Tribulation Saint

Historic Christianity in the Twenty First Century

Month: March, 2019

THE HUMAN TRAGEDY OF SIN

4.2.7

Frans Hals: Young Man with a Skull

“There is a way that seems right to a man,

But its end is the way of way of death.”

(Prov. 14:12; 16:25; NKJV)

 

King Solomon was a man who had seen a lot during his lifetime, and writing under the inspiration of the Holy Spirit, his collected wisdom is found in the Book of Proverbs.  And the proverb before us encapsulates a pertinent observation about human behavior.  “There is a way that seems right to a man.”  The “way” is the path of life in life down which we choose to go.  And for many of us there is a particular path that “seems right” – it looks like just the thing we want.  It looks enticing and advantageous.  It appeals to our sense of self-interest.  “But its end {final outcome] is the way of death.”  It eventually leads to destruction and death.  What started out looking very promising turned out in the end to be a disaster.

Nowhere can this be seen more clearly than in the course of modern Western history.  The ‘60’s were a time of radical experimentation and change.  The Viet Nam War had provoked a widespread revolt against “the Establishment” which came to a head during the Chicago riots of 1968.  Disillusioned many turned to “sex and drugs and rock-n-roll,” culminating in the Woodstock Festival of 1969.  President Nixon managed to get us out of the war by 1973, and the anti-war protests died down.  The hippies of the late ‘60’s graduated from college and became the “Yuppies” of the ‘70’s – young, upwardly mobile professionals  seeking to climb the corporate ladder.

But in many ways the legacy of the ‘60’s remains today.  The sexual revolution and radical feminism changed the way Americans looked at sex, gender roles and marriage.  In 1973 the U.S. Supreme Court legalized abortion in a decisive break with Judeo-Christian morality.  And the Stonewall Riot of 1969 marked the beginning of the Gay Rights movement.

But where has all of this led us?  Today 40% of all live births in America are to unmarried women (in 1970 it was 10.7%), and 23% of all children are living in households headed by a single female parent.  The late Sen. Daniel Patrick Moynihan could cite studies that showed that children from single parent families were far more likely to do poorly in school, live in poverty, and become involved in crime (Family and Nation, 1986).  We have created social dysfunction on a massive scale.

The underlying problem lies in the philosophical assumptions of the Cultural Revolution of the ‘60’s.  Unlike prior reform movements such as the Abolitionism of 1830’s – 50’s or the Progressive Movement of the early 20th Century, the young rebels of the ‘60’s basically took a secular approach to social reform.  There was no clear-cut, unifying ideology, but there were several influences at work.  One of them was Neo-Marxism.  Karl Marx had predicted a social revolution based on an economic class conflict.  But by the 1950’s his predictions had largely turned out to be false.  The Proletariat had not risen up and overthrown the Bourgeoisie in a violent revolution.  Marx’s theory was then redefined in terms of social and cultural conflict.  People are oppressed and dehumanized by the “bourgeois” values of middle class America.  This set the stage for identity politics: one disadvantaged group after another felt oppressed by the white, patriarchal, Eurocentric Establishment.

Another major influence at work in the ‘60’s was Existentialism.  Here the emphasis was on the radical autonomy of the individual.  Concrete human existence precedes any defining essence.  There is no divinely established order to the universe, and therefore we should be free to define ourselves as we please.  The Existential influence was especially felt in the Feminist Movement through the writing of Simone de Beauvoir.  Gender roles are artificial and oppressive and should be discarded.  This eventually led to the LGBT movement and the idea that we should be allowed to choose our own gender.

And behind all of this lies the legacy of the Romantic Movement with its emphasis on individual freedom and self-expression.  And it undoubtedly had a special appeal to Americans with our heritage of freedom, democracy and free-market Capitalism.  It suited the consumer mentality of a generation that grew up in the prosperity of the ‘50’s and could take a comfortable middle-class lifestyle for granted.

The problem with all of this, however, was its secularism.  Both Neo-Marxism and Existentialism were atheistic.  In our sin and rebellion we refuse to acknowledge God as our Creator and Lord.  We want social justice, but refuse to accept God as the source of morality.  But on a secular basis it is virtually impossible to establish any kind of spiritual reality that would allow us to escape from the materialism of modern industrial society.  We wound up replacing the materialistic “bourgeois” values of our parents with “sex and drugs and rock-n-roll.”  We replaced materialism with outright hedonism. It was hardly the triumph of idealism.

