Tribulation Saint

Historic Christianity in the Twenty First Century

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!

THE SPIRITUAL WAR

 

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We are living in a tumultuous time.  A controversial president is sitting in the White House, Russia is interfering in elections throughout the free world, and North Korea racing to develop nuclear weapons and intercontinental ballistic missiles.  Congress is struggling to reform the healthcare system.  And the LGBTQ community is actively working to change long accepted standards of sexual morality.  What are Christians to make of all of this?

One response is to take political action – to organize, canvass and raise funds.  Yet the Bible makes it clear that there is more to the world’s problems than just special interests at work in Washington.  There is a spiritual dimension to the conflict, and it will take more than just political action to make things right.  We are, in fact, locked in a spiritual war.

“”For we do not wrestle against flesh and blood, but against principalities, against powers, against the rulers of the darkness of this age, against spiritual hosts of wickedness in high places” (Eph. 6:12: NKJV).  What we are up against is not just “flesh and blood,” the natural human and physical forces we encounter in everyday life, but rather “principalities” (“rulers” – NASV, ESV), “powers” (“authorities” – ESV), “rulers of the darkness of this age,” “the spiritual hosts of wickedness in the heavenly places.”  Paul had previously introduced these sinister forces in chapter 2, verse 2 when he said that the unsaved “walked according to the course of this world, according to the prince of the power of the air, the spirit who now works in the sons of disobedience . . .”  What is going on in the world is positively evil, and it plays into the hands of Satan himself in his rebellion against God.  He is the one who “works in the sons of disobedience,” and has blinded their eyes (II Cor. 4:4)  These spiritual forces are not bound by the laws of nature and human psychology, and hence social pressure and marketing techniques are of no avail against them.

What is needed is something greater, something more powerful.  And so Paul tells his readers, “be strong in the Lord and in power of His might” (Eph. 6:10).  We must look outside of ourselves, to God Himself, for the strength to prevail.

To illustrate the point Paul borrows some metaphors from the military realm.  “Put on the whole armor of God, that you may be able to stand against the wiles of the devil” (v. 11).  He then elaborates in verses 14-17 where he describes the individual pieces of armor.  Some of the imagery is drawn from passages in the Old Testament prophet Isaiah, describing the Messiah armed for battle.

So what do we need in order to succeed in the Christian life and ministry?  The first thing that Paul mentions is “having girded your waist with truth” (v. 14).  The first thing we need is absolute sincerity of heart and mind.  “Behold, You desire truth in the inward parts . . .” (Ps. 51:6).  We must sincerely believe and practice what we preach.  Hypocrisy will get us nowhere in the Christian life and ministry.

The next piece of armor that Paul mentions is “the breastplate of righteousness” (v. 14), or “the breastplate of faith and love,” as he calls it in I Thess. 5:8.  The war in which we are engaged is primarily a conflict between good and evil. By living a righteous life we advance the cause of Christ and frustrate the plans of the devil.  Christ is glorified when His people are living examples of what the Christian life is supposed to be like.

Paul then says that we are to have “shod your feet with the preparation of the gospel of peace” (v. 18).  Here the reference is undoubtedly to Isa. 52:7:

“How beautiful upon the mountains

Are the feet of him who brings good news,

Who proclaims peace,

Who brings glad tidings of good things,

Who proclaims salvation,

Who says to Zion,

‘Your God reigns!’”

The church is to go forth and proclaim a message, the “good news” of salvation.  This is what the church has to offer to the world, the message to which men and women are invited to respond.  If we are to fulfill the Great Commission we must make sure that we get the message right.

Then we are to take up “the shield of faith with which you will be able to quench all the fiery darts of the wicked one” (v. 16).  The Roman shield was a large, oblong shield made of wood and covered with leather.  The “fiery darts” were darts or arrows dipped in pitch and set on fire.  Thus when the darts would hit the shield they would be blunted and extinguished.  The “fiery darts of the wicked one” would include temptations, accusations and outright persecution.  To counter Satan’s attacks what is needed is faith – faith in God’s goodness and power to deliver us.

