ORIGINS OF THE CREED by James Renihan

If you were a Christian living in the great port city of Alexandria, Egypt in the year 320, your life would likely be full of excitement. Less than 10 years before, the great Emperor Constantine had defeated his enemies, ended Roman persecution of Christians, and granted Christianity the status of a favored religion. You no longer needed to fear arrest, torture or imprisonment simply for being a believer in Christ.

All across the city, the churches and the believers were emerging from the only life they had ever known–fear of opposition–and enjoying the fresh air of freedom. Alexandria was famous for its rich tradition of Christian thinkers; now more than ever, men were considering and expressing their faith. And so even if you were the humblest disciple in the city, you’d know something of the debates that soon began to swirl around the believing community. A highly-respected Presbyter–a mature, seasoned man who was an able preacher and popular pastor–was beginning to have a serious conflict with the city’s Bishop.

The disagreement was doctrinal, and had everything to do with the person and work of Jesus Christ. The presbyter, Arius, used his popularity and abilities to spread his doctrine through the Christian population. One of the methods used among the people was a series of short choruses, sung or chanted by young and old, expressing Arius’s particular doctrine. It was a brilliant method! The Scripture says that we are to teach one another in Psalms, Hymns and Spiritual Songs–and this is what the followers of Arius did. 

One of their choruses is strikingly illustrative of their doctrine and method. Being a Greek speaking city, the chorus was in Greek, and consisted of only five words, only 7 total syllables (a perfect chorus). The first word and the last are the same, while the second and third words rhyme: “ην ποτε ὁτε ουχ ην” (ēn pote hote oukh ēn). You can hear that it is lyrical and simple. One author says that it was chanted over and over, in church and daily in the streets of the city by those who believed its doctrine. 

What does it mean? It’s somewhat difficult to render exactly into English, but it goes something like this: “There was when he was not.” Repeatedly, in church and in the city, the huge community of the followers of Arius chanted this and similar choruses to teach, promote and strengthen their view. 

The “he” is Jesus Christ–“There was when Christ was not.” This small change in wording makes the chorus a little more startling, and perhaps easier for us to understand. In the doctrinal system of Arius and his followers, Jesus Christ, as great as he may be, is a created being, brought into existence by the power of the one true God. He is the firstborn of all creation–greater than all the rest for sure, but still–a created being–not deity. At some point in eternity, God created Jesus Christ. The chorus was a teaching tool, a piece of propaganda for Arius’s doctrine. 

As this teaching grew and spread, it was opposed by the bishop of Alexandria–Alexander (!). He understood the seriousness of the teaching and its implications, and so he held a public inquiry into the matter. This resulted in the suspension of Arius from his ministry. But that was only the beginning of the trouble… a trouble which would last for another 70 years! 

Arius had powerful friends outside of Alexandria. In 324, when Constantine became sole ruler of West and East, he sought to develop favorable relationships with Christian leaders from the east. Among them were Arius’s greatest supporters, who appealed to the Emperor to intervene and restore Arius to his position in the Alexandrian church. Feelings throughout the empire ran high. There was great debate, political maneuvering, and ecclesiastical disorder.

Seeing this, Constantine called a council, which would held at Nicaea in 325 under his personal control. With about 220 bishops in attendance, this has been called the first great council of the church. Through much debate, 218 of the bishops adopted a thoroughly orthodox creed, and Arianism–at least for the time–seemed to have been defeated. 

There are two versions of this creed, a shorter and a longer. The Nicene Creed (proper) comes from the Council of Nicea in AD 325 and is the shorter version; a revised and expanded version (which is the more common creed today) comes from the Council of Constantinople in 381. The original form of the creed was intended to guard the deity to Christ; the second and expanded version speaks more directly to the person and work of the Holy Spirit.

This creed is deeply rooted in the text of Scripture. The authors were committed to the authority of Scripture, and sought to mine its depths and express its doctrine carefully. Here is the revised Creed as found in Schaff, Creeds of Christendom:

We believe in one God, the Father Almighty, Maker of heaven and earth, and of all things visible and invisible.

And in one Lord Jesus Christ, the only-begotten Son of God, begotten of the Father before all worlds, Light of Light, very God of very God, begotten, not made, being of one substance with the Father; by whom all things were made; who for us men, and for our salvation, came down from heaven, and was incarnate by the Holy Ghost of the Virgin Mary, and was made man; he was crucified for us under Pontius Pilate, and suffered, and was buried, and the third day he rose again, according to the Scriptures, and ascended into heaven, and sitteth on the right hand of the Father; from thence he shall come again, with glory, to judge the quick and the dead; whose kingdom shall have no end.

And in the Holy Ghost, the Lord and Giver of life, who proceedeth from the Father, who with the Father and the Son together is worshiped and glorified, who spake by the prophets. In one holy catholic and apostolic Church; we acknowledge one baptism for the remission of sins; we look for the resurrection of the dead, and the life of the world to come. Amen.

The Nicene Creed is accepted by all branches of orthodox Christianity, and its doctrines are considered definitive. If any seemed to introduce a new doctrine, they were examined according to Scripture and the Nicene-Constantinopolitan creed, and urged to conform to it. 

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Dr. James Renihan is President and Professor of Historical Theology at IRBS THEOLOGICAL SEMINARY in Manfield, TX.

