Tribulation Saint

Historic Christianity in the Twenty First Century

PRAISE THE LORD

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Psalm 33

 

Theology was never meant to be a dry academic discipline.  We are called to have a relationship with the living God.  That requires that we can understand and appreciate certain things about Him; and those truths should have a profound effect on us personally.  Psalm 33 is a classic example of how the Bible approaches theology.

Significantly the psalm begins with a call to worship:

“Rejoice in the Lord, O you righteous!

For praise from the upright is beautiful.”

(Psalm 33:1; NKJV)

What is called for here is not an emotionally detached assent to a set of theological propositions.  Rather, we are called to “rejoice,” and the Hebrew word used here suggests a shout for joy, an emotional expression of something that we genuinely feel in our hearts.   And in verses 2 and 3 the psalm goes on to emphasize the role that music plays in worship.  It specifically mentions the use of musical instruments: the harp and “instrument of ten strings” (a specific kind of harp).  Verse 3 says that we are to “Play skillfully with a shout of joy.”  The picture here is not of a dull, somber, lifeless formality, but rather of an outburst of exuberant joy.  And this, we are told, is “beautiful” (v. 1).  The goodness and greatness of God calls for an expression of real joy.

The psalm then goes on to explain why this is so.  It begins with a general statement about the attributes of God:

“For the word of the Lord is right,

And all His work is done in truth.

He loves righteousness and justice;

The earth is full of the goodness of the Lord.”

(vv. 4,5)

The word of the Lord, what He says and commands, is “right” – it is honest and true, and completely dependable.  And God’s works are done “in truth” or “faithfulness” as it might be translated (cf. NASV, ESV).  God’s character is steadfast and reliable, and His actions are consistent.  Unlike human beings, who can be inconsistent and even dishonest, and therefore unreliable, God is completely trustworthy.

Moreover the psalm says that God “loves righteousness and justice” (v. 5).  That suggests both that God is righteous and just himself, and that He wants to see righteousness and justice in us.  This is important, because it establishes a basis for morality without which human society cannot function.  As human beings we are accountable to a Supreme Being and are obligated to conform to a higher law.  Otherwise might makes right and the law of the jungle prevails.

And then the psalm goes on to say that “the earth is full of the goodness of the Lord” (v. 5).  The word “goodness” could be translated “lovingkindness” (NASV).  It is the willingness of God to show kindness towards the weak and lowly, and especially to those in need.  And the earth, the psalm says, is full of His lovingkindness, as the psalmist will go on to demonstrate.

The psalmist then turns his attention to God’s works, beginning with God’s work of creation.  “By the word of the Lord the heavens were made . . .” (v. 6); and “He gathers the waters of the sea together as a heap . . .” (v. 7).  What strikes the psalmist here is the vast expanse of the heavens and the mighty rolling ocean.  As impressive as there things are in themselves, how much greater must be the One who created them!  And the heavens in particular were made by God’s mere spoken word.  What amazing power God must have if He can create something out of nothing, and accomplish that merely by speaking the word!  “Let all the earth fear the Lord; / Let all the inhabitants of the world stand in awe of Him” (vv. 8,9).

If, therefore, God is the creator of all things it follows that He can control what He created, and this would include the actions of men.  Because God is ultimately in control, His will is the final factor.  People, rules and entire nations may think and plan, but “The Lord brings the counsel of the nations to nothing; / He makes the plans of the peoples of no effect” (v. 10).  The Lord’s counsel, by way of contrast, “stands forever” (v. 11).  As a result His will is determinative.

The psalmist then goes on to point out that God can see everything that goes on here on earth.  “The Lord looks from heaven; / He sees all the sons of men” (v. 13).  “He fashions their hearts individually; / He considers all their works” (v. 15).  The ultimate reality is not an impersonal natural force or an abstract idea; it is a living conscious Supreme Being.  And while He is infinitely greater than we can imagine, that does not mean that He is so far removed from us that He is not aware of what we are doing.  On the contrary, he knows everything that we do, and that should make us think twice before we act.

This, then, leads the psalmist to the practical implications of what he has said so far.  The first is the realization that ultimately it is not our physical or social circumstances that control our destiny: “No king is saved by the multitude of an army . . . A horse is a vain hope for safety” (vv. 16,17).  Instead the promise is this:

“Behold, the eye of the Lord is on those who fear Him,

On those who hope in His mercy,

To deliver their soul from death,

And to keep them alive in famine.”

(vv. 18,19)

The promise is to those “who fear Him” and to those “who hope in His mercy.”  Here we have the basic elements of true religion.  To “fear” Him is not to live in constant terror of Him.  Rather it is to have a deep reverence and respect for Him, and a desire to please Him in all our ways.  To “hope in His mercy” (or “goodness” or “lovingkindness” as it might better be translated – it is the same word that was used in verse 5) means to wait patiently for God to act in His kindness to deliver us.

And so the psalm concludes with a ringing affirmation of trust in God.

“Our soul waits for the Lord

He is our help and our shield.

For our heart shall rejoice in Him,

Because we have trusted in His holy name.”

(vv.20,21)

We patiently wait for the Lord; we look to Him for protection (“He is our help and our shield”).  We trust in Him, and as a result our hearts are filled with joy.  And then there is the concluding prayer:

“Let Your mercy, O Lord, be upon us,

Just as we hope in You.”

(v. 22)

Christianity, then, is not an abstract idea or a mere religious formality.  It is a deep appreciation for who God is and what He has done for us.  And this, in turn, should elicit from us a heartfelt gratitude.  Praise the Lord!

 

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THE BELIEVER’S RULE OF CONDUCT – III

 

 

As we have seen then what God requires of us is that we love Him with whole heart, soul and mind, and our neighbors as ourselves.  How, then, does a Christian determine whether a given action is right or wrong?  First of all through the imitation of Christ.  We should imitate Him and His example of self-sacrificing love.  “Let this mind be in you which was also in Christ Jesus . . .” (Phil. 2:5; NKJV, cf. Eph. 4:32-5:1; Col. 3:13).  What would Jesus do in a given situation?  How would He react to the other person?

Secondly, we should follow the leading of the Holy Spirit.  “If we live in the Spirit, let us also walk in the Spirit” (Gal. 5:25).  There will not be a written instruction to cover every possible situation.  But a genuine concern for the other person, arising from a proper attitude of heart produced by the Holy Spirit, will lead us to do the right thing.  Our lives should manifest the fruit of the Spirit.

