Risk and Reward.

Be honest. Often we make our decisions based on what’s in it for us. Here’s how we think – the less the risk and the more the reward, the better. And if the return promised is significant enough, well then, we may just be okay with a little more risk. Just a little more, but don’t ask us to leave the security of what is comfortable, pleasurable, or familiar. Certainly don’t ask us to go to Africa or the Amazon! And please, whatever you do, don’t mention the word sacrifice! That concept blazoned across the Bible is almost lost to our generation. Today in America, no one is looking to sign up for the prospect of pain and loss. In our world of cul-de-sac living, $300 tennis shoes, and almond milk lattes (with a touch of raw sugar, if you please), the concept of sacrifice is extreme. We have been dubbed the “selfie” generation and rightly so.

This was not so with Esther who lived five centuries before Christ. She understood that the essence of real living is sacrifice. For a Hebrew slave girl living in Persia, hers was arguably the best station in life that could be afforded. Maybe the Lord included her story in the Bible just for us pampered Americans! Most of us reading Esther’s story would have preferred it to end before the sacrifice. After all, her sudden rise from rags-to-riches is a story well-suited to the current market. Add a couple of glass slippers and the phrase, “And they lived happily ever after” and you have the makings of dreams come true. Esther’s story is counter intuitive. It’s about the girl who had it all and risked it all. After reading it we might want to ask ourselves, “Would I be willing to leave the modest comforts of my own home to follow Christ? Anywhere? Would I trade anything for the Greater Cause of Christ?” The Apostle Paul would say, “I count it all but dung that I may win Christ.” (Philippians 3:8) Are we willing to see it like that? The problem with us is that we don’t see our palaces as dung-filled places.  

How did Esther make it to the palace in the first place? It’s a good question to ponder. Whispers of incredulity must have filled the poor, candlelit homes of Jewish slaves everywhere. How did a Jewess slave girl become the queen? How beautiful must she have been? How did she do it? Aren’t Christians supposed to look a bit . . . dumpy? Certainly, her rise to success was not based on her own skill, wisdom, merit, or ability. She didn’t work her way to the palace. Though she was beautiful, that was a gift from God. The story of Esther is not about prominence or prettiness but rather providence. Her life and ours, rightly understood, are to be seen as channels of undeserved blessing.

By what seemed a random stroke of good fortune (and a bit of misfortune for the former queen) this unknown Hebrew slave girl is swept up in a search for a new queen in Shushan. Her proximity to the palace seemed another “lucky break” that brought her within range of the search committee. The king hoped his new wife would be more submissive than the former leading lady, and Esther won the contest! At a time when Persia was the ruling empire of the world, becoming the new queen of the Persian Empire meant that she lacked for nothing. Not food, fashion, furnishings, or fame. Could we say she had it all? Yes, in terms of the selfish cult of all things selfish – Esther had it made. She was swimming in a material and imperial world far beyond our wildest imaginations. Even the colors of the palace interior are vividly detailed in Esther chapter 1. The Persian courts were stunning, and Esther was the star.

End of story? Hardly.

The question now becomes, “How could she risk it all? Why would she dare to? What reward could excel the best life imaginable?”

As modern-day believers, we wonder at her courage and question her intelligence. Even Mordecai, her custodial parent in the biblical narrative, warned her not to tell the king about her Hebrew heritage. (Esther 2) The tension in this story exposes our own weakness for money, security, and beauty. Palatial comforts are alluring. Slowly the success syndrome snuggles next to us like a fat cat purring for our attention. How soon our pleasures become our pets and how quickly they exert rule over us. Human success is often the arch enemy of true religion. Yet God had just the right person in the right place at the right time. He always does. This girl was much more than just another “pretty face.” She understood a word vital to every Christian’s life – expendability. She knew how to release her grip on her best life now to rescue the best life for others. She put all creature comforts aside in a brave appeal to her husband-King. She knew a secret: Happiness ever after is just that – a focus on the ever after.

God, who is not absent in our suffering, must not be dismissed in our success. He is the hero of this story.

Standing before a king who had the power to take her life, Esther pleads for the lives of others. What a great call to missions is imbedded in the narrative! In the face of Jewish extermination, she steps into harm’s way. God uses her feminine voice, sweet charms, and disregard for personal safety to move the heart of the king and change the course of history. Charles Colson once said, “History pivots on the actions of individuals, both great and ordinary.”

Who knoweth whether thou art come to the kingdom for such a time as this? (Esther 4:14)

God knows, because He sent us here for such times. We are not to be held captive by comfort while the death of so many souls is impending. Stand up! Say something. Go! No one can take your place or hour, it is uniquely yours. This is our time.

“If I perish, I perish,” is not a statement of fatalism but of faith and sacrifice. (Esther 4) It is the same mind that left the ivory palaces of glory and descended to the cross for the sake of those bound in slavery and sin.

Such a life is the only life worth living. Esther knew it and took a risk worth taking.

Want to find your life? Be prepared to lose it.


I appreciate a tall tale as much as the next guy. I’ve even told a few. But as parents, we need to separate truth from fiction. As believers, it is our calling to be truth-tellers. (Ephesians 4:15) While the word Santa means saintly or holy, it is our job to help our little saints think rightly about good ole “Saint Nick.”  

There are scant threads of truth cast over our Christmas shenanigans about a real Saint Nicholas who was born in 280 A.D. in an area part of present-day Turkey. He lost both of his parents as a young man and reportedly used his inheritance to help the poor and sick. I’m all for generosity and so is our Lord, but beware of distortions that usurp our divine delight in the God who said, “Every good gift cometh from above.” (James 1:17)

Norman Rockwell paints an excellent portrait of a young boy’s discovery of the big fellow we call Santa Clause. Shock and disappointment are written all over his face after he discovers Santa’s festive red suit hidden in his father’s dresser drawer. It’s a classic!

Christmas and Santa have become conjoined twins in the minds of so many young children.

A friend recently told me a story about taking his granddaughter deer hunting for the very first time. She was only 5 or 6 years old. After a long day of seeing nothing in the woods, they were headed home in their pickup truck. Suddenly a big buck leaped across the road in front of them barely escaping a truck to buck collision. After the near miss he noticed his granddaughter peering out the windshield, looking intently up into the night sky. “What are you looking for, honey?” he asked. “Santa Clause” she answered, looking heavenward. And she was serious, bless her little heart. Thinking the big buck may have been Rudolph, she fully expected a sleigh with gifts to follow.

We may smile at the story, but precisely what made that little girl look heavenward expecting a Santa-sighting warrants our consideration. How did Santa go from being a benevolent gift-giver in Turkey to a figure who is now all but omniscient and omnipresent?

Is it all harmless fun, like snipe-hunting? May I remind you that whatever separates the deepest longings of our hearts from the one true source of joy is a form of false worship. I know by now that some of my readers are already getting nervous. What kind of preacher would try to ruin Christmas for little children?

In America we have conditioned our young to believe in Santa. And let’s be honest, what child under the age of eight doesn’t want to climb up into the lap of a welcoming, gift-giving, white-bearded, fat man dressed in a red suit and share with him the inner desires of one’s wish list at Christmas?  It’s such a great photo op. Jolly bearded old men just seem to be more warm and cuddly – more trustworthy even, especially in December (and even more “specially” if your parents don’t seem to be that interested in your Christmas list). Santa listens! Santa cares. Santa provides! …or so it seems to the young of heart. Santa brings us the toys!

Isn’t that what Christmas is all about?

