Tribulation Saint

Historic Christianity in the Twenty First Century

THE ETERNITY OF GOD

 

Death and eternity are the two great existential questions facing mortal man, and nothing accentuates the differences between God and man than this stark reality.  God is eternal, immortal; man dies.  Between the two modes of existence there is no comparison.

Moses was struck by this fact as he led the children of Israel through the wilderness.  What had begun as an exciting adventure turned into a moral tragedy, which led God to pronounce the frightful sentence that a whole generation of Israelites would perish in the wilderness.  Soon after this, or perhaps when it was all over, Moses was led to pen the words of Psalm 90, a somber reflection on death and eternity.

But Moses begins by reflecting on God’s eternity:

“Lord, You have been our dwelling place in all generations.

Before the mountains were brought forth,

Or ever You formed the earth and the world,

Even from everlasting, You are God.”

(Ps. 90:1,2; NKJV).

Theologians have long speculated that God stands outside of time.  But that is a philosophical concept, drawn from secular sources.  It is not really found in the Bible.  Rather, the Bible portrays God as existing for an endless succession of ages.  Moses looks at the mountains, the every epitome of strength and durability, and points out that even they at one time did not exist.  But God was there long before even that.  God was there before even the earth itself existed.

“Before the mountains were brought forth,

Or even You had formed he earth and the world,

Even from everlasting to everlasting, You are God.”

The word translated “everlasting” (olam) means a long period of time in either the past or the future.  Thus the idea here is that the duration of God’s existence defies human comprehension.  In that regard He is infinitely greater than anything that we have ever experienced in the created reality.

Likewise from God’s perspective what seems like a long time to us is nothing to Him.

“For a thousand years in Your sight

Are like yesterday when it is past,

And like a watch in the night”  (v. 4).

For us eighty years is a lifetime.  A thousand years is virtually unimaginable.  But to Someone who has existed from all eternity, however, it is scarcely the blink of an eye.

Man, however, must confront his own mortality.  And this is the result of the sentence which God pronounce on us:

“You turn man to destruction,

And say ‘Return, O children of men.’”  (v. 3)

Moses goes on to compare human existence to a dream or to grass, something that is here today and vanishes without a trace tomorrow.  Herein lies the melancholy fact of human existence: as full of life and vitality as we may be today, there is nothing we can do to stop the approach of death.  Eventually we must all die, and will be nothing more than a tombstone in a cemetery.

All of this should lead us to a profound humility in the presence of God.  Here we are, frail, mortal creatures of the dust, here today and gone tomorrow, standing before God who is infinite, immortal and eternal.  His eternity should overwhelm us, and we should have a proper sense of our own relative insignificance.

But secondly, God’s eternity should inspire our confidence in Him.  We are subject to injury and disease, hunger and privation.  Our grasp on life is tenuous at best, and the best of human aids may fail us when we need them the most.  But God is eternal, untouched by the vicissitudes of human existence.  He will always be there, always able to help.  And, indeed, Moses ends his psalm by appealing to God for His help.

“And let the beauty of the Lord our God be upon us,

And establish the work of our hands for us . . .”  (v. 17).

But most importantly of all, the eternity of God should cause us to value Him far above every earthly, created thing.  Earthly things are finite, vulnerable to injury, and finally pass away.  God is the eternal good, infinite perfection, untouched by earthly weakness and frailty.  Which would we rather have?  Only a fool would choose the former.

As the English Puritan Stephen Charnock put it, “And truly, since nothing but God is eternal, nothing but God is worth the loving; and we do but a just right to our love, to pitch it upon that which can always possess us and by possessed by us; upon an object that cannot deceive our affection, and put it out of countenance by a dissolution.”

And that consideration should be enough to arrest any temptation to sin.  Again Charnock put it this way: “What transitory pleasures will not the thoughts of God’s eternity stifle?  When this work [i.e., meditating on God’s eternity] busieth a soul, it is too great to suffer it to descend, to listen to sleeveless errand from hell or the world.  The wanton allurements of the flesh will be put off with indignation.  The proffers of the world will be ridiculous when they are cast into the balance with the eternity of God, which sticking in our thoughts, we shall not be so easy a prey for the fowler’s gin.”  Charnock concludes by saying, “Let us therefore, often meditate upon this, but not in a bare speculation, without engaging our affections, and making every potion of the divine eternity end in a suitable impression upon our hearts.”  Amen!

Advertisements

WHY CHURCH?

dscn0949

 

Many readers would undoubtedly agree with most of what we have said so far.  But in the minds of many younger people there remains an important question.  Granted the necessity of having a personal relationship with Christ, why bother going to church?  Cannot someone worship God and have a relationship with Christ without going to church?

For many people the question arises because of bad church experiences they have had in the past.  Some pastors are domineering and tyrannical; some church members are judgmental and self-righteous.  Some churches are too commercialized.  There have been ugly church splits.  There have been sex scandals and financial impropriety.  And in all too many cases there is very little that is genuinely spiritual about the typical modern institutionalized church.  It is understandable, therefore, that many would want Christ but not the church.

The biblical answer to this is found in Hebrews 10:24,25: “And let us consider one another in order to stir up love and good works, not forsaking the assembling of ourselves together, as is the manner of some, but exhorting one another, and so much the more as you see the Day approaching” (NKJV).  Why should we not “forsake the assembling of yourselves together”?  So that we can “stir up love and good works” and “exhort one another.”  And none of this can take place unless we have regular interaction with each other.

