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Thursday, May 31, 2007

Inconsistent Tolerance

I have noticed something interesting over the last year, something I knew before but had seriously reaffirmed in this exercise of sharing my thoughts and ideas in this blog. Most of the commenters to my blog as well as those who have referenced my stuff in their blogs call themselves Christians. (I don't seem to get a lot of feedback from non-Christians. I don't suppose that's a big surprise to anyone.) What is interesting is that most of those Christians who disagreed with stuff disagreed because they thought I wasn't inclusive enough. I was too judgmental, too narrow-minded, too exclusive. It seems that to some it's the height of arrogance to believe that you know what is true and others don't.

I was fascinated by this. People like John Shuck are arguing that we need to be more inclusive. When I took his ideas to task regarding the clear deviation from basic Christianity, another blogger responded with the allegation that believing the Bible too much kills faith. When I wrote about the fact that Christianity claims to be exclusive, another blogger argued, "Maybe we all are right in our perception of the truth as we see it." He concluded, however, "Except for Stan."

Brian McClaren, one of the prime movers of the Emergent Church, has written a book entitled, A Generous Orthodoxy. (The title is much longer than that, but that's the basic title.) In the book (as the title suggests) he argues that everyone should be included. Let's not exclude anyone. This is the popular concept of the day, not merely from Pastor McClaren, but from many who call themselves Christians. This is Pastor Shuck's theme song. Let's include the Moslems and the Buddhists and the Hindus. Let's not leave out the atheists or the agnostics. Let's be sure to include every belief, every person. We'll label it "humility", clearly a Christian virtue. What could be more arrogant than excluding people because you believe you have the truth and they don't? And the idea is catching on.

And yet, with all this "Can't we all just get along?" spirit, when it comes down to it, there is one group that cannot be included. It is a group I am part of. It is those of us who believe that the Bible is God's Word and that Christianity is exclusive. It is those who are convinced that there is no other name given under heaven by which we must be saved. The only group, it seems, that the all-inclusivists will exclude is the group that believes there is truth, the Bible is true, and those who disagree are mistaken. Why is that? Why is it that those who rail against intolerance are intolerant of Bible-believing Christians? Why is it that those who howl against being judgmental are so judgmental of Christians? Why is it that those who, in the name of Christ, spread their arms in the widest of embraces for nearly everyone save their harshest words for those of us who believe that the Bible is true, the Christ of the Bible is real, and we are bound to follow that? Why is it that it is at a part of Christianity that the McClarens, the Shucks, the "Progressive Christians" have decided to aim their cruelest attacks?

I've never quite understood that. It seems like a contradiction to their own position. Wouldn't it nice to find consistency somewhere out there? I would think that the consistent position would be, "Yes, you believe that you have exclusive truth and everyone else is wrong, but that's okay with us. You can be part of our all-inclusive worldview." And yet ...

I've never quite understood that.

Please note that calling someone "inconsistent" is not calling them heretical or even wrong. It is calling them "inconsistent". And also note that when one believes that Christianity is exclusive and those who are outside Christianity are wrong, it is consistent to point it out.

Update 6/2/2007 8:29
I tried to clarify that "inconsistent" doesn't require "wrong". Apparently, I also need to clarify that "inconsistent" doesn't mean "hypocrite". "Inconsistent" means "not consistent" as in "The position you are taking over here is not consistent with the position you hold over there." If your position is "We all are right in our perception of the truth as we see it", it is inconsistent to say "except Stan". It is not hypocritical, not heretical ... it is inconsistent. To say "we are all right" and then proceed to try to explain why I am not right is -- not consistent. To argue that "we are all right" and then to argue that "orthodoxy is not right" is inconsistent. I hope this helps. (A little hint here. Simply admitting "We're not all right" will eliminate the inconsistency. It will also admit to exclusivity -- because it excludes those who are not right -- but it would allow for consistency.)

Wednesday, May 30, 2007

Visiting Iniquities

Some of my readers are aware that I'm often asking questions as well as espousing views. This is another question day.

Here's the Scripture that relates to my question:
You shall not worship them or serve them; for I, the LORD your God, am a jealous God, visiting the iniquity of the fathers on the children, on the third and the fourth generations of those who hate Me, but showing lovingkindness to thousands, to those who love Me and keep My commandments (Exo. 20:5-6).
Hopefully you recognize that as a line from the Ten Commandments. It is in the middle of the prohibition against idolatry. The Bible seems to echo that prohibition throughout, you know, like it's a big problem or something. Well, I hope that anyone who is honest would see that it is. But that's not my question. I'm looking at the "visiting the iniquity of the fathers on the children, on the third and the fourth generations" phrase. What's that all about?

I have a step-son. He's a good kid. He's all grown up and living elsewhere. When he was growing up, he exhibited certain character traits that were not from his mom and were not from me. I can't tell you how many times I heard his mother say, "He's just like his father." Now, that is a little odd since he wasn't raised by his father. His father had a near zero influence on his upbringing. Yet he seemed to be very clearly his father's son. It's the old question of "nature versus nurture". How much of who we are is determined by our nature, and how much by our upbringing? How much of our character is shaped by our genes and how much by our circumstances?

I'm sure that the statement in Exodus is not that the children of idolaters will be punished for their father's sins. We know that's not the case. It seems to be something else. One commentator suggests that it will be an affront to a family for generations. That hardly seems sufficient. One commentator suggests it is a national sense, in which, when a nation falls into idolatry, God withdraws His protection for several generations. That seems like a leap. Most commonly I've seen it said that the children of idolaters inherit the consequences of their father's sins. There is judgment, disease, poverty, captivity, that kind of stuff. And that makes a lot of sense. But I'm still wondering.

You see, I've seen too many cases where sons follow fathers in their sins. An alcoholic father often begets alcoholic sons. A pedophile father often has sons that struggle with the same problem. And so on. (I don't mean to imply that it's a "guy thing". You get the idea.) So it makes me wonder if "visiting the iniquity of the fathers on the children, on the third and the fourth generations" is a genetic thing as well as a passing on of consequences, etc. I wonder if God is saying that a father who has a particular tendency to a particular sin can pass that tendency on to his children?

This, of course, would beg the question of responsibility. "How can I be held responsible if I'm merely the result of my genetics ... and that was ordered by God?" But the question is not valid because I'm saying "tendency", not necessity. People have all sorts of tendencies, dispositions, leanings. That doesn't mean they have to choose them. Most males, for instance, are predisposed to sexual relations with multiple women, but we're all quite clear that this is reserved for one woman -- the wife -- and we know that we are supposed to refuse that natural predisposition. Indeed, a virtue (like marital fidelity) isn't particularly virtuous if it is natural and easy. A virtue is virtuous when it is effort, often violating natural tendencies. It's not particularly heroic of a fellow to stand outside of a burning building and hope for the best, but it is regarded as virtuous if he sets aside his fear of fire and runs in to save someone. So virtue is not the absence of bad inclinations, but the control of them. So if it is true that we can inherit sinful predispositions from our parents, it doesn't free us from responsibility to resist those predispositions.

On the other hand, if it is true that we can inherit sinful predispositions from our parents, and we need to resist those predispositions, it would seem to me that it would be a good idea that we know about them. Unfortunately, it is human nature to hide faults. What father shares with his sons that he struggles with pornography? What mother tells her children that she fights greed (the constant desire for "more")? What parent willingly admits their faults and struggles to their children? It's not common. I wonder, just maybe, if that was one of the things in view when James wrote, "Confess your sins to one another, and pray for one another, so that you may be healed" (James 5:16).

If I'm right -- if Scripture (Exo. 20:5) and experience collide, suggesting that sinful predispositions are inherited -- then parents have some responsibilities of which they may not have been aware. First, it becomes important to not pass this on. How is this accomplished? The answer is in the same passage: God is "showing lovingkindness to thousands, to those who love Me and keep My commandments" (Exo. 20:6). Parents, for their own sake, yes, but for their children's' sakes as well need to love God and keep His commandments, counting on His lovingkindness. The other is that they should share (when appropriate) their struggles with their children for the purpose of preparing their children for struggles they are likely to face. I think that we parents owe them that much. Don't you?

Tuesday, May 29, 2007

The Value of Heresies

Heresies are a bad thing. Any orthodox person knows that. But I see some value in them. Orthodoxy is defined, at its root, as "right belief". Heresy is defined as "at variance with orthodoxy". Thomas Aquinas defined heresy as "a species of infidelity in men who, having professed the faith of Christ, corrupt its dogmas." In other words, it takes a profession of faith to qualify as a heretic. It also takes a "right belief".

Heresies cause all sorts of problems. They cause division and schisms. They lead people from the truth. They lie and deceive and obscure right belief. There are all sorts of problems with heresies. But I still see value in them.

The first value I see is the division they provide. Yes, "provide." John wrote:
Children, it is the last hour, and as you have heard that antichrist is coming, so now many antichrists have come. Therefore we know that it is the last hour. They went out from us, but they were not of us; for if they had been of us, they would have continued with us. But they went out, that it might become plain that they all are not of us (1 John 2:18-19).
What does John mean, "They went out from us"? Most heretics I know about remained or still remain in churches. In what sense do they go out from us? I think it's plainly in their deviation from the truth. There is a body of truth in the Christian faith that is "right belief". When they deviated from that truth, they "went out from us." Why? "If they had been of us, they would have continued with us. But they went out, that it might become plain that they all are not of us." So, to me, heresies are valuable because they point out who is "not of us" -- who the real anti-christs are. They illustrate the tares among the wheat. These people simply open their mouths and prove that they are against Christ by deviating from the Truth. I think that's helpful.

