Tribulation Saint

Historic Christianity in the Twenty First Century

Category: Discipleship

CHRISTIANITY AND CIVILIZATION

 

The Tower of Babel

 

 

In our last blog post we considered the nature of civilization, and concluded that it was an organized effort on the part of human beings to live and work together; and that this, in turn, required certain standards of behavior.  But what is a Christian to make of all of this?  Is civilization good or bad?  Should he support it, attack it, or ignore it?

The answer is that from a Christian standpoint civilization is both good and bad.  It is both good and bad because it reflects the fundamental contradictions of human nature.  We are created in the image of God and have consciences.  We are social creatures.  Yet at the same time we are also fallen sinners and routinely do what is bad.  And thus it is with human civilization as a whole.

On the one hand there is much that is undeniably good in civilization.  In a civilization people are willing to work together for the common good.  When a government is created to establish justice, this is a positive thing.  The apostle Paul could go so far as to call the civil magistrate “God’s minister to you for good” (Rom. 13:1-7), and urges prayers to be made “for kings and all who are in authority” (I Tim. 2:1,2).  Civilizations have made tremendous advances in science and technology and have created great works of art, music and literature.  All of this is undeniably good.

But sinners are still sinners, and this is reflected in civilization as well.  Even when human beings outwardly do what is right they often do it for the wrong reasons.   Instead of being motivated by a genuine love for God and for righteousness, individuals are often driven by the prospects of rewards and punishments that are held out by the particular society in which they live.  They seek the praise of their fellow men, or dread the prospect of a prison term.  They go along in order to get along.  At best they are motivated by “enlightened self-interest,” but that is still a form of selfishness nonetheless.

Moreover civilization itself is in many ways an attempt to better the human condition, but to do it without God. It is an expression of man’s hubris, a reflection of his underlying rebellion against God.  Civilizations impose standards of behavior, but these are usually conceived of as standards we create ourselves to advance our own interests as a society.  And these values and ideals often fall far short of God’s standards of morality – everything from Roman gladiatorial games to American rugged individualism.

But what is even worse, the members of society often try to undermine the very ideals they profess to believe.  No sooner is a constitution adopted and laws passed then men begin looking for ways to circumvent them.  Right and wrong soon become a matter of what we can get away with.  We in the U.S. declared that “all men are created equal” and are endowed by their Creator with “unalienable rights” to “life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness.”  But just eighty years later the U.S. Supreme Court, in the infamous Dred Scott decision, declared that black people were not included in the “all men” of the Declaration, and that “they had no rights which a white man was bound to respect.”  And so we rationalize our bad behavior.

What our Creator really expects from us, however, is that we love Him with all of our hearts and our neighbors as ourselves.

The Bible gives us a brief but vivid account of the beginning of human civilization.  In Gen. 11:1-9 we are told how that ancient peoples found a place to dwell in the land of Shinar (Sumeria).  They then proceeded to build a city.  “And they said, ‘Come, let us build ourselves a city, and a tower whose top is in the heavens; let us make a name for ourselves, lest we be scattered abroad over the face of the whole earth” (v. 4; NKJV).  What is significant here is not just that they undertook a construction project, but the mentality that lay behind it.  They wanted to reach the heavens and “make a name for ourselves.”  In other words it was a purely human endeavor driven by pride and ambition.  And God’s response was to scatter them by confusing their language.  The city became known as Babel, or Babylon, and it remained a symbol of worldly power and human arrogance.

To understand the biblical attitude toward civilization it is necessary first to understand the biblical view of history.  The Bible draws a contrast between “this age” and “that which is to come” (Eph. 1:21).  The age to come is a time when the Messiah will reign over all the earth.  But this age is the time when “the prince of the power of the air” is “the spirit who now works in the sons of disobedience” who are “fulfilling the desires of the flesh and of the mind, and were by nature children of wrath” (Eph. 2:1-3).

By the same token the apostle John tells us that “all that is in the world – the lust of the flesh, the lust of the eyes, and the pride of life – is not of the Father, but is of the world.  And the world is passing away, and the lust of it . . .” (I John 2:16, 17a).  In other words human society as a whole, including its various civilizations, is fallen and corrupt, and under the wrath of God.

The Christian, however, is no longer a part a part of this corrupt world system.  “He [i.e., God] has delivered us from the power of darkness and conveyed us into the kingdom of the Son of His love” (Col. 1:13).  And this kingdom operates on a whole different principle from the surrounding world.  “. . .for the kingdom of God is not eating or drinking, but righteousness and peace and joy in the Holy Spirit” (Rom. 14:17).  Thus a human civilization can never truly be called “Christian”; it is always sub-Christian at best.

But what about the culture of civilization – its arts and science, its learning and philosophy?  “For the wisdom of this world is foolishness with God” (I Cor. 3:19: cf. 1:18-25).  Because fallen sinners refuse to acknowledge God as the Creator and Lord, their philosophy is based on a false premise and they develop a warped and distorted view of reality.  They live in a world created by God, but they refuse to admit the fact.  The result is an educational system that does not truly educate.

That, then, is the picture that the Bible paints of human civilization.  But how is the Christian to relate to the surrounding world?  How does he fit in?  Or doesn’t he?

On the positive side we are to honor and respect those who are in positions of authority in human society.  Jesus said “Render therefore to Caesar the things that are Caesar’s, and to God the things that are God’s” (Matt. 22:21).  The apostle Peter could write, “Therefore submit yourselves to every ordinance of man for the Lord’s sake . . .” including kings and governors.  We are to “Honor all people.  Love the brotherhood.  Fear God.  Honor the king” (I Pet. 2:13-17).  It is even permissible on occasion for the Christian to avail himself of the legal remedies at his disposal.  The apostle Paul could claim Roman citizenship and make a formal appeal to Caesar when threatened (Acts 22:25-28; 256:10-12).

Yet the Christian must always be conscious that he answers to a higher authority, and when human law clashes with divine law, divine law always takes precedence.  Jesus state the matter quite starkly: “And do not fear those who kill the body but cannot kill the soul.  But rather fear Him who is able to destroy both soul and body in hell” (Matt. 10:28).

The fact of the matter is that the life of a Christian should stand in sharp contrast with that of the world.  Paul could write to the Ephesian believers and tell them “For you were once darkness, but you are light in the Lord.  Walk as children of light (for the fruit of the Spirit is in all goodness, righteousness, and truth), . . .”  He then goes on to say, “And have no fellowship with the unfruitful works of darkness, but rather expose them . . .” (Eph. 5:8-11).

But what about Western Civilization?  Was it not a “Christian” civilization?  Should not Christians have whole-heartedly supported it?

