Tribulation Saint

Historic Christianity in the Twenty First Century

Month: July, 2015

GOD THE CREATOR

4.2.7

Albert Bierstadt, Yosemite Valley

 

Who are we? How did we get here?

Modern science claims to have the answers – it explains the origin of the human race through the Theory of Evolution. The Theory of Evolution, however, has some serious flaws and limitations. It cannot, in fact, explain how we got here.

First of all, evolution cannot explain the origin of life. Science assumes that everything has a natural cause. But what about the first cause? How did it all begin? Should we assume an infinite regression of natural causes? But that seems impossible. In our experience things in the natural world come and go, they have a definite beginning and end. Ultimately the natural world itself must have had a beginning. Yet things do not create themselves. Hence a completely naturalistic explanation of reality falls short.

There are other serious problems with the Theory of Evolution as well. How do we explain the enormous complexity of biological life in terms of a blind, purposeless natural process? How can beneficial mutations take place incrementally when organs function in complete systems? How do we account for the unique mental capacity of Homo sapiens? Order does not spontaneously arise out of chaos; life does not spontaneously arise out of non-life; intelligence does not spontaneously arise out of non-intelligence.

Even the supposed fact of evolution itself cannot be proven. No one has ever observe a lower form of life evolve into a higher one; no one has ever reduplicated it in a laboratory. There are huge gaps in the fossil record. The laws of genetics and heredity would seem to militate against the idea of evolution. But if we cannot observe it and cannot test it, can it still be called “science”? Isn’t what we are really dealing with here a philosophical dogma, one that consciously and deliberately seeks to exclude the “God hypothesis”?

If evolution cannot be proven, what is the alternative? The answer, of course, is God. There has to exist from all eternity a single, self-existent, all-powerful Deity, and He is the Creator of all temporal reality.

The essence of the Christian theistic worldview was beautifully state by the Apostle Paul at his famous address at Areopagus (Mars Hill) in Athens. Speaking to a group of skeptical Greek philosophers who came from a polytheistic background, Paul described the one, true God of the Bible. He is the Creator, “who made the world and everything in it” (Acts 17:24; NKJV). He is “the Lord of heaven and earth.” Moreover, contrary to pagan conceptions of religion, God is not “worshiped with men’s hands, as though He needed anything” (v. 25). The word translated “worshiped” might better be translated “served” (NASV;NIV;ESV), the idea being that in pagan religions the gods had to be clothed and fed. The true and living God, by way of contrast, is self-sufficient. He needs nothing because He is the source of life: He “gives to all life, breath, and all things.” In other words, we are dependent upon Him; He is not dependent upon us.

Moreover God is in control of human history. “And He has made from one blood every nation of men to dwell on all the face of the earth, and has determined their preappointed times and the boundaries of their dwellings” (v. 26).

But why, one might ask, did God create man? Why does He concern Himself with our affairs? The answer is “in the hope that they might grope for Him and find Him, though He is not far from each one of us” (v. 27). The reason we were created, the only reason, really, that we exist at all, is to have a relationship with God. We were not put here on this planet just so that we could please ourselves and “do our own thing.”

Thus God “commands all men everywhere to repent” (v. 30). God’s message to us is simple and straightforward: we need to change our ways and live by His laws. And why should we do that? “. . . because He has appointed a day on which He will judge the world in righteousness . . .” (v. 31). God is ultimately our Judge; He is ultimately the One who will determine our fate. In the end only His opinion will matter.

We did not create God for our purposes; He created us for His. We owe our very existence to Him. “. . . in Him we live and move and have our being” (v. 28). And in the end He will be our Judge.

Thus our main business in life as human beings is to know God’s will for our lives and fulfill it. Morality is not simply a matter of social convention or civil legislation. It is a matter of conformity to God’s own unchanging moral law.

And is it not our problem in the church today that our view of God is too low, if we even think of Him at all? Our churches have largely become social clubs where we interact with each other, but God is only an afterthought. And if we stop to think of God at all, we picture Him as an indulgent parent who readily excuses His children’s misbehavior.

But the whole object of true religion is to know God, and to know Him as He is described in the Bible. And to know God is to be humbled by His majesty, to be moved to worship and adoration, to trust Him implicitly, and to obey Him. His law is our guiding principle in life.

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WHAT IS MORALITY?

