Tuesday, October 30, 2012

A Mustard Seed of Faith is Great Faith

The Smallest measure of faith is adequate. It is even great faith. Jesus’ disciples requested that He increase their struggling faith. Jesus responded that even the smallest measure of faith is great faith – enough to send a tree hurtling into the sea (Luke 17:5-6).

The Biblical evidence for this is actually staggering. God had promised Abraham that he would have a child whose offspring would prove to be a blessing to the entire world. However, although Abraham never rejected his God, he certainly had given up on seeing this promise realized. Instead, He assigned a servant to be his heir instead of the promised son.

God had to set him straight by miraculously renewing His promise to him (Gen. 15), and Abraham believed, but only for a while. In the next chapter, Abraham jumped at Sarah’s suggestion that they raise a surrogate child through the womb of their servant woman, Hagar. Once again, Abraham had despaired of the promise of God.

Even after God had appeared to Abraham (Gen. 18) and promised that he’d have his promised child next year, Abraham was once again unfaithful. He allowed another man to defile Sarah’s womb. It was only by God’s intervention, and not by Abraham’s faith or courage, that Sarah was rescued (Gen. 20). More amazingly, God informed Abimelech - the one who took Abraham’s wife - that the unfaithful Abraham would have to pray for his healing.

God is faithful even when we are unfaithful (2 Tim. 2:12-13). In Hebrews 11, the “Hall of Fame” of mustard-seed-sized faith, we find many examples of this same thing. This chapter commemorates Sarah believing the God would provide her with a child, even though this was no longer naturally possible (Heb. 11:11). However, in the original account, Sarah laughed in disbelief and then lied to the Lord (Gen. 18:15). Perhaps she did have faith, but it must have been the smallest bit of faith.

Sarah is no anomaly. Moses faith was also lauded as he fled Egypt (Heb. 11:27). However, the original account shows us that Moses “feared” (Exodus 2:14-15). Finally, when God encountered Moses after His 40 years in the wilderness and directed him to return to Egypt to free His people, the Israelites, Moses baulked. He was now a broken man, reluctant to follow God anymore (Exodus 3-4). However, Moses’ faithlessness would not impede God’s plan for His life.

My favorite example of exemplary faith is the Israelites:

  • By faith the people passed through the Red Sea as on dry land; but when the Egyptians tried to do so, they were drowned. (Hebrews 11:29)
However, just prior to this, Israel was rebelling against Moses and their God, complaining that it was never their idea to leave Egypt (Exodus 14:11-12) – not the best example of faith. However, their God did find faith in them. After all, they did pass through the sea.

We always fall short of God’s standards. Peter certainly did. Jesus had warned that He would deny any who denied Him. Peter had been warned that he would deny Jesus three times, but he didn’t believe Him. He did the very thing that he had been warned not to do. However, this didn’t foil God’s plan for Peter to “Feed My sheep.” Instead, this humbling experience enabled Peter to serve his Master even better.

It is in brokenness that we do our most faithful service:

  • Praise be to the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ…who comforts us in all our troubles, so that we can comfort those in any trouble with the comfort we ourselves have received from God. (2 Cor. 1:3-4)
If we desire to feed His sheep, we must first be feed with the comforts and assurances of our Savior. We must become humbled and broken before we are willing to receive from the Lord. If life is a matter of abiding in His Word, then our Savior must humble us in order to make room for that Word of assurance:

  • He humbled you, causing you to hunger and then feeding you with manna, which neither you nor your fathers had known, to teach you that man does not live on bread alone but on every word that comes from the mouth of the Lord. (Deut. 8:3)
This means that we are going to struggle; our faith will be stretched to the point that we feel it has utterly disappeared. I used to reassure myself that I would never let my faith slip away. Although I didn’t realize it at the time, I had placed my hope in myself – the very thing that our Lord doesn’t want us to do. I had to learn a painful lesson , that I couldn’t even keep my own faith. Mercifully, He brought me through the “valley of the shadow of death” to teach me this humbling but essential lesson. My Savior would have to be the One who would bear the weight of my messy life. I thought that I could stand, but He taught me that once we think that we are able and sufficient, we are ready for a fall (1 Cor. 10:12-13; 2 Cor. 3:5; John 15:4-5).

Any measure of faith is a saving faith. Even the weakest faith, the most faithless faith, cries out to Him and finds His strength in the midst of its weakness (2 Cor. 12:9-10). It doesn’t matter that our faith lacks passion or even confidence. Instead, in the hands of our Lord, it is the raw material of His Kingdom:

  • Yet, O Lord, you are our Father. We are the clay, you are the potter; we are all the work of your hand. (Isaiah 64:8)
Jesus was able to multiply the smallest scraps of food to feed thousands. Likewise, He glorifies Himself through our flimsiest faith offering.

The Lie: Its Usefulness and its Cost

We resent laws and restrictions. They get in our way. Consequently, many understandably resented the orders to evacuate their homes prior to Sandy’s uninvited visit, and stayed put. However, many had to pay a price for their choice.

Many also resent the teachings of Scripture as an unwanted intrusion. We cringe with contempt when we hear about God’s judgment for sin. For instance, we have found that lying is a useful tool to achieve our ends, but it’s also something of which God disapproves:

  • You destroy those who tell lies; bloodthirsty and deceitful men the Lord abhors. (Psalm 5:6)
“How intolerant and judgmental,” we conclude! However, there is strong evidence that when we rebel against God’s Word, we are actually rebelling against ourselves – our own nature and well-being:

  • Being truthful can enhance your well-being, according to a new study from the University of Notre Dame in Indiana. Researchers found that those who told fewer lies during a 10-week period reported fewer mental health and physical complaints, like anxiety and back pain, and better social interactions. (AARP The Magazine, October/November 2012)
From this perspective, God should not be regarded as a cosmic-kill-joy, but a concerned parent who wants the best for us, even when it messes up our plans. Consequently, He issues teachings, doctrines and laws to regulate our behavior – even our words and thoughts – for our own good.

