Tribulation Saint

Historic Christianity in the Twenty First Century

Category: Morality / Ethics

THE CHRISTIAN VIEW OF SEX

4.2.7

Anthony Van Dyck: Family Portrait

 

 

America, in recent decades, has seen a tremendous revolution in sexual mores, and this has placed the more conservative religious groups in an uncomfortable position.  Most younger people today have engaged in sexual activity outside of marriage, and the Supreme Court decision legalizing same sex marriage has made homosexual activity acceptable to much of society.  Now conservative churches are in the position of being labelled prudish, intolerant, and even “homophobic” and hateful.  What should churches do in such a situation?  Accept the sexual revolution as an accomplished fact?  Or remain faithful to the basic moral principles that have guided them for thousands of years?

In a situation like this it must never be forgotten that as human beings we are all ultimately accountable to a Supreme Being, and that it is our Creator who is the final arbiter of right and wrong.  And sex, like everything else in life, must be understood in terms of God’s creative purposes.

The opening chapters of Genesis describe what those purposes are.  “So God created man in His own image; in the image of “God He created him; male and female He created them.  Then God blessed them, and God said to them, ‘Be fruitful and multiply; fill the earth and subdue it; have dominion over the fish of the sea, over the birds of the air, and over every living thing that moves on the earth” (Gen. 1:27,28; NKJV).  The implication here is that the world has a certain natural order to it, an order that placed there by our Creator.  Gender distinctions are a part of that order (“male and female He created them”), and the primary purpose of sex is procreation (“be fruitful and multiply”), and that presupposes a heterosexual relationship.

The next chapter in Genesis goes on specifically to describe the creation of woman.  “And the Lord God said, ‘It is not good that man should be alone; I will make a helper comparable to him’” (Gen. 2:18).  God then goes on to create Eve, and the passage describes the rationale behind marriage: “Therefore a man shall leave his father and mother and be joined to his wife, and they shall become one flesh” (Gen. 2:24).

In line with God’s creative purpose, then, there are a number of sexual practices that are condemned in the Bible.  The Old Testament condemns incest (Lev. 18:6-18), adultery (Lev. 18:20; Dt. 22:22), homosexuality (Lev. 18:22), bestiality (Ex. 22:19; Lev. 18:23) and cross dressing (Dt. 22:5).

Some have imagined that Jesus took a more tolerant view of such matters, but the opposite is true.  The Old Testament allowed for divorce, but Jesus condemned it (Matt. 19:1-12), and at one point actually went so far as to say “But I say to you that whoever looks as a woman to lust for her has already committed adultery with her in his heart” (Matt. 5:27-30).  And so the apostle Paul could write “But fornication and all uncleanness or covetousness, let it not even be named among you, as is fitting for saints” (Eph. 5:3); and Heb. 13:4 tells us “Marriage is honorable among all, and the bed undefiled; but fornicators and adulterers God will judge.”

Does this mean that Christians are being “hateful” and “intolerant” by upholding God’s standards of sexual conduct?  Not at all!  Marriage was created for our good, and it serves our best interests if done the way God intended it.  “For in the resurrection they neither marry nor or given in marriage, but are like angels of God in heaven” (Matt. 22:30); but in this life “He who finds a wife finds a good thing, / And obtains favor from the Lord” (Prov. 18:22).

What the biblical standards of morality do is to create a stable family life.  Children are brought into the world by parents who are in a permanent, binding relationship with each other.  The husband and wife naturally complement each other.  In a successful marriage there is real love and devotion towards each other and towards the children that spring from the union.

But what has the sexual revolution done for America?  One out of every two marriages ends in divorce, many children are born out of wedlock, and a large number of children are growing up in single parent families.  Poverty is pandemic, along with a hose of other social problems, and many of these problems can be traced directly back to the unstable family structure.

It all comes down to man’s fallen sinful nature.  There is a difference between lust and love.  Love sacrificially gives of itself to the other person; lust uses the other person for its own selfish ends.  Love builds relationships; lust destroys them.

Are Christians, then, being hateful and intolerant?  Not at all.  If we have a genuine concern for our neighbor’s well-being we will want to promote his best interests.  And sin is never in anyone’s best interest.  Would you buy a bottle of whiskey for an alcoholic?  Or even sell him a pack of cigarettes?   Why then would you help a pair of homosexuals sin by catering their wedding reception?  In each of these cases you would be contributing to the other person’s downfall and ruin.  That is not love.  That is being complicit with the crime, and no one’s genuine best interest is served that way.

