A Few Thoughts on the Sacraments

There were about five million topics of which Jason and I just scratched the surface when we were on the Journey Home so I wanted to give a little detail on at least one of them. Maybe in the future we’ll address more.

In my last few years as a protestant, I often had a sense that there really wasn’t anywhere else to go, spiritually speaking. Especially if you’ve been in church pretty much since birth, the expectation is that you’ll go to Sunday school, Bible studies, and church services, and that is the way you will “grow.” At least, that is the old model under which I grew up. I realize there are different ways to “do church” now, but I don’t see how they substantially change the notion that doing lots of Bible studies and community-building activities are what will cause spiritual growth.

I’m not saying that studying the Bible and hanging out with other Christians or doing good things (hey, I’ve raked lots leaves and scraped a ton of paint for Jesus) should be abandoned, but ultimately, they fell short for me. Towards the end, I felt that I had hit a wall: that although I’d been a Christian pretty much forever, this was it. It was a terrible feeling to realize that tenure was really the only indication that I had arrived.

As I mentioned in a long ago post, I had this creeping sense of soul-ickiness. Pardon the lack of sophistication, but I really don’t know how else to say it. It was like, even though I wasn’t out clubbing baby seals or burning orphanages down, there was something wrong with me that I couldn’t fix by reading a book or listening to a sermon or journalling or walking a prayer labyrinth. Even with all the reading I was doing in seminary, I couldn’t quite grasp just how these theological writers were attaining holiness.

What I was really looking for was holiness. It’s sad, in hindsight, to see that I didn’t even know what I was looking for. I don’t mean this as an insult to any protestant readers here  but holiness, in my experience, was not something I heard tons about.  I’m not going to get into different theories of salvation, but I do think the belief that you get zapped with salvation when you say a prayer  all too easily lends to the notion that you’re all set. Anything beyond that point is just a bonus.  Because, in that mode of thinking, one is fully justified, I think sin kind of gets forgotten.  Certainly, I think there’s the notion that you shouldn’t commit “big” sins (whatever that even means anymore); beyond that, holiness  is an optional, side- pursuit, as if it it’s like,  “Meh, that’s for the special people.”

The answer to this confusion, of course, is found in the Catholic Church, specifically in the Sacraments. How do you get holy? You participate in the Sacraments. Why? Because they are one of God’s ways of communicating grace to us, or as I recall someone once saying, the Sacraments are the way in which God shares his divine life with us. It’s kind of like God’s lifeline to us so that we can live holy lives; this is the grace that gives us the ability to defeat sin and makes it possible to become a saint and to help other people become saints.

This is where the Bible really started to come to life for me. What of all the passages where Paul talks about running the race or beating his body, or the admonition to “Be holy as I am holy“?  When I used to read these verses I thought they were nice but wrote them off as impossible. With the Sacraments in view, they make complete sense. Peter and Paul weren’t just talking to themselves, but to all of us.

On a side note, some of the practices that had previously left me feeling sort of empty and cynical (due to the fact that I knew they would have little effect) have fallen into their proper place now. And coming back to the lack of direction I felt before, having a faith that is sustained by the Sacraments has given me a game plan for my life. Because I experience real and palpable grace on a regular basis, I am strengthened to keep running the race.

Posted in Nikki, Sacraments | Tagged , , , | 2 Comments

Our Journey Home Appearance – February 10 on EWTN

The Journey Home

We are excited, and honored, to be scheduled to appear on The Journey Home at 8 ET, Monday, February 10, on EWTN.  We watched A LOT of The Journey Home as we traveled our road to Rome, and it was a privilege to get to meet the incomparable Marcus Grodi and his dedicated Coming Home Network staff.  If you’d like to watch and can’t catch the broadcast, it will be available on The Journey Home website here and YouTube here after it airs.

Posted in Conversion, Jason, Nikki | Tagged , | 13 Comments

March for Life – 2014

This year, the kids and I again made our annual pilgrimage to downtown DC to participate in the March for Life, and Nikki held down the fort with the young ones who couldn’t go out in the 15 degree weather.  Unlike previous years, though, we first attended the Arlington diocese’s Youth Rally and Mass at George Mason University’s Patriot Center.  The snow and extreme cold that hit the day before the March kept some away from the Rally and Mass, but there were still several thousand youth and their leaders gathered to celebrate life and pray for the protection of all life in our society—from conception to natural death.