The other value is much greater. Heresies have provided, through the centuries, clarification of truth. Like a fire that burns off dross, heresiarchs have appeared on the scene creating firestorms of controversy. The Church gathers and addresses the question and the truth is outed. This pattern started at the beginning of Christianity, way back in the New Testament. Paul wrote 1 Corinthians to a church that was practicing antinomianism -- no rules. They quarreled over who they followed (1 Cor. 1:10-17). They had a man living in sin with his step-mother (1 Cor. 5). They were getting drunk at the Lord's Supper (1 Cor. 11:20-34). They were practicing mayhem with the spiritual gifts (1 Cor. 12-14). Paul took them to task for ... these errors. The letter to the churches of Galatia was written to address the heresy of legalism, the belief that we can be saved and/or sanctified by being good. So Paul writes, "O foolish Galatians! Who has bewitched you? It was before your eyes that Jesus Christ was publicly portrayed as crucified. Let me ask you only this: Did you receive the Spirit by works of the law or by hearing with faith? Are you so foolish? Having begun by the Spirit, are you now being perfected by the flesh?" (Gal. 3:1-3). Sharp words for a sharp heresy. Paul's letter to the church at Colossae was written to address the heresy of gnosticism, a heresy that has raised its head again today. Gnosticism preached that if you were spiritual you could receive special knowledge, a secret knowing. One achieved this, they said, by self-deprivation. Paul said, "If with Christ you died to the elemental spirits of the world, why, as if you were still alive in the world, do you submit to regulations -- 'Do not handle, Do not taste, Do not touch' (referring to things that all perish as they are used)--according to human precepts and teachings? These have indeed an appearance of wisdom in promoting self-made religion and asceticism and severity to the body, but they are of no value in stopping the indulgence of the flesh" (Col. 2:20-23). Instead of allowing for some "elemental spirits" who would provide special knowledge, Paul writes, "See to it that no one takes you captive by philosophy and empty deceit, according to human tradition, according to the elemental spirits of the world, and not according to Christ. For in Him the whole fullness of deity dwells bodily, and you have been filled in Him, who is the head of all rule and authority" (Col 2:8-10). Other books, such as Hebrews and 1 John, were written to counter early error in the Church.

This pattern continued in the Church after the writing of the New Testament. Irenaeus's Contra Heresies was written to counter heresies of his day and served to crystallize much Christian doctrine. The Council of Nicaea met to counter the heresy of Arianism which denied the deity of Christ. Any position that denies the deity of Christ, then, has been clarified as heresy, outside orthodoxy, "out from us". The First Council of Constantinople addressed the Macedonius heresy which denied the deity of the Holy Spirit. The Council of Ephesus addressed the Nestorian and Pelagian heresies. The Nestorian heresy co-mingled the divine and human nature of Christ, and the Pelagian heresy denied the innate sinfulness of Man. Any position that mingles the humanity of Christ with the deity of Christ, then, has been clarified as heresy, outside orthodoxy, "out from us", and those who argue that mankind is basically good are classified as heretics, outside orthodoxy, "out from us". The Council of Chalcedon met to counter the heresy of the Monophysites that held that Jesus was never human. Any position that denies the humanity of Christ, then, has been clarified as heresy, outside orthodoxy, "out from us".

Well, you get the idea. Heresies have caused problems since the beginning of Christianity, but there has been benefits. (Maybe that's why a sovereign God would allow them, eh?) Paul wrote, "There must be factions among you in order that those who are genuine among you may be recognized" (1 Cor. 11:19). Heresies have been the catalyst for gathering after gathering of the Church to crystallize and affirm the Truth over against the false. Without these heresies, these clarifications would never have occurred, beginning with the New Testament writings. And without these clarifications of orthodoxy -- right belief -- we would have a difficult time recognizing the anti-christs among us, those who go out from us, because they never seem to leave. Maybe it can be said that, although heresies themselves are evil, it is good that they exist.

Monday, May 28, 2007

Today We Remember

Memorial Day is a day set aside for us to remember those who gave their lives in our nation's service. Officailly started in 1868, the holiday was originally started with Civil War casualties in view. Now it is for all those who have died defending our country.

This is no small number. In the Revolutionary War, there was 4,435 combat deaths. The War of 1812 had 2,260 comabat deaths. The Civil War was one of our worst since every death was an American death. Combined, there were 184,594 combat deaths and 373,458 non-combat deaths. World War I saw 53,513 combat and 373,458 non-combat deaths, while World War II brought us 292,131 combat and 115,185 deaths. In the Korean War we lost 33,651 men in combat. Vietnam cost us 47,369 combat losses and 10,799 non-combat deaths.

These numbers don't include the Mexican War, the Spanish-American War, the Gulf War, and the ongoing losses in the War in Afghanistan and Iraq. It doesn't include the wounded who survived. It doesn't include the cost in money. It is simply a glimpse at the large numbers of men and women who willingly put their lives on the line to gain and maintain the freedom that we enjoy in this country. I hope we will thank God for them today.

Someone Lied

We've been lied to. Someplace along the way, it happened. I don't know who or when, but someone sometime told us that we should have perfection, and we bought the lie.

What do I mean? When the mad gunman of Virginia Tech happened, there was an outcry. We've got to do something! This is intolerable. There should never be such an incident. The fact that such incidents are so very, very rare doesn't seem to occur to anyone. It should never happen. Then there are the levees in New Orleans. People are upset because the Corp of Army Engineers says that they're not fixed yet and are not 100% safe against another Katrina. Or how about the news recently that 1/3 of the maternity services of hospitals in Philadelphia are closing or have closed because they can't afford to stay in business? Why? Because the malpractice insurance that obstetricians have to pay is higher than anyone else. Why? Because parents think that every child born should be perfect, and any complication is likely the doctor's fault. And, of course, there's the Iraq War. If any more Americans die over there, it's just another indication of failure. Why? Because perfect peace has not yet been obtained.

We're living in a fantasy. The world tells us that we need to achieve perfection in our security measures, our law enforcement processes, our automobile safety, our product safety, anything at all that you care to mention, it seems. The Bible says "The creation was subjected to futility, not of its own will, but because of Him who subjected it" (Rom. 8:20). Or, as Christian psychologist Larry Crabb says, "There's a worm in everything."

It is my belief that the sooner we grasp this, the sooner we can move on to better ground. The sooner we see the reality that the world in which we live is decaying and the people who live in it are sin-sick, the sooner we can stop relying on the world around us and start relying on the only reliable One. We can hold out false hopes for a long time, but sometime it has to happen that we will see these are false hopes. Perfection will not be reached here. There will continue to be murders no matter what we do. Natural disasters will happen despite every precaution we take. Children will be born with physical problems as long as children are born. And no war is ever pleasant. No product is 100% safe. No one is good, not even one. Let's shift from this lie, recognize that there is a worm in everything, and place our confidence on the One who cannot fail instead of trying to make a perfect world in the dying pieces of this decaying planet.

Sunday, May 27, 2007

Come, Thou Fount

Okay, it's Sunday. Here's another hymn.

Come, Thou Fount of Every Blessing

Come, Thou Fount of every blessing, tune my heart to sing Thy grace.
Streams of mercy, never ceasing, call for songs of loudest praise.
Teach me some melodious sonnet, sung by flaming tongues above;
Praise the mount - I'm fixed upon it - mount of Thy redeeming love.

Here I raise mine Ebenezer - hither by Thy help I'm come;
And I hope by Thy good pleasure safely to arrive at home.
Jesus sought me when a stranger wandering from the fold of God;
He to rescue me from danger interposed His precious blood.

O to grace how great a debtor daily I'm constrained to be!
Let Thy goodness like a fetter bind my wandering heart to Thee:
Prone to wander - Lord, I feel it - prone to leave the God I love;
Here's my heart - O take and seal it, seal it for Thy courts above.
Written in 1758 by Robert Robinson, this old hymn is a favorite of many. It has fallen into the sorry condition of anonymity largely because of the archaic language, but the truths held herein shouldn't be missed.

James writes, "Every good gift and every perfect gift comes down from the Father." The hymn writer concurs. He recognizes God as the "Fount of every blessing." We seem to miss that so many times today, thinking we have earned our good fortune. But the hymn credits God with that.

Further, the hymnist sees gratitude as a need of the heart, an attribute to be learned and developed. "Tune my heart to sing Thy grace." We see ourselves as much larger than we are. We think that with Jesus by our side we can do anything. We don't see that we can do nothing if we don't cling closely to Him. There is no good thing in us . . . only Christ. It is His work, even to attune us to gratefulness. And giving thanks is one of the pleasing things to God (Eph. 5:20; Col. 1:9-12; 1 Thess. 5:18).

In our lack of gratitude, we have missed the next great truth that the hymn examines. "Streams of mercy." Some believe that Christ had to die for us, that His love for us required it. They place an undue sense of value on themselves. But God's holiness and wrath require judgment. It is mercy that stands between us and the living God. "It is a terrifying thing to fall into the hands of the living God." (Heb. 10:31)

Our culture values self above all else. We refuse to believe that we deserve hell. We, after all, are human beings, valuable in our own existence. We've changed the hymns' references that denigrate our worth (e.g., "At The Cross" and "Beneath The Cross Of Jesus"). But without that bad news, the good news isn't as good. If we are, after all, valuable beings in ourselves, then it was only good economy on God's part to save us - and there is no grace. Grace is defined as unmerited favor. If we have merit, there is no grace.

In 1 Samuel 7, God delivers Israel from the Philistines. The prophet, Samuel, leads the nation in a sacrifice and God confounds the enemy with thunder. When it was done, he declared the place Ebenezer (1 Sam. 7:12), the place where God helped them. It was a symbol of God's faithfulness. Robinson raises his symbol of God's faithfulness on the place he found himself. He saw his very existence as proof of God's intervention. "By Your help and Your help alone I've come this far in life." How far? All the way to salvation.

The hymnist places no trust in his ability to maintain his salvation. "I hope by Thy good pleasure safely to arrive at home." All the glory of salvation and all the success of arrival lands squarely in God's lap. Neither the obtaining nor the sustaining of redemption is possible for a human being alone. But God is immensely capable. He proved it at the cross, at the cost of His shed blood.

The current theory in evangelical churches across America is that to become a Christian, we accept Christ. Robinson states it rather differently. "Jesus sought me when a stranger wandering from the fold of God." Scripture is plain to teach that faith is a gift from God (Eph. 2:8), and that we fail to seek God (Rom. 3:11). It is solely grace, favor shown without any merit in the receiver, that causes God to seek those who run from Him. Why? "To rescue me from danger." And at what cost? His blood. This, indeed, calls for songs of loudest praise.

We seem to easily forget God's amazing grace. We embrace it, then take it for granted, then demand it. Would that we could maintain the view that this hymn holds. God's goodness to us, the undeserving, should hold us in His debt. It has been said that the ethic of salvation is grace and the ethic of the Christian life is gratitude. "Let Thy goodness, like a fetter, bind my wandering heart to Thee." That kind of slavery ought to be a welcome part of every believer.

Robinson recognized a trait in himself that we all possess and often miss. He saw his tendency to wander. In later life he did walk away from God, failing to be bound to God's goodness. But wandering, in itself, is not the final problem. Great heroes of the Bible strayed into sin. Abraham, whose faith was reckoned to him as righteousness, feared so much for his own life that he passed his wife off as his sister. David, the man after God's own heart, committed adultery and murder. The faith chapter of Hebrews 11 is as much a rogue's gallery as a museum of the faithful, for each hero of faith failed.