Some may argue that the times have changed and that the church must change with the times – that we cannot live in the past.  But as we said before we must never forget that we are ultimately accountable to a Supreme Being, and that He never changes.  In the end His opinion is the only one that matters.

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MAN’S REVOLT AGAINST GOD

4.2.7

Caravagio: The Young Bacchus

The Bible tells us that “the wrath of God is revealed from heaven” (Rom. 1:18; NKJV).  But why would God be angry with us?  He knows that we are only human, right?  God is a loving Father; surely He can overlook our weaknesses and failures.

What the verse goes on to say is that the wrath of God “is revealed from heaven against all ungodliness and unrighteousness of men . . .”  The Greek word translated “ungodliness” might better be rendered “impiety.”  It denotes the lack of reverence and devotion to God.  “Unrighteousness” is the lack of conformity to God’s law.  And that, according to Scripture, is why God is angry with us.

But why?  As long as we mind our own business and do not harm others, what is the problem?

As we have seen, God is our Creator and Lord, and He expects us to “do justly, love mercy, and walk humbly” with Him (Mic. 6:8).  What happens in actual practice, however, falls far short of the mark.  We routinely ignore God in our lives.  Yes, we may pay lip service to God, or to some duty, but our “religion” amounts to little more than a mere formality.  We rarely pray; we rarely read the Bible.  Our decisions are mainly based on calculated self-interest.  We assert our independence, and then look for ways to rationalize our behavior.  Scientists and philosophers try to devise elaborate alternative explanations of reality.  The rest of us just fill our lives with money, pleasure or entertainment.  And when circumstances overwhelm us we turn to the psychiatrist or the bottle.  We will try anything and everything except turn to God.  And inwardly we resent the thought of God having any kind of authority over us.  This is what the Bible means by “ungodliness” or “impiety.”  It is the near total absence of God in our thinking.  We call it “secularism.”

And then we are guilty of “unrighteousness.”  We pursue our own individual self-interest, and it often comes at the expense of others.  We try to convince ourselves that we are not really hurting anyone else, but our actions often belie our words.  As a society we will created governments and pass laws; but as individuals we will look for ways to game the system.  We lie and we cheat.  We gossip.  We lose our tempers and seek revenge.  We are motivated by greed and ignore the suffering of others.  We eat too much; we drink too much; we lust after women.  We hurt each other through a thousand tiny cuts.  We know that all of this is wrong, and yet we do it anyway.  This is what the Bible means by “unrighteousness.”

But, you may ask, what about the many people who have made personal sacrifices for their fellow man?  What about Washington and Lincoln and Martin Luther King?  What about those who have given their lives on the battlefield or those who have devoted their lives to the care of the sick and the poor?  Aren’t they good people?  Aren’t their deeds noble and virtuous?

Yes, indeed, there have been many people who have done great things.  But in the sight of God they are often doing the right things for the wrong reasons.  Most people are guided by a kind of social morality.  They have been raised and educated in a certain culture, and the society in which they live expects them to act a certain way.  There are rewards and punishments.   If you do the wrong thing you could go to jail; if you do the right thing you might achieve recognition from your fellow man.  But the morality of a society is often determined by the social, economic and political needs of that society, and as a result sometime comes into conflict with God’s moral law.  America’s economic system is based on individual self-interest and the profit motive.  The Bible says that “the love of money is a root of all kinds of evil” (I Tim. 6:10).

Thus the behavior of individuals within a given society is motivated by a desire for social acceptance, and this often involves an element of hypocrisy.  We maintain a public persona that we project to others, but inwardly we can be quite different.  The true inner self can be stubborn, proud or resentful.

But all of this is quite different from what God requires.  What He wants is that we love Him with all of our hearts and our neighbors as ourselves (Dt. 6:4; Lev. 19:18; Matt. 22:35-40).  We look at the outward appearance; God looks on the heart.  He discovers the hidden motive.  And “rational self-interest” is still self-interest.  Civilization is too often an attempt to better our lives without God.