The answer is that Western civilization was only superficially Christian.  It supported state churches and professed Christian values, but it was largely an external morality, whereas genuine Christianity is the life of Christ within the heart, transforming life from the inside out.  Western civilization was the greatest civilization in the history of mankind, and it attained that status precisely because of the influence on it of Christianity.  But it still fell short of what our Creator expects from us as human beings.  Genuine Christians must conform to a higher standard.

The Christian, then, lives in the world but is not really a part of it.  He seeks to do good to his neighbors wherever he can, but must be careful not to participate in their sins.  While he may support the government in its efforts to establish justice and meet human need, the Christian realizes that man’s real need is for salvation and eternal life.  The Christian’s aim, then, is to be a light shining in the darkness.

THE SPIRITUAL WAR

 

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We are living in a tumultuous time.  A controversial president is sitting in the White House, Russia is interfering in elections throughout the free world, and North Korea racing to develop nuclear weapons and intercontinental ballistic missiles.  Congress is struggling to reform the healthcare system.  And the LGBTQ community is actively working to change long accepted standards of sexual morality.  What are Christians to make of all of this?

One response is to take political action – to organize, canvass and raise funds.  Yet the Bible makes it clear that there is more to the world’s problems than just special interests at work in Washington.  There is a spiritual dimension to the conflict, and it will take more than just political action to make things right.  We are, in fact, locked in a spiritual war.

“”For we do not wrestle against flesh and blood, but against principalities, against powers, against the rulers of the darkness of this age, against spiritual hosts of wickedness in high places” (Eph. 6:12: NKJV).  What we are up against is not just “flesh and blood,” the natural human and physical forces we encounter in everyday life, but rather “principalities” (“rulers” – NASV, ESV), “powers” (“authorities” – ESV), “rulers of the darkness of this age,” “the spiritual hosts of wickedness in the heavenly places.”  Paul had previously introduced these sinister forces in chapter 2, verse 2 when he said that the unsaved “walked according to the course of this world, according to the prince of the power of the air, the spirit who now works in the sons of disobedience . . .”  What is going on in the world is positively evil, and it plays into the hands of Satan himself in his rebellion against God.  He is the one who “works in the sons of disobedience,” and has blinded their eyes (II Cor. 4:4)  These spiritual forces are not bound by the laws of nature and human psychology, and hence social pressure and marketing techniques are of no avail against them.

What is needed is something greater, something more powerful.  And so Paul tells his readers, “be strong in the Lord and in power of His might” (Eph. 6:10).  We must look outside of ourselves, to God Himself, for the strength to prevail.

To illustrate the point Paul borrows some metaphors from the military realm.  “Put on the whole armor of God, that you may be able to stand against the wiles of the devil” (v. 11).  He then elaborates in verses 14-17 where he describes the individual pieces of armor.  Some of the imagery is drawn from passages in the Old Testament prophet Isaiah, describing the Messiah armed for battle.

So what do we need in order to succeed in the Christian life and ministry?  The first thing that Paul mentions is “having girded your waist with truth” (v. 14).  The first thing we need is absolute sincerity of heart and mind.  “Behold, You desire truth in the inward parts . . .” (Ps. 51:6).  We must sincerely believe and practice what we preach.  Hypocrisy will get us nowhere in the Christian life and ministry.

The next piece of armor that Paul mentions is “the breastplate of righteousness” (v. 14), or “the breastplate of faith and love,” as he calls it in I Thess. 5:8.  The war in which we are engaged is primarily a conflict between good and evil. By living a righteous life we advance the cause of Christ and frustrate the plans of the devil.  Christ is glorified when His people are living examples of what the Christian life is supposed to be like.

Paul then says that we are to have “shod your feet with the preparation of the gospel of peace” (v. 18).  Here the reference is undoubtedly to Isa. 52:7:

“How beautiful upon the mountains

Are the feet of him who brings good news,

Who proclaims peace,

Who brings glad tidings of good things,

Who proclaims salvation,

Who says to Zion,

‘Your God reigns!’”

The church is to go forth and proclaim a message, the “good news” of salvation.  This is what the church has to offer to the world, the message to which men and women are invited to respond.  If we are to fulfill the Great Commission we must make sure that we get the message right.

Then we are to take up “the shield of faith with which you will be able to quench all the fiery darts of the wicked one” (v. 16).  The Roman shield was a large, oblong shield made of wood and covered with leather.  The “fiery darts” were darts or arrows dipped in pitch and set on fire.  Thus when the darts would hit the shield they would be blunted and extinguished.  The “fiery darts of the wicked one” would include temptations, accusations and outright persecution.  To counter Satan’s attacks what is needed is faith – faith in God’s goodness and power to deliver us.

Next Paul mentions “the helmet of salvation” (v. 17), or as he calls it in I Thess. 5:8, “the hope of salvation.”  We fight the battle in the confidence that no matter what befalls us in this life we have been saved and have been promised eternal life.

And then finally Paul comes to “the sword of the Spirit, which is the word of God” (v. 17).  Interestingly this is the only offensive weapon mentioned in the passage.  Here “the sword of the Spirit” is identified as “the word of God,” and the word for “word” (rema) refers specifically to the spoken word.  It is Scripture, as originally inspired by God Himself, and it is Scripture as it is faithfully proclaimed today.  Moreover it is “the sword of the Spirit” – it was originally inspired by the Holy Spirit, and it is used today but the Holy Spirit to convict sinners.  And is this not the major weakness of the church today?  We are liable to hear anything and everything from the pulpit today except a careful but forceful exposition of Scripture.  And man’s word cannot replace God’s.

All of these things constituted “the whole armor of God.”  They are the result of God’s grace at work in our lives, and are the practical means by which Christ advances His kingdom.  In this way we can be “strong in the Lord and in the power of His might.”

And here we can see the necessary ingredients for an effective ministry.  It is not necessarily education or technology or financial resources.  It is a life lived close to God, it is personal holiness, and it is the blessing and power of the Holy Spirit on God’s Word as it is proclaimed to mankind.  May we consecrate our lives to Him, and seek the filling of His Spirit!

 

THE CHRISTIAN IN THE WORLD

             In our blog post three weeks ago (“What God Thinks of the Modern Church” – March 18, 2017) we saw that the church’s aim should not be the preservation of America’s civil religion.  But what should its aim be?  How is the Christian supposed to relate to the surrounding world?

In Titus 2:11-14 the apostle Paul gives us a brief summary of what the Christian life is supposed to look like.  It is a different kind of lifestyle based on a distinctively Christian worldview.

It begins with a historical fact: “For the grace of God that brings salvation has appeared to all men . . .” (v. 11; NKJV).  Here he is undoubtedly referring back to the first advent of Christ and His death on the cross that opened up to all mankind the possibility of salvation.  This was the great turning point in history.