Everything, of course, should be consistent with the teachings of the New Testament.  “As you therefore have received Christ Jesus the Lord, so walk in Him, rooted and built up in Him, abounding in it with thanksgiving” (Col. 2:6,7).  “Finally then, brethren, we urge and exhort in the Lord Jesus that you should abound more and more, just as you received from us how you ought to walk and please God: for you know what commandments we gave you through the Lord Jesus” (I Thess. 4:1,2)/  Jesus and the apostles have given us general instructions on how to live a life that is pleasing to God.  These instructions are contained in the New Testament and ought always to be observed.

What all of this requires is that we “test” or “prove” what the will of God is.  The apostle Paul tells us to “be transformed by the renewing of your mind, that you may prove what is that good and acceptable and perfect will of God” (Rom. 12:2), or as it might more literally be translated, “that you might test and prove what the will of God is, the good and the well-pleasing, and the complete or perfect.”  The implication is that in each situation that we encounter we should ask, “Is it good? – does it have a beneficial effect?”  “Is it well-pleasing to God – in accordance with His moral attributes?”  “Is it complete or perfect? – Does it fully meet the need?”  We should apply the general principles of God’s Word to a given situation to see what course of action would be acceptable to Him (cf. Eph. 5:10; Phil. 1:9-11; I Thess. 5:21,22).

An example will illustrate the difference between being under the law and being under grace.  Consider the biblical teaching on marriage.  The 7th Commandment states “You shall not commit adultery,” and the Old Testament then goes on to condemn various sexual practices: incest, homosexual behavior (Lev. 18:22; 20:13), bestiality and prostitution.  It gives various regulations on how to handle cases of sex outside of marriage, female captives taken in war, polygamy and spouses who die without offspring.  And there is a provision on how to handle divorce (Dt. 24:1-4).  Marriage is looked at as a civil institution enforceable by law.  But the Torah (Pentateuch) is largely silent on how spouses are to treat each other.  (There are passages in Psalms, Proverbs and the Song of Solomon that talk about the pleasures and pains of marriage.)

But when we turn to the New Testament a somewhat different picture emerges.  Jesus begins by quoting the 7th Commandment, but then goes on to say, “But I say to you that whoever looks on a woman to lust for her has already committed adultery with her in his heart” (Matt. 5:28).  Here the focus shifts from the outward act to the inward thought, and it is the thought that makes one guilty in the sight of God.

But just as revealing is Jesus’ teaching concerning divorce.  He began by going to the creation account in Genesis 1 and 2 (“and the two shall become one flesh” – Matt. 19:5) and then said, “Therefore what God has joined together, let not man separate” (v. 6).  He then went on to say that “Moses, because of the hardness of your hearts, permitted you to divorce your wives, but from the beginning it was not so” (v. 8).  The implication is that Moses had made certain concessions to human weakness, and the Mosaic legislation did not perfectly reflect what God actually requires of us as human beings.

And when we turn to the epistles we get an even fuller picture of what God actually requires of us.  “Husbands, love your wives, just as Christ also loved the church and gave Himself for her” (Eph. 5:25).  And “just as the church is subject to Christ, so let the wives be to their own husbands in everything” (v. 24).  It is not enough merely to avoid an act of open adultery.  Husbands are to love their wives.  And how?  “. . . just as Christ love the church.”  What is required is more than just bare compliance with the letter of the law.  What is required is genuine and active concern for others, a self-sacrificing love; and Christ is our supreme example of that. (Interestingly the Westminster Larger Catechism, in its treatment of the 7th Commandment, does not mention husbands loving their wives, other than “conjugal love” and “cohabitation” ).

The New Testament, then, gives us a fuller revelation of the will of God than does the Old, and the Old Testament should be interpreted in the light of the New.  And sanctification is not so much a matter of following a detailed list of rules and regulations as it is manifesting the fruit of the Spirit in our lives.

The goal, then, is not just an external conformity to the letter of the law.  What God requires of us as human beings is love; but love cannot be reduced to a set of written rules and regulations.  Love avoids harming others, and thus fulfills the law.  But it goes beyond the law to seek the positive good of others.  And true Christian love springs from an active principle produced within the heart by the Holy Spirit.  Let us make it our aim. Then, in life, to be conformed to the image of Christ (Rom. 8:29; II Cor. 3:18; Col. 3:10).  May Jesus Christ be praised!

THE BELIEVER’S RULE OF CONDUCT – II

 

As we saw in our last blog post when the Apostle Paul said that we are not under law but under grace he was not saying that there is no moral law, but that the only way to fulfill that law is not by keeping the letter of the old covenant but by following the guidance of the Holy Spirit.  Basically there are two major issues here.  The first has to do with the content of the moral law – how do we know what God really requires of us?  The Torah (The Five Books of Moses or the Pentateuch) generally does not make a distinction between the “moral,” the “civil,” and the “ceremonial” law.  It was initially given to meet an immediate need for a set of laws to govern the Israelite community, and Israel was bound to obey all of it.  The majority of the laws are phrased negatively and have penalties attached.  Instructions are given on how judges are to decide cases.

And underlying moral code is implied, however.  Part of it is rooted in the character of God himself – His own moral attributes.  “But You, O Lord, are a God full of compassion, and gracious, / Longsuffering and abundant in mercy and truth” (Ps. 86:15, echoing the words of Ex. 34:6).  This, in turn, means that there are certain things God hates: “There are six things the Lord hates, / Yes, seven are an abomination to Him: / A proud look; / A lying tongue, / Hands that shed innocent blood . . .” etc. (Prov. 6:16-19.  God judged the entire world at the time of the Flood because He “saw that the wickedness of man was great in the earth, and that every intent of the thoughts of his heart was only evil continually” (Gen. 6:5).  He destroyed Sodom and Gomorrah “because their sin was very grave” (Gen. 18:20).  Likewise the Canaanites were to be destroyed “for they commit all these things and therefore I abhor them” (Lev. 20:23).  Therefore David could say, “Lord, who may abide in Your tabernacle? / Who may dwell in Your holy hill? / He who walks uprightly, / And works righteousness, / And speaks the truth in his heart . . .” (Ps. 15).