In short, it is the underlying motive that counts.  What motivates us to do good things?  Is it a genuine love for God and for our fellow man?  Or is it a desire for esteem and success?  And what do we do when society’s standards conflict with God’s.

In other words, when God looks down from His throne in heaven, what He sees is not a bunch of basically good people trying their best to do the right thing.  What He sees is a human race that stubbornly refuses to recognize Him as Creator and Lord, routinely ignores Him in daily life, and breaks His commandments when it is convenient to do so.  He sees people who hurt each other in ways large and small.  And that is why God is justly angry with us.

THE MESSAGE OF CHRISTMAS

4.2.7

Lorenzo di Credi: The Anunciation

 

“This is a faithful saying and worthy of all acceptance, that Christ Jesus came into the world to save sinners, of whom I am chief.”                          I Tim. 1:15; NKJV

 

In these twenty five words the apostle Paul summarizes the message of Christmas, and indeed of the Christian gospel itself.  Jesus is the Messiah (“Christ” is the Greek translation of the Hebrew “Messiah” – both words mean “the anointed one”).  He came into “the world,” this sin-cursed world of fallen human beings.  He had previously existed in heaven, and then came into the world by means of a virgin birth and assumed the form of a human being.  And why did He do this?  “To save sinners.”  And herein is the rub.

We would like to think of ourselves as basically good people and that God likes us just the way we are.  But when God looks at us He does not see basically good people.  What He sees are “sinners.”  We routinely ignore Him, and we often do that which we know to be wrong.  And why?  Because our actions are driven by various forms of selfishness: pride, greed or lust.  And as a result we are, by nature estranged and alienated from God.

But “Christ Jesus came into the world to save sinners.”  So great was the love and compassion that He had for us that He came into the world and died on the cross to save us – to rescue us from our sin and depravity, and from the punishment we justly deserve.  Christ shows His love for us, not by pretending that we are not sinners, but by paying the penalty for the sins we have committed.

And is Paul being self-righteous, bigoted and judgmental by calling people “sinners”?  No, not all.  For he says that Christ came into the world to save sinners, “of whom I am chief.”  He sees himself as a sinner, just like everyone else.  We are all sinners; we all need salvation.  And Christ came into the world to achieve precisely that.

In calling sin “sin” we are not setting ourselves above others.  We are simply acknowledging the common fault of mankind.  And the way to find peace with God is not by pretending that we are righteous, but by frankly admitting that we are sinners and asking God for forgiveness.  That is not bigotry; that is humanitarianism at its deepest level.

And that is the true meaning of Christmas!

WHAT GOD EXPECTS FROM US

 

As we have seen, then, God is our Creator and sovereign Lord, and thus we are obligated to give Him our obedience.  But what exactly does He expect from us?  What exactly does He want from us?

About this too the Bible has a great deal to say, but there is one verse of Scripture that neatly sums up man’s duty toward God – Micah 6:8:

“He has shown you, O man, what is good;

And what does the Lord require of you

But to do justly,

To love mercy,

And to walk humbly with your God?”

(NKJV)

There are, then, three basic things that God requires: 1) “to do justly,” 2) “to love mercy,” and 3) “to walk humbly with your God.”

First of all it says that we are “to do justly,” or, as it might more literally be translated, “to do justice.”  Strictly speaking justice is something that is administered by a judge, and the prophet Micah had strong words for the judges of his day who were often corrupt and took bribes (cf. Micah 7:3).  But there is also a broad, general sense in which all of us are responsible for maintaining justice in our relationships with our fellow human beings.  In this context justice means to treat others fairly and honestly, giving each person his due, and not doing anything to harm him or take from him something that is not rightfully ours.

“Lord, who may abide in Your tabernacle? . . .

He who does not backbite with his tongue,

Nor does evil to his neighbor,

Nor does he take up a reproach against his friend . . .

He who swears to his own hurt and does not change;

He who does not put out his money at usury,

Nor does he take a bribe against the innocent.”

(Psalm 15)

We must be careful to respect each other’s family, property and reputation; and that means that we do not attempt to manipulate or defraud him with lying, cheating or stealing, by stretching the truth or concealing information, by telling “little white lies.”  We are careful to give each person his or her due.