What, then, are we to do? Wherein is our hope? Our confidence is in the One who called us, who sought us while we were yet strangers. "It is God who is at work in you," Paul says (Phil. 2:13). What joy to have the assurance that God holds our hearts, sealed for Him (Eph. 1:13, 14)!

Seeing God, His grace, love, mercy and goodness, in this light must necessarily return us to the first verse of the hymn, for there is the proper response. Lord, fountain of every blessing, tune my heart to sing Your grace. The unending stream of Your mercy calls for songs of loudest praise. Teach me to sing as only the angels in heaven can sing of Your wonders. I'm fixed, grounded, rooted, anchored in Your redeeming love.

Saturday, May 26, 2007

Defending God

Maybe you've heard of the term, "theodicy". The term is built on "God's Justice" (theo = God, and dice = "just") and is the term used for the particular apologetic field of the vindication of God's goodness and justice in the face of the existence of evil. Many anti-Christians see this as the Achilles Heel of Christianity. They suggest that it is not possible to have the omniscient, omnipotent, omnipresent, good, loving, holy God of the Bible while still allowing for evil in the world. I say "anti-Christian" because it is precisely the God of the Bible that is the problem here. You see, if there is a god, it can't be the God of the Bible because He would have to be lacking something of the list I just made. It's possible, for instance, that evil could exist for an omnipotent, omnipresent, good, loving, holy God who just doesn't know everything (omniscience) and, as such, has had to deal with stuff He didn't anticipate. Or it could be that an omniscient, omnipresent, good, loving, holy God simply lacks the power (omnipotent) to stop evil. Maybe an omniscient, omnipotent, omnipresent, loving, holy God exists who isn't actually good, and that would explain it. Or there is always the possibility that an omniscient, omnipotent, omnipresent, good, holy God isn't actually loving and just doesn't care enough to fix things. In other words, something on that list is problematic. Conclusion: God doesn't exist as the Bible portrays Him.

Lots of effort has been expended trying to answer this problem from lots of directions. Liberal theologians have decided that the God of the Bible does not exist. Instead, the biblical God isn't the actual God, but simply a construct of human myth. So their "defense" is actually a capitulation to the opposition and, calling themselves "Christians", they fall on the anti-Christian side. Others are more subtle. There is the process theologians who claim that God is in process. He is changing all the time, trying to reach His full potential. He has made mistakes but is getting better and better. In other words, no, the God of the Bible ("I change not") doesn't exist, and these, too, become anti-Christians. There is another group known as Open Theists. This group is much more generous. They uphold a God of the Bible who is omnipotent, omnipresent, good, loving, and holy. The only thing on the list that He lacks is the classic omniscience. They claim that He cannot know what has not occurred, so He cannot know the future. This God is always following up on Man's poor choices, making the best of things as well as He can. He does a fairly good job of it, but He's not to blame for evil because He didn't know it would happen. The problem with this is that the Bible says otherwise, and this perspective becomes anti-Christian as well. Any perspective that says, "The God of the Bible doesn't exist" either overtly or by omission is anti-Christian. All of these, trying to rescue God from the evil He seems to have allowed, end up an enemy of the God that the Bible portrays.

There are more benign groups. Most of these agree with all of those attributes ... essentially. They might say, "We believe in the omniscient, omnipotent, omnipresent, good, loving, holy God of the Bible. We just believe that He didn't want to stop evil because His ultimate goal was to give Man autonomy. Man's Free Will is sacrosanct, and God must allow evil if He is to allow Free Will." In this perspective, the value of Free Will outweighs the cost of evil. This group will argue that God is Sovereign in His removal of His Sovereignty by making Man sovereign over himself. The problem, unfortunately, is that this doesn't get God off the hook. Even if God gave Man Free Will as the ultimate good thing, He seems either unable or unwilling to stop evil. Beyond that, He will still need to ultimately deal with this Free Will problem if He is ever going to wind up this Creation thing like He says He is. So God is back under the gun. Others try giving short answers to big problems. "Well, we can't really understand God, can we? I mean, 'The secret things belong to the LORD' (Deut. 29:29)." Perhaps this is true, but it is not an answer to the dilemma. Or, "Sin wasn't God's fault; it was Adam who sinned." While this may be true as well, God is still not off the hook because He must have known that Adam would sin and He didn't prevent it. Then there's, "It wasn't God or Adam that was the problem; it was Satan. He was the originator of evil." That, too, may be true, but we're still left with the same problem. If God knew Satan would fall, and threw him to Earth, we're back to the same problem.

I believe that the problem is in a wrong-headed question. Antagonists ask their questions from the perspective of Man at the center. Man decides what is "good" and "bad". God fails to conform to Man's value system. God, therefore, is bad. And, too often, believers answer from the wrong perspective. They remind me of one of Jesus's exchanges with the Jewish leaders. They wanted to know His authority to teach. He responded with a question. "The baptism of John, from where did it come? From heaven or from man?" (Matt. 21:25). Notice that the chief priests and elders never addressed the question. They only considered the outcome. "If we say, 'From heaven,' He will say to us, 'Why then did you not believe him?' But if we say, 'From man,' we are afraid of the crowd, for they all hold that John was a prophet" (Matt. 21:25-26). Their answer was "We don't know" because it was the only answer that would produce a result they could tolerate. I think that too often Christians' answers are based less on what there is to see of the truth and more on what makes them feel good. If, however, the Bible is the Word of God, then we should be able to answer the question from what God says and it will be accurate. We may not feel good about it, but it will be accurate.

The problem, you see, is that the defense of the justice and goodness of God is wrong-headed to start with. It assumes that we get to judge it. The Bible, on the other hand, assumes that God is at the center of all things. All things, then, must be judged by Him. He is not subject to judgment because He is the source of determining what is good and bad, right and wrong. What does God's Word say about God and evil? It says, "Our God is in the heavens; He does all that He pleases" (Psa. 115:3). It says, "He is unchangeable, and who can turn Him back? What He desires, that He does" (Job 23:13). It says, "The LORD has made everything for its purpose, even the wicked for the day of trouble" (Prov. 16:4). God says about Himself, "I am the LORD, and there is no other. I form light and create darkness, I make well-being and create calamity, I am the LORD, who does all these things" (Isa. 45:6-7). Later in the same chapter He anticipates the "but" that must follow and says, "Woe to him who strives with Him who formed him, a pot among earthen pots! Does the clay say to him who forms it, 'What are you making?' or 'Your work has no handles'? Woe to him who says to a father, 'What are you begetting?' or to a woman, 'With what are you in labor?'" (Isa. 45:9-10). God, it seems, has no problem for taking responsibility for allowing evil. He doesn't seem to mind at all that He is being blamed for the existence of evil. Instead He says, "Yeah, so?"

The answer, then, would seem to be this. How can an omniscient, omnipotent, omnipresent, good, loving, holy God of the Bible allow evil? Because He wants to. Any questions? That would be Paul's response. Any questions? "You will say to me then, 'Why does He still find fault? For who can resist His will?' But who are you, O man, to answer back to God?" (Rom. 9:19-20). Oh, we can suggest some reasons as to why He allows evil. We see in Rom. 5:8 that "God shows His love for us in that while we were still sinners, Christ died for us." No sinners, no demonstration of divine love. Paul says in Rom. 3:5 that our unrighteousness reveals God's righteousness. In Rom. 9:22 it is abundantly clear that it is God's will to demonstrate His power and wrath on "vessels of wrath prepared for destruction". Quickly, then, we see that without evil there would be no demonstration of God's love for sinners, God's righteousness, or God's power and wrath against sin.

Unfortunately, that likely doesn't leave Christians feeling too good. Like the chief priests, most Christians likely don't like the answer that "Evil exists in the world because God intended it to exist." It doesn't ease things when we say, "God intended for evil to exist so He could more fully demonstrate His glory." But that dis-ease can't be the determiner of what is true. Perhaps we need to begin to redefine what we think based on the revealed character of God rather than defining God by what makes us feel better. Perhaps the problem of the wrong-headed question -- a Man-centered perspective on God -- is precisely the problem some Christians have with God's self-revelation. I would say, however, in this case, "Let God be true though every man is a liar" (Rom. 3:4). We cannot afford to place ourselves in the position of judging God. That would be unwise.

Friday, May 25, 2007

Reflecting Christ

Over at Adiaphora there is a post about an email exchange between the author and his Presbytery regarding a fellow pastor who has jettisoned Christianity yet retains the pastorship of a church. It's a good post about a serious problem and the lack of concern from the leadership for truth. I found this in the comments: "Your writing does not reflect Jesus Christ to me at all. I'm glad you're active with Habitat because that, in contrast, does."

I'm puzzled by this. We have this commenter holding up two things saying, "This doesn't speak Christ to me and that does."The reference to Habitat, I believe, is a reference to Habitat for Humanity, an international, nonprofit, ecumenical Christian housing ministry. Volunteering to help build houses for the poor speaks Christ to this commenter. The writing that doesn't speak Christ was calling on the Presbytery to recognize that one of their ordained ministers was denying the fundamental teachings of Christianity. Apparently it is Christ-like to build houses for people but not Christ-like to call out error. Instead, what the commenter said was, "What I see more in your writing is the Gospel caricature of the Pharisees and Sadducees and experts in the law."

Don't misunderstand. I'm not taking up sides on the blog in question. (You can likely guess which side I'm on, but that's not my point.) I'm addressing here a common misconception about Christ. It seems to me that this is a caricature of Christ. A caricature is a depiction of someone or something that ludicrously exaggerates their peculiarities. Christ was, indeed, peculiar in His care for the needy around Him. He healed the sick. He cared about the sinners. He fed the hungry. These are all true, and no one should deny it. However, to suggest that this was all that Christ was about is to entirely miss the Christ of the Gospels. It would be to ludicrously exaggerate (a caricature) that peculiarity.

You see, while we certainly see a caring Christ in the Gospels, we also see a Christ with a whip in His hand when He encountered moneychangers in the Temple. We also see a Christ who went toe to toe with the Pharisees and Sadducees that were the religious rulers of His day. He didn't defer to their role as religious leaders; He pronounced curses on them ("Woe to you ..."), declared them "vipers", and called them "of your father, the devil." While many like to think that Jesus was a social activist, concerned about meeting people's needs around Him, the truth is that He was a truth activist, concerned with presenting the truth to the people around Him. If that took healing them for them to listen, He did it. If that took a combative approach to the deceivers who led the "church" of His day, then He took it. But His call was not one of trying to meet people's felt needs. His job was to be about His Father's business.

