Tribulation Saint

Historic Christianity in the Twenty First Century

Month: February, 2019



Raphael: St. George and the Dragon


Culturally Relevant: Connection or Compromise

Dennis Bliss

Christian Faith Publishing

174 pp., pb.


Dennis Bliss is a longtime Christian musician and counsellor who has spent a lifetime observing the Christian scene, and his recently published book Culturally Relevant, expresses the deep concern he has over the direction that many churches have taken.  It is a call to reexamine the depth of our commitment to Christ, and to rededicate ourselves to His kingdom and glory.  It is a much needed book at the present hour.

Denny begins (and he happens to be a personal friend of mine, so I will call him “Denny”) by asking what it means to be “culturally relevant.”  The church, of course, exists in a surrounding culture, and ideally seeks to win the people of that culture to Christ.  But to do so it must connect with them somehow.  But how?  What does it mean to adapt to a local culture?  Is it simply a matter of speaking the same language so that they can understand what we are saying?  Or does it mean changing the message so that we are telling them what they want to hear?  Or, even worse, is it conforming to their standards of behavior so that they will accept us?

Denny argues a strong case that in seeking to win the lost we must never compromise our moral or ethical standards.  People will not be won to Christ if they cannot see any difference between the church and what they already have in the world.  In the end the strategy of compromise is self-defeating.

Denny then goes on to discuss a wide variety of issues confronting the church today: love and marriage, child discipline, evolution, abortion, divorce, adultery, premarital sex, homosexuality, feminism, the use of alcohol, and dress.  Many of his observations are borne of his many long years of experience as a Christian counsellor.  He then goes on to address certain issues that affect the church as a whole – evangelism, Bible translations and church music.  On the subject of Bible translations he expresses the confusion and dismay that many feel when, confronted by the bewildering array versions on the market today, and not having access to the underlying Hebrew and Greek, are not in a position to tell which versions are more accurate.  On the subject of church music we will have more to say in a subsequent blog post.

On most of these issues Denny takes a conservative stand: he is opposed to alcohol consumption in any amount, as well as tattoos.  He is in favor of spanking children, and believes that men should wear suites to church.  He prefers the old King James Version of the Bible.  (He does make a concession to modernity by using the New King James Version in his book.)

Occasionally Denny gets caught in an apparent contradiction.  On one hand he condemns denominationalism and suggests that it arose through human pride.  But then he wants churches to separate themselves from doctrinal error and take an uncompromising stance on what they believe to be the truth.  But is that not how the different denominations came into existence in the first place, and continue to this day?   One could only wonder what Denny would have told Luther and Zwingli at the Marburg Colloquy in 1529 after they could not reach an agreement on the nature of the Lord’s Table.  Which one was being proud and stubborn, and which one should refuse to compromise?

Denny argues a very strong case throughout for non-conformity to the world, and argues that obedience to Christ must always be our top priority in life.  He makes the helpful observation that this does not mean that the Bible spells out in detail exactly how we are to act in every situation.  What is needed, he points out, is spiritual discernment, and toward the very end of his book he lays out his “Twelve Step Program” – twelve basic principles or tests that we can use to determine if a given course of action is in line with God’s will.

At first glance Denny’s book may come across as the work of a cranky old man throwing a hissy fit.  And yet his book comes out at a critical time in history.  Up until now American Christians have had the luxury of living in a country where the freedom of religion was enshrined in the First Amendment to the Constitution.  It was respectable to be a Christian.

And yet the times began to change.  The surrounding culture became increasingly secular and materialistic, and the bulk of the population lost its interest in church.  At first church leaders thought that they could entertain people back into church.  The church became consumer oriented, but in the end fought a losing battle with TV, sports and shopping to get peoples’ attention.

But now the surrounding culture is not just indifferent to Christianity; it is becoming increasingly hostile towards it.  Anyone who dares to take a stand for traditional Judeo-Christian morality is liable to be called “sexist” and “homophobic.”  Thus we are rapidly moving toward a time when modern Christians will have to learn anew what was perfectly obvious to believers in the First Century: that if anyone wishes to be a true follower of Jesus Christ, “let him deny himself, and take up his cross, and follow Me” (Matt. 16:24; NKJV).



