Tribulation Saint

Historic Christianity in the Twenty First Century

SEPARATION OF CHURCH AND STATE

4.2.7

James Madison

It is sometimes objected, by Feminist “Pro-Choice” groups, that “Pro-Life” advocates are seeking to impose their own personal religious opinions on the rest of American society, and that the U.S. Constitution specifically forbids that.  Reference is specifically to the Establishment Clause of the First Amendment which calls for the separation of church and state, and that, according to the “Pro-Choice” groups, means that Judeo-Christian moral principles have no bearing on the law.

But does the Establishment Clause really mean that?  Did the Founding Fathers intend to divorce government from morality?   Of from religion in general?  To do so would have been to repudiate the Declaration of Independence, which had appealed to “the Laws of Nature and of Nature’s God,” and went on to say that “all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, [and] that among these are Life, Liberty, and the Pursuit of Happiness.”   The Declaration goes on, near the end, to appeal “to the Supreme Judge of the World for the Rectitude of our Intentions,” and to declare the reliance of the American people “on the Protection of Divine Providence . . .”   We were certainly willing to call upon God when we needed His help and protection.  But if there is no Creator, who says that anyone has an “unalienable right” to anything?

Perhaps the best commentary on the intent and meaning behind the First Amendment is James Madison’s “Memorial and Remonstrance.”  Madison was the person who actually drafted the First Amendment.  He had written his Remonstrance four years earlier in response to an attempt in Virginia to use tax money to support the religious ministry.  Although written four years earlier it gives us the clearest picture of Madison’s thinking on the subject, and thus the rationale behind the Free Exercise and Establishment Clauses of the First Amendment.

In one sense Madison was a proponent of the strict separation of church and state.  He certainly did not think that tax money should be used to support the clergy.  But does that necessarily entail a separation of the civil law from morality, as some modern secularists maintain?  Hardly.

What is perhaps surprising to the modern ear is that Madison based his argument on the sovereign authority of God.  Our loyalty to God, he says, comes before our loyalty to any human institution, including the state.  Because, as human beings, we are directly accountable to God for our religious beliefs and practices, no human government has a right to interfere.  That means that the government cannot take money from its citizens in the form of taxes and give it to the clergy.  Which churches to support is a decision for the private citizen alone to make.

Madison took it for granted that a Supreme Being exists.  He also held to what is known as the Contractual Theory of Government.  States are formed when human beings enter into a kind of social contract with each other to form a body politic.  As Madison put it,

“Before any man can be considered as a member of civil society,

he must be considered as a subject of the Governor of the Universe;

And if a member of Civil Society, who enters into any subordinate

Association, must always do it with a reservation of his duty to the

General authority, much more must every man who becomes a

member of any particular Civil Society, do it with a saving of his

allegiance to the Universal Sovereign.”   (Section 1)

What Madison is arguing, in effect, is that there is a Higher Law, a universal moral law, which takes priority over any human law.  The First Amendment, then, presupposes the existence of God rather than denies it.

When the state, then, tries to deny God altogether, it opens the door for human tyranny.  If there is no Higher Law by which to judge the moral character of human actions, then there is no basis on which to condemn slavery or genocide. (The U.S. Supreme Court in the past has uphold both slavery and racial segregation.).  If there is no right to life that protects the life of the unborn child then there is no right to life that protects the life of the mother.  There is nothing “sacred” about human life – that presumably is a religious concept, which, according to the secularists, has no place in civil government.  The ante-bellum South and the Third Reich were right all along.

Have we been endowed by a Creator with “certain unalienable rights”?  If not, as a human society we are in deep trouble, and that is reflected in the turmoil engulfing America today.  May God grant us the grace to see that we need to pursue justice in our society.  It is a duty we owe our Creator.

WHAT MADE SLAVERY WRONG?

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William H. Seward monument, Auburn, NY

 

As we have seen, the institution of slavery had a terribly dehumanizing and demoralizing effect on African-Americans.  But that raises a pertinent question: what makes slavery wrong in the first place?  If it was legal, why was it wrong?

The question had, in fact, disturbed the best minds during its existence.  As we have seen, the subject came up at the Constitutional Convention in 1787.  At one point in the debate George Mason of Virginia declared that slaveholders “bring the judgment of heaven on a country.  As nations cannot be rewarded or punished in the next world they must be in this.  By an inevitable chain of causes & effects providence punishes national sins, by national calamities” (Madison’s Notes, Aug. 22).  His words were prophetic: 75 years later the country was engulfed in the Civil War.

One of the problems with the new Constitution was that it provided for the return of runaway slaves to their masters (Article IV, Section 2).  This meant that Congress would have to pass laws explaining how this would be done, and this proved to be an extremely divisive issue.  Person who felt that slavery was wrong were compelled to return the runaway slaves to their masters.  And so it was that in 1850 Congress found itself in a debate over a series of compromise measures that included a fugitive slave bill.  On March 11 of that year William H. Seward, then a U.S. Senator from New York State, rose to the floor to denounce slavery.  He stated that the purpose of the Constitution was to devote the nation “to union, to justice, to defense, to welfare and to liberty” (quoting the Constitution’s Preamble).  “But,” he said, “there is a higher law than the Constitution, which regulates our authority over the domain, and devotes it to the same noble purposes.”

The speech caused an uproar.  Henry Clay denounced it as “wild, reckless and abominable.”  Seward’s speech, however, raised an important question: is there in fact a “higher law” that supersedes even the Constitution?  The fact of the matter is that the Founding Fathers themselves thought so.  They, in fact, relied on the concept of “natural law” to justify our declaring our independence from Great Britain.  The Declaration of Independence says that we sought “the separate and equal Station to which the Laws of Nature and of Nature’s God” entitled us.  The Declaration goes on to say that “we hold these Truths to be self-evident, 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 . . .”