In business relationships in particular we should be completely honest with our customers, employees and vendors.  We should be careful not to misrepresent our products and services, but honestly represent what we have to offer so that the customer knows exactly what he is getting for what he is paying.  Employers should treat their employees fairly, give them honest evaluations, and reward them for their work.  Employees should give their employers a full day’s work for a full day’s pay.

But then the text goes on to say that we should “love mercy.”   The word translated “mercy” basically means kindness shown to others, especially to those in need.  Job could say,

“. . . I delivered the poor who cried out,

The fatherless and the one who had no helper . . .

I was eyes to the blind,

And I was feet to the lame.

I was a father to the poor . . .”

(Job 29:12-16)

What God requires of us is that we genuinely care about our fellow human beings and help them out in times of need to the extent of our ability.

What this may mean in actual practice is the expenditure of our time and money.  We must take the time to listen and make the effort to find solutions to the other person’s problem.  What we may not do is to go through life pursuing our own narrow self-interest and ignore the needs of others.  God is a God of compassion, and He expects us to show compassion as well.

But God also expects us to have a relationship with Him as well.  We are “to walk humbly with your God.”   To “walk with” Him means to commune with Him on a regular basis and to live our lives in accordance with His will.  And we are to do this “humbly” – in full recognition of the fact that He is infinitely greater than ourselves, that He is our Creator and that we are entirely dependent upon Him.

It is significant that in the immediate context the prophet poses the question, “With what shall I come before the Lord, / And bow myself before the High God?/ Shall I come before Him with burnt offerings, / With calves a year old?” (6:6). Israel at that time still had a functioning priesthood, and all of these sacrifices were prescribed in the Old Testament law.  Yet while Israel maintained the external, formal religious observances, the land was filled with corruption, injustice and oppression.  Was God, then, impressed with the “thousands of rams” and the “ten thousand rivers of oil” that they offered?  No!  What matters most to God is not empty ritual, but a life marked by honesty, compassion and a genuine devotion to God.  Morality is a matter of relationships, our relationship with God and our relationships with our fellow human beings.  And therefore the prophet says “He has shown you, O man, what is good; / And what does the Lord require of you / But to do justly . . .”

THE NATURE OF TRUE VIRTUE

 

 

It is striking that even among professed Bible-believing Christians there is a poor understanding of what the Christian life is all about.  One tendency is to think that because salvation is a free gift it does not matter how we live (“God loves you and has a wonderful plan for your life”).  Another tendency is to think that Christian ethics consists mainly of avoiding certain sinful practices (smoking, drinking, dancing, card-playing, etc.).  And even in Reformed circles there is a tendency to a form of dead orthodoxy.

What the Bible actually says about the subject, however, is quite different, and the apostle Paul gives us a snapshot of what that is in Colossians 3:12-15.  He begins by describing the favored positions that Christians enjoy in Christ: “Therefore, as the elect of God, holy and beloved, put on tender mercies . . .” (v. 12; NKJV).  Here he uses three adjectives to describe the Colossian believers: “elect,” “holy,” and “beloved.”  “Elect” points to fact that believers become Christians because they are first chosen by God.  The second adjective, “holy,” points to the fact that they were set apart from the rest of humanity and enjoyed a special relationship with God.  The third adjective, “beloved,” points to the fact that they had become the special objects of God’s love.  Together the three adjectives underscore God’s grace in our salvation.  We were poor, underserving sinners whom He rescued in His grace and mercy.

But this has definite implications for the way we should live.  And so Paul tells the Colossian believers to “put on” certain virtues, in much the same way that someone night put on a coat or jacket.  It involves a conscious decision to live a certain way.

He begins by listing several virtues: “tender mercies, kindness, humility, meekness, longsuffering” (v. 12).  These all involve the way we feel and act toward others.  The “tender mercies” (or “bowels of mercies,” as the old King James Version has it) refers to a tender compassion that we ought to feel toward others.  “Meekness” might better be translated “gentleness.”  “Longsuffering” literally means “slow to anger.”

Paul then goes on to describe how these virtues work out in actual practice.  He says “bearing with one another, and forgiving one another, if anyone has a complaint against another . . .” (v. 13).  The implication here, of course, is that as Christians we are still less than perfect, and that from time to time conflict will arise even in the best of churches.  How, then, are we to deal with such conflict?  First of all, by “bearing with one another.”  We must make allowances for differences of personality and background.  Some things are not worth making an issue over.  And so if someone else’s action or behavior does not amount to actual sin, we should try to overlook it even if it rubs us the wrong way.

