Tribulation Saint

Historic Christianity in the Twenty First Century

THE PRAYER FOR CHURCH UNITY – I

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In the midst of all the trials and difficulties Christians experience in a hostile world, Christ’s plea for His disciples is that they would be one.  He prays, “Holy Father, keep through Your name those whom You have given Me, that they may be one as we are one” (John 17:11; NKJV).  He comes back to this theme a little later in His prayer.  “I do not pray for these alone, but also for those who will believe in Me through their word; that they all may be one, as You Father, are in Me, and I in You, that they also may be one in Us, that the world may believe that You sent Me” (vv. 20,21).

First of all, it should be noted that Jesus makes a distinction between believers and unbelievers, and He makes it clear that He is not praying here for unbelievers.  He prays “for those who will believe in Me.”  The phrase translated “believe in” is used throughout the Gospel of John to refer to personal faith in Christ.  What He is praying for here is the unity of a fellowship of believers – not a state church or a church with liberal theology.  And Jesus made it clear in verse 9 that “I pray for them.  I do not pray for the world but for those whom You have given Me, for they are Yours.”  He draws a sharp distinction between the world and true believers.  He is praying for the unity of genuine born-again Christians, not a mixed body of converted and unconverted church members.  It is a believers’ church that is in view here.

On the other hand Jesus makes it plain that He is praying for all genuinely born again Christians.  “I do not pray for these alone [i.e., His immediate disciples], but also for those who will believer in Me through their word” (v. 20).  His concern is not just for one particular denomination or sect, but for the universal church as a whole – all who genuinely believe in Him in every age.

Jesus describes the nature of church unity this way: “as You, Father, are in me, and I in You; that they also may be one in us” (v. 21).  “I in them, and You in Me, that they may be perfect in one” (v. 23).  There is a certain amount of mystery here, the nature of the Godhead and the manner in which the Father is in the Son and the Son in the Father.  But it does point to what theologians call the mystical union of believers in Christ.  If we have been born again we have the Holy Spirit dwelling in our hearts; and this connects us mystically to Jesus Christ and to each other.  All true believers have the indwelling of the Holy Spirit.  We are all members of the body of Christ, regardless of our particular denominational affiliation.  We all share a common connection to Christ.  He is the head of the one universal church of which we are all members.  Thus every truly born-again Christian is a brother or sister in Christ.

It is for this church, this universal church, that Jesus prays “that they all may be one . . .” (vv. 21-23).  He prays that they might be one, not many.

Here we see the great scandal of modern American church life.  We are a nation made up of ethnic groups from every corner of the globe.  We enjoy the freedom of religion, the separation of church and state.  Unfortunately that has resulted in an incredible array of denominations.   There are at least six or sever conservative Presbyterian groups alone, each claiming to subscribe to the Westminster Confession of Faith.  Much to our shame we have come to accept this as normal.  Churches feel free to define themselves any way they wish, often putting highly debatable doctrines in their statements of faith, and then requiring their candidates for membership to subscribe to the statement of faith in full.  Individual Christians simply shop around and choose whatever church they wish to join, sometimes changing membership repeatedly from church to church.

Some of the more conservative or “Fundamentalist” churches practice what is called “Second Degree Separation.”  “First Degree Separation,” separation from unbelievers, is biblical.  Evangelical Christians should not be part of liberal, mainline denominations that deny the cardinal doctrines of the faith.  That would be tacitly recognizing unbelievers as brothers and sisters in Christ.  But “Second Degree Separation,” separation from fellow Evangelical Christians over secondary points of doctrine, is problematic.  If we are to take Jesus’ words in this prayer seriously, we should all be working for the visible unity of the church.

GOD AND THE CORONAVIRUS

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4.2.7

Pieter Claesz, A Vanitas Still Life, 1645

 

The current coronavirus pandemic has demonstrated, dramatically, how fragile life can be.  Within a matter of weeks, and even days, our lives have been turned upside down; and now we wait, not sure what to expect, but bracing for the worst.  Nearly everyone will be put to an inconvenience.  Many will get sick, and some will die.  Events have been cancelled and plans have been disrupted.  How will it all end?

There is a sense in which none of this is new – it is a part of the human condition.  Just ask the survivors of the Bubonic Plague in the Middle Ages.  And the frailty of human life is reflected in many of the psalms in the Bible.

One such psalm is Psalm 33.  The human author is unknown, but the psalm is found in the early part of the psalter that contains many of the psalms of David..  The psalm begins, appropriately, with a call to worship:

“Rejoice in the Lord, O you righteous!

For praise from the upright is beautiful.

Praise the Lord with the harp;

Make melody to Him with an instrument of ten strings.”

(Psalm 33:1,2; NKJV)

Praise is the proper and fitting response to all that God is and has done, as the psalmist will go on to demonstrate.

The psalmist describes God’s character as one of “righteousness and justice,” and says that “The earth is full of the presence of the Lord” (v. 5).  Even natural disasters do not detract from the fact that we live in a rationally ordered universe created by an intelligent Supreme Being.  There is evidence of Intelligent Design everywhere.

The psalmist points to the enormous power of God demonstrated in creation.

“By the word of the Lord the heavens were made,

And all the host of them by the breath of His mouth . . .

For He spoke, and it was done;

He commanded, and it stood fast.”

(vv. 6,9).

\Contemplate for a moment the sheer immensity of the universe, the distant stars and galaxies millions of light years away, and then realize that all this came into being by the mere spoken word of God!  How amazing beyond all comprehension!  “Let all the earth fear the Lord, / Let all the inhabitants of the world stand in awe of Him” (v. 8).