Decades of Santa myths and movies have promoted the notion to our children that one man, living in the North Pole, along with a few dozen elves and a team of flying reindeer, can satisfy all the selfish, toy-filled desires of every child in the world. And all in one night!

As for me, I wasn’t so sure.

Call me a doubter, but early in my life, living along the Amazon River as a missionary kid, I had my reservations about Santa. I doubted he would ever read my wish list. I doubted he could ever find my little jungle village in the night (or land on my house without a bed of snow for his sleigh). I was probably overthinking things, but I had concerns about how he would adjust his entry for houses without chimneys.

Even with all his mystical powers, I doubted he would know that for Christmas I desperately wanted a facão (Portuguese for “big hunting knife”). I doubted he even knew what a facão was. Probably didn’t speak Portuguese at all! But the big knife is what I wanted with all my heart! Did they even have them in the North Pole? I doubted it. I doubted that he knew the conflict I was having with my father about whether a boy of my age should even have a facão. Could Santa really understand that in the tropics, kids my age needed a big knife? Would he side with me or my father? Did he know that in the jungle there were things that needed to be hacked at, slashed at, hunted down, and vanquished . . . like my brother, Larry?

Even at an early age, I was a Santa agnostic. Looking back, I am very glad that my missionary parents confirmed my gathering doubts by telling me, “There is no Santa Clause, and you will not be getting a big knife for Christmas!” The truth about Santa notwithstanding, this news came as great relief to my brother Larry whose leg I had recently set on fire. Camping accident I always said. According to my thinking, if Santa did exist, he would have brought me that big hunting knife. Therefore, I doubted his existence from the start.

Parents, may I suggest a few good reasons to be honest with your kids no matter what the age or issue:

  1. Honesty is commanded by God.

Romans 12:17 says, “Provide things honest in the sight of all men.” We could certainly add “and children, too.” Though a case may be made for a historical Santa Clause, the myth has far outgrown the reality.“Thou shalt not bear false witness” is not negotiable at Christmas time. Keeping secrets about what’s under the tree is not the same as lying about where they came from. One is delaying the truth while the other is promoting a deception.

  1. We are to avoid profane, vain babblings and old wives fables (myths).

1 Timothy 1:4, 4:7, 2 Timothy 2:16, Ephesians 4:14 – These passages and others speak of empty talk and speculative speech that have no basis in truth. The Greco-Romans held a huge market in mythology. Paul was always trying to untangle them from these foolish stories, for they only led to more senseless talk and sinful patterns of behavior. Five times both Paul and Peter condemned the promotion of Greek and Jewish mythology as counter-productive. Our young children have great difficulty separating fiction from fact. It is vital to be trustworthy and straightforward with our little children. If Santa isn’t real, tell them that – you won’t destroy their childhood by separating them from non-realities. We found it wise in our home to simply say, “This is just a fun story, it’s not really true like the Bible is.” If they have friends who insist that there is a Santa Clause, we never made it our mission to start a debate with the neighbors about it. Though it may sound boring to say to a little neighbor, “At our house, Mommy and Daddy buy the presents” it is, at the least, truthful.

  1. Gifts and gift-giving have heavenly meaning and our children need to know that all good gifts come directly from God.

Don’t share God’s grace and glory with Santa. James reminds us that every good and perfect gift comes from above and cometh down from the Father of Lights (a reference to heaven and God, not Santa and his workshop). Even the gifts under the tree have a transcending truth attached to them. Those gifts (and all good gifts) come because God exists and has given us all things freely – provision, life, hope, joy, and peace. Our little saints are just like all other sinners, drawn to material gifts because they believe that in them they will find real joy. What we delight in leads our worship. Children are drawn to Santa because they believe him to be a real joy-giver. Instead, we are to embrace the true Gift-Giver and see him alone as the “unspeakable gift.” (2 Corinthians 9:15)

What God provided in Christ surpasses all ability to express or contain in a box. While gifts aren’t evil, all temporal gifts fade and lose their luster. Christ alone satisfies. Paul used the example of the generosity of God as the ultimate motivator in his own ministry. Highlight the joy and blessing of giving over the joy of receiving this Christmas. Point out that God is the source of all we are and hope for. As little fingers open bright packages, push them to find joy in the Giver of the gift. Lead them to say, “thank you” to both the human and the divine givers.

  1. Don’t let the true wonder of Christmas be high-jacked by flying reindeer!

How much of your Christmas celebration is legend? Fun and creative tales have their place, but the narrative of Christ’s coming is beyond compare. Is he the Darling of Christmas? His is the greatest story ever told. How far God reached down to rescue those who were lost! John declared this wonder in these words, “And the Word was made flesh and dwelt among us and we beheld his glory, the glory as of the only begotten of the Father, full of grace and truth.” (John 1:14)

Heaven, with its gates of pearl, is better, by far, than the North Pole. Christ, the King, wearing the scarlet robe of redemption, is more worthy than all red-suited imposters. His gifts more wonderful than all the gifts carried by a million sleighs, the virgin womb and cattle stall more mysterious and marvelous to the world than a dusty chimney. The angels were a more brilliant and beautiful choir than a host of elves could ever be. And what was placed on Calvary’s tree was so much more wonderful and satisfying than what is under any Christmas tree.

Parents, how easily our children follow trinkets when true treasure is what they need! I am not suggesting that we cancel Christmas and outlaw Santa. What I am saying is that we must always be guarding what fills their little hearts with wonder.

Let the sparkle of that glory light fill your home as you tell them of a sky full of angels, a baby born of a virgin, a gift so wondrous that in its fullness the dark sky filled with light. Let all other gifts pale when compared to the Father of Lights. Let all fables bow and flee in the face of this one true love story: Baby Jesus is here, and he will never leave or forsake us. Kneel at the cross and marvel at such a Gift. And better than an annual visit in the night, wonder at this; he is planning to take us home to heaven for an eternal day. May this wonder be enjoyed in our celebration this year and always!

  1. Re-emphasize gift giving over gift getting!

With their tiny faces pressed against frosty windows on Christmas Eve, our children have been taught that Santa’s soon arrival will guarantee their happiness. They go off to bed with visions of gifts dancing in their heads.

“Remember, it is more blessed to give than to receive.” Acts 20:35

Love and lust are not the same, but they often visit our Christmas celebrations with competing agendas. One suffocates grace and the other ministers grace. Not to be the Christmas nudge here, but maybe it’s time to introduce your children to a new Christmas sleigh. Hitch it to an eternal mission and send it on to the North Pole, North America, North Africa, or the next-door neighbor’s house. Fill the gospel train with your children, their spiritual gifts, and their true mission in life. Go into all the world and declare the Good News. Ours is a gift–giving mandate. Start young! Tell them to go and go quickly, the day is far spent and the night is coming when no man can work. Tell them to go into every highway and byway and offer the Pearl of Great Price, Living Water, Bread of Heaven, and the Anchor of Hope. Tell them this is the meaning of Christmas, because Love gives. This Christmas find a family project where the only motivation is to bless someone else with no hope of a return. Be intentional with the Hope of Christmas.

One December, while living with my missionary parents on the Amazon, we gathered on Christmas morning in the living room for our usual gift exchange. Every child in our family was hoping for what every child expects at Christmas – toys!  

We found instead, the unexpected. Not a single gift was anywhere to be found. Imagine…four broken-hearted kids with no gifts to open! Our parents, with tear-stained cheeks told us, “This year, things have been really tough. The money is tight, and we have nothing under the tree to offer you, but what we have given you is Jesus. Enjoy him! You are his forever, and he is yours.” We sang and prayed and rejoiced in the Gift beyond words.

And now that I think about it, it was our best Christmas ever.