Before the Rally started, dozens of priests heard Confessions, face-to-face.  The youth lined up to receive God’s grace in Reconciliation.  I was blown away by the conversations among the youth around me while I stood in line, as they talked seriously about sin.  It was such an encouragement, and also very humbling.  These were kids interested in holiness, which isn’t exactly something our culture encourages.

The Mass was tremendously moving.  I am often brought almost to tears by some particular part of a given Mass, whether it is the Gloria, the Agnus Dei, the consecration, or something else.  This time, though, it was the Procession at the beginning of the Mass that hit me.  In the Procession, there must have been more than 50 priests, a dozen seminarians, and a dozen deacons, as well as two bishops—all robed in white.  As they came down the center aisle, behind the Crucifix carried high while the congregation sang “Holy, Holy, Holy,” all I could think was:  “Satan doesn’t stand a chance.” 

Our son, Charlie, also was asked to lift up the Prayers of the Faithful at the Mass—right after Bishop Loverde’s homily.  That also was a pinch-myself moment.  It was hard to believe, that less than three years ago, we weren’t even Catholic.  I’m so very thankful for where God has brought Nikki, me, and our children in such a short period of time.

Charlie at the Mass for Life

Charlie at the Mass for Life

All of this was only confirmed by the March itself.  After the Rally and Mass, we headed downtown and joined the hundreds of thousands marching from the Mall, past the Capitol and the Supreme Court.  This year, again, the crowd was overwhelmingly young and upbeat, singing hymns and praying the Rosary.  I remain 100% convinced that, by God’s grace, it is ONLY a matter of time before the tide turns and the value of all human life, regardless of stage, is recognized and protected by law.

2014 March for Life

2014 March for Life

Posted in Abortion, Confession/Reconciliation, Culture of Life, Jason | Tagged , , | 6 Comments

Music in the Catholic Church is a Whole ‘nother Animal

Here is a great letter to Mark Shea from a recent convert regarding music and how it related to his family’s conversion to the Catholic Church. I never really bought into the music scene as a protestant (as in, I wasn’t spiritually fortified  by watching someone rock out on the guitar) but this definitely resonated with me, as I always felt somewhat guilty that I wasn’t carried away by the music.

May God bless this family.

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GYPSY Religion

A couple of months back, the article Why Generation Y Yuppies Are Unhappy got a lot of attention, as I believe it rang true for bunches of folks.  The thesis of the article is that the expectations of young adults entering the work force today far exceed the realities they encounter, and that these expectations were created, in large part, by Baby Boomer parents who convinced their Generation Y children that they could “be whatever they wanted to be” and should just “follow their passion” with practically unbridled ambition.  The article coins a new acronym for these delusional Generation Y’ers:  Gen Y Protagonists & Special Yuppies (“GYPSYs”).

As I read the article, I couldn’t help but think about how the GYPSY worldview plays out in, and is reinforced by, contemporary American Christianity—which remains (as it has since the Pilgrims first set foot on Plymouth Rock) deeply and pervasively Protestant.  GYPSY Christianity, of course, makes the faith all about “me”:  “Did the sermon speak to me?”  “Was the music to my taste and up to my standard?”  It also encourages the GYPSY Christian to believe that his or her religious experience is wholly unique and is going to be a long upward trajectory from one religious high to another.  In the GYPSY approach to the faith (similar to the GYPSY approach to the workplace), there’s very little room for the wisdom of the ages, for the patient working out of one’s salvation “with fear and trembling”, or for “filling up [in my flesh] what is lacking in the afflictions of Christ.”  And, on all three of these issues, the dominant Protestant theology that suffuses American culture supports the GYPSY view, as it explicitly rejects the role of tradition and the authority of an identifiable “church”, endorses the view that a person’s eternal salvation is determined by the efficacy of a single moment in time when he or she “accepted Jesus”, and denies that temporal suffering plays any role in helping an individual reach Heaven.[1]

The GYPSY attitude is, of course, not limited to Generation Y’ers, especially as it is, in my opinion, a function of generations of American Christians being told the only thing that really matters in their faith lives is their own “personal relationship” with Jesus.[2]  I certainly believe that was true of me when I was an Evangelical.  When “personal relationship” is the be-all-and-end-all, then it’s natural to think that “I” (and I alone) get to determine what’s of value in the service on Sunday mornings—or whether going on Sunday mornings is even worthwhile at all.  It also encourages the individual believer to conclude that there’s something particularly meritorious about a given work of charity or other religious endeavor because he did it, which takes the focus off the thing being done or the other person being served.[3]  This me-centric view of things is only exacerbated by the Protestant view of the “priesthood of the believer,” which makes the individual Christian, relying on the “Bible alone”, the ultimate arbiter of doctrinal truth.