But what effect does this have on us?  Paul goes on to say that salvation is “teaching us that, denying ungodliness and worldly lusts, we should live soberly, righteously, and godly in the present age . . .” (v. 12).  Here it will be seen that there is both a negative and a positive side to the Christian life.  On the negative side we are to “deny ungodliness and worldly lusts.”  The word “ungodliness” might better be translated “impiety” – it is the lack of devotion to or reverence for God.  A good modern term would be “secularism,” the absence of God in our thinking.  “Worldly lusts” are the self-centered desires that drive most human behavior – the lust for pleasure, wealth, fame or power.  We sometimes dress it up as “enlightened self-interest” or “the profit motive.”  It is consumerism.  These are the things which typically drive human behavior outside of Christ, and the Christian must “deny” these things – he must turn his back on all of this, leaving it all behind.  He has been called to a higher life.

On the positive side we are to “live soberly, righteously, and godly.”  To live soberly means to exercise sound judgment in all of the decisions that we make.  It means that we do not go through life pursuing pleasure with reckless abandon, but we carefully weigh the consequences of the actions we take.  We look to promote the glory of God and the wellbeing of our fellow man.

But we are also to live “righteously,” which means to live in accordance with God’s law.  God is our Creator, our Lawgiver and Judge.  We can find happiness and fulfillment in life only when we live in accordance with His will and purposes.

And then we are live “godly,” or “piously,” as the word might better be translated.  We are to give God his proper place in our lives, to have a genuine and heartfelt devotion towards Him, and to acknowledge Him in all our ways.

All of this we are to do “in the present age,” the time in which we are now living.  The Bible often contrasts “the present age” with “the age which is to come”; and “the present age” is marked by sin and evil.  Nevertheless the Christian is expected to live a godly life now, in the present age.

But why should we do this?  Why should we run the risk of social ostracism and financial failure by refusing to conform?  The answer is because we are “looking for the blessed hope and glorious appearing of our great God and Savior Jesus Christ” (v. 13).  The Christian looks forward to the future, and what he sees is “the glorious appearing” of Christ, His visible return at the end of the age when He comes to establish a new order of things here on earth.  The Christian is conscious that what we experience now will not last forever.  Christ will return and things will be entirely different.  The Christian lives for tomorrow and not for today.

It should be kept in mind that God’s whole purpose in our salvation is to free us, not just from the guilt of sin, but also from its power.  Christ “gave Himself for us, that He might redeem us from every lawless deed and purify for Himself His own special people, zealous for good works” (v. 14).  The word “redeem” means to pay a ransom and thereby secure the release of a slave or prisoner.  We were once under the power and guilt of sin.  Christ paid the penalty for that sin by dying on the cross and thereby secured our salvation.  And He did this at enormous cost to Himself: He “gave Himself” for us.

But why did He do this?  What was His aim and purpose?  It was not just to forgive us, although that was certainly a part of it, but also to sanctify us: “. . .that He might redeem us from every lawless deed and purify for Himself His own special people, zealous for good works.”  It was sin that got us into trouble; Christ freed us from that condition.  Now we are “His own special people,” a people of His own possession; we now belong to Him.  And as such we are to be “zealous for good works” – we are not to conform half-heartedly to an external set of rules; we are to desire earnestly to do good for others.

The Christian, then, is called to a life of non-conformity to the surrounding world.  He does not have the luxury of living the life of a nice, comfortable, middle-class existence.  He is conscious of answering to a higher Power; and that will eventually bring him into conflict with the values of the surrounding world.  This will require personal sacrifice on his part – the possible loss of job, family, reputation  It may even invite on occasion legal prosecution.  But faithful to God he must remain.  The sacrifice is temporary; the gain is eternal.  May God grant us all the grace to live for Him!

WHAT GOD THINKS OF THE MODERN CHURCH

 

            Near the beginning of his controversial novel The Shack author Wm. Paul Young has his main character Mackenzie Phillips (Mack) complain that “. . .Sunday prayers and hymns were cutting it anymore, if they ever really had.  Cloistered spirituality seemed to change nothing in the lives of the people he knew . . . He was sick of God and God’s religion, sick of all the little religious social clubs that don’t seem to make any real difference or affect any real changes” (The Shack, p. 66).  Most of us would probably have to acknowledge that there is more truth to this accusation than we would care to admit.

In many ways the condition of the modern American evangelical church resembles that of the church at Laodicea, described in Revelation 3:14-22.  Ancient Laodicea was a prosperous city, situated on a fertile plain in Asia Minor.  Located at an important crossroads, it was a center of trade and commerce.  But its material prosperity affected the spiritual life of the Christian church located there.  It was the infamous “lukewarm” church of the seven churches of Asia that were addressed in Revelation chapters two and three.

What is especially striking about this particular church is how different its perception of itself was from the way God saw it.  Their self-perception is summed up in verse 17: “You say ‘I am rich, have become wealthy, and have need of nothing . . .’” (NKJV).  Material prosperity leads to a sense of self-sufficiency.  Outwardly they appeared to be doing very well – they had financial resources at their disposal and could pretty much do as they wanted.

But how very different was God’s perception of them!  “You . . . do not know that you are wretched, miserable, poor, blind, and naked . . .” Their material prosperity masked a spiritual poverty.  “I know your works, that you are neither cold nor hot . . .you are lukewarm, and neither cold nor hot” (vv. 15,16).  They were half-hearted Christians, content to go through the formalities of public worship, but not really devoted to Christ; precisely the kind of church life described by Young in his book.

And so it is with us today.  We have impressive looking buildings and institutions and “ministries” galore, but can scarcely bring ourselves to spend any meaningful time in prayer.  What passes for “worship” is hardly more than glorified entertainment.  We sit passively in the pews (or theater seats) and when the service is over we go our merry ways, scarcely giving any thought at all at how we may serve Christ in our daily lives.  We are all too prone to ethical compromise.  “ . . .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; Matt. 15:8).

The problem is that the modern American evangelical church is a holdover from the Victorian era.  The early nineteenth century was marked by genuine revival – the Second Great Awakening (the First Great Awakening had taken place in the 1740’s).  But during the Victorian era of the late nineteenth century it became quite popular and respectable to identify oneself as a Christian.  Being a Christian came to be equated with being a respectable middle-class American.  It was easy to attract an audience, and impressive looking church edifices were built, complete with stone masonry, stained glass windows, and carved wooden pulpits and pews.  But an institutionalized form of church life developed that was unhealthy.  The theology was watered down, the sermons were filled with sentimental commonplaces, and a variety of religious practices were developed – processionals, robed choirs, responsive readings – that had little to do with actual discipleship or developing the spiritual life.  In short, Protestant Christianity became an American civil religion – comforting, supportive of the standing order, but superficial.

