, the same as Jews. It was no small revelation. It took quite the orchestration of visions, angels, voices and a powerful outpouring of the Holy Spirit to convince Peter to accept the fact that God wanted to share the Gospel with Gentiles.

Peter experienced his own change, though not as dramatic. He went from being concerned that he should be not associating with Gentiles to baptizing the Centurion and his entire household and welcoming them into the family of believers!

I also wrote about this story in relation to the theme of the unity of believers: Reflection on the Unity for which Jesus Prayed: Peter & Cornelius. The great shift from the following law to faith, was a change to beat all changes.

It took a nothing short of a divine appointment of Peter, the Apostle on which Jesus said he would establish the Church, orchestrated by God with all the bells and whistles to provide clear direction. We might think that this encounter settled the score for Peter, once for all, right?

Not so.

Continue reading “Tension Leads to Accord: Peter, James & Paul”

Who Are the Righteous and the Wicked? Part III

Abraham’s faith was more than naked belief; it was belief that prompted him to act in trust in God.

“All Scripture is breathed out (inspired) by God and profitable for teaching, for reproof, for correction, and for training in righteousness….” (2 Tim. 3:16)

I was prompted in reading Psalm 1 to focus on the distinction between “the righteous” and “the wicked” in Who are the Righteous and the Wicked? Part I. As I began to dig into it, I observed that only God is righteous, and our righteousness depends wholly on our relationship to God. If we believe (trust) Him, he credits His righteousness to us. (See Part II) Abraham is our example: when he believed God, His faith in God was credited to him as righteousness. (Gen. 15:6 & rom. 4:3)

This is all very fundamental to Christianity. It might prompt us to make the assumption that people who merely believe God, believe the Bible (and go to church) are righteous. There is a fly in that ointment, however; and James identifies it in his letter.

James acknowledges that Abraham believed God, and his belief was counted to him as righteousness (James 2:23), but James digs a little deeper into what “the righteousness that comes by faith” (Rom. 3:22) really looks like. After all, even demons believe in God (James 2:19), but they aren’t righteous! The difference between the righteous and the wicked, therefore, involves something more than merely believing in God

We explored the idea that righteousness is something that flows from God, out of His very Being. It is not something God decreed, but something that God is in His very nature. Righteousness is not an abstract ideal that God lives up to; God is righteous. We don’t describe God in respect to righteousness; we know righteousness by knowing God.

It helps, perhaps, to take morality out of the equation and to look at it through a more scientific lens. Just as gravity is what it is and operates the way it operates (because that is how God created the universe), righteousness is simply what it is. Righteousness, however, isn’t something God created, like gravity; righteousness flows from the very nature and character of God.

To put it very simply: God defines righteousness by who He is, and righteousness is defined in relation to God.

Thus, we can only know righteousness in relation to God. We can’t be righteous, because only God is righteous. God credits His righteousness to us who believe (trust) in Him, but that is only the beginning.

Christians might call this being born again. We believe God; God counts us righteous; and, thus, He welcomes us into relationship with Him. A birth, however, is only the beginning.

When we dig deeper, as James did, we see a specific characteristic to the belief that Abraham by which God credited it to him as righteousness. That characteristic is something more than bare belief. Demons, who also believe, don’t have that characteristic (otherwise their belief would be credited to them as righteousness too). This characteristic is what James is getting at when he says that “faith apart from works is dead”. (James 2:26)

Abraham’s faith prompted him to action. James says that Abraham’s “faith was active along with his works”, and his “faith was completed by his works”. (James 2:22) Thus, Abraham’s faith was more than naked belief; it was belief that prompted him to act in trust in God.

Having some understanding of what makes a righteous person righteous, and what doesn’t, is essential to our relationship with God.

Faith that doesn’t prompt a person to action is not the kind of faith Abraham had; it is not the kind of faith that is credited to a person as righteousness. Faith that only prompts feelings is not the kind of faith that leads to righteousness. (James 1:19) The faith that leads to righteousness is faith that prompts a person to be a doer of God’s word. (James 1:22-25) It is faith that prompts love for God and love for neighbor, and that love is active! (James 1:26-27)

Faith that doesn’t result in a change from the core of a person’s being that emanates out into a change of heart and change in action is not the kind of faith that can be described as being born again. It is not saving faith, and it is not the kind of faith that God attributes as righteousness to people. 

Evangelicalism and Injustice Part I

Evangelicalism has been very good at preaching the good news, but falls a bit short on doing justice.


I am taking a break from considering the difference between “the righteous” and “the wicked” in Scripture to return to a related topic that erupted publicly in recent weeks: racial injustice. It is related because God’s character is righteousness and justice at His core.

