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Amazing stories from times past

On conmen and other masters of deceit

God made man upright, but they have sought out many devices (Eccl. 7:29)

There are vagabonds and there are villains; there are crooks and there are victims; and sin and temptation are present in the hearts of all. Listen to the story of a man who stood behind an old woman just ahead of him at the checkout counter at his local supermarket. The woman was crying. She was well-dressed, although a bit on the shabby side. He tried not to pay attention but could not help but notice that she was in distress. Eventually compassion overcame him and he spoke to her, tapping her on the shoulder: "What is the matter? Can I help you?" She turned to face him, looking surprised, tears visible on her wrinkled face. "Oh, I'm sorry to have disturbed you," her voice, soft and genteel, awoke more pity in his heart, "I've recently lost my son. He died last month." "Oh, I'm so sorry," the man murmured. "The truth is," the woman continued softly, "that he worked here." She stopped to blow her nose, and the man thought of his own mother. "He worked here," the shaking voice went on, "and I would see him every time I bought my groceries." "It must be quite painful for you," the man replied, overcome with sympathy. "The most difficult thing," the bereft woman added, "is remembering that he would always wave to me after my groceries were packed and when I reached the door with my cart he'd say, 'Bye, Mom. See you soon.'" She bent her head and two tears rolled down her cheeks before she looked up at him again. "I don't suppose," she said tremulously, "that you would say, 'Bye, Mom', and wave to me after my groceries are packed and I reach the door, just to help me this first time?" "Of course, I will," the man agreed instantly. The woman's turn at the checkout arrived. The bus-boy packed her things and wheeled her cart to the door. At the door she turned and looked the man in the eye. He waved to her with his right hand and called out loudly, "Bye Mom. See you soon." This single act made him feel good inside and a bit emotional. He began unpacking his own items, placing them on the counter, and thought about how he should call up his own mother that very evening to ask how she was doing. Lost in thought, he was startled when the checkout girl told him the bill was more than $300 dollars. "You must be wrong," he said, "I didn't buy that much." "Oh, but your mother did," she responded with a smile, and instantly he knew he'd been had. Yes, there are crooks and there are victims, and evil resides in the hearts of all of us. When we hear questions like, "How do you keep from getting parking tickets?" and laugh at the answer "By removing your wipers," that is because there is something within us which resonates with getting the better of someone. A master of deceit One of the most infamous masters of deceit and trickery was a man by the name of Victor Lustig. Born in 1890 in Bohemia, now known as the Czech Republic, Victor was gifted with a brilliant mind. Part of an upper-middle class family, his father was the mayor of a small town, so small Viktor's future was, humanly speaking, rather secure. In school he studied languages, easily becoming fluent in Czech, German, English, French and Italian. Victor could have used these talents to become a wonderful teacher or diplomat. Instead, he opted for gambling, turning his abilities to billiards, poker and bridge. In his early twenties he went on pleasure cruises and cheated many gullible, wealthy people out of their money. However, when World War I put a stop to these cruises, he headed for the US. Giving himself the title of "Count," his devious mind conned many in the States out of huge sums of cash (including the gangster Al Capone). The story that really put the native born Czechoslovakian in the news occurred in 1925 when he was 35 years old. Lustig was in Paris at this time and he read in the newspaper that the Eiffel Tower was in great need of repair. The cost of fixing the monumental fixture seemed rather prohibitive. There was even a brief footnote in the article which mentioned that the French government was considering scrapping the tower as it might be cheaper for them to tear it down than to repair it. Upon finishing the article, Lustig's fertile and calculating mind literally saw huge sums of money floating by. His connections with other nefarious characters enabled him to acquire official French government letterhead giving himself the title of "Deputy Director-General of the Ministry of Mail and Telegraphs." He typed up letters in which he said that he had the authority to sell the 7,000 ton steel structure to the highest bidder and sent this letter to five leading scrap metal dealers in the city. He instructed the recipients of the letter to keep the matter secret as the public would most likely be upset about the demolition of such a landmark. All five scrap metal dealers showed up and Lustig carefully picked the one most apt to be his patsy: a man by the name of Monsieur Poisson. Poisson gladly paid a handsome amount of money for the privilege of obtaining the contract, and upon receiving it Lustig quickly retreated to Austria. Hearing no news of the swindle, he concluded that Poisson had been too embarrassed to have told anyone. Boldly Lustig returned to Paris and tried to sell the Eiffel Tower a second time. This time, however, the police were made aware of the swindle. The conman barely eluded authorities and was forced to flee to America. Ten years later, in 1935, after having flooded the US with counterfeit bills, and having cheated many more people, the Secret Service finally caught up with Lustig. They reacted to an anonymous phone call made by his mistress who was jealous because Victor was cheating on her. He was arrested and sentenced to twenty years in Alcatraz. Although he initially escaped from jail, he was re-apprehended and spent the next twelve years behind bars. A set of tips, known as the "Ten Commandments for Conmen," are attributed to Lustig. They are:

