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Can I be a Christian and still struggle with impure thoughts?

The Bible says that becoming a follower of Christ is like a dead person coming to life.[1] Moving from spiritual death to spiritual life is a drastic change. Spiritual rebirth makes it possible for us to consciously share God’s love and partner with Him in bringing about his kingdom. Although spiritual rebirth brings instant change, it doesn’t result in an immediate transformation. We are too deeply flawed for an instant cure. When we choose to follow Christ, a process begins that will continue to the end of our lives.

Before we followed Christ we were, in a sense, like zombies—spiritually dead and driven by urges and emotions we didn’t understand. Even after we were awakened by spiritual life the same urges and emotions remained, although we were no longer entirely under their control (Galatians 5:17–21; 6:8; Ephesians 2:2–6). The New Testament uses a special term to refer to these urges and emotions: the “sinful nature.” [2]

Our natural inclination to sin continues to generate impure thoughts that are out of sorts with our new life. But these bad thoughts don’t represent our current spiritual state. They represent the death we are leaving behind.

In addition to our own natural faults and weaknesses, Satan acts as an adversary (see Job 1:7–12), “slanderer,”[3] and “accuser” (Revelation 12:10). He wants us to be obsessed with our dark thoughts. If we do, he—like a vampire—can drain away our joy and the influence of our new life.

Since we will never be completely free of lustful, unkind, and self-destructive desires in this life, we need to have realistic expectations. Experiencing a bad thought isn’t the same as hanging on to and nurturing it. Our goal shouldn’t be to eliminate bad thoughts but to be quicker to recognize and resist them when they appear. Far from indicating that our faith isn’t real, our awareness of continuing impure thoughts and unfree tendencies that still lurk within us proves that we are being transformed. If we weren’t becoming more spiritually aware, we wouldn’t even recognize the lingering shadows of spiritual death. First John 1:8 says, “If we claim we have no sin, we are only fooling ourselves and not living in the truth,” and the apostle Paul describes his continuing struggle with sin (Romans 7:15–25).

In fact, it is important that we recognize the wrong within. If we didn’t recognize the impurity that still remained in us, we might be drawn into the most dangerous sin of all—spiritual pride.

[1] John 5:21; Romans 6:13; 8:11; Ephesians 2:1–3; 5:14; Colossians 2:13

[2] In the New Testament the Greek term, sarx, often translated “flesh,” occasionally refers to the body, but most often refers to the destructive, death-prone tendencies within us. These tendencies still reside in us even after conversion, while we are moving from spiritual death to spiritual life. Paul calls it the “law of sin at work within me” in Romans 7:23 (niv). The Bible calls this the “sinful nature” in Romans 7:18 and 7:25.

[3] The name “devil” is from the Greek word diabolos, meaning “slanderer, false accuser.”

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If Christians believe in heaven, why do we still fear death?

Christians believe that when we die we will be resurrected with new bodies. But just like other people, we try to avoid it.

Change can be unnerving, and death is the ultimate unknown. We spend our entire lives investing ourselves in this world, assuming that our investment is meaningful. Death challenges that investment. It seems to deny the ultimate value of careers, possessions, friends, and families. Christians have to face this harsh reality just as much as unbelievers, and while faith in resurrection offers comfort, it isn’t easy to imagine how a future life can offer continuity with our investment in this one.

As human beings, resistance to death is physically and instinctively ingrained in us. Recently our family made the difficult decision to euthanize a pet terrier dying painfully of cancer. As I cuddled her in my arms, the veterinarian gave her an injection of anesthesia to relax her and put her to sleep in preparation for the fatal dose of barbiturate that would follow. She was afraid. She fought the drug’s relaxing effect, looking at me and making heart-rending sounds.

Deeply bonded with our little dog, I rocked her like a child until she gave in to the medication and fell asleep. It wasn’t easy. Knowing that life was departing from a little creature that was a cherished part of our family for nearly twenty years brought deep feelings of sadness and loss. Yet losing our little terrier, Effie, didn’t compare to the loss of parents and other human relatives we had experienced in recent years.

Humans easily overlook how much of our experience isn’t under rational control. Our emotional life (including our affection, joy, anger, and fear) is as influenced by instinct and hormones as by imagination and reason. The life within us, like that in our little terrier, reflexively seeks to avoid death. Our hopes and beliefs transcend death, but as physical creatures, we resist it.