The unfortunate and nagging problem the GYPSY Christian ultimately encounters, as I can attest from personal experience, is that the reality of his faith life doesn’t live up to the expectations he has created for himself in his own head, and to which he feels entitled.  So then what’s he to do?  For myself, when I hit this expectation vs. reality gap, I initially just doubled down.  “I’ll go to MORE stuff at church.  I’ll do MORE Bible studies.  I’ll hang out with my Christian friends even MORE.”  I’m here to tell you—in the long-term, I don’t think that can work.  It eventually just turns the faith into a chore, all the while it remains “all about me.” 

Another troubling alternative that seems to be quite trendy among GYPSY Christians these days is to become almost-literal gypsies, wandering from one congregation to another (which often differ significantly in what they actually teach) in search of somewhere that will live up to their expectations of what their communal faith experience should be like.  Unfortunately, at least from what I’ve observed, this often is driven by a desire to find a congregation that will provide a more dynamic and moving worship service, or more “family-friendly” programming—with the question of whether what the particular congregation in question teaches is doctrinally sound or not taking a backseat.  This search for the congregation that meets my subjective needs, at the expense of determining the church that teaches objective truth, also (in my opinion) is bound to failure.  The problem, of course, is that, even if a particular congregation sweeps me off my feet initially with its up-to-the-minute worship service and programming, those things inevitably grow stale—or the congregation’s staff changes—or the staff stays the same and they decide to do something new (which I don’t like as much as what they were doing when I first came).  Then there’s always the problem that, once the initial glow rubs off, I discover my new congregation is full of a bunch of imperfect people, just like the last one I attended.

For those GYPSYs who’ve determined that wandering from congregation to congregation is futile, there today also is the allure of abandoning “the church” altogether.  Indeed, in this day and age, attacking “organized religion” seems to be almost as popular among Christians as it is among non-Christians.[4]  It’s also astounding to me how many folks today choose to identify themselves as “Jesus followers” instead of as “Christians.”  At least to me, that seems to do nothing other than to serve to further isolate the self-proclaimed “Jesus follower” from all those other pesky “Christians” out there, both living and dead, with all of their baggage.  The term “Jesus follower” (again, at least for me) conjures up the image of a solitary individual walking along a dusty road somewhere in the middle of nowhere without another soul around for miles.  It’s not in any sense a communal notion.  Rather, it reinforces the idea it’s just “me and Jesus.”  And I think that’s really the point—deciding to be a “Jesus follower” instead of a “Christian” is a way of trying to remove oneself from all the difficulties that come with having to deal with other people.  Plus, if you’re a “Jesus follower”, it’s easier to justify sleeping in on Sunday morning rather than pulling yourself out of bed to go to service with all of those “Christians.”

In my own journey, I never got to the point where I thought that checking out on “the church” was a real option.  That option, for me, was foreclosed by what seemed to me then (and seems to me now) to be the absolutely clear teaching of the New Testament:  Our Lord, when He was on Earth, established this thing called “the church” (which had visible form) and expected His followers—both then and throughout time—to be part of it.  So deciding to opt out of “the church” just wasn’t on the table, if I was going to be even remotely true to Scripture.

But if checking out on “the church” wasn’t an answer, I was still left with the problem of a massive expectation vs. reality gap in my faith.  And, despite the various criticisms I have raised regarding the GYPSY approach to faith, I am not trying here to suggest that GYPSY Christians are out-to-lunch when they sense there is such a gap in the Evangelicalism that, even today, continues to dominate American Christianity.  Indeed, I wholeheartedly agree with the GYPSYs that the reality of American Evangelicalism doesn’t live up to what it promises and what the GYPSYs expect.  Given this, the fundamental question remains:  how does the gap get closed?  Well, as anyone who’s read this blog before can surely guess, I’m convinced the only compelling answer to that question is:  Catholicism. 