1. Be a patient listener (it is this, not fast talking, that gets a conman his coups) 2. Never look bored 3. Wait for the other person to reveal any political opinions; then agree with him 4. Let the other person reveal religious views; then have the same ones 5. Hint at sex talk, but don't follow it up unless the other person shows a strong interest 6. Never discuss illness, unless some special concern is shown 7. Never pry into a person's personal circumstances (they'll tell you eventually); 8. Never boast - just let your importance be quietly obvious 9. Never be untidy 10. Never get drunk

There is accounting In 1947 Victor Lustig contracted pneumonia and died after a two-day illness. His last enemy, death, was not to be conned out of its prey. Having shunned God's commandments, and the One Who kept them perfectly, he had no place to hide. Although proficient in languages, he was forced to clap his hand over his mouth. Perhaps our lives do not compare with Viktor Lustig's life; perhaps our deeds shine when we hold them up next to his obvious deceitfulness; but we do well to remember that we ought to

...fear God, and keep His commandments; for this is the whole duty of man. For God will bring every deed into judgment, with every secret thing, whether good or evil. – Ecclesiastes 12:13-14

Christine Farenhorst is the author of many books, including a short story collection/devotional available at Joshua Press here. She has a new novel - historical fiction - coming out Spring 2017 called "Katharina, Katharina" (1497-1562) covering the childhood and youth of Katharina Schutz Zell, the wife of the earliest Strasbourg priest turned Reformer, Matthis Zell.

Economics, Movie Reviews

Wait till it's free

Documentary 2014 / 82 minutes Rating: 9/10 Why would Canadians be interested in watching a Scotsman take a look at the American healthcare system? Because this examination, of how capitalism and socialism impact healthcare costs, is very relevant for us too. The film’s director and producer, Colin Gunn, is Presbyterian and consequently a capitalist. If that seems an abrupt connection, then consider that we Reformed folks know that the heart of man is wicked. So we are well aware that if an economic system needs men to be angels, laboring for no personal benefit, then that is an unworkable economic system. So we know better than to be socialists. But for some reason, we don’t seem to think that holds true for healthcare. This comes out most strongly when Canadians, even the Reformed ones, start talking about healthcare with their American cousins. Then we seem to be quite proud of the socialistic nature of our healthcare system, which “costs us nothing, and is free for everyone.” But, of course, that isn’t really so. It certainly isn’t free – the costs are simply not seen, paid out in taxes, so that Canadians have very little idea of how much their healthcare really does cost. And that everyone is covered doesn’t distinguish it all that much from American healthcare, where everyone can get emergency care, and where more and more of the population is covered by the government-run Medicare. As Gunn points out, the American system is almost as socialistic as the Canadian. Gunn’s main argument is that a good dose of capitalism would be good for what ails the American system. His most telling observation was that in the American system no one knows what the costs will be beforehand. There is no public pricing chart, and so no way of comparing what one hospital might charge versus another. And without an awareness of how much things might costs, there is only a pretense of competition. You won't have innovation if you don't have competition so if we want to reform healthcare, this might be the first place we need to start: make all the prices public! I highly recommend this documentary – it is a brilliant argument by a Christian filmmaker who has perfected his craft. The content is superb: Gunn has assembled an impressive cast of experts from around the world to make his case. And the presentation is even better: there are fun little animated bits, and great narration, and a wonderful story arc – this is packaged up nicely, and tied up at the end with a bow. Who should see this? Anyone who thinks socialism is the answer to our healthcare needs. You can watch the trailer below, and watch the rent the full film by clicking on the "$4.95" link in the trailer below. The Wait Till It's Free YouTube site has a lot of extras that are also worth checking out.