But some situations may require us to go to the other brother and confront him about the problem; and if he repents we should forgive him and restore fellowship.  Christians should not hold grudges against each other.

But, one may ask, why should we do this?  What is wrong with defending our rights?  Paul goes on to explain why: “even as Christ forgave you, so you also must do” (. 13).  Look at what Christ has done for us.  Here was the sinless Son of God who came into this sin-cursed world, and offered up His life on the cross in order to save us.  We were hell-deserving sinners, completely unworthy of the least of God’s favors.  And yet in spite of our guilt we are now forgiven.  “Amazing grace, how sweet the sound that saved a wretch like me”!  But if Christ was willing to do that for us, should now we be willing to do the same for others?  Should we not imitate Christ’s example?  And if we were hell-deserving sinners saved by grace we are really no different from the brother who sinned against us.  If Christ forgave us our sins then we should forgive others.

Paul then adds, “But above all these things put on love, which is the bond of perfection” (v. 14).  Love, according to Scripture, is the preeminent virtue.  It is not enough merely to be kind, humble or patient.  These are largely passive virtues.  All of this must arise from a heart filled with love, an active concern for others, a positive desire to do good to them.  The commentators disagree over exactly what Paul meant by “the bond of perfection,” with some arguing that love is what underlies all Christian virtue, while others take it to mean that love is what binds Christians together.  In other case love is the preeminent Christian virtue, the virtue from which all other virtues arise.

And then Paul says, “And let the peace of God rule in your hearts, to which you were called in one body . . .” (v. 15).  In the Bible peace is more than just the absence of conflict.  It the sense of well-being that comes when everything is in order.  And so to this we are “called in one body.”  Every genuine believer is a member of the universal church, the mystical body of Christ.  And that universal church is to be marked by peace – a harmonious unity of the entire body.  That is the peace that we should let rule in our hearts.

And then Paul adds, “and be thankful” (v. 15).  If it is true that God is our sovereign Lord and Creator; if He has saved us by His grace alone, and guides us and protects us through His providence, then we owe everything to Him.  And that, in turn, should be reflected in a spirit of genuine gratitude in our hearts.  We can claim nothing for ourselves; we owe everything to Him.  That should draw out our hearts in praise and adoration to Him.

These, then, are the basic qualities of character that a Christian ought to “put on.”  It is significant that many of them, “kindness,” “meekness,” “longsuffering,” “love” and “peace” are listed among the fruit of the Spirit (Gal. 5:22,23).  They are the marks of a work of God’s grace in the heart.

It will be noted that Christian ethics largely concerns how we treat others.  “Love does no harm to a neighbor; therefore love is the fulfillment of the law,” Paul says elsewhere (Rom. 13:10).  It will also be seen that God is concerned not just with the outward action but with the inward motive.  God looks on the heart, and what He sees are the thoughts and feelings that drive our outward actions.  True Christian virtue stems from a heart that has been renewed by the Holy Spirt, and arises from a genuine desire to please God and help our neighbor.  Anything short of that misses the whole point of biblical morality.

This, then, is what the Christian life should look like.  May God grant each one of us the grace to live a life that is pleasing to Him!

GOD’S LAW V. MAN’S LAW

 

83213-004-58562477

 

The United States Supreme Court has legalized abortion.  It has legalized same-sex marriage.  Both decisions have placed religious organizations in an awkward position.  What should the churches do?  Conform to the changing mores of society?  Or risk marginalization by clinging to the older standards of morality?

The question is not a new one, and Jesus made it clear that the conflict existed in the First Century.  The underlying question is this: what exactly determines morality?  The consensus of contemporary society?  Or some eternal, transcendent standard or moral law?  Are there such things as moral absolutes?  Jesus answered in the latter.

The Gospel of Luke records an incident in which Jesus confronted the religious leaders of His day.  At one point Jesus made the statement, “No servant can serve two masters; for either he will hate the one and love the other, or else he will be loyal to the one and despise the other.  You cannot serve God and Mammon” (Luke 16:13; NKJV).  “Mammon” is an Aramaic word that means wealth or profit.  Here it is personified into a kind of pagan god.  The Pharisees, Luke tells us, “were lovers of money” (v. 14), not unlike certain religious leaders today, and when the Pharisees heard Jesus’ statement “they derided Him.”