To understand what exactly this passage is getting at it is important to realize that the First Century church did not operate the way most modern churches do today.  In the First Century there were few, if any, church buildings, nor was there a professionally trained clergy.  Nor were there separate denominations.  Rather, the entire Christian community in a given city was considered a single church, so that it was possible to speak of the “church at Ephesus” or the “church of the Thessalonians.”  Each of these large metropolitan churches was governed by a board of elders (Acts 20:17) who were chosen from within the local church based on their spiritual gifts and maturity.  There was no “senior pastor.”  On certain occasions the entire, large, city-wide church would hold a meeting in some open, public place (Acts 5:12).

Within these large, city-wide churches there were smaller groups that met in private homes (Acts 2:46; Rom. 16:5; Phln. 2).  It was in these smaller house churches that the Lord’s Table would be observed.  We have a description of one of these gatherings in Acts 20:6-12.  The believers were meeting in an upper room on a Sunday evening and Paul preached long into the night, after which they broke bread.  It would have been in these smaller gatherings that the believers would have had the opportunity to interact with each other.

In this context, then, it is easier to see how a church is supposed to function.  It is assumed that all baptized church members have been genuinely born again and have the Holy Spirit dwelling within them.  They are each given spiritual gifts (I Cor. 12:4-11) and they are to use these gifts to edify one another and build up the body of Christ (Eph. 4:7-13).  We do this by exhorting one another (Heb. 3:13), confessing our sins to each other (Jas. 5:16) and bearing one another’s burdens (Gal. 6:2).  All of this necessitates some form of regular, small-group interaction, which is why the author of the Letter to the Hebrews tells us not to forsake the assembling of ourselves together.  It is the means by which we “stir up to love and good works” and “exhort one another.”

The Christian life cannot be lived in isolation from other Christians.  The basic ethical requirement of the Christian life is that we love one another, and that means that we must actually care for each other (I John 3:16-18).  And that cannot be done unless we are an active part of a local church body.  The question should not be, “what can the church do for me?”; but rather “what can I contribute to the church?”

The church has long since departed from the apostolic model.  During the Middle Ages it developed into an elaborate hierarchy supported by the state.  Worship became formal and ritualistic.  During the Reformation improvements were made, but they mainly involved taking existing state-sponsored institutional churches and “reforming” them.  The priest was replaced by the pastor whose chief function was to teach the congregation, but it was still largely a one-man ministry.  During times of revival, however, when there were real spiritual awakenings, small group interactions would often reappear – Sunday afternoon conferences, prayer bands and class meetings.  Where there is genuine spiritual life it must express itself, and express itself it did.

So what about today?  Where can one find a church like that? – one that is genuinely spiritual?  No church is perfect – we are all human and fall short of what God expects from us, and that includes churches as well as individuals.   The truly amazing thing about church history is that a God who is infinite, holy, all-wise and all-powerful would choose to use clay vessels like ourselves to accomplish His purposes on earth.  And so there is no such thing as a perfect church, but some are better than others.  Is the pastor a godly man?  Does he possess the biblical qualifications for an elder?  Are his sermons biblically sound?  Are they practical?  Does prayer play an important part in the life of the congregation?  Does the church exercise church discipline?

But more importantly, is there meaningful small group interaction?  This can take several forms, including small home group Bible studies, an active midweek prayer meeting, or adult Sunday School classes.

But the question is, do the believers actively work to build each other up spiritually?  Only then can the church accomplish what Christ intended for it.

“And you will seek Me and find Me, when you search for Me with

All your heart.”        (Jer. 29:13; cf. Dt. 4:29)

THE CHRISTIAN VIEW OF SEX

4.2.7

Anthony Van Dyck: Family Portrait

 

 

America, in recent decades, has seen a tremendous revolution in sexual mores, and this has placed the more conservative religious groups in an uncomfortable position.  Most younger people today have engaged in sexual activity outside of marriage, and the Supreme Court decision legalizing same sex marriage has made homosexual activity acceptable to much of society.  Now conservative churches are in the position of being labelled prudish, intolerant, and even “homophobic” and hateful.  What should churches do in such a situation?  Accept the sexual revolution as an accomplished fact?  Or remain faithful to the basic moral principles that have guided them for thousands of years?

In a situation like this it must never be forgotten that as human beings we are all ultimately accountable to a Supreme Being, and that it is our Creator who is the final arbiter of right and wrong.  And sex, like everything else in life, must be understood in terms of God’s creative purposes.

The opening chapters of Genesis describe what those purposes are.  “So God created man in His own image; in the image of “God He created him; male and female He created them.  Then God blessed them, and God said to them, ‘Be fruitful and multiply; fill the earth and subdue it; have dominion over the fish of the sea, over the birds of the air, and over every living thing that moves on the earth” (Gen. 1:27,28; NKJV).  The implication here is that the world has a certain natural order to it, an order that placed there by our Creator.  Gender distinctions are a part of that order (“male and female He created them”), and the primary purpose of sex is procreation (“be fruitful and multiply”), and that presupposes a heterosexual relationship.

The next chapter in Genesis goes on specifically to describe the creation of woman.  “And the Lord God said, ‘It is not good that man should be alone; I will make a helper comparable to him’” (Gen. 2:18).  God then goes on to create Eve, and the passage describes the rationale behind marriage: “Therefore a man shall leave his father and mother and be joined to his wife, and they shall become one flesh” (Gen. 2:24).