Catholicism closes the expectation vs. reality gap by completely turning the tables on the GYPSY Christian.  Whereas GYPSY Christianity is almost-exclusively focused on the expectation side of that equation (i.e., “What do I want from the church?” “How is the church going to recognize how special I am?”), Catholicism invites the GYPSY to reshape those expectations in light of a reality that seems too good to be true.  Quite simply, what Catholicism offers the GYPSY Christian is Jesus Himself:  “You’ve been looking for confirmation of how much God loves you and how special you are?  You’ll never find that by trying to impress your personality on others, or even on God Himself, or by trying to manufacture ever-more-meaningful religious experiences for yourself, or by becoming the world’s greatest theologian, or by building a mega-congregation of your own.  Rather, you’ll find it by considering the truth that Christ is Really and Truly Present in the Eucharist of the Catholic Church—and that Christ loves you so much that He literally becomes your food and your drink—so He can impart His own divine life to you—in the Mass celebrated by that Church.”

The Real Presence of Christ in the Eucharist is a reality that the wildest expectation of the GYPSY-est GYPSY cannot surpass.  It is, quite literally, a miracle in which Heaven touches Earth—and it happens each and every day at each and every Mass celebrated in each and every Catholic church in the world.[5]  And, what’s more, the Eucharist is not the only way that God’s heavenly grace is breaking through to touch the lives of men.  In addition to that, in each and every Confessional, to each and every contrite penitent, the Church is offering grace beyond imagination—grace that washes away—with objective certainty—the guilt of even the most heinous sin as the sinner hears the words of Christ (spoken aloud by one of Christ’s priests):  “I absolve you from your sins.”[6]

I’m convinced that the grace—abundant and overflowing—that is available in the sacraments of the Catholic Church is the only sure refuge for the GYPSY Christian who is longing for a meaningful religious experience but eventually runs head-long into the fact that, in this world, the life of faith is often one full of struggle and pain.[7]  Those sacraments, however, are God’s gift to us because He, in His great love and compassion for us, desires to provide us His grace to sustain us so that we all, including those of us who are wandering GYPSYs, can reach what we all most desire—our home in Heaven. 

[1]           This is all in contrast to the teaching of the Catholic Church, as Nikki or I have discussed in a number of posts, including those here, here, and here.

[2]           Protestant readers, don’t check out on me yet.  As a Catholic, I believe 100% in the importance of having a “personal relationship” with Christ.  I also believe, however, that my “personal relationship” with Christ is best developed and nurtured by being in communion with His Church—particularly through regular and frequent reception of the sacraments.

[3]           The recent Broadway hit The Book of Mormon (which, with apologies to any Mormon readers, I will admit I have seen) captures this sentiment well in one of the songs sung by a young, gung-ho Mormon missionary (in a spoof of “Defying Gravity” from Wicked):  “Incredible, I’ll do something incredible.  I’m going to be the Mormon who changed all of mankind.  It’s something that I’ve foreseen.  Now that I’m 19, I’ll do something incredible that blows God’s freaking mind!”

[4]           I touched on this phenomenon in an earlier post.

[5]           Nikki or I have written on the Eucharist in a number of posts, including the ones here, here, and here.

[6]           See John 20:23 (“Whose sins you forgive are forgiven them, and whose sins you retain are retained.”).  Nikki or I also have written on Confession in a number of posts, including those here, here, and here.

[7]           “The sacraments are efficacious signs of grace, instituted by Christ and entrusted to the Church, by which divine life is dispensed to us” (Catechism of the Catholic Church (“CCC”) No. 1131).

Posted in Confession/Reconciliation, Eucharist, Jason, Sacraments | Tagged , , , , | 6 Comments

Saints and Selfies

Crawling from under my blogging rock to mull some thoughts over, after some serious social media burnout. Maybe it’s due to old age? I don’t know…

Anyway, what if social media had been available during the time of any of our most beloved saints. Would we see shameless self promotion from St. Augustine? Duck-face selfies from the Little Flower? Give-aways from St. Thomas Aquinas? “What I wore Wednesday” from Edith Stein? A super-caffeinated apologetics combox blast from St. Francis de Sales? Ad nauseum Facebook commentary from St. Paul?

