Tribulation Saint

Historic Christianity in the Twenty First Century

Month: September, 2015

THE POPE AND CONGRESS

pope-francis[1]

This past Thursday Pope Francis delivered an unprecedented papal address to the U.S. Congress. In it he told Congress that “You are called to defend and preserve the dignity of your fellow citizens in the tireless and demanding pursuit of the common good, for this is the chief aim of all politics.” At one point in his address he cited the Golden Rule (Matt. 7:12) and declared, “This Rule points us in a clear direction. Let us treat others with the same passion and compassion with which we want to be treated. Let us seek for others the same possibilities which we seek for ourselves. Let us help others to grow, as we would like to be helped ourselves. In a word, if we want security, let us give security; if we want life, let us give life; if we want opportunities, let us provide opportunities. The yardstick we use for others will be the yardstick which time will use for us.”

Here we have an unassailable truth, rooted in Scripture itself, that all should follow. And yet many members of his audience, on both sides of the aisle, would have problems with the agenda he laid out. On the one hand he attacked abortion and recent attempts to redefine marriage. On the other hand he called for efforts to combat global warming, the abolition of the death penalty, and for an end to the international arms trade. His views on economics were nuanced, however. “It goes without saying that part of this great effort is the creation and distribution of wealth. The right use of natural resources, the proper application of technology and the harnessing of the spirit of enterprise are essential elements of an economy which seeks to be modern, inclusive and sustainable.” It sounds like a call for a socially responsible capitalism.

Interestingly, it was the British writer C.S. Lewis who had earlier made the observation that “Christianity has not, and does not profess to have, a detailed political programme for applying ‘Do as you would be done by’ to a particular society at a particular moment” (Mere Christianity, 1960 ed., pp. 78-79). But he goes on to say, “All the same, the New Testament, without going into details, gives us a pretty clear hint of what a fully Christian society would be like” (p. 80). And what would it look like? Lewis’ answer is similar to the Pope’s. On economic issues, “Christian society would be what we now call Leftist,” but that in social relationships it would be “rather old-fashioned – perhaps even ceremonial and aristocratic” (Ibid.).

But how would you go about creating such a society? Pope Francis, in addressing Congress, could tell them directly, “you are asked to protect, by means of law, the image and likeness fashioned by God on every human face.” Lewis, however, did not think that things were so simple. “A Christian society is not going to arrive until most of us really want it” and we are not going to want it until we have become fully Christian.” And so, “we are driven on to something more inward – driven on from social matters to religious matters. For the longest way round is the shortest way home” (op. cit., pp. 82-83).

On this point I think that Lewis is absolutely right. The New Testament writers seem almost oblivious to the social and economic problems of society around them – and neither Jesus nor His apostles made any effort to influence the government under which they lived. It is taken for granted that human society requires some sort of authority structure, but it is largely a matter of indifference what form that should take – monarchy or democracy, socialism or capitalism. The New Testament does not even condemn slavery outright. But in whatever station in life we may happen to find ourselves we are morally obligated to practice the Golden Rule, to love our neighbor as ourselves. Put yourself in the other person’s shoes: how would you want to be treated if the roles were reversed? And as for society as a whole that will mean, on the one hand, that we will want to preserve the traditional family structure, while at the same time we should genuinely be concerned about the plight of the poor and disadvantaged in our midst.

But the Christian will always be conscious that at the bottom of it man’s deepest problem is his sin, and that the only real solution to that problem is salvation in Christ. The cure for society’s ills must begin with the renewal of the inner man. This is why the church’s primary task is to preach the gospel, not to get involved in the secular political process.

As a matter of right every human government ought to conform to God’s moral standards. God is the Creator and Sovereign Lord of heaven and earth. And He has given to Jesus Christ “the name which is above every name, that at the name of Jesus every knee should bow . . .” (Phil. 2:9,10; NKJV; cf. Col. 1:16-18). But at the same time immoral court decisions are just a small part of the big picture. The fact of the matter is that the entire human race is in a state of rebellion against God. The primary task of the church, then, is not reform secular government, but to “make disciples” (Matt. 28:19,20), calling individual sinners to repentance and faith in Christ.

As Americans we have the right to vote and to choose our own leaders, and as Christians we should do so wisely and carefully. And on a moral issue such as abortion or same-sex marriage we must speak out clearly. But we must be careful about being aligned too closely with any one political party or platform. Neither the Republicans nor the Democrats fully reflect Christian values, and Christians should not let secular politicians speak for them. Our first responsibility is to “preach Christ crucified” (I Cor. 1:23).

Having said that, we hope that Congress took seriously the Pope’s remarks.