And then the twentieth century arrived, along with the intellectual challenges of evolution and higher criticism.  The more affluent churches in the urban centers tried to change with the times, adopting a liberal theology.  The more conservative churches in the rural areas clung to the older ways.  But the surrounding culture continued to change and drift further and further away from its Judeo-Christian moorings.  First it was the denial of the supernatural, and then it was the abandonment of basic moral principles” the sanctity of life and the sanctity of marriage.  Churches were faced with a painful dilemma: either conform to the changing mores of society or risk being marginalized and irrelevant.  The liberal churches caved in; the more conservative churches tried to keep the faith, although with many of the Victorian trappings.

But what does God think about all of this?  What He told the church at Laodicea in our text is striking: “I counsel you to buy from Me gold refined in the fire, that you may be rich: and white garments, that you may be clothed, that the shame of your nakedness may not be revealed; and anoint your eyes with eye salve, that you may see” (v. 18).  What they needed was true wealth – spiritual wealth.  And the way He described it has an ominous ring to it – “gold refined in the fire.”  Gold is a precious metal, but it is refined or purified in the fire.  Likewise the Christian’s true spiritual worth is sometimes tested by the fire of persecution.  And this gold, the Lord says, must be “bought from Me.”  Genuine life must come from God himself – it is the fruit of the Spirit.  We cannot work it up ourselves.

Likewise the church at Laodicea was counselled to buy “white garments, that you may be clothed, that the shame of your nakedness may not be revealed.”  They were so utterly destitute of genuine godliness that they were spiritually “naked.”  They were the proverbial emperor with no clothes.  In Rev. 19:8 the bride of Christ (the church) is “arrayed in fine linen, clean and bright, for the fine linen is the righteous acts of the saints.”  God wants His people to live lives that are pleasing to Him; only then will we be attractive in His sight.

And then the church was advised to “anoint your eyes with eye salve, that you may see.”  They were so spiritually blind that they could not see their own true spiritual condition.  What they needed was spiritual insight and discernment so that they would have a clear view of God’s will for their lives.

The Lord goes on to say, “As many as I love, I rebuke and chasten.  There be zealous and repent” (v. 19).  If God truly loves us, what will He do to us when we are in this condition? What will He do to us now?  Our text says that He will “rebuke and chasten” us.  God loves us, but that means that He will not stand by idly while we wander into sin and apostasy.  A loving parent will discipline his children when they misbehave, because he wants what is best for them.  But the same token God may bring pain, suffering or hardship into our lives to awaken us, humble us, and make us feel our dependence upon Him, and thus restore full fellowship with Him.

What Christ tells the church next is nothing less than stunning: “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 verse is often taken out of context and given an evangelistic meaning.  But taken in its context Christ is standing outside of the church.  This, of course, is not where we would expect to find Him, and yet that is where He is all too often.  He has, in effect, been excluded from the life of the church, so used has it become to operating without Him.  But there may be a few within the church who are still listening to His voice, and to them He makes a promise: “I will come in to him and dine with him, and he with Me.”  Even in the worst state of the church it is still possible for individual Christians to maintain a meaningful relationship with Christ.

The aim of the modern evangelical church, then, should not be to revive  the American civil religion of the past; it ought to be to become authentic disciples of Jesus Christ – and that means going back to the first century and sitting, as it were, at His feet.  The answer is not to try to become more relevant; it is to become more spiritual.  It is not to become more accepted by the world; it is to become more conformed to the will of God.  The aim is not to become more like the world but to be lights shining in the darkness.  When the world looks at the church, it should not see a reflection of itself, but rather the image of Christ.  Only then can the church have the kind of testimony to the world that it ought to have.

THE SHACK: The Book and the Movie

 

Review:

The Shack: Where Tragedy Confronts Eternity

Wm. Paul Young

Windblown Media, 2007

248 pp., pb.

 

Currently there is playing in movie theaters around the country the motion picture version of The Shack, a novel by Wm. Paul Young.  The book is largely a treatise on theology set in the form of a novel.  It has stirred controversy largely because the theology is unorthodox, to say the least.

The central figure in the book is Mackenzie Allen Phillips, or “Mack” as he is more generally known.  Mack experiences an unbearable tragedy when his youngest daughter Missy is murdered by a serial killer while on a camping trip.  Mack is overcome with grief and bitterness, until one day he receives a mysterious note in the mail inviting him to return to the shack in the woods near the place where Missy disappeared.  There he has an encounter with God, although not in the sense in which we would normally think of it.  And this is where the theological problems begin.

What Mack encounters in the shack are the members of the Trinity.  But God the Father is presented as an African American woman, generally referred to in the book as “Papa,” while the Holy Spirit is represented as a woman of Asian descent.  Jesus, however, is more accurately portrayed as a Middle Eastern male.

Strictly speaking, of course, God is neither male nor female.  But the Second Commandment’s prohibition against graven images is intended to prevent just such an attempt to portrait God in human form (Dt. 4:15-19,23,24).  Young, however, makes the various members of the Trinity out to be all too human – they are a bunch of chummy pals instead of an exalted Deity.

Much of what Young goes on to say in the book is a justifiable reaction against dead orthodoxy.  Church membership is a poor substitute for a real relationship with Christ, and knowing theology is not the same thing as knowing God himself.  But Young does not just reject dead orthodoxy; he rejects orthodoxy itself.  And instead of taking a fresh look at what the Bible actually says, he pretty much ignores the Bible altogether.  Young characterizes conservative theology as saying that “God’s voice had been reduced to paper, and even that paper had to be moderated and deciphered by the proper authorities and intellects” (pp. 65-66).

The main theme of the book is the age old question of how a good and loving God can allow evil into the universe.  To answer this question Young has recourse to the idea of human free will.  God is a God of love.  Love does not force or coerce anyone.  Evil is the result of man’s free will decisions.  At one point “Papa” tells Mack, “All evil flows from independence, and independence is your choice.  If I were simply to revoke all choices of independence, the world as you know it would cease to exist and love would have no meaning.  This world is not a playground where I keep all my children free from evil . . . If I take away the consequences of people’s choices, I destroy the possibility of love.  Love that is forced is not love at all” (p. 190).

Young insists that God calls us to have a personal relationship with Himself, and of course he is quite right on that.  But the basic flaw in Young’s argument is the assumption that love precludes the exercise of authority.  Young has Jesus telling Mack, “Have you noticed that even though you call me Lord and King, I have never really acted in that capacity with you? . . .To force my will on you . . .is exactly what love does not do . . .” (p. 145).  At another point Young has “Papa” telling Mack, “I am good, and I desire only what is best for you.  You cannot find that through guilt or condemnation or coercion, only through a relationship of love.  And I do love you” (p. 126).   “True love never forces” (p. 190).