Paul's charge to Timothy was precisely along these lines. He told Timothy that the reason poor Tim was alone in Ephesus was "that you may charge certain persons not to teach any different doctrine" (1 Tim. 1:3). According to Paul, Jesus didn't come into the world to meet felt needs; He "came into the world to save sinners" (1 Tim. 1:15). And poor Timothy ... I think he tended to be more compassionate than Paul. So Paul had to hammer the point home. "This charge I entrust to you, Timothy, my child, in accordance with the prophecies previously made about you, that by them you may wage the good warfare, holding faith and a good conscience" (1 Tim 1:18-19). "Wage the good warfare," Paul says. "It's time to go to war against false doctrine." Now, I suspect that the commenters on that blog might not see Jesus in that kind of talk, but it appears to me that this is because of a caricature of Christ's love without His call for Truth. Paul writes, "I have handed [Hymenaeus and Alexander] over to Satan that they may learn not to blaspheme" (1 Tim. 1:20). Now, that doesn't sound like the Jesus who healed the blind man, but it certainly sounds like the Jesus who defied the Pharisees.

It is important that we, as Christians, reflect Christ. In that we ought to be leading the charge in service to others. We ought to be helping out anywhere and anyway we can. I think we're likely poor at that. On the other hand, we are also called to "preach the word; be ready in season and out of season; reprove, rebuke, and exhort, with complete patience and teaching" (2 Tim. 4:2). Yes, that includes patience. But it also includes reproving, rebuking, and exhorting. Anything else is a caricature of Christ. We cannot afford, any more than Christ could afford, to idly sit by and watch error be offered as truth. If we are to mirror Christ, we need to contend for the faith (Jude 1:3).

Thursday, May 24, 2007

The Golden Rule

Okay, I'll break off the hymns again for awhile. If you guys want more, let me know and I'll return to them. In the meantime, we'll switch to other things.

Here's something you may not have thought about. Everyone knows the "Golden Rule": "Do unto others as you would have them do unto you" (Luke 6:31). It's very well known. It's found in a variety of places in other writings and religions. It's highly venerated. All well and good.

Here's the thing. Have you ever realized that we almost exclusively think of this passage in terms of the negative? We read "Do unto others" but we think "Don't do unto others." We read "Do to others what you would like done to yourself" but we think "Don't do things to others that you wouldn't want done to yourself." Now, this is certainly a valid statement. We teach this to our kids. "How would you like it if someone did that to you?" But Jesus's statement isn't a passive negative. It is an active positive.

Jesus's "Golden Rule" is a statement of action. Think about what you like. It is important that you think in terms of principle rather than specific because what you like others may not like. What do you like done to you in principle? Do you like to be respected? Do you like to be heard? Do you like to be appreciated? Do you like to be recognized? Do you like it when people give you what you want? These are questions based on principle rather than specifics. If you like these things, it is highly likely that others will. Your task, then, is to do them to others. Note, however, that Jesus's command isn't passive; it's active. Do them. We tend to wait for them. More accurately, we tend to think in terms of trying to avoid doing things that people don't like rather than actively seeking out what others like and actively doing them.

Perhaps I'm not getting this across very well. When we think of the Golden Rule, we tend to do so passively. "If the opportunity presents itself maybe I will." Jesus's command is not passive. Ask yourself, "What have I done today to give to someone else what I myself would like? What conscious goals have I set for myself today to do things to others that I myself would have liked?"

It is a valid concern that we avoid doing to others what we ourselves would not like done to ourselves. Good. We're fine with that. But Jesus's command is a step beyond that. Who have you respected today because you like to be respected? Who have you listened to today because you appreciate it when you are listened to? Who have you thanked today because you like it when you are appreciated? Oh, here's a tough one. It's a gender problem. Guys, when you gave your wife a gift for _____ (Mother's Day, her birthday, Christmas, "just because" -- you fill in the most recent event), did you give her something that she would want or what you would want? (Ladies, the same question for you.) You see, what you want is for people to give you what you want and that may not be what they want. Guys, for instance, often like practical gifts like power tools and the like, while ladies generally prefer gifts from the heart like flowers or jewelry. This is where the principle kicks in rather than the specifics. The principle is "I like to receive gifts that are suited to me, so I should give gifts that are suited to the one receiving them." Do you see?

Any reasonably decent person can subscribe to the passive negative of the Golden Rule. "Don't do things to other people that you don't want done to yourself." We are commanded to go a step beyond. "Seek out those things to do for others that you would like done for you. Make it your goal. Put effort into it. Do it." It would certainly go a ways toward demonstrating that love that Jesus said was the mark of His disciples, wouldn't it?

Wednesday, May 23, 2007

It Is Well With My Soul

Maybe if I just sprinkle these hymns in from time to time some of you will see their value and appreciate them more. Maybe. Here's another of my favorites.

It Is Well With My Soul
Horatio Spafford

When peace, like a river, attendeth my way,
When sorrows like sea billows roll -
Whatever my lot, Thou hast taught me to say,
It is well, it is well with my soul.

Tho' Satan should buffet, tho' trials should come,
Let this blest assurance control,
That Christ hath regarded my helpless estate,
And has shed His own blood for my soul.

My sin - O the bliss of this glorious tho't -
My sin, not in part, but the whole,
Is nailed to the cross, and I bear it no more:
Praise the Lord, praise the Lord, O my soul!

And, Lord, haste the day when my faith shall be sight,
The clouds be rolled back as a scroll:
The trump shall resound and the Lord shall descend,
"Even so" - it is well with my soul.
The hymn has quite a story behind it. Perhaps by understanding some of the events surrounding it, the meaning will be clearer. Horatio Spafford was a lawyer in Chicago in 1871 when the Chicago Fire destroyed his lakeshore real estate and his finances along with it. Having already lost a son to premature death, He decided to take his wife and four daughters on a trip to England to join D.L. Moody on one of their campaigns and to get some much needed rest. Business forced him to delay his departure, so he had his family go on ahead, intending to join them as soon as he could. Soon Spafford received word that the ship had sunk. He waited anxiously for word of survivors and finally received a telegram from his wife that read "Saved alone." Spafford hastened to join her in England, and as he sailed past the spot where his four daughters had drowned, he wrote, "When peace, like a river, attendeth my way, when sorrows like sea billows roll - whatever my lot, Thou hast taught me to say, ‘It is well, it is well with my soul.’"

Horatio Spafford knew God. It could only be an abiding relationship with the Almighty that would enable a man enduring such loss to say, "It is well with my soul." He echoes the words of Paul who says, "I have learned to be content." (Phil. 4:11-13)

What did Spafford know of God that held him in such peace? His second verse tells us. "Let this blest assurance control, that Christ hath regarded my helpless estate and has shed His own blood for my soul." To him, knowing that God loved him enough to die for him was enough. God had no requirement to do so, and the cost to Him was great - His own blood. What greater love could there be?

I think Mr. Spafford tied greater weight to his sin condition than most of us do today. He saw the forgiven state of the Christian as enough from God. His third verse dwells on the bliss of that thought. He saw forgiveness as glorious, and complete. He regarded God's pardon as the end of the question, with sin no longer a concern. "Not in part, but the whole." Paul says the same. We are crucified to sin. "Do not let sin reign." (Rom. 6:12) Praise the Lord, O my soul!

So many Christians today struggle with sin. They see their shortcomings - which are real - as an obstacle to their relationship with God. There is even a sort of superstition mixed in, as if God will curse us if we sin but bless us if we don't. They see God as turning away when they fail Him, and in some cases their large numbers of failures amass such a perceived wall between themselves and the Almighty that they give up and walk away hopeless. But sin - "not in part, but the whole" - has been nailed to the cross. We bear it no more. It is forgiven, past, present, and future. God sees us as clothed in the righteousness of Christ. He stands ready to commune with us at all times. We need merely to confess, for our benefit, our failure to obey, and we can continue the relationship. Would that we saw our sin condition and its collapse at the cross in the same light as this hymn does.

Like so many of the hymn writers of the past, Spafford looked forward to the coming of the Lord. He longed to be home. While many today aren't sure they want Christ to return just yet, he asked that God "haste the day." When all is said, it is there that peace is finally ours. It is in the knowledge of the transcendent God, the God who is holy and just, who is able to make all things right, the soon and coming King, that we can ultimately rest. His faithfulness is our repose. And His return is our hope. As the hymn alludes, "even so, come quickly." It is God's presence that brings final peace.

We, too, can enjoy this response to difficult circumstances. We can learn, with Paul, to be content in all situations. The truth is simple. If we know the God we serve, "who can be against us?" If God is God (and we are not), what more can we require? We can agree with Spafford and say, "Whatever my lot, Thou hast taught me to say, it is well, it is well with my soul."

Tuesday, May 22, 2007

He Who Has Ears

"He who has ears to hear, let him hear."

Jesus concludes many of His parables with this somewhat amusing little comment. I mean, come on, how many people do not have ears? Now, the truth is we all know that Jesus is not referring to physical ears. Nor is He referring to the auditory reception of sound that we often call "hearing". We all know that what He is really saying is that those who are really listening will understand what He was saying in His parable.

Now, consider this diagnostic. You're a "doctor" of sorts, and this statement is offered. "He who has ears to hear, let him hear." You examine a "patient" and find out that he did not "hear" in the sense of "get it", "understand." Given this statement from Jesus, what do you conclude? To me, the conclusion is obvious, but apparently it seems to elude others. I would conclude that the person who failed to "hear" in this sense is lacking the necessary "ears" to which Jesus is referring. That is, the person that has these "ears" will "hear", and if you don't "hear", it's because you lack "ears".

This flies in the face of most beliefs, even among Christians. Everyone has ears. Everyone can hear. They just don't. But the question of "Why do some believe and some don't?" has plagued Christianity for centuries. Oh, usually it's asked in other terms. "If God is real, why is He so hard to find?" "Just because you believe it doesn't make it true." (A true statement, by the way, but irrelevant.) The real puzzler is why is it that an evangelist can go door to door, presenting the same gospel to everyone in your neighborhood, and you receive it while others do not. Hey, mister, where'd you get them ears?