Next Paul mentions “the helmet of salvation” (v. 17), or as he calls it in I Thess. 5:8, “the hope of salvation.”  We fight the battle in the confidence that no matter what befalls us in this life we have been saved and have been promised eternal life.

And then finally Paul comes to “the sword of the Spirit, which is the word of God” (v. 17).  Interestingly this is the only offensive weapon mentioned in the passage.  Here “the sword of the Spirit” is identified as “the word of God,” and the word for “word” (rema) refers specifically to the spoken word.  It is Scripture, as originally inspired by God Himself, and it is Scripture as it is faithfully proclaimed today.  Moreover it is “the sword of the Spirit” – it was originally inspired by the Holy Spirit, and it is used today but the Holy Spirit to convict sinners.  And is this not the major weakness of the church today?  We are liable to hear anything and everything from the pulpit today except a careful but forceful exposition of Scripture.  And man’s word cannot replace God’s.

All of these things constituted “the whole armor of God.”  They are the result of God’s grace at work in our lives, and are the practical means by which Christ advances His kingdom.  In this way we can be “strong in the Lord and in the power of His might.”

And here we can see the necessary ingredients for an effective ministry.  It is not necessarily education or technology or financial resources.  It is a life lived close to God, it is personal holiness, and it is the blessing and power of the Holy Spirit on God’s Word as it is proclaimed to mankind.  May we consecrate our lives to Him, and seek the filling of His Spirit!

 

THE CHRISTIAN EMPLOYEE

 

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Van Gogh: Men and Women Going to Work

 

Most of us have had the experience of working for employers, and we would have to admit that it has not always been a pleasant experience.  Most business executives today are focused on the corporate bottom line, and that often means that they work their employees as hard as they can and pay them as little as they can.  And in some cases our immediate boss may be either difficult to work with or just plain incompetent.  What is a Christian employee to do in such a situation?

Writing to the church at Ephesus the apostle Paul addresses the master / servant relationship.  The immediate reference is to the institution of slavery, and significantly Paul does not condemn it outright.  Every society has a social and economic structure that places some individuals in positions of authority over others, and that is unavoidable.  The question is, however, how are the individuals in these relationships supposed to treat each other?

Paul says, “Bondservants, be obedient to those who are your masters according to the flesh, with fear and trembling. . .” (Eph. 6:5; NKJV).  And the masters are exhorted to do good to their servants, “giving up threatening” (v. 9).  And if outright slaves are morally obligated to obey their masters, and masters are required to treat their slaves humanely, how much more employees and employers, who have voluntarily agreed to work with each other?

Paul tells the bondservants to “be obedient to those who are you masters according to the flesh” (v. 5).  But he goes one step further and says that this is to be done “with fear and trembling, in sincerity of heart . . . not with eyeservice, as men-pleasers . . . with goodwill doing service” (vv. 5-7).  In other words, it is not enough merely to “go through the motions” on the job, and to “goof off” when the boss is not looking.  If we are getting paid to work, we should work, and we should try honestly and faithfully to follow our boss’s instructions.

But we have all had the experience of working for bosses who are difficult and unreasonable, and the temptation is to respond in kind.  Yet God tells us in His word that we are to obey “with fear and trembling, in sincerity of heart.”  Why?  How is that even possible when the boss is clearly being unreasonable?  Paul explains: we are to render obedience “as to Christ . . . as bondservants of Christ, doing the will of God from the heart . . . as to the Lord, and not to men” (vv 5-7).  Yes, the boss is being difficult.  But ultimately we perform our work to please Christ, not the boss.  And Paul goes on to add: “knowing that whatever good anyone does, he will receive the same from the Lord, whether he is slave or free” (v. 8).  God sees what good we have done, and God Himself will reward us accordingly.