This, in turn, leads Young to two patently unbiblical conclusions.  The first is that God has already forgiven the entire human race.  At one point in the book “Papa” tells Mack that through the death and resurrection of Christ “I am now fully reconciled to the world.”  Mack asks in disbelief, “The whole world?  You mean those that believe in you, right?”  Papa replies, “The whole world . . .I have done my part, totally, completely, finally.  It is not the nature of love to force a relationship but it is the nature of love to open the way” (p. 192).  At another point in the book Christ is pictured as saying that those who love Him come from a wide variety of backgrounds, but “I have no desire to make them Christian” (p. 182).  But the apostle John, who certainly knew the historical Jesus better than Wm. Young, said that personal faith in Christ was a necessary condition of salvation.  “He who believes in the Son has everlasting life; and he who does not believe the Son shall not see life, but the wrath of God abides on him” (John 3:36; NKJV).  And faith in Christ ordinarily requires that we publicly identify ourselves with Him in baptism (Acts 2:38; Rom. 6:3,4; Gal. 3:26,27; I Pet. 3:21).

The other major problem with Young’s theology is his conclusion that in a genuine relationship with Christ there are no rules which one must obey.  Young has the Holy Spirit telling Mack, “The Bible doesn’t teach you to follow rules” (p. 197).  “There is no mercy or grace in rules, not even for one mistake.  That’s why Jesus fulfilled all of it for you – so that it no longer has jurisdiction over you” (p. 202).  “In Jesus you are not under any law.  All things are lawful” (p. 203).  Then “Papa” adds, “Honey, I’ve never placed an expectation on you or anyone else” (p. 206).  But the real Jesus said, “If you love Me, keep My commandments” (John 14:15; cf. vv. 21,23,24; 15:10).

A film adaption of a book, of course, will focus on action as opposed to dialogue, and as a result the film version of The Shack only briefly touches on the more controversial points of theology.  The film comes across as a deeply moving story of tragedy, love and redemption.  But beneath the surface are the more disturbing implications that are explicit in the book.

In the final analysis Young has left us with a universe in which there is no final justice – in the end God punishes no one and forgives everyone, regardless of what they have done.  We are to forgive and not to judge because God forgives and does not judge.  Evil is an unavoidable consequence of man’s free will.  But the apostle Paul tells us that we are not to retaliate against those who have done us wrong precisely because God will judge.  “Beloved, do not avenge yourselves, but rather give placed to wrath, for it is written, ‘Vengeance is Mine, I will repay’ says the Lord” (Rom. 12:19; quoting Dt. 32:35).

Young pretty much sets aside practically everything that the Bible says about God’s transcendence, sovereignty, holiness, justice and wrath, not to mention the Last Judgment and eternal punishment.  Yet our theology must be based on what the Bible actually says.  While we may be able to infer certain things about God from His creation, and while we possess within ourselves a certain knowledge of right and wrong, the only way we can really know about God is through the written revelation which He has given us.  He himself must tell us what He is like and what He expects from us.  We have no other way of knowing about His attributes or His will, let alone the plan of salvation.  Hence our theology must be based on a careful study of Scripture.  Anything else is pure fantasy and self-delusion.

Yes, it is certainly true that a genuine relationship with God is a relationship of love.  God loves us, and we are called upon to love Him with all our heart, soul and might.  And at the practical level salvation involves the Holy Spirit living within our hearts and transforming us from the inside out.  But it also remains true that in a genuine relationship with Christ He is our Lord and Master and we are His servants.  And to that end the Bible is filled with commandments and exhortations to obey God.

It is easy to see why so many people find The Shack appealing.  It comes across as an invitation to a warm, loving and forgiving relationship with God.  But it is a siren call into the mire of false teaching, and should be avoided by anyone desiring a genuine relationship with Christ.

 

 

WHY SMALL GROUP BIBLE STUDIES

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East Troupsburg Baptist Church, Troupsburg, NY

 

Today we think we know what a church is – an organization that owns a building and hires a pastor who comes in from the outside to run things.  The church puts on a variety of programs and activities, and on Sunday mornings gathers together in the building to go through a formal routine which involves a brief prayer, some congregational singing and “special music,” and a message from the pastor.  In the more traditional churches there might be a choir wearing special robes, responsive Scripture readings, and the recitation of the Lord’s Prayer or Apostles’ Creed.  And then everyone goes home, enjoys their Sunday dinner, and gets on with the rest of life.

It may come a shock, therefore, that that is not how the church in the New Testament operated at all.  First of all, there were no church buildings.  How, then, you ask, did they gather for worship?  “So continuing daily with one accord in the temple, and breaking bread from house to house, they ate their food with gladness and simplicity of heart . . .” (Acts 2:46; NKJV).  The primitive church apparently operated on two levels: on the one level was the entire Christian community of a given metropolitan area – the church at Corinth or Ephesus, for example – and then there were smaller groups that met in individual homes – the church that met in Priscilla’s and Aquila’s house, for example (Rom. 16:3-5; I Cor. 16:19).

Moreover, a church in the New Testament was not under the control of a single pastor, or “senior pastor.”   The church was not his personal domain to govern as he wished.  Rather churches in the New Testament were under the oversight of boards of elders, spiritually mature men who were chosen from within the congregation.

But must we imitate the New Testament church today?  That was then, and now is now.  We live in the Twenty-First Century, not the First.

The answer is yes and no.  Just because something was done then does not necessarily mean it must be done now.  But it must always be remembered that Christ is the Head of the church; our aim must always be to please Him.  The real question, then, is how did Christ intend for the church to operate?

In answering that question we must distinguish between passages of Scripture that are prescriptive and those that are merely descriptive.  Just because we are told in the Book of Acts that a church did something 2,000 years ago does not mean that we have to do that today.  But the prescriptive passages, passages that command us to do something, are binding on us today.  They tell us how the church is supposed to operate.

The first thing to consider, then, is the general nature of the church itself.  It is not primarily a legally incorporated organization that owns property, nor is it a mere social club.  Rather, it is “the communion of the saints,” a group of born-again believers bound together by the common bond of the Holy Spirit in a kind of mystical union with Christ himself.  The church, in fact, is referred to in the New Testament as “the body of Christ” (Rom. 12:4-8; Eph. 4:11-16) or as a kind of building or temple (Eph. 2:19-22: I Pet. 2:5).  This is a mystical bond that transcends ethic and cultural boundaries (Gal. 3:26-29).  And the Scripture makes it clear that each member of the body has a spiritual gift and a corresponding role to play within the body (I Cor. 12:14-30: Eph. 4:7-16; I Pet. 4:10,11).  That means that if a church is functioning properly all of its members should be actively involved in the work of ministry.