Today, I think today about my earthly father who is now in preparation for his final journey home. His soul is ready; ours still hesitates. Even though he is 91, we would hold him here just a little while longer. I thought the words below expressed first by C.H. Spurgeon and then edited later by Alistair Begg would be a blessing to all who, along with me, find it their painful joy to stand on the banks of Jordan and wave their goodbyes to faithful heroes who can no longer resist the call to enter Canaan’s eternal and happy land. Upward was their calling in life and upward they must go in death. Jesus calls them and we must let them go to a place prepared for a people prepared. The tearing away here brings a glad embrace in glory. Still, it is as if we cannot let go of any dear saint without a bit of a battle in our souls. Note here the words of Spurgeon; they speak to our hearts in such a time as this.

O death! Why do you touch the tree beneath whose spreading branches weariness finds rest? Why do you snatch away the excellent of the earth, in whom is all our delight? If you must use your axe, use it upon the trees that yield no fruit; then you may be thanked. But why will you chop down the best trees? Hold your axe, and spare the righteous. But no, it must not be; death strikes the best of our friends; the most generous, the most prayerful, the most holy, the most devoted must die. And why? It is through Jesus’ prevailing prayer — ”Father, I desire that they also, whom you have given me, may be with me where I am.” It is that which bears them on eagle’s wings to heaven. Every time a believer moves from this earth to paradise, it is an answer to Christ’s prayer.

A good old parson remarks, “Many times Jesus and His people pull against one another in prayer. You bend your knee in prayer and say ‘Father, I desire that your saints be with me where I am’; Christ says, ‘Father, I desire that they also, whom you have given me, may be with me where I am.’”

In this way the disciple is at cross-purposes with his Lord.

The soul cannot be in both places: The beloved one cannot be with Christ and with you too. Now, which of the two who plead shall win the day? If you had your choice, if the King should step from His throne and say, “Here are two supplicants praying in opposition to one another,” which shall be answered? Oh, I am sure, though it were agony, you would jump to your feet and say, “Jesus, not my will, but Yours be done.” You would give up your prayer for your loved one’s life, if you could realize the thoughts that Christ is praying in the opposite direction—”Father, I desire that they also, whom you have given me, may be with me where I am.” Lord, you shall have them.

By faith we must let them go.

Happy journey, Dad – it will be the best one yet. See you soon.

Your loving son,


Mowing my yard recently in the great state of Georgia I ran over a snake. 

Totally accidental, I assure you. No harm intended. But as you may imagine, the snake didn’t survive the encounter. I guess I should have been sad. Come to find out it was a good snake. (Hey, you should ask my wife about good snakes!) I find snakes distasteful; she finds them disgusting. She is a serial snake killer. Axes, guns, sticks, brooms, garden tools, she has used every weapon imaginable in her war against the enemy. You know what most women say about snakes, don’t you? “The only good snake is a dead snake.”

Ever since the Garden of Eden, women have had this uneasy sense about snakes. Just the fact that my wife has so many weapons at her disposal makes me nervous! 

Much has been written about alcohol and the Christian, but not so much about snake handlers (though I believe they should occupy the same category). Both have a great affinity for trying to cheat death. God himself likens these two concepts in Proverbs 23:31-32. “Wine. . . at the last biteth like a serpent, and stingeth like an adder.” Notice the double reference to snakes in one verse. In the Hebrew the thought is, “just give it time and wine will bite you like a snake – yes, even like a poisonous snake.” Snakes and wine share commonality. They are both seductive and destructive.

Before we talk alcohol, may I ask you a personal question? What are your feelings about poisonous snakes? My guess is that you, like my wife, have strong convictions. My guess is that you don’t have a special door for poisonous snakes to access your house. My guess is that is that you don’t keep one in your cupboard or bring one out just for parties. Why is that? Well, no one wants to live that close to a potential killer. Ah, but would it help you to know a snake can only strike at half the length of its body? You are fine as long as you don’t get in the “strike zone.” Additionally, did you know that in the U.S. only 1 in 50 million people dies from a snakebite each year? That should make you feel better about living with poisonous snakes. Hopefully that changes your opinion, right?

My guess is you’re still not planning to run out and get one for your kids. Not a chance, right? I can still remember the rhyme about the deadly coral snake – when red touches yellow – it’ll kill a fellow! God gave us a rhyme too. When it sparkles and bubbles in the cup – just give it up! (Proverbs 23:31) We’re undoubtedly afraid of snakes, but not so concerned about wine and all her bubbly cousins. 

While on average snakes only kill five people a year in the U.S., alcohol claims 88,000 lives. Yet somehow, because it really looks sheik and sophisticated to hold a wine glass in your hand, we have decided wine is a good snake. 

Maybe it’s time to go snake hunting.

While the national average for alcohol consumption is decreasing, inside the church it is on the rise. The world is finally getting smarter about the dangers of drinking; but the church is losing her mind.  Do you remember when the “battle against the bottle” used to be a passionate theme of the church? Not so much anymore. Slowly we are moving into the strike zone. Remember, the Bible doesn’t say, at the first wine bites like a serpent, but rather at the last. This snake kills by slow degree. First it dazzles then it deadens. At the last it destroys. 

Alcohol in its many forms has now become the beverage of choice in some church circles. It is considered, especially by millennials, an overdue privilege that for too long has been held captive by previous generations. The same out of touch generation, they claim, who hated dancing, mixed swimming, long hair on men, rock music, and slacks on women. With all these other taboos now nearly vanquished, they lift their wine glasses to toast their newfound Christian liberty to drink. “After all,” they claim, “it’s not what goes in the body that defiles it.” (Matthew 15:11) Quickly they remind us they are in good company. Martin Luther and John Calvin, the darlings of theology, drank wine in days gone by! Whatever was good enough for Martin and Calvin must be good enough for us. Why, it was Calvin himself who said, “It is not by accident that Psalm 104:15 praises God’s kindness in creating wine to cheer man’s heart.” Wine is among God’s gifts to man, isn’t it? Ben Smith, co-founder of Reclamation Brewing Company in Butler, PA, agrees. “For too long we have talked about the evils and not the benefits of beer. Craft beer is an art to be enjoyed, like all of God’s gifts.”  

Finally, as if to add the final nail in the coffin of the weaker and under-enlightened believers, the crowd that endorses drinking submits, “After all, didn’t Jesus turn water into wine?” We must all agree that it certainly wasn’t wine that he turned into water. The word in that passage, oinos, can include fresh grape juice. (John 2:10) It cannot be proven that the wine Jesus created had any alcohol in it; in fact, it would be more plausible to argue that the Creator would not create for the guests a beverage with potential for intoxication. Still, it is true that wine cannot be ignored in the Bible. It is mentioned over 630 times.

Of course social drinkers tell us, “Don’t worry, it’s not that we want to get drunk, it’s just that we want to drink.” It’s not that we want to get snake bit, we just want to handle snakes. Somewhere, off in the distance, I hear an ominous rattle. A snake lives nearby.

The late Darrin Patrick, who was a rising star in New Calvinism before he took his own life, wrote in his book, Church Planter, “I am shocked at the number of [young pastors] who are either addicted or headed toward addiction to alcohol.” And it’s not just the young preachers who are playing with fire, adds David Wilkerson. “Alcohol is now the modern golden calf, and millions of people, young and old, male and female, are being seduced by it. Counseling appointments are increasing in the church because of alcohol and drug abuse. Add to that the amount of domestic violence cases, and the number of abused children because of alcohol…we would be remiss to ignore its dangers.”