Jesus himself made it clear that the moral law is not done away.  “Do not think that I came to destroy the Law or the Prophets.  I did not come to destroy but to fulfill.  For assuredly, I say to you, till heaven and earth pass away, one jot or tittle will by no means pass from the law till all is fulfilled” (Matt. 5:17,18).

On the other hand it is probably not true that “The moral law is summarily comprehended in the ten commandments.”  Strictly speaking, the Ten Commandments (literally, the “Ten Words” or “Sayings”) were “the words of the covenant” (Ex. 34:27,28; Dt. 4:13), a summary of the terms and conditions of God’s covenant with Israel.  While they obviously reflect basic moral principles, it would be a mistake to say that they “continue to be a perfect rule of righteousness.”

But how, then, do we know what the true moral law requires?  To know that we must turn to the teachings of Christ and the apostles in the New Testament.  We must interpret the Old Testament in the light of the New.

And according to the New Testament what is really required from us as human beings and as Christians is that we love the Lord with all of our heart and soul and mind, and lover our neighbors as ourselves, as Jesus said (Matt. 22:34-40, quoting Dt. 6:5 and Lev. 19:18).  Or to put it another way, the essence of the moral law can be summed up in the Golden Rule: “Therefore, whatever you want men to do to you, do also to them, for this is the Law and the Prophets” (Matt. 7:12).  Significantly Jesus said that “this is the Law and the Prophets.”  The mandate to love was always there – it was just buried under a mass of civil and ceremonial regulations.

Love does not do away with the law; it goes beyond it.  If you love someone, if you genuinely care about him, you will not harm him.  In this sense love fulfills the law (Rom. 13:8-10; Gal. 5:13-15).  But at the same time what love requires cannot be reduced to a set of rules and regulations – “thou shalt not do this” or “thou shalt not do that.”  Strictly speaking the purpose of the written law is to show us what we have done wrong (I Tim. 1:8-10).  But genuine love actively seeks the wellbeing of the other person and is not content merely to meet the minimum requirement of the law.  And meeting the needs of others cannot be prescribed in detail by a written law code.  Love actively looks for opportunities to help and to serve.  It does not have to be told to do so.

Which brings us to the second consideration, which is the motive of obedience.  Why do we do what we do?  Is it a matter of pride?  Or fear of punishment?  Do we simply go the life doing the bare minimum that is required of us in order to please someone else?

A genuinely righteous person does what is right because he wants to do what is right.  He genuinely cares about others and actively seeks their good.  The question is not, what do I have to do?  Rather the question is, what can I do to further God’s glory and help others?  The Holy Spirit produces His fruit in the heart of the believer, giving him the proper desires and motives.  As a result the believer does not have to be told what to do under threat of punishment; he does it instinctively and spontaneously.

C.I. Scofield, who was originally trained as a lawyer, used an interesting example to illustrate the point.  “The law of the commonwealth requires parents to care for their offspring, and pronounces penalties for the willful neglect of them; but the land is full of happy mothers who tenderly care for their children in perfect ignorance of the existence of such a statute.   The law is in their hearts. (“Rightly Dividing the Word of Truth,” p. 41).

THE BELIEVER’S RULE OF CONDUCT – I

 

How do we determine right and wrong?  In a rapidly changing society, a society which has legalized abortion and same-sex marriage, the question becomes more pressing than ever.  And even among professing Christians questions arise over various particular ethical norms – is it ever right to take a drink, or to go dancing?  What exactly does God expect from us?

For many years the answer was that “the moral law is summarily comprehended in the ten commandments” (Westminster Shorter Catechism, Question 41).  The Catechism then goes on to give an exposition of each commandment, stating that something is required in each and something forbidden.  Together they constituted “a perfect rule of righteousness” (Westminster Confession of Faith, XIX,ii), and “doth for ever bind all, as well justified persons as others” (Section v).

More recently that view has been challenged by some, primarily Dispensationalist theologians.  A footnote in the Scofield Reference Bible on “The Christian doctrine of the law” states that “Law is in contrast with grace,” that Christ “redeemed the believer both from the curse and from the dominion of the law,” that “law neither justifies a sinner nor sanctifies a believer,” “The believer is both dead to the law and redeemed from it, so that he is ‘not under the law, but under grace,’” and that “Under the new covenant of grace the principle of obedience to the divine will is inwrought” (pp. 1244-1245).  There are scriptural references for each assertion but little in the way of explanation, and it is not exactly clear what the editors of the Scofield Bible meant by “redeemed from the dominion of the law,” “dead to the law,” and “not under the law.”

What underlies both positions are distinctive systems of theology.  The Westminster Divines held to a system of Covenant Theology, which argues that God made a Covenant of Grace with Adam after the Fall, and that we are still under that same Covenant of Grace today.  The result is a tendency to minimize the difference between the Old and New Testaments, between law and grace.  There is no mention in Scripture, however, of any such covenant with Adam.

The Dispensational position, on the other hand, tries to draw a sharp distinction between “the Dispensation of Law” and “the Dispensation of Grace.”  But is a Christian still obligated to keep the Ten Commandments?  Now that we are “under grace” is it alright to commit adultery?  The editors of the Scofield Bible say that we are not “under the law,” but that we are not free to sin either.  But apart from the law how do we determine what is sin?  Is there not some sense in which we are still “under the law”?

The apostle Paul did, in fact, say that we are “not under the law but under grace” (Rom. 6:14,15; cf. Gal. 5:18).  But what exactly did he mean by that?  The context in both Romans and Galatians is the controversy surrounding Paul’s ministry to the Gentiles, and his conviction that Gentile converts are not required to be circumcised or to keep the Mosaic law.  What undoubtedly lies in the background here is the Pharisees’ conception of the Mosaic law as a collection of 613 individual commandments, and that sanctification involved stringent rule keeping.  This, however, misses the point of what God really requires, which is that we “do justly, love mercy, and walk humbly with our God” (Mic. 6:8; NKJV).

When Paul draws a contrast between “law” and “grace” he does not intend to say that the believer is free to sin.  Far from it.  “What then?  Shall we sin because we are not under law but under grace?  Certainly not!” (Rom. 6:14).  But what does he mean?  He goes on in the next chapter to say that “You also have become dead to the law through the body of Christ, that you may be married to another – to Him who was raised from the dead, that we should bear fruit to God (Rom. 7:4).  He then says that “we have been delivered from the law, having died to what we were held by, so that we could serve in newness of the Spirit and not in the oldness of the letter” (7:6).