THE ROLE OF HUMAN TEACHERS IN THE CHURCH

 

There is no question that modern American Evangelicalism is in theological disarray. As the surrounding culture becomes increasingly secularized and materialistic, leaders within the professing church have been driven to increasingly desperate measures to attract numbers. In recent decades we have the rise of the Prosperity Gospel, Young Evangelicals, the Church Growth Movement, and the Emerging Church, not to mention Contemporary Christian Music. Standard formulations of doctrine are being increasingly questioned. These developments have left some in the pews wondering if there are any biblically sound churches left at all. Has the whole church gone apostate? Have all of our pastors and theologians become false teachers?

There is a sense in which the answer is “yes,” or nearly yes. What has happened in American Evangelicalism is that we have come to rely too heavily on human institutions. In particular, the advent of seminaries and Bible colleges have dramatically altered the quality of the spiritual life within the churches. Young men decide on their own to pursue ministry as a career. They enroll in an academic institution where they receive classroom instruction from professional theologians (not the way Christ trained His disciples!). They pass the exams and receive their diplomas. The churches then assume that the candidates are qualified for the ministry. Once hired the pastor functions like the CEO of a company, or the master of ceremonies at the social club. His performance is then measured by such metrics as church attendance and the size of the budget.

What is missing from this whole scenario is God Himself. Throughout the whole process no one asks the fundamental question, has this person been called by God? Does he have the necessary spiritual maturity and gifts? And what typically happens, in the best of cases, is that the pastor may have a fairly good theoretical knowledge of the truth, but lacks a grasp of the practical reality of it – what the older writers called “experimental divinity,” the understanding of how God works in the lives of individuals. As a result the pastor’s sermons are typically marked by poor exegesis, a flat delivery, and little or no practical application. Is it any wonder that so many church members choose to stay home on Sunday evenings?

Furthermore, given the longstanding differences of opinion over theological issues one is tempted to wonder if the theologians themselves know what they are talking about. Obviously at least some of them have to be wrong. If they are all following what the Bible says, why don’t they agree with each other?

Moreover as we read through church history it become apparent that the great leaders of the past were often flawed characters. They were limited in their understanding and influenced by their times and circumstances. The divisions and failures of the present are often the result of bad decisions made in the past.

This, then, raises a pertinent question: why follow human teachers at all? If the Bible is our only authority, why not simply read our Bibles and ignore the opinions of men? Who needs human teachers if they are fallible?

The Bible itself, however, makes it clear that the church is a God-ordained institution, and that Christ, who is the Head of the church, has given it “some to be apostles, some prophets, some evangelists, and some pastors and teachers” (Eph. 4:11; NKJV). And why has he given these gifts to the church? They are “. . . for the equipping of the saints for the work of ministry, for the edifying of the body of Christ” (v. 12).   For better or for worse, God has chosen to use fallible human beings, namely us, to accomplish His work here on earth.

Does that mean that we should blindly follow every self-appointed teacher who comes down the pike? By no means! But how do we tell the imposters apart from the real thing?

First of all, a man truly called of God will meet the biblical qualifications for the eldership as outlined in passages such as I Tim. 3:1-7 and Tit. 1:5-9. “This is a faithful saying: If a man desires the position of a bishop, he desires a good work. A bishop must be . . .” (I Tim. 3:1,2).

Second of all, what he teaches must be in accord with Scripture. The preacher is not at liberty to share his own thoughts about current events, much less to make up his own theology and peddle it as the Word of God. He is to preach God’s Word, not man’s. Paul could tell Timothy, “Hold fast the pattern of sound words which you have heard from me” (II Tim. 1:13). And the only way that we can know what “the pattern of sound words” which came from the apostles is, is through their writings which we have in the New Testament. That means that the preacher’s primary task is to expound Scripture, and most sermons should be expository.     Moreover a sermon should be edifying. Teachers are not to “give heed to fables and endless genealogies, which cause disputes rather than godly edification which is in faith” (I Tim. 1:4). Paul then goes on to explain: “Now the purpose of this commandment is love from a pure heart, from a good conscience, and from sincere faith . . .” (v.5). The aim is to challenge the lost to be saved, and children of God to grow in their walk with the Lord.

When the preacher enters the pulpit he should have two primary aims: 1) explain to the congregation what the text means, and 2) show how it applies to them. And if the sermon was successful the congregation should leave the building different from what is was when it entered. They should feel that they had been in the very presence of God Himself. (J.I. Packer once said in an interview that when Martyn Lloyd-Jones preached he brought God into the pulpit with him! Dr. Lloyd-Jones, it should be noted, never attended seminary. His degree was in medicine.)

