Tribulation Saint

Historic Christianity in the Twenty First Century

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WHY CHURCH?

dscn0949

 

Many readers would undoubtedly agree with most of what we have said so far.  But in the minds of many younger people there remains an important question.  Granted the necessity of having a personal relationship with Christ, why bother going to church?  Cannot someone worship God and have a relationship with Christ without going to church?

For many people the question arises because of bad church experiences they have had in the past.  Some pastors are domineering and tyrannical; some church members are judgmental and self-righteous.  Some churches are too commercialized.  There have been ugly church splits.  There have been sex scandals and financial impropriety.  And in all too many cases there is very little that is genuinely spiritual about the typical modern institutionalized church.  It is understandable, therefore, that many would want Christ but not the church.

The biblical answer to this is found in Hebrews 10:24,25: “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” (NKJV).  Why should we not “forsake the assembling of yourselves together”?  So that we can “stir up love and good works” and “exhort one another.”  And none of this can take place unless we have regular interaction with each other.

To understand what exactly this passage is getting at it is important to realize that the First Century church did not operate the way most modern churches do today.  In the First Century there were few, if any, church buildings, nor was there a professionally trained clergy.  Nor were there separate denominations.  Rather, the entire Christian community in a given city was considered a single church, so that it was possible to speak of the “church at Ephesus” or the “church of the Thessalonians.”  Each of these large metropolitan churches was governed by a board of elders (Acts 20:17) who were chosen from within the local church based on their spiritual gifts and maturity.  There was no “senior pastor.”  On certain occasions the entire, large, city-wide church would hold a meeting in some open, public place (Acts 5:12).

Within these large, city-wide churches there were smaller groups that met in private homes (Acts 2:46; Rom. 16:5; Phln. 2).  It was in these smaller house churches that the Lord’s Table would be observed.  We have a description of one of these gatherings in Acts 20:6-12.  The believers were meeting in an upper room on a Sunday evening and Paul preached long into the night, after which they broke bread.  It would have been in these smaller gatherings that the believers would have had the opportunity to interact with each other.

In this context, then, it is easier to see how a church is supposed to function.  It is assumed that all baptized church members have been genuinely born again and have the Holy Spirit dwelling within them.  They are each given spiritual gifts (I Cor. 12:4-11) and they are to use these gifts to edify one another and build up the body of Christ (Eph. 4:7-13).  We do this by exhorting one another (Heb. 3:13), confessing our sins to each other (Jas. 5:16) and bearing one another’s burdens (Gal. 6:2).  All of this necessitates some form of regular, small-group interaction, which is why the author of the Letter to the Hebrews tells us not to forsake the assembling of ourselves together.  It is the means by which we “stir up to love and good works” and “exhort one another.”

The Christian life cannot be lived in isolation from other Christians.  The basic ethical requirement of the Christian life is that we love one another, and that means that we must actually care for each other (I John 3:16-18).  And that cannot be done unless we are an active part of a local church body.  The question should not be, “what can the church do for me?”; but rather “what can I contribute to the church?”

The church has long since departed from the apostolic model.  During the Middle Ages it developed into an elaborate hierarchy supported by the state.  Worship became formal and ritualistic.  During the Reformation improvements were made, but they mainly involved taking existing state-sponsored institutional churches and “reforming” them.  The priest was replaced by the pastor whose chief function was to teach the congregation, but it was still largely a one-man ministry.  During times of revival, however, when there were real spiritual awakenings, small group interactions would often reappear – Sunday afternoon conferences, prayer bands and class meetings.  Where there is genuine spiritual life it must express itself, and express itself it did.

So what about today?  Where can one find a church like that? – one that is genuinely spiritual?  No church is perfect – we are all human and fall short of what God expects from us, and that includes churches as well as individuals.   The truly amazing thing about church history is that a God who is infinite, holy, all-wise and all-powerful would choose to use clay vessels like ourselves to accomplish His purposes on earth.  And so there is no such thing as a perfect church, but some are better than others.  Is the pastor a godly man?  Does he possess the biblical qualifications for an elder?  Are his sermons biblically sound?  Are they practical?  Does prayer play an important part in the life of the congregation?  Does the church exercise church discipline?

But more importantly, is there meaningful small group interaction?  This can take several forms, including small home group Bible studies, an active midweek prayer meeting, or adult Sunday School classes.

But the question is, do the believers actively work to build each other up spiritually?  Only then can the church accomplish what Christ intended for it.

“And you will seek Me and find Me, when you search for Me with

All your heart.”        (Jer. 29:13; cf. Dt. 4:29)

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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.

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.

