Tribulation Saint

Historic Christianity in the Twenty First Century

THE ALT RIGHT AND IDENTITY POLITICS

Adolf Hitler-Der Fuehrer-34

 

This past Saturday we witnessed the horrible spectacle of a riot in Charlottesville, VA between white nationalists and counter-protesters.  The riot was precipitated by a rally planned by a variety of white supremacists and Neo-Nazis to protest the pending removal of a statue of Robert E. Lee from a park in Charlottesville.  Counter-protesters showed up and the ensuing confrontation turned violent.  At least one was killed when someone drove his car into a crowd of protesters.

Ironically on the very same day the Wall Street Journal published an article in its Saturday Review section entitled “The Liberal Crack-Up” by Mark Lilla, who considers himself to be a liberal.  In the article, which is adapted from his forthcoming book The Once and Future Liberal: After Identity Politics, Mr. Lilla bemoans the fact that the liberal agenda of fifty years ago has been replaced by the identity politics of today.  Liberal used to think of justice for all, of advancing the common good.  Today the left is splintered into a variety of special interest groups, each trying to advance its own agenda, sometimes at the expense of the rest: African-Americans, Feminists, the LGBT community.  It is no longer about the common good; it is now identity politics.

This had the effect of alienating the Democratic Party from much of its traditional base – white, working class Americans who in the last election turned out to vote for Trump.  The elitism of the party leaders could be seen in Hillary Clinton’s infamous remark during the campaign that “you could put half of Trump’s supporters into what I call the basket of deplorables.  The racist, sexist, homophobic, xenophobic, Islamophobic – you name it.”  But many of these people traditionally voted Democratic in past elections.  Now they are considered “deplorables.”

It was only a matter of time before there would be a reaction on the right.  The right wing now has its own version of identity politics: white nationalism – the Alt Right, Neo-Nazis, the Ku Klux Klan, and hence the riot in Charlottesville.

The Alt Right would like to see itself as fighting to preserve the cultural heritage of Americans of European descent.  But is it really?  Western Civilization was built on a Judeo-Christian foundation.  American democracy in particular is based on the premise that “all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable rights, that among these are life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness.”  But the Alt Right offers us a secularized version of American culture – one that is not based on a system of shared values and moral absolutes.  Instead it appeals to a sense of racial superiority.  It is no longer God, but “blood and earth.”  It is no longer justice for all, but us against them.

But each of us as human beings, left or right, black or white, male or female, gay or straight, must ask the same basic questions about ultimate reality: does God exits?  What is the meaning and purpose of life?  What makes the difference between right and wrong?

Long ago the apostle Paul challenged the philosophers of Athens with these very questions.  In his celebrated address on Mars’ Hill (Areopagus) recorded for us in Acts 17, Paul pointed out that God is the Creator and that “He has made from one blood every nation of men to dwell on all the face of the earth . . .” (v. 26: NKJV).  Here he points us to the essential unity of the human race – we all descended from a common pair of ancestors.  Evolutionists may question or deny this; but the fact remains that when you scratch beneath the surface we are all remarkably alike.  We laugh and cry.  We hope and fear.  We struggle to survive.  And we all share a common human nature that is prone to vice.  It all points to a common ancestry.

But why did God create us in the first place?  This points to the meaning and purpose of life.  According to Paul it was “that they should seek the Lord, in hope that they might grope for Him and find Him, though He is not far from each one of us” (v. 27).  We are here on this planet for a reason and purpose, that is “to glorify God and to enjoy him forever,” in the famous words of the Westminster Shorter Catechism.

Paul concluded his remarks on Mars’ Hill with a sober reminder that God “now commands all men everywhere to repent, because He has appointed a day on which He will judge the world in righteousness . . .” (vv. 30,31).  This points to the existence of a universal moral law.  The entire human race is ultimately accountable to a Supreme Being, and His will and purposed are final.  As His creatures we are obligated to conform to His will.

As human beings we all feel a need for self-esteem, for a sense of meaning and purpose in life, for a sense of self-worth.  God intended us to find that in Him.  But in our Post-Modern, secularized society, when we have excluded God from our thinking, there is a psychological void that we will try to fill with something else.  That is what drives identity politics.  It provides us with a sense of belonging to some larger group or movement.  The Alt Right is a false conservatism.  It does not seek to return America to its Judeo-Christian roots.  Rather it lays the foundation for the arrival of a demagogue and dictator.  Will it be another Hitler?  Or the Antichrist himself?

WITHOUT HOPE AND WITHOUT GOD

 

 

 

 

Edvard Munch

Edvard Munch, The Scream, 1893

One of the most tragic comments ever written about a group of people is found in Paul’s Epistle to the Ephesians.  There, writing to a church made up largely of Gentile converts, Paul reminded them “that at that time you were without Christ, being aliens from the commonwealth of Israel and strangers from the covenants of promise, having no hope and without God in the world” (Eph. 2:12; NKJV).  It is a vivid description of the world without Christ.

It must be remembered that before the coming of the gospel this was the condition in which most of the human race found itself.  God’s dealings with the human race were largely confined to one small group of people – the nation of Israel.  Thus Israel was uniquely in a position to know something about God and about His purposes in history.  He had made a promise to their ancestor Abraham, and that promise gave them hope – hope for a better tomorrow.

But where did that leave the rest of the human race?  They were “strangers from the covenants of promise, having no hope and without God in the world.”  The “covenants of promise” refers to the various covenants that God had made to Abraham and his descendants the Israelites.  The covenants included promises from God, and the promises gave Israel hope – the confident expectation that God would make things better in the future.  But the Gentiles had none of this.  Theirs was a dark and unpromising world, filled with toil and hardship, strife and conflict, with no hope for a better future.  What you so was pretty much what you got.

