Tribulation Saint

Historic Christianity in the Twenty First Century

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.

 

 

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WHAT GOD EXPECTS FROM US

 

As we have seen, then, God is our Creator and sovereign Lord, and thus we are obligated to give Him our obedience.  But what exactly does He expect from us?  What exactly does He want from us?

About this too the Bible has a great deal to say, but there is one verse of Scripture that neatly sums up man’s duty toward God – Micah 6:8:

“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?”

(NKJV)

There are, then, three basic things that God requires: 1) “to do justly,” 2) “to love mercy,” and 3) “to walk humbly with your God.”

First of all it says that we are “to do justly,” or, as it might more literally be translated, “to do justice.”  Strictly speaking justice is something that is administered by a judge, and the prophet Micah had strong words for the judges of his day who were often corrupt and took bribes (cf. Micah 7:3).  But there is also a broad, general sense in which all of us are responsible for maintaining justice in our relationships with our fellow human beings.  In this context justice means to treat others fairly and honestly, giving each person his due, and not doing anything to harm him or take from him something that is not rightfully ours.

“Lord, who may abide in Your tabernacle? . . .

He who does not backbite with his tongue,

Nor does evil to his neighbor,

Nor does he take up a reproach against his friend . . .

He who swears to his own hurt and does not change;

He who does not put out his money at usury,

Nor does he take a bribe against the innocent.”

(Psalm 15)

We must be careful to respect each other’s family, property and reputation; and that means that we do not attempt to manipulate or defraud him with lying, cheating or stealing, by stretching the truth or concealing information, by telling “little white lies.”  We are careful to give each person his or her due.

In business relationships in particular we should be completely honest with our customers, employees and vendors.  We should be careful not to misrepresent our products and services, but honestly represent what we have to offer so that the customer knows exactly what he is getting for what he is paying.  Employers should treat their employees fairly, give them honest evaluations, and reward them for their work.  Employees should give their employers a full day’s work for a full day’s pay.

But then the text goes on to say that we should “love mercy.”   The word translated “mercy” basically means kindness shown to others, especially to those in need.  Job could say,

“. . . I delivered the poor who cried out,

The fatherless and the one who had no helper . . .

I was eyes to the blind,

And I was feet to the lame.

I was a father to the poor . . .”

(Job 29:12-16)

What God requires of us is that we genuinely care about our fellow human beings and help them out in times of need to the extent of our ability.

What this may mean in actual practice is the expenditure of our time and money.  We must take the time to listen and make the effort to find solutions to the other person’s problem.  What we may not do is to go through life pursuing our own narrow self-interest and ignore the needs of others.  God is a God of compassion, and He expects us to show compassion as well.

But God also expects us to have a relationship with Him as well.  We are “to walk humbly with your God.”   To “walk with” Him means to commune with Him on a regular basis and to live our lives in accordance with His will.  And we are to do this “humbly” – in full recognition of the fact that He is infinitely greater than ourselves, that He is our Creator and that we are entirely dependent upon Him.

It is significant that in the immediate context the prophet poses the question, “With what shall I come before the Lord, / And bow myself before the High God?/ Shall I come before Him with burnt offerings, / With calves a year old?” (6:6). Israel at that time still had a functioning priesthood, and all of these sacrifices were prescribed in the Old Testament law.  Yet while Israel maintained the external, formal religious observances, the land was filled with corruption, injustice and oppression.  Was God, then, impressed with the “thousands of rams” and the “ten thousand rivers of oil” that they offered?  No!  What matters most to God is not empty ritual, but a life marked by honesty, compassion and a genuine devotion to God.  Morality is a matter of relationships, our relationship with God and our relationships with our fellow human beings.  And therefore the prophet says “He has shown you, O man, what is good; / And what does the Lord require of you / But to do justly . . .”

BLESS THE LORD, O MY SOUL

 

 

Thanksgiving has been observed as a national holiday ever since November, 1863, when President Abraham Lincoln signed a proclamation to “invite my fellow citizens” to observe the day “as a day of Thanksgiving and Praise to our beneficent Father who dwelleth in the heavens.”  Most modern secularists today would recoil at the idea of a national Day of Thanksgiving if it meant actually giving thanks “to our beneficent Father who dwelleth in the heavens,” and most people have turned the holiday into anything but the giving of thanks; which, of course, has the effect of robbing the occasion of its original meaning and purpose.

But the question remains, why give thanks to God in the first place?  What do we owe to God?  Did we not get where we are by dint of our own effort?  Psalm 103 in the Bible gives the explanation.