Jefferson, who drafted the Declaration, was echoing the words of the English philosopher John Locke, who had earlier stated in his Second Treatise of Civil Government that before we live under a human government we exist in a “state of nature”; and that

“The state of nature has a law of nature to govern it which obliges

every one; and reason, which is that law, teaches all mankind who

will but consult it that, being all equal and independent, no one

ought to harm another in his life, liberty, or possessions . . .”

(Section 6)

The idea of “natural law” was not new with Locke, however.  It has a long history that goes back to ancient Greece and Rome.  One of the best descriptions of it we have comes from the pen of the Roman statesman and orator Marcus Tullius Cicero.  In his work De Legibus (Concerning Laws), written in the First Century before Christ, he explores the broad philosophical questions surrounding justice and human government.  Human beings, as created by nature, so he thought, are different from animals.  Human beings possess reason, the capacity to think.  And as conscious, thinking persons there are certain patterns of behavior that we instinctively admire and certain ones that we abhor (I.32).

Thus when human beings gather together in an organized community and frame written laws, they have a sense that a standard form of uniform justice should prevail.  All of this is engrained in the human personality, and we feel a sense of guilt and shame when we do wrong.

Cicero goes on to point out the logical fallacy of holding that moral standards are solely determined by human governments.  If justice consisted merely in human laws, “then Justice would sanction robbery and adultery and forgery of wills” (I.43).  Cicero concluded that “virtue is reason completely developed; and this certainly is natural, therefore everything honorable is also natural” (I.45).  Thus “Justice and all things honorable are to be sought for their own sake” (I.48).  Thus the concept of “natural law” has a very long history in Western thought.

What has cast the whole concept into doubt in modern times is Darwin’s Theory of Evolution.  By arguing that the human race came into existence through a blind, impersonal natural process, he was, in effect, denying a rational order to the universe that would include moral absolutes.  Nature is ruled by the law of the jungle – the survival of the fittest.  He was, in effect, denying the existence of both the laws of nature and nature’s God.  He was also denying that there is a fundamental difference between human beings and lower forms of life – we have simply reached a more advanced stage of development.  All of this has disturbing implications for modern society.  If we believe that we are living in an impersonal, amoral universe, that we are not somehow accountable to a Supreme Being, what ultimately determines right and wrong?  We are at the mercy of human tyranny.

But God exists.  Even an ancient pagan philosopher like Cicero could see that there is a rational order to the universe, that human beings are not animals, and that there is a difference between right and wrong.  The apostle Paul could write, “for when the Gentiles, who do not have the law [i.e., the written Torah] by nature do the things in the law, these, although not having the law are a law to themselves, who show the work of the law written in their hearts, their conscience also bearing witness, and between themselves their thoughts accusing or excusing them . . .” (Rom. 2:14,15: NKJV).  We have an innate sense of right and wrong that was put there by God Himself, and morality is ultimately determined by Him, not human legislatures and courts.  The U.S. Supreme Court’s decision in 1857 in the Dred Scott case was an utter travesty of justice.  But so also was Roe v. Wade, and largely for the same reason: each decision deprived a whole class of innocent human beings of their fundamental human rights.

Today, on the Fourth of July, let us rededicate ourselves to the principles on which the nation was founded, that “all men are created equal, that they are endowed by the Creator with certain unalienable Rights, [and] that among these are Life, Liberty, and the Pursuit of Happiness.”

 

THE RACE PROBLEM IN AMERICA

 

Currently America finds itself engulfed in racial turmoil.  The brutal killing of a black man by a white police officer has touched off demonstrations and riots across the country.   All of this has raised questions about America’s racial past.  Monuments of famous Americans are being torn down, including some of figures who had no connection with the Confederacy during the Civil War, including, ironically, the famous Union general Ulysses S Grant.

It is hard for many Americans to know what to make of all of this.  Is America racist?  Do just black lives matter?  What about the rest of us?  The protests go on.

The problem here is that many white Americans can hardly understand, let alone relate to, the experience of black Americans.  Here in rural north-central Pennsylvania, where I currently live, hardly anyone has ever met a black American in person.  And yet I once lived in inner city Philadelphia, in the Logan section of the city for those familiar with the area, and was the last white person on my block.’

The fact of the matter is that America has a troubled racial past, the effects of slavery persist to the present day, and racial discrimination and injustice are a dark stain in the character of our nation.

It all began with the slave trade in colonial times.  Strictly speaking, whites did not enslave blacks, but they provided a powerful financial incentive for blacks to enslave blacks.  Tribes living near the coast would make war on other tribes living in the interior, take a number of captives, and sell them to slave traders along the coast.

John Newton, who had been a slave trader himself until he later became a clergyman and the famous hymn writer, described in a report to the British Parliament the deplorable conditions on board the slave ships.  The ships were crowded beyond capacity.  Once out in international waters the slaves were entirely at the mercy of the ship’s captain, who was essentially a law unto himself.  Many died in transit.  Many of the female captives were sexually abused by the ship’s crew.  And once the ship finally made it to port on the opposite side of the ocean, families were broken up never to see each other again.

At the Constitutional Convention in 1787 the subject of the slave trade came up for debate.  At one point Luther Martin of Maryland pointed out that the slave trade was inconsistent with the principles of the revolution and dishonorable to the American character; to which John Rutledge of South Carolina replied, “Religion & humanity have nothing to do with the question.  Interest alone is the governing principle of nations” (Madison’s Notes, Aug. 21).

White Southerners would often try to defend slavery by saying that slavery was not necessarily cruel or inhumane – it was simply a form of social and economic organization.  And in fact relations between masters and slaves would vary from plantation to plantation.  In some places household servants were treated almost like family.

Southern states, however, enacted “slave codes,” but they typically afforded slaves only limited protection from abuses by their masters.  Black people were not permitted to testify in court against whites, and the white juries were typically reluctant to convict white slave holders.  The movements of slaves were restricted, and it was illegal to teach a slave to read and write.