Moreover, the Gentiles were “without God in the world.”  They worshipped gods, of course; they were polytheistic.  But their “gods” were very much like themselves – only they lived longer.  What the pagan Gentiles had no concept of was a single, all-powerful Supreme Being, the Creator and Sustainer of the universe.  And this affected them psychologically.  Without God it is nearly impossible to find meaning and purpose in life.  We simply exist as an accident of nature, left to struggle to survive on our own.  For a while we might convince ourselves that we are doing well – we have jobs and houses and cars and boats.  But does anyone else really care about us?  Does it really matter in the long run?  And what happens when things turn bad?  What do we have then?  We are left with nothing.

You can see it on people’s faces.  Some look sad and depressed; some look bitter and cynical; others are just plain angry.  Few smile and few look happy.  They have eaten the bitter herbs of life without God.

As human beings we can find meaning and purpose, happiness and fulfillment, only by returning to our Creator.  We were created by Him for His purposes, and life was meant to function a certain way – His way.

Our sins stand as a barrier between us and God, and we must find forgiveness on the basis of Christ’s atoning death on the cross.  We must go to God in repentance and faith, and then we can find a meaningful relationship with our Creator.  In his letter to the Ephesians could go on to refer to Isa. 57:19: “And He came and preached peace to you who were afar off and to those who were near”; and went on to say, “For through Him [i.e., Christ] we both have access by one Spirit to the Father” (Eph. 2:17,18).

Does the Christian experience difficulties in life?  He most certainly does.  But he takes his burdens to God in prayer; he comes in complete submission to the Father’s will, and he trusts in God’s unfailing providence.  He finds fulfillment in life by serving God and helping others.  And in the end he dies in the hope of eternal life.  It is a hope worth living for.

A REVIVAL

 

 

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  Owasco Dutch Reformed Church

 

 

                           

Note: The Second Great Awakening was a powerful revival that swept across the country during the early Nineteenth Century. (The First Great Awakening took place during the 1740’s).  The Second Great Awakening began in the 1790’s and lasted until the 1830’s.  Much of it was centered in Northern, Central and Western New York State, an area that became known as “The Burned Over District.”  Here is an account of one small part of the Awakening, a revival that began at a Dutch Reformed church in Owasco, NY, in 1816.  Owasco is a small village located in Cayuga County about 7 miles southeast of Auburn.  This building was constructed in 1815, just before the revival described.  The account also mentions a sister congregation at Sand Beach, located just outside of Auburn.  The account is taken from Accounts of Religious Revivals by Joshua Bradley, originally published in 1819 and republished in 1980 by Richard Owen Roberts.

 

“A most wonderful work of grace commenced in this place in 1816.  Seventeen persons were added to the church in January.  The number was rather unexpected, and produced a more than ordinary excitement in old professors, who generally before this had lain in a state of spiritual torpor.  In February, Rev. Mr. Ten Eych pastor of the above church, visited and preached in that part of his congregation bordering on Skaneateles Lake.  Here the power of God came down, and about thirty mostly young persons were soon discovered to be under the most pungent conviction.  He appointed another meeting for the next week, and then found a very large assembly who in the time of worship appeared to be in tears.  After closing meeting, he conversed with many and found some, under the most awful apprehensions of their ruin and wretchedness, while others were rejoicing in the hope of the gospel.  This induced him to propose to his consistory, the appointment of a meeting for the examination of such as felt the freedom of offering themselves for church membership.  By this time the flame had extended to every part of the society, and almost every day new cases occurred: Conferences were unusually thronged; God’s children were awake to their best interest; additional places for meeting were appointed and generally crowded.  The consistory had two meetings for the examination of candidates, about the last of February and first of March.  Sixty seven came before their first meeting, and thirty four before their last meeting.  One hundred and one joined the church on the first Lord’s day in march and sat down at their Lord’s table to commemorate his death.

“As several young persons from Sandbeach congregation were present, when these candidates were examined, there returned home deeply impressed.  That society had remained in a state of spiritual stupor: but the news of the large accession to the church of Owasco, together with the impressions made on the minds of those before mentioned, operated like an electrical spark: the flame spread with a rapidity unequalled by anything ever before seen in that region.  In the course of a few days there was scarcely a family in the neighborhood, where there were not some, more or less, under serious impressions; and in some families, all who were not church members were anxiously inquiring what they should do to be saved.  Conference meetings were held on every evening in the week, except Saturday evening.

“The Rev. Ten Eych appointed one evening a week for religious conversation.  This he found peculiarly serviceable.  It had a happy tendency to give freedom to many, who were before backward to open the state of their minds: and many received encouragement in hearing the state of others.  In May seventy one were examined and admitted to the communion of Sandbeach church.  The work still progressed in Owasco, and every sermon seemed to have a tendency either of comforting or awakening some present.  In July one hundred and forty were examined and admitted to the communion.  In one year there were admitted into those two churches, three hundred and fifty one. . . .

“In this revival God’s Spirit has operated differently on the minds of sinners from anything seen in some other places.  In relation to three fourths of those, who have been the subjects of hopeful conversion; the time between their first alarm, and their being set free in the liberty of God’s children, has not exceeded two weeks; — and respecting some, not more than half that time.

“Two instances I may here mention worthy of notice; a man who had previously spoken disrespectfully of the work, was with difficulty persuaded by his wife to attend conference, that was held I his neighborhood.  During the singing of the last psalm, he was awakened to a sense of his deplorable condition.  This was on Thursday afternoon.  On Friday morning he was distressed beyond any language to describe.  On Saturday morning he appeared to be the most happy person, on this side the perfect mansions of endless glory.  He rejoiced in the government of God, and seemed fully to approve of God’s plan of saving sinners through the meritorious righteousness of Jesus Christ.

“Another man, of seventy years, whose days had been wholly occupied in accumulating wealth, was awakened to a sense of his danger by a sudden death in his family, and in the course of a few days, was made to rejoice in the glorious hope the gospel presents.