Having promised to answer prayer Jesus then goes on to add a qualifier: “If you love Me, keep My commandments” (John 14:15; NKJV).  It is brief, simple, and of the utmost importance.

The first thing to be noted here is that Jesus has, in fact, given us “commandments.”  A commandment is a directive or order given by someone in a position of authority.  The commandment, then, is given to someone who is under that person’s authority, and who is obligated to obey it.  Jesus is in such a position of authority over us.  He is our Lord and Master; we are His servants.  He has given us explicit directives on how to live our lives, and we are obligated to obey Him.

This is a hard concept for modern Christians to grasp.  We naturally assume our own freedom and autonomy.  If Jesus loves us, we reason, He will look out for our personal well-being, which, we assume, means that He will do what we want Him to do.  But we have it all backwards.  He is the Lord; we are His servants.  We are here on earth to do His will and good pleasure.

Jesus said that we were to “keep” His commandments.  The Greek word that John used (and presumably the underlying Aramaic word that Jesus would have used), means “to guard” or “to keep,” and by extension “to keep watchful care.”  The idea here is that we are to give careful attention to what Jesus has commanded, and to be careful to obey all of His commandments.

But it is specifically His commandments that we are to keep, not some human tradition or social custom.  The importance of this cannot be overestimated.  Jesus is God; Jesus is the Supreme Authority.  And if we are Christians we are His disciples – we are followers of Him.  That means that we must go what He has said in all things.

On the one hand this requires non-conformity to the world.  As human beings we are social creatures, and crave social acceptance.  We must live and function in civil society.  But the human race is fallen and in a state of sinful rebellion against God.  It imposes standards of right and wrong that are often at variance with God’s moral law.  In such cases “we ought to obey God rather than men” (Acts 5:29).  This principle will become increasingly critical as Western society continues to move in an anti-Christian direction.  But we must never forget that Jesus Christ is Lord and King, and He is the One who we at all times must obey.  And, ironically as it may seem, in so doing we are acting in he the best interests of society.  Humanity never benefits from sexual license, drunken debauchery, economic exploitation, or violence against others.  We may be hated and persecuted in the short run, but we will be proven right in the long run.   Let us take a clear, uncompromising stand for truth, justice, compassion and morality.

But in our churches we must also be careful not to follow blindly a human tradition instead of the commands of Christ.  It is easy to follow customary practices and a set of denominational distinctives.  But are they really biblical, and do they really honor Christ?  Christ is supposed to be the Head of the church, and the question should always be, what does He want?  The different denominations cannot all possibly be right; almost all of them have to be wrong at some point.  And too often we have developed an institutionalized form of church life that departs for the New Testament model of a Spirit-filled brotherhood of committed disciples.  We must make it our first order of business to seek Christ’s will for our lives as individuals and as churches, and seek to please Him in all that we do.  Only then can we expect to receive a blessing from Him.

But Jesus challenges His disciples to examine their own hearts.  “If you love Me,” He says, “keep My commandments.”  The question is, do we really love Him?  What does it mean to love Christ, in the first place?  Can we say that we genuinely understand ad appreciate all that He is, and all that He has done for us?  When we sing in church, do we really praise Him with heartfelt devotion?  Or are we simply enjoying the music?*  Is a genuine love for Christ reflected in our private devotions and public worship?

And what is our motive in getting involved in church activities?  Is it to glorify Christ and serve the brethren in love and humility?  Or is it to gain recognition for ourselves?  Do we consciously strive to please Christ in all that we do?  Do we really, honestly, sincerely love Him at all?

If we are honest with ourselves we will probably have to admit that we are too much like the lukewarm church in Laodicea: ”I know your works, that you are neither cold nor hot.  I could wish you were cold or hot” (Rev. 3:15).  And tells them (the church, mind you, not unbelievers), “Behold, I stand at the door and knock.  If anyone hears My voice and opens the door, I will come in to him and dine with him, and he with Me” (v. 20).

This, then, in just a few words, is what the Christian life should look like: “If you love Me, keep My commandments.”


*St. Augustine confessed to being torn between listening to the psalms being chanted in church for the content of the words and purely for the enjoyment of the music.  His decided preference was for the performance style advocated by St. Athanasius – as plain and simple as possible, closer to speech rather than song.  (Confessions, X.xxxiii)





So far we have considered the role of the husband in a Christian marriage.  But what about the wife?  What is her responsibility?