We must follow no man blindly. Ultimately we are all accountable to God for what He has revealed to us in His Word. And yet we must recognize and honor those whom God has sent to teach us. “Let the elders who rule well be counted worthy of double honor, especially those who labor in the word and doctrine” (I Tim. 5:17). Our only aim, then, is to come to a better understanding of God’s Word. The great theologians of the past are worth reading provided that they genuinely know God themselves, were competent in their respective fields of study, and made it their conscious aim to unfold the meaning of Scripture. John Calvin put it like this: “Now, in order that true religion may shine upon us, we ought to hold that it must take its beginning from heavenly doctrine and that no one can get even the slightest taste of right and sound doctrine unless he be a pupil of Scripture” (Institutes, I.vi.2 – McNeill ed., p. 72). The question is not, is the preacher / teacher perfect in every way? No one is, and to require that would be to disqualify the entire ministry. The question is, does he lead a godly life? Is he a man of prayer? Is he free from the love of money and worldly ambition? Is he consciously trying to follow what the Bible says? As A.W. Tozer put it, “Listen to the man who listens to God.”

It might be added that the modern church is so degenerate that, as a general rule, the better writers are the older ones – the Reformers, the Puritans, the Old Princeton theologians. Read the Puritans to get your heart warmed!

For the J.I. Packer interview click here: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=qpDYqVZhzI8

AN INCOMPLETE REFORMATION

Martin Luther

Martin Luther

 

Eph. 4:1-16 provides us with the biblical theory behind the church. The church is a mystical body, bound together by the shared presence of the Holy Spirit. The Holy Spirit works through spiritual gifts that are distributed throughout the body. The purpose of these gifts is “the equipping of the saints for the work of the ministry” (v. 12; NKJV). The church is to grow thereby into a state of spiritual maturity, which, in turn, results in “the unity of the faith . . . and the knowledge of the Son of God” (v. 13). Through it all the entire church draws its strength from its union with Christ, who is the Head. The result is that every part does its share, and “causes the growth of the body for the edifying of itself in love” (v. 16).

And yet we don’t often see the church today functioning that way. Why? The story is a long one, and it goes back close to the very beginning. As early as the Second Century we begin to see the emergence of what is sometimes called “Early Catholicism.” This was marked by two innovations: a monarchical episcopate and infant baptism.

In the New Testament the office of bishop and elder were considered the same – the two terms were used interchangeably (e.g., Tit. 1:5 & 7) – and the church was led by a board of elders or “presbytery” (I Tim. 4:14) chosen from within the congregation. But by the Second Century we begin to see the bishop emerging as the single, preeminent leader of the congregation, with the elders below him. Thus Ignatius of Antioch could write to the Church of Ephesus in 108 A.D., and urge them to “be joined together in one subjection, subject to the bishop and to the presbytery . . . “ (Eph. II.2).

Infant baptism apparently came later, but it was attested as early as the time of Tertullian (ca. 200 A.D.). The problem here is that infant baptism shifts the focus away from the faith of the person being baptized to the church’s sacraments as a conduit of grace.

The situation was further complicated when Constantine, who was sympathetic to Christianity, became sole emperor in 323 A.D. Thereafter the Roman government supported the church, but this was a mixed blessing, for it also meant that the government would meddle in the church’s affairs. The emperors were often more interested in political harmony than in doctrinal purity, and the effect on the church was not always salutary.

And thus, gradually, down through the Middle Ages the pure gospel of salvation by grace through faith was buried under layers of tradition, scholastic philosophy and canon law. And this was the situation that faced Martin Luther in 1517 when he published his famous Ninety-five Theses. A gifted biblical scholar, he could see how far the Catholic Church has strayed from the practice of the New Testament Church. His writings caused a sensation and he soon found himself at the center of controversy. The great question of the hour was what to do about all of the abuses that had corrupted and deformed the church.

Luther was by no means alone in this situation. In Switzerland Ulrich Zwingli found himself in pretty much the same position. Both men, however, had the support of their respective local civil magistrates. But, as in the days of Constantine, this was a mixed blessing. Biblical scholars like Luther and Zwingli could see what was taught and practiced in the New Testament church; the civil magistrates, on the other hand, were concerned to maintain public order. Luther, quite plausibly, advocated a cautious approach to reform. Arguing from the New Testament principle of Christian liberty he advocated changing only what was necessary, and leaving the rest alone. Zwingli’s attitude, however, is harder to justify. From the pulpit he had advocated a thorough-going, Bible-based reform. In actual practice, however, he deferred to the City Council of Zurich. It is hard to clear him of the charge of political opportunism.