Jesus’ response was sharp and to the point.  He pointed out that “You are those who justify yourselves before men, but God knows your hearts” (v. 15).  They has a high opinion of themselves based on their standing in society.  People looked up to them; they were honored and esteemed.  By all outward appearances they were successful.   But God knew better.  He looks on the heart, and knew what they were really like inside.  And the inward reality did not match the outward appearance.

Jesus then went on to make a telling statement: “For what is highly esteemed among men is an abomination in the sight of God” (v. 15).  What He is saying here, in effect, is that there is a difference between a morality based on the standards of human society and one that is based on the will of God.

Every civilized human society has standards of human behavior that it expects the members of that society to meet.  But these standards are usually based on a pragmatic consideration: this is what we need to do to be able to work together to achieve a common goal.  It is a morality based on enlightened self-interest rather than any regard for the will of the Creator.  Aristotle could actually go so far as to say that ethics or morality is a branch of political science.  “Whosoever therefore would achieve anything in social or political life must be of good moral character; which indicates that the discussion of character not only belongs to social science, but is its very foundation or starting-point” (Magna Moralia, I.i).  It was only later that men began to ask the question, what ultimately makes a given human action right or wrong?  Is there any universal or transcendent standard of morality?  And even then philosophers could not admit that there was only one, infinite, eternal Creator-God to whom we as human beings are accountable; they had recourse instead to the concept of natural law.

But the Bible begins with the obvious question, how did we get here in the first place?  And the answer is that we were created by an intelligent Supreme Being who made us in His image and gave us rational and moral faculties.  Everything, then, is supposed to conform to His creative purpose; and that, in turn, determines the nature of morality.

So great, however, is the disparity between God’s standards and man’s that Jesus could say that “what is highly esteemed among men is an abomination in the sight of God.”  Human society admires success.  We look up to people who have education, wealth, good looks, athletic prowess, political standing.  We encourage ambition and gratify pride. But Jesus uses an exceptionally strong word to describe all of this: it is an “abomination” in the sight of God – literally something that is disgusting or detestable.  What God requires of us is that we love the Lord our God with all of our hearts and love our neighbors as ourselves; not push and shove our way to the top and then pat ourselves on the back for our good success.

That, of course, places the individual human being in an awkward position.  When God’s law and man’s law conflict, what should he do?  Jesus went on to tell His listeners that “it is easier for heaven and earth to pass away than for one tittle of the law to fail” (v. 17).  A “tittle” was the tiny little overhang or projection that would distinguish one letter of the Hebrew alphabet from another.  Legislatures, courts and monarchs may all have their ideas about what they might like to see happen in the world; they might seek to impose their will at the point of the bayonet; but in the end it will all come to naught.  In the end every human government passes from the stage of history.  But God’s throne is eternal; His rule over the universe is never-ending, and in the end He will be the final Judge.  His word is the only one that counts.  As human beings we dare not disobey Him, no matter what men may say.

In modern Western society Judaeo-Christian morality may seem old-fashioned.  We are accused of living in the past.  But we are really living in eternity, while the surrounding world is self-destructing.  The path of wisdom is obvious.

THE CHRISTIAN EMPLOYEE

 

4.2.7

Van Gogh: Men and Women Going to Work

 

Most of us have had the experience of working for employers, and we would have to admit that it has not always been a pleasant experience.  Most business executives today are focused on the corporate bottom line, and that often means that they work their employees as hard as they can and pay them as little as they can.  And in some cases our immediate boss may be either difficult to work with or just plain incompetent.  What is a Christian employee to do in such a situation?

Writing to the church at Ephesus the apostle Paul addresses the master / servant relationship.  The immediate reference is to the institution of slavery, and significantly Paul does not condemn it outright.  Every society has a social and economic structure that places some individuals in positions of authority over others, and that is unavoidable.  The question is, however, how are the individuals in these relationships supposed to treat each other?

Paul says, “Bondservants, be obedient to those who are your masters according to the flesh, with fear and trembling. . .” (Eph. 6:5; NKJV).  And the masters are exhorted to do good to their servants, “giving up threatening” (v. 9).  And if outright slaves are morally obligated to obey their masters, and masters are required to treat their slaves humanely, how much more employees and employers, who have voluntarily agreed to work with each other?