Maybe you remember when the disciples in Matthew 13 were puzzled over Jesus's use of parables. "What's up with that?"
Then the disciples came and said to him, "Why do you speak to them in parables?" And he answered them, "To you it has been given to know the secrets of the kingdom of heaven, but to them it has not been given. For to the one who has, more will be given, and he will have an abundance, but from the one who has not, even what he has will be taken away. This is why I speak to them in parables, because seeing they do not see, and hearing they do not hear, nor do they understand. Indeed, in their case the prophecy of Isaiah is fulfilled that says: "'You will indeed hear but never understand, and you will indeed see but never perceive. For this people's heart has grown dull, and with their ears they can barely hear, and their eyes they have closed, lest they should see with their eyes and hear with their ears and understand with their heart and turn, and I would heal them'" (Matt. 13:10-15).
Jesus responds to them with a quote from Isaiah. The Isaiah 6 reference says that some listeners' ears are dulled by God's divine will. It is His plan. Jesus says that others don't understand because "to them it has not been given."

Many people seem to have the misconception that Christianity is based on propositional truths that, if they can be demonstrated, will convince people to believe. While it is true that Christianity is based on propositional truths, it is not true that we can convince people. According to God, "this people's heart has grown dull, and with their ears they can barely hear, and their eyes they have closed." According to Paul, the problem isn't that truth is elusive; the problem is that it is suppressed (Rom. 1:18). Our job is to present the truth. That is best accomplished, according to the Bible, by the proper presentation of the Word (Rom. 10:17). But we do not impart faith. Our job is to get the Word from our mouths to their ears. God's job is to get it from their ears to their hearts. If we would just rely on God's methodology (the preaching of the Word and living Christ in front of others), I suspect we'd find much better results than we find trying to salve the seeker and entertain the questioner. Remember ... they don't have ears.

Monday, May 21, 2007

I Have A Theory

The 20th century saw not one, but two world wars. World War I raged from 1914 to 1919. World War II started in 1939 with Germany's invasion of Poland and ended in 1945 with Japan's surrender. In both cases, however, it is not accurate to say that they ended in 1919 or 1945. The work wasn't complete. The Berlin Airlift, for instance, was an effort to provide necessary supplies to West Berlin, a direct consequence of World War II. Indeed, the Allied nations spent a great deal of time after the war rebuilding Germany and Japan. So to limit World War II to 1945 is to limit it only to primary fighting. The military is still in Germany and Japan today.

Something that has bothered me over the last couple of years is the apparent unwillingness of Americans to see this fight in Iraq through. The initial war was fought and won in the first half of 2003. The government was removed. The armies were defeated. The war, as far as a war goes, was over. Since then there has been the subsequent rebuilding operation. Most people see it as a continuation of the war because there are still terrorists attacking American troops and there are still troops losing their lives, and I understand that. But the current process is not a battle between two armies; it is a pacification and rebuilding process that follows the elimination of the Iraqi armies and government. Still, Americans don't seem to have the stomach for finishing what we started. Four years is too much. Never mind that World War II was an all-out war with nearly every free nation fighting the Axis with everything we could muster. Never mind that even then it took six years to end it. Never mind that the casualties for American forces alone were in the hundreds of thousands instead of the thousands from Iraq. Americans today are largely unwilling to see this thing through. It's too long, too expensive, to costly in lives.

So I ask myself, "What changed? How are Americans from the 40's different than the Americans today? What is the difference between then and now?" I don't have certain answers, but I have hit upon a theory that I think carries answers. Tell me what you think. Here's my theory. I think it is largely a product of technology. Hear me out.

First, the technology of war has changed the face of war. In World War II the technology of war included waves and waves of bombers that would roll over their targets and drop tons of explosives over a target area. Hitler promised his people he would change the face of Germany, and before the war was over he had kept his promise. Germany was largely a bombed out hull. While large numbers of troops died in the process, so did large numbers of civilians. Collateral damage was unavoidable in those days. When the Axis finally surrendered, they did so in utter defeat. There was no fight left. There was no "insurgency", no underground groups left to fight. There wasn't much of anything. They were pulverized. So the rebuilding effort was largely peaceful because the enemy was eliminated. Enter technology. Today we have pinpoint weapons. We can target a Command and Control complex in the center of a city and take out the building with minimal damage to the city. Collateral damage is still unavoidable, but the damage is vastly decreased. War is still a nasty business, but it is much more accurate than it once was. So when the army was defeated, most of the populace and the structures remained. So while our "more humane war" approach with pinpoint accuracy and diminished collateral damage didn't kill like we did in World War II, it also left lots of room for anti-Americans to hole up and become a problem. So from this perspective, our technology has hurt us. Now, don't misunderstand. I don't think it's bad that we used this technology. I simply am pointing out that it's different than before and we need to be aware of it.

The second aspect of technology that I think has had a major impact is our communication systems. Actually, I'm primarily thinking of our entertainment media. America is a TV/movie-fed country. We live in a world of entertainment glut. There is more to watch on TV or in theaters than we can possibly take in. The problem is that we seem to have largely lost the ability to recognize fiction as fiction. While most of what we see on TV and in the movies is fiction, many people have shaped their thinking based on that fiction. Look at the facts. Some lawyers are calling for a dismissal from juries of people who watch CSI shows. Why? Because they have unrealistic expectations. They think that a DNA test can be completed in an hour, that forensic science can pick out criminals in a half hour, and that all of the problems of crime solving can be finished in an hour. What they've failed to recognize is that it's fiction. People will believe that the government can read license plates from space because they've seen it in the movies. In Enemy of the State, the NSA looks at a security video from a store and is able to rotate it in three dimensions, seeing things behind obstructions. Clearly this is a possibility because it's there in the movie. Death on TV is a parody of real death. A single gunshot will likely kill anyone within seconds. A gunshot to the head is instant death. Never mind that this doesn't correlate with real life. We've seen it on TV, so it's true. In general problems on TV or in movies are solved within two hours at the most. So ... what's taking us so long in Iraq?

This twisted view of reality that is fed by the media we consume goes on and on. Life for us has begun to imitate art rather than vice versa. We have allowed our moral values to be set by our media sources. But it's not just TV and movies. For instance, our technology has served to separate us from connecting to people. There are, at last count, 6.5 million people in a virtual world called Second Life. These people are all living a fantasy connecting with images that are not real people and interacting as if this is a real world. That's not connecting; that's virtual connecting. Chat rooms, bulletin boards, forums, and more contribute to a sense of "connection" that is virtual, not real. So our technology gives us the illusion of connection while actually severing the connections. Even technology like air conditioning serves to sever connections. It used to be that people spent time on the front porch talking with neighbors because it was too hot inside, but now we have air conditioning and TV and the Internet; who needs to talk to the neighbors?

So here we are in the 21st century. We have the ability to wage a more "humane war", leaving larger numbers of hidden enemies to fight in the mop up. We have disconnected ourselves from reality by buying into the entertainment we have fed ourselves. We have disconnected from community while convincing ourselves we are still connected. And we haven't the stomach to finish what we started for the people in Iraq. Is that surprising? Not to me; not now. This should have been over in months, not years. I've seen wares completed in two hours in the movies. What's up with Iraq? Why are there Americans still dying? And what do we care about those people over there anyway? We're not even closely connected to our own neighbors. Come on! Let's get out of there, finish up these stupid DNA tests, solve all crimes, and go home!

I don't know, but I think it's a viable theory. What do you think?

Sunday, May 20, 2007

Beneath The Cross Of Jesus

It's Sunday. Surely today you can enjoy a hymn!
Beneath The Cross Of Jesus
Elizabeth Clephane

Beneath the cross of Jesus I fain would take my stand,
The shadow of a mighty Rock within a weary land;
A home within the wilderness, a rest along the way
From the burning of the noonday heat and the burden of the day.

Upon that cross of Jesus, mine eye can sometimes see
The very dying form of One who suffered there for me;
And from my smitten heart with tears two wonders I confess -
The wonders of His glorious love and my own worthlessness.

I take, O cross, thy shadow for my abiding place -
I ask no other sunshine than the sunshine of His face;
Content to let the world go by, to know no gain nor loss,
My sinful self my only shame, my glory all the cross.
Elizabeth Clephane was born in 1830. She was the frail daughter of a county sheriff in Abbotsford, Scotland. The hymn, published anonymously in 1872, was written one year before her death in 1868. It reflects her deep affection for God as well as her love for the Word of God. In the first verse alone there are seven references from Scripture.

The hymn focuses on the cross. Many today see the cross as an offensive thing. They would rather concentrate on the Resurrection or the life of Christ. It just seems like the cross is such an unpleasant and past event. But Elizabeth saw it as a place to abide. That is where she would gladly take her stand. ("Fain" is a Scottish word meaning "gladly.") Look at her view of the cross. She saw it as "the shadow of a mighty Rock within a weary land, a home within the wilderness, a rest along the way."

"The mighty Rock" is a reference to the Messiah taken from Isa. 32:2. We see this same Rock in Exo. 33-34 when Moses wanted to see God and in Isaac Watts' hymn "Rock of Ages." Scripture refers to Jesus as the Rock of my salvation, the chief cornerstone, a rock of offense. (Psa. 89:26; 95:1; Isa. 28:16; Rom. 9:33) David calls God the "Rock of my strength." (Psa. 31:2, 3; 62:7; 71:3) There are, in fact over 25 references in Scripture to God as "Rock." In the shadow of the cross we can see that unyielding Rock who walked all the way to Calvary to die for me and to become the basis -- the foundation -- of my salvation.

"A home within the wilderness" is a phrase from Jer. 9:2. It depicts the personal nature of my relationship with God, portraying His sufficiency and protection. The phrase also illustrates the separation from the world we live in - "the wilderness." We are called to "come out from among them and be separate." (2 Cor. 6:17) "What fellowship has light with darkness?" Paul asks the Corinthians. (2 Cor. 6:14) ("This world is not my home; I'm just passing through.") Our citizenship is not earthly. (Phil. 3:20) Yet we try with all our might to incorporate as much of our world as we can into our spiritual viewpoints. We have so blended the two that they have become nearly indistinguishable. The morality, the divorce rates, the lifestyles, the attitudes of most evangelical Christians are almost no different than those of the world around them. But God calls to us, "Come home. My grace is sufficient for you." James warns us that friendship with the world is hostility toward God. "Whoever wishes to be a friend of the world makes himself an enemy of God." (James 4:4)

"A rest along the way," from Isa. 28:12, is a reference to the peace of God that passes understanding. God ordained rest in the Sabbath. He refers to our ultimate rest as the sabbath rest. (Heb. 4:9-11; see 4:1-16) Unrest was never God's intention for our lives. So Paul exhorts us to "let the peace of God rule in your hearts." (Col. 3:15)

The hymnist takes a very personal look at the cross in the second verse. She visualizes Christ Himself hanging on that tree. And she sees clearly the truth of the crucifixion. Two truths stand when she looks at Jesus' death: His glorious love and her worthlessness.