In line with God’s creative purpose, then, there are a number of sexual practices that are condemned in the Bible.  The Old Testament condemns incest (Lev. 18:6-18), adultery (Lev. 18:20; Dt. 22:22), homosexuality (Lev. 18:22), bestiality (Ex. 22:19; Lev. 18:23) and cross dressing (Dt. 22:5).

Some have imagined that Jesus took a more tolerant view of such matters, but the opposite is true.  The Old Testament allowed for divorce, but Jesus condemned it (Matt. 19:1-12), and at one point actually went so far as to say “But I say to you that whoever looks as a woman to lust for her has already committed adultery with her in his heart” (Matt. 5:27-30).  And so the apostle Paul could write “But fornication and all uncleanness or covetousness, let it not even be named among you, as is fitting for saints” (Eph. 5:3); and Heb. 13:4 tells us “Marriage is honorable among all, and the bed undefiled; but fornicators and adulterers God will judge.”

Does this mean that Christians are being “hateful” and “intolerant” by upholding God’s standards of sexual conduct?  Not at all!  Marriage was created for our good, and it serves our best interests if done the way God intended it.  “For in the resurrection they neither marry nor or given in marriage, but are like angels of God in heaven” (Matt. 22:30); but in this life “He who finds a wife finds a good thing, / And obtains favor from the Lord” (Prov. 18:22).

What the biblical standards of morality do is to create a stable family life.  Children are brought into the world by parents who are in a permanent, binding relationship with each other.  The husband and wife naturally complement each other.  In a successful marriage there is real love and devotion towards each other and towards the children that spring from the union.

But what has the sexual revolution done for America?  One out of every two marriages ends in divorce, many children are born out of wedlock, and a large number of children are growing up in single parent families.  Poverty is pandemic, along with a hose of other social problems, and many of these problems can be traced directly back to the unstable family structure.

It all comes down to man’s fallen sinful nature.  There is a difference between lust and love.  Love sacrificially gives of itself to the other person; lust uses the other person for its own selfish ends.  Love builds relationships; lust destroys them.

Are Christians, then, being hateful and intolerant?  Not at all.  If we have a genuine concern for our neighbor’s well-being we will want to promote his best interests.  And sin is never in anyone’s best interest.  Would you buy a bottle of whiskey for an alcoholic?  Or even sell him a pack of cigarettes?   Why then would you help a pair of homosexuals sin by catering their wedding reception?  In each of these cases you would be contributing to the other person’s downfall and ruin.  That is not love.  That is being complicit with the crime, and no one’s genuine best interest is served that way.

Some may argue that the times have changed and that the church must change with the times – that we cannot live in the past.  But as we said before we must never forget that we are ultimately accountable to a Supreme Being, and that He never changes.  In the end His opinion is the only one that matters.

WHAT MUST I DO TO BE SAVED?

169

The Ethiopian Eunuch

 

If Christ died, then, as an atonement for sin, and His death is of infinite value, does that mean, then, that everyone is automatically saved?  While that may seem like a logical conclusion, it is not what the Bible says.  There is a condition which must be met.  “He who believes in the Son; and he who does not believe the Son shall not see life, but the wrath of God abides on him” (John 3:36; NKJV).  “For God so loved the world that He gave His only begotten Son, that whoever believes in Him should not perish but have everlasting life” (John 3:16).  We are justified (made righteous in the sight of God) by faith.  We must believe on Christ in order to be saved and have our sins forgiven.  We are save by faith in Christ.

But what does it mean to “believe on” Christ?  The Bible defines faith as “the assurance of things hoped for, the conviction of things not seen” (Heb. 11:1; NASV, ESV).  Faith is the firm conviction that what God has said is true and will come to pass.  His word can be relied upon.  People demonstrated their faith by acting upon God’s promises.  “But without faith it is impossible to please Him, for he who comes to God must believe that He is, and that He is a rewarder of those who diligently seek Him” (Heb. 11:6; NKJV).  Hebrews 11 goes on to give us a long catalog of those who acted in faith.  “These all died in faith, not having received the promise, but having seen them afar off, were assured of them, embraced them and confessed that they were strangers and pilgrims on the earth” (v. 13).  In salvation faith means to put one’s faith and confidence in Christ, to rely actively on Him and trust Him only for your salvation.

Faith is more than mere assent to a religious dogma.  “You believe that there is one God.  You do well.  Even the demons believe – and tremble!” (James 2:19).  The demons, obviously, are not saved.  It is one thing to believe something about Christ; it is something different actively to put your trust in Him.  “Believe on the Lord Jesus Christ, and you will be saved . . . “ (Acts 16:31).

True faith is accompanied by true repentance.  You cannot ask God to forgive your sins unless you genuinely acknowledge that they are sins and you desire to turn from them.  There must be a genuine sorrow over sin.

“’Now, therefore,’ says the Lord,

‘Turn to Me with all your heart,

With fasting, with weeping, and with mourning.’

So rend your heart, and not your garments;

Return to the Lord your God,

For He is gracious and merciful,

Slow to anger, and of great kindness;

And He relents from doing harm.”

