How come Christians mostly talk to similar-minded folks?

When I was training to be a preacher in the early 90s, the most attuned preaching prof advised that we preach as if unbelieving visitors were present.

The basis of this advice was a conception that if Jesus Christ brings any difference to, say, your money management, that same ability to bring faith to bear would apply to people who don’t come with faith, as it would apply to people who don’t see how the good news might apply to money management.

Translation: Advice to unbelievers could benefit believers too.

Believers live in the world too, not always relying on a faith approach (surprise!), talking a secular language should work for both kinds of hearers.

The radical idea under the advice is that hearers don’t have to have crossed the threshold into believerdom before they can benefit from a church message.

Contradicting many people, that’s saying: There is not a salvation message, and then a second step, a holiness message.

There is one message of faith in the risen Messiah of Israel, Jesus.

The message is for believers who need to put it into practice, also for unbelievers who need to put it into practice.

So: Preach as if unbelieving visitors are present. The believers will hear you better too.


When I actually got into a church and had to deliver each Sunday, the advice proved hard to implement.

I don’t know exactly why it was so hard to speak as if pre-faith folks were present.

Many messages I developed seemed likely to matter only to church folks.

I’d take a verse, think it through, develop a pile of possible implications, make it as practical as I could.

But as soon as you yield to the temptation to talk in-house on just one day, you are sunk because the members will not know for sure if you are in-house or whole city on any given day. So your Sunday morning space will not be automatically safe for pre-faith people. They might be subject to something that does not concern them.

I was somewhat successful in a wide audience message when I knew for sure that there would be mainly non-church folks present.

The mighty focusing reality forced me to think through the language and thought forms.

I read over my messages now, ten years later, and here is what I think.

These talks might be OK if only church folks were there, but for anyone else they are so dusty. They probably talk past people.

Why, for example, is a post I just made about death so out of it? It seems very Sixties as I read it.

The post tries to get “under” death as a taken-for-granted reality by acknowledging secular ways of dealing with death (that’s the Kubler Ross introduction).

Then I use literature (a Tolstoy story from the late 1800s) to show the horror of death when you are in a process that we tend to ignore during life. Just as Illich ignored the coming reality until struck down.

But, here’s a problem.

People today display no fear of death.

They might even shrug if you talked about it.

“No one knows what happens.”

The conception of sin that drove the fear has evaporated in the era of Freud and more recent therapies.

The pursuit of personal authenticity is much more pressing than moral failure.

Tolstoy is labeled a moralist, after all. His psychology is a moral or religious psychology.

Few people are primarily moralistic now.

Tolstoy’s story is still interesting (I think). Charles Taylor the current philosopher has a piece or two that jigsaws with it – still, even now.

But it is not quite on the track with late-moderns or post-moderns who have been psychologized.

Counselling prof David Powlison once asked a seminary class: How do you intend to do ministry with psychologized people?

Powlison’s question is still a great one. I wish he had said more about it.

If sin-sense seems to be gone, you have to find where the consciousness of sin is hiding out. how the anxieties also manifest themselves today.

The filmmaker Kieslowski did a 1980s film search expedition of just this question. In his series “The Ten Commandments,” each segment works out the persistent effects of disregard of the commandments.

Even though no character has much or any faith.

After all, psychologized or not, we are created in the image of God. We have all done something with God. We all live in his world. He is inescapable.

For the old time preacher, how to find where they’ve hidden him?


Why ever should Jesus on the cross prompt you to trust him for your life?

“Today, you will be with me in Paradise.” (Luke’s gospel chapter 23)



Some of us know about five stages of death.

The first is denial and isolation.

The second is anger.

The third is bargaining.

The fourth, when things are definitely not going to get better, is depression.

And then, supposedly, the fifth stage is acceptance.

Eighty years before Elizabeth Kubler-Ross thought up this five stage scheme, the very realistic Russian writer Tolstoy showed us the death of Ivan Illich.

Tolstoy’s Illich has been a lawyer and judge.

Illich has gone from position to higher position with hardly a hitch. He lived for getting honour in his good job at his career and for recognition in society, for his own pleasure.

Suddenly at age 45 he comes down with a pain in his side. The mysterious pain grows worse and worse.

Over weeks it becomes clear to everyone around that Judge Illich is dying.

For everyone else death is outside them. Like Illich himself until now, death happens to other people.

He has become just an invalid, a burden.

He is an inconvenience to all whose lives go on.

No one will tell him that he is dying.

His life has been a self seeking lie but he cannot quite see through it. And the pain will not go away.

Now, shift the scene:

In the year 33 on this hill outside Jerusalem – two executions are going on, besides Jesus.

Jesus the rabbi from Galilee. Jesus is crucified with a couple of criminals.

Three executions. Three naked human beings. Three humiliations. Three failures.

The criminals react to Jesus in two different ways. One mocked Jesus and would not believe.

The other repented and trusted him.

Luke 23:39-44 reads, (NIV) One of the criminals who hung there hurled insults at him: “Aren’t you the Messiah? Save yourself and us!”