IT TAKES THEOLOGY TO LAMENT

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It Takes Theology to Lament

A few days after the stillbirth of our daughter, the phone rang.

On the other end, a familiar voice brought me to tears. It was a mentor from seminary, a teacher whose classes elevated my view of God and leveled my pride. His love for God’s glory and the church often left me wanting to crawl out of class. It was my first taste of Reformed Theology. I was never the same. Dr. Grier called to offer his comfort after learning that our daughter died in the womb just a few days before her due date.

After asking how we were doing and expressing his love he said, “Mark, I want to remind you that your theology matters right now. This may be the greatest test of what you believe.”

He was right.

Over the next two years, we wrestled with waves of grief, mourned multiple miscarriages, and fought the daily presence of fear when we conceived another baby. We clung to what we believed. We talked to one another and to God about our frustrations, questions, and hurts.

We tried to be honest and biblical. We drew upon our theology to inform how we looked at our pain and what we hoped for in the future. The Psalms became our comfort.

While I didn’t know what to call it at the time, our honest prayers were laments. That’s part of the reason why we ran to the middle of our Bibles. Over a third of the inspired songbook reflects this minor-key language. Lament Psalms, in particular, move toward God along the tracks of intense human emotion and deep theological belief.

Looking back on our journey, I’m convinced that the seed of our laments were planted in the soil of what we believed. It takes good theology to be a godly lamenter. Let me show you the connection.

What is Lament?

First, let me start with a definition. I don’t want to assume that you are familiar with this category that dominates the Psalms and encompasses the entire book of Lamentations. A lament is a prayer in pain that leads to trust. It is a uniquely Christian prayer form as people look to God for help in the midst of their sorrow.

Most laments contain four elements: turn, complain, ask, and trust. Each is designed to move the weary-hearted saint toward a renewal of hope in God’s character, even when dark clouds linger. Turning to God in prayer is the first step. It refuses to allow a deadly prayerlessness to develop. Complaining lays out our hurts in blunt but humble terms. We tell God what is wrong and the depth of our struggles. Asking reclaims the promises of God’s word that seem distant, and it calls upon him to intervene. Finally, all laments end in trust. This is where biblical lament is designed to lead – a faith-filled renewal of what we know to be true.

While pain lingers, laments give voice to what we believe.

Why is Lament Theological?

I would guess that most people would view lament as an emotional expression to suffering. They wouldn’t be wrong. But that perspective is incomplete. Lament is deeply theological. It fuses feeling and doctrine.

Christians lament not just because of their pain-filled tears, but also because of biblical truth.

Sin

The doctrine of sin creates lament. Christians believe that underneath cancer, marital problems, wayward children, addictions, church conflicts, death, and every human sorrow is the curse of sin. The entire created order groans under this broken condition (Rom 8:22-24). The presence of pain reminds us – over and over – that something is wrong with the world.

Christians lament more than their personal pain. They mourn the presence of sin and its effects.

Salvation

Christians celebrate the plan of redemption. From Genesis to Revelation we witness the unfolding mission of God to rescue people from their rebellion. Creation, Fall, Redemption, and Restoration are the high points in salvation history. Knowing this trajectory, Christian lament calls upon God to intervene and to rescue us from the lingering effects of the Fall. We believe Jesus entered our messy world not only to save us, but also so that we can have confidence in prayer (Heb. 4:15-16). We cling to the hope that everything, including suffering, works out for God’s good purposes in our lives. (Rom. 8:28).

Knowing the plan of God in redemption motivates us to reach out to him with painful lament prayers.

God

The book of Lamentations mourns over the leveling of Jerusalem and the exile of God’s people. In that dark moment, Jeremiah prays “…the steadfast love of the Lord never ceases” (Lam. 3:22). The beauty of the longest lament in the Bible is its orientation. Jeremiah used his theology to shape his interpretation of disaster. Believing God is good, kind, and merciful changes what you pray when life is hard.

But it also creates biblical complaint. Laments talk to God about circumstances that do not seem to fit with what we believe to be true about him. “Has his steadfast love ceased?” “Has God forgotten to be gracious?” These are just a few of the troubling questions in Psalm 77. Laments talk to God about the disconnect between experience and theology. If we believed God was unkind and limited, there would be no cause for complaint.

The prayer language of lament is rooted in our theology of God. 

Future

Revelation is in the Bible for a reason. It shows us the end-game of our redemption, giving us the promise of a day when tears will be wiped away and death will be no more (Rev. 21:4). Christians long for the defeat of Satan, the removal of sin, unhindered fellowship, and eternal joy. That’s the future. But it’s not here yet.

Christians lament “How long, O Lord?” (Rev. 6:10). We yearn for the day when our faith will be sight. We look to the future with anticipation and godly impatience. The glorious vision of the new heavens and the new earth create the laments for Jesus to come.

Our view of the future informs how we lament in the present.

Lament is one of the most theologically informed practices of the Christian faith. Believers cry out to God in their pain, complain, ask for help, and choose to trust because of what we believe.

Why is This Important?

Considering lament through the lens of our theology is essential. It is important to know that pain is not the sole cause of our laments. Underneath our minor-key songs is a theology.