(Joel 2:12,13)

And a genuine sorrow over sin will include a desire to be free from it and live a life that is pleasing to God.  “Therefore bear fruits worthy of repentance” (Matt. 3:8).  These are not works that you perform in order to earn your salvation or to merit anything from God, but rather evidence that your repentance is real and genuine.  God will save you from your sin; it is all a work of His unmerited favor.  But the question is, do you really want to be saved?  And if so, form what?

But then our faith in Christ should express itself by publicly identifying ourselves with Him, and this is done in baptism.  Peter could conclude his sermon on Pentecost by saying, “Repent, and let everyone of you be baptized in the name of Jesus Christ for the remission of sins, and you shall receive the gift of the Holy Spirit” (Acts 2:38).  Jesus said, “Therefore whoever confesses Me before men, him will I also confess before My Father who is in heaven.  But whoever denies Me before men, him I will also deny before My Father who is in heaven” (Matt. 10:32,33; cf. Lu. 12:8,9).  Some evangelists have used this as a justification for the altar call, but there is no evidence from Scripture that such a practice existed in the early church.  Rather, baptism was the means of publicly identifying oneself with Christ.

Several things should be noted here.  First of all the assumption throughout the New Testament is that the person being baptized is a professing believer.  “For as many of you as were baptized into Christ have put on Christ.  You are all one in Christ Jesus” (Gal. 3:27,28; cf. Rom. 6:3), the implication being that everyone who has been baptized  has actually been incorporated into the universal church, the body of Christ.  Moreover, there is no direct command nor any clear example in the New Testament to warrant the practice of infant baptism.

Secondly, baptism is not a good work that somehow merits salvation, nor is a sacrament that somehow works automatically to impart salvation.  Rather, “. . .baptism now saves you – not the removal of dirt from the flesh, but an appeal to God for a good conscience – through the resurrection of Jesus Christ . . .” (I Pet. 3:21; NASV; cf. ESV).  Baptism is the formal, outward means by which we declare our faith and allegiance to Christ, and as such formally begins the relationship with Him.  It is the faith itself, however, which makes us righteous in the sight of God.  Baptism is the outward expression of the inward reality, the sign and seal of our faith.

This, then, is how we are saved: we must repent of our sins, put our trust in Christ as our Savior, and publicly identify ourselves with Him in baptism.  “. . .if you confess with your mouth the Lord Jesus and believe in your heart that God has raised Him from the dead, you will be saved.  For with the heart one believes unto righteousness, and with the mouth confession is made unto salvation” (Rom. 10:9,10).

JUSTICE CALLED; GRACE ANSWERED

 

But if God is both just and compassionate, what should He do about man’s sin?  Justice demands that He punish it; but compassion wants to forgive the sinner.  And if He punishes sin He destroys man, whom He originally created.  What should He do?

It should be noted that the problem was created by man, not by God.  There is nothing wrong with justice; there is nothing wrong with compassion.  The problem is man’s sin, and man created the problem by doing things that he himself knows is wrong.  The problem lies with us, not with God.

But that being said, what should God do?  There is one possible way out of the dilemma.  If a substitute could be found, someone to take our place and pay the penalty for our sins, God could forgive us while at the same time uphold His justice.  Sins could be punished and forgiven at the same time.

But who would be willing to do such a thing?  And more to the point, who would even be qualified to do such a thing?  The substitute would have to be absolutely innocent himself, or else he would merely be paying for his own sins.   And he would have to be a person whose life would be equal to that of millions of human beings combined, or else he could be a substitute for only one other person.  The rest of us would be lost.  The whole scenario seems highly unlikely.

But then something extraordinary happened.  “But when the fullness of time had come, God sent forth His Son, born of a woman, born under the law, to redeem those who were under the law, that we might receive the adoption as sons” (Gal. 4:4,5; NKJV).  “For God so loved the world that He gave His only begotten Son, that whoever believes in Him should not perish but have eternal life” (John 3:16).

As it turns out Jesus was the only Person qualified to fill the role.  First of all, He was completely sinless Himself.  He was “in all points tempted as we are, yet without sin” (Heb. 4:15).  He can sympathize with us, having lived here on earth as a human being, yet He never succumbed to temptation.  Yet because He was also God, God the Father’s own dear Son, His blood was of infinite value, and could atone for the sins of all those who would come to Him in faith.

And yet at what a cost to God the Father!  “For God so loved the world that He gave His only begotten Son . . .”  Jesus was the Father’s “only begotten Son.”  God has many adopted children, but Jesus was His only eternal Son by nature.  And it was His only begotten Son that He sent into the world to die for our sins.  Jesus was born under the humblest circumstances, was arrested under false charges and given a mockery of a trial.  He was mocked, scourged and suffered an agonizing death on a cross.  And all of this happened to God’s only begotten Son, the only human being who was absolutely without sin Himself, the last Person on earth who deserved to die.  No greater travesty of justice ever occurred in human history.  And He did that of us, to atone for our sins and obtain forgiveness for us.

Christ would not have done it unless it had been absolutely necessary to satisfy the demands of divine justice.  “. . .without the shedding of blood there is no remission” (Heb. 9:23); and yet “it is not possible that the blood of bulls and goats could take away sins” (Heb. 10:4).  Therefore God “sent His Son to be the propitiation for our sins” (I John 4:10).

At the same time God would not have sent His Son to die for our sins if He had not had a great love for us.  “But God demonstrates His own love towards us in that while we were still sinners, Christ died for us” (Rom. 5:8).  God sent His Son to die for us, not because we were lovable – “we were still sinners” – but because of the pity and compassion He has for His ruined and suffering creatures.  And He demonstrates His love for us, but by excusing our sin, but by sending His own Son to die on the cross and atone for it.