But if God is the all-powerful Creator, it stands to reason that He exercised absolute control over what He has created.  And this means, in turn, that He can override the counsels of men.  “The Lord brings the counsel of the nations to nothing; / He makes the plans of the peoples of no effect’ (v. 10).  Think of what has just happened in our lives.  A tiny microbe appeared in a distant city in central China, and within just a matter of a few months entire countries on the other side of the globe were shut down and the financial markets are in upheaval.  The most that the healthcare officials can do is to try to slow down the rate of infection; they are powerless to stop it completely.  And all of this because of an invading army equipped with tanks, planes, missiles and bombs?  No!  Because of a microscopic bug!  How fragile life is!  And yet God, the Creator and Lord of the universe, is in control of it all.  “The counsel of the Lord stands forever, / The plans of His heart to all generations” (v. 11).

The psalmist points out that God is perfectly aware of all that is going on down here:

“The Lord looks down from heaven;

He sees all the sons of men . . .

He fashions their hearts individually;

He considers all their works.”

(vv. 13,15)

What this suggests is that what is happening now did not happen by accident – God is perfectly aware of what is going on, and is controlling its course and determining its outcome.  It is all a part of His eternal plan.

The psalmist then makes a telling observation:

“No king is saved by the multitude of an army;

A mighty man is not delivered by great strength.’

A horse is a vain hope for safety;

Neither shall it deliver any by its great strength.”

(vv. 16,17).

An army, one’s own physical strength, and a horse are all things on which we are naturally inclined to rely.  But all of them, by their very nature, are finite.  There always exists the possibility that they will be overwhelmed by an even greater force.  And since God is infinite, He can easily overcome any of them.  As we have seen in the current crisis, there are even forces in nature that can overwhelm a government.  But God is greater than all of these.  God is ultimately in control.  In God we should place our trust.

And so the psalmist tells us that “the eye of the Lord is on those who fear Him . . .to deliver their soul from death . . .” (vv. 18,19).  This in itself is remarkable.  Why would the infinite Creator and Lord of heaven and earth pay any attention to any of us finite creatures of the dust?  The answer is that it is precisely because He is infinite that He is aware of everything.  “The Lord looks from heaven; / He sees all the sons of men” (v. 13).  That being the case, He takes a personal interest in “those who fear Him, / On those who hope in His mercy” (v. 18).  To “fear” God does not mean to live to live in constant terror of Him.  God is good – He is kind and gracious.  To “fear” Him means to have such a deep reverence for His power and authority that one would dread to offend Him in any way.  It means to approach Him in deep and humble reverence.

To “hope” in God means to have a confident expectation which will then demonstrate itself in patient waiting.  “Mercy” might better be translated “lovingkindness” (NASV).  It is the kindness of God “in condescending to the needs of his creatures” (Brown-Driver-Briggs).  The key to weathering the storms of life is to put our trust in God’s unfailing goodness.  But that requires faith.

Thus the psalmist concludes by saying:

“Our soul waits for the Lord;

He is our help and our shield.

For our heart shall rejoice in Him,

Because we have trusted in His holy name.”

(vv. 20,21).

We put our trust in Him.  We rely on Him to get us through life’s trials and difficulties.  And as a result we patiently wait on Him; and we do more than that – we “rejoice in Him” – our heart is filled with joy and gratitude precisely because we have the confidence that He will come and deliver us.

The psalmist finally concludes with a prayer: “Let Your mercy, O Lord, be upon us, / Just as we hope in You” (v. 22); His “mercy” again being His lovingkindness.

The question, then, is how firm is our faith in God?  Do we have the confidence that He will deliver us from all our trials and difficulties?  In a situation like the one in which we now find ourselves it may seem difficult.  The whole world seems in chaos – the things upon which we have always relied my no longer be there for us.  But if our faith is real and genuine, if God has a real presence in our lives, we will go to Him in prayer, confess our fear and anxiety, and wait for “the peace of God, which surpasses all understanding” to “guard you hearts and minds through Christ Jesus” (Phil. 4:7).

 

THE CHURCH AND THE WORLD

 

Jesus has begun His last great intercessory prayer for His disciples, and He quickly turns His attention to their position in the world.  He prays, “I have manifested Your name to the men whom You have given Me out of the world.  They were Yours, You gave them to Me, and they have kept Your word” (John 17:6; NKJV).

The disciples, as we have already noted, were chosen by God the Father and given to Christ the Son.  But they were given to Christ “out of the world.”  The “world” is the fallen human race in general – human civilization as we know it – sinful and corrupt.  The disciples, then, were chosen from “out of the world” – they were no longer a part of the world, the surrounding human society.  They no longer marched to the world’s drumbeat.

Of these, Jesus says, “I have manifested Your name” to them.  “For I have given to them the words which You have given Me . . .” (v. 8).  The “words” (ta hremata) are the actual spoken words.  The Father gave these words to the Son, and the Son gave them to the disciples.  This is critical.  Christianity is a revealed religion – it is based on facts and information that can only be known through the writings of the prophets and apostles.  All of this is denied by large segments of the modern professing church (liberal theology), but Jesus clearly claimed it.  It is absolutely critical.  Apart from divine revelation Christianity has no more claim to be true than any other religion, and Jesus would have been a madman to have claimed otherwise.

And then Jesus says, “they have kept Your word” (v. 6); and in particular “they have believed that You sent Me” (v. 8).  In other words, what marked the disciples was their doctrinal orthodoxy – they “kept Your word.”  The “word” here is the logos, the doctrinal content of the revelation.  And they “kept” it – they were careful to observe it and obey it.  And in particular it involved believing something about the Person of Christ – that He had been sent by the Father.  (It must be kept in mind that John had a specific apologetic purpose in recording this – that the Jesus who spoke these words was the eternal Son of God).

Jesus then prays for them.  His concern here in particular is their position in the world.  He Himself is about to depart from the world, but they will remain in it.  And this points to the position that all Christians are in as we try to relate to the surrounding human society.  “Now I am no longer in the world, but these are in the world, and I come to You” (v. 11a).  Jesus was conscious of the fact that He was about to be reunited with His Father in heaven.  But He was also conscious that His disciples would be left behind here on earth: “ . . .they are in the world” – to face the trials and difficulties, the hostility and opposition that a Christian meets when he tries to live a godly life in a fallen, sinful world.