What Paul is saying here is that the written law, per se, is powerless to change us or make us holy.  Only Christ working through the Holy Spirit can do that.  Hence the contrast between “the newness of the Spirit” and “the oldness of the letter.”  He then goes on in chapter 8 to say “what the law could not do in that it was weak through the flesh, God did by sending His own Son . . . that the righteous requirement of the law might be fulfilled in us who do not walk according to the flesh but according to the Spirit” (Rom. 8:4,5).  The “righteous requirement of the law” must still be fulfilled.  But what does it mean to “walk according to the Spirit”?  It means to “live according to the Spirit” and to “set their minds on the things of the Spirit” and “to be spiritually minded” (vv. 5,6).  Paul, then, is not saying that there is no moral law, but that the only way to fulfill the law is not by keeping the letter of the old covenant but by following the guidance of the Holy Spirit as He produces His fruit in us.

THE WISDOM OF GOD

4.2.7

Albert Bierstadt: Yosemite Valley

 

With the widespread acceptance of the Theory of Evolution it is commonly believed that we came into existence through a blind, impersonal natural process.  And this, in turn, suggests that human existence is largely without meaning and purpose and calls into question the existence of moral norms and absolutes.  The French Existentialist philosopher Jean Paul Sartre said that “Everything is indeed permitted if God does not exist, and man is in consequence forlorn, for he cannot find anything to depend upon either within or without himself” (“Existentialism is a Humanism,” 1946).

But do we live in a random, purposeless universe?  We certainly see chaos and disorder, but we also see elements of rational structure as well.  The biblical answer is that God does, in fact, exist; that we live in a rationally ordered universe created by an intelligent Supreme Being, albeit a universe that has fallen into disorder since its creation.

“The Lord by wisdom founded the earth;

By understanding He established the heavens;

By His knowledge the depths were broken up,

And clouds drop down the dew.”

(Prov. 3:19,20; NKJV).

Wisdom is the ability to produce a positive outcome from one’s efforts.

“Through wisdom a house is built,

And by understanding it is established;

By knowledge the rooms are filled

With all precious and pleasant riches.”

(Prov. 24:3,4)

And so it is that when we look at nature we can see evidence of God’s wisdom on every hand.

“He has mad the earth by His power,

He has established the world by His wisdom,

And has stretched out the heavens at His discretion.

When He utters His voice,

There is a multitude of waters in the heavens:

And He causes the vapors to ascend from the

ends of the earth.

He makes lightning for the rain,

He brings the wind out of His treasuries.”

(Jer. 10:12,13).

The plain fact of the matter is that if there was no rational order to the universe, if it did not function according to consistent patterns, to natural laws, there would be nothing for science to study.  One cannot make rational sense out of pure chaos.  And the more we learn of nature the more complex it appears.  Everything from subatomic particles to the distant galaxies speaks of both order and complexity.  But what is the source of that order?  Order does not spontaneously arise out of chaos.   There has to be an intelligent Creator behind it all.

“The heavens declare the glory of God;

And the firmament shows His handiwork.

Day unto day utters speech,

And night unto night reveals knowledge.”

(Psalm19:1,2)

But according to Scripture not only does God control the forces of nature, He controls the course of human events as well.  Hannah could say:

“The Lord makes poor and makes rich;

He brings low and lifts up.

He raises the poor from the dust

And lifts the beggar from the ash heap,

To set them among princes

And make them inherit the throne of glory.”

(I Sam. 2:7,8)

But when we look at all of the chaos and turmoil in today’s world, one might ask, where is the wisdom of God in that?  This was the very question faced by Job in the Old Testament.  Even though he was described as “a blameless and upright man, one who fears God and shuns evil” (Job 1:8), a series of seemingly inexplicable disasters befell him.  Job was led to question the wisdom and justice of God.  But in the end God challenged Job, saying, “Shall the one who contends with the Almighty correct Him? / He who rebukes God, let him answer it” (Job 40:2); and Job was finally led to respond, “I know that You can do everything, / And that no purpose of Yours can be withheld from You . . .Therefore I have uttered what I did not understand, / Things too wonderful for me, which I did not know” (Job 42:2,3).

The fact of the matter is that what God created was originally good (Gen. 1:31).  It became corrupted through man’s sin and rebellion.  But amazingly God, in His wisdom, can even turn evil into good, and use it to accomplish His own higher purposes.  Joseph’s brothers had done much harm to him; but in the end he could say to them, “You meant evil against me; but God meant it for good, in order to bring it about as it is this day, to save many people alive” (Gen. 50:20).

And so it is that God has a larger purpose in human sin and suffering, and that is the plan of redemption.  In Romans chapters 9-11Paul asks the question of why it is that the Jews, God’s chosen people, were rejecting the gospel; and he answers by saying that it is all a part of God’s eternal plan, and that although they may reject Christ now they will, as a nation, respond to the gospel at some point in the future.  “For God committed them all to disobedience, that He might have mercy on all” (Rom. 11:32).  The 19th Century Scottish commentator John Brown of Edinburgh put it like this:

“And thus God, by successively allowing the depravity of

human nature to develop itself in the idolatries of the

Gentiles and the apostasy of the Jews, will make it evident,

when He brings both these component parts of mankind

into the enjoyment of saving blessings, that He acts

towards them on the principles of sovereign kindness.”

(comm. ad Rom. 11:29).

In salvation God is able to demonstrate both His justice and grace at the same time.  Paul concludes his argument by exclaiming, “Oh, the depth of the riches both of the wisdom and knowledge of God!  How unsearchable are His judgments and His ways past finding out!” (Rom. 11:33).

What all of this means in practical terms is that we should stand in wonder, awe and admiration of such a great God.  “For of Him and through Him and to Him are all things, to whom be glory forever. Amen.” (Rom. 11:36).  Human wisdom, with all mankind’s science and technology, its business acumen and legal expertise, cannot compare with the infinite wisdom of God in creation and redemption.  This should lead us to worship and adore such an awesome God.

But the fact of God’s wisdom should also lead us to trust in Him.  His ways are always best, because He is wiser than we are.

“Trust in the Lord will all you heart,

And lean not on your own understanding;

In all you ways acknowledge Him,

And He shall direct your paths.

 

“Do not be wise in your own eyes:

Fear the Lord and depart form evil.