Paul concludes this section with a word o exhortation to masters: “And you, masters, do the same things to them, giving up threatening, knowing that your own Master in heaven also is in heaven, and there is no partiality with Him” (v. 9).  The parallel passage in Colossians reads: “Masters, give your bondservants what is just and fair, knowing that you also have a Master in heaven” (Col. 4:1).  Disciplinary action, of course, is sometimes necessary.  Some employees malinger, some disobey orders, some may even be guilty of outright theft.  Some may have to be warned of the potential consequences of their unsatisfactory work performance.  And yet it is a rule of human relations that nothing will demoralize a workforce faster than constant harsh criticism from management.  When you make impossible demands and hurl insults at your employees, and never reward them for good work, morale sinks and the quality of the work suffers as a result.  If you treat your employees well you will have a more highly motivated workforce.

Businessmen all too easily forget that their customers, employees and vendors are all human beings, and if you want to be successful in business you have to treat the other people well.  Paul reminds the masters that “your own Master is also in heaven, and there is no partiality with Him.”  Owning a business does not give someone the right to be a petty tyrant.  We are all accountable to our Master in heaven.  It behooves us, then, to do unto others as we would have God do unto us!

PARENTING

 

4.2.7

Anthony van Dyck: Family Portrait, 1621

 

 

Being a parent is perhaps one of the greatest challenges any human being can face, and we have all probably fallen short in this area.  And here as in other areas of life God’s Word offers valuable guidance.  If there was ever a time when it was needed, it is now.

“And you, fathers, do not provoke your children to wrath, but bring them up in the training and admonition of the Lord” (Eph. 6:4; NKJV).  Significantly, this is addressed specifically to “fathers.”   Mothers obviously have an important role in parenting, but as the head of the household the responsibility for childrearing falls squarely on the shoulders of the father.  He bears ultimate responsibility for the upbringing of his children.

And like so many biblical exhortations this one contains both a negative and a positive.  The negative command is this: “fathers, do not provoke your children to wrath . . .”   Or, as it stated in the parallel passage in Colossians, “Fathers, so nor provoke your children, lest they become discourage” (Col. 3:21).  Tragically this is where many fathers fail today.  How many adults still bear the emotional scars that resulted from the abusive treatment they received as youngsters from their fathers?

But no child likes being disciplined; how is a father supposed to correct his children?  Obviously a spanking would cause short term pain, but what leads to lasting anger and resentment is the perception of injustice.  If the rules have not been made clear, if punishment is haphazard and inconsistent, if the children are treated differently from each other, this will naturally lead to anger and resentment.  This the father should never do.

On the positive side fathers are instructed to “bring them up in the training and admonition of the Lord.”  It is not exactly clear how Paul intended to differentiate “training” and “admonition.”  The two words mean nearly the same thing.  The Greek word translated “training” (paideia) originally meant childrearing, and then by extension education in its broadest sense.  But in the Greek translation of the Old Testament, the Septuagint, it is used to translate the Hebrew word musar, which carries with it the distinct meaning of chastisement, punishment, correction and discipline.  The difference is significant.  For the ancient Greeks the root of man’s difficulty was ignorance, and the aim of paideia was to impart knowledge, and its highest form was found in literature.  But the Bible presents a different view of things.  Man is partially ignorant because his will is stubborn.  He does not want to behave righteously, and therefore he more or less deliberately distorts his view of reality.  He uses a false worldview as a cover for his rebellion.  Child discipline, then, involves changing both the mind and will, and this in turn requires the skillful use of rewards and punishments.  “Foolishness is bound up in the heart of a child; / The rod of correction (musar) will drive it from him” (Prov. 22:15).

But there is more to child-rearing than just corrective discipline; there is also “admonition” or verbal instruction as well.  And that raises the question of what we should be teaching our children.  Significantly, in this passage says “bring them up in the training and admonition of the Lord.”  In other words, parents have a responsibility to provide their children with an education that is Christian.