Jesus says, “I have given them Your word; and the world has hated them because they are not of the world, just as I am not of the world” (v. 14).  “They are not of the world, just as I am not of the world” (v. 16).  Jesus had given His disciples the “word” (logon) of God, the word logos here referring to the truth of God as it has been revealed to man.  Again, Christianity is a revealed religion; it is based on a revelation from God.  And as the very Son of God Jesus was in a better position than any merely human prophet to know exactly what God the Father thinks and wants, and that is what He has revealed to us.

But this revelation has the effect of creating a division within human society – a division between those who accept this revelation and those who do not.  Those who have received this revelation now see life in an entirely different light; they can no longer accept the false values of the world or conform to its standards.  The hostility of the world is the result.

But Jesus also says, “As You sent Me into the world, I also have sent them into the world” (v. 18).  The world translated “sent” is a form of the verb apostello, from which we get the noun apostolos or “apostle,” a “sent out” one.  It implies someone who has been sent on an official or authoritative mission.  The primary reference here is undoubtedly to the apostles, but there is an application to the church as well. We are not called merely to exist in the world; we have been sent out by God into the world on a mission.  In one sense, then, all believers are “apostles”; we all represent Christ in the world and have been sent by Him to proclaim the gospel to the world.  And Jesus draws an analogy between our mission and His own.  “As You sent Me into the world, I also have sent them into the world.”    He was the sinless, holy Son of God, who spent three years in this sin-cursed world, and was finally crucified. If we have been sanctified by the Holy Spirit we are in somewhat of the same position.  We have been called to live godly lives and to preach the gospel, and we meet the world’s hostility as a result.  We are walking in Christ’s footsteps.

How, then, can believers function under such circumstances?  Jesus says, “Holy Father, keep through Your name those whom You have given Me, that they may be one as we are” (v. 11b).  We are not left to struggle on our own.  We would be unequal to the task if we were.  But Jesus “kept” His disciples while He was here on earth (v. 12), and now He asks the Father to continue that protection.  It points to the eternal security of genuine believers.

Jesus specifically says, “I do not pray that You should take them out of the world, but that You should keep them from the evil one” (v. 15); the “evil one” being Satan.  God loves us; He protects us.  But that does not mean our physical removal from the world, but rather that we should be protected from the evil forces that are at work in the world.  We must still face hardship and difficulty, like anyone else.  We will also face opposition.  We might even be called upon to face a martyr’s death.  But in it all God will be with us, will protect us, and will strengthen us inwardly until it is time to call us home.

What all of this means for us practically is that as Christians we are not a part of the surrounding society.  We are live lives of non-conformity to the world.  We should care about our neighbors and our country; we should work to improve the quality of life in our communities and alleviate hardship and suffering wherever we can.  Christian love demands no less.  But we must not share the world’s values.  We must approach the mass media skeptically, maintain business integrity at all times, and beware of aligning ourselves too closely with any one political party.  And above all else we must recognize that mankind’s deepest problem is its sin, and that Christ is the only answer.  Let us ever be faithful witnesses to Jesus Christ.

GOD’S ETERNAL PLAN OF REDEMPTION

 

Jesus’ teaching ministry had come to an end, at least until after the Resurrection.  He is on the verge of being arrested, and before the day would be over He would be executed on a cross and buried in a tomb.  And yet the last thing He does before this momentous event was to pray for the disciples He was about to leave, and by extension for the whole body of believers who would come to faith in Him through their testimony.  It was a remarkable testimony to the love that Christ had for His disciples that He would be praying for them on the morning of His execution.

The prayer has deep significance for us as believers, because it expresses what Christ desires for us.  In effect it sets the priorities for the church, and our aim in life is to become what He wanted us to become.  His prayer, in effect, is the roadmap for our journey to heaven.

It is significant that Jesus begins by placing the life of the church in the context of God’s eternal plan of redemption.  Jesus is about to pray for the church – but why should the Father hear Him and grant the requests?  The answer is that it is ultimately all a part of God’s plan for the church, and a critical part of that plan was what Jesus was about to do on the cross.

“Father, the hour has come.  Glorify Your Son, that Your Son may glorify You, as You have given Him authority over all flesh, that He should give eternal life to as many as You have given Him” (John 17:1,2; NKJV).  We note here at the very beginning that God the Father has given the Son “authority over all flesh.”  By coming down to earth and taking on human flesh, becoming both God and man at the same time, and then dying on behalf of mankind, Jesus became the representative Head of the human race (cf. Phil. 2:5-11).  This means, then, that all of us as human beings are subject to His authority.

As a part of that authority God the Father has given the Son certain individuals who would be saved: “that He should give eternal life to as many as you have given Him.”  There is a specific group of individuals whom the Father has given to the Son, and they are the ones who become the recipients of salvation (cf. John 6:36-40, 44, 45, 65).

“And this is eternal life, that they may know You, the only true God, and Jesus Christ whom You have sent” (v. 3).  We sometimes think of salvation as the forgiveness of sins, and that is certainly part of it.  But salvation is also much more than that.  It is life, and the life consists of knowing God the Father and Jesus Christ His Son.  It is being alive to eternal reality, and knowing God in a personal way.  The great tragedy of human existence is that the vast majority of human beings are spiritually dead – they have no sense of God at all apart from maybe a bare, abstract idea.  But salvation brings about a spiritual awakening and makes us alive to the presence of God.  The world looks entirely different now.