BLESS THE LORD, O MY SOUL

 

 

Thanksgiving has been observed as a national holiday ever since November, 1863, when President Abraham Lincoln signed a proclamation to “invite my fellow citizens” to observe the day “as a day of Thanksgiving and Praise to our beneficent Father who dwelleth in the heavens.”  Most modern secularists today would recoil at the idea of a national Day of Thanksgiving if it meant actually giving thanks “to our beneficent Father who dwelleth in the heavens,” and most people have turned the holiday into anything but the giving of thanks; which, of course, has the effect of robbing the occasion of its original meaning and purpose.

But the question remains, why give thanks to God in the first place?  What do we owe to God?  Did we not get where we are by dint of our own effort?  Psalm 103 in the Bible gives the explanation.

The psalm, ascribed by ancient tradition to David, begins with an exhortation of the psalmist to himself:

“Bless the Lord, O my soul;

And all that is within me, bless His holy name!”

(v. 1; NKJV).

Why?   Because God is the One “who forgives all your iniquities” (v. 3a).  The psalmist begins by reflecting on the fact that he himself is a sinner, that he does not deserve any blessings form God; indeed, he deserves to be punished instead.  But as undeserving as he is, God has blessed him anyway, forgiving David’s sins.

But that is not all.  The psalmist goes on.

“Who heals all your diseases,

Who redeems your life from destruction . . .”

(vv. 3b,4a)

The psalmist had evidently lived long; he had endured many harrowing circumstances.  Many of these were beyond his control.  Yet he managed to survive them all.  And he was conscious that this was not so much the result of his own personal effort as it was the providence of God.

But there is more.  God “crowns you with lovingkindness and tender mercies” (v. 4b).  God does not merely tolerate us; He cares about us.  And He showers us with blessings beyond what we deserve.  He gives us life and health, friends and family; a roof over our heads, clothes on our backs, and food on the table.  “. . .So that your youth is renewed like the eagle” (v. 5b).  Every day that we live is a gift from God.

But then the psalmist goes on to reflect on the character of God himself.  Human history has been marked by the atrocities of human tyrants such as Hitler, Stalin, and Mao Tse-tung.  But what is God like?  Is He a cruel tyrant?  Far from it.

“The Lord executes righteousness

And justice for all who are oppressed.”

(v. 6)

In other words, God is the ruler of the universe, but He is absolutely just in the way He governs it.  The innocent are not punished and the dishonest are not rewarded.  And in particular He insures justice “for all who are oppressed.”  It is the mark of human depravity that the strong will take unfair advantage of the weak.  Human justice will often fail to redress the wrong, and sometimes will even reinforce it.  But God sees all that goes on and in the end justice will be done.

But God is not only just; He is also compassionate.  The psalmist goes on to point out what God had said about Himself to Moses on Mt. Sinai:

“The Lord is merciful and gracious,

Slow to anger and abounding in mercy.”

(v. 8; Ex. 34:6)

It is God’s essential nature to care about His creatures.  The word “merciful” might better be translated “compassionate” (NASV) and the word “mercy” might better be rendered “lovingkindess” (NASV) or “steadfast love” (ESV).

God’s compassion is compared to that of a father towards his children.  It is the child’s very weakness that draws out the father’s love.  And so it is with God.

“For He knows our frame;

He remembers that we are dust.”

(v. 14).

Likewise God is said to be “slow to anger.”  This is demonstrated in the fact that

“He has dealt with us according to our sins,

Nor punished us according to our iniquities.”

(v. 10).

Even though we have provoked Him with our sins, He has held back His anger.  And God’s “lovingkindess” or “steadfast love” is said to be “from everlasting to everlasting” (v. 17).

And so the psalmist ends where he began, calling on everyone to “bless the Lord.”  It is not a matter of rendering formal gratitude for blessings received.  Ultimately it is a matter of appreciating God himself for who He is.  As Jesus would point out centuries later, the “first and great commandment” is that “You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, with all your soul, and with all your mind” (Matt. 22:37,38; cf. Dt. 6:5).  God created us for Himself.  He endowed us with an intellect, emotions and will.  He wants us to enter into a meaningful relationship with Himself.  Anything less misses the whole point of the Christian gospel.

And so this Thanksgiving Day let us take time to thank God for all His blessings towards us.  But more importantly, let us praise Him for what He is, the Lord, “merciful and gracious, slow to anger, and abounding in mercy”!

THE LORD IS KING

 

 

“The Lord reigns, He is clothed with majesty;

The Lord is clothed,

He has girded Himself with strength.

Surely the world is established, so that it cannot be moved.

Your throne is established from old;

You are from everlasting.”

Psalm 93:1,2; NKJV

 

Americans have a hard time thinking of God as “King.”  We are used to thinking in terms of freedom, equality and democracy.  Our very Declaration of Independence states that governments are instituted “deriving their just powers from the consent of the governed.”  It is no wonder, then, that Americans have a hard time dealing with authority.