“Amazing love, how can it be

That Thou my God shouldst die for me?”

Charles Wesley

In this way the demands of both justice and compassion can be met simultaneously. Sin is both punished and forgiven at the same time.  God is able to “demonstrate at the present time His righteousness, that He might be just and the justifier of the one who has faith in Jesus” (Rom. 3:26).  “Mercy and truth have met together; / Righteousness and peach have kissed” (Psalm 85:10).

It is important to mention that this is the reason why there is no salvation outside of Christ.  It simply not true that Jesus was one of several different great religious teachers down through history, and that “all roads lead to heaven.”  Man’s real problem is his sin and guilt before a holy God, and the only solution to that problem is Christ’s atonement on the cross.  Christ was much more than a great prophet or religious leader; He is the Savior, the only Savior.  “For there is one God and one Mediator between God and man, the Man Christ Jesus, who gave Himself a ransom for all . . .” (I Tim. 2:5,6a).

THE WAGES OF SIN IS DEATH

4.2.7

Pieter Claesz: A Vanitas Still Life

 

Why do people die?  At first that seems like a rather stupid question – they just do.  It is an inescapable fact of human existence.  And if you are an atheist that is all there is to it – there is no special rhyme or reason to life.  We just exist, and we all die.  But if we were created by an intelligent Supreme Being, a God who is loving and compassionate, why would He create us to die?

An obituary is a sobering commentary on human existence.  Here is someone’s loved one – a husband or wife, a father or mother – who was once full of life and energy.  He or she worked, played and loved, and had a real impact on the lives of others.  And yet in that person’s later years he was feeble and frail; and now he lies silent in the grave.  If God created life, then why does He let us die?

“The days of our lives are seventy years;

And if by reason of strength they are eighty years,

Yet their boast is only labor and sorrow;

For it is soon cut off, and we fly away.”

(Psalm 90:10; NKJV).

The biblical answer to this is sin: “. . .through one man sin entered the world, and death through sin . . .” (Rom. 5:12).  Death is an anomaly, but sin is also an anomaly; and the Bible connects the two together.  We die because we sin.  Death is the curse that God placed upon the human race because of our sin and rebellion.  We cut ourselves off from our Creator, the source of life, and so we die.  The amazing thing is that we live as long as we do.

Death actually has three aspects to it: spiritual, physical and eternal.  It is important to realize that before we die physically we are already dead spiritually.  We “were dead in trespasses and sins” (Eph. 2:1).  “. . .we all once conducted ourselves in the lust of our flesh, fulfilling the desires of the flesh and of the mind, and were by nature children of wrath . . .” (v. 3).  Paul could say of the pagan Gentiles of his day that they “walk in the futility of their mind, having their understanding darkened, being alienated from the life of God, because of the ignorance that is in them, because of the blindness of their heart, who being past feeling, have given themselves over to lewdness, to work all uncleanness with greediness” (Eph. 4:17-19).  Even though we are physically alive we are spiritually dead.  God is absent from our lives, there is an absence of any real love for God or for righteousness, and we go through life living for ourselves, seeking our own personal advantage, and gaming the system.  There is no spiritual life in us.

And then, of course, there is the fact of our actual physical death, and this points to a problem in nature itself, for death is often the result of outward circumstances, of injury or disease.  The fact of the matter is that all of nature has been affected by our sin and rebellion, and is, to a large extent, dysfunctional.  “For the creation was subjected to futility . . .  the whole creation groans and labors with birth pangs . . .” (Rom. 8:20,22).  Even Christians are not exempt from physical pain and suffering: “. . .but we also who have the firstfruits of the Spirit, even we ourselves groan within ourselves, eagerly waiting for the adoption, the redemption of our body” (v. 23).  Thus when we look at nature we are struck by a paradox: everywhere we can see evidenced of intelligent design, but at the same time we see pervasive dysfunction.  Things live and flourish; things die.  Life was designed to function one way; it now functions in a profoundly different way.  It is a creation out of concord with its Creator.  It is a creation wrecked and ruined by man’s rebellion against God.

But it does not end there.  Death is also eternal – we are cut off from God forever, and bear the brunt of His wrath for all eternity.  The Book of Revelation describes the Last Judgment, and says, “The sea gave up the dead who were in it, and Death and Hades delivered up the dead who were in them.  And they were judged, each one according to his works.  Then Death and Hades were cast into the lake of fire.  This is the second death” (Rev. 20:13,14; “Hades” is a Greek word for the underworld, the abode of departed spirits).   “But the cowardly, unbelieving, abominable, murderers, sexually immoral, sorcerers, idolaters, and all liars shall have their part in the lake which burns with fire and brimstone, which is the second death” (Rev. 21:8).

It is terrifying to think about hell, but the Bible tells us this is what we must expect if we continue in our sin and rebellion against God.  We have offended a just and holy God.  He is infinite and all-powerful.  By rebelling against Him we have placed ourselves under His wrath and condemnation.  The consequences are fearful.

“For the wages of sin is death . . .” (Rom. 6:23).  “Wages” are what we have earned, what we deserve.  And what did we earn by rebelling against God and living our lives apart from Him?  A life of misery and woe here below and an eternity in hell.  These are the consequences of human sin and folly.