And here we thought a Christian snake would behave itself better in church. What were we thinking?

Allow this sarcasm in love but I know, dear reader, you are different. You will hold your liquor. You will manage your snake. You are gifted enough to see the fine line between the joy of drinking (Psalm 104:15) and the sin of drunkenness (Ephesians 5:18). You will not be controlled by it. Even though millions of staggering drunks thought they could, too, that will not happen to you because “Christian wine consumed by Christians with Christian friends at Christian gatherings can only produce greater insight, increased health, less criticism, and happier outcomes” or as Calvin suggests, a cheerful disposition. Wine, after all has been reclaimed, reformed, and renamed. It’s now a good snake.

Allow me to turn the edge of the sword just a bit further. Our young, restless, and reformed friends, some of whom are justifiably tired of endless and sometimes weak exposition on issues like Bible translations, dress standards, and matters of separation, have flocked to preachers who don’t obsess over “matters that don’t matter,” like rules and standards and what goes in or on the body. Instead these preachers (and many are, indeed, gifted preachers) provide insight on deep matters of theology, like how the church has replaced Israel, how dispensations have no bearing on biblical history, how the non-elect were hated by God in eternity past, how children before salvation can be baptized, and how the millennium is just a spiritual mirage. It is these men who, by in large, are the writers and speakers that have garnered the devotion of many in the rising generation. To them separational and external issues are not as weighty as creed and doctrines about the attributes of God. Just an observation, but it seems that in our modern pursuit of the holiness of God, the church, by all appearances, is becoming less holy in its practices. Some of these men are indeed great theologians, pastors, and writers, but shouldn’t our faith inform our practice? When grace appears, says Paul to Titus, it teaches us to deny ungodliness and worldly lusts and to live soberly. (Titus 2:12)  

Men like Mark Driscoll, who after a fall from grace at the Mars Hill mega-church in Seattle, moved on to pastor Trinity Church in Scottsdale, Arizona. He has since repented publicly to his church for not drinking sooner! Driscoll has now abandoned reformed theology altogether. John Piper, who is the Pastor Emeritus of Bethlehem Baptist Church in Minneapolis, commented on his church’s policy about alcohol use. “We don’t want our church members to drink, but we won’t disallow drinking by our church members.”

Remember, a mist in the pulpit produces a fog in the pew.

In my short lifetime, the church has turned from an adversarial position about drinking and now espouses an accommodating tone. It’s okay to play with snakes as long as they are just mildly venomous. Moody, Wheaton, Huntington, and Asbury Seminary have softened their stance on drinking and tobacco. In 2013 a spokesman for Moody College said, “We wish to emphasize values not rules and require no more or less than God’s Word requires.” As if rules and values are not integral to each other! I have found that those who say, “we wish to emphasize the spirit of the law, not the letter” usually love neither the spirit nor the letter.

Could it be that we have been over-convicted about alcohol in fundamental circles? Were the old-timers all wrong? Does it matter? Lest I confuse some, let me now speak plainly about alcohol and not snakes.

Below is a list of ten reasons why I have personal convictions and common-sense defenses against the use of intoxicating drinks. Maybe you think you have equal reasons that would allow you to drink. Please ask yourself first, are your preferences about your own desires or your calling to promote the gospel? Will they hinder or help your growth? Will they lead to enslavement or cause your brothers to stumble? The list below is my personal defense for not drinking alcohol.

 The first two reasons may surprise you; but read on.
1. Yes, you can drink alcohol and still go to heaven, but the issue isn’t about just “getting in.”

Heaven will be full of surprises! The Bible is clear that drunkards can be saved, but that they won’t arrive in heaven as drunkards. (1 Corinthians 6:10-11, Galatians 5:19-20) Not a drunk, you say? Well, good for you, but I’ve never seen a drunkard that didn’t start out as a drinker. The question isn’t about permissive living, it’s about submissive living. After salvation, which we understand is God’s work, not ours, we are to grow in grace. This growth has to take us beyond the infantile posturing of “What can I get away with and still make it in?” We are to mature, grow, and leave behind things that are unwise, unnecessary, and offensive. The mark of genuine faith is growth in grace. That statement alone should settle this question of “dining and wining.”

People who are continually fighting for their personal rights are either babes in Christ or still dead in their sins.

It is true that Paul reminds us that the morality of any “thing” is not based in its molecular makeup or the even the amount of alcohol it possesses. We all understand that a thing is just that – a thing! Heaven is about faith in the finished work of Christ. That, as we know, is a matter of the heart, not the stomach. However the Spirit must direct our appetites and Christian growth should affect our discernment. Paul’s statement in Romans 14:14, a passage whose context is all about “doubtful disputations,” reminds us that spiritual uncleanness is not tied to our stomach, nor is our righteousness tied to what we drink. The kingdom of God is not meat and drink, but righteousness, and peace, and joy in the Holy Ghost. (Romans 14:17) Not to sound trite here, but presumably you could eat possum pot pie and drink a pint of ale with profane politicians and still have a place in paradise. I do get that. “All things indeed are pure.” (Romans 14:20) However in the very same verse, Paul warns that both eating and drinking are not without moral consequence. “For meat destroy not (a weighty consequence) the work of God. All things indeed are pure; but it is evil (a moral condition) for that man who eats with offense.”

So then, everything we do, eat, or drink as believers has a bearing on the mission we have which is the “work of God” and the “glory of God.” (1 Corinthians 10:31) To drink or not to drink isn’t really your decision to make – it is an others-first decision. How is God glorified and how are others ministered to by this decision? Food and drink are not intrinsically moral but once the cup is placed in the hand of a believer and shared in community with others, it does have the ability to destroy your testimony, damage the work of God and the walk of fellow believers. True, it is what’s in your heart, not what’s on your plate that comprehends righteousness. But the debate is not ultimately about the beverage itself. It is more importantly about what the beverage does to my worship of God. What becomes of my testimony if it is compromised by alcohol? None of us live to himself. (Romans 14:7)
2. Be careful comparing grapes to grapes.

Some drinkers try to excuse themselves without any contextual consideration by glibly saying, “Well, since Jesus and the disciples drank wine, we can too.” And some, on the other hand, try to wring all intoxicating drink out of the Bible, by acting as if those beverages didn’t exist at all. We are to think biblically and be honest with the Word. Wine is a part of the biblical narrative and was a part of the culture of Jesus’ day. There are thirteen Hebrew and Greek words used for wine in the Bible. It’s a word that comprises everything from strongly intoxicating drink to fresh grape juice. A careful study of the Bible is necessary to understand the context and the term used in each place. It’s hard to believe, as some would say, that every time the Bible says wine it is always grape juice!

For example, you wouldn’t pour grape juice on a wound (Luke 10:34) or use grape juice medicinally for your stomach’s sake (1 Timothy 5:23). It is impossible for fresh grape juice to cause intoxication, as we see with Noah (Genesis 9:21) and later on with Lot (Genesis 19:34-35). The abuses of drunkenness at the Lord’s Table in 1 Corinthians 11:21 were not the result of too much grape juice. Grape juice doesn’t bite like a snake (Proverbs 23:31). Jesus, too, was aware of the nature of wine in his day and provides a parable involving the fermentation process in Matthew 9:17. Essentially, animal skins were used at the time because the elasticity of the skin allowed for expansion during the storage process. Older skins couldn’t be used because the brittle nature of older skins would cause breakage during fermentation.