Jesus then goes on to reflect on His own personal role in the plan of redemption.  “I have glorified You on earth.  I have finished the work You have given Me to do.   And now, O Father, glorify Me together with Yourself, with the glory I had with You before the world was” (vv. 4,5).  Jesus, of course, was very conscious of being the eternal Son of God, and of having been sent by the Father on a special mission to the world.  For three years He had preached and performed miracles.  He had now arrived at the climactic point of His earthly mission, His death on the cross.  It was a terrifying prospect indeed.  But was it worth it?  What could He possibly gain by going through with this?  The human race was in bondage to sin.  It deserved an eternity in hell.  And yet God chose to send His Son into the world to die for our sins.  What a testimony to His mercy and grace!  And by raising Jesus from the dead He showed that Jesus had accomplished the desired objective – His mission was a success!

Many people in our modern, secular world have difficulty finding meaning and purpose in life.  We go through life, pursuing our own individual narrow self-interest.  But in the end that is likely to leave us empty.  As human beings we want to be valued; we want to feel that we have accomplished something worthwhile.  But once we remove God from the picture our life becomes meaningless: we serve no useful purpose here on earth.

God is our Creator, and He created us for a purpose.  And the remarkable thing is that even in our fallen, sinful condition, God chose to save at least some of us, and at the appointed time in history He sent His Son into the world to atone for our sin.  What happened on the cross was the turning point in history.  And we who know Christ are the beneficiaries of this unparalleled act of grace and mercy.  May we devote our lives to the One who purchased our redemption at so great a price!

THE SPECTER OF PERSECUTION

 

As Jesus comes to the end of His discourse He has elicited a response of faith from His disciples.  “Now we are sure that You know all things, and have no need that anyone should question You.  By this we believe that You came forth from God” (John 16:30; NKJV).  But Jesus responded by making a disturbing comment: “Do you now believe?  Indeed the hour is coming, yes, has now come, that you will be scattered, each to his own, and will leave Me alone.  And yet I am not alone, because the Father is with Me” (vv. 31,32).

They had been faithful disciples.  They had known Him, and had grown to love Him.  And they understood what He was saying; they responded in faith.

Or did they?  What does it mean to believe in Christ?  They certainly thought that they believed.  But Jesus predicted, and subsequent events bore out His prediction, that when the hour of trial would come they would desert Him.  Confronted with a contingent of armed guards and soldiers, “Then all the disciples forsook Him and fled” (Matt. 26:56; cf. Mk. 14:50).  What a sober warning against over-confidence!

But then Jesus added, “And yet I am not alone, because the Father is with Me.”  There may be times when friends will betray us, when even our best friends will desert us. And yet our hope does not ultimately rest on man, but on God Himself.  The question is, is our faith in God so strong that when everyone else deserts the cause we will remain faithful to Him?

Jesus then goes on to make an observation about His disciples’ position in the world in general: “These things I have spoken to you, that in Me you may have peace.  In the world you will have tribulation; but be of good cheer, I have overcome the world” (v. 33).  “In the world,” He says, “you will have tribulation.”  He was about to be arrested and crucified.  That is what the world thinks about Christ.  And if we remain faithful to Christ, if we try to live lives that are pleasing to Him and be faithful witnesses to His truth, we will “have tribulation.”  Hardship, difficulty and even outright persecution are sure to follow.  Let no one deceive us.  Jesus did not promise His followers lives of ease and comfort.  His path led Him to the cross; and if we follow Him we may find ourselves facing persecutions as well.

But Jesus says, “be of good cheer,” or, as it might be translated, “take courage” (NASV) or “take heart” (NIV, ESV); and then He explains: “I have overcome the world.”  Christ’s death and resurrection was the decisive turning point in history.  The war is still going on.  There are battles yet to be won.  But the final victory is guaranteed.

The opposition we face is very real.  The human heart, in its natural condition, is at enmity with God.  Human society may present an outward appearance of decency and good order.  But underneath is a latent hostility towards God, a refusal to submit to His law, and resentment of His authority.  The Christian gospel, clearly and faithfully proclaimed, exposes all of that; and that is why it meets with natural resistance.   And it often happens, in this normal, ordinary course of things, that people will pressure us to make ethical compromises, often for the sake of corporate profits.  There are short term consequences to pay for remaining faithful to Christ.

But where will it all end?  In the short run human recklessness leads to eventual ruin.  And in the final end we must all stand before the judgment seat of Christ in the great and terrible day of reckoning.

In the final analysis we have no choice.  Satan is doomed to destruction.  There is no point in following him no matter what the short-term consequences.

Jesus said, “These things I have spoken to you, that in Me you may have peace.”  One might wonder how we could have peace if what we are to expect in the world is tribulation.  The purpose of the whole discourse was to prepare the disciples for what lie immediately ahead.  And in the discourse Jesus repeatedly stressed the importance of keeping His commandments, of prayer, and of the work of the Holy Spirit.  We can have peace, an inward peace, but only to the extent that we have a meaningful relationship with Christ Himself.  It is peace “in Me.”  It is only as we commune with Him, consciously seek to obey His commandments and are filled with His Spirit that we can experience that inward peace in the midst of outward difficulties.

Difficult days may lie ahead.  The surrounding culture is rapidly changing in a non-Christian and even anti-Christian direction.  It is no longer respectable to be a practicing, Bible-believing Christian with conservative views of morality.  Will we be able to meet the challenge?  Not if we are content with a merely formal, institutionalized form of church life.  We need to develop a deeper relationship with Christ Himself – to love Him, commune with Him and serve Him faithfully.  Then, in Him, we may have peace.

 

SHOULD CHRISTIANS VOTE FOR TRUMP?

 

Review:

God, Trump and the 2020 Election:

Why He Must Win and What’s at Stake for Christians if He Loses

Stephen E. Strang

Front Line, 2020

253 pp., hc.

 

Donald J. Trump may seem like an odd candidate to advance the cause of Evangelical Christianity.  A notorious womanizer, twice divorced and remarried (after he had cheated on his previous wives), with a foul mouth and a desire to punish his enemies, he hardly exemplifies Christian virtue in his personal life.  How, then, could he be God’s chosen instrument to rescue America from self-destruction?  And yet that is exactly what author Stephen E. Strang argues in his newly released book, God, Trump, and the 2020 Election.