A big view of God allows us to deeply wrestle with human emotion. Too often grieving Christians fall into the ditches of denial or despair. They project an image that “everything’s fine.” Or their troubling questions may cause disturbing doubts regarding the legitimacy of their faith. By connecting lament with our theology, we change how we define steadfastness in trial. By connecting lament with our theology, we change how we define steadfastness in trial. Truth and trauma co-exist. By connecting lament with our theology, we change how we define steadfastness in trial. CLICK TO TWEET

Preparing people for suffering requires teaching theology. While there may be legitimacy to the stages of grief and support groups, hardship tests what a person believes. In order to help people persevere through seasons of deep sorrow, we need to give them a rich theology that can bear the weight of their pain.

My mentor was more correct than what I knew at the time. The stillbirth of our daughter and navigating the rocky terrain of grief was frightening and exhausting. It tested us at every level, including what we believed.

Our laments emerged from the paradox of the daily battle with grief and our theology. Rather than seeing this tension as something wrong or unhelpful, lament allow us to embrace it.

We learned to live between the poles of a hard life and trusting in God’s sovereignty.

Lament was how we prayed because we believed.

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Mark Vroegop; CREDO MAGAZINE

WHY PASTORS (AND LAYFOLK) SHOULD ENGAGE WITH ANNE BRADSTREET

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Anne Bradstreet was the first person to publish a book of poetry in America and the first female Puritan I encountered. One day at work I went into the stacks to quickly reference a set of her poems; an hour later, I found myself sitting on the floor of the aisle having read the entire book. Something about her candid retellings of universal human experiences, all expressed as a person whose inner life was governed by a devotion to God, scripture, and holiness, had caused my body to freeze on the outside and my heart to bounce around on the inside. But what had also struck me was something I heard about from other female scholars and never gone through myself, namely, a sense of shared experience with a woman in history. Since I encountered Bradstreet, I have taught about her in a number of church and school settings, and continually get positive feedback from women of all ages. Here are some reasons why pastors should too:

Bradstreet’s Poetry Honestly Grapples with Universal Human Experiences from a Christian Perspective

Every part of pastoral work—whether it is preaching, teaching, counseling, or just being around—involves helping people, and all people go through the same general experiences in life though certain aspects of each person’s life are unique. Thus, Bradstreet’s poems can be used as tools for helping people through these experiences by facilitating lament, thanksgiving, and supplication. Scholars agree that Bradstreet’s later poems—all about her own life rather than the lofty ideas found in her earlier poems—are her best work. In my opinion, this is partly true because they provide direct access to the intimate details of her thoughts and emotions; these are not mediated by eloquent language or impressive allusions, but are often the initial, raw feelings jotted down in the heat of the moment. This intensity is only heightened for Christians, as both reader and author have been influenced by the same books and the same God.

For example, Bradstreet was often sick, but always turned to God for relief of pain and comfort in it. In one of her several poems on the subject, “From Another Sore Fit,” she wrote,

In my distress I sought the Lord
When naught on earth could comfort give,
And when my soul these things abhorred,
Then, Lord, Thou said’st unto me, ‘Live.’

Thou knowest the sorrows that I felt;
My plaints and groans were heard of Thee,
And how in sweat I seemed to melt
Thou help’st and Thou regardest me.

My wasted flesh Thou didst restore,
My feeble loins didst gird with strength,
Yea, when I was most low and poor,
I said I shall praise Thee at length.[1]

Bradstreet was also separated from her husband when he travelled to England, causing her to write “In My Solitary Hours in My Dear Husband His Absence.” In the first half, she expresses her loneliness and fears but finds closeness with and hope in God:

O Lord, Thou hear’st my daily moan
And see’st my dropping tears.
My troubles all are Thee before,
My longings and my fears.

Thou hitherto hast been my God;
Thy help my soul hath found.
Though loss and sickness me assailed,
Through Thee I’ve kept my ground.

And Thy abode Thou’st made with me;
With Thee my soul can talk;
In secret places Thee I find
Where I do kneel or walk.

Though husband dear be from me gone,
Whom I do love so well,
I have a more beloved one
Whose comforts far excel…[2]

In my favourite poem, of which the full title is “Here Follows Some Verses Upon the Burning of Our House July 10th, 1666, Copied Out of a Loose Paper,” she laments the loss of her earthly home and turns to hope for her heavenly home. After awaking to the sound of screams of “Fire!” she ran out of her house and watched it burn, writing,

And when I could no longer look,
I blest His name that gave and took,
That laid my goods now in the dust.

Yea, so it was, and so ‘twas just.
It was His own, it was not mine,
Far be it that I should repine;

He might of all justly bereft
But yet sufficient for us left.
When by the ruins oft I past
My sorrowing eyes aside did cast,
And here and there the places spy
Where oft I sat and long did lie:
Here stood that trunk, and there that chest,
There lay that store I counted best.

Then straight I ‘gin my heart to chide,
And did thy wealth on earth abide?
Didst fix thy hope on mold’ring dust?
The arm of flesh didst make thy trust?
Raise up thy thoughts above the sky
That dunghill mists away may fly.
Thou has a house on high erect,
Framed by that mighty Architect,…[3]

Bradstreet’s Poetry Honestly Grapples with Unique Female Experiences from a Christian Perspective

In addition to grappling with universal human experiences, Bradstreet’s poetry also grapples with unique female experiences like giving birth, raising children, and being affected by unbiblical cultural norms. She hides no thought or emotion, and brings scripture and theology to bear on these sincere reactions to trying circumstances. CLICK TO TWEET

For example, in her “Prologue” she responds to those who say she’s of better use as a housekeeper than a poet, and will say she plagiarized her work if it ends up being successful. She sarcastically admits men can write better poetry, but if she could also contribute to this work it it would only enhance theirs, and she would only receive the modest reward of a thyme and parsley wreath (which her educated readers would know was actually given to Greek Olympic athletes):

I am obnoxious to each carping tongue
Who says my hand a needle better fits.
A Poet’s Pen all scorn I should thus wrong,
For such despite they cast on female wits.
If what I do prove well, it won’t advance,
They’ll say it’s stol’n, or else it was by chance.