The reality, then, which confronts each and every one of us is the certain prospect of death; and the question each one of us must ask himself is this: “Where will I spend eternity?”  Let none be so foolish as to ignore the question.

But, as we shall see, “the gift of God is eternal life in Christ Jesus our Lord” (Ibid.).

MAN’S REVOLT AGAINST GOD

4.2.7

Caravagio: The Young Bacchus

The Bible tells us that “the wrath of God is revealed from heaven” (Rom. 1:18; NKJV).  But why would God be angry with us?  He knows that we are only human, right?  God is a loving Father; surely He can overlook our weaknesses and failures.

What the verse goes on to say is that the wrath of God “is revealed from heaven against all ungodliness and unrighteousness of men . . .”  The Greek word translated “ungodliness” might better be rendered “impiety.”  It denotes the lack of reverence and devotion to God.  “Unrighteousness” is the lack of conformity to God’s law.  And that, according to Scripture, is why God is angry with us.

But why?  As long as we mind our own business and do not harm others, what is the problem?

As we have seen, God is our Creator and Lord, and He expects us to “do justly, love mercy, and walk humbly” with Him (Mic. 6:8).  What happens in actual practice, however, falls far short of the mark.  We routinely ignore God in our lives.  Yes, we may pay lip service to God, or to some duty, but our “religion” amounts to little more than a mere formality.  We rarely pray; we rarely read the Bible.  Our decisions are mainly based on calculated self-interest.  We assert our independence, and then look for ways to rationalize our behavior.  Scientists and philosophers try to devise elaborate alternative explanations of reality.  The rest of us just fill our lives with money, pleasure or entertainment.  And when circumstances overwhelm us we turn to the psychiatrist or the bottle.  We will try anything and everything except turn to God.  And inwardly we resent the thought of God having any kind of authority over us.  This is what the Bible means by “ungodliness” or “impiety.”  It is the near total absence of God in our thinking.  We call it “secularism.”

And then we are guilty of “unrighteousness.”  We pursue our own individual self-interest, and it often comes at the expense of others.  We try to convince ourselves that we are not really hurting anyone else, but our actions often belie our words.  As a society we will created governments and pass laws; but as individuals we will look for ways to game the system.  We lie and we cheat.  We gossip.  We lose our tempers and seek revenge.  We are motivated by greed and ignore the suffering of others.  We eat too much; we drink too much; we lust after women.  We hurt each other through a thousand tiny cuts.  We know that all of this is wrong, and yet we do it anyway.  This is what the Bible means by “unrighteousness.”

But, you may ask, what about the many people who have made personal sacrifices for their fellow man?  What about Washington and Lincoln and Martin Luther King?  What about those who have given their lives on the battlefield or those who have devoted their lives to the care of the sick and the poor?  Aren’t they good people?  Aren’t their deeds noble and virtuous?

Yes, indeed, there have been many people who have done great things.  But in the sight of God they are often doing the right things for the wrong reasons.  Most people are guided by a kind of social morality.  They have been raised and educated in a certain culture, and the society in which they live expects them to act a certain way.  There are rewards and punishments.   If you do the wrong thing you could go to jail; if you do the right thing you might achieve recognition from your fellow man.  But the morality of a society is often determined by the social, economic and political needs of that society, and as a result sometime comes into conflict with God’s moral law.  America’s economic system is based on individual self-interest and the profit motive.  The Bible says that “the love of money is a root of all kinds of evil” (I Tim. 6:10).

Thus the behavior of individuals within a given society is motivated by a desire for social acceptance, and this often involves an element of hypocrisy.  We maintain a public persona that we project to others, but inwardly we can be quite different.  The true inner self can be stubborn, proud or resentful.

But all of this is quite different from what God requires.  What He wants is that we love Him with all of our hearts and our neighbors as ourselves (Dt. 6:4; Lev. 19:18; Matt. 22:35-40).  We look at the outward appearance; God looks on the heart.  He discovers the hidden motive.  And “rational self-interest” is still self-interest.  Civilization is too often an attempt to better our lives without God.

In short, it is the underlying motive that counts.  What motivates us to do good things?  Is it a genuine love for God and for our fellow man?  Or is it a desire for esteem and success?  And what do we do when society’s standards conflict with God’s.

In other words, when God looks down from His throne in heaven, what He sees is not a bunch of basically good people trying their best to do the right thing.  What He sees is a human race that stubbornly refuses to recognize Him as Creator and Lord, routinely ignores Him in daily life, and breaks His commandments when it is convenient to do so.  He sees people who hurt each other in ways large and small.  And that is why God is justly angry with us.

THE MESSAGE OF CHRISTMAS

4.2.7

Lorenzo di Credi: The Anunciation

 

“This is a faithful saying and worthy of all acceptance, that Christ Jesus came into the world to save sinners, of whom I am chief.”                          I Tim. 1:15; NKJV

 

In these twenty five words the apostle Paul summarizes the message of Christmas, and indeed of the Christian gospel itself.  Jesus is the Messiah (“Christ” is the Greek translation of the Hebrew “Messiah” – both words mean “the anointed one”).  He came into “the world,” this sin-cursed world of fallen human beings.  He had previously existed in heaven, and then came into the world by means of a virgin birth and assumed the form of a human being.  And why did He do this?  “To save sinners.”  And herein is the rub.