David the Psalmist -- Praising the Lord

David the Psalmist — Praising the Lord

 

What is morality? What makes a given action right or wrong? Is there such a thing as a moral absolute?

In recent times it has become increasingly popular to view morality as a purely personal and private thing. In the debate over abortion, for instance, it has been common for women’s rights advocates to argue that pro-lifers are trying to “impose their morality” on everyone else. But if morality is merely a matter of personal opinion, then what is there to say that women have “rights”? Who gave them these “rights”? A 5-4 majority on a human court? The same court that once said that black people do not have rights?

What lies behind the question of morality is the question of God Himself. If God actually exists, if we were created by an intelligent Supreme Being, then everything He made exists for a specific reason. Life has meaning and purpose. The will of the Creator is supreme – it overrides every human law and decision. “We ought to obey God rather than men” (Acts 5:29; NKJV).

But how do we know that God exists? Space is too limited to give a detailed answer here, but very briefly, the answer that the Bible gives is this: Writing 3,000 years ago King David, who started out in life as a shepherd boy, was struck by the awesomeness and grandeur of the night sky. “The heavens declare the glory of God; / And the firmament shows His handiwork” (Ps. 19:1).

What should strike even the casual observer is the rational order of the universe. Common sense alone tells us that were there is order there is an intelligent Designer. Order does not spontaneously arise out of chaos. Thus the wisdom of the Creator is displayed in the things that He has made. Furthermore, the sheer size and dimensions of the universe, the vast distances involved, speak of the awesome power need to create it all. Surely the Creator must be far more powerful and intelligent than anything we can comprehend!

At this point some scientists are sure to protest. The universe, they say, can be explained in purely natural terms; there is no need for the “God hypothesis.” But science itself is a testament to the sublime rationality of the cosmos, and it is the very rationality that points to a rational Designer behind it. In reality the scientist is merely thinking God thoughts after Him – and it has taken the scientist thousands of years just to come to his present very imperfect understanding of the universe. The more we discover, the more complex we realize the universe is, and the more we should stand in wonder. If all we have been able to accomplish all these thousands of years is to just barely scratch the surface, as it were, how much infinitely wiser and more powerful must be the God Who created it?

But then how do we know what God’s moral law is? David goes on to answer: “The law of the Lord is perfect, converting the soul . . .” (v. 7). “The law of the Lord” here is the Torah*, the first five books of the Bible, much of the content of which reflects information given directly to Moses by God. All of the Torah was inspired by God.

But, you ask, how do we know that it really came from God? The answer is, because it bears the stamp of the divine. David could say that the Torah is “perfect,” “sure” (v. 7), “right,” “pure” (v. 8) and “true and righteous altogether” (v. 9). Part of it is the effect that the Scriptures have on us: they “convert the soul” and “make wise the simple” (v.7). They “rejoice the heart” and “enlighten the eyes” (v. 8). In other words, the Bible has an intrinsic quality that points to a source that is above human. Millions of people down through the years have made a point of living by its precepts, and as a result have found real happiness in life. The “proof is in the pudding,” as they say. Or, as David put it, “More to be desired are they than gold, / Yea, than much fine gold; / Sweeter also than honey and the honeycomb” (v. 10).

The bottom line is that we live in a rationally ordered universe created by an intelligent Supreme Being. As human beings we were created for a purpose, and we can find happiness and fulfillment only when we conform to God’s purpose for our lives. In the end life without God is a dead-end street.

Morality, then, is not just a set of taboos imposed by society; it is a matter of conforming to the will of our Creator. It is a universally binding set of norms that ultimately come from God Himself.

*The perceptive reader will not that the Torah was already in existence in David’s time, contrary to much modern criticism.

THE DEAD CHURCH

 

If Jesus were to come back today and visit our churches, what would He think? What would He say? Believe it or not, it is actually possible to know. In Revelation chapters 2 & 3 we have letters from Christ Himself to seven different churches. What He says to them is telling – and convicting. We would do well to listen. One of them could be us.

The letters are addressed to seven churches that were located in the ancient Roman province of Asia, located in the western part of what is now the modern nation of Turkey, just across the Aegean Sea from modern Greece. Of particular interest to us is the church as Sardis (Rev. 3:1-6). In many ways it bears a disturbing resemblance to a typical modern American evangelical church.