The psalm, ascribed by ancient tradition to David, begins with an exhortation of the psalmist to himself:

“Bless the Lord, O my soul;

And all that is within me, bless His holy name!”

(v. 1; NKJV).

Why?   Because God is the One “who forgives all your iniquities” (v. 3a).  The psalmist begins by reflecting on the fact that he himself is a sinner, that he does not deserve any blessings form God; indeed, he deserves to be punished instead.  But as undeserving as he is, God has blessed him anyway, forgiving David’s sins.

But that is not all.  The psalmist goes on.

“Who heals all your diseases,

Who redeems your life from destruction . . .”

(vv. 3b,4a)

The psalmist had evidently lived long; he had endured many harrowing circumstances.  Many of these were beyond his control.  Yet he managed to survive them all.  And he was conscious that this was not so much the result of his own personal effort as it was the providence of God.

But there is more.  God “crowns you with lovingkindness and tender mercies” (v. 4b).  God does not merely tolerate us; He cares about us.  And He showers us with blessings beyond what we deserve.  He gives us life and health, friends and family; a roof over our heads, clothes on our backs, and food on the table.  “. . .So that your youth is renewed like the eagle” (v. 5b).  Every day that we live is a gift from God.

But then the psalmist goes on to reflect on the character of God himself.  Human history has been marked by the atrocities of human tyrants such as Hitler, Stalin, and Mao Tse-tung.  But what is God like?  Is He a cruel tyrant?  Far from it.

“The Lord executes righteousness

And justice for all who are oppressed.”

(v. 6)

In other words, God is the ruler of the universe, but He is absolutely just in the way He governs it.  The innocent are not punished and the dishonest are not rewarded.  And in particular He insures justice “for all who are oppressed.”  It is the mark of human depravity that the strong will take unfair advantage of the weak.  Human justice will often fail to redress the wrong, and sometimes will even reinforce it.  But God sees all that goes on and in the end justice will be done.

But God is not only just; He is also compassionate.  The psalmist goes on to point out what God had said about Himself to Moses on Mt. Sinai:

“The Lord is merciful and gracious,

Slow to anger and abounding in mercy.”

(v. 8; Ex. 34:6)

It is God’s essential nature to care about His creatures.  The word “merciful” might better be translated “compassionate” (NASV) and the word “mercy” might better be rendered “lovingkindess” (NASV) or “steadfast love” (ESV).

God’s compassion is compared to that of a father towards his children.  It is the child’s very weakness that draws out the father’s love.  And so it is with God.

“For He knows our frame;

He remembers that we are dust.”

(v. 14).

Likewise God is said to be “slow to anger.”  This is demonstrated in the fact that

“He has dealt with us according to our sins,

Nor punished us according to our iniquities.”

(v. 10).

Even though we have provoked Him with our sins, He has held back His anger.  And God’s “lovingkindess” or “steadfast love” is said to be “from everlasting to everlasting” (v. 17).

And so the psalmist ends where he began, calling on everyone to “bless the Lord.”  It is not a matter of rendering formal gratitude for blessings received.  Ultimately it is a matter of appreciating God himself for who He is.  As Jesus would point out centuries later, the “first and great commandment” is that “You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, with all your soul, and with all your mind” (Matt. 22:37,38; cf. Dt. 6:5).  God created us for Himself.  He endowed us with an intellect, emotions and will.  He wants us to enter into a meaningful relationship with Himself.  Anything less misses the whole point of the Christian gospel.

And so this Thanksgiving Day let us take time to thank God for all His blessings towards us.  But more importantly, let us praise Him for what He is, the Lord, “merciful and gracious, slow to anger, and abounding in mercy”!

THE LORD IS KING

 

 

“The Lord reigns, He is clothed with majesty;

The Lord is clothed,

He has girded Himself with strength.

Surely the world is established, so that it cannot be moved.

Your throne is established from old;

You are from everlasting.”

Psalm 93:1,2; NKJV

 

Americans have a hard time thinking of God as “King.”  We are used to thinking in terms of freedom, equality and democracy.  Our very Declaration of Independence states that governments are instituted “deriving their just powers from the consent of the governed.”  It is no wonder, then, that Americans have a hard time dealing with authority.

We sometimes try to picture God as a warm, fuzzy father figure who is there to comfort and encourage us, who understands that we are “only human,” and who would never think of punishing us.  And yet the Bible says that the Lord “reigns” and has a “throne.”  People in the ancient Near East knew exactly what that meant: God is a king.  He has authority.  He must be obeyed.

God has that authority by virtue of being our Creator.  We owe our very existence to Him.  He is eternal and all-powerful; we are mere creatures of the dust.  Our relationship with God, then, is one of sovereign and subject, of Lord and servant.  He is the lawgiver and judge.