Let Greeks be Greeks, and Women what they are.
Men have precedency and still excel;
It is but vain unjustly to wage war.
Men can do best, and Women know it well.
Preeminence in all and each is yours;
Yet grant some small acknowledgement of ours.

And oh ye high flown quills that soar the skies,
And ever with your prey still catch your praise,
If e’er you deign these lowly lines your eyes,
Give thyme or Parsley wreath, I ask no Bays.
This mean and unrefined ore of mine
Will make your glist’ring gold but more to shine.[4]

Though one should remember that each woman has different experiences and opinions, and that men can also go through similar experiences, women may especially resonate with Bradstreet’s poems.

In sum, Bradstreet’s poetry is worth reading and sharing because it honestly grapples with universal human experiences as well as unique female experiences as a Christian. She hides no thought or emotion, and brings scripture and theology to bear on these sincere reactions to trying circumstances. Some may feel reading poetry is difficult or unpleasant, but Bradstreet makes it easy. In fact, a few lines of poetry might be just the right kind of literature to use in aspects of public worship, like sermons, as well as private worship, like meditation, since they are short but deep, encouraging the reader to fully recognize herself and then bring that self to God.


Endnotes

[1] Anne Bradstreet, The Works of Anne Bradstreet (ed. Jeannine Hensley, Cambridge: Belknap Press of Harvard University Press, 1981), 248.

[2] Bradstreet, Works, 267.

[3] Ibid., 292–293.

[4] Ibid., 16–17.

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Jenny-Lyn de Klerk; CREDO MAGAZINE

THE BEST BIOGRAPHIES OF WILLIAM WILBERFORCE

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Today’s post is by Michael Morgan (D.Min., Gordon-Conwell Theological Seminary). Michael is researching a PhD on Wilberforce and the clergy at the University of Leicester, under the supervision of Professor John Coffey. He works for William Tennent School of Theology (williamtennent.org) and is the author of Catalyst for Compassion: John Newton, Justice, and the Power of Friendship to Change the World (forthcoming, Fall 2019, Acoma Press). He and his wife, Catherine, have three children.

Few people have leveraged their lives for the goodwill of humanity or the cause of the gospel to the extent that the British abolitionist William Wilberforce did for almost fifty years. Through his long tenure in Parliament, his support of various missions and ministries, and his lifelong campaign for abolition and eventually emancipation, Wilberforce, to an admirable degree, did justice, loved kindness, and walked humbly with his God. Studying his life forces us to consider issues of our own day, including race, empire, missions, and how Christians intersect with the public sphere.

The place to begin any list of Wilberforce biographies is with the five-volume tome compiled by two of his own sons, shortly after their father’s death. Every biography since has relied heavily on this massive work, filled with copious extracts from Wilberforce’s diaries and correspondence. For the general reader, however, The Life of William Wilberforce (1838) is exceedingly tedious to slog through (not to mention expensive). It has little to no narrative arc, and only gluttons for punishment would read it for fun when there are other options on the table. Fortunately, for all of our sakes, there are.

Two older biographies needing mention include John Campbell Colquhoun’s William Wilberforce: His Friends and His Times (1866) and Reginald Coupland’s Wilberforce: A Narrative (1923). Both are out of print, though scanned reproductions can be found on Amazon (or downloaded for free at archive.org). Colquhoun’s work, though not scholarly, is helpful as it gives a reader a short sketch of a handful of those who ran in Wilberforce’s far-ranging circle. Coupland’s, while extremely well written and engaging, doesn’t delve deeply into the primary source material.

After Coupland, it would be some fifty years before any biography of note would appear on the scene. Robin Furneaux’s William Wilberforce arrived in 1974, and three years later, John Pollock would follow up that impressive act with one of his own, entitled simply, Wilberforce(1977). Both are remarkable in their own ways. While Furneaux has a great sense of historical and political context, Pollock did extensive new archival research, and wrote from the vantage point of an Evangelical Anglican clergyman. Furneaux is fantastic, but less sympathetic to Wilberforce’s Christian convictions—just read their chapters about Wilberforce’s conversion side by side. Pollock’s analysis is insightful, nuanced, and familiar, while Furneaux’s leaves a Christian reader looking for something more.

Kevin Belmonte’s William Wilberforce: A Hero for Humanity (2002), while shorter and less researched, follows in Pollock’s sympathetic vein, and builds on it, rightfully giving John Newton, the former slave ship captain and author of “Amazing Grace,” a larger role in the narrative. (This lack, my primary complaint with Pollock, isn’t really his fault. He was not allowed access to the John Newton-William Wilberforce Correspondence, which at the time of writing, was in possession of the family.) To be sure, Belmonte’s is a great entry point for those interested in Wilberforce.