In Israel, fresh grape juice (new wine) was seasonal and preferred, but grape juice stored without refrigeration and modern bottling techniques soon began to ferment. To solve this problem, ancients would boil the juice to syrup and then reconstitute it later with water and in some cases, up to twenty parts water. (The average was three or four parts water to one-part syrup.) This process was intended to reduce fermentation and to make drinking water more pleasing to taste and safer to drink. Ancient table wines topped out at around 2.25% alcohol, which was considered safe enough for even children to drink.  

To say, “Well they drank, so I drink!” is naïve at best. First century wine is not comparable to the alcoholic beverages sold today. In fact the distillation process, a process of heating vapors to increase alcoholic content, was not even known until 1,000 A.D. To consider a beverage alcoholic today requires a minimum of 3.2% alcohol. Beer has an average alcohol content of 4.0-6.0% and table wines start out at 7.0% and generally average around 12.0% alcohol. Hard liquors can contain up to 40.0% alcohol.

Scholars suggest that it would have taken approximately one gallon of the reconstituted table wines of Jesus’ day to cause inebriation. In 60 A.D., a Grecian biographer by the name of Plutarch said that “filtered [or diluted] wine neither inflames the brain nor infects the mind or passions and is much more pleasant to drink.” So we can’t justify the use of intoxicants today, which are often distilled and fortified with additional alcohol, to what the first century church drank in their day. Today, because of their elevated alcoholic content, all modern wines would fall under the heading of “strong drink” and thereby be prohibited by biblical mandate. (Proverbs 23:31, Isaiah 5:11)

Yet at times we do need to compare grapes to grapes! Wines that could intoxicate were spoken of in scriptures as strong drink, but the table wines mentioned were not comparable to the alcohol enhanced products sold today.
3. You have a high and priestly calling, so act like a child of the King!
Greater responsibilities necessitate a higher standard of behavior. (Leviticus 10:9) The High Priest and the Levitical priests were not to drink in the performance of the service of the tabernacle. 1 Peter 2:9 states, “But you are a chosen generation, an holy priesthood, a peculiar people, that ye should show forth the praises of Him who has called you out of darkness into his marvelous light.” The Nazarites (from nazir, meaning “consecrated to God”) did not drink and were not allowed to touch any product of the vine, including grape skins. (Numbers 6:2-7) 1 Timothy 3:3 reminds pastors and elders that they are “not to be given to wine.” You, too, are consecrated to God with a high and holy calling. Let that lead your thinking about drinking.
4. Political rulers were not permitted to drink.
In Proverbs 31:4-5 we are told that it is not for kings to drink wine lest they forget God’s law and pervert justice. President George W. Bush did not drink and our own current president, Donald J. Trump does not drink. His brother Fred died from alcohol abuse at the age of 42. As a result, he decided not to drink or smoke. Not only is drinking dangerous to your health, it can impair judgement and cause distraction. Clear-headed thinking is necessary for godly living and leadership. What leaders allow in moderation, their followers excuse in excess. Stay away from alcohol for the sake of keeping a clear head. Drinking can pervert sound judgement, reduce inhibitions, and give license to others to abuse what we may think is our liberty. (Isaiah 28:7) One of the top ten reasons teenagers drink is because they saw their parents drink. Your influence matters and your footsteps lead others in similar behaviors.
5. Drinking is not associated with spiritual causes.
You are to avoid even the appearance of evil. (1 Thessalonians 5:22) I’ve never heard a testimony start with, “After downing a six-pack of Budweiser, I was motivated to read my Bible, win souls, go to church, work hard, and love my family.” Testimonies are often heard at rescue missions but with a decidedly different ending. “Had it all, drank it all, lost it all.” The alcohol industry has caused untold shame, brokenness, corruption, and financial ruin in our country. We are to flee youthful lusts and evil associations. The predominant association with “all things alcohol” is not good. If you couldn’t take a drink of beer in the foyer of your church with Christ in your heart and your youngest child at your side, then you have forgotten that you are the temple of the Holy Spirit and he is both watching you and in you. Guard your reputation and avoid the appearance of evil – even in the privacy of your home.
6. Drinking is unnecessary.
Think about it. With our modern quality health care, purified water at nearly every faucet, and the availability of non-alcoholic juices and health drinks, there is no longer a need to “use a little wine for thy stomach’s sake.” In our day, other medicines and treatments are far more effective than wine.
7. Drinking is unwise.
  • 1 out of 12 marriages end because of alcohol–related causes.
  • Alcohol contributes to 11,000 traffic deaths and is complicit in 40% of all traffic accidents. Over 300,000 people are injured by alcohol-impaired drivers each year.
  • 60% of all murders have some connection to alcohol.
  • 33% of all suicidal deaths are caused by alcohol.
  • Alcohol kills 88,000 a year and is a contributing factor in an additional 200,000 deaths each year in the United States.
  • Alcohol creates toxic substances called aldehydes that can destroy the liver, kidney, and brain cells.
  • Alcohol is highly addictive, enslaving 1 out of 10 people.
  • Alcohol is the primary drug problem among teens.
  • Alcohol abuse costs the nation $100 billion in quantifiable costs annually. 
8. The Bible forbids strong drink.
All modern alcoholic drinks would fit this description. (Proverbs 23:29-35)
9. It’s not your body, so it’s not your decision!
Ye are not your own . . . for ye are bought with a price: therefore, glorify God in your body, and in your spirit, which are God’s.” (1 Corinthians 6:19-20) You are under new ownership. According to Romans 14:21, the decision to drink has an outward consideration. That is, because it will cause others to be offended or to stumble, you will not want to drink. This point has an upward (or Godward) decision as well. You are not your own anymore. Purchased by the spotless blood of the Lamb, you are his. Rights surrendered, cross-embracing, you now are concerned only with the One who has rescued your soul and placed you into his glorious kingdom of light. Drop the beer can and while you are “dropping non-essentials,” drop the wine bottle as well. You will be glad you are traveling lighter. The cross will require both hands and all your heart.
10. Based on these facts, I have decided to just say “no.”

“Proving what is acceptable unto the Lord.” (Ephesians 5:10) After considering the truths and warnings presented here – after seeing the untold misery it has brought to so many in my wife’s extended family – after personally witnessing the death of a college friend killed in front of me by a drunk driver – after a careful respect for the power alcohol has to enslave – after a humble resolve to serve Christ and not my own cravings – after all that, I’ve made my decision never to drink alcohol.

I’m sure you have strong convictions about snakes, but what about alcohol? Won’t you join me in this resolve before you drift into its seductive strike zone? I hope you will. If so, why not respond by taking the following pledge: I resolve never to drink a drop of alcohol, and if I have started, I now vow to God to put it away. For the good of others, myself, and for the glory of God.

I’d love to hear from you.

And judgement is turned away backward and justice stands afar off: for truth is fallen in the street, and equity cannot enter. (Isaiah 59:14) In Isaiah’s day he made it clear; truth and true worship must prevail for Israel to survive. But now, as then, truth seems to have fallen in the streets.

God neither delights in our crisis nor does he waste it. COVID-19 is meant for our good. God is calling the world to attention by means of a virus. Discernment, however, is fallen sick and the church finds itself in a great debate – “How much risk shall we take in assembling again?” Put another way, “How do we manage to stay safe in this health crisis?” I propose there is a much greater danger in a safe return to sleepy churches. Sleepy churches are those whose main concern is a return to “normal.”  Isaiah, Elijah, Elisha, and Jeremiah did not waste their national trials asking God for relief from calamity but rather a return to God. Please remember, the “troubler of Israel” was not Elijah, nor was it famine and drought – it was Ahab and all those complacent with idolatry. What lengths do we go to to insure safe health practices while ignoring the eternal threat to soul safety?