Slavery had a profoundly debilitating effect on the black psyche.  Far from being a humane and civilizing influence, it left slaves largely without cultural norms of their own.  It stripped them of their native African culture but did not permit them to enter fully into the Southern white way of life either.

What was to have especially debilitating long-term consequences was in the area of sexual morality.  The institution of marriage among the slaves was simply not honored the way it should have been.  A slave marriage could be broken up at any time by the slaves’ master when he would sell the one spouse and not the other.  Slaves were married “’till death or distance do us part.”  Families were often wrenched apart.  But what was even worse was the widespread sexual promiscuity that took place on plantations, with slave masters and overseers frequently taking advantage of the female slaves.  The white slave-owner’s wife often had to pretend that she didn’t notice the mulatto children running around.  The black male was often reduced to little more than a breeding animal.

The slaveholders’ pretensions that slavery was a humane and civilizing institution was given the lie by the infamous Dred Scott Supreme Court decision of 1857.  Dred Scott was a slave whose master, an army surgeon, had moved him to Illinois and then to Ft. Snelling in what was then the Louisiana Territory, both places in which slavery was forbidden.  Scott, then, argued that he was in reality a free man.  Chief Justice Roger Taney, however, writing for the majority, declared that the Founding Fathers never intended to include black people in the “all men” in the Declaration of Independence who were “created equal,” and that they had been “regarded as beings of an inferior order . . . so far inferior, that they had no rights which a white man was bound to respect” (19 Howard 393).  Scott, then, supposedly did not even have a right to bring his case before the Court simply because he had black skin.  The Court, in effect, deprived a whole class of human beings of their basic human rights.

The Civil War was the inevitable result.  It emancipated the slaves, but at a terrible cost.  Almost a half a million Americans lost their lives in the process.  But emancipation did little to prepare African-Americans for the privileges and responsibilities of freedom.  And once the Reconstruction period was over most Southern states imposed a strict segregation in the form of “Jim Crow” laws, which were designed to keep the black person “in his place” and preserve some of the social hierarchy of the ante-bellum South. Once again, black Americans were made to feel inferior.

Perhaps the most serious ongoing problem created by slavery was the dysfunctional family structure found in the black community.  B.B. Warfield, the distinguished Presbyterian theologian with roots in slaveholding Kentucky, could write in 1887 about “the odd divorce of religion and morality which is so frequently met with among the blacks,” and noted that “by its very nature, slavery cannot allow to its victim a will of his own; that it leaves him master of none of his deeds; that it permits him ownership of nothing, not even in his honor or virtue” (Selected Shorter Writings, Vol. II, pp. 736-737).  This, he says, was especially true of the generation of blacks born immediately after emancipation.  They knew nothing of the social constraints of slavery, and did not have strong family values of their own.

The effects of this loose sexual morality extend down to the present day.  Writing in 1982, nearly a full century after Warfield, John Perkins, a prominent African-American evangelical leader could say,

“Twenty-eight percent of black families are poor.  Robbery

and rape are at epidemic proportions.  Thirty percent of the

the girls showing up at abortion clinics are black.  Prostitution

is at an all time high.  About 40 percent of all black families are

single-parent households.  The lack of a father image, especially

for our young boys, is leading to rebellion and crime.”

(With Justice for All, p. 39)

The problems, then, within the black community are real and persistent; and they are indeed the legacy of the “Peculiar Institution,” slavery.  But it is also a classic example of how otherwise honest and well-meaning individuals can be drawn into overlooking and even rationalizing systemic evil.  Today we condemn Southern slaveholders and tear down their statues, and justly so.  And yet how many convenience store operators honestly believe that alcohol and tobacco products, lottery tickets and pornography, are really good for their customers?  Why, then, do they sell them?  The answer, because they are legal and profitable.  (What better way to generate a steady revenue stream than to get your customers addicted to your product, even if it eventually kills them?)  Too often it is the profit motive that drives evil behavior.

Today we look back at the Dred Scott decision and are utterly appalled.  And yet the Supreme Court could use the same perverse logic in Roe v. Wade to deny unborn children the right to life.  (They presumably do not qualify as legal “persons.”)  How many protesters against racism are willing to come out against abortion?  Probably very few.  And yet the underlying moral principle is the same.

It all comes back to what we said we believed in the Declaration of Independence: “We hold these Truths to be self-evident, 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 . . .”  As human beings we are ultimately accountable to God for our actions.  Let us do unto others as we would have them do unto us.

WHAT IS “SEX”?

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At first glance this looks like the difficult kind of question a parent might face coming from a child who has just reached the age of puberty.  In this case, however, the person who appears to be confused about sex is none other than U.S. Supreme Court Justice Neil Gorsuch.

Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964 forbids workplace discrimination based on “race, color, religion, sex [and] national origin.”  But what is “sex”?  The common sense answer has always been a person’s gender identity based on his / her physical characteristics.  You are born either male or female depending on what type of reproductive organs you have.  But his past Monday the Supreme Court ruled that the word “sex” includes sexual orientation as well.  The majority opinion was written by Mr. Justice Gorsuch.

In a dissenting opinion Justice Samuel Alito pointed out that “sex,” “sexual orientation,” and “sexual identity” are distinctly different concepts, and he is certainly right.  “Sex,” as it was commonly understood at the time that the statute was written, is a biological characteristic.  You are physically either male or female, and an employer is not allowed to discriminate on that basis.  “Sexual orientation” and “gender identity,” however, are psychological and behavioral characteristics.  They involve more or less conscious decisions to engage in certain forms of sexual activity.  And to the extent that it involves a conscious choice it involves a system of values and ultimately a moral code.  Certain forms of sexual activity are regarded as either moral or immoral.