Here we are told that the wives are to “submit to your own husbands, as to the Lord” (Eph. 2:21: NKJV).  The text goes on to elaborate: “For the husband is the head of the wife, as also Christ is the head of the church. . .   Therefore, just as the church is subject to Christ, so let the wives be to their own husbands in everything” (vv. 23,24).

This is an extremely difficult concept for many women to swallow, especially American women.  We are used to thinking in terms of freedom and equality; and we want to read the values of American democracy back into the Bible.  And submitting to someone else’s authority just runs counter to human nature. Why would anyone want to do that?  And so marriage should be a “50/50” proposition, we say, and the wife should not be required to do anything that she does not want to do.

But how many of us, husbands or wives, are willing to be subject to Christ?  As Christians we are all members of His church, and He is supposed to be our Head.  If we are living for ourselves, if we are going through life simply pleasing ourselves, we are not submitting to Christ.  And if we have not turned our lives over to Christ as our Lord and Master, are we really Chirstians?

As for the wife, then, her duty is to submit to her husband.  The passage ends by saying that she is to “respect” her husband.  The Greek word that is used here is actually another form of the same word for “fear” that was used in verse 21.  (The old KJV translated it “reverence.”)  The wife is to take her husband’s authority seriously and always respect it.

In a healthy marriage a husband and wife should be able to talk freely with each other about everything.  A wife is her husband’s most intimate companion and confidant.  A good husband will want to know what his wife thinks about things.  Whenever possible they should try to reach a consensus.  The very fact that the wife thinks differently from her husband and has a different perspective helps make that final decision a better one.  But after they have discussed a matter and no agreement was reached, it is the husband’s decision to make.  If they are still arguing and bickering after that the wife is just plain not submitting to her husband.  The ensuing acrimony will poison the relationship.

But at this point someone will protest: “What Paul is describing is an ideal situation.  But we do not live in an ideal world.  We have to deal with reality as it is.”  God knows all that, but He still expects us to obey Him.  The key is found in verse 22: wives are to submit to their husbands “as to the Lord.”  Your husband is not a perfect human being, and there will undoubtedly be times when you will not feel like obeying him.  But do it anyway for the Lord’s sake.  Do it because Christ wants you to.  This is a situation in which we need to learn to “trust and obey.”  We must make it our aim to do what Christ wants us to do, and trust in Him to take care of us and meet our needs.  To do anything else is to surrender to evil.

Our Creator know what He was doing when He ordained the institution of marriage.  He created an arrangement designed to meet the deepest physical and emotional needs of both a man and a woman.  When both the husband and the wife agree to submit to God’s plan for marriage, it can be a supremely satisfying relationship.  If fulfills a romantic ideal and can be one of the greatest joys we experience here on earth.  But when we are determined to do it our own way, the result can be devastating.  Domestic strife, emotional estrangement, and eventually divorce are commonly the result.

The reason we are often such poor husbands and wives is because we are such poor Christians.  If we were to have Christ work through us, if the fruit of the Spirit were more fully manifested in our lives, there would be a lot less acrimony in our homes.  Romantic love depends on a good relationship, and a good relationship depends on Christian character.  In marriage, as in every other area of life, the lesson is unmistakable: God’s way is always best!  “Let Him have His way with thee!” (Cyrus S. Nusbaum).




Anthony van Dyck Family Portrait


The great tragedy of our time is that many people do not know what a good marriage is – they have never seen one.  Their parents’ marriages may have ended in divorce, and their own relationships may be far from satisfactory.

In this context it is important to emphasize several things.  First of all, the world was created by God, and when He created it He intended it to function a certain way.  God’s norms are the standard.

Secondly, the world as we see it is fallen and corrupt.  It does not function the way God intended.

What all of this means is that when we come to a subject like marriage we must go by Scripture, not experience.  The question is, what does God want?  If we want our marriages to work the way they were supposed to work, we have to do it God’s way.  That is only way we can expect to find happiness and fulfillment, and any other way is bound to lead to disappointment and sorrow.