Sardis, in earlier times, had been the capital of the ancient kingdom of Lydia, whose king, Croesus, had been legendary for his wealth. By Roman times much of its past glory had faded, but it was still an significant commercial center. It lay on an important trade route, and it was a center for the manufacture of woolen garments. As for the church itself, we do not know much about it apart from what we can glean from this letter.

The letter describes the condition of the church at Sardis this way: “I know your works, that you have a name that you are alive, but you are dead” (v. 12; NKJV). Here we are struck by two elements. First, the church had a reputation that it was “alive.” Everything appeared to be going well. Its “works” were well spoken of. It was a church that was busy and active, and to all outward appearances was actively serving the Lord. But then Christ adds a disturbing element: “but you are dead.” Appearances can be deceiving. Outwardly the church was busy and active in the Lord’s work. But in actual reality things were quite different. The church was spiritually dead – inwardly there was no real spiritual life.

Is this not a picture of many of our churches today? We measure success by numbers, by church attendance, the size of budgets and the cost of the physical plant. But where is there prayer? Where is there holiness? Where is there preaching with real power, worship with real fervor? Most of us go to church merely to get comforted and reassured. Serious discipleship is the farthest thing from our minds.

The judgment that Christ pronounces on this church is alarming. For the text later says, “I have not found your works perfect before God” (v. 2). The word translated “perfect” might better be rendered “complete” (ESV) or “completed” (NASV). The church at Sardis had started well, but did not bring things to a successful completion. The outward forms were still there, but the inward, vital piety was gone. It was a church that was “just going through the motions.”   It had become a pale shadow of its former self.

Not surprisingly, then, what Jesus tells this church is to “Be watchful, and strengthen the things which remain, that are ready to die” (v. 2). The church was still nominally orthodox; it still retained many of the old forms of worship. But it was in danger of losing even this if it did not wake up and sense its danger. The foundation was rotting and the whole superstructure was in danger of collapse. What the church needed to do was to keep what it still had, and turn to Christ with heartfelt repentance. Christ tells them to “Remember therefore how you have received and heard . . .” (v. 3). They once had it right. They need to remember what it used to be like – how they first heard the gospel and embraced it. What joy! What love! What faith! There had once been a time when the presence of God had been deeply felt, when Christ was the focus of their attention. They need to go back to that, to recover that lost piety and spiritual vitality. Only then will they function as a church is supposed to.

And what happens if it doesn’t? “ . . . I will come upon you as a thief, and you will not know what hour I will come upon you” (v. 3). The exact nature of this visitation is not stated, but it will be sudden, unexpected and arresting. God has ways of getting our attention, and they are not always pleasant.

The situation at Sardis was not entirely bleak, however. “You have a few names even in Sardis who have not defiled their garments” (v. 4). When He says that they “have not defiled their garments,” the implication is that most of the members of the church had become worldly and had compromised their testimony. But even in times of spiritual decay there were a few Christians who still remained faithful, who still genuinely loved the Lord and sought to live lives that were pleasing to Him. To them Christ promises that “they shall walk with Me in white, for they are worthy” (v. 4). Even though the church as a whole may fall under divine chastisement, Christ will not deprive those who are faithful to Him of His comfort and care.

As with the other letters to the seven churches, this one ends with a promise to those who overcome. In this case three things are promised. First it says he who overcomes “shall be clothed in white garments” (v. 5). Sardis, as we have seen, was noted as a center for the woolen garment industry, and the imagery here must have struck home. Those who are saved are those who have “washed their robes and made them clean in the blood of the Lamb” (Rev. 7:13,14). To enter heaven one must be cleansed from all defilement of sin.

We are also told that Christ “will not blot out his name from the Book of Life.” The Book of Life is the record of all those who are saved (Rev. 20:11-15; 21:27). Those who overcome are assured of salvation.

And then finally Jesus says, “I will confess his name before My Father and before His angels.” In Matt. 10 Jesus taught His disciples to expect opposition as they went out preaching the gospel, and He warned them, saying, “Therefore whoever confessed Me before men, him I will also confess before My Father who is in heaven. But whoever denies Me before men, him will I also deny before My Father who is in heaven” (vv. 32, 33). The only ones who are saved are those who remain faithful to Christ in the face of persecution.