Perhaps more often than not, He doesn’t even need to directly punish us. We punish ourselves through our stubborn choices, as so many verses indicate:

  • Since they hated knowledge and did not choose to fear the Lord, since they would not accept my advice and spurned my rebuke, they will eat the fruit of their ways and be filled with the fruit of their schemes. For the waywardness of the simple will kill them, and the complacency of fools will destroy them. (Proverbs 1:29-32)
The Creator needs not lift a finger against us. We will punish ourselves, because we have hardened our hearts against His counsel. Meanwhile, He continues to make His appeal:

  • Wisdom [God] calls aloud in the street, she raises her voice in the public squares; at the head of the noisy streets she cries out, in the gateways of the city she makes her speech: "How long will you simple ones love your simple ways? How long will mockers delight in mockery and fools hate knowledge?” (Proverbs 1:20-22)
Interestingly, what is moral is also what is beneficial, at least in the long run. Why? Is this all part of a grand design?

Sunday, October 28, 2012

Religion in the Public Schools: A Dialogue with an Atheist

 An atheist challenged me to a dialogue. He understandably complained that a student shouldn't have to "experience any religious activity." However, I countered by pointing out that there are many "religious" activities that Christians are coerced into:

I think that you well illustrate the pushes and pulls that are now tearing at the fabric of our society, the consensus that had once held this nation together. I think that we are seeing its fragmentation, and I don’t think that there are any simple answers. Every values group wants to impose its own values, and wants to see the removal of the values of the “opposition.”

What’s the answer? I think that you appropriately used the example of Islam to point out that we’d all resent a teacher pushing Islam in the public schools. However, we could make the same case regarding the pushing of National Socialism, Communism, Cannibalism, or Pedophilia – belief systems that we wouldn’t ordinarily call “religious.” Nevertheless, their imposition still presents the exact same issues as the imposition of Islam.

Now, let’s add some other belief systems to our equation - Materialism, Multiculturalism, Moral-relativism, Religious-pluralism, Secular Humanism and Naturalism. These represent values-orientations – religions – and not facts. The values-clarification exercises – an extension of moral-relativism – teach the students that there are no right or wrong answers. Rather, it’s just a matter of clarifying your beliefs and understanding those of others.

Materialism makes the counter-factual assumption that our material world is all that there is, while Secular Humanism assumes that the human being is the end-all and be-all of all existence. I suspect that you would deny that these latter “isms” are religious in nature. However, others would regard these just as much as an unwanted and religious imposition as you would Islam.

In fact, we can take our analysis even one step further. Any selection of textbooks, teachers or even classrooms reflects our religion or worldview. Any time we make a ruling, our worldviews are in view. Therefore, our problems and conflicts extend far deeper than differences presented by Judaism, Islam or Christianity. We are facing a Western crisis in terms of the conflict of our worldviews.

Consequently, it is too facile and misleading to think that our problems will be solved by merely eliminating the “religions” from the public sphere.

Thursday, October 25, 2012

The Deity of Christ and why this Matters

 In the official Watchtower publication, Should You Believe in the Trinity, Jehovah’s Witnesses proclaim that:

·        Jesus had an existence in heaven before coming to the earth…the Bible plainly states that in his pre-human existence, Jesus was a created spirit being, just as the angels were spirit beings created by God.

Nevertheless, they believe that Jesus died for our sins and that we have to place our trust in Him. In light of this, is His deity worth fighting over? Doesn’t doctrine divide and create acrimony? Isn’t it enough to believe that Jesus was, at least, a form of deity?

Hopefully, without any acrimony, I’d like to try to explain why this is such a critical doctrine, one that profoundly impacts our lives.

For one thing, God requires that we know, love and worship Him as He truly is. Jesus claimed that this knowledge was essential:

·        “I told you that you would die in your sins; if you do not believe that I am the one I claim to be, you will indeed die in your sins." (John 8:24)

According to Jesus, faith and salvation were a matter of believing what He taught about Himself. In contrast, many today believe that a relationship with God isn’t about believing a set of teachings or doctrines about God, but rather in experiencing Him. Oprah asserted this very thing:

·        “God is about a feeling experience, not a believing experience…A mistake we humans make is believing that there is only one way…There are many paths to what you call God…There couldn’t possibly be just one way…Do you think that if you never heard the name of Jesus but lived with a loving heart…you wouldn’t get to heaven?...Does God care about the heart or if you call His Son ‘Jesus?’”  

According to Oprah, a relationship with God is a matter of both experience and the quality of our heart. However, we all fail the heart test (Rom. 3:10-18; 23). That’s why salvation must be by grace and not by our merit.

Understanding God is not optional. God had been angry at Job’s three friends because they failed to understand and speak rightly of Him:

·        After the LORD had said these things to Job, he said to Eliphaz the Temanite, "I am angry with you and your two friends, because you have not spoken of me what is right, as my servant Job has. (Job 42:7)

Jesus reaffirmed the fact that we have to approach God bearing a correct understanding. He contrasted a true understanding with the understanding of the Samaritans:

·        “You Samaritans worship what you do not know; we worship what we do know, for salvation is from the [doctrines of the] Jews. Yet a time is coming and has now come when the true worshipers will worship the Father in spirit and truth, for they are the kind of worshipers the Father seeks. God is spirit, and his worshipers must worship in spirit and in truth." (John 4:22-24)

Why is God so insistent about being worshipped according to the truth of who He is? Perhaps we can best understand this if we examine our own relationships. We tend to value those friends who appreciate us according to who we really are, rather than people who might appreciate us but for the wrong reasons.