Christianity has always held to a very strict moral code when it comes to sex.  It is built around the sanctity of marriage as a formal, binding, life-time commitment between a man and a woman.  The underlying premise is that is that we were created by an intelligent Supreme Being, and therefore everything has a reason and a purpose.  The obvious purpose of our reproductive organs is exactly that – heterosexual reproduction.  “So God created man in His own image; in the image of God He created him, male and female He created them.  The God blessed them, and God said to them, ‘Be fruitful and multiply; fill the earth and subdue it . . .” (Gen. 1:27,28; NKJV).  God did not intend for us to use our sexual organs to engage in oral and anal sex with members of the same gender.  That is literally a perversion of something that our Creator intended for an entirely different purpose.

The Wall St. Journal, in its editorial the next day, noted that “More than 100 federal laws prohibit sex discrimination, and plaintiffs will now use them as a cudgel to let transgender females compete in women’s sports, provide gender neutral restrooms, and force religious institutions to bow to their cultural wishes.”  It is this last point that especially concerns us here.  The Court’s decision creates enormous problems for Christian higher education, for example – everything from faculty tenure, admissions, student housing and athletic programs.  In all of these areas LGTBQ activists will try to their agenda on the Christian community.  But if the whole purpose behind a Christian college or university is to provide an education grounded in a Christian worldview and value system, what good is the education if the institution does not practice what it preaches?  Do as I do, not as I say!

And who will benefit in the long run from the abandonment of Christian moral standards?  Will America be a better place for having embraced the LGBTQ definition of sexuality?  How will marriage work if people can change from one gender to another, be bi-sexual, or even be “gender nonconforming”?  A marriage relationship is built around gender roles – certain things are expected of a husband and father, and certain things of a wife and mother.  Each partner is counting on the other to fulfill a certain role in his / her life.  Absent such clearly defined roles, no one can count on the other one to fulfill a specific role, and the marriage crumbles to the dust.

And what about the children raised in such dysfunctional homes.  How will they learn to play productive roles in human society?  How will they ever make a marriage work and raise children of their own?  American society in general will become exactly what we see in the ghetto today.

Eventually something will have to be done to bring order out of the chaos, and that will most likely mean an authoritarian government of some kind.  Democracy cannot survive when ordinary people are unwilling to take responsibility for their own actions.

The Supreme Court has, in effect, committed America to a moral code directly antithetical to that of Christianity.  There is no middle ground here, no room for compromise.  Either homosexual behavior is morally wrong or it is not.  And by defining it as a discrimination issue, the Court has, in effect, outlawed Judaeo-Christian morality.  A conflict between state and church will be the inevitable result.  Is the Christian community prepared for lies ahead?

THE GOODNESS OF GOD

 

Psalm 111

            The Psalms (Tehillim) are essentially songs of praise intended for use in the worship of God.  It is appropriate that we praise Him, and that we do it with music.  Music has the capacity to express the feelings of the heart; and our worship, if it is genuinely to glorify God, should come from the heart.  Hence we have contained in Scripture no less than 150 songs of praise and worship to show us how to worship in Spirit and in truth.

A classic example is Psalm 111.  The human author is unknown, but given its position in the Book of Psalms (Book V) and its content, it very likely dates from the period after the return of the Israelites from the exile in Babylon.  The exile itself had to have been a traumatic experience; and the return from exile a tremendous relief.  This particular psalm, then is a reflection on God’s unfailing goodness to the nation of Israel.

It begins, as most psalms do, with a call to worship.

“Praise the Lord!

I will give thanks to the Lord with all my heart,

In the company of the upright and in the assembly.”

(v. 1; NASV)

True worship should come from the heart – it should be our heartfelt response towards God’s kindness and mercy.  And at certain appointed times it should be done in the company of other believers, for therein is God glorified.

The psalmist then goes on to state the general reason why we should praise God:

“Great are the works of the Lord;

They are studied by all who delight in them.

Splendid and majestic is His work,

And His righteousness endures forever.”

(vv. 2,3)

But what are these works?  Most of the psalm is taken up with enumerating them.  The first one listed is God’s “righteousness”: “His righteousness endures forever” (v. 3).  When applied to God, “righteousness” refers to His character as a Judge.  His judgements are according to truth and without penalty.

The psalmist then goes on to say that “The Lord is gracious and compassionate” (v. 4b).  Here he is echoing the language of God’s revelation of Himself at Mt. Sinai, when God told Moses that He was “compassionate and gracious,” among other things.”  God genuinely cares about us and freely gives to us.

This, in turn, is demonstrated by the fact that “He has given food to those who fear Him” (v. 5a).  Food is something that we often take for granted; but farmers know how dependent they are upon the sun and rain to produce a crop. In a severe drought there is likely to be a shortage of food on the shelves.  God is ultimately in control of the weather, and as a result we depend upon Him for our food.

The psalmist then says, “He will remember His covenant forever” (v. 5b); and a little later in the psalm, “He has ordained His covenant forever . . .” (v. 9b).  For the Israelites returning from exile this must have been a critical issue.  Israel was God’s chosen covenant people.  But they had sinned, had broken the covenant, and had been driven off the promised land and into exile as a result.  Where did they stand with God now?  Was the covenant still valid?  Or had God cast them off forever?  To their great relief and joy, the return from exile documented that the covenant was still valid and in force.  They were still God’s chosen people.  This displays a remarkable love, faithfulness and patience on God’s part.

As a part of that covenant God had given Israel “the heritage of the nations,” or “the inheritance of the Gentiles,” as it might be translated (v. 6b).  This would be a reference to the land of Canaan itself, which had been taken from the Canaanites and given to Israel, and now given to Israel again.  The land “flowing with milk and honey,” was the physical source of Israel’s prosperity; and it was given to them by God.

And what does all of this reveal about God’s character?

“The works of His hands are truth and justice;

All His precepts are sure.

They are upheld forever and ever,

And are performed in truth and righteousness.”