But the other criminal rebuked him. “Don’t you fear God,” he said, “since you are under the same sentence? We are punished justly, for we are getting what our deeds deserve. But this man has done nothing wrong.”

Then he said, “Jesus, remember me when you come into your kingdom.”

Jesus answered him, “Truly I tell you, today you will be with me in paradise.”

Isn’t this scene exactly what we find in regular life? Just like the mocking criminal, there are people who just make fun of believers.

Many see no difference in living for Jesus.

Others see their need and believe.

Something in the situation led criminal Two to see himself. For what he was. To see Jesus. For who he really is.

Criminal One mocks. Aren’t you the Christ? -the Messiah we expected? -the savior?

But see it makes no difference, Christ, Messiah, savior, you end up here just like the rest of us. There is no hope from you.

But he missed himself. He missed his own situation. He is dying.

Why are there not more deathbed repentances? We are hardened. We fail to understand the horror of dying. The flow of life hides it. We have to stop and think and that sometimes takes quite a knock.

Sometimes even being on the edge of death doesn’t do it.

Criminal Two saw it clearer. Don’t you fear God? You are under the same sentence. In fact, WE ALL DIE.

Jesus should prompt you to repent. Criminal Two said: he has done nothing wrong. But you have. All of us have.

No one has done no shameful things.

No one has failed to forgive.

No one has not had deep desires for this or that which God has not given as yours.

No one has not committed character assassination.

But Jesus is innocent. He did nothing wrong. He did nothing to deserve death.

He makes the horror of dying clear. We deserve death. He did not. Our sin put him there.

Jesus should prompt you to repent because he is able to save you.

Criminal Two said, Jesus, remember me when you come into your kingdom.

Jesus accepted many unacceptable people. Jesus’ care was evident. Criminal Two does not mock Jesus the savior king. He confesses his faith.

“You are going to get a kingdom. You are the Messiah. At the end of time, think of me. That will be enough for me to be OK. Remember me. Rescue me. I think I may be some place suffering torment, but remember me when you win. God is with you. I trust you. You can get me out of there. Save me.”

Jesus said: I say to you, not sometime down the road, but TODAY you will be with me in Paradise.

Here is the word of the king. I say to you — verily verily — you can count on it — Amen, amen — my word is as reliable as the fact that the sun comes up every day.

Today you will be with me. I speak and it happens. My word goes out and accomplishes what it is sent for. Even on the seeming failure of the cross Jesus is Lord.

Today. Go in peace, your faith has saved you.

If there was ever a clear show of the fact that Jesus saves, not our efforts, not what we do for the Lord — or don’t do — it is here.

At the end of a wretched life, totally misspent, God gives this criminal the grace, the smarts, the courage to cry out for mercy. A misspent life but an eternity with Christ.

Today. You can die in peace. You can face it. You have Jesus’ word: today. Absent from the body is present with the Lord.

And this is what Ivan Illich finally came to in Tolstoy’s account.

By the grace of God, through the pain, he asks the impossible question: did I live my whole life wrong? After he receives the formal communion something clicks for him, something he has overlooked, something that takes away all the falsity and lying of his family and friends.

Do you need a fresh view of the cross? Paul says to the Galatian Christians: I made you see Jesus Christ Messiah Savior clearly pictured: crucified.

Have you forgotten that Jesus takes away sin by his cross — for you? Have you forgotten to keep repenting in the light of the cross — to live out your faith by putting off the old and putting on the new person?

The cross is the word of mercy.

There is a right reaction to Jesus on the cross. Jesus on the cross should prompt you to repent.

He should prompt you to repent because you will die too.

He should prompt you to repent because you are guilty.

He should prompt you to repent because he can save you when you trust him.

TODAY you will be with me in Paradise.



Did Jesus Die for Hitler’s Sins?

Thinking out loud.

Today is Good Friday.

A friend of mine said that Jesus died for everyone’s sins, for the world – for Hitler’s sins.

I’ve been reading journalist Peter Maas’s 1996 book on the Bosnian war, Love Thy Neighbour.

Human sin goes very wide in the book. The criminal averted eyes of Western leaders come off as hardly less heinous than the concentration camp guard who roped a Muslim’s genitals to a motorcycle and accelerated away.

Maas has sensitive insight because he doesn’t demonize the Serbs; he makes the potential demonic to be as wide as the human race, including a good selection of his own self-protective actions.

Do anyone’s sins, say, those of pedophile rapist Major Michael Pepe, keep one from God’s kind presence?

If Jesus died for Hitler’s sins, is Hitler to enjoy eternal life?

Universalism is the belief that every single human being, good, bad, and mediocre, will be saved at the end.

Probably universalism is not usually meant when Christians affirm, “Jesus died for all.”

But if a sufficient sacrifice exists for my sins, then how can God be so unjust as not to accept it?

The whole point of Jesus’ death on the cross is that his sacrifice avails for my past deeds, my present deeds, even, when they come, my future deeds.