“The whole work has been free from noise confusion and enthusiasm; nay, while distress and anguish of heart were seen depicted in their countenances, they strove to keep the same concealed from others, until constrained to apply to some pious friends to pray for them, or give them some spiritual instruction.

“Three fourths, at least, of those who have joined the above churches, are between the age of nine, and twenty five years, and perhaps an equal number of both sexes.  These have been led to own their unworthiness, wretchedness and entire sinfulness in a state of nature: that salvation alone is by free, sovereign, rich grace abounding to sinners through the atonement.  In about two hundred families, which compose the Owasco congregation, one hundred and eighty have more or less praying persons; and there are several instances where every branch of the family give evident tokens of a change of heart.  Many of these young converts promise fair to be peculiarly useful to the church of Christ.  They manifest sincere repentance, humility, a confident reliance on the all sufficient merits of a risen Redeemer, and a heart glowing with the warmest affection to his cause and interest in the world.”

 

A word on the vocabulary:

A “professor” is someone who professes faith in Christ.  Older writers would sometimes use the word in a negative sense to refer to someone whose profession of faith was weak or insincere, i.e., a nominal Christian.

A “consistory,” in the Reformed tradition, is a group of elders who oversee a church.  It is the rough equivalent to a “session” in a Presbyterian church.

A “society” is a legal entity that would own a church building and pay the pastor.  It would often include a large number of people in a given community.  A “church” is a smaller group of people who profess faith in Christ, are admitted to communion, and are subject to church discipline.

A “conference” would be a gathering to discuss the practical implications of the morning sermon or some other religious topic.

THE REPUBLICANS’ HEALTH CARE DILEMMA

 

Official Portrait

Sen. Mitch McConnell

 

This week Republican efforts to “repeal and replace” the Affordable Care Act, or “Obamacare” as it is also known, collapsed as Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell failed to muster the votes necessary to pass the measure.  The problem is that his Republican colleagues are divided over how to replace Obamacare, with some thinking that the proposed measure went too far and others thinking that it did not go far enough.  While the Republican caucus is coming under a lot of criticism for failing to act, it is not all clear what they could have “replaced” Obamacare with.  If the aim is to take the government out of health care decisions, then the objective would simply be to repeal Obamacare and not replace it with anything.  If, on the other hand, the aim is to stabilize the insurance markets, then the objective would be to fix Obamacare, not “replace” it.  It was never clear what the Republicans would have put in its place.

A proposal advance by Sen. Ted Cruz during the debate highlighted the problem.  He suggested that insurers be allowed to market plans that do not meet current ACA standards as long as they were required also to offer plans that do.  But actuaries from two major health insurance associations pronounced the plan unworkable. The insurers’ objections go right to the heart of the health insurance dilemma facing the Republicans today.  If healthier people have the option of buying less expensive coverage, the insurance companies will have to charge older, sicker people more money to pay for their coverage.

In order to make health insurance affordable it is necessary to spread the risk over as wide a base as possible.  You need a large number of healthy people paying into the plan to cover the expenses of those who are sick.  Or to state the matter more crassly, the whole idea behind health insurance is to take money from someone who is healthy and use it to pay the hospital bill of someone who is sick.  If you make the system voluntary you run into a problem known in the health insurance industry as “adverse selection” – only sick people sign up and the insurance company has to charge them astronomical premiums to cover their expenses.  The patients, in effect, wind up paying their own medical bills, albeit through a third party payer.  It defeats the whole purpose of health insurance and makes the individual insurance market unworkable.

The main problem with Obamacare is that even with the individual mandate not enough younger, healthier people enrolled.  Insurers were forced to raise their rates, which caused even more enrollees to drop out.  Remove the individual mandate and the problem becomes even worse.

The main problem with the various Republican proposals is that they would leave a large number of people uninsured, and that in turn raises the question of what to do when the uninsured become sick or injured?  Who will bear the cost of their treatment?  In the past such persons would seek treatment in the emergency rooms of hospitals, and the hospitals then would engage in elaborate cost shifting, overcharging patients with insurance to cover the cost of those without. The U.S. as a whole spent more per capita on health care, but without better health results.  One can hardly imagine a less cost effective way to provide health care.  These are problems that plagued the American health care system for decades, and Obamacare was an attempt to correct.  The Congressional Budget Office has pointed out that the various Republicans proposals would simply take us back to where we were before, with potentially millions left uninsured.

The dilemma, then, for the Republicans, is this: if you make the system voluntary and peal back the Medicaid expansion, you leave large numbers of persons uninsured.  It is a classic case of where individual self-interest comes into conflict with the public good.  But the whole idea behind health insurance is to pool our financial resources to protect ourselves against risk.  And none of us want to wants to get seriously ill just so that we can claim that we got our money’s worth out of the insurance.  Health insurance is something that we pay for and hope that we never have to use.  It is enough just to know that it is there in case we need it.

The goal of any humane and socially responsible health care policy should be exactly what President Trump has stated – to make affordable health care available to all.  It remains to be seen what Congress will do next.  But if Obamacare cannot be fixed is it time to repeal and replace it – with a single payer national health insurance plan?

THE CHRISTIAN IN THE WORLD

 

4.2.7

Van Gogh: Man Reading the Bible

 

In our blog post of June 11 we saw that the Christian’s aim should not be the preservation of America’s civil religion.  But what should its aim be?  How is the Christian to relate to the surrounding world?

In Titus 2:11-14 the apostle Paul gives us a brief summary of what the Christian life is supposed to look like.  It is a different kind of life-style based on a distinctively Christian worldview.

It begins with a historical fact: “For the grace of God that brings salvation has appeared to all men . . .” (v. 11; NKJV).  Here Paul is undoubtedly referring back to the first advent of Christ and His death on the cross that opened up to all mankind the offer of salvation.  This was the great turning point in history.