There are several passages of Scripture that describe what a Christian marriage is supposed to look like, but we will focus on just one, Ephesians 5:22-33.  The apostle Paul is giving practical exhortations to believers, and in these verses he deals specifically with husbands and wives, urging them to live with each other in a Christ-like manner.

The key to understanding how a godly marriage would work is actually found immediately preceding – verse 21: “. . . submitting to one another in the fear of God” (NKJV).  This is addressed to believers in general, and what is required in all of our relationships with each other is that we “submit to one another.”  We are not to be stubborn, selfish and self-willed, but are to subordinate our individual needs and desires to those of others.  That is the Christian way.  There is not place in the church for rugged individualists.

The passage makes it clear that husbands and wives do have different roles in marriage, and to explain how these different roles work Paul compares marriage to the relationship between Christ and the church.  He also uses an interesting analogy: Christ (and the husband) is the head; the church (and the wife) is the body.  The head gives direction to the body, but has an integral connection to it.  The head tells the body what to do, but cannot function without the body and is very much affected by what happens to the body.  Therefore the head cares very much for the welfare of the body.

The husband, then, is to love his wife – not merely tolerate her, not merely coexist with her, but actively care for her.  The word “love” (agapate) here does not necessarily that he likes everything about her.  Rather, it is a self-sacrificing love that puts her welfare ahead of his own. Moreover, in enjoining this duty Paul sets the highest possible standard: the husband is to love his wife “just as Christ loved the church” (v. 25). It is the love that Christ showed us when He gave His very life for us, even though we were sinners.

But exactly how does Christ love the church?  First of all, He is attendant to the church’s needs – He is preeminently concerned with her welfare.  These needs include both the church’s true needs as well as her felt ones.

First of all, Christ aims for the church’s genuine well-being: “. . . that He might sanctify it, having cleansed it with the washing of water in the word, that He might present the church to Himself glorious, not having stain or wrinkle, or any such thing, but that it might be holy and without blemish . . .” (vv. 26,27).  The words “present the church to himself” suggest the idea of a wedding, with the bride looking resplendent in her beautiful gown as she marches down the aisle to her waiting groom.  Will there ever be a day when she will look more beautiful than she does on this day?  But there is an element of Cinderella here as well.  Christ found his bride in rags; now she is “glorious, not having stain or wrinkle or any such thing” (v. 27).  In order to get to this point He had to “wash her with water in the word.”  This may be an oblique reference to conversion and its attendant ordinance of baptism.  Before conversion the elect were hardly fit to be called the bride of Christ.  But now look at the church!  But it must never be forgotten that it is Christ who makes the church what she is.

But he husband will also pay attention to the wife’s felt needs as well.  Paul reminds the husband that he and his wife are “one flesh.”  Therefore he ought to have the same care and concern for his wife that he has for himself: He will feed and warm her (v. 29).  Is she hungry?  He will provide her with food.  Is she cold?  He will warm her.

But more importantly, Christ showed His love for the church by sacrificing Himself for it.  The text says that He “gave Himself for it” (v. 25).   The word “gave” (paredoken) literally means “to hand or give over, to deliver up,” often to be arrested.  In this context the reference is obviously to Christ’s arrest and crucifixion.  And if Jesus was willing t make the supreme sacrifice for the church –to lay down His very life for her, should not a husband be willing to do the same thing for his wife?

Loving your wife, however, does not mean fulfilling all of her demands.  When Christ gave Himself for the church He had a specific end in mind: “. . .that He might sanctify and cleanse her . . . that she should be holy and without blemish” (vv. 26,27).  Christ (and the husband) is looking out for the bride’s total well-being, not just her desires and wishes.  In some cases the husband, using his own judgment, may actually have to contravene his wife’s wishes, but he should do so with her true well-being in mind.

A husband, then, must devote himself to his wife’s well-being.  She is not his chattel slave to do with her as he pleases.  He is the head of the home.  But that means that he is responsible for the well-being of everyone in the home, and must make wise decisions accordingly.  On occasion he may have to sacrifice his own personal well-being for the sake of hers.  And he should do this because he genuinely cares for her, “just as Christ also loved the church and gave Himself for her.”