The Roots of Endurance: Invincible Perseverance in the Lives of John Newton, Charles Simeon, and William Wilberforce (2002), from John Piper’s “The Swans are Not Silent” series, is a compilation of three of his biographical messages, creatively packaged together in one slim volume, as Newton, Simeon, and Wilberforce were all collaborators and friends. Piper characteristically concedes, “If academic historians say, ‘Farewell,’ I don’t blame them. I only hope that what I write is true and helps people endure to the end” (11, footnote). To this purpose, his book is a valuable read.

Finally, several good biographies came out around 2007 as bicentenary commemorations of the passing of Britain’s Abolition Bill. Eric Metaxas’ Amazing Grace, is, as my Ph.D. advisor describes it, “a rattling good read,” but rather simplistic (and, thankfully, not nearly as controversial as his Bonhoeffer: Pastor, Martyr, Prophet, Spy). In the same year, the future Foreign Secretary and Conservative Party leader, William Hague (who already had written a biography of Wilberforce’s good friend, Prime Minister William Pitt), brought his expertise to the politician in the massive William Wilberforce: The Life of the Great Anti-Slave Trade Campaigner. Perhaps the best of 2007 is Stephen Tomkins’ William Wilberforce: A Biography, who followed it up with The Clapham Sect: How Wilberforce’s Circle Transformed Britain (2010). Tompkins’ writing is well-researched, admiring, and yet honest.

Wilberforce biographies tend to divide in rather neat categories, written either with academic heft, or for popular appeal, written by those who share his Christian convictions, or those who admire his abolition work, regardless of faith. For those who want one book “to rule them all”—a biography that combines engaging storytelling with historical finesse, theological sensitivity with social and political acumen—for the Christian who has read George Marsden’s masterful Jonathan Edwards: A Life, and is looking for the Wilberforce equivalent, the closest comparison at present would be John Pollock’s Wilberforce.

WHAT IS THE HELMET OF SALVATION ?

This helmet I suppose Was meant to ward off blows It’s very hot and weighs a lot So off this helmet goes, so off this helmet goes.

So sings one of the characters in Gilbert and Sullivan’s opera Princess Ida—right before entering a duel! I used to belong to a fencing club, so I can testify that the kit required for combat—even with blunt foils—certainly matched that description: hot, heavy, and uncomfortable. Yet if you know the risks involved in that particular activity, you’re more likely to take seriously the need for proper equipment to engage in it.

But what is the proper equipment needed to face life? The answer depends on what you expect life to be like. Many people, including Christians, expect life to be a walk in the park. Because that is their expectation, they’re mentally dressed accordingly, in a t-shirt and shorts, with flimsy flip-flops on their feet. They aren’t alert and on guard, moment by moment expecting the assault of a powerful adversary. Instead, they’re sauntering through their days, carelessly enjoying the sunshine, not dressed in proper spiritual safety gear.

Helmet of Salvation

Let me give a specific example, what Paul calls “the helmet of salvation” (Eph. 6:17).

In order to put it on, you first need to know what this helmet is. Like the breastplate of righteousness, this piece of armor is borrowed directly from the description of the divine warrior in Isaiah 59:17. In fact, God’s righteousness and his people’s salvation occur together frequently in Isaiah. God’s righteousness—his reliable commitment to fulfill all his promises to his people—means he must act to deliver them from all their enemies, including the greatest enemy of all—their sin, and the separation from God it causes.

This firm promise of God provides the basis for their secure hope amid life’s trials and difficulties. That is why in 1 Thessalonians 5:8, Paul describes this piece of armor more fully as the “helmet of the hope of salvation.” The Christian’s helmet is his or her sure hope of salvation.

Yet many Christians seem to have mislaid their helmets. Most people are “hoping” to be saved, perhaps, but that’s not what Paul means. As far as battle headgear, that kind of “hoping to be saved” is as useful as a floppy sun hat. It won’t do you much good when the conflict grows fierce. In the Bible, hope is never a vague optimism that everything is going to work out in the end; rather, it’s a settled conviction about where you will spend eternity. Biblical hope is sufficiently sure that you can give a reason for it (1 Pet. 3:15). Yet many can’t offer a good reason for their vague sense that they’re going to heaven.

One evangelistic outreach program suggests asking, “If you were to die tonight and God were to ask you, ‘Why should I let you into my heaven?’ what would you say?” Many don’t have an answer. Others reply, “I’ve tried my best to love people; I’m no worse than anyone else.” These people have an uncertain reason for their hope. If you’re relying on your own goodness to enter heaven, you can never know for sure where you’re going. Are you good enough for God’s standard? What if you do something dreadful later in life? When I look into my own heart and see all the wrong things I think and do every day, I know I don’t have any chance of entering heaven based on my personal record. Certainly, I could never be sure of going to heaven on my own goodness.

Sure and Steady Hope

But the Bible tells us we can know for sure that we’re going to heaven. The apostle John says, “I write these things to you who believe in the name of the Son of God, that you may know that you have eternal life” (1 John 5:13). John wants us to know for sure we’re going to heaven, and he explains how: “This is the testimony, that God gave us eternal life, and this life is in his Son. Whoever has the Son has life; whoever does not have the Son of God does not have life” (1 John 5:11–12). If we have Jesus, we have life. If we don’t have Jesus, we don’t have life. Eternal life is God’s free gift, which comes to us wrapped up in his Son. We receive Jesus Christ and his righteousness, and along with him we receive life. Turn your back on Jesus, and in the same motion you’re turning your back on heaven.