But there is another reason why it is important to recognize God as Lord and King, and that is to establish the principle of justice.  One of the chief functions of a king is to promulgate and enforce the law; and the real question is, is there any real justice in the universe?

At first sight the answer might appear to be “no.”    We see dishonesty, exploitation and oppression at every hand.  The strong take advantage of the weak.  Governments themselves are often corrupt.  And yet we long for something better.  We would each like to be treated fairly, and we know instinctively that that means that everyone should be treated fairly.  We long for justice.  But does it exist?

The answer is “yes.”  The Bible tells us that

“The Lord reigns;

Let the earth rejoice;

Let the multitude of isles be glad! . . .

Righteousness and justice are the foundation of His throne.”

Psalm 97:1,2

“Justice” is the act of judging rightly – of making sure that each one is treated fairly and gets what he deserves.  And God is a righteous and just King: “Righteousness and justice are the foundation of His throne.”  He will reward good and punish evil.

But, you say, we do not see this now.  We see a world full of violence and oppression.  Where is there any justice?  The answer is

“Let the rives clap their hands;

Let the hills be joyful together before the Lord,

For He is coming to judge the earth.

With righteousness He shall judge the world,

And the peoples with equity.”

Psalm 98:8,9

This points to a time in the future when there will be a final, last judgment.  The judgment will be universal – God will judge “the world” and “the peoples,” i.e., the entire human race.  But unlike human justice God’s justice will be perfect.  He will judge the world with “righteousness” and “equity.”  Both words imply judgment which is fair and honest – true to the actual facts of the case and without partiality.  As a result everyone will receive exactly what he deserves.  Sin will be punished and righteousness will be rewarded.

All of this should be, according to the psalm, a cause for rejoicing.  The whole earth is exhorted to “shout joyfully,” “break forth in song,” and “sing”.  Even the physical world is exhorted to “clap their hands” and “be joyful together,” all because “He is coming to judge the earth” (vv. 4-9).  It means that true justice will finally prevail.

None of us could bear to live in a society in which there is no justice.  It would be a society in which crime pays and evil would prevail.  It is largely for this reason that human governments are formed.  But human justice is often imperfect.  Sometimes criminals escape unpunished.  Sometimes innocent people are put to death for crimes they did not commit.  Sometimes the government itself becomes corrupt.  And this raises a very disturbing question: will justice ultimately prevail?  Or are we doomed to lead an existence which is fundamentally unfair?  The answer is, God is on the throne.  He is perfectly just in all His ways, and He is coming to judge the world.  The prospect is both comforting and terrifying at the same time.  Comforting, because we live in a universe in which justice will ultimately prevail; terrifying, because by nature we are all guilty sinners.  And therein lies the human predicament.

 

WHAT IS GOD LIKE? – II

 

 

 

But what is God like in His personality and character?  What is it like to deal with Him personally?

Here again the Bible has a great deal to say about the subject and only a brief summary can be given here.  But there is a passage in the Old Testament that gives us such a summary, and it is found in Exodus 34:6,7.  Moses has been on Mount Sinai where he received the Ten Commandments.  Israel, in the meantime, had fallen into gross idolatry.  Moses interceded with God on Israel’s behalf.  God relented, but then Moses made a bold request: “Please, show me Your glory” (Ex. 33:18; NKJV), and God agreed to do so.  On the appointed day Moses stood on top of the mountain,

“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 transgressions 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 the fourth generation.”

(Ex. 34:6,7)

The statement begins by declaring that God is “merciful and gracious, longsuffering, and abounding in goodness and truth” (v. 6).  He is “merciful and gracious.”  The Hebrew word translated “merciful” refers to the compassion God has towards those who are weak and helpless.  God’s “grace” refers to His free, unmerited favor.  In other words, it is God’s nature to do good to His creatures.  He is generous and compassionate.

And then our text says that God is “longsuffering,” or “slow to anger as it might be more literally translated (NASV, ESV).  God is patient with us.  His anger is not quickly aroused.  It is not that He never becomes angry – He has good reason to be angry with us because of our sin and rebellion against Him.  But He is slow to anger.  He is not easily provoked, and when He does become angry it is because it is well-deserved.

And then our text says that God is “abounding in goodness and truth,” or “steadfast love and faithfulness” (ESV).  His “goodness” or “steadfast love” refers to God’s willingness and desire to show kindness to His creatures.  His “truth” or “faithfulness” refers to the consistency and reliability of His character.  He can be depended upon to keep His word.