The reason is simple.  First of all, the purpose of an education ought to be more than prepare one for a job.  It should equip one to live life.  Solomon outlines the purpose of education in the opening verses of the Book of Proverbs:

“To know wisdom and instruction,

To perceive the words of understanding . . .”

(Prov. 1:2)

Wisdom, in the Bible, is the ability to manage one’s affairs in every area of life, and it involves both technical skills and human relationships.  To that end the aim of education should be

“To give prudence to the simple,

To the young man knowledge and discretion . . .” (v. 4).

(The word “simple” here refers to a person who is gullible and naïve.)  Thus the aim of a sound education is not just simply to be able to earn a living, but to make wise decisions in every area of life.

This, in turn, requires a well-defined set of values based on a Christian worldview.  If we live in a world that was created by God, the only way we can make sense out of it is to understand it as God’s creation.  Everything has meaning and purpose because of the way that God created it.  Once God is removed from the picture all we are left with is a jumble of unrelated facts.  This is why Solomon could say, “The fear of the Lord is the beginning of knowledge . . .” (v. 7a).

Never have the stakes been higher.  American family life has crumbled.  We have raised a whole generation that does not know what a stable family life is, has no sense of morality, and has been fed a steady diet of consumerism.  As society around us goes to hell in a handbasket, it is up to Christian parents to preserve what is left of Western Civilization by bringing up their children “in the training and admonition of the Lord.”

THE CHRISTIAN IN THE WORLD

             In our blog post three weeks ago (“What God Thinks of the Modern Church” – March 18, 2017) we saw that the church’s aim should not be the preservation of America’s civil religion.  But what should its aim be?  How is the Christian supposed 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 lifestyle 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 he is undoubtedly referring back to the first advent of Christ and His death on the cross that opened up to all mankind the possibility 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 the self-centered desires that drive most human behavior – the lust for pleasure, wealth, fame or power.  We sometimes dress it up as “enlightened self-interest” or “the profit motive.”  It is consumerism.  These are the things which typically drive human behavior outside of Christ, and the Christian must “deny” these things – he 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 that 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 wellbeing of our fellow man.

But we are also 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 live “godly,” or “piously,” as the word might better be 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 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 present age” is marked by sin and evil.  Nevertheless the Christian is expected to live a godly life now, in the present age.

But why should we do this?  Why should 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 purpose?  It was not just to forgive us, although that was certainly a part of it, but also to sanctify us: “. . .that He might redeem us 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 as such 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 earnestly to do good for 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 Power; 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!

THE MORAL CASE FOR UNIVERSAL HEALTH CARE

 

 

Earlier today Speaker of the House Paul Ryan pulled from consideration a health care reform bill that was designed to replace Obamacare.  The speaker, it turns out, was unable to secure a consensus within his own party to get the bill through Congress.  Obamacare remains the law of the land for the time being.

The debate surrounding the bill reflects a logical dilemma underlying the American health care system.  Should the government take steps to insure that everyone has access to affordable health care?  One faction of the Republicans wants to keep the government out of the picture altogether.  Another faction worries about the political consequences of possibly millions of low income and high risk Americans losing their health insurance coverage.

The Republicans’ perplexity is understandable.  The American healthcare system had been plagued for decades with two major problems.  On the one hand there were large numbers of uninsured patients; and, on the other hand, health insurance premiums continued to rise at unacceptable rates year after year.  The U.S. would spend an enormous amount of money on health care each year, but often got less results than in other countries in terms of health outcomes.

One obvious solution to the problem would have been to adopt a single-payer national health insurance plan like that of Canada and many other industrialized countries.   But in the U.S. there is a strong tradition, rooted in the Constitution itself, of limiting the role of the federal government.  What else was it for which our ancestors fought in the American Revolution, if not freedom?  And so the Obama administration decided to take a different approach.  Adopting an idea that was originally conceived by the conservative Heritage Foundation, Congress passed the Affordable Care Act, or Obamacare as it came to be known.  Republicans were appalled, partly because it involved an individual mandate.  The federal government was forcing people to buy something they didn’t necessarily need or want.  If this wasn’t tyranny, what was it?