That is why believers can be sure about going to heaven. If attaining heaven depends on our best efforts, it must always remain uncertain. But if heaven is received as a free gift, we can know we have it for sure. As surely as we have received Jesus’s perfect goodness and asked for all our failure and sin to be laid on him, so surely we have received heaven. Dressed in the breastplate of Christ’s righteousness, given to us as a free gift of grace, we can be utterly confident of our eternal future: we have our helmet of the hope of salvation firmly in place and are now ready to face life’s storms.

Life is hard. That’s normal for followers of a crucified King. We’re engulfed by difficulties and temptations on all sides. We must wrestle with our rebellious hearts, as well as external trials. All the more reason, then, to be properly clothed. For when we face trials in the armor God has given, and the forces of darkness have done their worst and the fog of war finally lifts, we will be found standing firm in hope, in the strength provided by the Holy Spirit.

I WAS A WHITE SUPREMACIST

“There is a way that seems right to a man, but its end is the way to death” (Prov. 14:12).

This verse can apply to many situations, but it applies most importantly to the way of salvation. We can think we’re living a good Christian life—all while barreling toward death.

I learned this through hard experience.

Thanks to my dear Baptist mother, I grew up going to church regularly. By the age of 13, I knew that hell is a terrible reality, and I didn’t want to go there when I died. I also knew that Jesus died for my sins and that by accepting him I’d go to heaven. After talking with the pastor, I made a profession of faith one Sunday morning and was baptized that evening. I was now sure I would go to heaven when I died.

But nothing could have been further from the truth. Actually I had passed through the wide gate onto the easy road that leads to destruction, which Jesus warns about in the Sermon on the Mount (Matt. 7:13). It was indeed “the way that seems right to a man, but its end is the way to death.”

Eventually I came to see that I was motivated by fear. Accepting Jesus had been a matter of intellectual assent, not repentance and faith. Unfortunately it took 10 years to discover that—years filled with much sin and suffering.

Very Wrong Way

The way that seems right to a man can take various forms, many of them respectable. For me, it took the form of fighting for God and country. At first blush, that sounds admirable—like noble military service. But I was in the midst of the civil-rights era of the 1960s, and in my case “fighting for God and country” meant embracing far-right extremism, with its hatred of blacks, Jews, communists, socialists, and liberals. I adopted the views of the Christian Identity movement, a virulently racist, anti-Semitic cult. (This and other racist, anti-Semitic groups are alive and well today, and gaining adherents in these troubled times.) One old saint wisely observed that “the Devil is a master fisherman. He baits his hook according to the appetite of the fish.” He had used the right bait to catch me.

The road I was traveling led to increasing hatred for the “enemies” of America and the white race. They had to be stopped at all costs—the end justified the means. One night an accomplice and I attempted to bomb the home of a Jewish businessman in Meridian, Mississippi, but the house was staked out by a police SWAT team. My accomplice was killed, and I was shot four times at close range with shotgun fire. When I got to the hospital, the doctors said it would be a miracle if I lived 45 minutes.

But God had mercy on me and miraculously spared my life. If ever there was a time to repent of my sins and turn to Christ, it was then. But I was dead in trespasses and didn’t think what I was doing was wrong. After all, I was fighting for God and country.

I was sentenced to 30 years in the Mississippi State Penitentiary, said to be one of the worst prisons in America at the time. I went there with one thing in mind: to escape and return to my activities. It took six months to work out a plan and recruit two other inmates, but we pulled off a successful escape. Two days later, however, the FBI found us in a wooded area, and one of the inmates was killed in the ensuing gunfire. Had he not relieved me from standing watch 30 minutes earlier than planned, I would have been the one killed.

I was taken back to prison—this time to a solitary cell in the maximum-security unit. It was the lowest point in my life, since any hope of escape was gone. Rationally speaking, this would’ve been another propitious time to repent and turn to Christ. But I still saw myself as a patriot fighting for God and country. When someone is blind and dead in sin, rational considerations alone can’t bring them to life.

It takes something more. Something supernatural.

New Way

To keep from going crazy, I occupied my time with reading. Top priority was catching up on all the racist and anti-Semitic books I hadn’t devoured before. I then read a book on neo-fascist political theory and cultural analysis, which exposed me to a much more sophisticated intellectual approach to the issues of race and culture. Many Western philosophers were referred to, and they were intriguing to me. I had never seen anything like this before, and it awakened in me an interest in philosophy. I read Hegel’s Philosophy of History and then Oswald Spengler’s Decline of the West, both of which were challenging for someone with no philosophy background. Plato and Aristotle were mentioned, and around that time I saw a mail-in advertisement for the works of Plato, Aristotle, and Marcus Aurelius. I had been interested in Western Civilization in high school and in my first semester at college, so this seemed like a good place to start a proper study.

I had no idea that such a study would take me away from my racist, anti-Semitic, far-right ideology. In retrospect, I see it as the Holy Spirit’s pre-evangelistic ambush. It liberated my mind and gave me a desire to seek truth, wherever that might take me and also to examine my life, as Socrates urged. Since philosophy didn’t possess the truth I was seeking, I was drawn (I now realize, by the Spirit) to read the Gospels, where I was encountered by Truth Himself (John 14.6).