But we are still human beings created in the image of God, and we are still accountable to Him.  In the end sin never benefits anyone.  At first it holds out the prospect of freedom and pleasure.  But in the end there is a long trail of broken relationships, ruined health and wrecked finances, and eventually eternal destruction.  We live in a universe created by God; and when we ignore His laws and go our own ways, we invite disaster.  That was the tragedy of the ‘60’s, and that is the tragedy today.  Calling sin “sin” is not being hateful or bigoted – it is simply giving an honest diagnosis in hope of a cure.

“There is a way that seems right to a man,

But its way is the way of death.”

 

Advertisements

THE HEART PROBLEM

4.2.7

Van Gogh: Man Reading the Bible

 

 

The Tenth Commandment reads, “You shall not covet your neighbor’s house, you shall not covet your neighbor’s wife, nor his male servant, nor his female servant, nor his ox, nor his donkey, nor anything that is your neighbor’s” (Ex. 20:17; Dt. 5:21; NKJV).  The  notorious scoffer, the late Christopher Hitchens, thought that this was absolutely ridiculous: “. . .it demands the impossible  . . . One may be forcibly restrained from wicked actions, or barred from committing them, but to forbid people from contemplating them is too much” (god is not Great, p. 100).  He tried to argue that this was “proof” that “religion is man-made” (p. 99).  Hitchens then went on to suggest that covetousness was the basis for American capitalism, and on that point he may well been correct.

On the other hand, according to the distinguished Jewish biblical scholar Umberto Cassuto, this particular commandment is part of what makes the Ten Commandments so revolutionary.  “It is a fundamental duty of man not only to refrain from committing adultery with his neighbor’s wife and from stealing what belongs to his fellow, but also not to yearn for another person’s wife or property.  This very desire is a grave sin against the principles of the Divine declaration’ (Exodus, p. 240).  This is part of what set the religion of the Israelites apart from all the rest of the ancient world.

Cassuto is right.  The Ten Commandments meant to be more than just a summary of a civil law code.  Rather, they underscore man’s moral obligation to his Creator.  They are a statement of those universal moral principles that are binding on all human beings regardless of place, time or culture.  And the Tenth Commandment in particular points to our hearts, the deepest part of our inmost being, and looks at the motives behind our actions.

God is love, and He wants us to love Him with all of our heart and soul and might, and each other as ourselves.  The only true religion is heart religion, and God is not impressed with hypocrisy.  “. . .these people draw near with their mouths / And honor Me with their lips, / But have removed their hearts far from Me, / And their fear toward Me is taught by the commandment of men” (Isa. 29:13).  God can read our hearts and knows our true desires.  Thus to do good outwardly but devise evil inwardly hardly counts as righteousness.  Our true self, our inward self, is evil.

If we desire to do evil, it is the desire itself that is evil.  And therein lies the whole problem.  Our hearts are filled with pride, greed, envy and lust.  When we are crossed we become angry and seek revenge.

“The Lord looks down from heaven upon the children of men,

To see if there are any who understand, who seek God.

They have all turned aside,

They have altogether become corrupt;

There is none who does good,

No, not one.”        (Ps. 14:2,3; 53:2,3).

But Mr. Hitchens protests.  “It demands the impossible!”  And, in a sense, he is right.  God is perfectly holy and just.  We are sinners by nature.  In actual practice it is impossible for us to meet the Creator’s standards of righteousness.

But Mr. Hitchens, we are afraid, has missed the whole point of morality.  Right and wrong are ultimately determined by God’s own standards of justice and humanity, but by our depraved appetites. The fact that we routinely fall short of God’s Law does not reflect negatively on the Law, but on us.  The question is not, why does God command what is right, but rather, why do we do what is wrong?

But does this mean, then, that there is no hope?  That we are in the impossible position of being judged by a law that standards of which we cannot meet?  Fortunately there is more to the picture than that.  For it is precisely this point that the gospel comes into the picture.