An accurate knowledge of God is so valuable that this is the one thing we can boast about (Jer. 9:23-24). For one thing, knowing that when we confess, He forgives our sins is so freeing. It also endears us to Him.

However, knowing of Christ’s Deity also endears us to our Triune God. Scripture reveals that the cross was a monumental demonstration of God’s love for us (Romans 5:8-10). I had experienced decades of the severest depression and panic attacks, even into my Christian life. It often felt that God was a cosmic sadist, eating popcorn as He delighted in the freak-show below.

Even though I wanted to believe otherwise, my feelings allowed no other interpretation. One night as I walked with head to the ground, crying my eyes out, I suddenly realized that this wasn’t a freak-show, and that Christ suffered on the cross for me and even suffered for me now (Heb. 4:15).

However, how could the cross demonstrate God’s love for me? God could have created 50,000 Christs in one second, at absolutely no cost to Himself. However, if Jesus is God and not a created being, this was totally another matter. God actually loved me so much that He Himself died for me! He didn’t send a mere created being to take my place.

Jehovah’s Witnesses isn’t the only groups that obscures the truth of Christ’s Triunity and His love for us. The modalists do the same thing but in a different way. For instance, the United Pentecostal Church claims that Jesus was no more than an appearance of deity, a manifestation – smoke and mirrors. Consequently, God didn’t die for us but rather an appearance of God “died” – hardly a token of God’s love.

I continue to find evidences of this atomic explosion of self-sacrifice that has changed this world. Jesus talked often of His coming moment of glory. How could anyone imagine that this moment would entail His time of pain and humiliation?

·        Jesus replied, "The hour has come for the Son of Man to be glorified. I tell you the truth, unless a kernel of wheat falls to the ground and dies, it remains only a single seed. But if it dies, it produces many seeds.” (John 12:23-24; 7:39; 13:31)

What love! He so desperately longed to show us His glory, and we thought that this had been fulfilled on the Mount of Transfiguration. However, He was pointing to something even more glorious - His torture and His death, the spit and the naked humiliation – the greatest tokens of His love.

It also served as an example for us of what our own self-sacrifice should look like. (Lord, help us!) Paul argues that if Jesus, God Himself, had humbled Himself to die on the cross, so should we do likewise for others (Phil. 2:3-8).

However, if Jesus isn’t God but rather a created, non-priceless being who was created for the very purpose of dying, this fails to both demonstrate God’s love and glory. It also fails to impress us into self-sacrificial living.

Furthermore, the death of a mere created being fails to humble us by showing us the depths of our sins. In fact, they were so weighty that the blood of animals couldn’t begin to atone for them:

·        Because it is impossible for the blood of bulls and goats to take away sins. Therefore, when Christ came into the world, he said: "Sacrifice and offering you did not desire, but a body you prepared for me; with burnt offerings and sin offerings you were not pleased. Then I said, 'Here I am--it is written about me in the scroll--I have come to do your will, O God.' " (Hebrews 10:4-7 quoting Psalm 40)

If our sins could have been atoned for in a less costly way, our Savior would have done it that way. However, nothing short of the death of the Savior would suffice! This humbles us more profoundly than would the crucifixion of a created being.

It also gives us great confidence. It demonstrates to us that if God loved us so much while we were still His enemies, how much more will He keep and protect us now that He has already paid the price and has converted us into a band of friends and worshippers (Romans 5:8-10).

Even beyond this, the cross of Christ our God communicates that we are rich beyond reckoning. Paul argues that if we have Christ, we have everything. Why? Because in Christ is everything – all Deity (Col. 2:9-10). Before making this life-altering assertion, Paul set forth the Deity of Christ – “the image of the invisible God…by Him all things were created…and hold together…all [God’s] fullness dwells in Him” (Col. 1:13-21). Therefore, we really do have everything, along with the assurance that we are co-heirs with Christ (Rom. 8:17).

Because of these surpassing riches, we should never be tempted to think that we lack anything. We need to know that we are safe and beloved as we venture forth every morning into the discouragements of this life. The fact that God Himself died for us while we were still sinners can give us this assurance, especially as we drink deeply from the truth of our own unworthiness.

How the Christian Evolutionist Interprets the Bible

One Christian evolutionist (CE), in setting the stage for a discussion of the Book of Job, asks:

  • Did Job really exist? Is the book of Job about the real suffering of a historical figure? Both Walton and Longman [two commentators] note that it is not possible to know for sure, and both emphasize that it does not matter.
Does it not matter? I think that it matters in a number of ways. However, more importantly, we should ask whether Job’s historicity is a concern for Scripture and its integrity!

Ezekiel treats Job as historical – just as historical as Noah and Daniel:

  • Even if these three men--Noah, Daniel and Job--were in it, they could save only themselves by their righteousness, declares the Sovereign Lord…as surely as I live, declares the Sovereign Lord, even if Noah, Daniel and Job were in it [the city that God has decided to destroy], they could save neither son nor daughter. They would save only themselves by their righteousness. (Ezekiel 14:14, 20)
Clearly, if Job is fictitious (allegorical), then God’s warning of destruction would be compromised. This warning could then be interpreted in line with the “fictitious” Job as also fictitious – an empty warning.

James also refers to Job as an actual, historical person:

  • As you know, we consider blessed those who have persevered. You have heard of Job's perseverance and have seen what the Lord finally brought about. The Lord is full of compassion and mercy. (James 5:11)
If Job was a fictional invention, then James is wrong. However, James has used the account of Job to prove that “The Lord is full of compassion and mercy.” You can’t do this with fiction or allegory. Fiction can’t prove; it merely illustrates!

In order to be consistent, if these commentators are going to question the historicity of Job, they must also question the accuracy and trustworthiness of James. Evidently, they do not take James’ or Ezekiel’s references to Job as authoritative. We therefore must wonder what it is that they do regard as supremely authoritative. In other words, what for them constitutes such weighty evidence that they would deny that Job is historical? What can be more authoritative than Scripture?