Unbeknownst to me, a group of women had read about me in the newspaper—and had been praying weekly for two years that God would save and use me for his glory. The leader of this prayer group was the wife of the FBI agent who orchestrated my capture in Meridian. Not long after I started reading the Gospels, my eyes began to be opened—“a divine and supernatural light imparted to the soul,” as Jonathan Edwards said. My many sins began flooding to mind—and with them conviction, repentance, and tears of confession. One night, I knelt on the floor of my cell and prayed a simple prayer to Jesus, asking for forgiveness and offering my life to him if he wanted it. It felt like a thousand pounds had been lifted from my shoulders. Something changed inside of me, and I haven’t been the same since. I had left the road of easy religion that was leading me to destruction and stepped onto the narrow path that leads to eternal life (Matt. 7:14).

I awoke the next day to find that I was now spiritually alive, and God was real to me! I had an immediate appetite to read the Bible, pray, and live for God. The more I read the Bible, the more I grew. God gave me love for people I once hated and has helped me to change in many other ways. Miraculously, I was released from prison in 1976, after serving eight years. And from 1978 to the present, I have been active in ministry.

As I look back over the 50-plus years since that night in 1968 when I was given 45 minutes to live, all I can do is marvel at the goodness and love of God, who sent his Son to rescue me from the way of sin and death. He has been a gracious Father to me over the years as I have sought, however imperfectly, to walk the narrow road to eternal life. He has been kind and patient, convicting me of sin where needed, forgiving me as I repent, strengthening me for fresh obedience, showering me with blessings, and steadily fulfilling his purposes through my life. It hasn’t always been easy, of course, for Jesus said it wouldn’t be. But God has been faithful and carried me through the trials and tribulations of life—some very painful—using them for my good.

Sadly, many don’t know this grace. They still walk in darkness, even in the church. The road they’re on seems right, but it leads to death. As C. S. Lewis observed, “If you have not chosen the kingdom of God, it will in the end make no difference what you have chosen instead.” We’re called to bring such people the light of Christ. The same grace that’s been so abundant in my life is available, today, to anyone who truly wants it. Simply embrace the gospel and turn to Christ in repentant faith.

THE DEVIL WILL HANG ON HIS OWN GALLOWS

“The weakness of God is stronger than men” (1 Corinthians 1:25). That one sentence from the apostle Paul, with poetic simplicity, captures why redemptive history has played out in the strange, unlikely ways that it has.

Woven through Scripture and church history is a consistent and counterintuitive pattern: God cedes the positions of greatest worldly power and influence and wealth to his enemies — those who “take their stand. . . against the Lord and against his Anointed” (Psalm 2:2 NASB) — and then, through the most improbable, unexpected means, overthrows his enemies and redeems his people. He lets Haman build the gallows, and then hangs him on it.

You remember Haman. He’s the villain in the biblical account of Esther, the made-for-film historical drama that played out mainly in the Persian capital of Susa — today, the Iranian city of Shush — in the fifth century B.C. This story is an archetype of the biblical pattern, the grand story in miniature.

Evil Ascends to Power

The crisis at the center of the story is that the Jews living in the Medo-Persian empire under the rule of King Ahasuerus (or Xerxes I) find themselves on the brink of annihilation because of the malevolence of one man: Haman.

Haman was one of the king’s court officials. And at some point, “King Ahasuerus promoted Haman the Agagite, the son of Hammedatha, and advanced him and set his throne above all the officials who were with him” (Esther 3:1). In those days, Haman’s position was called Grand Vizier. He was second-in-command and the king’s most trusted advisor.

Haman loved his powerful, lucrative, and exalted position. By the direct command of the king, one of the enjoyable benefits was that whenever he would enter or exit the palace gate the king’s subjects had to bow low before him, conceding Haman’s superiority (Esther 3:2). But one man denied him that benefit, which incited in him a deadly rage (Esther 3:5).

Weak People in Unlikely Places

Mordecai was a Jew living in Susa thanks to Nebuchadnezzar’s deportation program a generation earlier (Esther 2:5–6). He held no position of power or social influence. All we know is that prior to the core events of the story, Mordecai was “bringing up” his first cousin, Hadassah (whose Persian name was Esther), as his own daughter, because she had been orphaned (Esther 2:7), which meant the girl was probably still in her teens when the unexpected happened to her.

As a part of Mordecai’s household, Esther too lived in obscurity. She happened to be exceptionally beautiful (Esther 2:7), but it wouldn’t have entered anyone’s mind that her beauty would result in powerful political influence with the king. And then something unusual occurred: the former queen refused to obey a command of the king and was therefore royally divorced (Esther 1). As a result, a kingdom-wide who will be the next queen beauty contest was staged. And Esther, with no powerful connections, from no noble family (1 Corinthians 1:26), won.

In fact, nobody in the court seems to care at all about her family connections. Mordecai appears to have no privileged court access. So being a loving, conscientious, concerned adoptive father, he regularly stationed himself near the palace gate so he could keep tabs on Esther’s well-being as best he could (Esther 2:11, 21; 3:3). And this resulted in unexpected, providential consequences, one wonderful and one terrible and then wonderful.

The wonderful consequence was that one day Mordecai discovered an assassination plot against the king, exposed it, and saved the king’s life (Esther 2:19–22). But the king apparently forgot about it quickly — though the deed was recorded in “the [king’s] book of memorable deeds” (Esther 6:1). Despite his faithfulness, Mordecai remained just another obscure servant milling about the palace gate. The gates where Haman regularly went in and out.