The apostle Paul tells us that the ultimate purpose of the Law is to lead us to Christ.  The purpose of the Law is to show us how utterly sinful we are, and how incapable we are of justifying ourselves before a holy God.  “Now we know that whatever the law says, it says to those who are under the law, that every mouth may be stopped, and all the world may become guilty before God.  Therefore by the deeds of the law no flesh will be justified in His sight, for by the law is the knowledge of sin” (Rom. 3:19,20).  “Therefore the law was our tutor to bring us to Christ, that we might be justified by faith” (Gal. 3:24).  The “tutor” (Gk., paidagogos) was typically a slave who escorted young boys to and from school.  The law serves the same purpose – it leads us to Christ by showing us our sin and our need for salvation.  We can then find salvation in Christ.

What we need as human beings are two things: the forgiveness of our sins and a new heart.  Only Christ can give these to us.  We must come to Him in repentance and faith, and receive Him as our Savior.  Only then will we have the relationship with God that we were meant to have.

BE CAREFUL LITTLE TONGUE

4.2.7

Jacues-Louis David: Death of Marat

The Ninth Commandment reads “You shall not bear false witness against your neighbor” (Ex. 20:16; Dt. 5:20; NKJV).  The primary reference, of course, is to the crime of perjury, in which a witness in a court trial lies under oath, potentially resulting in the false conviction of an innocent defendant, and thereby undermining the integrity of the whole criminal justice system.  But as we read through the Bible it becomes apparent that the Ninth Commandment covers much more than that.  What we say or speak in general has an impact on the lives of others, and therefore comes under the purview of God’s moral law.

“ . . .the tongue is a little member and boasts great things.  See how great a forest a little fire kindles!” (Jas. 3:5).  “Death and life are in the power of the tongue, / And those who love it will eat its fruit” (Prov. 18:21).  With the tongue we can deceive and mislead, insult and offend, provoke someone to anger or destroy someone’s reputation.  The tongue can ruin a marriage.  “It is better to dwell in the corner of a housetop, / Than in a house shared with a contentious woman” (Prov. 25:24).

Even saying something that may be factually true can sometimes create problems.  “He who a transgression seeks love, / But he who repeats a matter separates friends” (Prov. 17:9).

The apostle Paul elaborates further on the use of the tongue in his letter to the Ephesians.  Here he tells us to “Let no corrupt word proceed out of your mouth . . .” (Eph. 4:29).  He also says that “neither filthiness, nor foolish talking, nor coarse jesting, which are not fitting” should “not even be named among you, as is fitting for saints” (Eph. 5:3,4).

But, on may ask, what is so bad about telling an off-color joke or using a curse word?  Whom are we really hurting?  The answer Paul gives is interesting.  First of all, what we are supposed to be saying is “what is good for necessary edification, that it may impart grace to the hearers” (4:29), and “giving thanks” (5:4).  In other words, we are supposed to be using our tongues for positive, constructive purposes.

But there is more to it than that.  The real issue is what lies underneath.  What comes out of the mouth reflects what is in the heart, and that is where the real problem lies.  And so Paul makes a point of saying, “Let all bitterness, wrath, anger, clamor, and evil speaking be put away from you, with all malice.  And be kind to one another, tenderhearted, forgiving one another . . .” (4:31,32).  The reason we engage in trash talk is because of our underlying attitude: we are arrogant, self-centered and even downright hostile towards others; when we should be kind, understanding, and sympathetic.  If we care about others we will be careful about what comes out of our mouths.

But a cynic might ask, why should I care about others?  And again Paul gives us the answer.  “Therefore be imitators of God as dear children.  And walk in love, as Christ also has loved us and gave Himself for us, an offering and a sacrifice to God for a sweet-smelling aroma” (5:1,2).  First of all, consider what God himself is like.  He is love itself, and is completely devoid of the carnal passions that often rule our hearts.  He cares about us, and therefore He wants us to care about each other.  Secondly, consider what Christ has done for us.  He “has loved us and given Himself for us” (5:2).  He made the supreme sacrifice on our behalf; how can we begrudge Him a little consideration for others?  And, we are told, Christ’s sacrifice was especially pleasing to God the Father: it was “a sweet-smelling aroma.”