Our text goes on to explain how this all works out in actual practice.  First, God is “keeping mercy for thousands.”  The word translated “mercy” here in verse 7is the same word translated “goodness” in verse 6.  It is the kindness that God shows toward His creatures, and the fact that He “keeps” it “for thousands” shows how rich and abundant it is.

But there is more.  He “forgives iniquity and transgression and sin.”  This is what is truly remarkable.  The implication here is that the objects of His attention are, in fact, sinners – they have sinned against Him and are guilty in His sight.  The logical thing to do would be to punish them.  Yet His kindness is displayed in His “forgiving” them.  It is possible to be a guilty sinner and yet be forgiven.

Yet there is another side to this as well.  For the text goes on to say, “by no means clearing the guilty, visiting the iniquity of the fathers upon the children . . .” Is there a contradiction here?  Does God forgive sin or does He not?  The answer is that there is an implied but unmentioned condition.  Sinners can be forgiven, if they repent.  But if they persist in their sin and rebellion they will be punished.  How is it possible for a just and holy God to forgive sins is not fully explained until the New Testament: God would sent His into the world to die on the cross as an atonement for our sin.  God sent forth His Son “as a propitiation by His blood . . . 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. 3:25,26).  And so it was that Israel was warned that if they sinned they would be sent into exile; but if they repented they would be restored (Dt. 30:1-6; II Chron. 7:13; Jer. 29:10-14).

The text also says that God “visits the iniquity of the fathers upon the children and the children’s children to the third and the fourth generations.”  On the surface this hardly seems just: God is punishing one person (the son) for another person’ sin (the father’s).  Strictly speaking, however, it is not a punishment directed toward the children and grandchildren, but a recognition that we are each affected by the decisions made by our parents.  Bad decisions can have effects that last for generations.  It ought to be a warning to all who treat sin lightly.

God is by nature kind, gracious and compassionate – He genuinely cares about the welfare of His creatures.  But by the same token He is genuinely angry with those who are cold and indifferent, who abuse, exploit and mistreat others.  God is love, and cruelty and injustice are an abomination in His sight.

THE LEGACY OF LUTHER

 

martin-luther

 

This Tuesday (Oct. 31) marks the 500th anniversary of the Protestant Reformation.  Specifically it was 500 years ago that Martin Luther nailed his famous 95 Theses on the door of the Castle Church of Wittenberg, Germany.   The theses, written in Latin, attacked the practice of selling indulgences on the supposition that penitent sinners could purchase the forgiveness of their sins by making a cash donation to the church.  Luther intended his theses to be an invitation to scholarly debate, but others translated them into German and distributed them to the press.  Probably no one at the time could have foreseen what would happen as a result.

The theses touched on just a small part of a much larger issue, viz., how can a guilty sinner find forgiveness from a holy and just God?  The Roman Catholic view, as it had evolved over the centuries, was that one’s sins are initially washed away in baptism, but that sins committed after baptism had to be dealt with through the sacrament of penance.  The sinner must make confession, show contrition, and make satisfaction.  This, in turn, could involve spending a lengthy period of time after death in purgatory.

But how can a guilty sinner make satisfaction for his sins?  That was the question that plagued young Luther during his early years.  Originally destined to become a lawyer, he was nearly killed one day by a bolt of lightning.  Terrified, he took a vow to become a monk and joined an Augustinian monastery.

But the monastic life brought him no peace of mind.   Try as hard as he might, he could not convince himself that he had won God’s favor.  But as he studied the Scriptures, especially Paul’s Epistles to the Romans and Galatians, he slowly came to realize that we are “justified,” i.e., made righteous in the sight of God, through faith. Christ died on the cross to pay for our sins, and we receive forgiveness by placing our trust in Him as our Savior.  For Luther this was an eye-opening understanding.

This is why Luther became so alarmed when Johann Tetzel came through the area selling indulgences, proclaiming “As soon as the coin in the coffer rings, the soul from purgatory springs.”  Luther posted his theses, and the controversy was on.

Luther went on to write books, participate in debates, and make his famous stand before the Holy Roman Emperor.  He had to go into hiding, and while there he began his translation of the Bible into German.  Returning to Wittenberg he devoted the rest of his life to teaching and preaching, all the while under the ban of both the Catholic Church and Empire.  He wrote catechisms, reformed the liturgy, and composed hymns, including his famous “A Mighty Fortress is our God.”

Luther was a very capable and talented theologian.  But he could never have gained the insight he had or achieved the results that he did if God had not been at work achieving His own sovereign purposes in history.  Luther’s key insight (justification by faith) came about through an intense spiritual struggle.  And it was often Luther’s opponents who forced him to see the implications of his doctrine.  And in the end it was larger historical forces beyond Luther’s control that achieved the final result – the Protestant Reformation in all of its breadth and diversity.  But in the providence of God it fell to Luther to strike the first blow.