What both Luther and Zwingli were attempting to do, in effect, was to take existing territorial state churches and “reform” them by introducing certain changes to make them look more biblical. It was hard for them to do otherwise. Were it not for the support of the magistrates they could have literally paid with their lives for the doctrines they were teaching. The whole social order of Western Europe was based on the idea of “Corpus Christianum,” the idea that all of Western society constituted “Christendom.” But an all-inclusive state church can never be anything more than a pale shadow of what a genuine Christian church ought to be. The church is supposed to be a “communion of the saints,” a spiritual fellowship of committed believers who demonstrate the life of Christ in their love toward one another. A state church leads to mere formalism.

Some of Zwingli’s more radical followers saw the nature of the problem, and formed the nucleus of what became the Anabaptist movement, which, among other things, rejected the idea of infant baptism. For Luther and Zwingli, however, this was too much. It threatened to undermine the whole structure of Western society, and they were both patriots at heart!

What we are left with, then, in the cases of the Lutheran and Reformed (and Anglican) churches is an incomplete Reformation. The Reformers recovered the gospel of salvation by grace, but failed to achieve a biblical church life. The Anabaptists attempted a more thorough-going reform, and since that time there have been other attempts to create a more biblical and more spiritual form of church life – everything from the 17th Century Baptists and Quakers to a variety of 19th Century “Restorationist” movements. But these various “Free Church” movements have been marred by divisiveness and sometimes unsound doctrine, and even the ones that started fairly well over time tended to lapse into the same kind of institutionalism and dead formalism that has plagued their state church brethren. Nearly all American churches today have grown accustomed to relying on human means to achieve spiritual ends, and the life of the Spirit is notably absent. Hardly anything existing today can be said to resemble the spiritual life of the First Century church.

We are deeply indebted to Luther and Zwingli, Calvin and Knox, for rediscovering the gospel of salvation by grace through faith, and for making God’s Word, the Bible, available to the common man. If it had not been for them, humanly speaking, we would still be in spiritual darkness. But in our admiration for their achievements we must not overlook the fact that their efforts at reforming the church ultimately fell short of what God requires. And it must be our ever-present task to construct a church that genuinely reflects God’s will – a believers’ church, a spiritual fellowship, a church that shows by deed as well as by word what salvation means in actual practice. We need to look past the highly institutionalized form of church life that we know today to see the true and living God seated upon His throne in heaven. What we need is what some of our forefathers knew as revival – not glib preacher or TV huckster, but a real outpouring of the Holy Spirit that will humble us before the glory and majesty of God, fill our hearts with love, and anoint our verbal testimony with power. May God grant us the grace to live up to His expectations!

HOW DEMOCRACIES DESTROY THEMSELVES

pericles-quote[1]

History is apt to repeat itself, and during this time when an American presidential campaign season gets underway and “The Donald” has captured all the headlines, it might be worthwhile to see how other democracies have fared in the past. The lesson is sobering.

We, of course, did not invent democracy – others have gone before us. The honor of being first probably belongs to ancient Athens, which reached its apogee under the leadership of Pericles between 461 and 429 B.C. Then there was the Roman Republic which arose about the same time and lasted almost until the time of Christ. Then, in more modern times, we have the French First Republic of the 1790’s and the German Weimar Republic of the 1920’s. Athens eventually fell under foreign domination; the last three all ended in dictatorships.

In a democracy it is the people who supposedly have the last say. But that, unfortunately, does not guarantee that the decisions that they make will be wise. In order for a democracy to work successfully several factors must be in place. Pericles, in fact, explained the working principles of Athenian democracy in a funeral oration he delivered for the fallen soldiers of the early stages of the Peloponnesian War. The Athenians, he said, treated each other as equals under the law. Public service was based on merit, and lawfully constituted authority was respected. People took responsibility for their own personal affairs and also for the affairs of the state. “We treat wealth as an opportunity for activity rather than as an opportunity for boastful words.” As a result of these basic civic virtues it was possible to carry on a civil discussion about issues that affected the entire community, and wise decisions were the outcome. “When people have the clearest understanding of what is fearful and what is pleasant, and on that basis do not flinch from danger, they would rightly be judged to have the best spirit.”

But things were already beginning to change in Athens. As the city became wealthier and more powerful, traditional values began to erode. Higher education was committed into the hands of “sophists,” professional tutors, really, who tended to take a rationalistic approach to knowledge. And one of the problems with rationalism is its inability to define morality. Some sophists even went so far as to maintain that might makes right.

All of this had a corrosive effect on political life. Politicians tended to become motivated more by personal ambition and greed than by any sense of civic duty. And that, in turn, led them to become more unscrupulous in their tactics and methods. Demagoguery inevitably led to tyranny. In the case of Athens the military began to falter and the city fell under the domination of foreign powers – first Sparta and then Macedonia. The city lost its independence.