I fear that much of modern Evangelicalism bears a strong resemblance to the church at Sardis. We can trace our roots back to the Reformation, the Puritans, and the great revivals of the 18th and 19th Centuries. But how little spiritual fervor and piety do we see now! People will come out to a fellowship dinner but not to a prayer meeting. Yet without prayer where is our relationship with God?

We would do well to go back in history and read what God has done in times past. May God show us something of our spiritual deadness and cause us to repent. Lord, revive us again!

SIN IS A UNIVERSAL PROBLEM

Are Christians “anti-gay”? Well, in one sense we are – the Bible condemns homosexuality in the strongest possible terms. But there is another sense in which it is incorrect to say that we “discriminate against” gays. We do not single out one particular group of people and treat them as pariahs. For homosexuality is just a small part of a much larger problem. The real problem is sin – all kinds of sin. For the Bible condemns not just homosexuality, but also the proud heart, the lustful glance, the gossiping tongue, and selfish greed. And the plain fact of the matter is that as human beings we are all sinners. “. . .for all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God” (Rom. 3:23; NKJV). Sin is a human problem. Sin is a universal problem.

Sometimes it is said that gays are just born that way and can’t help being the way they are. Therefore, it is said, we should just accept them as they are. But we were all born sinners, and in a sense cannot help but sinning. But that hardly excuses us. The fact remains that we are all guilty in the sight of God. The fact that we have an innate tendency to sin only exacerbates our guilt – it does not relieve it.

God’s standard of righteousness is not based on our natural inclinations but by the nature of God’s own character and by the strict demands of justice. If God is a God of love then by necessity He hates anything that is opposed to love, including our selfish, aggressive behavior. And if God is a just God then He must punish sin by some means or other. If I cannot control my temper and I kill someone as a result, then I have caused real harm and the demands of justice must be met, in spite of my “human inability.”  “For the wrath of God is revealed from heaven against all ungodliness and unrighteousness of men . . .” (Rom. 1:18).

And then some will argue that God loves everyone and accepts them as they are. And there is a sense in which God does love everyone. But does that mean that he “accepts them as they are”? Not at all. The Bible explains how God shows love toward us: “But God demonstrates His own love toward us, in that while we were still sinners, Christ died for us” (Rom. 5:8). Several remarkable truths are brought out in this verse. The first, of course, is that we are “sinners.” God does not pretend that we are nice, basically good people. He knows better; He can look into our hearts and see what is there, and it is not a pretty sight. But the text says that God loved us anyway, “while we were still sinners.” In other words this is not the kind of love that finds its object appealing, attractive or desirable. Rather, it is a benevolent love that is directed towards those who are manifestly unworthy of it. It is a desire to do good to those who did nothing to deserve it.

But then, what is even more remarkable, is what God’s love led Him to do: “. . . while we were still sinners, Christ died for us.” Here was the ultimate sacrifice. Christ was God’s own Son, His only-begotten Son. He was perfectly pure and holy, completely innocent of any wrong-doing at all. And yet God sent His Son into this sin cursed world where He was falsely accused and then sentenced to die a horrible death on a cross. And He did this for us – guilty, hell-deserving sinners. What more could God have done to demonstrate His love for us?

In other words, God does not demonstrate His love for us by excusing or overlooking our sins. Rather, He does it by atoning for our sin. And He did this at enormous cost to Himself. The price had to be paid, and He paid it Himself.

But in order to receive forgiveness we must repent of our sins and ask for forgiveness. Repentance is a change of attitude on our part regarding our sin. Moreover, God gives those whom He saves the new birth. This is a change produced within our hearts by the Holy Spirit. The Apostle Paul could write to the Corinthian believers and list a whole catalogue of sins (including homosexuality) and then say “And such were some of you. But you were washed, but you were sanctified, but you were justified in the name of the Lord Jesus and by the Spirit of our God” (I Cor.6:9-11). In other words, God doesn’t just leave us in our sins – He saves us from them.

We need salvation precisely because we are lost sinners. And God’s aim in salvation is not to confirm us in our sins but to save us from them. The whole object of salvation is to deliver us from both the guilt and power of sin.

And so all of us as human beings, whether “gay,” “straight,” or what-have-you, find ourselves in fundamentally the same predicament. We are all lost sinners and we all need salvation. And Christ offers that to us all freely.

As Christians we need to beseech our gay friends and neighbors, in a spirit of gentleness and humility, to come to Christ is repentance and faith and receive salvation. That is the loving thing that we can do for them.