Was Martin Luther a perfect human being?  By no means.  He could be irascible, and intemperate in his use of language.  He was subject to bouts of depression.  In his later years he became increasingly hostile towards Anabaptists, Jews and Roman Catholics.  Even his fellow Reformers sometimes found him difficult to work with at times.  “But we have this treasure in earthen vessels, that the excellence of the power may be of God and not of us” (II Cor. 4:7; NKJV).  The remarkable thing about church history is that an infinite, holy, all-powerful and all-wise God could choose finite, mortal and fallible human beings to accomplish His purposes here on earth.

The Protestant Reformation resulted in the recovery of the Christian gospel – the message of salvation by grace through faith.  Not that it had entirely disappeared; but during the Middle Ages it had been buried under layers of tradition, canon law and scholastic philosophy.  But it was during the Reformation that it reappeared in all of its power, grace and glory.  It has since then spread to the distant corners of the world, and untold multitudes have found salvation, the forgiveness of their sins, in Christ.  And in the providence of God it was Martin Luther who sparked the flame.

WHAT IS GOD LIKE? – I

 

173

Paul in Athens

 

But if God exists, what is He like?  What can we know about Him?

On this point it is important to emphasize that we must go by what the Bible says on the subject.  God must reveal Himself to us.  While we may be able to infer a few things about Him from the physical creation and have a vague sense of Him in our individual consciences, for the most part He must tell us what He is like.  We have no other means of knowing about Him.

The Bible, of course, has a great deal to say about God, and we cannot possibly summarize it all here.  However the apostle Paul did give a brief summary in a speech he delivered before an assembly of Greek philosophers in Athens recorded for us in Acts 17:22-31.  The Greeks at that time were pagans and had a polytheistic religion.  They worshiped idols in temples.  The irony of it all, of course, is that the idol had been made by human beings.  People were bowing down and worshiping lifeless images that they themselves had made.

Paul began by pointing out that God is the Creator – He “made the world and everything in it’ (v. 24; NKJV).  Because of that He is “Lord of heaven and earth.”  Since He has made it all, and it would not have existed if He had not created it, it all rightfully belongs to Him.  Moreover our continued existence depends upon Him: “He gives to all life, breath, and all things” (v. 25), and “in Him we live and move and have our being” (v. 28).  Once created we do not exist independently of Him.  Life itself is a gift from God, something He can take from us whenever He pleases.

In other words, Paul’s audience had gotten it all backwards.  God is not dependent upon us; we are dependent on Him.  He exists independently of us, not the other way around.  And that being the case, strictly speaking, God does not need anything from us.  “Nor is He worshiped with men’s hands, as though He needed anything” (v. 25).

What all of this means is that we owe Him our love and devotion, our worship and our obedience. God is the Creator of the entire human race, “in the hope that they might grope for Him, and find Him, though He is not far from each one of us” (v. 27).  God wants us to “grope for Him.”  The picture here is that of being in the dark, not being able to see, and groping with one’s hands to find the object being sought.  And this is a picture of our relationship with God.  We cannot see Him physically; His presence is not obvious.  But we must search for Him, and keep searching until we find Him.  He will not reward us for our apathy and indifference.  We must make the effort to seek Him by praying and meditating on His Word, and then we will “find Him” – we will receive salvation and the presence of the Holy Spirit in our hearts comforting and guiding us.

The irony is that “He is not far from each one of us; for in Him we move and have our being” (vv. 27,28).  We are surrounded by God, our very existence depends on Him. Yet most of us do not know Him.  The tragedy of it all!

God, then, calls us to have a relationship with Him; but in order for that to happen we must make a conscious effort to seek Him.  He loves us; He wants us to love Him.  But we must never forget that it is not a relationship between equals.  He is infinitely greater than ourselves.  We owe everything that we have to Him.  We should bow down and worship Him in love, humility, and devotion.

THE BIBLE: A BOOK LIKE NO OTHER BOOK

 

codex_vaticanus_b2c_2thess-_32c11-182c_hebr-_12c1-22c2

Codex Vaticanus

The extraordinary claim that the Bible makes for itself is that it is nothing less than the inspired Word of God himself.   “All Scripture is given by inspiration of God . . .” (II Tim. 3:16; NKJV).   “. . .for prophecy never came by the will of man, but holy men of God spoke as they were moved by the Holy Spirit” (II Pet. 1:21).  God spoke to Moses directly.  Others saw visions or dreamed dreams.  The Holy Spirit descended on others and they spoke as they were led by the Spirit.  The words that they spoke and wrote down were words in human languages, but the thoughts, concepts and ideas came directly from God himself.  The prophets themselves did not always understand the things that God was revealing to them.  They had to study their own inspired to try to understand what God had revealed through them (I Pet. 1:10-12).