With the Roman Republic things turned out slightly differently. As Rome went from one military conquest to another, successful generals came increasingly to dominate the political stage. But as in Athens, personal ambition led to factionalism, violence, and eventually dictatorship.

Does any of this sound familiar? It should. It is being played out now right before our very eyes. We have already started down the path to social disintegration and eventual tyranny.

Our recent troubles can be traced back to a pair of Supreme Court decisions in 1962 and 1963 that removed prayer and Bible reading from our public schools. Whatever one may make of the constitutional questions involved in the cases, the practical effect was to secularize our culture, making it implicitly atheistic. At about the same time large numbers of students began attending state universities, which were also thoroughly secular. And, as noted above, one of the problems with secularism is its inability to define a coherent set of moral values and social norms. If God doesn’t determine what is right and what is wrong, who / what does?

The resulting moral ambiguity was then reflected in the court’s disastrous decision in Roe v. Wade in 1973. According to the logic of the “pro-choice” position, a woman’s right to choose here own destiny takes precedence over her unborn child’s right to live. The commandment “Thou shalt not kill” no longer applies. But that fundamentally changes the way people think about morality. Instead of looking at morality as a universally binding set of behavioral norms, many people came to view it as merely a set of personally held beliefs that are optional for everyone else, and can change over time. What was “wrong” yesterday could be “right” tomorrow. All that is needed is the sanction of the government, in many cases it seems, a 5-4 vote by the Supreme Court. And, of course, governments themselves have been known to practice such things as torture and genocide. Does that make these things right?

These developments have left American society profoundly divided over core values, with many on the right increasingly frustrated and angry with the direction of the country. And when a country loses its sense of community, politics degenerates into a power struggle between competing special interest groups, with each side increasingly resorting to obstructionist tactics. And with a loss of public morality social disintegration sets in as people become increasing unable to govern themselves and take responsibility for their own actions.

George Washington, in his First Inaugural Address, with keen foresight put it like this: “. . .there is not truth more thoroughly established than that there exists in the economy and course of nature an indissoluble union between virtue and happiness; between duty and advantage; between the genuine maxim of an honest heart and magnanimous policy and the solid rewards of public prosperity and felicity; . . . We ought to be no less persuaded that the propitious smiles of Heaven can never be expected on a nation that disregards the eternal rules of order and right which Heaven itself has ordained. . .” Have we not already lost our sense of virtue and duty? Can we still expect to enjoy “the solid rewards of public prosperity and felicity”?

America is showing every sign of being in an advanced state of decline. Our family structure has crumbled; our “service economy” is non-productive; our federal government is drowning in debt. And in the political sphere voices are increasing strident, with various factions increasing willing to use obstructionist tactics to gain their own way.

Will Donald Trump be our Julius Caesar or Napoleon Bonaparte?

ARE PEDOBAPTISTS HERETICS?

 

The Problem of Infant Baptism

Recently we were involved in a discussion with a fellow blogger named Eliza who is especially zealous for the doctrinal purity of the church. The question came up about certain well-known figures in church history such as Luther, Calvin, Whitefield, Wesley and Edwards who believed in or practiced infant baptism. In a comment dealing specifically with Augustine and Calvin Eliza made this remarkable statement:

“Since these men purported to be doctors of the church they should have

known without a shadow of a doubt that what they were attesting was

spurious and without merit. They blindly followed the heresy of the

blind. Those who promulgate false doctrine are false teachers and should

be avoided at all costs according to the Scriptures. They are not serving

Christ but they are serving their own fleshly desires and are led astray by

the enemy of our souls. To allow them the name of Christ, when they

contradict the truth of Christ and his amazing, almighty glorious work

for our salvation, is to side with the enemy of our souls.”

The sweep and scope of this condemnation is astonishing. It would mean that none of the major Reformers – Luther, Zwingli, Farel, Calvin, and Knox – were really Christians. It would mean that most of the Puritans were without Christ. It would mean that most of the leaders of the 18th and 19th Century Evangelical Awakenings – Whitefield, Wesley, Edwards and Zinzendorf – were all false teachers working for the devil. Most of our major hymn writers – Watts, Charles Wesley, Newton, Doddridge and Toplady – were heretics. And the major evangelists of the 19th and early 20th Centuries – Nettleton, Finney, Moody and Sunday – were all leading people astray. Can that really be true?