The next thing to be considered is the responsibility that the members of the church have towards each other.  The most basic responsibility, of course, is to love one another, and this is mentioned in numerous passages throughout the New Testament.  But what does that mean in actual practice?  First of all, it means that all the members must be zealous to preserve the unity of the church (Eph. 4:1-4; Col. 3:14,15).  That in turn means that decisions are to be made by consensus (Rom. 12:16; 15:5,6; I Cor. 1:10; Phil. 1:27; 2:1-4; I Pet. 3:8,9).  We are to submit to each other (Eph. 5:21), and bear one another’s burdens (Gal. 6:2). We should seek to build up one another (Rom. 14:19; I Thess. 5:11).

But how is this to be accomplished?  First of all, we are to admonish one another (Rom. 15:14); and pray for one another (Eph. 6:18) and with each other (Matt. 18:19,20).  We are to speak to one another “in psalms, and hymns and spiritual songs” ((Eph. 5:18,19; Col. 3:16).  We are to provide financial aid to those in need ((Rom. 12:13; I Tim. 6:17-19; I Jn. 3:14-18), and we are to restore those overtaken in sin (Gal. 6:1).

What all of this requires is that we meet together on a regular basis.  “And let us consider one another in order to stir up love and good works, not forsaking the assembling of ourselves together, as is the manner of some, but exhorting one another, and so much the more as you see the day approaching” (Heb. 10:24,25).  And Christ himself has promised that “where two or three are gathered in My name, I am there in the midst of them” (Matt. 18:20).*

What all of this virtually requires is some sort of small group interaction, in which believers have the opportunity to know each other on a personal level and interact with each other.  It is also significant that most of these exhortations are addressed to entire churches, but the elders are practically never mentioned by name.  The spiritual life of the church is the responsibility of all of its members and each one must do his part.  In my experience the spiritually healthier churches supplement the Sunday morning service with some sort of small group interaction in which committed disciples study the Bible together and pray together.  This is as Christ intended it to be.

 

*It is significant that He says “in My name.”  It is not to be primarily in a denomination’s name ((I Cor. 10:31; Col. 3:17).

AN EXAMPLE OF A REVIVAL

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Jonathan Edwards

We have been discussing the subject of revival and have examined a Scriptural passage (Jer. 29:11-13) that contains a promise for revival.  But what does one look like in real life?  What happens in a revival?

One historical example of a revival is the one that broke out in Northampton, MA during the winter of 1734-1735 under the ministry of Jonathan Edwards.  The town had experienced revivals before, but by 1730 there had arisen a new generation of young people who were as mischievous and spiritually careless as any generation before it.  Edwards worked to bring things under control, and to a large extent there was an improvement.  Then the sudden deaths of two young people in the spring of 1734 had a sobering effect on the entire community.

That fall Edwards proposed having the young people meet in small groups on Sunday evenings for their spiritual edification.  The practice was soon taken up by the adults as well.  In other words, the people were starting to seek after God, just as we have seen in the Book of Jeremiah.

It just so happened that at about that time a controversy arose over Arminianism, and Edwards was led to preach a series of sermons on the subject of justification by faith (Edwards was a staunch Calvinist).  It was a clear and forceful presentation of the gospel, and people began to respond.  The spiritual life of the community was deepened, conversions resulted, and the revival spread to neighboring towns.

What is significant about all of this is that people did not just add their names to the membership roll of the church.  There was a genuine interest in spiritual things.  “The only thing in their view was to get the kingdom of heaven, and everyone appeared to be pressing into it,” Edwards wrote (Works, 1:348).  The town was filled with joy; the public worship became alive.  “Our public assemblies were then beautiful: the congregation was alive to God’s service, everyone earnestly intent on the public worship, every hearer eager to drink in the words of the minister as they came from his mouth . . .”   Some were weeping in sorrow, while others wept for joy.

At the outset Edwards had preached a sermon entitled “A Divine and Supernatural Light, Immediately Imparted to the Soul by the Spirit of God, Shown to be both a Scriptural and Rational Doctrine.”  The title says it all.  The sermon explains the dynamic of a genuine spiritual experience.  Edwards tells us that the spiritual light consists of “a true sense of the divine and superlative excellency of the things of religion; a real sense of the excellency of God and Jesus Christ, and of the work of redemption, and the ways and works of God revealed in the gospel” (Works, 2.14).  He goes on to explain: the spiritually enlightened person “does not merely rationally believe that God is glorious, but he has a sense of the gloriousness of God in his heart.”  He points out that “there is a difference between having a rational judgment that honey is sweet, and having a sense of its sweetness.”  It is one thing to know about honey; it is another thing actually to have tasted it, and appreciate its taste.  And so it is with spiritual things.  “There is not only a rational belief that God is holy, and that holiness is a good thing, but there is a sense of the loveliness of God’s holiness.”

Edwards points out that this spiritual light is supernatural – it is something that is imparted to us by the Holy Spirit.  “. . .this light is immediately given by God, and not obtained by natural means.”  “The Holy Spirit operates in the minds of the godly, by uniting himself to them, and living in them, exerting his own nature in the exercise of their faculties” (p. 13).  Edwards is careful to emphasize that “This spiritual light is not the suggesting of any new truths or propositions not contained in the word of God.”  It “only gives a due apprehension of those things that are taught in the word of God” (p. 13).

And what are the effects of this spiritual enlightenment?  “This knowledge will wean from the world, and raise the inclination to heavenly things.  It will turn the heart to God as the fountain of good, and to choose him for the only portion” (p. 17).

This spiritual light also leads to a holy life.  “It shows God as worthy to be obeyed and served.  It draws forth the heart in a sincere love to God, which is the only principle of a true, gracious, and universal obedience; and it convinces of the reality of those glorious rewards that God has promised to them that obey him.”

And that is exactly what happened shortly afterwards at Northampton.  May it happen to us as well!

 

Note: All quotes of Jonathan Edwards are taken from the 1974 Banner of Truth edition of his Works.

WHAT IS A REVIVAL?

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George Whitefield

Today in Evangelical circles we sometimes hear people speak of a need for “revival.”  We witness some of the awful things going on in the world today, and we may have heard that in the past there were “revivals,” and we imagine that if only we had one today things would be better.  The problem: scarcely anyone alive today has any idea of what a revival is.

There actually were revivals in the past.  Probably the most famous one was the First Great Awakening during the 1730’s and ‘40’s, led by such figures as George Whitefield, the famous British evangelist, and Jonathan Edwards, the colonial theologian.  There was also a Second Great Awakening, which was actually a series of revivals that occurred during the early 19th Century.  And then there was the Great Prayer Revival of 1857-1858.