But how do we know that the Bible’s claim for itself is true?  How do we know that the Bible really is God’s Word?  What about other sacred books – the Hindu Vedas?  The Koran?   The Book of Mormon?  Are all of them “inspired”?  Or are all of them, including the Bible, merely human productions?  Why would the Bible be divinely inspired and not the others?

First of all, the Bible is different from the others, and in ways that make it unlikely to have had a purely human origin.  It was composed over a very long period of time (at least a thousand years), by a large number of different authors writing in three different languages (Hebrew, Aramaic and Greek).  And yet in spite of all of the diversity on their backgrounds there is a remarkable unity of thought in the book as a whole.  There is only one God, the Creator of heaven and earth.  He is absolutely just and holy.  Mankind is fallen and sinful, but God is merciful and compassionate.  Sin must be atoned for.  And in the fullness of time God sent His Son into the world to die for our sins and make salvation available to the entire human race.

And then there is the phenomenon of fulfilled prophecy.  Events were predicted before they happened and they subsequently came to pass.   The New Testament writers in particular could cite a large number of Old Testament prophecies regarding the coming Messiah, and note that they were fulfilled in Christ.  The prophecies are remarkable enough that they could not have been fulfilled by accident.

But what is even more remarkable is the nature of the message itself.  On the one hand it presents a high standard of moral conduct.  Men are exhorted to love God and each other.  Pride, lust, greed, envy, jealousy and anger are all condemned.  In the end all human beings fall short of God’s standards.

Most books of human origin, however, glorify man.  They either excuse, rationalize or even condone behavior that is compulsive, anti-social and self-destructive.  And in most books of human origin there is at least one human hero who distinguishes himself above all others.  In the Bible, however, there are no human heroes – all men fall short of God’s standards.  The Bible views human life from God’s perspective, and this suggests that He is the true Author of it.  No human being could write a book of this apart from divine inspiration.

And then there is the manifest wisdom contained in the Bible. Philosophers and psychologists have propounded theory after theory, only to have them discredited over time.  But countless multitudes of ordinary people have found the Bible “a lamp to my feet and a light to my path” (Psalm 119:105).  It provides guidance and gives solace to those who follow its directions.

But in the end it often comes down to a matter of personal conviction.  When the message grips your soul, makes you feel your awful guilt before a holy God and then gives you the hope of eternal salvation in Jesus Christ you almost have no choice but to believe.  It has to be God’s Word – nothing else could bring such conviction.

The Bible is God’s Word, then, and we owe it to Him to study it, meditate upon it, and apply it to our lives.  It is the key to understanding life, and our lives must conform to its principles fi we are to find any lasting happiness or fulfillment.  Our ultimate loyalty must be to God himself, and all human teachings, laws and doctrines must be evaluated in the light of His Word.

Too often today young people who were raised in Christian homes are merely reacting to their upbringing.  But what is often missing is a direct relationship with God himself.  But it is not a matter of “your pastor said this” or “your parents taught you that.”  Rather it is a matter of what God himself has said, and in order to know that we must each individually dig into His Word and seek to understand what it says.  Our parents, pastors and teachers are all fallible human beings.  God’s Word is the final authority.  By that we stand or fall.  May God give us the grace to search, understand and obey!

THE GAP THEORY REVISITED

 

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Sedimentary rock formation, Tioga Co., PA

 

Review:

Unformed and Unfilled: A Critique of the Gap Theory

Weston Fields

Master Books, 2005

245 pp., pb

 

In 1976 Weston Fields published his book Unformed and Unfilled: A Critique of the Gap Theory.  It is largely a rebuttal of an earlier work by Arthur C. Custance entitled Without Form and Void, which defended what is known as “the Gap Theory.”  Fields’ book was republished in 2005.

The Gap Theory is an attempt to reconcile the biblical account of creation with the findings of modern geology.  It had become apparent to geologists at the end of the 18th Century that the earth was very old, has passed through several successive geological ages, and that there had been forms of plant and animal life, such as dinosaurs, that had since become extinct.  The question then became how to reconcile the geological evidence with the biblical account of creation, which seemed to indicate that the whole process only took six days a few thousand  years ago.  One possible solution was proposed by the distinguished Scottish theologian Thomas Chalmers, who suggested what became known as “the Gap Theory.”