Death reduces living bodies to physical objects—soon to become decaying corpses. It mocks relationships, personhood, and hopes (John 11:38–39). Facing the ugly physical and emotional reality of a close friend’s death, Jesus wept (John 11:32–25). The apostle Paul viewed death with such seriousness that he referred to it as the “last enemy” that the kingdom of Christ will overcome (1 Corinthians 15:25–26). Even when Christians approach death with faith and hope that has been reinforced by God’s faithfulness through a lifetime of experiences, facing such a hideous enemy is never just a dispassionate decision. It is a time for courage.

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Do those who reject the gospel understand what they are rejecting?

Rejection of the gospel isn’t necessarily conscious rejection of Christ. Some people reject the gospel because they misunderstand it or because it has been misrepresented to them. This is partly why Jesus, Paul, Peter, and other biblical authors warned so strongly against hypocrisy and causing a truth-seeker to despair (Matthew 18:6; 1 Corinthians 8:9).

But if you cause one of these little ones who trusts in me to fall into sin, it would be better for you to have a large millstone tied around your neck and be drowned in the depths of the sea. (Matthew 18:6)

But you must be careful so that your freedom does not cause others with a weaker conscience to stumble. (1 Corinthians 8:9)

Scripture implies that rejection of the good news of Jesus Christ is often the result of ignorance and misunderstanding rather than conscious evil intent. Jesus doesn’t refer to unbelievers as “snakes,” “dogs,” “jackals,” or “scorpions,” but as “sheep” (Matthew 9:36; Luke 15:4; Isaiah 53:6; 1 Peter 2:25). We can assume that the image of “sheep” (known for harmlessness and herd instinct) was chosen for a reason. Scripture also refers to unbelievers as “ignorant” and “wayward people” (Hebrews 5:1–2), “poor,” “oppressed,” “blind,” and “captives” (Isaiah 61:1; Luke 4:18).

Even when the gospel hasn’t been misrepresented, a world marked by disease, competition, and violence makes the gospel sound improbable to many people (1 Corinthians 1:18–25). Harsh life experiences make us wonder how a loving God can be in charge. Even Hebrew believers who lived in the time before God “made all of this plain to us by the appearing of Christ Jesus” (2 Timothy 1:10), had an ambivalent view. They believed their departed loved ones were at peace with God in some sense, but considered them unable to join in the joyous worship of the Lord’s people in the same way as when they were living (Psalm 88:10; 115:17; Isaiah 38:18; Ecclesiastes 9:3–6).

Jesus knew the obstacles to faith and understood His role in revealing God’s love to us. We should pattern our response to the lost on His compassion.

Even though I was once a blasphemer and a persecutor and a violent man, I was shown mercy because I acted in ignorance and unbelief. (1 Timothy 1:13 NIV).

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Can anyone prove that Jesus rose from the dead?

There is a big difference between presenting historical evidence for an event and actually proving it. Unlike the components of scientific experiments, historical events are so complicated that they can never be reproduced. So unless someone invents a time machine that allows us to travel back in the past to observe things as they were actually occurring, we will never be able to “prove” exactly what occurred in the past.

On the other hand, although absolute proof is impossible, historical evidence is often strong enough for a high degree of certainty.[1] But even a compelling level of probability requires faith. This is a key point in respect to historical evidence for such an unusual event as Jesus’s resurrection. The resurrection of a dead man is so far removed from the shared experience of most people that historical evidence—even extremely strong evidence—is not the same as scientific proof. To act as though evidence is “proof” will only alienate genuine truth-seekers. Yet, because of the tremendous amount of evidence for Jesus’s resurrection, belief is also far from a blind leap of faith.[2]

Followers of Jesus should remain mindful of the role our basic assumptions play in what we believe about Jesus’s resurrection. If we believe that a personal God purposely created the universe and revealed himself in history, we will be strongly inclined to believe Jesus’s resurrection actually occurred. By contrast, someone with an atheistic assumption that the world is governed entirely by chance and time will be more likely to disbelieve the resurrection account of Jesus.