Current Issue, Magazine

Jan/Feb 2020 issue

WHAT’S INSIDE: The great moon hoax of 1935 / "Seven Wondrous Words" book excerpt / Why we should be life-long learners / Complementarianism is not misogynistic / This isn't your parents' Katy Keene...or Archie Andrews / "The Gospel comes with a house key" review / The case for biblically-responsible investing / Canada has no "right to abortion" / When the Word of God is not preached / Christian fantasy fiction for teens and adults / What you should know to survive and thrive in your secular science class / Four films to see for free online / I started my business for the wrong reasons / and much more...

Click the cover to view or right-click to download the PDF

News, Theology

Calvinism in the time of coronavirus

When I was about nine or ten, at the height of worldwide panic about AIDS, I stumbled across a newspaper article that outlined the symptoms of the dreaded disease. I can still recall reading, to my horror, that one of the telltale signs was “thick, white matting on the tongue.” You see, I had a few small but obvious patches of white matter on my tongue. And my ten-year-old self became utterly convinced: I had AIDS. The fact that I was in the world’s lowest-risk category didn’t matter, nor did the fact that I was asthmatic and regularly took large doses of medication that left white deposits on my tongue. For at least a week, I was convinced that my end had come. In my early 20s, it was a brain tumor. After all, I had a few really bad headaches on the way to university one week; what else could it be?! As I’ve gotten older, I’ve become slightly more sanguine, but I’m still highly susceptible to fear setting in. Honestly, I feel like I’m tempting fate (even though I totally don’t believe in “tempting fate”) by even writing this piece. I am a card-carrying hypochondriac. So you can imagine how the last few weeks have made me feel. I’ve had to dig in and battle hard to not give in to the paralyzing fear of the coronavirus that’s been sweeping the globe. How have I fought this battle? I’ve armed my household with facts, vitamins, soap, and statistics (but no, not with extra toilet paper as yet – I live in New Zealand, not Australia). I’ve chewed off my wife’s ear about how the media is blowing it out of proportion, mostly preaching to myself in the process. But underneath all those strategies, I’ve fallen back on one simple, underlying reality: God is completely sovereign. I’ve always found it slightly surprising that Christians find the notion that God is completely sovereign (sometimes called “Calvinism,” after theologian John Calvin) to be so controversial or complex. Maybe it’s the way Calvinism was initially taught to me when I was a young Christian. It was totally plausible, and just seemed the obvious, inevitable conclusion that anyone should reach from studying the Scriptures: God is completely in charge of everything, and nothing takes him by surprise. Don’t get me wrong: I’m not belittling anyone who finds it hard to grapple with the many thorny issues that this topic raises. Far from it. A high view of God’s sovereignty doesn’t numb the pain of real-life or provide cheap, easy answers. We should all sympathize with the Psalmists who bring their laments to God and cry out, “How Long, O Lord?” But the basic concept itself has (thanks be to God) always just seemed obvious to me. Can I really conceive of the God who spoke the universe into existence now sitting fretfully on the edge of his throne, desperately hoping that everything will pan out? Can I picture the God who raised Jesus from the dead muttering, “That wasn’t supposed to happen! Oh well, I guess I’ll try again tomorrow”? But more than that, I’ve also struggled to understand why some people see this as an obscure, irrelevant question – a topic for the “ivory tower – rather than as a real-life game-changer. As I was once told, there is nothing as practical as good theology. The sovereignty of God has been an enormous comfort to me again and again and again in my life. So while we may be tempted to think that the panic-inducing Covid-19 is no time to get all theological, nothing