It will be health to your flesh,

And strength to your bones.”

(Prov. 3:5-8).

THE HOLINESS OF GOD

 

The Old Testament prophet Isaiah tells about a vision he had when God commissioned him to be a prophet.  “In the year king Uzziah died, I say the Lord sitting on a throne, high and lifted up, and the train of his robe filled the temple.  Above it stood seraphim; each one had six wings: with two he covered his face, with two he covered his feet, and with two he flew.  And one cried to another and said:

‘Holy, holy, holy is the Lord of hosts;

The whole earth is full of His glory!’

And the posts of the door were shaken by the voice of him who cried out, and the house was filled with smoke” (Isa. 6:1-4; NKJV).

King Uzziah was a king of the southern kingdom of Judah, and he died in 742 B.C.  Seraphim (the plural of “seraph”) were angelic beings in heaven.  But what did they mean when they cried out, “Holy, holy, holy”?

The basic idea of holiness connotes being set apart from what is commonplace and ordinary.  God is not like other things in our experience, and therefore He should not be treated like other things.  Rather He is due our utmost reverence and respect.

In what way is God different from everything else?  First of all, He is exalted high above all of creation.  Isaiah saw Him “sitting on a throne, high and lifted up.”  Psalm 99 speaks of the Lord as “great in Zion, / And He is high above all peoples” (Ps. 99:2).  As much as God loves us, and wants us to love Him, the fact remains that He is the Creator and we are His creatures, and between us there is a vast difference which should never be forgotten or overlooked.  We must always approach Him with the reverence and awe that is due someone who is infinitely greater than ourselves.

But what really separates God from ourselves is our sin.  When Isaiah saw his vision of God in all of His glorious majesty, his immediate reaction was,

“Woe is me, for I am undone!

Because I am a man of unclean lips,

And I dwell in the midst of a people of unclean lips;

For my eyes have seen the King,

The Lord of hosts.”

(Isa. 6:5)

To behold the absolute moral purity of God is to be struck by our own depravity and moral pollution.  We are like Adam and Ever, who after they had sinned, “hid themselves from the presence of the Lord God” (Gen. 3:8).  Sin and righteousness are absolutely contradictory and incompatible; to love what is good is to hate what is evil.  And so it is that God cannot come into direct contact with a depraved and morally polluted human race.

This meant that when God chose Israel to be His chosen people special precautions had to be taken.  When God met Israel at Mt. Sinai, the people had to ceremonially cleanse themselves, and God instructed Moses to tell the people, “Take heed to yourselves that you do not go up to the mountain or touch its base.  Whoever touches the mountain shall surely be put to death” (Ex. 19:12).  Later, a tabernacle was assembled, a large tent that served as a kind of mobile temple that signified the presence of God among His chosen people.  But special rules applied here as well.  The Ark of the Covenant, a special chest that contained the tablets on which the Ten Commandments were written, was kept in a special part of the tabernacle called “the Holy of holies.”  Only the high priest was allowed to enter there, and even he could only do so once a year, on Yom Kippur, the Day of Atonement.  Even here precautions had to be taken.  Among other things the high priest had a special robe that had little bells sewn on its hem, “and its sound will be heard when he goes into the holy place before the Lord and when he comes out, that he may not die” (Ex. 28:33-35).

The sanctity of God’s being and presence, His separateness from sin and pollution, was underscored by several historic incidents.  On one occasion the Ark of the Covenant had been captured by the neighboring Philistines, who returned it after a series of disasters befell them.  The ark wound up at the Israelite city of Beth Shemesh.  There, unfortunately, some of the men looked inside the ark.  As a consequence a number of men in the city were struck dead (I Sam. 6:19,20)  On a later occasion, when an attempt was made to move the ark from one location to another, one of the drivers  of the cart it was on touched the ark to stabilize it, and was also struck dead (I Chron. 13:9-12).  Such were the terrifying consequences of treating God’s person and presence carelessly!

So what are the practical implications of God’s holiness?  First of all, it should inspire a profound sense of awe and reverence on our part.  “The Lord of hosts, Him you shall hallow; / Let Him be your fear, / And let Him be your dread” (Isa. 8:13).  Because of Christ’s atoning death on the cross, we may now “come boldly to the throne of grace” (Heb. 4:10), and yet God still remains God and we are still mortal human beings.  Let us bow in reverence and worship His holy name!

But secondly, the holiness of God requires that we also should be holy in the way we live our lives.  If we profess to know Him and love Him we should hate sin the same way He does.  “Pursue peace with all people, and holiness, without which no one will see the Lord” (Heb. 12:14).  As Christians God had given us a new nature, but we must still live in a fallen and sinful world.  In order to please God, then, we must be “sanctified,” “set apart from the sin and corruption of the surrounding society.  We are to be lights shining in the darkness.  We must live by God’s standards, not the world’s.

GOD’S GOODNESS

 

 

We have seen, then, that God is the all-powerful Creator and sovereign Lord of the universe.  But what kind of king is He – good or bad?  Is He a benevolent ruler, or a cruel tyrant?  What is it like to have a relationship with Him personally?  Is it even possible to have a relationship with Him?  In short, what is His character like?

Moses, in the Old Testament, found out in a particularly dramatic episode recorded in Exodus chapters 33 and 34.  Moses had led the children of Israel out of Egypt, and they had arrived at Mt. Sinai where Moses received the Ten Commandments.  But no sooner had Moses received the Commandments then the Israelites turned to idolatry and thereby provoked God to anger, threatening to destroy the venture before it had hardly begun.  Moses interceded and God relented.  But this raised the question about what to do going forward.  God said that He would send His “angel” to guide and direct them, but that God himself would no longer be present with them.

Moses, then, was faced with the crushing burden of leading the nation almost by himself.  Moses once again interceded and pled for God’s presence.  And then Moses made this extraordinary request: “Please, show me Your glory” (Ex. 33:18; NKJV).  God granted the request, and arranged to reveal Himself to Moses on top of the mountain.  On the appointed day Moses stood on the mountain, the Lord descended, “And the Lord passed before him and proclaimed, ‘The Lord, the Lord God, merciful and gracious, longsuffering, and abounding in goodness and truth, keeping mercy for thousands, forgiving iniquity and transgression and sin, by no means clearing the guilty, visiting the iniquity of the fathers upon the children and the children’s children to the third and fourth generation’” (Ex. 34:6,7).  It was a definitive revelation of God’s own character.