 COVID-19 is not our greatest problem; sin is.

Barna Group suggests that a full third of church members are still opting out from live meetings since the emergence of the virus. The statistics are even higher among millennials. Fifty percent of young adults formerly accustomed to church attendance are simply “checked out” due to COVID. Businesses and schools face similar realities. Legitimate health concerns are responsible for some of those absences, but seven months into the crisis, how much fear is warranted?  

Some of this fear is very personal. By now, we all know someone who has contracted the disease and likely know some who have died from it. Many churches have had the virus infect a significant percentage of their congregations. Christians are not immune to the Coronavirus. Just as blessings fall on the just and unjust, calamities do as well. No pastor wants to put his people in harm’s way without careful thought to the consequences, but carefully consider that harm’s way has always been part of God’s way.

One legitimate fear is that risk aversion may drive some churches into extinction. The media would like us to believe the church is part of the problem. In July The New York Times touted a headline suggesting that churches are a major source of the spread. “More than 650 coronavirus cases have been linked to nearly 40 churches and religious events across the United States since the beginning of the pandemic.” Simple math shows that 650 out of 3,000,000 cases across our nation in mid-July means that 0.0216% of them were church related at the time of writing. Less than one-tenth of one percent can hardly be attributed as a major source of infection spread, but church-shaming and fearmongering has set the church on its heels. When should the church come out of hiding?

Left up to the media the answer may be never. On the whole, the American church is a force for conservative thought and a strong vote for morality. Dr. Fauci notwithstanding, maybe we need to get back to a biblical understanding of risk aversion and church attendance. What started as a health crisis has now become a political tug of war and the church is embroiled in a contest of will with local officials. In some states, onerous restrictions have unjustly targeted houses of worship. How thankful I am for the governor of Georgia and his balanced approach to the health challenges we face. As a church, how should we respond?

Let’s be responsible.

We all value good health. Not only do we not want to offend others by negligent behavior, but as believers we show the love of God by caring for the image-bearers he created. We all want to believe that what began as a protective mandate is still meant for our good months later. However, as we see signs of government “intrusion,” we need to be more aware of what God’s Word says than we are of what our government suggests. I do like what Ronald Regan said about the government. “Be wary when someone from the government shows up at your door and says, I’m from the government and I’m here to help you!” Even when the government wants us to be healthy, the compelling truth is that God wants us to be holy. COVID restrictions aside, the government has zero interest in the spread of the Gospel – we must understand that. Though there are many Christians who serve in the government, it is not their job to promote the church. When politicians align themselves with church priorities it is a gift to our country, but the role of government is not to do our job. Government’s role is to defend law and order and protect citizens. It is their duty to properly respond to the threat of Coronavirus in our country. It was wise to shelter and seek to evaluate the initial threat, but please understand that our health and safety is not a bigger prize than our responsibility to God.

Ours is a risk-taking life. “If any man will come after me, let him deny himself, take up his cross daily and follow me.” (Luke 9:23) I appreciate what missionary John Patton said to a concerned and elderly friend when he set off to minister among the cannibals in New Hebrides. “Sir, you are advanced in years now, and your own prospect is soon to be laid in the grave, there to be eaten by worms; I confess to you, that if I can but live and die serving and honoring the Lord Jesus, it will make no difference to me whether I am eaten by Cannibals or by worms.”  I am not suggesting Christians need to take a dose of stupidity and blindness to good health practices but where in the Bible does it say, “If any person will come after me, let him avoid all health risks, stay at home and enjoy his comfort zone?” Remember that the early church was surrounded by those like Saul who were “breathing out threats and slaughter against the disciples of the Lord.” (Acts 9:1) Health hazards and missions often hold hands. Look at Hebrews 11 and you will note the high cost of discipleship is laced with all sorts of dangers. Covid doesn’t even make the list.

At first, we did believe our government did want to protect her citizens from the spread of an unknown health threat. I do believe that was true, initially. Many within the system still do. So we did as we were told. The church went digital or met outdoors. By the end of March we were all “sheltered in place.” It didn’t mean we gave up. Far from it! Some of the most creative and far-reaching methods were discovered during the early days of quarantine. But it is not God’s purpose for the church to “disassemble” long term. Assembly is what we do – it’s in our name. Sheep need direction. Sick sheep die, wandering sheep need to be rescued, hurting sheep need counsel, and all sheep need shepherding (not just “zoom meals”). An assembly needs to care intimately for its own members. A fractured church cannot long survive without the many “one-another” ministries in the Bible. The Body of Christ must be nurtured by the fellowship and accountability of coming together. By sharing in ordinances and the service of our gifts, members can only find full expression in the context of community life. Nobody can live in a state of sustained dissection.

The Devil must have smiled as we went into our living room “shelters” this past spring. Scattered, shackled, and silent Christians are just fine with him! An old Sunday school song comes to mind, “Hide it under a bushel – NO!” As pastors, we knew we couldn’t just abandon our gospel calling, so we resorted to digital meetings and turned our empty sanctuaries into online churches. After all, we are a creative, mindful, and respectful crowd. Our audience was enlarged in some cases but not better served. Days turned into months and we tried our best to shepherd our churches from afar. Thankful for technology, we set aside the ideal for sake of the risk. But Covid persisted and still does. So what now? How much risk can we stomach?

Within the Christian community there have been a variety of responses. Some would say that the crisis facing our society is purely medical and has no real religious implications, but it’s not that simple. The church has never been called to hide long term from threats, medical or otherwise. Rather, it has always been called to buy the truth and sell it not. We have the truth about the pandemic of sin and the cure found in Christ. Ours is not only an essential service, our message is the only hope there is for recovery. Some of us need to be reminded of that. Matthew 5:14 reminds us that we are the light of the world. That passage is emphatic, meaning, we have the only light there is. If our light be hidden all hope is gone. There is no other light. I call that essential, don’t you?

Sadly, much of the church discussion surrounds the word “risk.” How risky is it to assemble? How much risk in not wearing masks? In congregational singing? In passing an offering plate? Then there is the dilemma of governmental mandates. Are they helpful or conspiratorial? How deferential should Christians be to the local regulations that are in some cases quite onerous or even confusing? What of deference and Christian liberty? What about not offending those we are called to reach? Who do we trust? As leaders we are faced with important ministry decisions.

Numbers can be manipulated, I know, but statistics do provide some hard data that when carefully examined can be helpful. As of August 16, 2020, a total of 5,403,361 people in the U.S. had been diagnosed with COVID-19. Since the pandemic began in February studies indicate that at least 170,052 people have died in America because of the virus or complications resulting from the infection, according to Johns Hopkins University. The cases tallied include people from all fifty U.S. states, Washington D.C., and other U.S. territories as well as repatriated citizens. This virus has indeed reached most of the world and in that sense, it is truly a pandemic. But should the Church of Jesus Christ go into sustained seclusion and suspended animation? Let’s be responsible with the gospel, the world needs the church, now, more than ever.

Don’t play the blame game.

President Trump keeps pinning the virus on China. China is not to blame for Covid; the fall of man is! This blog is not intended to discover the original virus or blame shift. We know that sin originated in the Garden of Eden. Sin’s curse has infiltrated every corner of our fallen world resulting in widespread disease, natural disasters, war, pain, hostility, and general malady which came through our federal head. Before we get angry at Adam, please remember the old adage, “The only difference between Adam and you is that given the same opportunity, you would have fallen sooner!” Sin manifests itself in death. Death’s reality demands that we are prepared with the antidote which must be applied or we will all likewise perish. The statistic that should matter most is that one out of every sinner dies.