(vv. 7,8)

God’s “works” are the things He actually does.  His “precepts” are the things He decrees, ordains and commands.  God’s actions are done in “truth and justice,” or “faithfulness and justice,” as it might be translated.  God keeps His promises.  He rewards good and punishes evil.  When He says or decrees something, it is firm and reliable, something in which you can trust.  God says what He means and does what He says.

What this means in Israel’s case is that “He has sent redemption to His people . . .” (v. 9a).  The word “redemption” (pedut) originally signified the payment of a price to secure the release of someone; but here it simply refers to the release or deliverance itself, in this case from exile.  The psalmist goes on to say that “He has ordained His covenant forever: / Holy and awesome is His name” (v.9b).  “Awesome” literally means “to be feared,” i.e., something that strikes awe in the eye of the beholder.

What is the practical lesson to be gained from all of this?

“The fear of the Lord is the beginning of wisdom;

A good understanding have all those who do His commandments.”

(v. 10a)

Here the psalmist is most likely quoting the words of Solomon in Prov. 1:7; 9:10, and 15:33.  If all the things that the psalmist has said about God are true, that He is the sovereign Lord of heaven and earth and is accomplishing His purpose in history, then true wisdom must begin with a proper worldview, a worldview in which God is the center.  This is the only way to understand life and plan accordingly.  The wise man begins by acknowledging God as Creator and Lord.

The psalm concludes with, “His praise endures forever.”  As human beings we can be eternally grateful for the fact that we live in a universe created by a Supreme Being who is all-powerful, wise, just and good.  God deserves our love, devotion and praise.  We owe so much to Him.  Let us life up our voices in praise to Him!

DIVINE JUSTICE

 

Psalm 75

            Is there any justice in the world?  As we look around us we see all kinds of hatred, cruelty, oppression and outright crime.  We have recently witnessed the killing of a black man while in police custody.  The ensuing protests turned violent, with rioters looting stores, breaking windows and setting buildings on fire.  But the black community in particular can claim that behind it all there is a consistent pattern of systemic injustice.  Is there any justice in the world?

It all depends on whether or not God exists.

The Bible deals very frankly with human sin and depravity, describing it in stark detail.  But it also promises us that a day is coming when God will come to judge the world, and He will do so justly.  Such is the theme of Psalm 75.

The psalm begins with a note of praise: “We give thanks to You, O God, we give thanks! / For Your wondrous works declare that Your name is near” (v. 1; NKJV).  It then launches into a monologue in which God addresses the human race.  “When I choose the time, / I will judge uprightly” (v. 2).  Here two important truths will be noted.  First of all, this will happen “When I choose the proper time.”  There is coming a time, in the future, when God will judge the earth; but it will be a time of God’s own choosing.  It will not happen before then.  Secondly, when He judges, He “will judge uprightly.”  His judgment will be perfectly just; everyone will get exactly as he deserves, no more and no less.

God then briefly alludes to the physical effect of His judgment on the world. (“The earth and all its inhabitants are dissolved; / I set up its pillars firmly. Selah” – v. 3).  He then addresses the central problem of human attitudes and behavior, using distinctively ancient Near Eastern imagery:

“I said to the boastful, ‘Do not deal boastfully,’

And to the wicked, ‘Do not lift up the horn.

Do not lift up your horn on high;

Do not speak with a stiff neck.’”

(vv. 4,5)

The picture here is of a strong-willed bull, goat or ram, a picture of someone who is arrogant and stubborn.  The human race is described as “boastful,” “dealing boastfully.”  We are proud, boastful, arrogant, and as a result we are “wicked.”  Determined to have our own way, if given the chance, we will do what is morally wrong and unjust.

The psalm goes on to explain the underlying principle:

“For exaltation comes neither from the east,

Nor from the west nor from the south.

But God is the Judge:

He puts down one,

And exalts another.”

(vv. 6,7)

What controls our destinies?  What determines whether we succeed or fail in life?  Is it our natural strength, our intelligence or our ability?  Our natural surroundings and circumstances?  Not really.  “God is the Judge: / He puts down one, / And exalts another.”  Even though the world may seem to operate according to the laws of nature, God, as the Creator, is in control of it all.  He can control the weather.  He can control human actions.  The course of our lives ultimately depends on Him.

The psalm then uses vivid imagery to describe how God works in the life of each human being.

“For in the hand of the Lord there is a cup,

And the wine is red;

It is fully mixed, and He pours it out;

Surely its dregs shall all the wicked of the earth

Drain and drink down.”

(v. 8).

In Scripture a “cup” often represents a person’s God-given destiny.  He hands you a metaphorical cup and you drink whatever He put in it.  In this case the wine is described as a potent mixture, and the wicked are forced to drink it all down.  Life can be like that when faced with circumstances not of our own choosing.

In the last verse of the psalm God says, “All the horns of the wicked I will also cut off, / But the horns of the righteous shall be exalted” (v. 10).  What it all comes down to in the end is that people will get what they deserve.  God is a righteous Judge and justice will prevail.

Modern man does not want to acknowledge God, and in the process often uses perverse logic to rationalize evil behavior.  In the past human beings have tried to justify slavery and genocide, and now abortion.  But there is a God in heaven.  He is the final Judge.  Sometimes He sends partial judgements on the earth in the form of war, famine and disease, such as the current Covid-19 pandemic.  But the final and complete judgment awaits the Second Coming of Christ.  Then will come that great and awful “Day of the Lord” when God will set all things right and the wicked will be destroyed.  How ought we to live in the light of eternity!

THE JUSTICE OF GOD

 

Psalm 11

            The great paradox of human existence is the conflict between good and evil.  We can see that we live in a rationally ordered universe.  Moreover, we have within ourselves a moral consciousness – an awareness that there is an essential difference between right and wrong.  And yet all around us we see violence, cruelty and oppression – not to mention disease, poverty and natural disasters.