It must be pointed out that Eliza and myself are both agreed that infant baptism is an unscriptural practice. But it actually originated before Augustine – he was simply following the practice of a number of the church fathers who were before him. Infant baptism was practiced as early as the 2nd Century, and was advocated by both Origen and Cyprian. But there is no question that it played a major role in corrupting the visible church, for it shifted the focus away from the faith of the person being baptized to the ability of the church to dispense grace through the sacraments. At the time of the Reformation the Anabaptists rejected the practice outright. The Lutheran and Reformed churches, however, reacted against the Anabaptist Movement, afraid that it represented a threat to Christian civilization, thus sought to retain infant baptism, but couldn’t come up with a uniform rationale for it. The Lutherans essentially took a mystical approach, holding to a form of baptismal regeneration. Reformed theologians, on the other hand, developed a form of covenant theology and held that baptism was the means of entrance into the covenant community. Frankly, both Lutheran and Reformed theologians struggled to come up with a coherent rationale for baptizing infants. Suffice it to say, there is no direct command and no clear example ins Scripture to support the practice, whereas several passages link baptism to faith and repentance, and tacitly assume that persons who have been baptized are regenerate believers (Acts 2:38; 22:16; Rom. 6:3-11; Gal. 3:26,27; I Pet. 3:21).

The Unity of the Church

How, then, should we deal with people who practice such things? Do we simply write them off as false teachers? More specifically, what does God Himself think about all of this? As He surveys the scene from His throne in heaven, what does He think?

It must be remembered that in God’s sight the fundamental cleavage dividing the human race is between those who are “in Christ” and those who are not. The body of Christ is composed of all those who have been truly born again and believe on Him. It is the sum total of the elect, and they are His people. All of them: stiff formalists and “holy rollers,” pedobaptists and Anabaptists, Calvinists and Arminians, black evangelicals and white. All of them are fallen human beings, and none of them are perfect – although some in the Wesleyan communion have claimed perfection! Thus the starting point for our position on ecclesiastical separation must be the biblical doctrine of the universal church. The apostle Paul lays this out in Eph. 2:11-22. Here he describes how both Jews and Gentiles have been “reconciled . . . in one body to God through the cross” (v. 16). “. . . through Him we both have the entrance in one Spirit unto the Father’ (v. 18). We have been “built upon the foundation of the apostles and prophets, Christ Jesus Himself being the chief cornerstone, in Whom the whole structure being framed together grows into a holy temple in the Lord in Whom you also are built together into a dwelling place of God in the Spirit” (vv. 20-22). Here we have a beautiful picture of the entire universal church forming a mystical unity in which God Himself is present. Or to put it another way, there is a mystical bond that unites all genuine believers, of whatever denomination, to Christ and to each other. This bond is formed by the living presence of the Holy Spirit in each one of our hearts. The bond that ties believers to each other is more personal and more intimate than any external connections they may have to an organization or creed.

But what are the practical implications of this? The practical implication is that we have a responsibility to preserve the unity of the body. Later on in the epistle Paul exhorts the Ephesians “to walk worthily of the calling with which you have been called . . . endeavoring to keep the unity of the Spirit in the bond of peace. . .” (Eph. 4:1,3).

While Paul is addressing a specific local church here, it is apparent that the principle he lays down extends to the entire universal church. It was the universal church that he had described earlier in 2:11-22, and in the passage immediately following (4:4-6) he grounds his exhortation in certain facts that are true of the entire Christian church as a whole: “one body, and one Spirit, just as you have been called in one hope of our calling: one Lord, one faith, one baptism, one God and Father of al, Who is over all things and through all things and in all things.”

It will be noted that this unity is essentially spiritual in nature: it is “the unity of the Spirit in the bond of peace.” What unites us as believers as believers to each other is not merely some social tie or common interest, but rather the Holy Spirit dwelling inside of us. Thus we become “members of each other” (v. 25), with the consequence that if we indulge in “bitterness and wrath and anger and clamor and slander” (v. 31) we grieve the Holy Spirit (v. 30). As the bond is intimate the wound is felt personally.

Nor is this a peripheral duty, to be treated casually. We are to “endeavor” to keep the unity. The Greek word literally means “to make haste,” and by extension, “to be zealous or eager, to give diligence” (Abbott-Smith). Thus we are to make a conscious effort to maintain the peace and unity of the church.

But how do we do this? It is significant that Paul does not suggest the typical modern solution, viz., more organization. Rather, he looks to something deeper, viz., the underlying attitude of our hearts. “With all lowliness of mind and gentleness, with patience bearing with one another in love . . .” (v. 2). What is required to maintain this unity is a specific attitude: an attitude of humility, gentleness, patience and love; in some ways the exact opposite of what we often associate with the “fightin’ Fundamentalist.”