But what exactly were these “revivals”?  Strictly speaking, they were revivals of spiritual life within the churches.  Unfortunately it sometimes happens that churches fall into a pattern of spiritual apathy and decay.  The institutional life of the church goes forward: people continue to show up for services on Sunday morning, they follow a prescribed order of service, the pastor delivers his sermon.  But it is all largely a matter of form.  The problem is that it does not go beyond the outward form and activity, and the people are largely unmoved by what they see and hear.  And we have become so accustomed to this that we accept it as normal.

What is missing is God Himself.  There is little sense of His presence, and very little reverence, joy or love.  And aside from the formal worship service on Sunday morning there is little or no prayer at all, and sometimes even professing Christians are too willing to make ethical compromises in their business and personal relationships.  In other words, there is precious little spiritual life in the churches.

What we need to understand is that there is something seriously wrong with this picture.  In the Old Testament God, speaking through the prophet Isaiah, put it this way.  Speaking of ancient Israel He said:

“. . .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: NKJV)

In other words, the people of Israel continued to maintain the outward forms of worship, but their heart was not in it.  And since God looks on the heart, He was not at all impressed by their half-hearted religiosity.

Israel, sadly, did not heed the warning, and was sent into exile as a result.  But then God made a promise to them: “For I know the thoughts that I think toward you, says the Lord, thoughts of peace and not of evil, to give you a future and a hope.  Then you will call upon Me and go and pray to Me, and I will listen to you.  And you will seek Me and find Me, when you search for Me with all you heart” (Jer. 29:11-13).

There are several important things to notice about this passage.  First of all, there were to seek God – not an institution, not a system of theology, not a liturgy, but God Himself.  Secondly, they were to seek Him, to look for Him, to search until they found Him.  Our problem today is that we take God for granted – we just assume that He is there, even in the absence of any evidence that He is actively at work in our lives.  What we need to do is to look for Him, to make a conscious effort to find Him; and that entails prayer.  Without a prayer life there is no meaningful connection with God.  And it may also mean the confession of sin.

Thirdly, we must seek Him “with all our heart.”  God is not impressed with half-hearted or insincere attempts at formal “worship.”  The whole object of true religion is to “love the Lord your God with all your heart, with all your soul, and with all your strength” (Dt. 6:5).  Jesus said that this was “the first and great commandment” (Matt. 22:37,38).  If we fail here we have missed the whole point of Christianity.  Everything else we may think or do is utterly beside the point.

And, to return to Jeremiah 29, the promise is that if we earnestly seek God we will find Him.  Note: we will find Him – not just the church, not just the fellowship with other Christians, but find God Himself.  And to find God is to be overawed and overjoyed at the same time.  We sense that we are in the presence of God, on holy ground, and nothing else matters.  Everything else is subordinate to knowing God Himself.

It is generally acknowledged that our country is in awful shape today.  But what is not so widely recognized is that it is the church that needs revival.  Sadly, today, most Evangelical Christians think that the Church of Laodicea, described in Rev. 3:14-22, is normal, because it is the only church they have ever known.  They can scarcely imagine anything else.  May God have mercy on His church and revive it in the midst of years!  How desperately we need a genuine spiritual awakening!

THE WOMAN AT THE WELL

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Jan Vermeer: Girl with a Pearl Earring

 

In John Chapter 4, verses 1-26, we have the account of a conversation that Jesus had with a woman of Samaria.  It is a fascinating exchange, and it gives us insight into the nature of true religion.

Jesus and His disciples were on their way back to Galilee following their trip to Jerusalem, and they took the direct route which led through Samaria.  The Samaritans, at least to the Jews’ way of thinking, practiced a debased form of Judaism, and hence weren’t really Jews.  And a Jewish man ordinarily would not be seen talking to a woman in public, least of all a Samaritan woman.  But here Jesus found Himself, weary from His journey, sitting on a well in Samaria, when lo, a Samaritan woman came by to draw water from the well.  Jesus, thirsty, asked her for some.  The woman was surprised that a Jewish rabbi would make such a request of her, and the remarkable conversation began.

Jesus replied to her surprise by saying, “If you knew the gift of God, and who it is who says to you, ‘Give Me a drink,’ you would have asked Him, and He would have given you living water” (v. 10; NKJV).  The woman, of course, had been thinking in terms of normal social relations: Jews normally did not have anything to do with Samaritans.  What she did not realize at this point is that she was not dealing with an ordinary Jewish man.  She was, in fact, dealing with the Messiah Himself.  And what He had to offer her far surpassed what she had to offer Him.

But what did He have to offer?  He says that He could give her “living water.”  She, of course, had no idea of what He was talking about.  Just a minute earlier He had been asking her for water.  He obviously did not have any means of drawing any water Himself from the well.  And so Jesus goes on: whoever drinks from the water in the well will eventually get thirsty again.  “. . . but whoever drinks of the water that I shall give him will never thirst.  But the water that shall give him will become in him a fountain of water springing up into everlasting life” (v. 14).  Here Jesus is evidently not talking about literal, physical water, but rather of something inside of a person that leads to everlasting life.  As John makes clear later in his gospel (John 7:39) Jesus was, in fact, speaking of the Holy Spirit, whom He compared on the later occasion with “rivers of living water” (7:38).  Jesus is using vivid imagery drawn from the real life experience of people who live in dry, arid climates: a river of water brings life to the soil it touches.  Without water the land becomes a barren desert.

There is an important spiritual truth here.  We are directly dependent upon God for whatever spiritual life we have.  In and of ourselves, in our natural condition, we are spiritually dead, devoid of spiritual life.  Our only source of spiritual life is God Himself: He must impart it to us, and this He does through the agency of the Holy Spirit.  In the process of conversion the Holy Spirit convicts us, enlightens us, and finally indwells us.  It is an inward spiritual renovation accomplished by the power of God, and it leaves us changed persons – alive to God and to spiritual reality.

But the conversation with the Samaritan woman does not end there.  The woman does not quite understand what Jesus is telling her – she still thinks that Jesus is talking about literal, physical water, and she asks for some of it, “that I may not thirst, nor come here to draw” (v. 15).  But then Jesus does something unexpected: He tells her to get her husband.  She says that she does not have one.  “Right you are,” Jesus says in effect.  “For you have had five husbands, and you’re not married to the man you’re living with now” (v. 18, paraphrased).  The poor woman was probably floored.  How could He have possibly known such a thing?  But, as it turns out, He was right, and she began to realize that there was something special about Jesus.  “Sir, I perceive that You are a prophet” (v. 19).

This led her to ask Him a question.  The Jews worshiped in the temple in Jerusalem; the Samaritans worshiped on Mt. Gerizim.  Who was right?