Today's therapeutic society would have Elizabeth in counseling in a heartbeat. Her Christian friends might have urged her to go. Our modern hymnals have so protested her comment that they have changed it. Our hymnals now read "my unworthiness." No one should consider themselves worthless. But, then, Paul would have had the earlier appointment with the therapist after his unpopular claim that he was chief among sinners and that no one was good. Now what kind of a self-image is that for a believer?

It is a biblical one. The essence of God's saving grace is that I don't deserve it. By that, I mean we have no intrinsic reason to receive salvation. We have no inborn value, no innate goodness, no inherent lovableness. Paul told the Romans that God chose (not by force) to save us for His glory. (Romans 9:22, 23) God is not obligated by our weighty value to provide for us a means of escaping judgment or a way to know Him. But today's churches largely operate as a cult of self-esteem. We need to feel better about ourselves. We are people of value.

Elizabeth Clephane disagrees. The cross shows me my sin condition. In the third verse she states the only form of value she possesses. Her only value is Christ. Paul concurs - repeatedly. "For me to live is Christ." "I count all things as loss in view of the surpassing value of knowing Christ." Jeremiah quotes God as saying, "Let him who boasts boast in this, that he knows Me." (Jeremiah 9:24) By nature, we are worthless. The only real value to be found in us is Christ in us. The only way that can happen is His redeeming work on the cross.

The hymnist isn't done with her survey of the cross yet. In the final verse, her goal is to make that her dwelling place. "I take, O cross, thy shadow for my abiding place - I ask no other sunshine than the sunshine of His face." This is where we need to live. It is here, in the presence of the crucified Lord, that we see most clearly His unfathomable love and our utter depravity. It is here that we see the seriousness of God's demand for obedience and the consequence of our failure. It is here that we can see our worthlessness and His surpassing value. From the cross comes the strongest call to Christ-like character rather than self-serving ambition. At the cross we learn to endure suffering, a given for each Christian's life. At the cross, husbands learn to love their wives. At the cross, children learn to obey their parents. At the cross, Christians learn to love each other and bear one another's burdens. It is in the shadow of the cross that we all need to abide.

Saturday, May 19, 2007

The Problem of Apologetics

Most Christians have heard the term, "apologetics." Hopefully, most understand that it has nothing to do with apologizing for our faith. Instead, it is a reference to defending the faith. The term comes from the Greek apologia meaning "to give an answer." It is the term, in fact, used in 1 Peter 3:15 for "make a defense" or "give a reason". So apologetics is giving reasons for the faith. Indeed, as 1 Peter 3:15 points out, we are called to do it. Jude writes "I found it necessary to write appealing to you to contend for the faith that was once for all delivered to the saints" (Jude 1:3). We are not merely wise for analyzing the reasons for why we believe; we are commanded.

The problem with all of this, however, is that we tend to lose sight of the problem. A lot of Christians involved in apologetics tend to think that if we can produce the right answers, we can persuade unbelievers. I need to point out that this just isn't the truth. It is ignoring a fundamental problem.

In Matt. 16, the Pharisees and Sadducees demanded a sign from Jesus. Jesus answered, "When it is evening, you say, 'It will be fair weather, for the sky is red.' And in the morning, 'It will be stormy today, for the sky is red and threatening.' You know how to interpret the appearance of the sky, but you cannot interpret the signs of the times. An evil and adulterous generation seeks for a sign, but no sign will be given to it except the sign of Jonah" (Matt. 16:2-4). Notice the interesting term Jesus uses: "... you cannot interpret the signs of the times." Now, Jesus affirms here that their normal reasoning capacities are functioning. They can figure out the weather by looking around. But when it comes to spiritual matters, Jesus uses the term "cannot" to express their ability to reason. It's the same thing Paul says in 1 Cor. 2:14 -- "The natural Man does not accept the things of the Spirit of God, for they are folly to him, and he cannot understand them because they are spiritually discerned." People who are dead in sin do not understand because they cannot understand. John writes the same thing in John 12:37-41. They did not believe because they could not believe. So the idea that we might be able to argue people into the kingdom just doesn't take into account the fact that "they became futile in their thinking, and their foolish hearts were darkened" (Rom. 1:21). In other words, sin not only produces death; it rots the mind.

Because of this failure of mind found in sinners, a malady from which we all suffer, many today are arguing against arguing. (Never mind the nonsense of such a venture.) They say, "Don't think; just walk by faith!" Oh, they likely never voice that. Instead what you might hear is "lean not on your own understanding." The problem, of course, is that this violates the command to renew our minds, to love God with, among other things, all your mind, to contend for the faith, to give a reason and so many other places that are demanded by Scripture to engage the brain. We seem to be at an impasse. "Not so," says Paul. He writes to Timothy, "Think over what I say, for the Lord will give you understanding in everything" (1 Tim. 2:7). There it is, the perfect combination. Paul tells Timothy, "Your job is to think. God's job is to give you understanding." This should serve as a wake up call to both errors. One side says, "Only through proper thinking can we come to the right answers." No, God gives understanding. The other side says, "Don't use your minds; just walk by faith." No, we are commanded to think. God uses this combination to produce in us a renewed mind which, in turn gives us the "powers of discernment trained by constant practice to distinguish good from evil" -- maturity (Heb. 5:14).

Apologetics is good. No, it is commanded. It isn't an option. But neither will it produce believers. That is God's job. It is my conviction that the best function of apologetics is in shoring up the faith of believers. Sometimes in the storm of unbelief on the edge of futility of thinking believers falter. But when we are given the truth -- real reasons to believe -- and that truth is worked by the Spirit in us to produce understanding, it can provide great depth, spiritual maturity, and a bold faith. Oh, and sometimes, maybe, God will use it as His tool to push a non-believer into faith. But that's His job, never ours. So let us not be slack in defending the faith. Let us not waver in contending for the truth. Let's be ready to give a reason for the hope that lies within us, yet always with gentleness and respect.

Friday, May 18, 2007

The Nature of Faith

Reformed theology holds to sola fide; we are saved by faith alone. The idea is that faith apart from works is what saves, not faith plus. Many Christians nod and say, "Yep, that's what I believe." But it begs the question: What is faith? More specifically, what is saving faith?

There are some who would argue that the faith required for salvation is simple mental agreement. They are purporting that modern Christianity has made faith too complicated. It's just "believe", nothing more. I don't think it takes any great mental gymnastics to see the problem with that. Believe ... what? According to James, the demons believe (James 2:19). A lot of good that does them. And in that same passage, James refers to a concept that ought to alert us that saving faith is not merely "believe". He refers to a faith that is dead. So it is possible to have faith, but it is not saving faith.

So what is saving faith? The Reformers outlined three components of saving faith. I won't try to use their Latin terms. I'm not scholar. But I want to get across their three components because I think it's important in today's morass of confusion of terms. So, the first component is the truth. That is, it is the pieces that are believed. Faith can be placed in all sorts of things, but if they aren't true, the faith is useless. So for faith to be saving faith, it must be placed in truth points. The second component is assent. That one is easy. Everyone knows about that one. Assent is simply agreeing with the truth points. The third component is what I will call trust. This component is used heavily in John's gospel in the repeated use of the phrase "believe in". John uses a phrase that suggests "believe into", a leaning on, a placing of complete reliance on. Trust means that I have placed my weight on what I believe. You may have heard the example of the chair. There's a chair over there. It has the ability to hold your weight (truth). Do you believe that (assent)? Is it holding your weight (trust)? You see, until you actually place your weight on that chair, you aren't at the point of saving faith. In this way a person can know the truth about Jesus, and even believe that He lived and died for their sins, but until they place their entire weight of hope on that "chair", it isn't saving faith. Mental assent to the facts is insufficient. We have to "believe into" Christ.

Perhaps you've heard this explanation before. I'm afraid, though, that even this brief explanation of the nature of saving faith will fall short. You see, as we focus on the "trust" aspect, assuring people that they have to "put their weight" on Christ, we often miss the "truth" aspect. What is it that they have to trust in? What truth is required? Let me illustrate the problem with that chair. I'm tired. My back aches. I don't know if I can stand any longer. There is only one chair in the room. You tell me that the chair will hold my weight. Okay, fine. If I don't sit down, I'll fall down, so I assent to the claim that the chair can hold my weight and, to avoid further injury, I sit in the chair. Is that "saving faith"? Is it saving faith when someone latches onto Christ as their "fire escape". "Well, I don't want to go to Hell, and you say this is my only way of escape, so I'll take it. It's awful and lumpy and I don't like it at all, but I'll do it because the alternative is too terrible." Is that saving faith? Is it possible to place one's faith in a Christ whom they despise?

I'm not so sure. I suspect that the "truth" that needs to be believed goes farther than simply "Jesus saves". I think that it also requires embracing the truth of who He is. Paul calls the Gospel "the gospel of the glory of Christ" (2 Cor. 4:4). I think that we must, in the language of John 1:12, receive Christ for who He is, not merely for what He might do for us. And by "embrace" I mean "to receive gladly and willingly." Look, for instance, at the Parable of the Sower (Mark 4:1-20). There is more than just two types of soil in this parable. There is the hard soil where the seed never penetrates. That's not embracing anything. There is the rocky ground and the weedy ground. These two actually accept the seed. In Jesus's explanation, He even says that the rocky ground represents those who "when they hear the word, immediately receive it with joy" (Mark 4:16). That's embracing, isn't it? But it's a rootless embrace that is lost as soon as difficulty arises. That's not the embrace of which I speak. The weedy soil is similar, where the seed sprouts but is choked out because of their love of the world. That's not the embrace of which I speak either. No, this embrace is found in the good soil. It is a hear and accept (Mark 4:20). It is a love for the person of Christ that endures hardships and despises the world. (Note: "Despise" in this context means "to consider of no value".) This embrace not only takes Christ as their "fire escape" but as their friend. It sees the sweetness of Christ and revels in it.

I fear that many people live in rocky or thorny soil. While the hard soil types are easy to spot, and we're fairly confident about those good soil types that are bearing fruit all over the place, these other two are much more difficult. They will claim to believe in Jesus. They may even appear to be joyful over it. They will likely know the terms and appear to be functioning plants. Their shallowness or love of the world is hard to spot. But our willingness to accept whatever faith might be found might just make it difficult to correct this error. You see, not all faith is saving faith, and we need to beware of dead faith. Saving faith, ultimately, produces changed lives (Mark 4:20; James 2:18). Each of us needs to be careful to make our calling and election sure by verifying that we are "in the faith" (2 Peter 1:10; 2 Cor. 13:5; Gal. 6:4). It's not a trivial question.