Are they better than us, or would they have succumbed to the temptation of worldwide exposure via Facebook, Twitter, etc? What is the good of social media in the Catholic world? Is it to advance the cause of Christ and His Church or is it to advance the cause of a particular personality?

Is the New Media a blessing or a curse? I guess I’ve just been wondering lately whether or not people should, more often than not, forgo blogs and internet commentaries and pick up a copy of The Devout Life or Spiritual Exercises or The Way–maybe even the Bible?

Would our New Testament authors have felt pressure to produce material every day for the sake of staying relevant?

Just wondering…. please talk amongst yourselves, because I’d love to discuss.

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“Can We Talk…and Talk and Talk and Talk?”: Satan’s Code Words – Part 2

Talking and talkingIn my last post, I discussed how Satan uses the words “assurance” and “security” to trick people into believing that God intended us to have 100% certainty about where we’ll spend eternity, and I argued that viewing Heaven as something we can have a lock on in this life is actually detrimental to our souls.  In so arguing, however, I do not want to leave the impression that I believe there is nothing in the Christian life of which the individual believer can be sure.  He may not be able to assert with absolute certainty that he’ll make it to Heaven (which is actually a good thing because it helps him to stay humble and “keep on keeping on”), but he can know—with the certainty of faith—what the teachings of the Christian faith are so that he can do his best to live his life in accordance with them.  Satan doesn’t like that kind of “assurance,” though, and he’s got at least one code word to try, yet again, to deceive us into settling for less than what God wants for our lives.  That word, which seems very popular right now, is “dialogue.”

As with “assurance” and “security,” “dialogue” at first blush sounds completely positive.  Who could object to “dialoguing” about matters of faith?  The problem, however, is that Satan does his best to get people to think of “dialogue” as an end in and of itself—rather than as simply a means of getting closer to truth.  In so doing, he helps contribute to his other current project of convincing people that “just love Jesus” adequately captures the totality of the doctrinal content of Christianity, a topic I’ve discussed before here.

Because Satan is quite intelligent, he realizes that the “dialogue” ploy is particularly well-suited to our post-modern age that purports to reject the idea of absolute truth.  Speaking for myself, once I began to realize that the Protestant fundamentalism of which I’d been so “certain” when I was younger didn’t work, “dialogue” sounded great.  For this reason, I for a time was very taken with the “emergent church” folks like Brian McLaren who so powerfully indicted the inconsistencies of modern American evangelicalism and did a great job “deconstructing” the evangelical project.  In place of the insupportable “certainties” of my previous fundamentalism, people like McLaren offered a smorgasbord of Christian experience and “dialogue” across the Christian spectrum.  It was mighty attractive.

Eventually, however, the desire for answers began to set back in, although Satan did his best to convince me that I was just some kind of psychological freak for having that desire.  But I’m quite certain that “dialogue” can’t possibly be the answer, for example, to determining whether it’s ok or not ok to use artificial contraception.  Nor can it be the answer to helping people figure out if they can marry someone when they have a former spouse still living.   Indeed, it finally dawned on me that “dialogue” isn’t the answer to anything.  “Dialogue” is simply a tool we can use to arrive at conclusions.  The Holy Father, just before Christmas, made the point:

For the Church in our day I see three principal areas of dialogue, in which she must be present in the struggle for man and his humanity: dialogue with states, dialogue with society – which includes dialogue with cultures and with science – and finally dialogue with religions. In all these dialogues the Church speaks on the basis of the light given her by faith. But at the same time she incorporates the memory of mankind, which is a memory of man’s experiences and sufferings from the beginnings and down the centuries, in which she has learned about the human condition, she has experienced its boundaries and its grandeur, its opportunities and its limitations. Human culture, of which she is a guarantee, has developed from the encounter between divine revelation and human existence. The Church represents the memory of what it means to be human in the face of a civilization of forgetfulness, which knows only itself and its own criteria. Yet just as an individual without memory has lost his identity, so too a human race without memory would lose its identity. What the Church has learned from the encounter between revelation and human experience does indeed extend beyond the realm of pure reason, but it is not a separate world that has nothing to say to unbelievers. By entering into the thinking and understanding of mankind, this knowledge broadens the horizon of reason and thus it speaks also to those who are unable to share the faith of the Church. In her dialogue with the state and with society, the Church does not, of course, have ready answers for individual questions. Along with other forces in society, she will wrestle for the answers that best correspond to the truth of the human condition. The values that she recognizes as fundamental and non-negotiable for the human condition she must propose with all clarity. She must do all she can to convince, and this can then stimulate political action.