As an attorney, I have had the privilege (and sacred duty) to devote some time to a local organization known as Administer Justice that serves the poor, vulnerable and under-privileged in communities around the country. A great many of “those people” are minorities, immigrants and “the working poor”. I’ve had the honor of getting know some real servants of the Gospel in the process, like Bruce Strom, the founder and executive director of this organization.

I am reading through his book, Gospel Justice. I’ve owned the book for a long time, probably years. I started it a long time ago, and I am still not through it yet because ( I admit) that other, more “interesting” subjects and diversions have distracted me from the seemingly mundane subject of justice.

If I truly want to know God’s heart, to follow Jesus and to work out my salvation as God works within me to will and to act according to His good purpose, though, I need to be concerned about justice – because it’s at the foundation of God’s throne. (Psalm 89:14)

We can’t talk about justice in the United States in the 21st century without talking about racial disparities resulting from centuries of racial injustice. The recent events following the killing of George Floyd (and others) have focused national attention on the issue. As the national dialogue continues, we in the Body of Christ need to engage.

There is a great need for the Body of Christ collective to participate as God would have us get involved in the discussion, action and changes necessary to address racial injustice. My own neighborhood in the Body of Christ is the American evangelical church. Thus, I write this with my evangelical brothers and sisters in mind.

The following passage in Bruce Strom’s book inspires my thoughts today:

“The division between Jews and Gentiles was the great divide of the first century.
“In America that great divide is race, and it remains a leading contributor to injustice. In their book, Divided by Faith, Michael Emerson and Christian Smith examine the role of white evangelicalism in race relations. Based on extensive interviews and study, they conclude that the evangelical church, with its focus on individual salvation, not only misses the opportunity to break down the great divide between the races, but also contributes to it.
“This view is shared by my friend Ed Gilbreath, who wrote Reconciliation Blues. ‘A sad tendency of evangelical faith is to elevate the act of evangelism over the humanity of the people we want to reach…. Apparently, any time an ethnic minority speaks out against race-related injustice, he risks being branded a malcontent in need of therapy.’
“Racial injustice is real….
“We must not walk on by [like the priest and Levite in the parable of the Good Samaritan] as if racial injustice does not exist. We should listen to our neighbors of color who understand well the injustices in their community. And our friends of race should not give up, but seek opportunity to lead by example.”

I am reminded that the evangelical tradition is informed by people like Luther and Wycliffe. They championed the principal that salvation is by faith in the grace of God, not by works that we can do. That and the primacy of Scripture and the need for individual members of the Body of Christ to read Scripture for themselves and to pray to God our Father – not through some intermediary, but directly – one on one.

These things have driven the evangelical church to seek and save the lost, proclaiming the Gospel with the message of salvation to individuals who believe, repent of their sins and put their faith in the lordship and salvation wrought by Jesus on the cross. These are hallmarks of evangelicalism. They are indeed central to the purposes of God.

I am reminded further that, when Jesus stood up in the Temple to announce the beginning of his ministry in Luke 4, he read this from the Isaiah scroll:

The Spirit of the Lord is upon Me,
Because He anointed Me to preach the gospel…. (v.18)

When the evangelical church considers the Great Commission –  “[G]o and make disciples of all nations….” (Matt. 28:19-20) – preaching the Gospel comes primarily to mind.  Evangelicalism has been a champion of preaching the Gospel. 

But, I think that sometimes we forget that Jesus didn’t stop there. The passage in Isaiah from which Jesus read continues on well past preaching the good news (quoting from Isaiah 61:1):

He anointed Me to preach the gospel to the poor.
He has sent Me to proclaim release to the captives,
And recovery of sight to the blind,
To set free those who are oppressed,
To proclaim the favorable year of the Lord.

Continue reading “Evangelicalism and Injustice Part I”

Archaeology that Supports the New Testament Record

Depositphotos Image ID: 139260410 Copyright: vblinov
Kidron Valley and the Mount of Olives

This is the second in a two-part blog series inspired by an interview with archaeologist, Dr. Craig Evans. The first article was general in nature, focusing on people in the biblical record who are confirmed by archaeological finds, and noting that modern archaeology continues to affirm the historical reliability of the Bible. In this piece, we focus on the New Testament, which is Dr. Evans’s specialty.

Significantly, when asked whether he is aware of any archaeological finds that contradict the Gospels, Dr. Evans responded, “Where it relates to the Gospels – the Gospels talk certain people, certain places and certain events – and everywhere archaeology has any relevance that touches on it in any way, the archaeology supports what the Gospels say.” Thus, the theme continues: that modern archaeology, far from casting a shadow of doubt on the bible, shines light on it, illuminating the biblical accounts with archaeological discoveries.

Continue reading “Archaeology that Supports the New Testament Record”