Paul tells the bondservants to “be obedient to those who are you masters according to the flesh” (v. 5).  But he goes one step further and says that this is to be done “with fear and trembling, in sincerity of heart . . . not with eyeservice, as men-pleasers . . . with goodwill doing service” (vv. 5-7).  In other words, it is not enough merely to “go through the motions” on the job, and to “goof off” when the boss is not looking.  If we are getting paid to work, we should work, and we should try honestly and faithfully to follow our boss’s instructions.

But we have all had the experience of working for bosses who are difficult and unreasonable, and the temptation is to respond in kind.  Yet God tells us in His word that we are to obey “with fear and trembling, in sincerity of heart.”  Why?  How is that even possible when the boss is clearly being unreasonable?  Paul explains: we are to render obedience “as to Christ . . . as bondservants of Christ, doing the will of God from the heart . . . as to the Lord, and not to men” (vv 5-7).  Yes, the boss is being difficult.  But ultimately we perform our work to please Christ, not the boss.  And Paul goes on to add: “knowing that whatever good anyone does, he will receive the same from the Lord, whether he is slave or free” (v. 8).  God sees what good we have done, and God Himself will reward us accordingly.

Paul concludes this section with a word o exhortation to masters: “And you, masters, do the same things to them, giving up threatening, knowing that your own Master in heaven also is in heaven, and there is no partiality with Him” (v. 9).  The parallel passage in Colossians reads: “Masters, give your bondservants what is just and fair, knowing that you also have a Master in heaven” (Col. 4:1).  Disciplinary action, of course, is sometimes necessary.  Some employees malinger, some disobey orders, some may even be guilty of outright theft.  Some may have to be warned of the potential consequences of their unsatisfactory work performance.  And yet it is a rule of human relations that nothing will demoralize a workforce faster than constant harsh criticism from management.  When you make impossible demands and hurl insults at your employees, and never reward them for good work, morale sinks and the quality of the work suffers as a result.  If you treat your employees well you will have a more highly motivated workforce.

Businessmen all too easily forget that their customers, employees and vendors are all human beings, and if you want to be successful in business you have to treat the other people well.  Paul reminds the masters that “your own Master is also in heaven, and there is no partiality with Him.”  Owning a business does not give someone the right to be a petty tyrant.  We are all accountable to our Master in heaven.  It behooves us, then, to do unto others as we would have God do unto us!

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!

THE MORAL CASE FOR UNIVERSAL HEALTH CARE

 

 

Earlier today Speaker of the House Paul Ryan pulled from consideration a health care reform bill that was designed to replace Obamacare.  The speaker, it turns out, was unable to secure a consensus within his own party to get the bill through Congress.  Obamacare remains the law of the land for the time being.

The debate surrounding the bill reflects a logical dilemma underlying the American health care system.  Should the government take steps to insure that everyone has access to affordable health care?  One faction of the Republicans wants to keep the government out of the picture altogether.  Another faction worries about the political consequences of possibly millions of low income and high risk Americans losing their health insurance coverage.

The Republicans’ perplexity is understandable.  The American healthcare system had been plagued for decades with two major problems.  On the one hand there were large numbers of uninsured patients; and, on the other hand, health insurance premiums continued to rise at unacceptable rates year after year.  The U.S. would spend an enormous amount of money on health care each year, but often got less results than in other countries in terms of health outcomes.

One obvious solution to the problem would have been to adopt a single-payer national health insurance plan like that of Canada and many other industrialized countries.   But in the U.S. there is a strong tradition, rooted in the Constitution itself, of limiting the role of the federal government.  What else was it for which our ancestors fought in the American Revolution, if not freedom?  And so the Obama administration decided to take a different approach.  Adopting an idea that was originally conceived by the conservative Heritage Foundation, Congress passed the Affordable Care Act, or Obamacare as it came to be known.  Republicans were appalled, partly because it involved an individual mandate.  The federal government was forcing people to buy something they didn’t necessarily need or want.  If this wasn’t tyranny, what was it?