could be further from the truth. It’s moments like these where we need the deep realities about God to sustain us. If, like me, you’re even slightly given to extra nervousness at a time like this, it might be worth stepping back and planting your flag on some simple yet marvelous truths about our great, sovereign God. Remember, there is no such thing as "luck" – even moments that seem totally random are controlled by God (Proverbs 16:33). Remember, not even a tiny, insignificant sparrow falls to the ground without God’s say-so – and you are worth more than many sparrows (Matt 10:29-31). Remember, God shapes the decisions and the fate of the world’s most powerful people (Proverbs 21:1). Remember, whether or not your plans for tomorrow come to fruition depends far more on God than on you (James 4:13-15). Remember, God can do all things (that’s a lot of things) and no purpose of his can be thwarted (Job 42:2). Remember, God works all things (which, again, really is a lot of things) according to the counsel of his will (Ephesians 1:11). Remember, God is able to do far more abundantly than all that we ask him to do and all we think He can do (Ephesians 3:20). Next time you get sick, remember that God never faints or grows weary, not even for a second (Isaiah 40:28). Remember, God never sleeps or slumbers; He never takes a day off (Psalm 121:3-4). Remember, even the very faith that you place in Jesus is a gift from God (Ephesians 2:8-9), and God is in charge of the fruitful spread of the gospel (Mark 4:14-25). Remember, God forms the light and creates the darkness; He makes well-being and He creates calamity (Isaiah 45:7). And even if some things – including coronavirus – remain a mystery to us, we can trust that He’s using his sovereign power for our ultimate good. For He didn’t even withhold his own Son from us; we shouldn’t doubt that He’ll also give us the other good things we need. (Romans 5:6-8; Romans 8:32) Remember, the days God formed for you were written in his book before you lived even one of them (Psalm 139:16). When the whole world is in a panic, when people are inexplicably hoarding in a desperate attempt to calm their fears, when our neighbors fear that the sky is falling, it’s easy to join them and give in to anxiety. But it’s unnecessary. And it’s wrong. One of the best ways for Christians to love one another, love our neighbors and honor the Lord during this time is simply to

“be strong and courageous. Do not be frightened, and do not be dismayed, for the Lord your God is with you wherever you go.” (Joshua 1:8-9)

That promise was to Joshua, but we have even more reason than Joshua to be sure that those words apply to us. We have the gospel of Jesus. We have a Savior who has promised to be with us, even to the end of the age (Matthew 28:20). We have a loving God who is not far away, but who is near to all who call on him, and who is mighty to save. Knowing all this, we are invited to entrust ourselves to God:

Do not be anxious about anything, but in everything by prayer and supplication with thanksgiving let your requests be made known to God. And the peace of God, which surpasses all understanding, will guard your hearts and your minds in Christ Jesus. (Philippians 4:6-7)

Trust the sovereign Lord of the ages who is working out his plans and purposes for the world, and for you, moment by moment, even (especially) when things are scary or unknown. Tell your children that God can be trusted more than hand-sanitizer. Boldly bear witness to a frightened world – a world that’s having the deceptive veil of safety and security pulled back before its very eyes – that there is a genuine, lasting source of security and peace. Take your stand on the Bible’s great truths about our sovereign God, now and forever. And try not to touch your face.

This article first appeared at GeoffRobson.com and it is reprinted here with permission.

The Wild Brothers: 8-episode DVD series (+ free vlog series)

Reality / Documentary Each episode is 28-30 min / 2015-2016 Rating: 7/10 Everyone in our family enjoyed this DVD series, from ou

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