Stephen Strang is a journalist by training and the founder and CEO of Charisma Media, publisher of Charisma magazine, a well-known Pentecostal / Charismatic publication, as well as a large array of books.  In the back of his book Strang acknowledges a large number of influential Charismatic and Evangelical leaders, some of whom have had personal dealings with Mr. Trump.  Chief among them would be Paula White Cain, whom Mr. Trump considers to be his spiritual advisor.

On the surfaced the argument is very simple and straightforward.  During his presidency Donald Trump has advanced a number of causes that are especially dear to Evangelical Christians: conservative Supreme Court picks, freedom of religion, etc.  The Democrats, on the other hand, should they win in the fall election, are liable to pursue a number of causes inimical to Evangelical interests – LGBTQ rights, etc.  The choice, then, would seem obvious: Christians should get out and vote for Donald Trump.

Appendix B in the book does, in fact, contain the text of an address which President Trump delivered to the United Nations General Assembly in 2019; and it is fairly eloquent statement of the policies and principles that have guided the Trump administration (one might see the hand of a professional speech writer in it).  Its main theme is the need to preserve national sovereignty.  “Like my beloved country, each nation represented in the hall has a cherished history, culture, and heritage that is worth defending and celebrating, and which gives us our singular potential and strength.  The free world must embrace its national foundations.  It must not attempt to erase them or replace them” (p. 209).  That means that the U.S. Government should pursue a vibrant economy, a strong defense and secure borders.  “Liberty is only preserved, sovereignty is only secured, democracy is only sustained, greatness is only realized, by the will and devotion of patriots.  In their spirit is found the strength to resist oppression, the inspiration to forge legacy, the goodwill to seek friendship, and the bravery to reach for peace.  Love of our nations makes the world better for all nations” (p. 217).

But do the ends justify the means?  Mr. Strang scarcely touches on Mr. Trump’s personal character or the inner workings of the White House.  Strang does concede, “When it comes to Twitter, I’m certainly not going to say that Trump never puts his foot in his mouth” (p. 38).  But he quotes Paula White Cain as saying that Trump is a devoted father and is courteous and sympathetic towards others.  According to her, Trump pays attention to detail, is a visionary, a man of integrity and of principle.  But, she conceded, Trump is a fighter.  “He doesn’t start a fight.  But he will certainly finish one off” (p. 119).  And David Barton is quoted as saying that Trump’s Tweets are a part of an attempt to control the mainstream news cycle and throw the other side off balance.  Strang also notes that Trump has been under relentless attack from Democrats, the press, and “the Deep State.”

Strang’s book came out just as the impeachment process was getting underway, and Strang questioned the intention behind it.  “The attacks are, in my opinion, from the pit of hell.   As a Christian I believe that Satan is behind this.  He is trying to steal, kill and destroy.  And Donald Trump has been raised up by God to stop our nation’s headlong plunge into total depravity.  Trump’s presidency is God’s mercy to America since we deserve punishment” (p. 201).

The impeachment process is now over.  And although President Trump was acquitted by the Senate, it can be argued that had the impeachment process been conducted properly, John Bolton and perhaps others would have been called to testify, and it would have been established that there was indeed a “quid pro quo” in the President’s dealings with Ukraine.  By all rights Mr. Trump should have been removed from office and Mike Pence made President instead.

But he was not, and that poses a dilemma for Christian voters.  Strang believes that Donald Trump is God’s man to save America from self-destruction, and he quotes a number of Pentecostal prophets who claim to have discerned God’s intentions in the matter.  But this may be a misreading of God’s mind.  Strang seems to be equating America with the kingdom of Christ, and then concludes that as Christians we must do everything within our power to save America from self-destruction.  But Biblically America, like every other nation, is a part of the “world,” which is seen in Scripture as fallen, sinful, and under God’s judgment.  As Christians “our citizenship is in heaven” (Phil. 3:20; NKJV) and we are “strangers and pilgrims” here on earth (Heb. 11:13-16; I Pet. 2:11); and therefore we are exhorted to “keep oneself unspotted from the world” (Jas. 1:27), “having your conduct honorable among the Gentiles, that when they speak against you as evildoers, they may, by your good works which they observe, glorify God in the day of visitation” (I Pet. 2:12).

The church’s primary task, and the world’s best hope, is the proclamation of the gospel.  But by closely identifying ourselves with a politician whose personal behavior is ungodly we undermine our credibility – in the eyes of we say one thing and do another.  Thus for the sake of Christ, for the sake of the gospel, it might be better not to support either major party candidate.  In the short run it may cost us our political freedom.  But in the long run it might hasten the triumph of the gospel.

Stephen Strang’s argument is well presented, and on the surface looks invincible.  But Christians will do well to exercise caution before jumping on the band wagon.

THE SORROW AND THE JOY

 

Jesus now comes to the end of His discussions with His disciples.  Through it all He has been preparing them for what was about to happen – the horrible ordeal through which He was about to pass.  The disciples struggled to comprehend what Jesus was saying to them.  At this point, however, time was running out.  It was only a matter of hours, perhaps even minutes, before Jesus would be arrested and eventually meet His death on the cross.  He moves to bring the discussion to a close.

In summing up what He has said so far Jesus brings up one additional factory that He had not quite mentioned before.  “A little while, and you will not see Me; and again a little while, and you will see Me, because I go to the Father” (John 16:16; NKJV).  He had, of course, told them that He was about to depart from them, and there was at least a hint at some post-resurrection appearances.  But here He puts a little more emphasis on it: “and again a little while, and you will see Me.”  And then, a little later, He goes on to explain: “Most assuredly, I say to you that you will weep and lament, but the world will rejoice; and you will be sorrowful, but your sorrow will be turned into joy” (v. 20).  He then uses the analogy of a woman giving birth: “A woman, when she is in labor, has sorrow because her hour has come; but as soon as she has given birth to the child, she no longer remembers the anguish, for joy that a human being has been born into the world” (v. 21).   And so it would be with the disciples: they would see Jesus hanging on the cross, and their hearts would be full of sorrow.  But a little later, once they realized that He had been raised from the dead, they would be filled with joy, “and your joy no one will take from you” (v. 22).