How to Deal with the Erring Brother

 

This, however, raises an important question: how are we to deal with an erring brother? Once again the Bible offers specific guidance on this question. In II Tim. 2:22-26 Paul gives Timothy directions on how to deal with the problem. He begins by telling him to “flee youthful lusts, but pursue righteousness, faith, love, peace, with those who call upon the Lord from a pure heart” (v. 22). But this entails the negative side of the question: “But foolish and ignorant controversies avoid, knowing that they engender quarrels.” Paul then lays down the general rule for the conduct of a pastor or Christian worker: “But the servant of the Lord must not fight, but be gentle unto all, apt at teaching, patiently forbearing” (v. 24). That is his manner. His method is described in the next verse: “in gentleness correcting those who are in opposition . . .” The problem is real; action is required. The opposer must be corrected. But it is to be done in “gentleness.” We are not trying to hurt the person we are attempting to correct. We are sensitive to his particular situation and his feelings, and are attempting, with gentleness, patience and love, to bring him where he ought to be. Our language is clear, instructive, and respectful. We do not misrepresent him or his motives. But we urge him, as one brother to another, to take the claims of God’s Word seriously. In this solemn and sacred duty tirades and harangues are completely out of place. Our goal is that “God may grant them repentance unto a knowledge of the truth, and that they might return to soberness from the devil’s snare, having been taken captive by him unto his will” (vv. 25,26). Our aim is restoration and reconciliation, not permanent estrangement. Any words or actions on our part that would needlessly antagonize our brother is counterproductive.

James asks the telling question, “Who is wise and understanding among you?” (James 3:13). Undoubtedly there are many who think that they are wise. “Let him demonstrate from a good lifestyle his works in the gentleness of wisdom.” True wisdom comes from God, and will be consistent with a godly manner of life. To underscore the point, James draws a contrast between two different kinds of “wisdom.” The first kind is marked by “bitter envy” and “selfish ambition” (v. 14). This kind of “wisdom” does not come from God. Rather it is “earthy, natural, demonic” (v. 15). It is driven and motivated by our fallen human nature, and by the evil powers at work in the world. Its inevitable result is “disorder and every evil deed” (v. 16). We think that we are being smart by being self-assertive. But where does it lead? To strife, conflict, and ruined relationships. This is hardly “wisdom.”

But what is true wisdom like? It is “pure, then peaceable, gentle, reasonable, full of mercy and good fruits, impartial and sincere” (v. 17). In other words, it cares about others, seeks peace with them, and treats them with respect.
James then concludes with this general precept: “But the fruit of righteousness is sown in peace by those who make peace” (v. 18). Carnal means cannot achieve spiritual ends, and the Lord’s work cannot be done by using the devil’s tools. We may think that we are doing the Lord’s work – that we are earnestly contending for the faith. But if we slander our opponents and vilify them in the press, if we use abusive and contemptuous language, we do exactly what the devil wants us to do: we grieve the Holy Spirit and divide the brethren.

Moreover, we grossly misrepresent Christ by acting in a way that is contrary to His own character and will. Jesus told us, “In this shall all know that you are My disciples if you have love one for another” (Jn. 13:35). Separation from fellow believers (sometimes called “Second Degree Separation”) results in permanent division within the body and makes it all too obvious to the world that we have little love for each other. In this way it brings incalculable reproach on the gospel, a stain not easily erased, a stumbling block to those who might otherwise be led to inquire.

How many have been kept from heaven by our ungodly words and actions? Are we telling the world thereby that we are not His disciples? If we do not live the way He has instructed us to, we are not very good students, are we?

A QUESTION OF DIVINE JUDGMENT

Jonathan Cahn on site

Jonathan Cahn on site

Review:

The Harbinger: The Ancient Mystery that Holds

the Secret of America’s Future

Jonathan Cahn

FrontLine, 2011

253 pp., pb.

Is America tottering on the brink of disaster? Author Jonathan Cahn thinks so, and in this thought-provoking book he presents disturbing evidence that America is, indeed, ripe for divine judgment.

Originally from a Jewish background, Cahn leads a mixed congregation of both Jews and Gentiles in Wayne, NJ. Thus it is perhaps only natural that he would be struck by the similarity between the events of 9/11 and Old Testament prophecy. As a result he has given us a fascinating and intriguing read.

The book reads like a Dan Brown novel, but Cahn insists that what he says in it about America is literally true. (I found the book in the Christian fiction section of our local Barnes & Noble.) His argument runs along three major lines. First, he notes the strong parallels between the events of 9/11 and an obscure prophecy found in Isaiah 9:10. The ancient (northern) kingdom of Israel, sometimes also known by the name of its capital city, Samaria, had long since fallen into religious apostasy and moral decay. Finally, around 733 B.C. it was invaded from the north by the powerful Assyrian army, which captured several districts around the Sea of Galilee. The Israelites apparently reacted to the situation in a spirit of defiance, and Isa. 9:10 summarizes their attitude this way:

“The bricks have fallen down,

But we will rebuild with hewn stones;

The sycamores are cut down,

But we will replace them with cedars.” (NKJV).