Thursday, May 17, 2007


Okay, I'm confused. The Democratic congress is up in arms trying to stop the war in Iraq because it is a "mandate from the people". They believe a majority of Americans want the war to end and claim that as their goal.

Now they're trying to overhaul America's immigration laws by giving the illegal aliens in this country what amounts to amnesty. Now, it is a simple fact that a majority of Americans are against giving illegal aliens amnesty.

So ... why is it that stopping the war is a "mandate from the people", but not giving amnesty to illegal aliens is not? How do the Democrats decide when to do what the majority want and when not to? It looks like a double standard. What am I missing?

Age of the Earth Controversy

The generally accepted age for the Earth and the rest of the solar system is about 4.55 billion years (plus or minus about 1%). (Of course, some are pushing it to something more on the order of 16 billion, but who's counting?) How is this determined? Well, they'll tell you it's a bit difficult. There are rocks that have been dated to somewhere around 4 billion years. The dating method if these rocks is radiometric dating. (The rocks don't carry ID with birth dates attached unfortunately.) One method of dating is derived by measuring three isotopes of lead (Pb-206, Pb-207, and Pb-208 or Pb-204) and plotting the Pb-206/Pb-204 against the Pb-207/Pb-204. This method, as do most, assumes one core component: The solar system formed from a common pool of matter, which was uniformly distributed in terms of Pb isotope ratios. This approach also requires the dominant perception known as uniformitarianism -- the idea that the same processes that shape the universe occurred in the past as they do now, and that the same laws of physics apply in all parts of the knowable universe. In other words, essentially things in the physical world have always been as they are now. Things decay at the same rate. Light travels at the same speed. Gravity maintains the same pull. Hopefully you get the idea.

So who cares how old the Earth really is? The time required for Evolution to take place is on the order of billions of years. These kinds of things don't happen overnight, you know. To obtain something from nothing, order from chaos, rational from random ... that takes a lot of time. So it must be that the Earth is much older than those stupid Bible-believing Christians think it is. And the debate is on. As a matter of fact many non-believers and a growing number of believers see Genesis as the Achilles heel of Christianity. It doesn't mesh with what we know from science. It ought to. You see, science knows; the Bible just guesses. How can we verify it if it doesn't match up with what science knows?

I'm not here to enter the debate. I'm not going to offer any of the standard arguments "Young-Earthers" offer arguments about what's wrong with Evolution and the "Old-Earth" view. They have their perspectives and their reasons. That's fine. Let them debate them. Me? I'm wondering what exactly I'm supposed to do with my Bible once we move Genesis from fact to fiction. Oh, I know, "Old-Earther" Christians would never use the word "fiction" for their view of Genesis. They prefer other terms. "Poetry." "Metaphor." That kind of thing. One very good paper on the topic suggests that the whole Genesis 1 and 2 thing is about Divine Fiats. The days are simply statements of God, not time periods. The attempt to make them literal or even figurative days isn't the point. They are Fiat Days (Fiat meaning "authoritative decree"), unknown time periods in which God said "Let there be ..." and there was. And to be honest, the author, Hill Roberts, does a decent job of answering his critics while keeping important things in mind (like the importance of Scripture and such). Still, I'm wondering what to do with my Bible if Genesis doesn't mean what Genesis says.

You see, the authors of the Psalms were speaking poetically. All of us know the term, "poetic license." That means that the reader doesn't take it at literal face value. So Psalms is fine. Jesus speaks in parables. Parables are short allegorical stories intended to convey a point. That means that the reader doesn't assume more about these stories than the point they are trying to make. But Genesis isn't written as parable or poetry. It isn't offered as metaphor or myth. It is offered from a historical perspective. Throughout the Bible it is treated as if it was a historical account. And much of our basic theology comes originally from Genesis. The author of Genesis assumes a literal Adam, the first man, who had a wife named Eve. These are assumed to be literal people because they do human things instead of merely illustrating human traits. They name animals. They talk to God. They ... know each other and have children with specific names. And they commit not only sin in general, but the very first sin that Paul says brought death into the world. Try to make that "metaphor". It can't be done. It's not that general mankind sinned; Adam sinned. Adam is paralleled with Christ. If "Adam" refers to a metaphorical "man" who wasn't actual but just a type, what do we infer about "Christ" who is this "man's" parallel? Is "Christ" simply a metaphor as well?

The problem spreads. If Genesis 1 and 2 are not actual, historical narratives, then why would we assume Genesis 3 is? Well-meaning evangelical Old-earthers like Hugh Ross do. Why? Where is the dividing line? When does the metaphor stop and the historical account begin? How do we know? If Adam isn't literal, what about Noah? No, of course Noah isn't. That whole "Great Flood" story is certainly a metaphor. No such actual event took place. So not Noah? What about Abraham? If not Adam or Noah, why would Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob be considered actual people? But a real person named Abraham is no small player in the narrative of the Bible. In fact, our salvation is based on his literal offspring. What do we do with that?

You see, the problems start to snowball, and eventually we're stuck with a metaphorical book. Now, there are those who might be reading this and shouting "Amen!" right now because that's exactly the conclusion they've reached, but not me. I want to know what good a Bible is if it cannot be used to actually determine anything. If it's metaphor -- and each of us decides what that metaphor means -- it is certainly not authoritative. And Christianity grinds to a halt. It's just another "religion" now, the kind that tries to make good people out of bad people and whines, "Can't we all just get along?"

I think that perhaps we are coming at this from the wrong direction. I would challenge anyone to read Genesis 1 and 2 without a need to correlate it to "science" as the current god and understand it to mean "metaphor", "poetry", or anything except 6 24-hour days of creation. Agree or disagree with the claim, I think it is pretty clear that any normal reading of the passage begs us to come to that conclusion. If we cannot apply normal rules of reading to this passage, what makes us think we can apply rules of reading to any other? Or let me ask this another way. It has essentially been the Jewish and Christian perspective for thousands of years that Genesis is a literal account of Creation. It is only in the last 200 years or so that anyone has begged to differ, and that from non-believers. So do we conclude that normal reading no longer counts? Do we conclude that God has withheld His understanding of this passage until modern science comes around some 2000 years after Christ to finally explain to us what He meant? Or is it possible that the fundamental beliefs that lead science to conclude that the Bible isn't true might be false? Is it possible that the fundamental positions of science that lead to these conclusions regarding the age of the Earth themselves are a position of faith, not scientific fact? To whom are we going to hand the authority?

Wednesday, May 16, 2007


We'll take another break from hymns for the sake of those who don't find them particularly interesting and think about a few other things for a time.

One of the most common accusations against Christians in general and the church in particular is "I don't want any part of it because it's full of hypocrisy." The charge is that we hold that this and that are bad ... but we do them ourselves. "Hypocrite!"

What is a hypocrite? According to the Random House Unabridged Dictionary, © Random House, Inc. 2006, hypocrisy is "a pretense of having a virtuous character, moral or religious beliefs or principles, etc., that one does not really possess." Take this apart for a moment. Hypocrisy consists of two components. First it requires the espousing of virtue of some sort. That is, if I espouse no virtue, I cannot be a hypocrite. It is only those who affirm virtue that can be hypocritical. There is a second component. Hypocrisy requires espousing virtue "that one does not really possess." Hypocrisy, then, is about the possession of virtue and lying about it.

The accusation is that Christians are hypocrites. The question I ask is, "Is that true?" While it may be true that Christians can be hypocrites, is it necessarily true that they are? You see, Christians extol virtue. Christians claim that there are moral absolutes, and we say that we should keep them. This means that we meet the first requirement of the definition of "hypocrite". The question is do we meet the second?

It is an easy thing to get into most churches, but there are requirements to get into the Church -- the Body of Christ. The very first thing that must occur to get into the Church is the confession that I am a sinner. It is an admission of guilt. Without recognizing that I am guilty, I cannot have any need for a solution, which is what we call "the Gospel". Without the admission that I am a sinner, there is no Gospel. Therefore, there is a sense in which the Church is a "losers' club". There are lots of people with lots of variety, but one of the things this particular group has in common is that we all agree that we are sinners. Fundamentally, then, it would seem that being part of the Church would prevent being a hypocrite. It's not the espousing of virtue that makes a hypocrite nor is it the failure to be virtuous. Instead, it is the claim of being virtuous when you're not.

This is a common attack without merit with teenagers and their parents. "Son, you shouldn't do ____." "Did you do ____ when you were a kid?" "Yes." "Then how can you tell me not to? Hypocrite!" That's not hypocrisy. The fact that you do not possess the virtue you espouse is not hypocrisy. It is only hypocrisy when you claim to have a virtue you don't have. The answer to "How can you tell me not to?" is simple. "Because I did it and I know it's wrong." It is an answer from experience, not from hypocrisy. It is only hypocritical if the answer is something like, "Well, it was okay for me, but it's not for you." When I justify my lack of virtue while demanding it of you, it's hypocrisy. When I admit my lack of virtue while demanding it of you, it's not.

Can Christians be hypocritical? Sure. Anyone who believes in any kind of virtue has that potential. Are Christians hypocritical? I don't doubt it at all. Most of us want to be perceived as good people. Sometimes we seek that by avoiding admitting our failures. But the accusation that we are hypocrites because we call for virtue while we don't necessarily possess it is not an accurate accusation. It is not hypocrisy to say, "I believe that I should never lust ... and I am working on it even though I haven't arrived." Hmmm ... "even though I haven't arrived." Sound familiar? It should. Paul said, "Not that I have already obtained this or am already perfect, but I press on to make it my own, because Christ Jesus has made me his own" (Phil. 3:12). Paul agreed that there was virtue that he lacked. That's not hypocrisy; that's honesty. Let's not confuse the two.

Tuesday, May 15, 2007

O, For a Thousand Tongues to Sing

Oh, for a thousand tongues to sing my great Redeemer's praise,
The glories of my God and King, the triumphs of His grace!

My gracious Master and my God, assist me to proclaim,
To spread through all the earth abroad the honors of Thy name.

Jesus! The name that charms our fears, that bids our sorrows cease.
'Tis music in the sinner's ears, 'tis life and health and peace.

He breaks the power of canceled sin, He sets the prisoner free.
His blood can make the foulest clean, His blood availed for me.