So what is God like?  The word translated “merciful” (Heb. rachum – “compassionate” – NASV) basically involves a sense of tender compassion, especially towards those in weakness or distress.  The classic description is found in Psalm 103:13:

“As a father pities his children,

So the Lord pities those who fear Him.”

(The word translated “pities” comes from the same Hebrew root as rachum).

It is the very helplessness of the child that motivates the father to help him.  He does so because he has a natural sympathy and compassion for his own offspring.  So too, when God sees His spiritual offspring in need He is moved with compassion.

Then the passage says that God is “gracious,” which stems from the idea of showing favor to someone with an open-handed generosity.  If anyone suffers need and cries out to God, God says, “I will hear, for I am gracious” (Ex. 22:27), and “The Lord will give grace and glory; / No good thing will He withhold / From those who walk uprightly” (Ps. 84:11).

The text goes on to say that God is “longsuffering,” or “slow to anger,” as it might also be translated (NASV, ESV, NIV).  The text does not say that God is never angry, but that He is “slow to anger.”

“The Lord is merciful and gracious,

Slow to anger and abounding in mercy.

He will not always strive with us,

Nor will He keep His anger forever.

He has not dealt with us according to our sins,

Nor punished us according to our iniquities.”

(Ps. 103:8-10)

While God may be justly angry with us, He does not give us the full punishment that we deserve.

Then the text says that God is “abounding in goodness and truth.”  The word translated “goodness” (Heb. chesed) is often translated “mercy” or “lovingkindness.”  It points to a disposition on God’s part to respond to the needs of His creatures.  It would include the care that He exercises over His creation in designing things in such a way that they function together harmoniously – “The earth is full of the goodness of the Lord” (Ps. 33:5b).  It is also seen in His willingness to rescue those in distress:

“Nevertheless He regarded their affliction,

When He heard their cry;

And for their sake He remembered His covenant,

And relented according to the multitude of His mercies.”

(Ps. 106:45).

And then the text says that God is full of “truth,” or “faithfulness” as the word might also be translated.  The word implies consistency or reliability.

“The works of His hands are verity and justice;

All His mercies are sure.

They stand forever and ever,

And are done in truth and uprightness.”

(Ps. 111:7,8).

Interestingly these last two terms are often combined together to form a single phrase, as they are in our text: “and abounding in goodness and truth” (Ex. 34:6), or as it might be translated, “and abounding in steadfast love and faithfulness” (ESV).  And yet the two terms are not exactly synonymous, but rather complement each other, as in Psalm 85:10:

“Mercy and truth have met together;

Righteousness and peace have kissed.”

“Mercy” or “lovingkindness” is a kind regard for the individual.  “Truth” or “faithfulness” is a devotion to principle – God always does what is right and what He promised to do.

In the New Testament these ideas are combined to form the concept of “love,” and the Geek word agape is often used for this distinctively Christian type of love.  “God is love” we are told in Scripture (I John 4:16).  “In this the love of God was manifested toward us, that God sent His only begotten Son into the world, that we might live through Him.  In this is love, not that we loved God, but that He loved us and sent His Son to be the propitiation for our sins” (I John 4:9,10).  The love of God is self-sacrificing and directed toward the undeserving.

The practical implications of this are far-reaching.  We do not live in an impersonal, amoral universe ruled by the law of the jungle.  We are creatures of an all-wise and benevolent God and are accountable to Him for the way we live our lives.  And He, in turn, is “merciful and gracious, longsuffering, and abounding in goodness and truth.”  That means that in the hour of trial we can look to Him for help.

“I will cry to God Most High,

To God who performs all things for me.

He shall send from heaven and save me;

He reproaches the one who would swallow me up.   Selah.

God shall send forth His mercy and His truth.”

(Ps. 57:2,3)

We still live in a sin-cursed world, filled with pain and sorrow.  Yet God can bring us safely through.

But if God is love, if mercy and compassion are a part of His essential character, then it follows that this is what He expects from us as well.

“He has shown you, O man, what is good;

And what does the Lord require of you

But to do justly,

To love mercy,

And to walk humbly with your God?”

(Micah 6:8)

Do we “love mercy”?  Our natural tendency as fallen human beings is to be self-centered and to take advantage of each other.  But God wants us to be genuinely concerned about others – our family members, our neighbors, our fellow-workers, and the customers with whom we come in contact.  That means that we will never want to insult them, or offend them, much less lie to them or cheat them.  Rather we should be generous and kind toward all, always ready to help them in times of need.  Because that is the way God is Himself, and that is what He expects of us.

 

THE LEGACY OF MARX

Karl Marx (1818-1883), philosopher and German poli

Karl Marx

 

 

This past Saturday, May 5, saw the bicentennial of the birth of Karl Marx, arguably the most influential philosopher in modern history.  What made him so influential was that he was not your typical armchair philosopher – delivering dry lectures in some ivory tower somewhere.  Instead he laid out a political agenda that ultimately affected the lives of millions of people worldwide.

Marx and his colleague Friedrich Engels laid out their agenda in the Communist Manifesto, published in London on the eve of the revolution of 1848.  In it they described in vivid detail the rapacious effects of free-market capitalism as it developed during the Industrial Revolution, leaving a large segment of the population socially uprooted and economically impoverished, at the mercy of wealthy industrialists.  (In describing the conditions of the working class they could easily have been describing how many of the supporters of Donald Trump feel today.)  What Marx and Engels claimed was happening was a class struggle that would eventually result in the overthrow of the bourgeoisie, the triumph of the proletariat and the abolition of private property.

Some of the things advocated by Marx and Engels in the Manifesto have become widely accepted today in modern, industrialized countries: a progressive income tax, central banks, and public education.  But other things are more troubling: the abolition of property in land and the establishment of “industrial armies, especially in agriculture.”  At one point they called for the abolition of “the bourgeois family.”  And all of this, according to them, will come about by means of violent revolution.  Between the classes, they say, is a “veiled civil war” until “that war breaks out into open revolution, and where the violent overthrow of the bourgeoisie lays the foundation for the sway of the proletariat.”  The Manifesto concludes with a ringing call to arms: “The Communists disdain to conceal their views and aims.  They openly declare that their ends can be attained only by the forcible overthrow of all existing social conditions.  Let the ruling classes tremble at a Communistic revolution.  The proletarians have nothing to lose but their chains.  They have a world to win.”