Keep things in perspective.

Don’t fall prey to the word “unprecedented.” Has anybody read Ecclesiastes lately? There is nothing new under the sun. History itself should rise in objection to our willful ignorance of the past. We may be the generation that is driving without a rearview mirror. This is the third pandemic in my short lifetime (and I am only pushing 60!) Here is a list of the pandemics in the last 100 years and the U.S. death toll in each:

1918 Pandemic (H1N1 virus) – 675,000 deaths in the U.S. / 50-100 million worldwide

1957 Pandemic (H2N2 virus) – 116,000 deaths in the U.S.

1968 Pandemic (H3N2 virus) – 100,000 deaths in the U.S.

2009 Pandemic (H1N1pdm09 virus) – 12,500 deaths in the U.S.

2020 Pandemic (2019nCoV) – 170,000 deaths in U.S. and counting

People have indeed walked this road before and can provide helpful lessons for those of us walking it now. All is not lost and the end is not yet. While this is certainly a harbinger of the end, God will not destroy the world by virus but by fire (II Peter 3:10-11). Christ will build his church in every season. Especially during the hard ones.

The good news is that you have about a 98% chance of surviving Covid-19! You could say that’s the “survivability rate” of the disease. While it is true that the morbitity rate of the disease is much higher than the rate of the common flu, the survivability rate of Covid-19 (cases versus deaths) is encouraging. Keep that in perspective.

Of course we all want a cure, but historians tell us that previous pandemics ultimately found their solution, not in isolation, but in community immunity, sometimes called “herd immunity.” The answer was not found in a vaccine or improved hygiene but in growing immunity by prolonged community exposure to the virus. As population groups were exposed to the diseases of the past, natural antibodies were strengthened against it. There are communities in Cambodia that have experienced an extremely low death rate since the start of Coronavirus. Virologists speculate that it is because of a former epidemic that built immunity to this strain of the virus in that part of the population base. Time and exposure to the disease proved to be a healer.

Be reasonable.

Risks are ever-present and our church is not exempt. Covid is, indeed, among those risks that should be carefully measured. Church leadership should commit to negotiating local guidelines with wisdom. And you should walk wisely, too. The most vulnerable (elderly and infirm) should continue to be careful. Wash your hands. Stay home if you are sick. Social distance when you can. Take health precautions, but not out of fear. Germs are out there. They always have been and always will be.

In some states, government officials have cancelled public assemblies, stopped the public schooling of children, closed all non-essential services, and mandated mask-wearing. Hugs are out and handshakes are reserved only for those related to you. Hospitals aren’t allowing visitors, and families are forced to say final words to dying loved ones over the phone. We, who were made for human contact, have become suspicious of everyone. If you want some space these days, just sneeze! The vacuum sound of people running from you will be deafening.

In God’s Word we find that Daniel made the costly decision to pray in public to a God who hears in secret. At great risk to his personal health he opened his window and worshipped. Go with him to the lion’s den and ask him about fear and risk aversion. Stand with Jeremiah as he faced religious leaders who demanded his death. Listen as he says, “Do with me what you must but I can’t change my message.” Look with Stephen into heaven as he is stoned to death. Peter said we must obey God rather than man. Jesus spent countless hours among the “unwell.” Some Christians tell me, “Well, if this were real spiritual persecution, I would resist. This is not spiritual oppression, it is a health risk and we must be really, really careful about this.” As churches reopen, how many of those are persisting in worship? Countless church members have disappeared for good. Seven months have passed and we, in some cases, are still hiding from each other. Business has slowed drastically, churches have gone completely virtual, travel has been curtailed, school bells ring in empty halls, and unemployment has reached levels not known since The Great Depression. And speaking of depression – suicide, unemployment, and divorce rates are rising. Is it possible that the “cure” is also killing us?

Abortionists will stop over 800,000 beating hearts this year. That number amounts to four times as many as have died from Coronavirus so far, but where are the government announcements about the obvious prevention of this pandemic? Such a slaughter has a simple solution.

Cancer will claim 606,000 lives in the U.S. this year. We bring untold dollars to the table to study prevention, mitigation, and cures and yet cigarettes fill our convenience stores. Where is the government official who is begging us to wear masks around smokers? Or one better – to outlaw tobacco?

Alcohol related deaths will take another 88,000 lives by this year’s end. We tried abolition and prohibition in the 20s with little success. While the church used to champion such preaching, today it has been reduced to a whisper. Who is trying to protest in front of liquor stores?

Cars kill 37,000 people a year, and yet we take the risk every day.

Let’s not lose our minds over risk. Come back to worship with the Body of Christ. The just shall live by faith.

I often harken to St. Augustine’s wise saying about nonessential issues that tend to divide us, “In necessariis unitas, in dubiis libertas, in omnibus caritas” which translated from the Latin means, in essentials unity, in non-essentials liberty and in all things, charity. Great quote if we could only live by it.

So far, we have looked at three controversial topics: versions of the Bible, divorce and remarriage, and tattoos. These are just a sampling of issues that often create opposing opinions in the church. To varying degrees these topics are either essential or non-essential considerations.

All we have to do is remind ourselves of Philippians 4:2 and the quibbling girls in the church at Philippi whom Paul gently reprimands with these words, “I entreat Euodias and Syntyche, that they be of the same mind in the Lord.” (I would like to know what the girls were fighting about, wouldn’t you . . . probably who made the best falafels?) I know God will erase all sense of improper curiosity from our minds when we arrive in heaven, but imagine being called out in the Bible for a spirit of division and being stuck with that legacy for 2000 years!

My father, who was not known for joking in the pulpit, could never resist calling these gals, “Odious and Stinky Cheese.” After pastoring now for over 25 years, I do wonder if the majority of our battles have been dispositional and not positional. Odious personalities have burned down more churches than dogma. Paul reminds the Galatians, “Take heed that ye be not consumed one of another.” (Galatians 5:15) As it regards the foibles of the faithful, we do need to bury our bitter bones in the sea of God’s forgetfulness.

Did I say bury our bones . . .?

We continue our series of topics that tend to create more “heat than light” and quite literally this issue is one of those debates – cremation vs. burial.  As Christians, should we burn or bury our dead?  Of course, we do know that God will resurrect all the dead, both small and great, for the final judgements of man. (Revelation 20:12-13) So whether eaten by sharks, or by worms, or vaporized by explosives, God will find a way to reconstitute the dead for a final appearance in his court.

So some say, “Does it really even matter? Dead is dead, and the important thing is what happens while you live. Who cares?”

As a pastor, I want to be transparent in saying that I have and will continue to perform funerals for those that choose to use cremation as a means of the final disposal of their loved ones. To me, though there is enough biblical consideration to prefer burial over incineration, I do not see this as matter of conviction but of conscience. Due to the scarcity of space in some countries, they simply do not allow the option of bodily internment. Japan is nearly totally given to the practice of cremation (99% are cremated in Japan). In our country, the rate of those that bury their dead versus those that incinerate the deceased is now nearly equally divided but will, by the year 2030, approach projected rates of 80%.

When a person dies in the United States, there are three legal options for putting the body to rest: burial, cremation, or medical donation. Burial in the U.S. has long been the method of choice for those contemplating their inevitable end, but things are quickly changing. Cremations are now more popular than they have ever been in America, surpassing the rate of burials for the fourth year in a row.

What seems to be driving this cultural shift in how we have traditionally cared for the dead?