Amazing grace – how sweet the sound –

That saved a wretch like me!

I once was lost, but now am found –

Was blind, but now I see.

‘Twas grace that taught my heart to fear,

And grace my fears relieved;

How precious did that grace appear

The hour I first believed!

THE FOURTH OF JULY – THEN AND NOW

234

Thomas Jefferson

Today, of course, marks the 239th anniversary of the signing of the Declaration of Independence. The Declaration, in some ways, forms our national creed, and contains the ringing affirmation 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.”

But how literally did Jefferson intend these lines to be taken? While Jefferson certainly was not what we would call a biblically orthodox evangelical Christian, he was not an atheist either. He did believe in the existence of God, and that God was the Creator.

Jefferson was a man of the 18th Century Enlightenment. He believed that reason was able to ascertain truth because he believed that we live in a rationally ordered universe created by an intelligent Supreme Being. The men of the 18th Century believed in “natural law.” The English philosopher John Locke could state that “the law of nature stands as an eternal rule on all men, legislators as well as others’ (Second Treatise of Civil Government, sec. 135). And Sir William Blackstone, the famous 18th Century jurist, said that “Man, considered as a creature, must necessarily be subject to the laws of his Creator, for he is an entirely dependent being.” “These are the eternal, immutable laws of good and evil, to which the Creator Himself in all His dispensations conforms: and which He has enabled human reason to discover, so far as they are necessary for the conduct of human actions” (Commentaries, The Nature of Laws in General). And thus Jefferson could argue that American independence was something “to which the laws of nature and of nature’s God entitle them.”

Alas! How very different it is today! Just last week we were treated to a spectacle of raw judicial power by the Supreme Court of the United States. In Obergefell v. Hodges they presumed to rewrite not only the U.S. Constitution, but even morality itself. In the Court’s decision legalizing same sex marriage throughout the United States, Justice Anthony Kennedy resorted to a dubious constitutional doctrine known as “substantive due process.” The Due Process Clause of the 14th Amendment, it will be recalled, simply states that no state shall “deprive any person of life, liberty, or property, without due process of law.” What the clause does not specify is what rights a person might possess. It simply states that due process must be followed before any of them can be restricted or taken away. Under the doctrine of “substantive due process,” however, the existence of certain fundamental rights is implied, and it is left to the Supreme Court to determine what they are. For Justice Kennedy this provides a golden opportunity to legislate from the bench. “The identification and protection of fundamental rights is an enduring part of the judicial duty to interpret the Constitution,” he writes (opinion, p. 10). Moreover the Court, he says, in “identifying these rights, is not necessarily bound by history and tradition.” According to him, as time goes on we gain “new insights” and see rights that escaped the notice of previous generations. And thus the Court is free discover new “rights” in the Constitution previously unknown.

What is striking about the Court’s decision is the complete absence of any moral point of reference. Thus Justice Kennedy could say that the liberties presumably protected by the Due Process Clause “extend to certain personal choices central to individual dignity and autonomy, including intimate choices that define personal identity and beliefs.” Whereas Blackstone could say that “man . . . must necessarily be subject to the laws of his Creator,” Justice Kennedy sees autonomous individuals choosing their own identities and beliefs. We detect here a kind of Post-Modern sensibility that rejects the very idea of universal truth. Thus Justice Kennedy has rejected not just Christianity, but the Enlightenment as well. Any though of natural law, or of any other kind of transcendent divine law, has completely vanished. We exist as autonomous beings in an essentially amoral universe.

At first glance we might be tempted to celebrate our newly discovered freedom.

“It matters not how straight the gate,

How charged with punishments the scroll,

I am the master of my fate:

I am the captain of my soul.”   (Henley)

But then enters a disconcerting thought. If we live in an amoral universe, where do rights come from? Jefferson had said that men “are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable rights.” But if there is no Creator, what makes a right “unalienable”? A 5-4 decision on a human court? The same Court that once said that black people have no rights that white people were bound to respect? The same Court that has reversed itself on more than one occasion?

But more to the point, how can human society function if there is no universally binding moral code? When “justice” depends on whoever happens to be in power at the time? When ultimately there is no “right” or “wrong”? When might makes right, and it all comes down to what you can get away with? Is this the kind of society the Founding Fathers sought to create?

But what if God actually exists?