This, in turn, raises a question about God Himself.  Is this all a reflection of His own character?  The pagan deities of the ancient world shared the same faults as their human devotees.  The prophets of Israel, however, asserted that there is only one God, the Maker of heaven and earth.  Does He, then, share these contradictory traits?

Psalm 11 addresses the issue.  It is attributed to David, and it describes a crisis in his life in which his physical life was threatened by his enemies.  David describes the situation this way:

“For, behold, the wicked bend the bow,

They make ready their arrow upon the string

To shoot in darkness at the upright in heart.”

(v. 2: NASV)

Here it will be noted that we have persons who are “wicked” threatening the life of someone who is “upright in heart” – a scene all too familiar in human history.

David’s response was to look to God Himself:

“The Lord is in His holy temple; the Lord’s throne

is in heaven;

His eyes behold, His eyelids test the sons of men.”

(v. 4)

The Hebrew word translated “test” (bachan) means “to examine to determine essential qualities” (Theological Wordbook of the Old Testament).  God, as the Supreme Judge of all mankind, carefully scrutinizes all of our behavior, and is aware of everything we do.  He does not look the other way.

But what will God do about what He sees?

“The Lord tests the righteous and the wicked,

And the one who loves violence His soul hates.”

(v. 5)

God hates “the one who loves violence.”  God is a God of love and compassion; but that means that cruelty, injustice and oppression are utterly repulsive to Him.  Hatred of evil is the logical corollary of love for what is good.

What we have, then, is a God who is perfectly just and holy, examining the behavior of human beings who are often cruel and unjust.  What will He do about it?

“Upon the wicked He will rain snares;

Fire and brimstone and burning wind will be the portion

of their cup.”

(v.6).
“The portion of their cup” is the destiny that God has allotted someone in life, as if He handed you a cup and told you to drink whatever was in it.  In the case of the wicked, as described here, it is “snares, fire and brimstone and burning wind.”  What David may very well have had in mind was the fate of Sodom and Gomorrah: “Then the Lord rained on Sodom and Gomorrah brimstone and fire from the Lord out of heaven” (Gen. 19:24).  David would also have known that there were penalties for violating the Mosaic Covenant, curses that included physical disasters such as severe drought (Deut. 28:21-24).  And there are also a number of passages throughout Scripture foretelling a future “Day of the Lord” which will be accompanied by celestial portents and physical calamities (e.g., Matt. 24:29; Rev. 16:1-11).

The “bottom line” is that evil will not prevail forever.  The day is coming when God will punish the wicked for their evil deeds.  What that says about God, then, is this:

“For the Lord is righteous, He loves righteousness;

The upright will behold His face.”

(v. 7).

God is righteous in His own character.  As the Supreme Ruler of heaven and earth He is just, fair and equitable.  Moreover, He “loves righteousness” – He wants to see the same qualities in us.

David bend the psalm by saying, “In the Lord I take refuge” (v. 1a).  With his life being threatened by his enemies, he refused to cave in or resort to expediency.  Instead he put his trust in the Lord, his “refuge.”  God would know what was going on, and could take care of him.

The practical application for us is obvious.  We do not live in an impersonal, irrational and amoral universe.  God is the Supreme Being.  He is the final Judge.  He is absolutely just in His own character, and He requires that be just in ours as well.  And in the end He is coming to judge the world.  We need to live lives that are in accordance with His will no matter what we see going on in human society at any given moment in time.  May God grant us the grace to live lives that are pleasing to Him!

THE SOVEREIGNTY OF GOD

 

Psalm 47

 

In what kind of world do we live?  One popular writer today, Dr. Jordan B. Peterson, suggests that life is an ongoing struggle between order and chaos, and says that the experience of hunger, loneliness, thirst, sexual desire, aggression, fear and pain, “are elements of Being – primordial, axiomatic elements of Being” (12 Rules for Life, p. 101).  He says that everyone must be willing “to shoulder the burden of Being and take the heroic path” (p. xxxiii).

The Bible, however, paints a different picture of reality.  We live in a world that was created by an intelligent Supreme Being, but has fallen from its original condition and is ruined by human sin.  Our goal in life should be to bring everything back into conformity with the will of the Creator.

But is God in control?  According to the Bible, the answer is “yes.”  He is Lord and King over all the earth.  This is brought out beautifully in Psalm 47, a psalm that was evidently composed during the reign of King David and used in the worship at the tabernacle in Jerusalem.

The psalm begins, as many of the m do, with a call to worship: “O clap your hands, all peoples; / Shout to God with the voice of joy” (v. 1; NASV).  Significantly “all peoples” are exhorted to worship – worship is not just the prerogative of the children of Israel, as we shall see as the psalm progresses.  Moreover, they are to “Shout to God with the voice of .”  The word translated “joy” might better be rendered “a ringing cry” (marg.).  Worship should not be a dull, dry formality, but our expression of genuine, heartfelt love and adoration; and in this case of exuberant joy.

But why should we shout for joy?  Because “the Lord Most High is to be feared, / A great King over all the earth” (v. 2).  God is “to be feared,” in the positive sense of standing in reverential awe of the Almighty.  And the reason why we should be thus overawed is that He is “a great King over all the earth,” which brings us to the central thought of the passage.  We are to conceive of God as a powerful monarch whose dominion extends over the entire earth; and as such all human beings owe Him their obedience and respect.

The psalm then goes on to reflect on the immediate experience of the nation of Israel.   David was king, and God had given him military victory over the surrounding nations.  And so the psalm says, “He subdues the peoples under us / And nations under our feet” (v. 3).  The psalmist was conscious that David’s military victories were possible only through divine providence.  It was God, in effect, who subdued the surrounding nations and gave Israel the military victory.