Up until this point the disciples had been having a hard time fitting all of this together, but now the pieces of the puzzle were starting to come together.  Jesus states quite plainly, “I came forth from the Father and have come into the world.  Again, I leave the world and go to the Father” (v. 28), and this drew from the disciples the response, “By this we believe that You came forth from God” (. 30).

It should be kept in mind that the apostle John had an apologetic purpose in writing all of this down.  He was especially concerned about an early form of Gnosticism that had crept into the churches.  This was based on the view that there was a sharp dichotomy between physical matter and spirit.  Therefore, it was held by some, that there was a difference between the divine Christ and the human Jesus.  The divine Christ supposedly descended upon the human Jesus at His baptism, but then was taken back up into heaven before Jesus died on the cross.  Thus, so it was held, the divine Christ never suffered on the cross.

All of this was complete and utter nonsense, as far as John was concerned.  He had known Jesus personally.  He had heard Jesus teach and had watched Him perform miracles.  He had watched Jesus die on the cross and later saw Him risen from the dead.  And he knew that Jesus Himself had come from the Father and that He was returning again to Him.  Jesus was the eternal Son of God who had come in the flesh, had suffered on the cross and returned to heaven again.  The divine Christ and the human Jesus were one and the same Person.

There is something truly extraordinary, though, about the eternal Son of God dying on a Roman cross.  And it was certainly not what many Jews of the time expected of the Messiah.  And yet such was the deep love and compassion that God had for His lost and fallen creatures that He sent His only-begotten Son into this sin-cursed world to die on the cross for our sins.  It is an amazing story indeed!

And there is a sober lesson here for us as well.  We must still live in this sin-cursed world, and we must still fell its pain and suffering, its hardships and distress.  As we shall see when we come to the last verses of the chapter, that can even include outright persecution from time to time.  And that is exactly what Jesus Himself experienced on our behalf; and if we follow Him we will also experience it in some measure as well.  The promise is not that we will never experience pain and suffering in this life, but that we will have eternal peace and joy in the life to come.  We may be suffering outwardly, but we have the joy of the Holy Spirit inwardly, “and your joy no one will take from you.”

“When thru the deep waters I call thee to go,

The rivers of sorrow will not overflow;

For I will be with thee, they troubles to bless,

And sanctify to thee thy deepest distress.”

18th Century hymn.

THE NAKED GOSPEL?

 

Review:

The Naked Gospel

Andrew Farley

Zondervan, 2009

237 pp., p.b.

 

We live in a stressful world, and there are many books on the market today that attempt to address the anxieties and fears of believers.  Unfortunately not all of them are biblically sound.  The Naked Gospel by Andrew Farley, is a case in point.

Dr. Farley is a pastor and best-selling author, as well as tenured professor of linguistics at Texas Tech University.  In spite of such credentials, however, his book The Naked Gospel, has some serious deficiencies.

The book arose out of his personal experience.  In Chapter 1 he tells of how he struggled with a sense of spiritual inferiority in spite of evangelizing compulsively.  His depression grew worse, he dropped out of college and sought help from a variety of Christian therapists.  It was later able to return to school, but it was some time after that that he decided that the root of his problem was a misunderstanding of the gospel.  The true gospel, he concluded, was designed to set one free from what he calls a false religiosity.

At one point in the book he lays out four basic propositions that form the core of his argument:

  • “Your relationship to the law is now all gone.”
  • “Your old self is now all gone.
  • “Your sins are now all gone.
  • “All obstacles preventing closeness are now all gone.

(p. 216)

On the first point he makes some radical assertions.   He claims that “the law,” as he calls it, is only for unbelievers and that “Now we don’t have to fulfill any of the law” (p. 57).  “Principles, rules and standards – no matter how ‘Christian’ we believe they are – are poor substitutes for a live animated by God himself” (p. 58).  At one point he even goes so far as to say that “Christians are even free from the Ten Commandments” (p. 57), and suggests that the Sermon on the Mount was not intended for Christians (Chapter 12).  He quotes numerous passages from Galatians, Ephesians and Hebrews to support his contentions.

But when Paul uses the word “law” in a negative sense, his readers with Jewish backgrounds would have understood the Torah, the law of Moses, a conditional covenant with a host of minute ceremonial regulations.  But Farley wants to extend the term to mean written laws and commandments in general.  “But this is what Christian maturity is,” he says, “since we’re in Christ and he’s in us, we don’t look to external rules to determine our every move; instead, we’re urged to move away from religious bondage and to a journey toward a beautiful freedom, never looking back . . .” (pp. 92-93).

The passages cited make it clear that we are no longer under the Mosaic Covenant.  But it does not logically follow from this that there is no universally binding moral law which all of us, as human beings, are bound to observe.

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

And what does the Lord require of you

But to do justly,

To love mercy,

And to walk humbly with your God?”

(Micah 6:8; NKJV)

Farley’s next two points are that “your old self is now all gone,” and “your sins are now all gone,” again quoting passages from the epistles.  The second of these two points is especially problematical.  The problem here is that Farley does not distinguish between the imputed righteousness we receive in justification and the infused righteousness we receive in sanctification.  Thus he tries to argue that at the point of conversion one becomes perfectly righteous in actual practice.  “. . .God calls us righteous because we actually are righteous” (p. 105, emphasis his).  If we ask the question, then, why do Christians still sin, he replies that it is not the Christian who is sinning, but a “sin principle within the physical body” (p 119).  “Sin is in us, but it is not us” (p. 119, emphasis his).  And since all of our sin has been forgiven at Calvary, Farley argues that it is not necessary to confess our ongoing sins to God.  “. . .no amount of dialoguing with God about our sins will bring us more forgiveness.  No amount of asking God to forgive us will initiate his cleansing in our lives” (p. 135).  I John 1:9, he says, applies only to unbelievers.