Here’s what often happens. When we believe in evolution and try to justify it in light of the Bible, we conclude that the Bible isn’t about history or science. Once we have made this compromise, we are then able to marry Darwin and the Bible without conflict. After all, if the Bible is about the spiritual world and Darwin is about the physical, there can no longer be any contradiction, because they deal with two entirely different subjects!

However, this compromise profoundly affects interpretation. The Bible no longer has to be historical. Job, Daniel and Noah no longer have to be historical, and the Bible is just an allegory.

However, allegories aren’t facts and therefore, they aren’t evidences. They are merely illustrations. Once we marry Darwin to the Bible, the miracles of the Bible no longer can constitute evidence. The fulfilled prophecies are no longer evidences but allegorical illustrations of spiritual principles. Besides, if we can’t trust what the Bible teaches about the physical world, how can we trust what it says about the spiritual! Say goodbye to apologetics and the defense of the faith.

Why then should we believe? Well, merely because it feels right to us. And how about the other religions? Don’t they feel right to their adherents? Say hello to religious pluralism, and let’s try out the god Vishnu.

Wednesday, October 24, 2012

The Rise of the Christian West – The Fall of the Secular West

Today, it is common to hear that Christianity is the source of almost every evil, even the major obstacle to scientific advancement. As these errant ideas take root in the now secular West, people are more tempted than ever to abandon the church. I therefore think that these allegations have to be challenged.

Historian Rodney Stark writes that,

  • The success of the West, including the rise of science, rested entirely on religious foundations, and the people who brought it about were devout Christians (The Victory of Reason, xi)
Secularism is often erroneously associated with science and scientific advancement. However, regarding the Scientific Revolution, Stark writes,

  • Some wonderful things were achieved in this era, but they were not produced by an eruption of secular thinking. Rather, these achievements were the culmination of many centuries of systematic progress by medieval Scholastics, sustained by that uniquely Christian twelfth century invention, the university. Not only were science and religion compatible, they were inseparable – the rise of science was achieved by deeply religious Christian scholars. (12)
Many people cite Greece and Rome as proof that democracy has little to do with Christianity and even that our democratic roots aren’t Christian but Classical. However Stark reflects that,

  • The rules that Plato laid out concerning the proper treatment of slaves were unusually brutal, for he believed not that becoming a slave was simply a matter of bad luck but that nature creates a “slavish people” lacking the mental capacity for virtue or culture, and fit only to serve. (26)
Consequently, only the worthy were suitable for Greek “democracy.” Aristotle likewise,

  • Drew upon Plato’s biological claims – slavery is justified because slaves are more akin to dumb brutes than to free men: “From the hour of their birth, some are marked out for subjection, others for rule.” (27)
In contrast, democracy finds its sufficient and enduring foundation in the Biblical concept of human respect and our essential equality, as the third century Christian theologian L. Caecilius Firmianus Lactantius wrote:

  • The second constituent of Justice is equality. I mean this…in the sense of treating others as one’s equals…For God who gives being and life to men wished us all to be equal…But someone will say, “Don’t you have poor and rich”…Not at all! This is precisely the reason that we address one another as “Brother,” since we believe that we are one another’s equals [despite the superficial differences]. Since human worth is measured in spiritual and not in physical terms, we ignore our various physical situations: slaves are not slaves to us, but we treat them and address them as brothers in the spirit, fellow slaves in devotion to God. Wealth, too, is no ground for distinction, except insofar as it provides the opportunity for preeminence in good works. To be rich is not a matter of having, but of using riches for the tasks of justice…By conducting oneself not merely as the equal of one’s inferiors, but as their subordinate, one will attain a far higher rank of dignity in God’s sight. (77-78)
It is no surprise that, given the Classical understanding of humanity, democracy couldn’t endure long. Sadly, now, as our Christian roots are decaying, so too are our democratic principles and productivity. Stark concludes:

  • Without a theology committed to reason, progress and moral equality, today the entire world would be about where non-European societies were in, say, 1800: A world with many astrologers and alchemists but no scientists. A world of despots, lacking universities, banks, factories, eyeglasses, chimneys, and pianos. A world where most infants do not live to the age of five…The modern world arose only in Christian societies. Not in Islam. Not in Asia. Not in a “secular” society – there having been none. And all the modernization that has since occurred outside Christendom was imported from the West, often brought by colonizers and missionaries. Even so, many apostles of modernization assume that…similar progress can be achieved not only without Christianity…(233).
It is amazing that these same “apostles” continue to confidently wave the banner “progress” through secularism as the West implodes.

Tuesday, October 23, 2012

The Religious Right and their “Perverted” Gospel

 Anyone who seeks social respectability and identifies himself with the Religious Right has to be nuts. This much maligned group is held in contempt by the secular culture and even by other Christians! Even our youth try desperately to distance themselves from this stigma, and it’s no wonder.