ECONOMICS Traditional burials (which include the cost of preparation and embalmment of the body, caskets, vaults, grave sites, funeral home fees, transports, police escorts, and religious services) are currently estimated to range between $6,500 and $10,500 compared to the typical cremation service which costs between $500 and $1,500. These costs are rising as the demand for cremation increases, but there is still a significant variance in end-of-life costs where burial and cremation are considered.

CONVENIENCE With burial there is always the need for a timely embalmment and interment of the body, not to mention, of course, the space needed to bury the dead. The question is, how long can the world afford sprawling graveyards to display and house the dead? Such matters are not as much of a concern when cremation is used. Typical crematoriums incinerate bodies at temperatures reaching 1,500 degrees Fahrenheit. This leaves only 4-6 lbs. of bone and fragments which are then pulverized and placed in a box or urn for families to keep, bury, scatter, or store as they choose.

TRADITION As a people, we are no longer deeply rooted in stable family connections. Where, exactly, we choose to be buried after a life of multiple jobs, multiple moves, and in some cases, multiple spouses, is not as much an issue now as it was in the past. Our mobile culture has created a growing disconnection to the family graveyard by Grandma’s church. We are less tied to a single place, person, community, church, or city than ever before. Cremation rates also increase in states with relatively large transient populations, where many people lack connections and the means to consider burial options. “Bury me at home, where I grew up” is less and less a definable quantity when compared to the more stable and agricultural lives of past generations. Roots are not as deeply connected to the soil of the past. In my case, “my people” (i.e., my branch of the Regier clan) are mainly buried in Oklahoma, but I feel no inner compulsion to join them there. At least not any time soon. (I’m more concerned that I meet them in heaven!) 

APATHY Not to sound too cavalier here, but, once dead, does it really matter if you wind up in a pine box or a copper urn? Do the dead really care about their remains, and for that matter, do our survivors really care that much about our remains? “Absent from the body is present with the Lord.” (2 Corinthians 5:8) As believers, we know the leftover shell of our earthly body is just that – a shell that can’t be preserved. After death, it returns to its kindred elements. In a “now is all that matters” world, the dismissal of the dead soon becomes a license to quickly move on and forget the past.

This is not the case in the stories of the Bible.

In Deuteronomy 34:8, we are told that the children of Israel observed a customary mourning period at the departure of the dead. “The Israelites grieved for Moses in the plains of Moab for thirty days, until the time of weeping and mourning was over.” In Jewish culture, the normal period for mourning the dead was seven days, followed by a means of disposing the body by either entombment or burial.

Sadly, our culture today does not abide such a long look at death or the departed. We turn our face much too soon from its great realities. I am reminded of one boy who visited a museum and then asked his father, “Can’t we go somewhere where the animals and people are alive?” Who can long abide a prolonged view of the dead? Yet death is an integral part of life. In the mind of Solomon, it is the most vital moment as it represents the threshold to our eternal home. (Ecclesiastes 7:1) No one is prepared to live who has not prepared to die. Funerals force us to look at dead bodies. That is good for us – we need sobering moments. Sacred realities like death must not be marginalized from life.

In a real sense, a funeral ceremony should be our best moment. It is a tribute to our purpose and a harvest of good memories.  It is our life reviewed, our legacy respected, our hope remembered, and our vision recast. As believers, death represents the final reality of victory over the constraints of a sinful body. A former pastor of mine used to remind us, as we leave our bodies in death, it will be as a spring calf leaping and running from the stall in April! Yes, our last enemy is death, but death is also the golden doorway to a life free of the body of death. Newness awaits! We sorrow not as others. Such a mixture of sorrow and joy are more difficult while looking at a vase of human remains. It takes away our last look at loved ones departed and fades our lasting hope of a coming reunion.

Rebellion from religion is probably the most contributing factor in the new trend away from burial. People are less religious, and therefore less concerned about preserving old traditions. The Catholics were convinced that the burning of the body after death was a desecration or dishonor. While a 2016 document released by the Vatican referred to cremation as a “brutal destruction” of the body, it also confirmed that Catholics can still opt to be cremated if their ashes are not scattered afterward. Baptists have typically buried their dead, too, but more and more I am seeing the trend toward cremation take hold in fundamental and evangelistic circles. Again, this is not a sinful trend, but in my view a sad trend away from biblical patterns.

  1. Bryant Hightower Jr., the secretary of the National Funeral Directors Association says, “Most funeral directors have seen a lot of families move away from burial traditions, and those that do tend to move away from religious ceremony, as well. In their minds, since religious ceremony and tradition are tied to burial they are saying, ‘I want it [my final disposition] to be simple and I don’t want it in a church or a synagogue and I don’t want a rabbi or a minister, so I want cremation.’” Faith and burial in America have long been normative in the end of life narrative. Not so much anymore.

Biblical Considerations – As believers, what should direct our end-of-life decisions about this matter? What does the Bible say?

  • Death is a picture. In I Corinthians 15 and Romans 6, we see the burial of the believer as a picture of a future harvest. Just as the farmer plants a seed by faith, the body of the believer is planted in prospect of the future resurrection . . . God will return, his shout will wake the dead, the trumpet of God will sound, and then with the voice of the archangel, the graves shall burst forth with life and the dead shall be raised incorruptible and glorified! (I Thessalonians 4:16) Believers will be caught up together with the Lord from the grave and the picture be completed when we are forever with the Lord! Jesus in his resurrection from the tomb was a type of first fruits of all that sleep or die in Christ. First fruits is a clear indication of more harvest to come. As Christ came to life again bodily in glorified form so shall we who believe. He will come for his harvest unto eternal life.
  • Burial was a biblical practice. Jesus was slain and buried in an earthen tomb. Such was the Biblical pattern. Old Testament saints like Joseph, Jacob, Elisha, Rachel, Abraham, Sarah, and countless others were placed in tombs, caves, or burial grounds. The New Testament continues the practice of bodily burial with Lazarus, Stephen, John the Baptist, and many others. The angels at the tomb of the Lord told the disciples, “He is not here, for he is risen, as he said. Come see the place (not vase) where the Lord lay.” (Matthew 28:6)
  • Cremation’s origin is paganistic, while burial is biblical. Greeks and Romans cremated their dead to avoid the desecration of their dead by enemies. Greeks especially practiced cremation to free the “pure spirit” from “evil bodies” (Gnosticism). Hindus burn their dead and scatter the ashes along the Ganges River in hopes of expediting their reincarnation. These are pagan rituals laced to hopeless beliefs in dead gods.
  • Cremation, biblically, carries a negative connotation. In the Bible, God in a very real sense connected fire to judgement. He cremated Sodom and Gomorrah. Fiery judgement was cast upon Jericho, Achan, Ai, King Saul, and Nadab and Abihu. Fire will be the final judgement upon the earth at the end of time. The eternal home of all those who do not believe God will be a place where the flames are never quenched. It is best to argue not that the Bible is silent about cremation, but rather that it does not cast such a disposal of the body in a generous or positive light.

This pastor’s conclusion: In some cases, we do not get to choose how our bodies are removed from the rolls of the living, nor how our remains are laid to rest (shipwrecks, explosives, abductions, Holocaust, martyrdom, natural disasters, etc.) In cases where we do, I believe the Bible strongly presents a case that Christians, in the same manner as the saints in the Bible, should be laid to rest bodily in the grave as they await the bodily resurrection of the glorified saints at the return of Christ for his church. I do not believe the choice to cremate a believer results in the loss of one’s fellowship or salvation, but I do think it’s a missed opportunity to testify to a future resurrection.

“So when this corruptible shall have put on incorruption, and this mortal shall have put on immortality, then shall be brought to pass the saying that is written, death is swallowed up in victory.” I Corinthians 15:54