In man’s present situation, the dialogue of religions is a necessary condition for peace in the world and it is therefore a duty for Christians as well as other religious communities. This dialogue of religions has various dimensions. In the first place it is simply a dialogue of life, a dialogue of being together. This will not involve discussing the great themes of faith – whether God is Trinitarian or how the inspiration of the sacred Scriptures is to be understood, and so on. It is about the concrete problems of coexistence and shared responsibility for society, for the state, for humanity. In the process, it is necessary to learn to accept the other in his otherness and the otherness of his thinking. To this end, the shared responsibility for justice and peace must become the guiding principle of the conversation. A dialogue about peace and justice is bound to move beyond the purely pragmatic to become an ethical struggle for the truth and for the human being: a dialogue concerning the values that come before everything. In this way what began as a purely practical dialogue becomes a quest for the right way to live as a human being. Even if the fundamental choices themselves are not under discussion, the search for an answer to a specific question becomes a process in which, through listening to the other, both sides can obtain purification and enrichment. Thus this search can also mean taking common steps towards the one truth, even if the fundamental choices remain unaltered. If both sides set out from a hermeneutic of justice and peace, the fundamental difference will not disappear, but a deeper closeness will emerge nevertheless.

Two rules are generally regarded nowadays as fundamental for interreligious dialogue:

1. Dialogue does not aim at conversion, but at understanding. In this respect it differs from evangelization, from mission;

2. Accordingly, both parties to the dialogue remain consciously within their identity, which the dialogue does not place in question either for themselves or for the other.

These rules are correct, but in the way they are formulated here I still find them too superficial. True, dialogue does not aim at conversion, but at better mutual understanding – that is correct. But all the same, the search for knowledge and understanding always has to involve drawing closer to the truth. Both sides in this piece-by-piece approach to truth are therefore on the path that leads forward and towards greater commonality, brought about by the oneness of the truth. As far as preserving identity is concerned, it would be too little for the Christian, so to speak, to assert his identity in a such a way that he effectively blocks the path to truth. Then his Christianity would appear as something arbitrary, merely propositional. He would seem not to reckon with the possibility that religion has to do with truth. On the contrary, I would say that the Christian can afford to be supremely confident, yes, fundamentally certain that he can venture freely into the open sea of the truth, without having to fear for his Christian identity. To be sure, we do not possess the truth, the truth possesses us: Christ, who is the truth, has taken us by the hand, and we know that his hand is holding us securely on the path of our quest for knowledge. Being inwardly held by the hand of Christ makes us free and keeps us safe: free – because if we are held by him, we can enter openly and fearlessly into any dialogue; safe – because he does not let go of us, unless we cut ourselves off from him. At one with him, we stand in the light of truth.

It also ultimately occurred to me that viewing “dialogue” as an end in itself was entirely inconsistent with the Gospel.  Jesus promised the Apostles that the Holy Spirit would come and lead the Church into “all the truth“—not that the Spirit would come so they could have a nice conversation.  Jesus founded a Church—not a book club.

Reflecting on Jesus’ promise that the Spirit would lead His Church into all the truth was the nail in the coffin for “dialogue” for me and was instrumental in helping me to recognize the need for the teaching authority of the Catholic Church.  While God didn’t intend for us to have 100% certainty in this life about where we’ll spend eternity, but rather to have the “hope” of Heaven, Christ’s promise that His Church would be led into “all the truth” does mean he wants us to have certainty about what the doctrines of the faith are.[1]  And that only makes sense.  If I can’t have certainty about what the teachings of the Christian faith even are, how can I possibly determine if I’m following them or not?

This last point is the real rub.  “Dialogue” was so tempting to me because it meant I didn’t have to actually commit to anything.  Rather, Satan was offering me the chance to be “like God” and decide for myself when the dialogues would end and which rules I’d live by.  Sound familiar?


[1]  I’m not suggesting here that it doesn’t take faith to believe the Gospel.  The “certainty” I’m discussing here presupposes that faith.

Posted in Jason | Tagged | 7 Comments