Roland Martin, a syndicated columnist, author and self-identified Christian, also thrusts his pen against the despised Religious Right:

  • What has happened over the last 30 years is the religious right has perverted the Bible to fit its narrow view of what Christians should pay attention to. Abortion and homosexuality. Nothing else matters.
  • Well, my Bible is bigger than that. My faith is bigger than that. And my Jesus Christ cares about more than abortion and homosexuality. Please, make your case about those two issues. But don't talk to me, Rev. Graham, Franklin Graham, or any other right-wing evangelical, about the sanctity of life when you are silent about such things as Trayvon Martin being gunned down or police brutality taking the lives of innocent Americans.
Martin is right about a number of things. Christians have a biblically-mandated duty to pursue justice and to care for the needy. In fact I’ve never heard a Christian deny that the Bible mandates these things. Nevertheless, Martin suggests that evangelicals are relatively insensitive to the plight of the poor and needy. However, the stats indicate something else:

  • In 2001 American evangelicals gave a mean of $3,601 per capita to nonprofit organizations, which is high when compared to other demographic groups.
  • From 1968 to 2000, members of U.S. evangelical Protestant denominations gave larger dollar amounts and larger portions of income to their churches than did members of mainline Protestant denominations.
  • In 2001, American evangelicals gave four times as much, per person, to churches as did all other church donors in 2001. Eighty-eight percent of evangelicals and 73 percent of all Protestants donated to churches.
This certainly doesn’t mean that evangelicals should pat themselves on the back. Admittedly, we fall far short of our calling. But how do evangelicals compare to the least religious? Robert Putnam and David Campbell, in their book American Grace, conclude that “religious Americans are more generous.”  Here is some of their evidence, drawn from national probability samples:

  • The most religious 20% of Americans give an average of more than $3,000 a year to charity, the least religious 20% give about $1,000.
  • In terms of percentage income, the most religious Americans are four times as generous as the least religious, giving about 7.5% of their income compared to about 1.5%.
  • The most religious Americans give more money to religious causes (obviously) and to secular causes. In particular, they favor organizations that benefit the needy and young people.
  • The most religious volunteer more often, to both religious and non-religious causes.
Admittedly, Christians understand their responsibility to the needy in a different way than the secularist or even Martin. They assume that the government should have the prime responsibility for the needy, and we need to agitate for reforms. However, there is indisputable evidence that entitlement programs have caused dysfunction to their target population - marginalizing the bread-winner, destroying families and creating a permanent underclass.

Sadly, the government has claimed this turf for itself, displacing providers that had one time filled this need. However, where these displaced providers had been able to exercise the necessary humanity and discernment – something essential for helping people – the government has instituted bureaucracy, inefficiency, inhumanity, red tape, and everything else that would encourage an entitlement mentality. It is therefore no wonder that evangelicals aren’t campaigning for more government control.

Martin censures the evangelical for not marching on behalf of Trayvon Martin, also censuring us for having “perverted the Bible to fit its narrow view of what Christians should pay attention to.” Of course, we have a biblical mandate to pursue justice! Admittedly, the white evangelical church was largely absent in the Civil Rights movement, and this neglect grieves many of us. However, if we don’t know that an injustice has actually been done, as in the case of Trayvon Martin, it is foolhardy to take action.

Ironically, when evangelicals do raise their voice in opposition to a clear injustice, like abortion, the media and the universities become livid with contempt, claiming that we are pushing our religion upon them – legislating morality. Darned if you do; darned if you don’t!

However, I am cheered to see many evangelicals promoting causes where the injustice is blatant, like in sexual trafficking.

Martin also cites the evangelical church for its silence regarding “police brutality.” I had been working for the New York City Department of Probation for 15 years and had heard a number of probationers complain about police brutality. However, I was in no position to assess their claims. I could only deal with issues where I had firsthand or verifiable knowledge. And sometimes this knowledge brought me into sharp conflict with my department.

Martin seems to assume that because we have not pursued institutional change in this area, we therefore have “perverted” the Gospel. Although we evangelicals are far from perfect, I find his charges grossly unfair. Do I get an “amen?”

Legislating Morality and SS Marriage

Many politicians have insisted that we can’t legislate morality – that we shouldn’t legislate against abortion, for example. However, the law that allowed legal abortions was a matter of legislating morality – no less so than any law that might criminalize or limit abortions! Even the statement that “we shouldn’t legislate against abortion” is a moral statement!

So the pols glibly repeat the same inanities: “Well, I’d never have an abortion, but it wouldn’t be right for me to pass a law forbidding others from aborting their babies.” Why not instead say, “I’d never kill my elderly parents, but it wouldn’t be right for me to pass a law forbidding others this privilege?” Absurd? Yes! But this is where this faulty reasoning leads!

Now the discredited pastor Ted Haggard has embraced this reasoning:

  • Ted Haggard, the megachurch leader whose dalliances with a male prostitute toppled him from his church in 2006, has now endorsed same-sex “marriage.”
  • “I don’t think the state has any role dictating or mandating” morality, he said. “Though we would oppose that in our churches, [same-sex weddings] should be allowed by the state.” 
Contrary to Haggard’s assertion, every law mandates morality – dictating what we can and can’t do. And every law has an underlying moral basis. Even the laws that merely regulate speed limits, legislate morality and have their underlying moral basis:

  1. Life should be preserved.
  2. We shouldn’t drive in ways that jeopardize others.
  3. Our laws should affect everyone equally, irrespective of their driving abilities.
While it is true that the way we think determines the way we live, it is also true that the way we live determines the way we think. It is therefore hard to condemn sin when we are proactively living sinfully. This creates internal dissonance, and this dissonance needs to be resolved. Without resolving it, we experience intense psychological conflict.

We can’t consistently point an accusing finger against an adulterer, if we too are unrepentant adulterers. In a revealing account (John 8:1-11), Jesus confronted a crowd of people demanding that He give the order to have an adulterous woman stoned. Instead, Jesus confronted them with their hypocrisy (It is likely that they too were adulterers), and they dropped their stones and wandered away.

I am not a prophet, but I predict that unless Haggard repents of his sinful thinking, that within a few years, he too will be sponsoring SS marriage in his church.

Monday, October 22, 2012

De Tocqueville, Morality, and Democracy

 Today’s secularism is an aggressive bulldozer. It will not tolerate any competition, pushing aside any opposition to its reign. Arrogantly, it believes that it can retain the benefits of Western civilization, while discarding its foundation – Christianity.