Obamacare was a failure.  Not enough younger, healthy people signed up.  Insurance premiums skyrocketed; insurers dropped out of the program.  Something obviously had to be done, which brought us to the Republicans’ current dilemma: is the aim to get the government out of the health care business?  Or is it to make sure that everyone has access to affordable health care?

It is important to recognize that there is a moral dimension to this question.  Can we, collectively as a society, consciously leave a significant part of our population without health care?  Libertarians might be inclined to say “yes”: no one is “entitled” to anything, and our freedom depends on keeping the government out of our personal business.  But Christians should think twice before accepting this line of argument.

It must be remembered that we are first and foremost human beings, and that as human beings we are accountable to our Creator for our actions.  And what exactly does our Creator expect from us?

The question was once put to Jesus by a Jewish legal scholar.  “Teacher, what shall I do to inherit eternal life?” (Luke 10:25; NKJV).  Jesus in turn asked him a question: “What is written in the law?  What is your reading of it?” (v. 26).  The lawyer responded by quoting Deut. 6:5 (“You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, with all your soul, with all your strength, and with all your mind”) and Lev. 19:18 (“and ‘your neighbor as yourself.’”).  Jesus commended him for having answered correctly.

But then the lawyer went on to ask a typical lawyer’s question: “And who is my neighbor?” (v. 29), and Jesus responded with His famous Parable of the Good Samaritan.

The story goes that a certain man was making his way from Jerusalem to Jericho, and was attacked by robbers who beat him severely and left him half-dead.  A Jewish priest happened to come by, saw the wounded man, and ignored him, going on his way.  Then a Levite, another Jewish religious official, came by, saw the same man, and also passed by.

Finally there came a Samaritan.  The Samaritans were a group of people who practiced an unorthodox hybrid form of Judaism, and were looked down upon with scorn by the Jewish religious establishment in Jerusalem.  This Samaritan, however, reacted differently to the situation than had the previous two passersby.  We’re told that “when he saw him [the injured man], he had compassion” (v. 33).  What he did next was most extraordinary.  First, he dressed the man’s wounds, “pouring on oil and wine.”  The oil, basically olive oil, acted as a salve; while the wine, containing alcohol, would have served as an antiseptic.  Having thus administered first aid, the Samaritan then placed the injured man on his own animal (perhaps a mule or donkey) and apparently walked the rest of the way to Jericho on foot leading the four-legged ambulance along the way.

Once in Jericho the Samaritan took the victim to an inn and there personally attended to his needs.  Then, when he was ready to depart the next day, he left the wounded man in the care of the innkeeper, paying the innkeeper two denarii, roughly equivalent to a working man’s wages for two days.  And perhaps most extraordinarily of all, he told the innkeeper, “. . .and whatever more you spend, when I come again, I will repay you” (v. 35).  Thus the Samaritan assumed the financial risk of caring for the patient – and the patient was a complete stranger!

The point of the story, of course, is that the lawyer had failed to understand what God really requires of us.  The lawyer thought that the question hinged on the definition of “neighbor.”  The point that Jesus wished to make, however, is that the key word is “love” – we are to love our neighbor, to be genuinely concerned for his well-being.  And love never asks the question, “Do I have to?”  Love responds to human need no matter where we find it.  This, then, is the basic principle of the moral law.  This is the responsibility that each one of us has towards God.