But what effect does this have on us?  Paul goes on to say that salvation is “teaching us that, denying ungodliness and worldly lusts, we should live soberly, righteously, and godly in the present age . . .” (v. 12).  Here it will be seen that there is both a negative and a positive side to the Christian life.  On the negative side we are to “deny ungodliness and worldly lusts.”  The word “ungodliness” might better be translated “impiety” – it is the lack of devotion to or reverence for God.  A good modern term would be “secularism,” the absence of God in our thinking.  “Worldly lusts” are self-centered desires that drive most of human behavior – the lust for pleasure, wealth, fame or power.  We sometimes dress it up as “enlightened self-interest” or “the profit motive.”  These are the things which typically mark human behavior outside of Christ, and the Christian must turn his back on all of this, leaving it all behind.  He has been called to a higher life.

On the positive side we are to “live soberly, righteously, and godly.”  To live soberly means to exercise sound judgment in all of the decisions we make.  It means that we do not go through life pursuing pleasure with reckless abandon, but we carefully weigh the consequences of the actions we take.  We look to promote the glory of God and the well-being of our fellow man.

But we are also called to live “righteously,” which means to live in accordance with God’s law.  God is our Creator, our Lawgiver and Judge.  We can find happiness and fulfillment in life only when we live in accordance with His will and purposes.

And then we are to live “godly” or “piously,” as the word might be better translated.  We are to give God His proper place in our lives, to have a genuine and heartfelt devotion towards Him, and to acknowledge Him in all of our ways.

All of this we are to do “in the present age,” the time in which we are now living.  The Bible often contrasts “the present age” with “the age which is to come”: and the “the present age” is marked by sin and evil.  Nevertheless the Christian is expected to live a godly life now, in the present age.  This will inevitably mean a life of non-conformity to the world.

But why would we want to do this?  Why would we run the risk of social ostracism and financial failure by refusing to conform?  The answer is because we are “looking for the blessed hope and glorious appearing of our great God and Savior Jesus Christ” (v. 13).  The Christian looks forward to the future, and what he sees is “the glorious appearing” of Christ, His visible return at the end of the age when He comes to establish a new order of things here on earth.  The Christian is conscious that what we experience now will not last forever.  Christ will return and things will be entirely different.  The Christian lives for tomorrow and not for today.

It should be kept in mind that God’s whole purpose in our salvation is to free us, not just from the guilt of sin, but also from its power.  Christ “gave Himself for us, that He might redeem us from every lawless deed and purify for Himself His own special people, zealous for good works” (v. 14).  The word “redeem” means to pay a ransom and thereby secure the release of a slave or prisoner.  We were once under the power and guilt of sin.  Christ paid the penalty for that sin by dying on the cross and thereby secured our salvation.  And He did this at enormous cost to Himself: He “gave Himself for us.”

But why did He do this?  What was His aim and objective?  It was not just to forgive us but also to sanctify us: “ . . .that He might redeem from every lawless deed and purify for Himself his own special people, zealous for good works.”  It was sin that got us into trouble; Christ freed us from that condition.  Now we are “His own special people, a people of His own possession; we now belong to Him.  And we are to be “zealous for good works” – we are not to conform half-heartedly to an external set of rules; we are to desire sincerely to do good to others.

The Christian, then, is called to a life of non-conformity to the surrounding world.  He does not have the luxury of living the life of a nice, comfortable, middle-class existence.  He is conscious of answering to a Higher Authority; and that will eventually bring him into conflict with the values of the surrounding world.  This will require personal sacrifice on his part – the possible loss of job, family reputation.  It may even invite on occasion legal prosecution.  But faithful to God he must remain.  The sacrifice is temporary; the gain is eternal.   May God grant us all the grace to live for Him!

A RELATIONSHIP WITH CHRIST

 

 

 

We sometimes hear it said that what we need is not religion, but a relationship with Jesus.  The statement, however, is a bit disingenuous.  If “a relationship with Jesus” is not “religion,” then what is “religion”?  Jesus was, after all, a highly regarded religious teacher, and to most people’s minds a relationship with Jesus is certainly religion.  So when people make the statement, how exactly do they mean by the world “religion”?  Usually they leave it undefined.  Presumably it is whatever bad experience one may have had with a church in the past.

There is, however, an element of truth to the charge.  It is sad but true that much of what passes for religion these days in the typical, modern institutional church has very little genuinely spiritual content.  The typical church functions as a social club, the pastor is a trained professional who is paid to perform certain administrative duties, and the Sunday morning service is little more than a mere formality.  Ironically there is very little sense of the presence of Jesus.  What is lacking is a meaningful relationship with Christ.

But what, then, is a relationship with Christ?  What does one look like?  The apostle Paul gives us a picture in Philippians chapter 3 in which he describes his own relationship with Christ.

By almost any measure Paul led a remarkable life.  Called to be the apostle to the Gentiles he preached the gospel throughout Asia Minor and Greece.  But in so doing he encountered ferocious opposition along the way, and his path eventually took him to the city of Rome where he suffered martyrdom.  His letter to the Philippians was written from a prison.

But what led him to take such risks, and expose himself to such dangers?  Why would anyone in his right mind persist in such a hazardous course?  In Philippians chapter 3 pulls back the veil a bit to give us a glimpse into his own heart.

He begins by describing his own religious background as a devout Jew.  He was “circumcised the eighth day, of the stock of Israel, of the tribe of Benjamin, a Hebrew of the Hebrews, concerning the law, a Pharisee; concerning zeal, persecuting the church; concerning the righteousness which is in the law, blameless” (Phil. 3:5,6; NKJV).  In other words his religion consisted almost entirely in what he was what he did.

But when he became a Christian his whole perspective on life changed dramatically.  “But what things were gain to me, these I have counted loss for Christ.  Yes indeed I also count all things loss for the excellence of the knowledge of Christ Jesus my Lord for whom I have suffered the loss of all things, and count them as rubbish, that I may gain Christ” (vv. 7,8)

But why?  What is so special about Christ?  Paul goes on to explain.