Alexis de Tocqueville, French statesman, historian and social philosopher, wrote “Democracy in America” (1835). It has been described as "the most comprehensive and penetrating analysis of the relationship between character and society in America that has ever been written." According to Tocqueville, freedom and morality both found their American incarnation in Christianity:

  • Religion in America ... must be regarded as the foremost of the political institutions of that country; for if it does not impart a taste for freedom, it facilitates the use of it.
Tocqueville had been well acquainted with the demands for freedom and equality that had arisen from his own French revolution, albeit grounded in the hatred and murder of the clergy. This revolution had confidently sought to push aside anything that stood in its way.  However, with the advantage of decades of hindsight, this had become something that the French wanted to avoid at all costs. Tocqueville, therefore, wrote,

  • The safeguard of morality is religion, and morality is the best security of law and the surest pledge of freedom.
He therefore appreciated the moral constraints that he found so ubiquitously associated with democracy in the USA:

  • I do not question that the great austerity of manners that is observable in the United States arises, in the first instance, from religious faith...its influence over the mind of woman is supreme, and women are the protectors of morals. There is certainly no country in the world where the tie of marriage is more respected than in America or where conjugal happiness is more highly or worthily appreciated...
Continually, he found that the fruitful expression of democracy was inseparable from its underlying Christian roots:

  • In the United States the influence of religion is not confined to the manners, but it extends to the intelligence of the people.... Christianity, therefore, reigns without obstacle, by universal consent; the consequence is, as I have before observed, that every principle of the moral world is fixed and determinate.
  • I sought for the key to the greatness and genius of America in her harbors...in her fertile fields and boundless forests; in her rich mines and vast world commerce; in her public school system and institutions of learning. I sought for it in her democratic Congress and in her matchless Constitution. Not until I went into the churches of America and heard her pulpits flame with righteousness did I understand the secret of her genius and power. America is great because America is good, and if America ever ceases to be good, America will cease to be great.
In contrast, today’s secularism believes that it can retain some of the fruits of Christian society without its roots. It seeks to replace the Christian foundation with its own materialistic, relativistic presuppositions and expects that these will support the house of their dreams. Secularism wants to retain the ideas of equality and equal protection under the law – the Bill of Rights - but it fails to see that their materialistic foundation can’t support this structure.

Historically, materialism has not been able to provide the basis of these prized values. Just look at the workers’ “utopia” of communistic, atheistic nations! Why have these nations been so characterized by oppression and violence? From a strictly materialistic worldview, there can be no possible basis for equality or “unalienable rights.” Regarding humans materialistically, we find that some are tall and some are short; some are likable and some are not; some promote justice, while some undermine it; some contribute to society, while some prove to be very costly, even undermining the common good. Consequently, as seen through the materialistic lens, some have a positive value and some a negative one. Is there therefore any basis for equality from this perspective? No!

Christians also have a materialistic lens. However, we are not limited to this lens. We also have a transcendent one. We see equality and great human value, even in the murderer, because God sees these values. We protect, because God protects, even the most unworthy. We maintain that all have unalienable rights because all have been created in the image of God. We, therefore, cannot deprive anyone of their unalienable rights, because they don’t come essentially from us but from God.

However, according to the lens of secularism, it is secularism that grants the rights. Consequently, it is secularism that can also deprive those rights. There is nothing in a materialistic worldview that requires that our rights be unalienable. After all, everything is in flux, and so too should our rights be so!

Even worse, there is nothing in secular materialism that would argue in favor of equal treatment. If some humans have a positive social value and some have a negative, there is no justification for not treating the negatively-valued humans in a negative way. Consequently, materialism cannot honestly value our understanding of equal and unalienable rights.

The same argument can also be applied to the concept of “freedom.” Where there is no material basis for equality, perhaps there is also no basis for equal freedom. (In fact, many secularists deny the reality of freewill and therefore culpability!) After all, some are intelligent and some aren’t. Some have ideas that are objectionable and some have ideas that we like. Some even vote “Republican” and against gay marriage. Why should their ideas be tolerated? Well, as secularism secures its grip, any ideas that impede its agenda are no longer tolerated. The popular vote can be overturned by a single judge. The charge of “unconstitutional” can be brought against any objectionable idea or popular vote.

The secularism of today has lost its taste for freedom as the quest for self-fulfillment has proliferated. Tocqueville warned that democracy is vulnerable in this regard :

  • Men who are possessed by the passion of physical gratification generally find out that the turmoil of freedom disturbs their welfare before they discover how freedom itself serves to promote it.
What is not honored – our freedoms and liberties - will eventually whither and disappear.
Tocqueville realized that the pursuit of “equality” could produce some bad fruit:

  • But there exists in the human heart a depraved taste for equality, which impels the weak to attempt to lower the powerful to their own level, and reduces men to prefer equality in slavery to inequality with freedom.
The argument in favor of “equality” can be applied in many illegitimate ways. It can be used to produce “equality” between parents and their children, depriving parents of their rightful authority in favor of the Secular State. It can be used as a bulldozer to push aside any sexual distinctions. Consequently, it is argued that we should be allowed to marry or to sex anyone and any number we please. It is only our appetites that should set the limit. Meanwhile, there is no longer a willingness to regard the many studies that have unequivocally demonstrated that children (and society) do far better, in a myriad of ways, with their biological parents.

Our personal comforts and pleasures tend to reign over concerns about distant abstract principles such as freedom and justice. Therefore, Tocqueville warned:

  • A democracy cannot exist as a permanent form of government. It can only exist until the voters discover that they can vote themselves largesse from the public treasury. From that moment on, the majority always votes for the candidates promising the most benefits from the public treasury with the result that a democracy always collapses over loose fiscal policy, always followed by a dictatorship. The average age of the world's greatest civilizations has been 200 years.
Democracy is a fragile flower, which requires regular cultivation. While history is the test tube for our ideas, the future will cast its dispassionate verdict on them. It will also give us what we deserve. Already, anti-Christian secularism is bearing its fruit unto abortions, STDs, suicides, criminality, and broken families throughout the Western world, starting with its radical incarnation in the sixties.