We would like to think of ourselves as basically good people and that God likes us just the way we are.  But when God looks at us He does not see basically good people.  What He sees are “sinners.”  We routinely ignore Him, and we often do that which we know to be wrong.  And why?  Because our actions are driven by various forms of selfishness: pride, greed or lust.  And as a result we are, by nature estranged and alienated from God.

But “Christ Jesus came into the world to save sinners.”  So great was the love and compassion that He had for us that He came into the world and died on the cross to save us – to rescue us from our sin and depravity, and from the punishment we justly deserve.  Christ shows His love for us, not by pretending that we are not sinners, but by paying the penalty for the sins we have committed.

And is Paul being self-righteous, bigoted and judgmental by calling people “sinners”?  No, not all.  For he says that Christ came into the world to save sinners, “of whom I am chief.”  He sees himself as a sinner, just like everyone else.  We are all sinners; we all need salvation.  And Christ came into the world to achieve precisely that.

In calling sin “sin” we are not setting ourselves above others.  We are simply acknowledging the common fault of mankind.  And the way to find peace with God is not by pretending that we are righteous, but by frankly admitting that we are sinners and asking God for forgiveness.  That is not bigotry; that is humanitarianism at its deepest level.

And that is the true meaning of Christmas!

MAGNIFICAT

4.2.7

Fra Angelico, The Annunciation

 

Christmas, of course, is the time of year when we celebrate the birth of Christ.  But what is so special about Christ?  Have there not been other great men in history whose birthdays are worth commemorating?  What sets Christ apart from all the rest?

We will let Mary tell the story.  The gospels of both Matthew and Luke describe the birth of Christ; but Matthew tells the story from Joseph’s perspective, while Luke tells it from Mary’s.  And quite an extraordinary story it is.  In Luke chapter 1 we are told that the angel Gabriel came to Mary to explain what was about to happen to her.  Gabriel told her that she would conceive a son, and call His name Jesus.  “He will be great, and will be called the Son of the Highest; and the Lord God will give Him the throne of His father David.  And He will reign over the house of Jacob forever, and of His kingdom there will be no end” (Lu. 1:32,33; NKJV).  Mary would, in effect, be giving birth to the long awaited Messiah.  The prophet Daniel in the Old Testament had predicted that there would come One “like the Son of Man,” who would be given a universal dominion, and that “His dominion is an everlasting dominion, / Which shall not pass away, / And His kingdom the One / Which shall not be destroyed” (Dan. 7:13,14).

But how would this even be possible?  How could a child of Mary’s be considered “the Son of the Highest”?  Gabriel explained: this would be no ordinary birth.  Instead of the normal sexual relationship she would conceive by the Holy Spirit.  “The Holy Spirit will come upon you, and the power of the Highest will overshadow you; therefore, also, the Holy One who is to be born will be called the Son of God” (v. 35).  In other words the child would be no ordinary human being.  While He would have a human mother (Mary), His Father would be none other than God himself, making the child both God and man at the same time.

Mary, as one might expect, was absolutely astonished.  A virgin birth would normally be considered impossible.  But Gabriel pointed out to Mary that “With God nothing will be impossible” (v. 37), and Mary replied, “Let it be to me according to your word” (v. 38).

Not long afterward Mary visited her relative Elizabeth, who in her old age had conceived a child who would become John the Baptist.  As soon as Mary entered the house and greeted Elizabeth, the baby in Elizabeth’s womb leaped.  And filled with the Holy Spirit Elizabeth declared “Blessed are you among women, and blessed is the fruit of your womb!” (v. 42).  Elizabeth went on to call Mary “the mother of my Lord” (v. 43), and said “Blessed is she who believed, for there will be a fulfillment of those things which were told her from the Lord” (v. 45).  Elizabeth, in other words, realized that what was happening to Mary was extraordinary.

This led Mary to break out in worship with what has come to be known as the “Magnificat,” from the opening words in the Latin Vulgate translation (“Magnificat anima mea Dominum” – “My soul magnifies the Lord’).  She begins by praising God for what He has done for her personally: “For He has regarded the lowly state of His maidservant” (v. 48).  What the Lord was doing in her life, using her to bring forth the Messiah, would have been extraordinary for any woman.  But significantly God did not choose an aristocratic noblewoman for this honor, but someone of “lowly state” – a young virgin engaged to a carpenter.  And, as a result, “henceforth all generations will call me blessed”; and so they did.

But then Mary goes on to reflect on the broader significance of the event for the human race as a whole.  Using language reminiscent of Psalm 113:5-8 and especially Hannah’s prayer in I Sam. 2:1-10, she declares that God’s mercy is on those who fear Him (v. 50).  Specifically God has scattered the proud, pulled down the mighty from their thrones, and sent the rich away empty, while exalting the lowly and filling the hungry with good things (vv. 51-53).

This may seem like a bit of rhetorical overstatement, given the fact that Mary had not yet actually given birth at the time that she said this.  But she is using verbs in the past tense to describe prophetically events yet to take place in the future.  Undoubtedly she is reflecting on Old Testament prophecies regarding the kingdom of the Messiah.  Throughout human history the rich, the strong and the powerful have taken advantage of the weak and vulnerable, and Israel itself had felt threatened by more powerful neighbors.  But when the Messiah comes all of this will be overturned, and perfect peace and justice will reign.  Isaiah could prophesy that “unto us a child is born” and “the government will be upon His shoulder,” and He will sit upon the throne of David “to order it and establish it with judgment and justice” (Isa. 9:1-7).  Mary concluded by reflecting on God’s mercy to Israel as promised to the patriarchs of old.