Hear Him, ye deaf; His praise, ye dumb, your loosened tongues employed.
Ye blind, behold your Savior come, and leap, ye lame, for joy.
Charles Wesley wrote this hymn on the occasion of the 11th anniversary of his conversion to Christ. It was inspired, it is believed, by a chance remark by an influential leader in his life who said, "Had I a thousand tongues, I would praise Christ Jesus with all of them." Originally there were 19 verses and it was entitled "For the Anniversary Day of One's Conversion."

How many of us recognize our conversion with such excitement? For that matter, how many of us recognize God with such enthusiasm? Wesley knew God in a way we have lost today. In theologians' terms, God has two aspects: His transcendence and His immanence. Immanence speaks of His immediate presence. We like to think of God as here, among us. And He is. Immanence points to His more personable attributes, like love, grace, and mercy. His transcendence speaks of His being above and beyond us. "Your ways are not My ways," says the Lord. The word that most clearly expresses His transcendence in Scripture is "holy." His holiness is His otherness. It is this aspect that we seem to have lost. David Wells says that the church in America today has "an infatuation with the love of God and an embarrassment at his holiness."1 We see God in His closeness to us, His love for us. It is His holiness that scares us, because with that holiness comes righteousness, wrath, and judgment. Wesley sees God in His greatness beyond our comprehension.

What aspects of God's greatness does this hymn point to? "Redeemer" is the first description. He is the One who purchased me out of sin's penalty. "My God and King" are the next two. "My God" speaks of His personal nature to me, His immanence. "My God" speaks of His holiness, His otherness, His transcendence. "King" is a descriptive term that people of an earlier time would understand. Americans have little comprehension of the word, having no king of our own and valuing independence as we do. The king was the single ruler of all. His word was law. His judgments were carried out. His choices were final. Jesus is the King of kings, the Ultimate King. He is my King. He is, in that phrase, immanent and transcendent.

"The triumphs of His grace" is the next descriptive phrase. It is on that grace that we wholly lean. There is no place in God's view for my merit. I have earned no rights to attention, love, or mercy. My wages, my earnings, are death (Rom. 6:23). God first demonstrated His grace in the garden of Eden when He spared the lives of Adam and Eve when they sinned. "In the day that you eat it, you shall surely die." (Gen. 2:17) But they didn't die physically, and that is due solely to God's grace. God is not obligated to maintain the life of one who regularly engages in overthrowing His rulership, yet that is what we do daily. Every breath we take is testimony to His triumphant grace.

"My gracious Master and my God" is the next phrase that illustrates who God is. We've already looked momentarily at His gracious aspect. Master is a term that we don't like in America. We will be free. We will be independent. We will be slave to no man. God doesn't offer that option. It's His game. We can come to Him on His terms, or not at all. His claim is Master. Paul told the Philippian jailer that he must believe on the Lord Jesus Christ to be saved. (Acts 16:31) God requires control in our lives. Paul says we will be slaves, either to righteousness or to sin. (Rom. 6:16) We will have a master. Slavery is not a choice. God gives us the option of masters. To fail to choose God as master is to choose sin as master. There are no other choices, no in betweens. There is no independence.

The single name "Jesus" is next on the descriptive list. Wesley says that name affects our fears, our sorrows, our outlook on life, and our inner thoughts. Paul says that His name will be the name above all names. Many hymns and choruses pick up this same concept. "Jesus, name above all names." "Jesus, Jesus, Jesus, there's just something about that name . . ." "Take the name of Jesus with you." Today's world sees His name as an expletive, but God sees that name as the name. A failure to revere that name is a failure to revere the person. What does the name of Jesus do in your thoughts?

More than a name, Jesus carries power. Power to cancel sin. Power to set us free. Power to cleanse. His blood is effective in cleansing. Jesus carries power in name and in presence. For most Christians, it is Jesus that represents God's immanence, His presence with us, His love. It is the Father that represents His transcendence, His holiness. But Jesus is just as holy. ("I and the Father are one.") They are inseparable entities. While we may not comprehend, all of God's transcendence as well as His immanence resides in Christ.

For all that He does, for all that He is, we are called to praise Him. The purpose of man is to glorify God. All of creation was intended to point to God. Wesley says that one tongue is insufficient to point to God's greatness. He calls on God to assist him in glorifying God. If that seems somewhat contradictory, then we are failing to see man's depravity and God's right to our worship. We need God's assistance to do anything for God, including the act of praise. But man has no higher purpose than to point to the awesome and wonderful God who made him.

Do you ever feel inadequate in praise? Do you ever have a sense that one tongue is not enough for glorifying God, that you are incapable of affording Him the adoration He deserves? Do you ever sense that you cannot provide the honor and worship He so richly merits? If not, you don't know God either in His immense holiness or His intimate immanence. That should worry you.

1 David F. Wells, God in the Wasteland, pp. 114 (Wm. B. Eerdmans Publishing Co., 1994)

Monday, May 14, 2007

How Firm A Foundation

How firm a foundation, ye saints of the Lord,
Is laid for your faith in His excellent Word!
What more can He say than to you He hath said,
To you who for refuge to Jesus have fled?

"Fear not, I am with thee; O be not dismayed,
For I am thy God, and will still give thee aid.
I'll strengthen thee, help thee, and cause thee to stand,
Upheld by My righteous, omnipotent hand."

"When through fiery trials thy pathway shall lie,
My grace, all sufficient, shall be thy supply.
The flame shall not hurt thee; I only design
Thy dross to consume and thy gold to refine."

"The soul that on Jesus hath leaned for repose
I will not, I will not desert to its foes;
That soul, though all hell shall endeavor to shake,
I'll never, no, never, no, never forsake!"
The actual author of this hymn is unknown. It was published in a book of hymns by Dr. John Rippon in 1787. Dr. Rippon was the pastor of Carters Lane Baptist Church in London, England, for 63 years. The hymn has been called "the unofficial hymn textbook for Baptist Churches." Andrew Jackson requested it near the end of his life, and Robert E. Lee asked that it be sung at his funeral service in tribute to his God.

The hymn is actually a sermon. The first verse states the intent, while the following verses present various promises from Scripture. So what is the premise of this hymn-sermon? We saints stand on a firm foundation laid on God's Word. So complete is it that there is nothing more to be said. This is, on the face of it, not a remarkable view, but when we scratch the surface, there is a depth beneath that we may not have seen.

How complete is God's Word for our lives? The author of this hymn believes that in matters of faith, the Bible is complete, lacking nothing. In fact, God has said to us all He needs to say for our lives. Is that what you believe? Modern critics have arisen that claim otherwise. The Bible is no longer considered the infallible Word of God. Most mainline churches and seminaries have altered their statement of beliefs to varying extent to remove that odious claim. After all, what did the authors of old know about us and our culture? How could they possibly have understood our "no-fault" divorce laws, our concepts of living together before marriage to wisely test the waters, so to speak, or our problems with crime, teenage pregnancy, abortion, drugs, etc.? Times have changed. But the hymn-writer claims otherwise. Perhaps he understood the concept of God's omniscience and immutability. He definitely had a larger view of God than our present day does. And it is on the basis of this concept of God that the inerrancy of Scripture is claimed.

Now, if Scripture is the Word of God (no light claim), it must alter the life of anyone who believes that to be true. The views of our society become radically wrong. Rampant divorce in the Church becomes an affront to God. Premarital sex is no longer an option. It is called "sin." Homosexuality is no longer an alternate lifestyle. It is called "sin." Further, our attention to Scripture would necessarily increase if we actually believed that it was words written from the heart of God. It would drive every facet of our lives, transform every set of choices, and radically revise our thinking. "What more can He say than to you He has said?"

Look next at the passages from which our "sermon" comes. The first reference is Isaiah 41:10. It almost comes word for word from the verse. "Fear not," God says, for "I am with you. I am your God, and I will give you the aid you need. I'll strengthen you, help you, and cause you to stand. You are upheld by My righteous, omnipotent hand." Imagine! Our strength is His hand! It is the constant presence of God that makes unbearable circumstances bearable, even joyous. God Himself has promised to walk with us, even in the valley of death. He has the capacity and determination to use our worst experiences for His glory and our best gain. If God is for us, who can be against us?

Verse three refers to 2 Corinthians 12:9. "My grace is sufficient for you, for My power is perfected in weakness." The hymnist continues with the subject of suffering. (Why do we struggle so much with suffering in our modern world, as if it is a surprise? God has promised it. The writer of this hymn recognized that.) What is God's answer? "My grace is sufficient." It is when we understand the character and intent of God that we can accept this answer. Perfect love casts out fear. When we see that He loves us perfectly, we can begin to see His perfect intentions. He is purifying us, making us lights in a dark world, making us holy, as He is holy. "K" puts it much better than I. "The flame shall not hurt thee; I only design thy dross to consume and thy gold to refine." We cling to the dross, almost missing entirely the gold. But God has better ideas in mind for us!

The hymnist seems to have had training in Greek. He displays a real knowledge of Hebrews 13:5 in the final verse. In most Bibles it reads, "I will never leave you, nor will I ever forsake you." However, we lose something in the translation. "Never," in the Greek, is a double intensified word. It is stressed. More accurately, it should read, "I will never, never leave you." The hymn says, "I will not, I will not . . ." The phrase "nor will I ever" is triple intensified in Greek. Perhaps it would read, "I will never, never, never forsake you." The hymnist writes, "I'll never, no, never, no, never forsake!" Now, the writers of the Bible used repetition in much the same way we do today. It was for emphasis. Jesus, for instance, always spoke truth. He was a rabbi. So when He said, "Verily . . .," it caught the disciples' ear. When He said, "Verily, verily . . .," the disciples would have paid utmost attention. This was ultimate and important Truth. So when the author of Hebrews says, "never, never, never," it is a serious statement.

Think about that. God, the Creator of the universe, has promised to never, with paramount emphasis, leave us alone or stranded. This is too wonderful to comprehend! God is always with me! What does that do to my view of life? How do I perceive the events of my existence when the Sovereign Lord is always at hand? How does that alter my choices knowing I am always in His company? What does that do to fear and worry?

Paul wrote to the Colossians, "Let the peace of God rule in your hearts." The word "rule" means literally "to arbitrate." In other words, let God's peace in your heart be the arbitrator of your well-being. Do you have a sense of God's peace? If not, it is not a failure on God's part. He is with us. He is sufficient. He will never leave us. What room is there for agitation? Why fret? What could possibly bring any distress? Are you anxious? Let God's peace arbitrate. Recognize that anxiety is your refusal to believe God. Reaffirm your faith. The answer to anxiety is not harder work. It is renewed faith. We need to look hard at our failure to trust the God we claim to have trusted. He is, above all, trustworthy.