Some of my Libertarian friends will undoubtedly argue that this is an individual responsibility, that there is no biblical warrant for a state-run health care system, or a state-run welfare system for that matter.  And up to a point this is certainly true.  In the Old Testament the social safety net consisted of extended family relationships.  If your second cousin was in financial trouble it was your responsibility to act as a “go’el” or kinsman-redeemer to him, and come to his aid.  The New Testament church recognized itself as a spiritual brotherhood and took care of its members by practicing a form of communism (Acts 2:44; 45; 4:34,35).  Nevertheless all human beings are ultimately accountable to their Creator for their behavior, and they are not permitted to do collectively as a society what they are not permitted to do as individuals.  And the Bible makes it clear that God judges entire nations for their cruelty, oppression and injustice.  It remains to each society to devise the practical means by which pressing human needs can be met.

If we Christians, then, believe that abortion involves the taking of innocent human life, and that physician assisted suicide is a violation of the Sixth Commandment, how can we morally justify withholding medical treatment from someone who is critically ill?  The only remaining question, then, is how do we pay for the treatment provided?

WHAT GOD THINKS OF THE MODERN CHURCH

 

            Near the beginning of his controversial novel The Shack author Wm. Paul Young has his main character Mackenzie Phillips (Mack) complain that “. . .Sunday prayers and hymns were cutting it anymore, if they ever really had.  Cloistered spirituality seemed to change nothing in the lives of the people he knew . . . He was sick of God and God’s religion, sick of all the little religious social clubs that don’t seem to make any real difference or affect any real changes” (The Shack, p. 66).  Most of us would probably have to acknowledge that there is more truth to this accusation than we would care to admit.

In many ways the condition of the modern American evangelical church resembles that of the church at Laodicea, described in Revelation 3:14-22.  Ancient Laodicea was a prosperous city, situated on a fertile plain in Asia Minor.  Located at an important crossroads, it was a center of trade and commerce.  But its material prosperity affected the spiritual life of the Christian church located there.  It was the infamous “lukewarm” church of the seven churches of Asia that were addressed in Revelation chapters two and three.

What is especially striking about this particular church is how different its perception of itself was from the way God saw it.  Their self-perception is summed up in verse 17: “You say ‘I am rich, have become wealthy, and have need of nothing . . .’” (NKJV).  Material prosperity leads to a sense of self-sufficiency.  Outwardly they appeared to be doing very well – they had financial resources at their disposal and could pretty much do as they wanted.

But how very different was God’s perception of them!  “You . . . do not know that you are wretched, miserable, poor, blind, and naked . . .” Their material prosperity masked a spiritual poverty.  “I know your works, that you are neither cold nor hot . . .you are lukewarm, and neither cold nor hot” (vv. 15,16).  They were half-hearted Christians, content to go through the formalities of public worship, but not really devoted to Christ; precisely the kind of church life described by Young in his book.

And so it is with us today.  We have impressive looking buildings and institutions and “ministries” galore, but can scarcely bring ourselves to spend any meaningful time in prayer.  What passes for “worship” is hardly more than glorified entertainment.  We sit passively in the pews (or theater seats) and when the service is over we go our merry ways, scarcely giving any thought at all at how we may serve Christ in our daily lives.  We are all too prone to ethical compromise.  “ . . .these people draw near with their mouths / And honor Me with their lips, / But have removed their hearts far from Me, / And their fear toward Me is taught by the commandment of men . . .” (Isa. 29:13; Matt. 15:8).

The problem is that the modern American evangelical church is a holdover from the Victorian era.  The early nineteenth century was marked by genuine revival – the Second Great Awakening (the First Great Awakening had taken place in the 1740’s).  But during the Victorian era of the late nineteenth century it became quite popular and respectable to identify oneself as a Christian.  Being a Christian came to be equated with being a respectable middle-class American.  It was easy to attract an audience, and impressive looking church edifices were built, complete with stone masonry, stained glass windows, and carved wooden pulpits and pews.  But an institutionalized form of church life developed that was unhealthy.  The theology was watered down, the sermons were filled with sentimental commonplaces, and a variety of religious practices were developed – processionals, robed choirs, responsive readings – that had little to do with actual discipleship or developing the spiritual life.  In short, Protestant Christianity became an American civil religion – comforting, supportive of the standing order, but superficial.