Rembrandt: The Anatomy Lesson of Dr. Nicolaes Tulp

Death is an existential question that calls out for an answer.  Why do people have to die?  To an atheist the question is pointless – everything in nature dies; that is just the way things are.  But there is something inside of us, an ingrained part of our humanity, that will not settle for an answer like that.  To have known and loved someone, to have seen that person as a living, breathing person, full of life and energy, and now to see that person as a lifeless corpse, is to feel a profound sense of loss.  And if we live in a universe that was created by an intelligent Supreme Being, then the philosophical question inevitably arises, why death?  Death would seem to run against God’s creative purposes.

The biblical answer is that death is a judicial punishment for man’s rebellion against God.  “Therefore, just as through one man sin entered the world, and death through sin, and thus death spread to all men, because all sinned . . .” (Rom. 5:12; NKJV).  And so, “For dust you are, / And to dust you shall return” (Gen. 3:19).

But the Sixth Commandment says, “You shall not murder,” and this raises some serious questions about the medical care of dying patients.  What specifically concerns those of us who are not medical professionals is giving informed consent to various treatment options.  People are often asked to prepare living wills or advance medical directives that give instructions on how they would like to be treated if they are incapacitated.  Among the issues frequently addressed in these documents are resuscitation, feeding tubes, IVs, mechanical ventilation, and antibiotics.  Most of us dread even being in a situation where such measures are possibilities, and our natural inclination is to not want any of it.

But we must always ask the question, what would God want?  We are morally responsible creatures, and are ultimately accountable to Him.  What, then, is the moral thing to do?

The Sixth Commandment forbids the taking of innocent human life.  That means that there should be no action our part to shorten someone’s life or to hasten death.  On the other hand it does not mean that we should artificially prolong the process of dying.  Ultimately it is God who determines the time of our death.  “You take away their breath, they die and return to their dust” (Ps. 104:29; cf. Job 34:10-15).  Or, as the apostle Paul put it, “For if we live, we live to the Lord; and if we die, we die to the Lord.  Therefore, whether we live or die, we are the Lord’s” (Rom. 14:8; cf., II Cor. 5:9,10).

On that basis I think that we would have to say that it is wrong to remove a feeding tube from a patient while he is still alive.  Every living person needs both food and water to sustain life, and they must be delivered to the body by some external means, whether baby bottle, knife and fork, or feeding tube.  To deprive a person of food and water is to starve him to death – the immediate cause of death is humanly induced starvation.  That, then, would constitute an impermissible taking of human life.

But what sort of medical treatment should be given to persons who are terminally ill?  Obviously a disease that is treatable should be treated.  But there are two opposite tendencies that should be avoided: the tendency to prolong life as long as possible and the tendency to shorten the process of dying.

The first tendency is to resort to heroic but futile attempts to prolong life because the patient is simply unwilling to accept the fact that he is dying.  Death is a terrifying thing, and the natural tendency is to resist it as long as we possibly can.  But if the patient has been diagnosed with stage four cancer (cancer that has spread to other organs) the value of radiation therapy and chemotherapy is questionable.  The therapy is expensive, destroys good cells as well as bad, and in the end is futile.  There comes a time when we must accept our mortality.  When your time has come your time has come.

On the other hand there is a natural desire in some cases to want to hasten death.  When a patient is stricken with a painful and debilitating disease, it is only natural to want to end the suffering.  It is also tempting to argue that a person’s “quality of life” is so poor that there is no point in keeping him alive.  But the Sixth Commandment still applies – we are not permitted to take human life.  We were created in the image of God, and there is something sacred about human life.  Obviously every effort should be made to ease pain and suffering, but any idea of “mercy killing” should be avoided.

This is not to day that end of life decisions are always easy.  There is a wide variety of possible circumstances, and it is impossible to anticipate exactly how one’s life will end.  Thus great care should be exercised in filling out living wills and advanced medical directives.  When they are good health many people will say that they would not want the use of artificial means to prolong life, but they often change their minds when faced with the actual prospect of death.

Much depends on the overall condition of the patient.  If a patient is terminally ill, or is elderly and in failing health, cardiopulmonary resuscitation (CPR) and mechanical respiration may not make much sense.  On the other hand, for a younger person who is the victim of an accident or heart attack, aggressive intervention may save his life and spare his loved ones the grief of a loss.  For a person with a long-term disability measures to enhance functionality may be appropriate, even if the disease itself is incurable.  And for a person who is at the end of life, palliative measures are appropriate even if they have the effect of minimally shortening life.  If death is immanent it is best to accept the fact and make the patient as comfortable as possible.