Or, to put it negatively, when we engage in trash talk because our hearts are filled with anger and hostility, we ‘grieve the Holy Spirit of God” (4:30).  If we are born-again Christians we have the Holy Spirit living inside of us.  That means He sees everything we see and hears everything we hear.  And He knows what is inside our hearts.  And if what He sees is ugly and disgusting, it is revolting to Him and He is grieved that a child of God could contemplate such things.  We will never experience the love, joy and peace of the Christian life as long as we continue in such a state.  Therefore it behooves us to make sure that our hearts are right with God, and that will be reflected in what comes out of our mouths.

Our conversation ought to be a delight for others to listen to.  It should encourage, inspire, uplift and edify.  It should contain nothing tawdry, vulgar or inane.  If you wouldn’t say it in the presence of Christ Himself you should not say it at all!

THE CHURCH AND THE LGBT ISSUE

DSCN1087

Historic Methodist Church Bldg., Mentz, NY

 

Last week the United Methodist Church voted to uphold the church’s traditional ban on same-sex marriages and LGBT ordinations.  The denomination is said to be deeply divided over the issue, and many of its more liberal members are likely to leave over it.  “I will not participate in your bigotry, sin & violence,” tweeted one liberal pastor, while a conservative delegate from Liberia in Africa said “We can’t do anything but to support the Traditional Plan – it is the biblical plan.”

The delegate from Liberia is correct – the “Traditional Plan,” (the resolution upholding the bans on same sex marriage and LGBT ordination) is in fact, the biblical plan.  The Bible clearly condemns homosexual behavior.  The problem, we fear, is that the mainline Protestant denominations have long since abandoned the authority of Scripture, and in the process have lost sight of the biblical concepts of sin and redemption.  Yes, God did so love the world.  But that does not mean that He simply accepts us as we are, sin and all.  “But God demonstrates His own love toward us, in that while we were still sinners, Christ died for us” (Rom. 5:8; NKJV).  God’s plan and purpose is not to accept us in our sin, but to save us from our sin.  “Do you not know that the unrighteous will not inherit the kingdom of God?  Do not be deceived. Neither fornicators, nor idolaters, nor adulterers, nor homosexuals, nor sodomites, nor thieves, nor covetous, nor drunkards, nor revilers, nor extortioners will inherit the kingdom of God.  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).

But what exactly is it that makes homosexuality sinful?  It should be noted that homosexuality is, in fact, a moral and not a biological issue.  Unlike race, which is purely physical and biological, a person’s sexual activity is a matter of behavior and choice.  While we may feel a strong physical urge in one direction or another, as thinking, rational human beings we can discern between right and wrong and make morally responsible choices.  This is why our sexual behavior falls under the purview of the 7th Commandment: “Thou shalt con commit adultery.”  We may feel an urge or a desire, but whether or not we act on it is a decision we consciously make.  Thus homosexual activity becomes a matter of morality and ethics.

Human sexuality is something that was created by God, and it has a specific, God-ordained purpose.  The primary purpose of sex is heterosexual reproduction, and the primary purpose of marriage is to create a stable home environment in which to raise children.  Anything other than a permanent heterosexual relationship within the bond of marriage, or complete celibacy, is a deviation from the norm and is therefore consistently condemned in Scripture.  This includes fornication (sex before marriage), adultery, pornography, prostitution, and divorce, as well as the grosser forms of sexual activity.

The Bible portrays homosexuality as a sign of advanced decadence.  In Rom. 1:18-32 the apostle Paul traces the course of social disintegration.  Significantly homosexuality is said to be a consequence of religious apostasy, and it represents a judicial act on God’s part: “Therefore God also gave them up to uncleanness . . .” (v. 24).  “For this reason God gave them up to vile passions . . .” (v. 26).  It is also significant that homosexuality is described as an expression of extreme lust.  It is marked by “the lusts of their hearts” (v. 24) and “vile passions,” and male homosexuals are said to “burn in their lust for one another” (v. 27).  It is a picture of men enslaved to their uncontrolled lusts – hardly a noble and uplifting scene.