Evil Makes Its Move

So we know Haman enjoyed when everyone bowed before the most excellent Vizier as he arrived and exited. The problem was, not everyone bowed. Mordecai, due to his Jewish religious convictions, refused to honor Haman in a way he believed only God should be honored. Haman was informed and took homicidal offense over this (Esther 3:2–4).

Then comes a strange twist in the story: once Haman discovered Mordecai was a Jew, his anger turned genocidal — he decided every Jew in the kingdom should die (Esther 3:5–6). Why this overreaction? The anonymous author of the book of Esther gives us a clue, but more on that in a moment.

Patient in his lethal resentment, Haman waited for an opportune time, then carefully sought to persuade the king to codify his Jewish extermination plot in a royal, irrevocable, well-funded decree. The king was persuaded and put his ring to the wax (Esther 3:8–13).

Now the stage was set. Haman had secured all the political power, legislative coercion, sociocultural influence, and financial resources to carry out this mass slaughter. Only an act of God could save God’s imperiled people.

Glimpse Behind the Story

Now, back to the question: why kill every Jewish person? Well, perhaps Haman’s personal ego was just that big. But the author drops a hint for those who know their Bibles that something bigger was playing out — a providential backstory.

We’re told that Haman was an “Agagite” (Esther 3:1). Agag was the Amalekite king whose army was annihilated by the Israelite army under King Saul and who was himself executed by the prophet Samuel (1 Kings 15). In other words, Haman was of Amalekite descent.

This might explain Haman’s deep-seated hatred of the Jews: desire for ethnic revenge. But I think the inclusion of this genealogical detail had less to do with informing readers about Haman’s problem with the Jews, and more to do with reminding readers about God’s problem with Amalek:

Then the Lord said to Moses, “Write this as a memorial in a book and recite it in the ears of Joshua, that I will utterly blot out the memory of Amalek from under heaven.” And Moses built an altar and called the name of it, The Lord Is My Banner, saying, “A hand upon the throne of the Lord! The Lord will have war with Amalek from generation to generation.” (Exodus 17:14–16)

God also has a book of memorable deeds. Haman’s “Agagite” lineage reminds us there is a bigger struggle between good and evil playing out than the one occurring in Susa. Esther is a story within a far bigger story. Keep your eyes open when you read the Bible. God is in the details (even when he’s not mentioned).

Most Unlikely Deliverance

Everything seemed to be going swimmingly for Haman. He appeared (and felt) secure in his position of power, honor, and wealth. The day of death for the Jews was on the schedule. And to give himself a special reward, he had an extravagant, seventy-five-foot gallows built so he could fully savor Mordecai’s demise (Esther 5:14).

And then events turned on the providential hinge: unexpectedly, suddenly, in a single day it all went south.

It started with a royal bout of insomnia. Unable to sleep, the king decided to review the “book of memorable deeds.” And he just happened to realize he’d forgotten Mordecai’s memorable deed of saving his life — the man had never been rewarded (Esther 6:1–4). This oversight needed rectifying immediately! And Haman just happenedto come early to the palace and offered great counsel about how men in whom the king delights should be honored — which resulted in the Grand Vizier publicly and lavishly honoring Mordecai in the city — a bad omen, as Haman’s own wife pointed out (Esther 6:13).

Then that evening the big bomb dropped. The queen turned out to be one of the Jews Haman had condemned to death. Immediately Haman transformed from the king’s most trusted official into his most treasonous enemy (Esther 7:1–8). And when it appeared things couldn’t possibly get worse, the queen turned out to be Mordecai’s adopted daughter!

The story ends with the murderous Amalekite swinging on the gallows he had built for the faithful Jew, and the Jews of the kingdom suddenly awash in publicly recognized royal favor and empowered to fully defend themselves, turning their doomsday into a V-day. And to add to the happy ending, Mordecai assumed the late and disgraced Haman’s position of the king’s Grand Vizier.

The Devil Is Going to Hang

This story of redemption, the kind of story we love so much, the kind of story that resonates with something deep, deep inside us, is a type, a shadow of the Grand Story of redemption. A story in which “God chose what is foolish in the world to shame the wise; God chose what is weak in the world to shame the strong” (1 Corinthians 1:27).

God ceded all the positions of worldly power, influence, and resources to the devil (1 John 5:19). Then when he came into the world to redeem his people, hardly anyone, even from his own ethnic people, recognized him (John 1:10–11). He came from a despised town no one expected (John 1:46), chose disciples no one expected, and accomplished his most important work through means no one expected. God on the cross and God in a tomb? Never had God’s position looked so weak; never the enemies’ so strong. And never had an enemy so terribly miscalculated.

At any given time, things can look very discouraging. Our vantage point is always very limited. Depending on when and where we’re living, it can appear as if satanic evil is going to defeat God’s good. But don’t lose heart. Don’t forget the storyline. There’s a bigger story playing out than just the one we’re watching.

Yes, pray and fast and act with the called-for courage, even if perishing is a very real possibility (Esther 4:16). A time is coming when events are going to turn on a providential hinge, and God will send deliverance for his people, most likely from a wholly unexpected place. And, as Jess Ray so poignantly sings, “the devil is going to hang on his own gallows.”

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