The psalm also reflects on the fact that “He chooses our inheritance for us, / The glory of Jacob whom He loves” (v. 4).  The “inheritance” was most likely the land of Canaan (cf. Ex. 15:17; Dt. 4:21,28) which God had promised Abraham, and the promised land was the “glory” of Israel, God’s chosen people, whom He loved.  The psalmist was conscious of the fact that Israel occupied a privileged position.  They were God’s own chosen people, and He had blessed them with a land flowing with milk and honey.  But all of this was only possible because God was sovereignly in control of human events.

The psalm says that “God has ascended with a shout, / The Lord with the sound of a trumpet” (v. 5).  The “trumpet” was the shofar, the curved ram’s horn trumpet, which was sounded on special occasions, included the coronation of a king.  When the Ark of the Covenant was brought to Jerusalem it was done “with shouting and with the sound of the trumpet” (II Sam. 6:15; cf. I Chron. 15:28), echoing the very language of the psalm.  By giving Israel victory over its enemies God had asserted His sovereignty, and this is seen as a cause of rejoicing for Israel.  God’s promises were being fulfilled and His righteousness was being established.

The next several verses then focus on the basic underlying principle, the sovereignty of God over all the nations.  He is a “King” (v. 6) who “reigns over the nations” and “sits on His holy throne” (v. 8).  God occupies the position of supreme authority in the universe.  As His creatures who owe our very existence to Him we are duty bound to obey Him.  He is our Lord and King.

Significantly the psalm says that “God is King of all the earth” (v. 7), and that He “reigns over the nations” (v. 8).  In other words, God’s sovereignty is universal – He is rightfully the Lord and Master of every human being.  The entire human race owes Him its allegiance and submission.  To refuse to acknowledge that, as in the case of modern secularism, is pure rebelliousness on our part.

The psalm concludes by saying,

“The princes of the people have assembled themselves,

as the people of the God of Abraham.

For the shields of the earth belong to God;

He is highly exalted.”    (v. 9).

Today, of course, we live in very different circumstances.  We are not a part of a nation that can claim to be God’s chosen people; and in fact, as we look at the world around us, what we see is a steadily increasing godlessness.  How is God’s sovereignty manifested today?

First of all, God providentially controls all that goes on in the world today.  Men are wicked and in revolt against Him.  But God is omnipotent and ultimately in control.  He is working out His own purposes in history, and will allow the wicked to go only so far.

Secondly, the Bible reveals to us how history will end.  Christ will return, defeat His enemies, and institute a reign of peace and justice.

We are not dealing, then, with a weak and powerless Deity who stands by helplessly in the sky, but with the Sovereign Lord of heaven and earth.  Certainly such a God commands our reverence and respect.  He is to be “feared,” as we saw in verse 2 of the psalm.  But we are also to praise Him, to shout joyfully to Him.  He is merciful, compassionate and just, all at the same time; and He loves us, his chosen people.  His sovereignty means that evil will not prevail in the long run.  Good will eventually triumph.  We can have peace and joy even in the midst of sorrow and difficulty.  Our God reigns!

JESUS SUMMARIZES HIS MISSION

 

As Jesus comes to the end of His intercessory prayer He summarizes His requests, and in a way summarizes His whole mission here on earth.  That mission was about to end.  But what did He accomplish?

He begins by describing he condition of the world into which He had come.  “O righteous Father!  The world has not known You . . .” (John 17:25; NKJV).  The Greek word used here for “known” means to know something by observation and experience, as opposed to mere theoretical, abstract knowledge.  The world is estranged from God.  It may (or may not) acknowledge the existence of a Supreme Being in some formal, abstract way, but it has no personal dealings with Him as the living God.  The average person rarely thinks about God at all, let alone prays to Him.  People go about their daily lives as though God simply did not exist.

And then Jesus reflects on His own relationship with the Father: “. . .but I have known You . . .”  In contrast with the world’s darkness and ignorance, its estrangement from God, Jesus was God’ the Father’s eternal Son.  He had coexisted with God the Father from all eternity, and enjoyed a warm, loving relationship with Him.

And then Jesus turns His attention to His disciples: “and these have known that You sent Me.”  Among the unconverted mass of humanity this small band of disciples had come to know that Jesus was no ordinary human being, but that He was, in fact, the Son of God who had come into the world.

But why had Jesus come into the world?  Jesus goes on to explain: “And I have declared to them Your name, and will declare it . . .” (v. 26).  The world translated “declared” could be rendered more literally “made known” (NASV).  But how did He “make known” God’s name?  In biblical times a person’s name was much more than a mere verbal marker.   It was meant to be a description of the thing itself.  Thus God’s name refers to the character and being of God Himself.  When Jesus made known the Father’s name He was revealing to mankind God’s essential character in a way that it had never been know before.  Granted, God had previously made a revelation of Himself through Moses and the Old Testament prophets.  But by coming into the world, by teaching and personal example, and ultimately by laying down His very life, Jesus made a clearer manifestation of the character of God – a God who is just and holy, but also loving and merciful.  It was a clearer revelation of God’s character than the human race had ever seen before.

But what was the ultimate aim of it all?  What did Jesus intend to accomplish by this?  He goes on to say: “. . . that the love with which You loved Me may be in them, and I in them.”  There is a broad, general sense in which “God so loved the world,” but as Jesus uses the term here He is referring to what theologians call God’s “love of complacency” or His “complacent love” – the kind of love in which God is genuinely pleased with someone.  Jesus notes that this is the kind of love that the Father has for Him as the Son.  And so now He prays that this same kind of love might also be “in them,” in His disciples as well.  This would be, first of all, that they too would become the objects of God’s complacent love – that they would be brought into such a relationship with God that they would experience God’s love personally.  But it may also mean that their own hearts would become filled with Christian love so that they would love others the way that God loved them – that God’s love would not just be towards them, but “in them.”