Paul says that he wants to be “found in Him” (v. 9).  This is a reference to union with Christ.  When a person repents of his sin, puts his trust in Christ, and is baptized, he becomes one with Christ; he is “in Him.”  And this, in turn, has several implications.

The first of these is the forgiveness of one’s sins, or “justification by faith” as Paul puts it elsewhere.  Here Paul draws a contrast between “my own righteousness, which is from the law” and “that which is through faith in Christ, the righteousness which is from God by faith” (v. 9).  In other words we are made righteous in the sight of God (justification) by an imputed righteousness.  Having been united to Christ by faith we are counted as Christ Himself.  We are credited with His righteousness.

But does this mean that having been forgiven we can go out and live like the devil?  Not at all, because union with Christ means several other things as well.  For Paul goes on to say “that I may know Him and the power of His resurrection” (v. 10).  Note: Paul said that he wanted to “know Him,” not merely know about Him.  What he aimed at was a personal acquaintance with Christ, a meaningful relationship with Him.  This, in turn, means knowing something of “the power of His resurrection” – the life-giving power that transforms lives, the spiritual life within.

But Paul goes on.  He also says that he wants to know “the fellowship of His sufferings, being conformed to His death” (v. 10).  To follow Christ means to go where He went and experience what He experienced.  And Christ was eventually crucified.  And so too we are told that we must experience persecution.  “’A servant is not greater than his master.’  If they persecuted Me, they will also persecute you” (John 15:20).

Paul goes on to compare the Christian life to a foot race in which “forgetting the things which are behind and reaching forward to those things which are ahead, I press toward the prize of the upward call of God in Christ Jesus” (vv. 13,14).  It is a life of determined purpose and strenuous exertion in which we press on to the goal that lies ahead, and do not allow ourselves to be distracted by lesser things.

Paul goes on in the end of the chapter to lament the presence of certain false teachers who, he says, are “enemies of the cross of Christ” (v. 18).  He describes them as a bunch of hedonistic materialists (“whose god is their belly, and whose glory is in their shame – who set their mind on earthly things” – does this not sound like the typical, modern consumer oriented American?).

Christians, however, have a different perspective on life: “. . . our citizenship is in heaven” (v. 20).  We belong to a different realm or state; and we live for the future, not the present, viz., the Second Coming of Christ “from which we also eagerly wait for the Savior, the Lord Jesus,” who will release us from our present ills and inaugurate a glorious future.  In the words of the old gospel hymn,

“This world is not my home,

I’m just apassing through.

My treasures are laid up

Somewhere beyond the blue;

The angels beckon me

Through heaven’s open door,

And I can’t feel at home

In this world anymore.”

The problem with many churches today is that they have a “religion,” but it mainly consists in external observances.  There is very little real spirituality about it.  But God calls us to have a relationship with Christ.  Christ is supposed to be the focus of our attention, the object of our worship, the driving force in our lives.  A real relationship with Christ begins with a sound conversion – repentance, faith and the new birth; and it is fostered by a life of prayer and personal Bible study.  A relationship with Christ transforms us inwardly – gives us a new perspective, new values and new desires.  It leads to holy living and a life of non-conformity to the world.

May God send His church a revival!

GOD’S LAW V. MAN’S LAW

 

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The United States Supreme Court has legalized abortion.  It has legalized same-sex marriage.  Both decisions have placed religious organizations in an awkward position.  What should the churches do?  Conform to the changing mores of society?  Or risk marginalization by clinging to the older standards of morality?

The question is not a new one, and Jesus made it clear that the conflict existed in the First Century.  The underlying question is this: what exactly determines morality?  The consensus of contemporary society?  Or some eternal, transcendent standard or moral law?  Are there such things as moral absolutes?  Jesus answered in the latter.

The Gospel of Luke records an incident in which Jesus confronted the religious leaders of His day.  At one point Jesus made the statement, “No servant can serve two masters; for either he will hate the one and love the other, or else he will be loyal to the one and despise the other.  You cannot serve God and Mammon” (Luke 16:13; NKJV).  “Mammon” is an Aramaic word that means wealth or profit.  Here it is personified into a kind of pagan god.  The Pharisees, Luke tells us, “were lovers of money” (v. 14), not unlike certain religious leaders today, and when the Pharisees heard Jesus’ statement “they derided Him.”

Jesus’ response was sharp and to the point.  He pointed out that “You are those who justify yourselves before men, but God knows your hearts” (v. 15).  They has a high opinion of themselves based on their standing in society.  People looked up to them; they were honored and esteemed.  By all outward appearances they were successful.   But God knew better.  He looks on the heart, and knew what they were really like inside.  And the inward reality did not match the outward appearance.

Jesus then went on to make a telling statement: “For what is highly esteemed among men is an abomination in the sight of God” (v. 15).  What He is saying here, in effect, is that there is a difference between a morality based on the standards of human society and one that is based on the will of God.

Every civilized human society has standards of human behavior that it expects the members of that society to meet.  But these standards are usually based on a pragmatic consideration: this is what we need to do to be able to work together to achieve a common goal.  It is a morality based on enlightened self-interest rather than any regard for the will of the Creator.  Aristotle could actually go so far as to say that ethics or morality is a branch of political science.  “Whosoever therefore would achieve anything in social or political life must be of good moral character; which indicates that the discussion of character not only belongs to social science, but is its very foundation or starting-point” (Magna Moralia, I.i).  It was only later that men began to ask the question, what ultimately makes a given human action right or wrong?  Is there any universal or transcendent standard of morality?  And even then philosophers could not admit that there was only one, infinite, eternal Creator-God to whom we as human beings are accountable; they had recourse instead to the concept of natural law.

But the Bible begins with the obvious question, how did we get here in the first place?  And the answer is that we were created by an intelligent Supreme Being who made us in His image and gave us rational and moral faculties.  Everything, then, is supposed to conform to His creative purpose; and that, in turn, determines the nature of morality.