The Gap Theory posited the existence of an unspecified length of time between the original creation of the universe and the six days of creation mentioned in Genesis Chapter 1.  It assumes that some sort of disaster destroyed the original creation and that what is described in Genesis 1 is a recreation of the earth.  This, then, would allow for the long geological ages postulated by modern science.  The Gap Theory then became popularized in a footnote in the Scofield Reference Bible, as well as in Halley’s Bible Handbook.  A later version appeared in Unger’s Bible Handbook.

Dr. Fields, however, will have none of this.  In his view Ex. 20:11 and Neh.9:6 state that the entire universe was created ex nihilo in just six days, and that the grammatical structure of Gen. 1:1-3 will not permit a gap between verse 1 (“In the beginning . . .” –  NASB) and verse 3 (“Then God said”).  According to him the Hebrew “vav” (“and”) at the beginning of verse 2 links the three clauses of that verse (“the earth was formless and void,” “and darkness was over the face of the deep,” “and the Spirit of God was moving over the surface of the waters”) with verse 1.  Verse 2, then, would describe the condition of the world at the beginning of the process of creation of the entire universe, thus not allowing for a gap between the two.

Dr. Fields’ argument becomes quite involved and arcane at points; and sometimes, in the opinion of this reviewer, a bit too strained, with both sides (Dr. Fields and Dr. Custance) reading more into the text than is actually there.  E.J. Young, for example, whom Dr. Fields sometimes cites in his footnotes, connects the three clauses of verse 2 with the main verb in verse 3 (“Then God said. . .”).  Verse 2, then, describes the condition of the world at the beginning of the six day process described in the remainder of chapter 1.

What neither Dr. Fields nor Dr. Custance may have known at the time is that there is compelling evidence that points to a geological catastrophe that wiped out the dinosaurs and brought on the Ice Age.  A comet or asteroid is believed to have stuck the Yucatan Peninsula in Mexico, spreading a thick cloud of debris.  Gen. 1:2, then, could very well describe the scene immediately after the comet struck.  The sky was darkened; most life had been wipe out.  God then began the creative process anew.

This is not to say that there are no problems with the Gap Theory.  If Gen 1:14-18 were taken in a strictly literal fashion, the sun and moon simply did not exist until the fourth day of creation.  (In my scenario, as the debris in the sky gradually settled, light appeared first, on the first day, and then the sun and moon became visible later, on the fourth day.)

Likewise Paul’s statements that death came through sin (Rom. 5:12-17; 8:19-21; I Cor. 15:21,22) would pose a problem, since under the Gap Theory whole species became extinct before man had sinned.  But the Bible is concerned primarily with what has happened since the creation of man, not with what may have happened before.

Dr. Fields is right in not wanting to let secular science dictate our interpretation of Scripture.  Unbelieving scientists are quick to jump to conclusions that eliminate God from their worldview.  But it is God’s written revelation that gives us the interpretation of the mute facts of nature.  Science has often erred, and a new discovery will often overturn a previously held conclusion.  But we cannot simply ignore or dismiss the physical evidence.  While fossils do not prove the Theory of Evolution, they do suggest that the world is very old, and the evidenced cannot be ignored.

God is the author of both nature and Scripture; and if each is interpreted properly they do not contradict each other.  The two basic questions are, what can science actually prove?  And what does the Bible actually teach?  On the latter question it is not the aim of the Bible to give detailed scientific explanations of natural phenomena, or a detailed history of the cosmos.  It’s focus, rather, is on man, on his fall and redemption; and thus we must be careful not to make the Bible say more than it actually does.  On this point we think that both Drs. Custance and Fields may have been prone to take things a little too far.

THE NATURE OF TRUE VIRTUE

 

 

It is striking that even among professed Bible-believing Christians there is a poor understanding of what the Christian life is all about.  One tendency is to think that because salvation is a free gift it does not matter how we live (“God loves you and has a wonderful plan for your life”).  Another tendency is to think that Christian ethics consists mainly of avoiding certain sinful practices (smoking, drinking, dancing, card-playing, etc.).  And even in Reformed circles there is a tendency to a form of dead orthodoxy.

What the Bible actually says about the subject, however, is quite different, and the apostle Paul gives us a snapshot of what that is in Colossians 3:12-15.  He begins by describing the favored positions that Christians enjoy in Christ: “Therefore, as the elect of God, holy and beloved, put on tender mercies . . .” (v. 12; NKJV).  Here he uses three adjectives to describe the Colossian believers: “elect,” “holy,” and “beloved.”  “Elect” points to fact that believers become Christians because they are first chosen by God.  The second adjective, “holy,” points to the fact that they were set apart from the rest of humanity and enjoyed a special relationship with God.  The third adjective, “beloved,” points to the fact that they had become the special objects of God’s love.  Together the three adjectives underscore God’s grace in our salvation.  We were poor, underserving sinners whom He rescued in His grace and mercy.