What Jesus tells her is nothing less than astonishing: “. . .the hour is coming when you will neither on this mountain, nor in Jerusalem, worship the Father” (v. 21).  He goes on to explain: “But the hour is coming and now is, when the true worshipers will worship the Father in spirit and truth; for the Father is seeking such to worship Him” (v. 23)

Here Jesus is making an important statement about the nature of true worship.  True worship.  True worship is not tied to physical surroundings because it is essentially a spiritual activity.  “God is Spirit, and those who worship Him much worship in spirit and truth” (v. 24).  God Himself is Spirit – He is not a corporeal being, and hence is not tied to a physical space, and He does not have any physical needs. Therefore He can be worshiped anywhere and everywhere.

But if worship is not tied to a physical location, how do we worship?  How do you worship God when you are not in a “house of worship”?  The answer is, you worship Him in your spirit.  As human beings we are both flesh and spirit.  But the real “you,” your real personality, resides in your spirit, your non-corporeal self.  And that is the part that can have communion with God.  And so that is the part of you that God wants to have worship Him.

Unfortunately it is all too easy for us as human beings to go through the outward motions of worship and not worship God at all.  We can sit in the pew, sing the songs, put money in the offering plate, and listen to the sermon.  But if the heart is not engaged, if we do not feel a genuine love for God and joy in what He has done for us, our “worship” is all sham and pretense.  It is not worship at all.  It is sheer hypocrisy.  And God can see right through it; He is not impressed at all.

What is needed then, in the modern church, is genuine spiritual life and genuine worship.  For too long we have been content merely to “go through the motions.”  The real question is, what kind of spiritual life do we have when we are not sitting inside of a church building?  This is not to say that God wants us to forsake His public worship.  But true spiritual life does not cease the moment we exit the building.  If it is the real thing, it grows and thrives throughout the week.  It is evident to others.  It is “a fountain of water springing up into everlasting life.”

 

THEOLOGY: ATHENS OR JERUSALEM?

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Princeton  Theological Seminary in the 19th Century

One of the most serious problems facing the church today is the quality of preaching we hear.  Too often sermons are dull, lifeless, and often boring.  The exegesis is often poor, the delivery flat, and the practical application trivial.  And the result, sadly, are congregations that are biblically illiterate and spiritually immature.

The problem can at least partially be traced back to the way our pastors are trained.  Most pastors today receive an academic training in a seminary or Bible college.  “The professor walks into the classroom, delivers his lecture, and leaves.  If the course happens to be systematic theology, the professor will state definitions, marshal proof texts, and attack opposing points of view.  The students take notes, hopefully pass the final, and that is the end of it.  Then when the pastor finally arrives in the pulpit of a local church he is not quite sure of what to do with what he had been taught in the classroom.  If he has an intellectual bent of mind, he might try to repeat what he had heard in the classroom.  The congregation struggles to stay awake through the sermon in dreary anticipation of the closing hymn.  Or if the pastor is more practically minded he might decide that what he had been taught in the classroom was irrelevant – no one is interested in dry, abstruse points of theology.  And so he moves on to something more practical and relevant – marriage, child-rearing, or personal finance.  But the congregation comes away knowing little about God.

Part of the problem, I say, is the way theology is taught in the classroom.  It is an academic approach.  And I use the word “academic” purposefully, for this approach can be traced back to an institution by that name, the “Academy” in ancient Athens founded by the Greek philosopher Plato.  Plato was a seminal figure in the history of Western thought, and his approach to knowledge has very much influenced the way educational institutions operate, even today.

What set the Greeks apart from other ancient peoples is that the Greeks were struck by the rational order of the universe.  They struggled to explain, however, what the source of that rational order was.  Plato’s attempted solution to the problem was to posit the existence of an abstract world of ideas, of which the physical world is an imperfect copy.  Thus the true philosopher was to turn his attention from the constantly changing physical world to the eternal world of abstract ideas.

But that eternal world of abstract ideas was impersonal.  One could form a mental conception of it, and even be devoted to it as a matter of principle; but one could never form a personal relationship with it.  It is, at the bottom of it, lifeless and inanimate.

Greek thought, however, was far in advance of anything else in the ancient world.  The Romans soon came to admire and emulate it, and from there is came to have a profound influence on Western thought.  To one extent or other it came to represent the educational ideal of colleges, universities and seminaries ever since.

Unfortunately it came to have an influence, not altogether good, on Christian theology as well.  Charles Hodge, for example, the famous 19th Century Princeton theologian, begins his monumental Systematic Theology by asserting that theology is a science in which the task of the theologian is to collect the facts of Scripture and arrange them in logical order.  He does allow that “The Scriptures teach not only the truth, but what are the effects of the truth on the heart and conscience, when applied with saving power by the Holy Ghost” (Vol. I, p. 11).  But in the remaining 2,249 pages of his opus magnum he scarcely mentions these “effects of the truth on the heart and conscience” at all.*

When we turn to the Scriptures themselves, however, a whole different view of things emerges.  In Psalm 139, for example, when David contemplates God’s omniscience and omnipresence, he does not just define the terms and attack opposing points of view.  Rather, the psalm takes the form of a prayer addressed to God himself, and David states the issue in strikingly personal terms:

“O Lord, You have searched me and known me.”

(Ps. 139:1; NKJV).

And in the end the discussion comes down to moral and practical concerns:

“Try me, and know my anxieties;

And see if there is any wicked way in me,

And lead me in the way everlasting.”

(vv. 23,24).

The difference between Athens and Jerusalem, then, comes down to our view of ultimate reality, our worldview.  For Plato it was the “form” (idea) of the good.  For David it was the true and living God, who is both personal and infinite.  And the world that God created has a real, concrete existence.  Ideas we can contemplate with cold objectivity; but we are personally accountable to the living God.

We are called in Scripture to love God, to worship Him and obey Him.  Thus any theology that does not lead us to do that misses the whole point of what is revealed to us in Scripture.  And any academic institution that fails in this regard is worse than useless – it is downright criminal.

The academic world typically lays stress on objectivity.  And truth, real truth, is indeed objective.  But it is also subjective as well.   We are not just merely to contemplate the bare fact of God’s existence; we are to respond to it personally.  “Hear, O Israel: The Lord our God, the Lord is one!  You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, with all your soul, and with all your strength” (Deut. 6:4,5).  This does not mean that we are free to create our own “personal truth.”  Man does not create reality; he must adapt to the reality created for him by God.  But we must appropriate the truth as our own and act upon it.  God is neither pleased nor honored with dead orthodoxy.  What He wants is a genuine, heart-felt piety!

 

*At Princeton Seminary the limitations of the classroom instruction were partially offset by the famous “Sabbath Afternoon Conference,” a weekly discussion about the practical aspects of religion.  It was that which typically left the deepest impression upon the students.