So great, however, is the disparity between God’s standards and man’s that Jesus could say that “what is highly esteemed among men is an abomination in the sight of God.”  Human society admires success.  We look up to people who have education, wealth, good looks, athletic prowess, political standing.  We encourage ambition and gratify pride. But Jesus uses an exceptionally strong word to describe all of this: it is an “abomination” in the sight of God – literally something that is disgusting or detestable.  What God requires of us is that we love the Lord our God with all of our hearts and love our neighbors as ourselves; not push and shove our way to the top and then pat ourselves on the back for our good success.

That, of course, places the individual human being in an awkward position.  When God’s law and man’s law conflict, what should he do?  Jesus went on to tell His listeners that “it is easier for heaven and earth to pass away than for one tittle of the law to fail” (v. 17).  A “tittle” was the tiny little overhang or projection that would distinguish one letter of the Hebrew alphabet from another.  Legislatures, courts and monarchs may all have their ideas about what they might like to see happen in the world; they might seek to impose their will at the point of the bayonet; but in the end it will all come to naught.  In the end every human government passes from the stage of history.  But God’s throne is eternal; His rule over the universe is never-ending, and in the end He will be the final Judge.  His word is the only one that counts.  As human beings we dare not disobey Him, no matter what men may say.

In modern Western society Judaeo-Christian morality may seem old-fashioned.  We are accused of living in the past.  But we are really living in eternity, while the surrounding world is self-destructing.  The path of wisdom is obvious.

CHRISTIANITY AND CIVILIZATION

 

The Tower of Babel

 

 

In our last blog post we considered the nature of civilization, and concluded that it was an organized effort on the part of human beings to live and work together; and that this, in turn, required certain standards of behavior.  But what is a Christian to make of all of this?  Is civilization good or bad?  Should he support it, attack it, or ignore it?

The answer is that from a Christian standpoint civilization is both good and bad.  It is both good and bad because it reflects the fundamental contradictions of human nature.  We are created in the image of God and have consciences.  We are social creatures.  Yet at the same time we are also fallen sinners and routinely do what is bad.  And thus it is with human civilization as a whole.

On the one hand there is much that is undeniably good in civilization.  In a civilization people are willing to work together for the common good.  When a government is created to establish justice, this is a positive thing.  The apostle Paul could go so far as to call the civil magistrate “God’s minister to you for good” (Rom. 13:1-7), and urges prayers to be made “for kings and all who are in authority” (I Tim. 2:1,2).  Civilizations have made tremendous advances in science and technology and have created great works of art, music and literature.  All of this is undeniably good.

But sinners are still sinners, and this is reflected in civilization as well.  Even when human beings outwardly do what is right they often do it for the wrong reasons.   Instead of being motivated by a genuine love for God and for righteousness, individuals are often driven by the prospects of rewards and punishments that are held out by the particular society in which they live.  They seek the praise of their fellow men, or dread the prospect of a prison term.  They go along in order to get along.  At best they are motivated by “enlightened self-interest,” but that is still a form of selfishness nonetheless.

Moreover civilization itself is in many ways an attempt to better the human condition, but to do it without God. It is an expression of man’s hubris, a reflection of his underlying rebellion against God.  Civilizations impose standards of behavior, but these are usually conceived of as standards we create ourselves to advance our own interests as a society.  And these values and ideals often fall far short of God’s standards of morality – everything from Roman gladiatorial games to American rugged individualism.

But what is even worse, the members of society often try to undermine the very ideals they profess to believe.  No sooner is a constitution adopted and laws passed then men begin looking for ways to circumvent them.  Right and wrong soon become a matter of what we can get away with.  We in the U.S. declared that “all men are created equal” and are endowed by their Creator with “unalienable rights” to “life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness.”  But just eighty years later the U.S. Supreme Court, in the infamous Dred Scott decision, declared that black people were not included in the “all men” of the Declaration, and that “they had no rights which a white man was bound to respect.”  And so we rationalize our bad behavior.

What our Creator really expects from us, however, is that we love Him with all of our hearts and our neighbors as ourselves.

The Bible gives us a brief but vivid account of the beginning of human civilization.  In Gen. 11:1-9 we are told how that ancient peoples found a place to dwell in the land of Shinar (Sumeria).  They then proceeded to build a city.  “And they said, ‘Come, let us build ourselves a city, and a tower whose top is in the heavens; let us make a name for ourselves, lest we be scattered abroad over the face of the whole earth” (v. 4; NKJV).  What is significant here is not just that they undertook a construction project, but the mentality that lay behind it.  They wanted to reach the heavens and “make a name for ourselves.”  In other words it was a purely human endeavor driven by pride and ambition.  And God’s response was to scatter them by confusing their language.  The city became known as Babel, or Babylon, and it remained a symbol of worldly power and human arrogance.

To understand the biblical attitude toward civilization it is necessary first to understand the biblical view of history.  The Bible draws a contrast between “this age” and “that which is to come” (Eph. 1:21).  The age to come is a time when the Messiah will reign over all the earth.  But this age is the time when “the prince of the power of the air” is “the spirit who now works in the sons of disobedience” who are “fulfilling the desires of the flesh and of the mind, and were by nature children of wrath” (Eph. 2:1-3).

By the same token the apostle John tells us that “all that is in the world – the lust of the flesh, the lust of the eyes, and the pride of life – is not of the Father, but is of the world.  And the world is passing away, and the lust of it . . .” (I John 2:16, 17a).  In other words human society as a whole, including its various civilizations, is fallen and corrupt, and under the wrath of God.

The Christian, however, is no longer a part a part of this corrupt world system.  “He [i.e., God] has delivered us from the power of darkness and conveyed us into the kingdom of the Son of His love” (Col. 1:13).  And this kingdom operates on a whole different principle from the surrounding world.  “. . .for the kingdom of God is not eating or drinking, but righteousness and peace and joy in the Holy Spirit” (Rom. 14:17).  Thus a human civilization can never truly be called “Christian”; it is always sub-Christian at best.