Moreover Farley denies that there are any special rewards in heaven for Christians who are especially godly and faithful in their present lives.  “At no time are we told to live an upright life in order to garner a more righteous standing or to collect prizes in heaven” (p. 182).

How, then, do we live the Christian life?  According to Farley it is a matter of “having Christ’s life naturally flow from your personality” (p. 191).  He even goes so far as to say that it is pointless to seek God’s will in our decision making process. “God is not interested in controlling our every move” (p. 210, emphasis his).  “We are free to live from our wants, since we, together with our hearts, minds, hobbies and interests, are now set apart in everything we do” (p. 212).

Farley concludes by saying, “. . .if others have already come to know a life of dependency on the risen Christ but still get tripped up by how much they’re not doing or not giving, we can rescue them from measuring themselves through a reminder of our freedom from a law system” (p. 218).

There is an element of truth to much of what Farley has to say.  His is right to remind us of the finished work of Christ on the cross, the reality of the new birth and the work of the Holy Spirit in the heart of the believer making him a new creature in Christ Jesus.  But the fact of the matter is that the New Testament is filled with written commands and exhortations that we are expected to obey.  Most of the Ten Commandments are repeated in the New Testament, and when a believer commits a sin it involves a more or less conscious decision on his part for which he is personally responsible.

We are to strive to please God in all that we do (I Thess. 4:1), exercising spiritual discernment to determine what is in accordance with God’s will (Rom. 12:2; Eph. 5:10, 15-17; Phil. 1:9-11; Col. 1:9,10).  If we keep Christ’s commandments we abide in Him (I John 3:24) and He promises to answer our prayers (I John 3:18-22).  But if we sin we grieve the Holy Spirit (Eph. 4:30).  The argument throughout the epistles is that we should walk in a manner that is consistent with our standing before God.

Ultimately we must all appear before the judgment seat of Christ (II Cor. 5:9,10) where our works here on earth will be tried (I Cor. 3:10-15).  So we should run to win the prize (I Cor. 9:24-27), have confidence at Christ’s coming (parresia at the parousia – I John 2:28; 4:17) and receive an unfading crown of glory (I Pet. 5:4).

In the end Farley’s book comes across as a bit of clever sophistry, an attempt to rationalize not taking responsibility for our own actions; and, we are afraid, will have the effect of leading unsuspecting believers astray.  It is, therefore, a book that we would not recommend to others.

DONALD TRUMP: AN ANONYMOUS ASSESSMENT

donald-trump[1]

Review:

A Warning

Anonymous

Twelve, Hachette Book Group

259 pp., h.c.

 

We normally would not take the time even to read, let alone review, a book by an anonymous author.  Yet in this particular case we are confronted with information of enormous import in a presidential election year.  The author of the book identifies himself as “a senior Trump administration official,” and gives us what purports to be an inside look at how the Trump administration actually works.  And just because a book is published anonymously does not necessarily mean that it has no value.  The Federalist Papers were originally published under a pseudonym, “Publius.”  They were really written by Alexander Hamilton, John Jay and James Madison.  Their work has been an enduring classic.

Anonymous (and that is how we shall refer to him) is evidently a traditional conservative Republican serving in the White House.  He appears to be well educated, with a background in history – at one point he makes an interesting comparison with ancient Athens.  And it becomes evident as we read through the book that part of Anonymous’ complaint about President Trump is that Mr. Trump is not a traditional, conservative Republican.  Anonymous faults Mr. Trump for opposing free trade, foreign entanglements and open borders.  Yet on some of these issues it could be argued that Mr. Trump is right and that traditional Republican thinking is wrong.

Free trade is a classic case in point.  In a chapter entitled “Fake Views” Anonymous quotes Adam Smith as saying that “it should be in the public interest ‘in every country’ to let the people ‘buy whatever they want from those who will sell it cheapest . . .The proposition is so very manifest that it seems ridiculous to take any pains to prove it’” (p. 110).  But try to explain that to unemployed auto workers in Flint, MI, who lost their jobs to Mexico as a result of NAFTA.  Anonymous says that “Working-class and poor Americans will be hit hardest” by higher tariffs.  “They are the ones who rely on low prices to run households where there is little margin for financial error” (p. 113).  Apparently it never occurred to Anonymous, or to most Republican economists for that matter, that lower wages hurt working-class households.  It is easy to see why Mr. Trump carried the State of Michigan in the last election.

Anonymous blasts Mr. Trump for the burgeoning federal deficit, but fails to mention the possible role that Republican sponsored tax cuts may have played in that.

What is far more alarming, however, is Anonymous’ portrayal of Mr. Trump’s personality and character.  He pictures a chief executive who is inattentive and impulsive, believes falsehoods and conspiracy theories, makes crude statements about women, tells lies and half-truths, and attacks others.  None of this should be new to Anonymous’ readers – people who have known Mr. Trump personally down through the years have been saying these things all along.

This does raise the philosophical question of how we define good character in the first place.  Interestingly, Anonymous falls back on the four cardinal virtues of ancient Greece; wisdom, temperance,, courage and justice.  He especially looks on the way that the later Roman statesman and philosopher Cicero developed them in his work De Officiis (“On Duties”).  Wisdom is “understanding and acknowledging truth”; justice is “maintaining good fellowship with men, giving to everyone his due, and keeping faith in contracts and promises”; courage is “greatness and strength of a lofty and unconquered mind”; and temperance is “the order and measure that constitute moderation and temperance” (p. 58).  Anonymous concludes that Mr. Trump “isn’t a man of great character, or good character.  He is a man of none” (p. 88).