We will reap what we sow, and sadly, we will probably find that Tocqueville’s words – “The safeguard of morality is religion, and morality is the best security of law and the surest pledge of freedom” - have been prophetic.

Friday, October 19, 2012

Eternally Safe & Secure in Christ: Calvinism vs. Dispensationalism

 Both Calvinists and Dispensationalists believe that the Christian is eternally secure in Christ. As Jesus had declared, “I give them eternal life, and they shall never perish; no one can snatch them out of my hand” (John 10:28). However, these two groups have different understandings of Biblical faith, and which kind of faith is associated with our security in Christ. Pastor and dispensational theologian Charles Stanley believes that a saving faith might not be one that endures:

  • The Bible clearly teaches that God’s love for His people is of such magnitude that even those who walk away from the faith have not the slightest chance of slipping from His hand. (Eternal Security, 74)
Both groups agree that “God’s love for His people is of such magnitude” that He will keep those who are His. However, the Calvinist would deny that “those who walk away from the faith” completely were ever His, that they were ever in “His hand.”

Stanley clearly believes that even the “believer” who becomes an unbeliever remains in Christ:

  • Even if a believer for all practical purposes becomes an unbeliever, his salvation is not in jeopardy. Christ will remain faithful. (93)
Of course, “Christ will remain faithful,” but to whom? Will He remain faithful to someone who had merely a passing “faith?” Or is the real faith – the Biblical gift of faith – one that will endure, however battered it might be? According to Stanley, saving faith need not endure.

Stanley compares the human institution of marriage to our marriage with God. He reasons that because we can be married to our wife without acting as if we are married, we can also be married to God in this unfaithful manner:

  • Just as there are married people who act as if they are not, so there are Christians who show no evidence of their Christianity as well. But that does not change their eternal status, any more than a lost man can change his eternal destiny by acting saved. (71)
However, does a mere marriage certificate – think church baptism, membership and signing a statement faith – reflect a Biblical marriage to God, a real connection to Him, and the Biblical gift of faith? In contrast to Stanley, Jesus taught that the water (faith) that He gives would cause the recipient to “never thirst” again:

  • Jesus answered [the Samaritan woman at the well], "Everyone who drinks this water will be thirsty again, but whoever drinks the water I give him will never thirst. Indeed, the water I give him will become in him a spring of water welling up to eternal life." (John 4:13-14; 6:50-51)
However, Stanley’s position suggests that the “believer” who rejects the faith will thirst, now lacking any fellowship with Christ.

As a result of believing, we become “children of the light,” according to Jesus:

  • Put your trust in the light while you have it, so that you may become sons of light." (John 12:36)
However, those who have rejected the faith cannot be called “sons of light,” since they no longer walk in the light. Instead, their fruit identify them as sons of the darkness (Mat. 7:15-20).

A true faith bears fruit (James 2:18).  A faith profession alone does not make us a child of God. A life that is characterized by the willful practice of sin cannot possess saving faith. Although our good deeds do not save us, a real faith should give rise to good deeds. If it only gives rise to evil, the evildoer should be warned against having a confidence of salvation:

  • Then I [Jesus] will tell them plainly, 'I never knew you. Away from me, you evildoers!' (Matthew 7:23)
According to Jesus, these “evildoers” are not His children. Neither should they be affirmed as such, as Stanley might do.  Of course, Christians struggle against sin daily, often succumbing to its allures and deceptiveness. However, we have the assurance that if we honestly confess our sins, God will forgive and fully cleanse us from the effects of the sin (1 John 1:8-9). However, Stanley’s theology would admit that we can live like the devil – and not confess our sins – and be a child of God. However, this contradicts so much of what we read in Scripture. Jesus gave us a picture of what His sheep look like:

  • “My sheep listen to my voice; I know them, and they follow me. I give them eternal life, and they shall never perish; no one can snatch them out of my hand.” (John 10:27-28)
  • When he has brought out all his own, he goes on ahead of them, and his sheep follow him [Jesus] because they know his voice. (John 10:4)
While Jesus claimed that His sheep follow Him, Stanley claims that this isn’t necessary. This insistence simply contradicts so much of what Jesus taught:

  • Then Jesus said to his disciples, "If anyone would come after me, he must deny himself and take up his cross and follow me. (Matthew 16:24)
Self-denial was more than just a suggestion. It was a requirement. Jesus taught us that our “righteousness” must surpass that of the scribes and Pharisees (Mat. 5:20) and then provided a picture of what this should look like. Jesus also claimed that if we live like the devil, we should not expect eternal life (Mat. 25:46). He also warned that those whose practice had been evil “will rise to be condemned” (John 5:29). Friendship with Him was characterized by doing “what I command” (John 15:14). Meanwhile, those who bore no fruit would be removed from where they thought they stood (John 15:2).

The Book of Hebrews also insists upon an obedient life:

  • Make every effort to live in peace with all men and to be holy; without holiness no one will see the Lord. (Hebrews 12:14)
Although our personal holiness does not save, it’s something that must accompany faith, if it is a true faith. However, Stanley denies that faith must give rise to some degree of obedience or discipleship.

There are many Scriptural warnings that we cannot live in any manner we wish.