But what about the culture of civilization – its arts and science, its learning and philosophy?  “For the wisdom of this world is foolishness with God” (I Cor. 3:19: cf. 1:18-25).  Because fallen sinners refuse to acknowledge God as the Creator and Lord, their philosophy is based on a false premise and they develop a warped and distorted view of reality.  They live in a world created by God, but they refuse to admit the fact.  The result is an educational system that does not truly educate.

That, then, is the picture that the Bible paints of human civilization.  But how is the Christian to relate to the surrounding world?  How does he fit in?  Or doesn’t he?

On the positive side we are to honor and respect those who are in positions of authority in human society.  Jesus said “Render therefore to Caesar the things that are Caesar’s, and to God the things that are God’s” (Matt. 22:21).  The apostle Peter could write, “Therefore submit yourselves to every ordinance of man for the Lord’s sake . . .” including kings and governors.  We are to “Honor all people.  Love the brotherhood.  Fear God.  Honor the king” (I Pet. 2:13-17).  It is even permissible on occasion for the Christian to avail himself of the legal remedies at his disposal.  The apostle Paul could claim Roman citizenship and make a formal appeal to Caesar when threatened (Acts 22:25-28; 256:10-12).

Yet the Christian must always be conscious that he answers to a higher authority, and when human law clashes with divine law, divine law always takes precedence.  Jesus state the matter quite starkly: “And do not fear those who kill the body but cannot kill the soul.  But rather fear Him who is able to destroy both soul and body in hell” (Matt. 10:28).

The fact of the matter is that the life of a Christian should stand in sharp contrast with that of the world.  Paul could write to the Ephesian believers and tell them “For you were once darkness, but you are light in the Lord.  Walk as children of light (for the fruit of the Spirit is in all goodness, righteousness, and truth), . . .”  He then goes on to say, “And have no fellowship with the unfruitful works of darkness, but rather expose them . . .” (Eph. 5:8-11).

But what about Western Civilization?  Was it not a “Christian” civilization?  Should not Christians have whole-heartedly supported it?

The answer is that Western civilization was only superficially Christian.  It supported state churches and professed Christian values, but it was largely an external morality, whereas genuine Christianity is the life of Christ within the heart, transforming life from the inside out.  Western civilization was the greatest civilization in the history of mankind, and it attained that status precisely because of the influence on it of Christianity.  But it still fell short of what our Creator expects from us as human beings.  Genuine Christians must conform to a higher standard.

The Christian, then, lives in the world but is not really a part of it.  He seeks to do good to his neighbors wherever he can, but must be careful not to participate in their sins.  While he may support the government in its efforts to establish justice and meet human need, the Christian realizes that man’s real need is for salvation and eternal life.  The Christian’s aim, then, is to be a light shining in the darkness.

FOR WHAT DID THEY DIE?

 

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Gettysburg

Today, of course, is the day when we honor the many servicemen and women who gave their lives for their country.  But for what exactly did they die?  We are often told that they were defending our freedom.  But most of the recent wars the U.S. has fought involved conflicts in foreign countries.  In many cases these countries did not have a tradition of democracy.  So what exactly was it that we were defending?  “American values?”  But what are they?

Not too long ago Wall Street Journal columnist Bret Stephens asked the question, “Do we still want the west?”  He told of how in the late 1980’s Stanford University did away with its required Western Civilization course.  An attempt was made last year to bring the course back, but the students voted it down by a 6 to 1 margin (Wall Street Journal, Feb. 21, 2017).

Stephens went on in his op-ed piece to say “There was a time when the West knew what it was about.  It did so because it thought about itself – often in freshman Western Civ classes.”  But today do we even know what a “civilization” is, let alone Western civilization?  What does it mean to be “civilized”?

The word “civilized” comes from the Latin adjective “civilis,” which in turn is related to the noun “civis,” which means a citizen.  A “civis” was a member of a “civitas,” a union of people in an organized community.  The Roman statesman Marcus Tullius Cicero described a “civitas” or state this way: there are “societies and groups of men, united by law and right, which are called states (civitates)” (On the Commonwealth, VI.13).

The earliest form of civilization was a city state.  Thousands of years ago various groups of people chose to give up their nomadic existence as hunter-gatherers and chose instead to live in settled communities.  Early city states arose in lower Mesopotamia (Sumeria) and then others spread across the ancient Near East.  Eventually some city states became more powerful than others and developed into large empires.

But life in a settled community requires some form of social organization.  A sociologist could argue that even primitive tribal societies have at least some form of social organization, and of course they are right.  But life in a settled community requires something more formal and elaborate.  First of all there must be an organized government with written laws and records.  This is why Cicero defined a “civitas” as a group of people “united by law and right.”  Written laws and records, in turn, require a written language.  Moreover in a civilized society there is likely to be economic specialization, with different people pursuing different trades.  This, in turn, requires some form of trade and commerce.

But in order for any of this to happen there must also be something else.  There must be a willingness on the part of the citizens to cooperate and work together.  In order for this to happen there must be shared values and a shared vision.  There must be the social skills necessary for people to work together at the practical level.  And all of this requires some sort of educational system to transfer these values and skills from one generation to another.

In short, a civilized requires social norms – rules to govern human behavior.  These include formal, written laws against criminal activity, as well as customary rules that govern everyday behavior.  This includes common everyday rules of etiquette – people are expected to treat each other with courtesy and respect.  They must be polite with each other.

The Greeks called these social norms ethoi, from which we get our English word “ethics,” and the Romans called them “mores,” from which we get our English word “morals.”  In either case the words refer to accustomed habits or regular practices.  It is the way people are expected to behave in a civilized society, and it is what enables human beings to live and work together harmoniously.

Nor must the role of religion in all of this be overlooked.  Most civilized societies have a form of civil religion, the role of which is to reinforce the mores of society by encouraging people to look beyond their own individual self-interest and to see a larger reality.  The individual comes to see himself as a part of a larger whole, and this helps motivate him to cooperate with the other members of society.