But above all else, let us make sure that we are spiritually prepared for death.  We must all face death sooner or later; we must all reckon with eternity.  We all have an appointment to meet our Maker.  Let us settle our accounts with God now before it is too late, so that we can face the hour of death with calm equanimity.

There is something about the awful finality of death that is truly terrifying.  It is for good reason that the Bible calls it “the king of terrors” (Job. 18:14).  But for the Christian it is nothing to fear – death is but the gateway to paradise.  “For me to live is Christ, and to die is gain” (Phil. 1:21).

“When I tread the verge of Jordan,

Bid my anxious fears subside;

Death of death, and hell’s Destruction,

Land me safe on Canaan’s side . . .”

William Williams





In our last blog post we concluded that it is possible for a Christian to serve in a civil government, and that there is such a thing as a just war.  But does this mean that the military in doing whatever it pleases to achieve an objective?  It is justified in engaging in wanton slaughter?

Not at all!  For the basic moral principle of the sanctity of human life still applies.  It is never permissible to take human life unless it is absolutely necessary to prevent even worse consequences.  What, then, are the criteria of a just war?

First of all, a war must have a just cause.  We are not at liberty to attack another country merely for the sake of territorial expansion or commercial advantage.  There must be some immanent threat to our territory, to the lives and property of our citizens; or conceivably, in some cases, gross human rights violations may warrant an invasion from another country; but this should only be done under the sanction of international law.  Moreover, the good to be achieved through the war must outweigh the inevitable loss of life and property.  Fighting a war with a vague or unachievable objective, or a doubtful outcome, amounts to an immoral waste of human life.

Once a war has begun there are important things to keep in mind as well.  All efforts should be made to avoid the unnecessary loss of civilian life.  Killing, abusing or neglecting prisoners of war is a war crime.  The use of force must be proportionate to the military objective.  This makes the use of weapons of mass destruction highly problematical.

It must be conceded that there are grave practical difficulties with the just war theory.  Many wars are the result of a failure of diplomacy, and could have been avoided through a little more flexibility on the part of the different sides.  Governments are not always transparent in their foreign relations, and the real causes for going to war are often shrouded in secrecy.  Once started, a war quickly degenerates into a struggle for survival, and the longer it drags on, the more brutal and barbaric it usually becomes.  And subordinates are rarely in positions to question the orders of their superior officers.  All of these factors combine to make it extremely difficult for a military serviceman who is a Christian to make an intelligent judgment about the justification for a war or the tactics employed.

The 19th Century American Presbyterian theologian A.A. Hodge made this telling observation about war:  “War is an incalculable evil, because of the lives it destroys, the misery it occasions, and the moral degradation it infallible works on all sides – upon the vanquished and the victor, the party originally in the right and the part in the wrong.  In every war one party is at least must be in the wrong, involved in the tremendous guilt of unjustifiable war, and in the vast majority of cases both parties are in the wrong.  No plea of honour, glory or aggrandizement, policy or profit, can excuse, much less justify war; nothing short of necessity to the end of the preservation of national existence” (The Confession of Faith, p. 296 – Hodge wrote these lines in 1869, only four years after the end of the American Civil War).

Even in our own day we have witnessed the phenomenon of returning war veterans suffering “Post Traumatic Stress Disorder” in which in some cases they experience guilt or remorse over things they saw or were forced to do during combat operations.  The biblical explanation for this is that God has given us consciences; the returning vets “show the work of the law written on their hearts, their conscience also bearing witness . . .” (Rom. 2:15; NKJV).

The separation of church and state ought never to mean the separation of secular government from morality.  And perhaps no weightier moral question will face a civil government than the decision of whether or not to go to war.  On this question the church dare not remain silent.  It has a solemn obligation before Almighty God to act as a prophetic voice, faithfully proclaiming “the whole counsel of God” (Acts 20:27) to a world filled with hatred and violence.  To fail to do so is to be unfaithful to God and to do a great disservice to humanity.