The transgender issue raises other questions.  Can a person change his gender?  Can he be “gender non-conforming”?  Gender is something that is biological – it is written into our chromosomes, and ultimately determined by God himself.  “So God created man in His own image; in the image of God He created him; male and female He created them” (Gen. 1:27).  How, then, did we get the idea that we can change our gender?  Is it not because of an underlying philosophical assumption that we exist as autonomous beings, not accountable to any Creator?  But what if God actually does exist?  Are we not then engaged in a colossal act of self-delusion?  The plain fact of the matter is that human society functions on a male – female dynamic, and indeed has to in order to survive.  If we try to deny the existence of gender roles, and try to deny our own biological gender, all we have done is to create dysfunctional relationships with our fellow human beings.  And if we try to raise our children in a gender non-conforming way, we have probably made it difficult for them to achieve happy, well-adjusted lives as adults.  How will they ever make marriage work, and raise children of their own?  Where is the compassion in that?

The United Methodist Church is likely to split over the issue.  But what the liberals need to understand is that we live in a rationally ordered universe created by an intelligent Supreme Being, and that everything in the created world has a divinely ordained purpose.  The human race, on the other hand, is in a state of sin and rebellion against God, and has twisted and perverted the things that God had originally created for a good and noble purpose.  Human sexual love is one of the things that God has created, but we have perverted it to serve our own selfish lusts.  And the end result is pain and misery for all – wrecked relationships and children growing up in unstable, poverty-stricken single-parent households.  In the end no one wins in a climate of sexual license.

What the liberal, mainstream denominations have done, in effect, is to ignore what God has revealed in Scripture and invented their own standards of morality.  What usually happens in actual practice is that they end up conforming to standards of the surrounding culture which is increasingly secular (i.e., implicitly atheistic) and licentious.  The end result is to lose anything like a distinctively Christian testimony to the world.

The just and humane thing to do, the compassionate thing to do, is to uphold the institution of marriage as God originally intended it to be – a permanent, binding and loving relationship between one man and one woman.  We hope and pray, for the sake of American society as a whole, that the United Methodist Church will return to biblical standards of morality and once again preach the Christian gospel once so forcibly proclaimed by John and Charles Wesley.

CULTURALLY RELEVANT: CHURCH MUSIC

stgermainauxerrois1

Dennis Bliss, in his recently published book Culturally Relevant, devotes an entire chapter to the subject of “Culturally Relevant Music,” and he tells us right at the outset that “without a doubt, this could be the most controversial, hotly debated, and least received chapter of this book, because it is already such a hot topic in the church today” (p. 119).  And so, with that warning in mind, I will cover my head, duck down low, and attempt to respond to his arguments.

Denny’s analysis in many ways reflects the dismay that many in an older generation have felt toward the changes that have taken place in the worship styles of many churches today.  Gone are the hymn books and the piano; they have been replaced by the “praise and worship team” with their loud guitars and drums.  At the end of the chapter Denny tells us, “all I can say is that I dearly long to stand with a hymn book in my hands, have all the words and music at my instant disposal, listen to the piano play a short, soft intro, and add my harmony to dear brothers and sisters in singing one of the great old hymns of the faith as it was written” (p. 135)..

As Denny tells it, the problem with Contemporary Christian Music is the beat.  The beat, he says, “competes with the melody and distracts from the words of the song.  It gets the body moving first, not the emotions, certainly not the spirit, but the body – the flesh.  And if it moves the flesh are we not going to want more and more of it?  Harder, faster, ever increasing in intensity!” (p. 132).  He supports this assertion with an appeal to the ancient Greek philosopher Pythagoras, who associated rhythm with the physical body, melody with man’s psychic being, and harmony with his spiritual existence.  Christians, Denny argues, should avoid what appeals to the flesh, and therefore music with strong beat has no place in the church.

Denny is certainly right in much of his analysis of Contemporary Christian Music.  The beat certainly is part of the problem.  But is a strong rhythm necessarily anti-Christian?  And what about the melody and harmony?  Are they intrinsically good, or at least neutral?

It has to be noted at the outset that the traditional worship was not without its problems either.  In at least some denominational traditions there was an excessive formality with the choir marching in at the beginning of the service, written prayers, and responsive scripture readings.  Many of the hymns of the Victorian era were marked by flowery poetry and little doctrinal content (“I came to the garden alone, / While the dew is still on the roses; / And the voice I hear, falling on my ear . . .”).  And then, as an unfortunate side effect of D.L. Moody’s evangelistic campaigns, gospel songs, as opposed to hymns in the strict sense of the word, made their way into hymnals and worship services (“Rescue the perishing, care for the dying, / Snatch them in pity from sin and the grave . . .”).  There was “special music.” And in it all the element of true worship was lost.  Congregations forgot what it means consciously to enter into the presence of God and offer up to Him a sacrifice of praise and thanksgiving.  “Worship” became entertainment, and people would sit passively in the pews and wait for someone to make them feel good.