What is remarkable about the Manifesto is the absence of any call for social justice, let alone an appeal to morality.  Rather what underlies the authors’ call for revolution is a sense of economic determinism.  Revolution is inevitable because history is a perpetual class struggle.  “What the bourgeoisie therefore, produces, above all, is its own grave-diggers.  Its fall and the victory of the proletariat are equally inevitable.”

This, in turn, leads to a cultural relativism.  The only reason we hold to certain beliefs is because we are economically conditioned to do so.  To their “bourgeois” critics Marx and Engels say “Your very ideas are but the outgrowth of the conditions of your bourgeois production and bourgeois property, just as your jurisprudence is but the will of your class made into law for all, a will, whose essential character and direction are determined by the economical conditions of your class.”  “The selfish misconception that induces you to transform into eternal laws of nature and of reason, the social forms springing from your present mode of production and form of property . . . this misconception you share with every ruling class that has preceded you.”  Thus, for the proletarian, “Law, morality, religion, are to him so many bourgeois prejudices, behind which lurk in ambush just as many bourgeois interests.”

Marx and Engels may have thought that they had found the cure for every human ill, but in their case the medicine was worse than the disease.  The violent overthrow of governments and forced collectivization of property did not yield the promised blessings.  Instead we had dysfunctional economies which led to chronic shortages and, on occasion, mass starvation.  Some modern apologists for Marx have tried to exonerate him by arguing that the Communist dictators of the 20th Century had misinterpreted his writings.  But to read the Communist Manifesto it becomes evident that Lenin and Stalin, Chairman Mao and Pol Pot, were simply following the agenda that had been laid out for them by Marx himself.  And Marx’s sad legacy still lives on.  Practically no one believes in dialectical materialism, but Marx’s attack on “bourgeois morality” still lives on in the identity politics of today.

The underlying problem was Marx’s philosophical materialism.  It has the effect of at once eliminating the existence of God and dehumanizing man, making him little more than a creature of prevailing economic conditions.  There is a denial of universal truths and moral absolutes.  The end result is the collapse of Western Civilization itself.  All that is left is the law of the jungle.

The Christian answer to all of this is that God does, in fact, exist.  We live in a rationally ordered universe created by an intelligent Supreme Being.  Truth and morality are determined by Him and revealed through His Word.  We were created in His image, we have the ability to differentiate between right and wrong, and will ultimately have to give an account to God, our Creator and Judge.  And yes, capitalism can be a rapacious and oppressive economic system, creating a huge disparity of wealth between the privileged few and the disadvantaged many.  But the underlying problem is man’s sin and rebellion against God; and economic oppression is just one form of human depravity.  And the answer to the problem is not armed revolution, which simply replaces one oppressive regime with another.  It is repentance toward God and the new birth, through the preaching of the gospel.

Getting rid of morality is not the answer to economic oppression.  It is coming to terms with the will of our Creator.

“For He is coming to judge the earth.

With righteousness He shall judge the world,

And the peoples with equity.”

(Psalm 98:9; NKJV)

PAUL THE CALVINIST; PAUL THE ANABAPTIST

 

One of the great scandals of the modern church, at least in America, is the sectarian rivalries that divide it.  The church is divided into warring camps, each taking great pains to disavow the theology of the others.  Lutheranism, Anglicanism, the Reformed Faith, Anabaptism, Dispensationalism and Pentecostalism are all seen as distinct species of religion, with barely anything in common.  Even the variety of Restoriationist movements (Plymouth Brethren, Church of Christ) display an extreme sectarian mentality.

And so it is that advocates of “the Reformed Faith” and the “Anabaptist Heritage” often eye each other with the deepest suspicion.  The one is thoroughly Calvinistic in theology; the other just as thoroughly Arminian.  Could both groups possibly be reading the same Bible?

They might both be surprised at what the Bible actually says.  For example, when we look at the writings of Paul in particular and try to describe him in modern terms, we find that he was both a “Calvinist” and an “Anabaptist” at the same time.

john_calvin_by_holbein

John Calvin

Consider Paul’s Epistle to the Ephesians.  In the first half of the epistle Paul characteristically discusses doctrine; in the second, practice.  The one flows from the other.  There is no such thing as theology without practical implications; and there is no such thing as a Christian lifestyle that is not rooted in a Christian worldview.  The two go hand-in-hand.  And in Paul’s case the theology is thoroughly “Calvinistic,” if we can impose such an anachronistic term on a first century apostle.  He begins in Chapter One, verses 3-14 with a breathtaking overview of the plan of redemption, ascribing everything to God’s grace.  He mentions election and predestination, and repeatedly stressed that salvation was “according to the good pleasure of His will” (vv. 5,9; NKJV), and “to the praise of the glory of His grace” (vv. 6,12,14).  He then prays that the Ephesian believers will come to understand the greatness of God’s power toward them (1:19,20).

In Chapter Two he goes on to describe human depravity (2:1-3) and salvation by grace through faith (2:8-10).  He then goes on in Chapter Three to ascribe all to God’s eternal plan, which Paul describes as a mystery which has now been revealed.  He finally concludes the doctrinal section of the book with a benediction (3:20,21) in which he exalts the power of God and gives all glory to Him.  Thus the first half of the epistle is a veritable wellspring of Reformed theology.

mennosimons

Menno Simons

But in the second half of the epistle one would have thought that Paul had changed denominations.  He describes the church as a community of believers united to each other by a spiritual bond (4:1-16).  This, in turn, requires a life lived in non-conformity to the world (4:17-24), and the practice of brotherly love (4:2,3; 4:29-5:2).  It is, in fact, a thoroughly Anabaptist view of the church and the Christian life.

Significantly Paul begins the practical section of the epistle with the word “therefore.” The word signifies that what follows is the logical conclusion to what went before.  This means that the Anabaptist ethics that Paul described in the second half of the book follows logically from the Calvinistic theology of the first half.  Paul sums up his argument in 4:1: “I, therefore . ..beseech you to walk worthy of the calling with which you have been called.”  The “calling” is the plan of redemption described in Chapters 1-3.  It is effectual calling, a calling which has the actual effect of drawing the sinner to Christ.  The gist of Paul’s argument is that the “calling” should result in the kind of changed life that he describes in Chapters 4-6.