But this has definite implications for the way we should live.  And so Paul tells the Colossian believers to “put on” certain virtues, in much the same way that someone night put on a coat or jacket.  It involves a conscious decision to live a certain way.

He begins by listing several virtues: “tender mercies, kindness, humility, meekness, longsuffering” (v. 12).  These all involve the way we feel and act toward others.  The “tender mercies” (or “bowels of mercies,” as the old King James Version has it) refers to a tender compassion that we ought to feel toward others.  “Meekness” might better be translated “gentleness.”  “Longsuffering” literally means “slow to anger.”

Paul then goes on to describe how these virtues work out in actual practice.  He says “bearing with one another, and forgiving one another, if anyone has a complaint against another . . .” (v. 13).  The implication here, of course, is that as Christians we are still less than perfect, and that from time to time conflict will arise even in the best of churches.  How, then, are we to deal with such conflict?  First of all, by “bearing with one another.”  We must make allowances for differences of personality and background.  Some things are not worth making an issue over.  And so if someone else’s action or behavior does not amount to actual sin, we should try to overlook it even if it rubs us the wrong way.

But some situations may require us to go to the other brother and confront him about the problem; and if he repents we should forgive him and restore fellowship.  Christians should not hold grudges against each other.

But, one may ask, why should we do this?  What is wrong with defending our rights?  Paul goes on to explain why: “even as Christ forgave you, so you also must do” (. 13).  Look at what Christ has done for us.  Here was the sinless Son of God who came into this sin-cursed world, and offered up His life on the cross in order to save us.  We were hell-deserving sinners, completely unworthy of the least of God’s favors.  And yet in spite of our guilt we are now forgiven.  “Amazing grace, how sweet the sound that saved a wretch like me”!  But if Christ was willing to do that for us, should now we be willing to do the same for others?  Should we not imitate Christ’s example?  And if we were hell-deserving sinners saved by grace we are really no different from the brother who sinned against us.  If Christ forgave us our sins then we should forgive others.

Paul then adds, “But above all these things put on love, which is the bond of perfection” (v. 14).  Love, according to Scripture, is the preeminent virtue.  It is not enough merely to be kind, humble or patient.  These are largely passive virtues.  All of this must arise from a heart filled with love, an active concern for others, a positive desire to do good to them.  The commentators disagree over exactly what Paul meant by “the bond of perfection,” with some arguing that love is what underlies all Christian virtue, while others take it to mean that love is what binds Christians together.  In other case love is the preeminent Christian virtue, the virtue from which all other virtues arise.

And then Paul says, “And let the peace of God rule in your hearts, to which you were called in one body . . .” (v. 15).  In the Bible peace is more than just the absence of conflict.  It the sense of well-being that comes when everything is in order.  And so to this we are “called in one body.”  Every genuine believer is a member of the universal church, the mystical body of Christ.  And that universal church is to be marked by peace – a harmonious unity of the entire body.  That is the peace that we should let rule in our hearts.

And then Paul adds, “and be thankful” (v. 15).  If it is true that God is our sovereign Lord and Creator; if He has saved us by His grace alone, and guides us and protects us through His providence, then we owe everything to Him.  And that, in turn, should be reflected in a spirit of genuine gratitude in our hearts.  We can claim nothing for ourselves; we owe everything to Him.  That should draw out our hearts in praise and adoration to Him.

These, then, are the basic qualities of character that a Christian ought to “put on.”  It is significant that many of them, “kindness,” “meekness,” “longsuffering,” “love” and “peace” are listed among the fruit of the Spirit (Gal. 5:22,23).  They are the marks of a work of God’s grace in the heart.

It will be noted that Christian ethics largely concerns how we treat others.  “Love does no harm to a neighbor; therefore love is the fulfillment of the law,” Paul says elsewhere (Rom. 13:10).  It will also be seen that God is concerned not just with the outward action but with the inward motive.  God looks on the heart, and what He sees are the thoughts and feelings that drive our outward actions.  True Christian virtue stems from a heart that has been renewed by the Holy Spirt, and arises from a genuine desire to please God and help our neighbor.  Anything short of that misses the whole point of biblical morality.

This, then, is what the Christian life should look like.  May God grant each one of us the grace to live a life that is pleasing to Him!