And so it must be said that Contemporary Christian Music has some positive things to offer.  The songs tend to be filled with praise directed toward God, and this is certainly a step in the right direction.

But, as Denny would be quick to point out, there are serious problems with the style of music.  It must be pointed out that the music, by itself, expresses something.  It can convey a wide range of feeling and emotion.  What makes a composer truly great is his ability to weave together melody, harmony, rhythm, tempo and dynamics into a tapestry of thoughts, feelings and emotions.

A classic example is George Frederick Handel’s famous oratorio “Messiah.”  The libretto is largely taken from Scripture (as Denny will be quick to point out, mostly from the King James Version, which does in fact lend itself very well for this type of artistic endeavor).  In each case Handel would take the text, usually consisting of a verse or two, and ask himself how he would express in music the thought of the passage.  The result is an amazing variety of musical expression, from the depths of sorrow (“He was despised, despised and rejected, a Man of sorrows and acquainted with grief”), to the heights of exquisite joy (“Hallelujah!  Hallelujah!”).  Now that is music!

Contemporary Christian Music, on the other hand, has the same problem that practically every form of popular music has – it is so heavily stylized that it has a limited range of artistic expression.  It is hard to make an electric guitar weep with sorrow the way a violin, let’s say, can.  And even some younger critics complain that CCM songs nearly all sound alike – there is little variation in tempo, dynamics or rhythm, with the result that the subject matter of the songs is usually limited as well – mainly God gaining the victory over something.

This, then, raises the question, what should Christian music express?  What should it sound like?  It has to be that down through the history of the Christian church a wide variety of musical styles has been employed – everything from Gregorian Chant to Renaissance motets to early American shaped note hymns (my personal favorite!) to Black Gospel (And black musicians are especially skilled at using different rhythms to convey different feelings.  They would also point out to us that there is a difference between Gospel Music and Rhythm and Blues).  And there have been more than one “worship wars” in the past.  In the 18th Century the battle was between “singing by rote” and “singing by note.”  But no matter what the style, the question must always come back to what exactly is being conveyed by the music.  On this point Denny is frankly right: it is nearly impossible to baptize rock music and make it holy.

I can remember some time ago hearing a very good sermon preached in Denny’s church on the text of Col. 3:12-17.  I was a part of a house church group at the time and spoke on the same text a couple of weeks later.  The text tells us to teach and admonish one another “in all wisdom, singing psalms and hymns and spiritual songs, with thankfulness in your hearts to God” (v. 16; ESV).  The parallel passage in Ephesians says “singing and making melody to the Lord with all your heart” (Eph. 5:19).  True worship should come from the heart.  But what should be in our hearts, that we will then express in music?  The text in Colossians tells us: “compassion, kindness, humility, meekness, and patience . . . And above all these put on love, which binds everything together in perfect harmony.  And let the peace of Christ rule in your hearts. . .” (Col. 3:12-15).  The question then, is, does our music truly express these qualities?  Does it reflect the fruit of the Spirit?  Will it be head-banging, in-your-face rock music?

Each Christian, of course, will have to answer that question himself.  But for me the great tragedy of the modern Praise and Worship movement is that it has consigned a vast treasury of historic Christian hymnody, spanning over centuries, to the rubbish heap.  A magnificent cultural heritage has been lost.  And, in a sense, this reflects what has happened to Western Civilization as a whole.  I honestly cannot understand why some churches today are so allergic to traditional hymns.  And why are we so afraid (and, it must be said, this is even true of churches with traditional worship) of tunes in minor keys?  Our worship should focus on Christ and the suffering He endured on the cross.  What better way to commemorate this than with a hymn like “Stricken, Smitten, and Afflicted” or “Throned Upon the Awful Tree”?  And why are we not singing more of the psalms?  They are, after all, God’s inspired word, and as such have a power to comfort, edify and encourage that no human composition has.

We all need to pause, take a deep breath, and ask ourselves the basic question, what does God want?  What will genuinely glorify Him and reflect the values that we profess to hold dear?