All of which brings us back to Mr. Stephens’ article.  Do we still believe in Western civilization?  Mr. Stephens says that it was once understood that Western civilization’s “moral foundations had been laid in Jerusalem; its philosophical ones in Athens; its legal ones in Rome.  It treated with reverence reason and revelation, freedom and responsibility . . . It believed in the excellence of its music and literature, and the superiority of its political ideals . . .And it believed all of this was worth defending – in classrooms and newspapers and statehouses and battlefields.”

And what happened to Western civilization?  It collapsed during the 20th Century.  Radical philosophers attacked belief in universal truths and moral absolutes.   The counter culture of the late 1960’s rejected social norms of every kind.  Established institutions were seen as artificial and corrupt, and “back to nature” was the cry.  Free speech and free love were the order of the day.  Then came radical feminism’s rejection of gender roles, along with no-fault divorce, legalized abortion, and finally same-sex marriage.  In our consumer oriented society we have rejected social norms of every kind, and believe we are entitled to engage in almost any kind of behavior that suits us, be it rude and crude, vulgar and bizarre.  In short, we have rejected the very premise of civilized life – that there are social norms which ought to be observed in order for organized human society to function smoothly.  In a word, we have become uncivilized.

What does the future hold?  None but God can see.  But it is hard to see how American democracy can survive in a sea of social chaos.  Has Western civilization has become an anachronism in a post-modern world?

THE CHRISTIAN’S PRAYER LIFE

 

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David the Psalmist Giving Thanks

 

Having enumerated all the different pieces of armor, Paul then adds to that the exhortation, “praying always with all prayer and supplication in the Spirit, being watchful to this end with all perseverance and supplication for all the saints . . .” (Eph. 6:18; NKJV).  He began this section by saying, “Finally, my brethren, be strong in the Lord and in the power of His might” (v. 10).  The “whole armor of God,” by itself, is insufficient.  Ultimately we are directly dependent upon God himself, and the way we appropriate His strength and power is through prayer.  Prayer is the life-blood of the Christian life.

We are to pray “always,” or “on every occasion,” or “at every time,” as it might be more literally translated.  The idea here is not that you are constantly engaged in the act of prayer, 24-7, but rather that every time you are conscious of a need, every time a situation arises that requires a conscious decision, you pray.  We seek the Lord’s guidance; we seek the Lord’s aid.  We bring everything to Him in prayer.

We are to pray “with all prayer and supplication.”  “Prayer” is the general word for just that – prayer.  “Supplication” carries with it the specific connotation of petition or entreaty.  Obviously part of what we do in prayer is to ask God for things.

We are to pray “in the Spirit.”  We are told in Romans 8:26 that “. . . the Spirit also helps in our weaknesses.  We do not know what we should pray for as we ought, but the Spirit Himself makes intercession for us with groanings which cannot be uttered.”  Prayer is not just a simple matter of us talking directly to God the Father.  We do that, of course.  But because we cannot see the future, let alone see the spiritual forces arrayed against us, we often find ourselves in a position in which we really do not know what to pray for.  In this the Holy Spirit works actively on our behalf.

We are to be “watchful.”  The word here means being awake and alert, watchful and vigilant.  As Paul has gone on to great lengths to demonstrate, we “wrestle . . . against principalities, against powers, against the rulers of the darkness of this age, against spiritual hosts of wickedness in the heavenly places” (v. 12).  Satan will try to catch us off guard.  He will tempt us when we least expect it.  Therefore we must be in a prayer attitude at all times.

We are to pray “with all perseverance.”  In other words, we are to continue in prayer steadfastly.  This is to be a regular, continuous part of the believer’s life.  There will always be a need for prayer; the struggle is never ending and God wants us to feel our dependence upon Him.  Prayer is a necessary and vital part of the Christian’s life.  Without prayer there is no meaningful relationship with God.

We are to pray “for all the saints.”  We have been commanded to “love one another” (John 15:12,17; I Thess. 4:9,10; I Pet. 1:22; I John 3:11; 4:7,11).  One of the ways that we express that love is by praying for each other.  We are not always in a position individually to meet the physical and financial needs of others, but we can go to the One who can.  It is one of the most important ministries we can exercise for each other.

But most importantly of all, prayer is necessary for the effectiveness of the ministry.  And so Paul asks for prayer for himself “. . . praying always . . . and for me, that utterance may be given to me, that I may open my mouth boldly to make known the mystery of the gospel . . .” (v. 19).  Paul, at the time he wrote this, was a prisoner.  He refers to himself as “an ambassador in chains” (v. 21).  He had been arrested for causing a disturbance in Jerusalem.  At the time that he wrote the epistle he was living in his own quarters in Rome, and was free to receive visitors and speak to them, but he was under guard (Acts. 28:302,31).  What he asks is that “utterance” would be given to him so that he could speak boldly.  There is obviously something intimidating about being arrested for something that you said, and our natural instinct for self-preservation might lead us to temper the message a bit to make it less offensive to others.  But it takes both wisdom and courage to react to circumstances as we ought.  The real question is, what needs to be said and how ought we to say it?  What does God want us to say?  And what do people need to hear?  How can we say it so that it is unmistakably clear yet not unnecessarily offensive?  And then this, in turn, calls for an inward strength to do the right thing under difficult circumstances, and the Holy Spirit must provide that.

And why is this so necessary?  It is so that we might “make known the mystery of the gospel” (v. 19).  What is ultimately at stake is the eternal destiny of countless multitudes of lost sinners.  Without the gospel they are lost.  And today perhaps the greatest crime against humanity are churches that no longer preach the gospel.  They fail to discharge the solemn commission that has been given to them by God.

Revival comes from God; and if we would have it we must ask for it.  Why is our nation in the shape that it is in today?  One reason, at least, is that Christians do not pray!