What Mary could not see was how all of this would be fulfilled.  What she could not have known is that Christ would come twice; that He would first have to make an atonement for human sin, and that then the gospel would go forth into the entire world calling men and women to repentance and faith.  Only after then would He return in the clouds in power and glory to take the throne and usher in an era of perfect peace.  In the meantime the kingdom exists in the hearts of true believers scattered throughout the world, largely invisible but real nonetheless.

The birth of Christ was the decisive turning point in history.  Up until then sin and darkness had ruled nearly everywhere.   The human race was sunk in superstition and vice.  But with the birth of Christ the light shone into the world, bringing spiritual life to untold multitudes with a hope for a better tomorrow.

And that is why we celebrate Christmas!

THE GAY WEDDING CAKE CASE

robert_walter_weir_-_embarkation_of_the_pilgrims_-_google_art_project

The Embarkation of the Pilgrims

 

This past Tuesday the U.S. Supreme Court heard oral arguments in the case of a Colorado baker who refused to bake a wedding cake for a gay couple.  The baker, Jack Phillips, was accused of violating Colorado’s public accommodations law and was sanctioned by the state’s Civil Rights Commission.

Phillips’ lawyer, Kristen Waggoner of the Alliance Defending Freedom, argued that the State of Colorado had violated her client’s First Amendment rights of free speech and freedom of religion.  Much of the discussion in court, then, centered on whether baking a cake is a form of speech, and whether other forms of artistic expression, such as photography and floral arranging would also qualify as speech.  The state contends that Phillips was engaged in discrimination, pure and simple.

We think that several important distinctions must be made.  First of all, discriminating on the basis of sexual orientation is not the same thing as discriminating on the basis of race.  Race is an inherited and immutable biological trait; homosexuality is a behavior pattern which involves conscious decisions and moral choice.  There is no solid evidence that it is hereditary or biologically determined.  By adding sexual orientation to its list of protected classes, the State of Colorado is treating a behavior pattern as though it were the same as  a biological characteristic, and is then penalizing anyone who objects to that behavior on moral grounds.

Secondly, Mr. Phillips can claim that he is not discriminating against homosexuals simply because they are homosexuals.  If they want to come into his shop to buy coffee and donuts he would be more than happy to serve them.  What he is refusing to do is to provide material support for a specific activity that he deems morally objectionable.

Moreover it is one thing to grant homosexuals the freedom to marry each other; it is another thing to force someone else to act against his own conscience to support the wedding.  The first is consistent with the principle of individual freedom; the second is not.

The state, of course, can and should regulate the behavior of individuals with each other. But it should be very careful about infringing on the deeply held religious beliefs of its citizens.  Religion deals with transcendent truths and provides the foundation for public morality.  To force its citizens to choose between God and the state is to invite civil disobedience on the one hand and to erode public morality on the other.

In the case at hand the legalization of same sex marriage represents a radical departure from 3,000 years of Judeo-Christian teaching on the subject of human sexuality.  And freedom of religion is one of the bedrock principles of American democracy.  Many of the immigrants to these shores came precisely to escape from religious persecution at home.  The colonies of Rhode Island and Pennsylvania were early experiments in religious freedom.  And freedom of religion was enshrined in the Free Exercise Clause of the First Amendment to our Constitution.

The Virginia Bill of Rights (1776) declared that “religion, or the duty which we owe to our Creator, and the manner of discharging it, can be directed only by reason and conviction, not by force or violence; and therefore all men are equally entitled to the free exercise of religion, according to the dictates of conscience . . .”  To which James Madison added, “The religion of every man must be left to the conviction and conscience of every man; and it is the right of every man to exercise it as these may dictate” (“A Memorial and Remonstrance,” 1785).

The implications of a ruling against the baker in this case are staggering.  By allowing the state to dictate morality to the church it would open the door to religious persecution.  But the implications are even more far reaching than even that.  The state, by placing itself above God, comes amoral and tyrannical, not bound by any higher moral authority.  The Twentieth Century witnessed the horrors of the godless state at work.  And ultimately society itself becomes lawless and unruly as it loses all moral restraint.

George Washington summed it up well in the Farewell Address of 1796:

“Of all the dispositions and habits that lead to political prosperity,

religion and morality are indispensable supports.  In vain would

that man claim the tribute of patriotism who would labor to subvert

these great pillars of human happiness – these firmest props of

the duty of man and citizens.  The mere politician, equally with

the pious man, ought to respect and to cherish them.  A volume

could not  trace all their connections with private and public felicity.”

A ruling in the Phillips case (Masterpiece Cakeshop Ltc. V. Colorado Civil Rights Commission) is not expected until June, 2018.  It remains to be seen what the court will do in this.  Justice Anthony Kennedy, who could very well cast the deciding vote, seemed skeptical of the state’s position, stating at one point that “Tolerance is essential in a free society.  And tolerance is most meaningful when it’s mutual.  It seems to me that the state in its position here has been neither tolerant nor respectful of Mr. Phillips’ religious beliefs.”  It remains to be seen how the court will rule on this.  But if the state can force a Christian to support the LGBT agenda it can force anyone to support any philosophy or ideology, and then we will have ceased to be a free nation.