If I keep faith with the Son of God, he will justify me finally as he has already done incipiently (Romans 3).

And he knows those who are his, so he knows already whether I will hit some event in future which is just too big for my puny faith, and when I will turn away from him saying, Impossible.

Many must have lost their faith in the Holocaust, in Bosnia, in Rwanda, perhaps after 9-11.

To the contrary, many realized that these horror show events just put the theodicy question in the starkest possible form: “Is the monotheist’s God really just? Is he fair?” And they may have decided to believe, no matter what.

Maas met a faithful Catholic who gave the affirmative answer, and says that he has been wondering about her ever since. Was she naïve? Or was she exactly correct?

Maybe one could say that God is good to us so that the horror shows are repeated relatively rarely – though, again, someone else could beg to differ.

If God saw the need for a sacrifice for sin to the amazing, awful extent of his own Son, you could say that he is not naïve about human negative potentials.

God on the cross is the only God worth worshipping, as many have observed, and from which many have turned away. The event is an interpretive crux, so to speak. “Who is God? Can I believe in him in this evident hell?”

Were Hitler’s sins forgiven? If Hitler died repentant, the answer would be yes. So we do not know.

If we take the evidence of those in the May 1945 bunker and the fact of his suicide, again, not conclusive evidence, we say: Probably he died unrepentant. The sacrifice which my friend attributed to Herr Hitler remained, er, inert, unactivated, unactualized.

I prefer to say that Hitler had no sacrifice, but maybe it seems like splitting hairs. Hitler had a potential sacrifice, but in fact, that is, most likely, Hitler had no sacrifice because he had not picked it up and presented it to God.

So Jesus did not die for Hitler’s sins, that is, most likely not.

Jesus died for the sins of those who would repent and believe.

If we believe that God knows everything – indeed, works everything out for good – then he also knows who will believe, who will take for themselves that sacrifice.

God knows the names of the metaphorical 144,000 who stand before his throne.

God knows the names of the uncountable multitude, both of the stars in the sky and of his people in the Book of Revelation chapter 7.

Just read a genealogy in, say, Genesis. God knows his people. This foundation stands, sure and certain: The Lord knows who are his.

Perhaps you are familiar enough with theology to know that what you are reading is partly canned and partly fresh.

You may know that there is such a theology as Calvinism. You might know that it is said that “five points” sum up Calvinism.

In fact, the five points are not a summary of Calvinism.

The five points really only disagree with five other points, from a dissident theologian named Arminius.

Arminius’s five points basically say that humans make up our own minds or else God is not fair.

The supposed ability to decide is the essence of free-will theology. If God ordains or God allows (how much difference is there, really?) then God is not fair. He is a despot.

Okay, I can hear howls of protest.

But if God withholds some power or some favour that is needed for satisfactory performance, then how different is that than God acting to bring X about?

The basic thing is, if good happens, thank God. You did not make it happen.

If bad happens, put your hand over your mouth and do not blame God.

Either good or bad, one must revere and be in awe of God.

Isn’t respect the message of Job’s book of wisdom?

The God who makes things happen is the Big God. That is Augustine’s God, controversial from Day One, but the only God who can hold the water we need him to hold.

The five points of Calvinism are not divisible. They go together. They make sense together. They form the acrostic T.U.L.I.P.

The five points are:

  • Total Depravity. Humans, not as bad as could be, are infected by sin in every capacity, every thought, every action. Nothing is unstained.
  • Unconditional Election: you did nothing to make you right with God before he chose you. This is cause for humility, big-time.
  • Limited Atonement: Jesus died for the elect, not indiscriminately for the whole world, though potentially (all these words are tricky) potentially for the whole world should the whole world (have) repent(ed). Jesus died for the true church, that is, the elect within the large number of outward, professing, Christians.
  • Irresistible Grace. Human will is bent away from God from conception onwards. God makes your will truly free at the point you accept Christ. It was never free before. Christ looked like stupid humiliation to you before. When God changes your way of thinking, you think Jesus looks so amazingly good, because God freed your will: “Long my imprisoned spirit lay, fast bound in sin and nature’s night. Thine eye diffused a quickening ray. I woke, the dungeon flamed with light.” Funny to quote a Wesley on this, since John and Charles were not five-pointers at all, but he has this exactly right.
  • Perseveance of the saints. If you are his, you will keep going, right to the end. The challenges to faith will not fell you, though you can be practically wrecked by them. Look at Job. But he still kept believing, like the Catholic woman in Bosnia. He belonged. She belongs.

The Lord Knows Who are His. TULIP.

OKAY! you say. Enough. Yes, it is Good Friday so some soul searching is in order. This stuff is deep enough – though not likely precise enough.

If you believe, you are not your own; you were bought with a (steep) price.

Let’s honour God and rely on him the way we really are relying on him. Faith is a victory, and that’s apparent in Tulip.

And the human action prayer starts to look like the most amazing thing in human experience period. God is at work in you to will and to do. Wow. Awe.

Your comment is totally welcome.