And the one does logically flow from the other.  If the lost are totally depraved and in bondage to sin, and if the saved have been inwardly renewed by irresistible grace, the saved will live differently from the lost.  Salvation is a change which makes a real difference, and it is a change which results from something that God has done inside of us.  It is the result of God’s grace and power.

Paul was consistent with himself; his modern interpreters are not.  Today we tend to think of Calvinism and Anabaptism as two separate and distinct belief systems, mutually opposed to each other.  But this is largely because of the conflicts that arose during the Reformation.  But in the context of the First Century church they were not.  They are merely two different sides of the same New Testament Christianity.

The problem with Luther and Calvin is that, while they recovered the doctrine of justification by faith, they did so in the context of state churches.  What they could not see was that if we are justified by faith, then we must have faith in order to be saved.  Only believers are true Christians.  But if this is true then only a church which is made up of believers can function like a true Christian church.  The state cannot make someone a Christian; only the Holy Spirit can.  By trying to reform state churches Luther and Calvin missed the clear implications of their own theology.  On the doctrine of justification they were biblical and evangelical.  On their doctrine of the church they were medieval.

The problem with the Anabaptists is that they had a natural tendency to react against the magisterial Reformers who were persecuting them, and thus we have the divisions that are typical today.  But no such division existed in the First Century.  It was all one and the same Christianity.  Paul was both a “Calvinist” and an “Anabaptist”!

GOD’S JUSTICE

 

 

Abraham once asked God the pointed question, “Shall not the Judge of all the earth do right?” (Gen. 18:25; NKJV).  And indeed that is the central question of human existence.  God is indeed “the King of all the earth,” and He “reigns over the nations, / God sits on His holy throne” (Ps. 47:7,8).  Why, then, is there sin and evil in the world?

The immediate answer to the question, of course, is that we human beings are the ones who are doing the sinning.  So the real question should be, why do we sin?  Why do we do things that we ourselves believe to be wrong?  It is the human race that is fallen and corrupt, not God.  We are the direct cause of our own misery.  But as for God, “the Lord is righteous, / He loves righteousness . . .” (Ps. 11:7).

But if God is “a great King over all the earth” (Ps. 47:2), why does He not prevent evil?  Can He not stop it?  And if He can, why does He not?  The answer is that there is, in fact, a partial justice now, but there will be a final justice later.

First of all, we can see partial justice now.  David could say,

“For You have maintained my right and my cause;

You sat on the throne judging in righteousness.

You have rebuked the nations,

You have destroyed the wicked;

You have blotted out their name forever and ever.”

(Ps. 9:4,5)

Where are the Assyrian and Babylonian empires today?  Where is the Roman Empire?  Where is Hitler’s Third Reich?  They are all in the ashbin of history, brought to their inevitable ruin by their own decadence and recklessness.  In the end their wickedness destroyed them.

But even on a smaller scale we can see justice being carried out.  In God’s common grace the civil magistrate is “God’s minister, an avenger to execute wrath on him who practices evil” (Rom. 13:1-4).  When civil government works the way it is supposed to, law and order is maintained, criminals are punished, and neighborhoods are kept safe.

But even on a more personal level God works in the life of an individual believer to protect him, provide for him, and lead him along.  “And we know that all things work together for good to those who love God, to those who are called according to His purpose” (Rom. 8:28).  This can be a hard thing at times for a believer to understand.  We certainly are not kept from trials and difficulties in this life.  But the verse does not say that “all things are good,” but rather that “all things work together for good.” By themselves many of the things that happen to us are bad: sickness, injury, joblessness, etc.   But God can use the bad things that happen to us for the ultimate good.  Even if we, as Christians, are called upon to suffer martyrdom, it advances God’s kingdom and promotes His glory, and we will receive a reward in the age to come.  “The blood of the martyrs is the seed of the faith,” as the saying goes.  And thus David could say,

“Surely goodness and mercy shall follow me

All the days of my life;

And I will dwell in the house of the Lord

Forever.”

(Ps. 23:6)

But it takes faith to believe that when we are in “the valley of the shadow of death” (v. 4).

But God’s perfect, final justice will be revealed at the Second Coming of Christ and the Last Judgment.  The apostle Paul describes “the day of wrath and revelation of the righteous judgment of God, who will ‘render to each one according to his deeds’” (Rom. 2:5,6)  God has appointed a day, sometime in the future, when everyone outside of Christ will get exactly what he deserves – “indignation and wrath, tribulation and anguish, to every soul of man who does evil . . .” (vv. 8,9).

But there is a delay in God’s justice until history runs its course; first of all, to give everyone the opportunity to repent and believe – “The Lord is not slack concerning His promise, as some count slackness, but is longsuffering toward us, not willing that any should perish but that all should come to repentance’ (II Peter 3:9); and secondly, to make sure that the wicked really do deserve the punishment they will receive – “But in accordance with your hardness and your impenitent heart you are treasuring up for yourself wrath in the day of wrath and revelation of the righteous judgment of God” (Rom. 2:5).

But this all raises an even more difficult and disturbing question: if God is just and punishes sin, what hope is there for us? – for we are all sinners.  The answer is not what some would imagine it to be – that God simply forgets and overlooks sin.  The sin is real and the guilt is real.  So rather than simply overlook sin, what God has done is to arrange to make an atonement for sin.  We have redemption through Christ Jesus, “whom God set forth as a propitiation by His blood . . . to demonstrate at this time His righteousness, that He might be just and the justifier of the one who has faith in Jesus” (Rom. 3:25,26).  A “propitiation” (Greek hilasterion) is an atoning sacrifice that turns away the wrath of an offended Deity.  By sending forth His Son as a propitiation God can effectively punish sin and forgive it at the same time.  Thus His justice is upheld while He shows mercy to those who repent of their sins and believe on Christ.

The prospect of divine judgment is both sobering and comforting at the same time – sobering, because “It is a fearful thing to fall into the hands of the living God” (Heb. 10:31); but comforting because we can know that evil will not ultimately prevail, and that righteousness will finally triumph.  We do not live in an amoral, unjust universe, where crime pays and “nice guys finish last.”

Seeing, then, that God is just, and will judge the world, how careful we should be to live righteous lives that please Him!  And if we do not know Christ as our Savior, how quick we should be to flee to Him for salvation!