But Jesus goes further and adds, “and I in them.”  This points to the mystical union that genuine believers have with Christ – that Christ actually dwells inside their hearts through the Holy Spirit.  It is not so much a matter of our own trying harder, in our own strength, to meet God’s standards.  Rather it is Christ living inside of us, transforming us inwardly, so that we live lives that are pleasing to Him.  As the apostle Paul would put it, “I have been crucified with Christ; it is no longer I who live, but Christ lives in me; and the life which I now live in the flesh I live by faith in the Son of God, who loved me and gave Himself for me” (Gal. 2:20).  What an amazing thing, to have the infinite, eternal and holy Son of God living inside of us!

That, then, is what Jesus accomplished by coming here to earth.  As human beings we were lost, rebellious, and deserving of God’s wrath.  Jesus came into the world as a light shining into the darkness, bringing salvation and eternal life to mankind.  As a result of what He did individual men and women can come to Him in repentance and faith, receive the forgiveness of their sins, and have eternal life in Him.  What a remarkable demonstration of God’s love and mercy!

“I stand amazed in the presence

Of Jesus the Nazarene,

And wonder how He could love me,

A sinner condemned unclean.

 

“How marvelous!  How wonderful!

And my song shall ever be:

How marvelous!  How wonderful

Is my Savior’s love for me!”

 

Charles H. Gabriel

THE BELIEVER’S ULTIMATE GOAL IN LIFE

168

The Stoning of Stephen

In this this last prayer that Jesus makes on behalf of His disciples, Jesus has reflected on their position in the world and the challenges that they would face in His physical absence.  Jesus has stated that they are not of the world (John 17:16), but that He has sent them into the world (v. 18), and that consequently the world hates them (v. 14.  But this raises a serious question.  If the disciples (and by implication believers in general) are expected to forego the comforts and pleasures of the world, what is the point of following Christ?  What advantage is to be gained?

The question is a pertinent one.  Today we in America live in a prosperous and materialistic society.  We are attuned to the here and now.  Our schools and our media concern themselves with our temporal existence here on earth.  Even many churches today are oriented towards helping people find happiness and fulfillment in this life.

But that is not how Jesus described the Christian life.  It is a life of discipleship, of sacrifice, and of faith.  What, then, is the point?  What could possibly be gained from leading such a life?  Jesus explains near the end of His great prayer: “Father, I desire that they also whom You gave Me may be with Me where I am, that they may behold My glory which You have given Me; for You loved Me before the foundation of the world” (v. 24; NKJV).

Jesus, of course, was conscious of being the eternal Son of God, and of the position that He had held in heaven before His incarnation.  While He was here on earth many did not recognize Him as the Son of God.  And He was about to undergo the most humiliating trial of all.  But all of that stood in sharp contrast with His position in heaven.  There He was in direct contact with the Father.   He enjoyed the Father’s love.  The angels bowed down and worshipped Him.  He was fully recognized for what He actually was – the eternal Son of God through Whom the world was created.

And Jesus was conscious of the fact that He was about to be separated from His disciples and return to His Father in heaven.  But He loved His disciples too; and so He prays that “they . .. may be with Me where I am.”

Where Jesus was going to be, of course, was heaven, and heaven is a very different place from earth.  Here on earth we are exposed to illness and injury, to natural disasters, crime, corruption, poverty and war.  Death is an inescapable part of human existence.

But heaven is far different.  Jesus had once said that in heaven “neither moth nor rust destroys and  . . .thieves do not break in and steal” (Matt. 6:20).  Peter could write about “an inheritance incorruptible and undefiled and that does not fade away, reserved in heaven for you” (I Pet. 1:4).  And we are told in the Book of Revelation that “God will wipe away every tear from their eyes; there shall be no more death, nor sorrow, nor crying.  There shall be nor more pain, for former things have passed away” (Rev. 21:4).

But in His prayer Jesus specifically prayed that true believers “may be with Me where I am, that they may behold My glory which You have given Me; for You loved Me before the foundation of the world.”  We will be in the very presence of God Himself, and will see Christ in all His glory.  The world “glory” sometimes has different significations in the Bible, but when John uses it, especially as applied to Jesus, it usually refers to His honor and reputation.  And it must be kept in mind that one of John’s major concerns in recording all of this is to demonstrate that the Jesus whom he knew personally, was indeed the eternal Son of God.  And so when we are in heaven we will see Jesus as He really is, in all of His divine glory.  Again, the Book of Revelation portrays a scene in which thousands upon thousands in heave say with a loud voice,

“Worthy is the Lamb that was slain

To receive power and honor and glory and blessing!”

(Rev. 5:8-14 – set to Handel’s music

no doubt!)

It is the pure joy of being in the presence of God and beholding His glory.

“In Your presence is fullness of joy;

At Your right hand are pleasures evermore.”

(Psalm 16:11)

If we truly love Christ our greatest desire, then, would be to be in His very presence in heaven.  The apostle Paul could say “For me, to live is Christ, and to die is gain,” and that “I am hard-pressed between the two, having a desire to depart and be with Christ, which is far better.  Nevertheless to remain in the flesh is more needful for you” (Phil 1:21-24).  And again, a little later he says, “Yet indeed I 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” (Phil. 3:8).

Why, then, endure suffering and hardship for Christ?  It amounts to a simple cost / benefit analysis.  In the end the benefit (an eternity in heaven) outweighs the cost (temporary suffering here on earth).

And so the question is, what is our ultimate purpose and goal in life?  Are we living for the here-and-now, devoting our lives to the profits and pleasures of this life?  They are all here today and gone tomorrow.  It makes more sense to devote our lives to Christ, to seek to honor and glorify Him in all that we do, so that we can enjoy an eternity in glory.

“This world is not my home,

I’m just apassing thru,

My treasures are laid up

Somewhere beyond the blue;

The angels beckon me

From heaven’s open door,

And I can’t feel at home

In this world anymore.”