Obamacare was a failure.  Not enough younger, healthy people signed up.  Insurance premiums skyrocketed; insurers dropped out of the program.  Something obviously had to be done, which brought us to the Republicans’ current dilemma: is the aim to get the government out of the health care business?  Or is it to make sure that everyone has access to affordable health care?

It is important to recognize that there is a moral dimension to this question.  Can we, collectively as a society, consciously leave a significant part of our population without health care?  Libertarians might be inclined to say “yes”: no one is “entitled” to anything, and our freedom depends on keeping the government out of our personal business.  But Christians should think twice before accepting this line of argument.

It must be remembered that we are first and foremost human beings, and that as human beings we are accountable to our Creator for our actions.  And what exactly does our Creator expect from us?

The question was once put to Jesus by a Jewish legal scholar.  “Teacher, what shall I do to inherit eternal life?” (Luke 10:25; NKJV).  Jesus in turn asked him a question: “What is written in the law?  What is your reading of it?” (v. 26).  The lawyer responded by quoting Deut. 6:5 (“You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, with all your soul, with all your strength, and with all your mind”) and Lev. 19:18 (“and ‘your neighbor as yourself.’”).  Jesus commended him for having answered correctly.

But then the lawyer went on to ask a typical lawyer’s question: “And who is my neighbor?” (v. 29), and Jesus responded with His famous Parable of the Good Samaritan.

The story goes that a certain man was making his way from Jerusalem to Jericho, and was attacked by robbers who beat him severely and left him half-dead.  A Jewish priest happened to come by, saw the wounded man, and ignored him, going on his way.  Then a Levite, another Jewish religious official, came by, saw the same man, and also passed by.

Finally there came a Samaritan.  The Samaritans were a group of people who practiced an unorthodox hybrid form of Judaism, and were looked down upon with scorn by the Jewish religious establishment in Jerusalem.  This Samaritan, however, reacted differently to the situation than had the previous two passersby.  We’re told that “when he saw him [the injured man], he had compassion” (v. 33).  What he did next was most extraordinary.  First, he dressed the man’s wounds, “pouring on oil and wine.”  The oil, basically olive oil, acted as a salve; while the wine, containing alcohol, would have served as an antiseptic.  Having thus administered first aid, the Samaritan then placed the injured man on his own animal (perhaps a mule or donkey) and apparently walked the rest of the way to Jericho on foot leading the four-legged ambulance along the way.

Once in Jericho the Samaritan took the victim to an inn and there personally attended to his needs.  Then, when he was ready to depart the next day, he left the wounded man in the care of the innkeeper, paying the innkeeper two denarii, roughly equivalent to a working man’s wages for two days.  And perhaps most extraordinarily of all, he told the innkeeper, “. . .and whatever more you spend, when I come again, I will repay you” (v. 35).  Thus the Samaritan assumed the financial risk of caring for the patient – and the patient was a complete stranger!

The point of the story, of course, is that the lawyer had failed to understand what God really requires of us.  The lawyer thought that the question hinged on the definition of “neighbor.”  The point that Jesus wished to make, however, is that the key word is “love” – we are to love our neighbor, to be genuinely concerned for his well-being.  And love never asks the question, “Do I have to?”  Love responds to human need no matter where we find it.  This, then, is the basic principle of the moral law.  This is the responsibility that each one of us has towards God.

Some of my Libertarian friends will undoubtedly argue that this is an individual responsibility, that there is no biblical warrant for a state-run health care system, or a state-run welfare system for that matter.  And up to a point this is certainly true.  In the Old Testament the social safety net consisted of extended family relationships.  If your second cousin was in financial trouble it was your responsibility to act as a “go’el” or kinsman-redeemer to him, and come to his aid.  The New Testament church recognized itself as a spiritual brotherhood and took care of its members by practicing a form of communism (Acts 2:44; 45; 4:34,35).  Nevertheless all human beings are ultimately accountable to their Creator for their behavior, and they are not permitted to do collectively as a society what they are not permitted to do as individuals.  And the Bible makes it clear that God judges entire nations for their cruelty, oppression and injustice.  It remains to each society to devise the practical means by which pressing human needs can be met.

If we Christians, then, believe that abortion involves the taking of innocent human life, and that physician assisted suicide is a violation of the Sixth Commandment, how can we morally justify withholding medical treatment from someone who is critically ill?  The only remaining question, then, is how do we pay for the treatment provided?

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.