The fact of the matter is that in many way Donald Trump fits the biblical description of a “fool.”  He hates knowledge (Prov. 1:22; 18:2), trusts his own heart (Prov. 28:26)), does not take advice (Prov. 23:9), is wise in his own eyes (Prov. 26:12), utters all his mind (Prov. 29:11), enters into contention (Prov. 18:6,7), and speaks slanders against others (Prov. 10:18).

Anonymous sees Donald Trump as a threat to democracy.  At one point he compares Mr. Trump to Cleon, an ancient Athenian demagogue who used abusive language to attack his opponents and as a consequence left Athens deeply divided.  Anonymous concludes, “Like Athens, we also have a Cleon in our midst, a foul-mouthed populist politician who uses rhetoric as a loaded gun” (p. 186).  Trump’s words, he says, “are hardening the national discourse, making it more difficult to sustain civility.”  Secondly, “they are undermining our perceptions of the truth, making it challenging to find common ground.”  And thirdly, “they are fanning the flames of . . .  mob mentality” (Ibid.).

All of this spells trouble for the future of American democracy.  It could be argued, however, that America was already deeply divided before Mr. Trump came into office.  Supreme Court decisions involving moral issues like abortion and homosexuality, as well as the identity politics of the Left, have created profound divisions which will be difficult to surmount.  Mr. Trump has simple exacerbated the tensions with his intemperate mouth.

All of this raises a very difficult question.  Anonymous concludes that no president is perfect and that several have had serious moral failures in the past.  He also concedes that President Trump has accomplished some beneficial things.  But do the good things outweigh the bad?  In Mr. Trump’s case Anonymous says “no,” and that Mr. Trump should be removed from office through the election process.  For conservative religious voters, however, the alternative is likely to be even worse.  It is almost certain that whoever the Democratic nominee will turn out to be, he or she will be pro-abortion and pro-gay rights.  The former involves a serious human rights issue, and the latter will eventually lead to religious persecution for those who want to uphold biblical standards of morality.  The 2020 election promises to give us an unpalatable choice of candidates for the highest office in the land.

OUR FINANCIAL PRIORITIES

4.2.7

Quentin Metsys: Money Changer and His Wife

 

“Honor the Lord with your possessions,

         And with the firstfruits of all your increase,

   So your barns will be filled with plenty,

            And your vats will overflow with new wine.”

                                                                      Prov. 3:9,10; NKJV

 

An important test of our devotion to God is what we do with our money.  As we saw in our last blog post, Christ will hold us accountable for how we use our time, talents and money.  They have all been given to us by God, and He expects us to use them for His glory and the advancement of His kingdom.

But how does that work out financially?  We do have physical needs of our own, after all, and many of us struggle to earn a living.  What is left for God?

The passage before us gives us an interesting challenge.  There is a command: “Honor the Lord with your possessions, / And with the firstfruits of all your increase”; and this is backed up with a promise: “So your barns will be filled with plenty, / And your vats will overflow with new wine.”

The primary reference here appears to be to the Old Testament Feast of Weeks, (or the Feast of Harvest, as it was also called) which was held annually seven weeks after Passover, typically in late May or early June.  (In the New Testament it was also known as Pentecost, because it was fifty days after Passover.  Pentekosta is the Greek word for “fifty.”).  In Palestine the growing season is in the winter, when it rains, and harvest is in the spring.  Summer is the dry season.  The feast would occur right after the wheat or barley harvest..  The Israelites were required to make the trip to Jerusalem where each family would offer two loaves of bread, seven lambs, a bull, and two rams, along with various sin and peace offerings (Lev. 23:16-22; Num. 28:27-31).  Everything offered had to be perfect, without blemish of any kind (Num. 28:31).

The basic idea behind all of this was to acknowledge God as the source of our prosperity.  If there was no rain there was no harvest – it was as simple as that.  And so when we come to our passage we are told to “Honor the Lord with your possessions.”  We are to “honor” or “glorify” Him.  He is our Creator and Lord.  He sent His Son to die for our sins. He should be the most important Person in our lives, and we should openly acknowledge that.

That, in turn, should be reflected in the way we manage our finances.  The text says that we are honor the Lord “with your possessions, / And with the firstfruits of all your increase.”  God should get the first.  He takes priority over every other financial obligation we have, because He is more important than anyone or anything else.  As Matthew Henry put it in his commentary, “God, who is first and best, must have the first and best of every thing; His right is prior to all other, and therefore must be served first.”  And if our increase originally came from God, He is entitled to have some of it back.  “For all things come from You, / And of Your own we have given You” (I Chron. 29:14b).

But the question is, will this not create financial hardship for ourselves?  But the text goes on to say, “So your barns will be filled with plenty, / And your vats will overflow with new wine.”  What we have here is a promise from God: if we honor Him with our finances, He will supply our need.  But we must act first, and that requires faith.

And how much should we give?  In the Old Testament a tithe would be one tenth (Lev. 27:30-33; Dt. 14:22).  In the New Testament, however, there is no fixed amount.  Rather the apostle Paul emphasizes that giving is to be voluntary (II Cor. 9:7) and “according to what one has, not according to what he does not have” (II Cor. 8:12).  But the promise still pertains: “But this I say: He who sows sparingly will also reap sparingly, and he who sows bountifully will also reap bountifully” (II Cor. 9:6).  And Jesus commended the widow because “she out of her poverty put in all the livelihood that she had” (Lu. 21:1-4).  As Charles Bridges put it, commenting on our text in Proverbs, “The law dealt with us as children, and prescribed the exact amount.  The gospel treats us as men, and leaves it to circumstance, principle and conscience.”

In many ways financial giving is where the proverbial “rubber meets the road.”  It is easy to attend church regularly and to look outwardly like a decent and respectable person.  But to dig into one’s pocket and pull out the checkbook requires personal sacrifice; and if we are not personally wealthy it may require faith in god as well.  But if God is truly the Lord of our lives, and if we genuinely care about others, we will do it.  It is a personal sacrifice that promises to yield a reward.  Let us be found faithful in the way we handle our finances!