The northern kingdom of Israel was finally carried off into captivity in 722 B.C., and disappeared from the stage of history.

Cahn goes through this verse, word by word in the Hebrew original, and points out the astonishing similarities with the events of 9/11. Among other things it turns out that there actually was a sycamore tree at Ground Zero, which was subsequently moved and replaced by a conifer tree on the same site. (Cahn tells us that the Hebrew word ‘erez, usually translated “cedar” in our English versions, could refer to any member of the pine family, although this is debatable.)

More remarkably, however, on at least two occasions leading public officials actually quoted Isa. 9:10 as an expression of America’s own determination to rebuild. The day after 9/11 the Senate Majority Leader, Sen. Tom Daschle, quoted the verse on the Senate floor. Three years later, on the anniversary of 9/11, vice-presidential candidate John Edwards, speaking to a Congressional caucus, quoted the same verse again. Apparently neither man was aware that the verse, taken in its context, was actually a rebuke for the attitude thus represented!

The second line of evidence explored by Cahn has to do with the concept of “shemitah,” a Hebrew word that means “remission” or “release.” Under Old Testament law every seventh year was to be kept as a “Sabbath year,” in which the land was allowed to lie fallow. On the last day of the Sabbath year there was supposed to be a “shemitah,” a release of debts in which all the debts of poor people would be forgiven. The Hebrew calendar runs on a different system than our Gregorian calendar and the last day of the Hebrew year would, of course, be the day before Rosh Hashanah, the Jewish New Year. Rosh Hashanah generally falls sometime in September or early October on our calendar. As it happens, in the wake of the 9/11 terrorist attack there was a major stock market crash on Sept. 17, 2001, which just happened to be the last day of the year on the Jewish calendar. Then, seven years later, on Sept. 28, 2008, which was the last day of the Jewish calendar for that year, the stock market crashed again, ushering in the Great Recession. On both days fortunes were lost. Was it just a coincidence?

The third line of evidence cited by Cahn involves the inauguration of George Washington as President, which took place in Federal Hall in Lower Manhattan on April 30, 1789. In his Inaugural Address Washington invoked the blessing of God on the newly formed government. Then, having delivered his speech, the newly sworn-in president led a procession to nearby St. Paul’s Chapel for an Episcopal prayer service. The chapel is, in fact, located adjacent to what is now Ground Zero. Cahn compares this to the ancient temple in Jerusalem, the focal point of worship in Israel, which was destroyed and rebuilt several times during its history.

Cahn does not presume to tell us what exactly will happen next, nor does he set dates. His main concern is to warn us that all the signs point to our being a nation under God’s judgement. He ends the book with an evangelistic appeal. Considering the fact that the book has already sold over 2 million copies and was on the New York Times best seller list, we certainly hope that it will make an impact.

Cahn has certainly given us something to think about, but I think that he may have overstated his case a bit. While the similarities between ancient Israel and modern America are striking, there are nonetheless important differences. Chief among them is the fact that America does not have the kind of formal covenant relationship with God that ancient Israel had (unless the language of the last paragraph of the Declaration of Independence be construed as an implied covenant). Under the New Covenant, the people of God is the sum total of born-again believers, not a given nation-state. Likewise there is no covenantal obligation for America to practice “shemitah,” although there is a general moral obligation for every human society to relieve the distress of the poor among them. Moreover there is no state church here in the U.S., and hence to central shrine that serves as the focus for national worship. Thus, while the similarities with the shemitah and the temple are interesting, it is hard to know exactly what they prove.

And yet, having said that, there are several things that undoubtedly are true. God is in sovereign control of the universe, and nothing happens by accident. He is holy and righteous, and holds all men accountable for their actions, Jew and Gentile alike. God once destroyed the entire world with a flood because He “saw that the wickedness of man was great in the earth, and that every intent of the thoughts of his heart was only evil continually’ (Gen. 6:5). On another occasion He rained down fire and brimstone of Sodom and Gomorrah because of their wickedness. Were not the San Francisco earthquake of 1984 and Hurricane Katrina (Aug. 29, 2005) awesome demonstrations of God’s power and judgment?

The fact of the matter is that we are a nation under God’s judgment, and we would do well to take the warning signs seriously. For that reason we can thank Jonathan Cahn for at least getting the conversation started.