  • If we deliberately keep on sinning after we have received the knowledge of the truth, no sacrifice for sins is left, but only a fearful expectation of judgment and of raging fire that will consume the enemies of God. (Hebrews 10:26-27)
While Stanley claims that we can “deliberately keep on sinning” and expect to go to heaven, this hope is contrary to Scripture. Clearly a real faith will not continue in this manner. Hebrews assures us that if we are His, we will not do so:

  • But we are not of those who shrink back [from following Jesus] and are destroyed, but of those who believe and are saved. (Hebrews 10:39)
Likewise, we are warned that if we entirely fall away from the faith, there can be no restoration:

  • It is impossible for those who have once been enlightened, who have tasted the heavenly gift, who have shared in the Holy Spirit, who have tasted the goodness of the word of God and the powers of the coming age, if they fall away, to be brought back to repentance, because to their loss they are crucifying the Son of God all over again and subjecting him to public disgrace. (Hebrews 6:4-6)
Falling away from Christ means falling away from salvation. However, once again, the writer of Hebrews assures us that this cannot happen:

  • Even though we speak like this, dear friends, we are confident of better things in your case--things that accompany salvation. (Hebrews 6:9)
What accompanies salvation? The fact that we will never completely turn away from our Savior! However, Stanley claims that we can do so and still be saved, despite that warning that those falling away cannot be restored.

There are many other such warnings in Scripture, which equate falling away from Christ with losing salvation (1 Cor. 6:9-11; Gal. 5:19-24). However, these same warning-verses give us the assurance that we will not fall away.

In fact, God will not allow us to fall away! First John teaches us that we will not continue practicing sin because we have His seed within us (1 John 3:9; 5:18).  John also provides ways we can reassure ourselves that we have saving faith:

  • The man who says, "I know him," but does not do what he commands is a liar, and the truth is not in him. (1 John 2:4)
John provides many tests to reassure the brethren that they have Christ. If those who professed Christ didn’t follow the commands of Christ, they didn’t have Christ, contrary to Stanley’s insistence. Truly, if we trust Christ, we will do what He tells us to do. If our doctor tells us to take the pills he has given us and we refuse them, it probably means that we don’t trust him.

John claims that those who had been part of the church and confessed Christ but then denied Him were really never of Him (1 John 2:19; Mat. 7:23). If they had been of Him, they would have stayed with Him. However, Stanley insists that we can be saved even if we reject Christ entirely.

John also claims that:

  • We are from God, and whoever knows God listens to us [the Apostles and their writings]; but whoever is not from God does not listen to us. This is how we recognize the Spirit of truth and the spirit of falsehood. (1 John 4:6)
If we reject the Apostolic writings – the New Testament – this is a sign of the “spirit of falsehood,” that the individual is not “from God.” However, Stanley must insist that we can subsequently reject the entire Bible and still be “from God.”

There are many verses that tell us explicitly that a true faith is one which endures. Jesus warned His disciples that they had to continue to have faith:

  • All men will hate you because of me, but he who stands firm to the end will be saved. (Matthew 10:22)
In contrast, Stanley claims that we need not endure to the end. Old-line dispensationalists claim that this requirement constitutes a meritorious work and not grace, and it therefore imperils the central Gospel message that we are saved by grace apart from any works of the law. However, this danger is sidestepped once we realize that it is God – and not we - who guarantees that we will continue in faith (1 Peter 1:5; Phil. 1:6). Our Lord doesn’t simply give us the gift of faith and then leaves it untended. Our salvation is not guaranteed by simply a one-time giving of faith, but also by a God who nurtures us throughout our lives. The gift isn’t limited to a single moment in time, but represents a beachhead where our God has secured control.

Paul also wrote that a real faith is one that endures to the end:

  • But now he has reconciled you by Christ's physical body through death to present you holy in his sight, without blemish and free from accusation-- if you continue in your faith, established and firm, not moved from the hope held out in the gospel. (Col. 1:22-23)
If we don’t “continue in…faith,” it means that we had never been reconciled. However, there is still hope for those who made a profession and didn’t continue. Any who confess their sins will be forgiven and cleansed (1 John 1:9-10).

The Book of Hebrews issues the same warning as Paul:

  • But Christ is faithful as a son over God's house. And we are his house, if we hold on to our courage and the hope of which we boast…We have come to share in Christ if we hold firmly till the end the confidence we had at first. (Hebrews 3:6, 14)
If we don’t “hold firmly till the end,” it means that we had never trusted and shared in Christ. Because He works all things for good for His children (Rom. 8:28), this would preclude any possibility of disowning the faith. If we deny Christ, it means that He failed to work everything for good. This suggests that we were never His!

We cannot inherit the promise of eternal life if we fail to continue to follow Christ:

  • We want each of you to show this same diligence to the very end, in order to make your hope sure. We do not want you to become lazy, but to imitate those who through faith and patience (Hebrews 6:11-12)
We need to persevere in the faith in order to “inherit what has been promised.” However, if our faith is real (and continually nurtured by the Spirit), we will continue to follow Him.

I fear that what I have been writing might be quite chilling. It might raise old fears that we don’t have enough faith or that we aren’t righteous enough. Therefore, I want to allay these fears. Actually, it is our God, who is so incredibly merciful, who wants to allay these fears. Even though Lot was living a highly compromised life in Sodom, He is divinely remembered as “righteous Lot” (2 Peter 2:7-8).

Peter had denied Jesus – and Jesus had warned that those who deny Him, He would also deny – but Jesus returned to him with a special commission to “feed my sheep.”

Abraham, Isaac and Jacob had all been spiritual failures for most of their lives. Yet their God never abandoned them. However, these weren’t people who had rejected their God as Stanley claims that we can do without loosing our salvation.

Our faith can be of the smallest size (Luke 17:6) and yet still be divinely regarded as great faith. Israel was a perfect example of this. Moments before passing through the Red Sea by faith, they had been rebelling against Moses and God. And yet they are examples of faith (Hebrews 11:29). We see the same with Moses (11:27) and Sarah (11:11). They had greatly feared and yet our God remembers them as fearless – people of faith.

I appreciate Charles Stanley’s emphasis on the assurance that comes from knowing that faith and salvation are free gifts. However, I think that we need to understand our free gift as one that will continue in faithfulness.