This is why faith in Jesus’s resurrection is based as much in the heart as in the mind; as much in confidence in the meaningfulness of existence as in the quality of historical evidence (Hebrews 11:1–6). Someone must believe in the possibility of a supernatural Creator and a meaningful universe to follow the historical evidence for Jesus’s resurrection to its logical conclusions. (John 14:1; Psalm 43:5).[3]

[1] For example, few historians question that Julius Caesar wrote an account of his military campaigns in Gaul and Britain (The Gallic Wars) and was assassinated on March 15, 44 bc. Similarly, few historians question that Jesus was a Galilean Jew who established a reputation as a prophet, teacher, and healer, and died by crucifixion in his early to mid-30s by the order of Roman prefect Pontius Pilate.

[2] Thousands of books and articles have been written offering detailed evidence that Jesus’s resurrection really did occur. The Resurrection of the Son of God by N. T. Wright is one of the best. (See questions.org article, Did Jesus rise from the dead?)

[3] God’s personal nature is analogous to human personality only in a limited sense. Because the Lord is infinite, the qualities of his personality as far transcend ours as his knowledge transcends our knowledge. C. S. Lewis used the term “suprapersonal” in reference to God’s personal nature.

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Do the Sabbath requirements of Old Testament Law carry over to Sunday?

In an effort to obey the Bible’s teachings about worship and rest, some Christians have transferred many of the Old Testament Sabbath[1] requirements to Sunday. For those of us who are wondering whether such a practice is necessary or even advisable, it might help to think about the historical differences between Israel and the Church.

The Sabbath was given to Israel as a symbol of their special relationship with God[2]. When the Christian church came into existence, Gentile (non-Jewish) Christians had no weekly day of rest or worship. Because of work and societal demands, most early Christians couldn’t set Sunday aside as a “day of rest” or substitute Sabbath. Further, the New Testament offered no support for transferring Sabbath practices or regulations to Sunday. It simply declared Sunday as the day the followers of Christ meet in honor of His resurrection.[3]

Consequently, Christians in the Roman Empire carried on their normal occupations even while setting time aside for worship and fellowship on Sunday. These circumstances continued until the beginning of the 4th century when Constantine, the first Roman emperor to embrace Christianity, made Sunday a special day of rest and worship.

Even though Sabbath restrictions together with the broader Law of Moses were not passed on to the Church (Galatians 3:24–25), some principles of dedicated times of rest and worship may still apply. Many followers of Christ believe that setting aside the day that the apostles gathered for worship—Sunday—as a special day for spiritual refreshment is a God-honoring practice.[4]

[1] To this day Jewish people worship on the 7th day of the week—Saturday. Exodus 20:8 says, “Remember the Sabbath day by keeping it holy. Six days you shall labor and do all your work, but the seventh day is a Sabbath to the Lord your God. On it you shall not do any work, neither you, nor your son or daughter, nor your male or female servant, nor your animals, nor any foreigner residing in your towns. For in six days the Lord made the heavens and the earth, the sea, and all that is in them, but he rested on the seventh day. Therefore the Lord blessed the Sabbath day and made it holy.” (niv)

[2] Exodus 31:13–17

[3] Ignatius, Justin Martyr, and other church fathers attribute Sunday worship to the fact that Christ was resurrected on the first day of the week. This isn’t surprising, not only because of the symbolism involved with the day of our Lord’s resurrection, but because the Lord himself emphasized Sunday rather than the Sabbath by choosing it as the day in which he met with his disciples in his post-resurrection appearances (John 20:19–29; Luke 24; Mark 16). Further, Sunday was the day the Holy Spirit manifested himself and the Church was born (Acts 2).

[4] In The Lost World of Genesis One, Old Testament Professor John H. Walton describes how after 6 days of setting creation in order, God took up residence in His cosmic temple on the 7th day. God is now “resting,” enthroned in His rightful place (Psalm 132:7-8,13-14) as the active Lord and governor of the universe.

“If we have to be reminded or coerced to observe it, it ceases to serve its function. Sabbath isn’t the sort of thing that should have to be regulated by rules. It is the way that we acknowledge that God is on the throne, that this world is his world, that our time is his gift to us. It is ‘big picture’ time. And the big picture is not me, my family, my country, my world, or even the history of my world. The big picture is God. If the Sabbath has its total focus in recognition of God, it would detract considerably if he had to tell us what to do. Be creative! Do whatever will reflect your love, appreciation, respect and awe of the God of all the cosmos. (This is the thrust of Isaiah 58:13-14.)”  The Lost World of Genesis One, p. 146.

 

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