And then the twentieth century arrived, along with the intellectual challenges of evolution and higher criticism.  The more affluent churches in the urban centers tried to change with the times, adopting a liberal theology.  The more conservative churches in the rural areas clung to the older ways.  But the surrounding culture continued to change and drift further and further away from its Judeo-Christian moorings.  First it was the denial of the supernatural, and then it was the abandonment of basic moral principles” the sanctity of life and the sanctity of marriage.  Churches were faced with a painful dilemma: either conform to the changing mores of society or risk being marginalized and irrelevant.  The liberal churches caved in; the more conservative churches tried to keep the faith, although with many of the Victorian trappings.

But what does God think about all of this?  What He told the church at Laodicea in our text is striking: “I counsel you to buy from Me gold refined in the fire, that you may be rich: and white garments, that you may be clothed, that the shame of your nakedness may not be revealed; and anoint your eyes with eye salve, that you may see” (v. 18).  What they needed was true wealth – spiritual wealth.  And the way He described it has an ominous ring to it – “gold refined in the fire.”  Gold is a precious metal, but it is refined or purified in the fire.  Likewise the Christian’s true spiritual worth is sometimes tested by the fire of persecution.  And this gold, the Lord says, must be “bought from Me.”  Genuine life must come from God himself – it is the fruit of the Spirit.  We cannot work it up ourselves.

Likewise the church at Laodicea was counselled to buy “white garments, that you may be clothed, that the shame of your nakedness may not be revealed.”  They were so utterly destitute of genuine godliness that they were spiritually “naked.”  They were the proverbial emperor with no clothes.  In Rev. 19:8 the bride of Christ (the church) is “arrayed in fine linen, clean and bright, for the fine linen is the righteous acts of the saints.”  God wants His people to live lives that are pleasing to Him; only then will we be attractive in His sight.

And then the church was advised to “anoint your eyes with eye salve, that you may see.”  They were so spiritually blind that they could not see their own true spiritual condition.  What they needed was spiritual insight and discernment so that they would have a clear view of God’s will for their lives.

The Lord goes on to say, “As many as I love, I rebuke and chasten.  There be zealous and repent” (v. 19).  If God truly loves us, what will He do to us when we are in this condition? What will He do to us now?  Our text says that He will “rebuke and chasten” us.  God loves us, but that means that He will not stand by idly while we wander into sin and apostasy.  A loving parent will discipline his children when they misbehave, because he wants what is best for them.  But the same token God may bring pain, suffering or hardship into our lives to awaken us, humble us, and make us feel our dependence upon Him, and thus restore full fellowship with Him.

What Christ tells the church next is nothing less than stunning: “Behold, I stand at the door and knock.  If anyone hears My voice and opens the door, I will come in to him and dine with him, and he with Me” (v. 20).  This verse is often taken out of context and given an evangelistic meaning.  But taken in its context Christ is standing outside of the church.  This, of course, is not where we would expect to find Him, and yet that is where He is all too often.  He has, in effect, been excluded from the life of the church, so used has it become to operating without Him.  But there may be a few within the church who are still listening to His voice, and to them He makes a promise: “I will come in to him and dine with him, and he with Me.”  Even in the worst state of the church it is still possible for individual Christians to maintain a meaningful relationship with Christ.

The aim of the modern evangelical church, then, should not be to revive  the American civil religion of the past; it ought to be to become authentic disciples of Jesus Christ – and that means going back to the first century and sitting, as it were, at His feet.  The answer is not to try to become more relevant; it is to become more spiritual.  It is not to become more accepted by the world; it is to become more conformed to the will of God.  The aim is not to become more like the world but to be lights shining in the darkness.  When the world looks at the church, it should not see a reflection of itself, but rather the image of Christ.  Only then can the church have the kind of testimony to the world that it ought to have.