We sometimes try to picture God as a warm, fuzzy father figure who is there to comfort and encourage us, who understands that we are “only human,” and who would never think of punishing us.  And yet the Bible says that the Lord “reigns” and has a “throne.”  People in the ancient Near East knew exactly what that meant: God is a king.  He has authority.  He must be obeyed.

God has that authority by virtue of being our Creator.  We owe our very existence to Him.  He is eternal and all-powerful; we are mere creatures of the dust.  Our relationship with God, then, is one of sovereign and subject, of Lord and servant.  He is the lawgiver and judge.

But there is another reason why it is important to recognize God as Lord and King, and that is to establish the principle of justice.  One of the chief functions of a king is to promulgate and enforce the law; and the real question is, is there any real justice in the universe?

At first sight the answer might appear to be “no.”    We see dishonesty, exploitation and oppression at every hand.  The strong take advantage of the weak.  Governments themselves are often corrupt.  And yet we long for something better.  We would each like to be treated fairly, and we know instinctively that that means that everyone should be treated fairly.  We long for justice.  But does it exist?

The answer is “yes.”  The Bible tells us that

“The Lord reigns;

Let the earth rejoice;

Let the multitude of isles be glad! . . .

Righteousness and justice are the foundation of His throne.”

Psalm 97:1,2

“Justice” is the act of judging rightly – of making sure that each one is treated fairly and gets what he deserves.  And God is a righteous and just King: “Righteousness and justice are the foundation of His throne.”  He will reward good and punish evil.

But, you say, we do not see this now.  We see a world full of violence and oppression.  Where is there any justice?  The answer is

“Let the rives clap their hands;

Let the hills be joyful together before the Lord,

For He is coming to judge the earth.

With righteousness He shall judge the world,

And the peoples with equity.”

Psalm 98:8,9

This points to a time in the future when there will be a final, last judgment.  The judgment will be universal – God will judge “the world” and “the peoples,” i.e., the entire human race.  But unlike human justice God’s justice will be perfect.  He will judge the world with “righteousness” and “equity.”  Both words imply judgment which is fair and honest – true to the actual facts of the case and without partiality.  As a result everyone will receive exactly what he deserves.  Sin will be punished and righteousness will be rewarded.

All of this should be, according to the psalm, a cause for rejoicing.  The whole earth is exhorted to “shout joyfully,” “break forth in song,” and “sing”.  Even the physical world is exhorted to “clap their hands” and “be joyful together,” all because “He is coming to judge the earth” (vv. 4-9).  It means that true justice will finally prevail.

None of us could bear to live in a society in which there is no justice.  It would be a society in which crime pays and evil would prevail.  It is largely for this reason that human governments are formed.  But human justice is often imperfect.  Sometimes criminals escape unpunished.  Sometimes innocent people are put to death for crimes they did not commit.  Sometimes the government itself becomes corrupt.  And this raises a very disturbing question: will justice ultimately prevail?  Or are we doomed to lead an existence which is fundamentally unfair?  The answer is, God is on the throne.  He is perfectly just in all His ways, and He is coming to judge the world.  The prospect is both comforting and terrifying at the same time.  Comforting, because we live in a universe in which justice will ultimately prevail; terrifying, because by nature we are all guilty sinners.  And therein lies the human predicament.

 

WHAT IS GOD LIKE? – II

 

 

 

But what is God like in His personality and character?  What is it like to deal with Him personally?

Here again the Bible has a great deal to say about the subject and only a brief summary can be given here.  But there is a passage in the Old Testament that gives us such a summary, and it is found in Exodus 34:6,7.  Moses has been on Mount Sinai where he received the Ten Commandments.  Israel, in the meantime, had fallen into gross idolatry.  Moses interceded with God on Israel’s behalf.  God relented, but then Moses made a bold request: “Please, show me Your glory” (Ex. 33:18; NKJV), and God agreed to do so.  On the appointed day Moses stood on top of the mountain,

“And the Lord passed before him and proclaimed, ‘The Lord, the Lord God,

merciful and gracious, longsuffering, and abounding in goodness and truth,

keeping mercy for thousands, forgiving iniquity and transgressions and sin,

by no means clearing the guilty, visiting the iniquity of the fathers upon the

children and the children’s children to the third and the fourth generation.”

(Ex. 34:6,7)

The statement begins by declaring that God is “merciful and gracious, longsuffering, and abounding in goodness and truth” (v. 6).  He is “merciful and gracious.”  The Hebrew word translated “merciful” refers to the compassion God has towards those who are weak and helpless.  God’s “grace” refers to His free, unmerited favor.  In other words, it is God’s nature to do good to His creatures.  He is generous and compassionate.

And then our text says that God is “longsuffering,” or “slow to anger as it might be more literally translated (NASV, ESV).  God is patient with us.  His anger is not quickly aroused.  It is not that He never becomes angry – He has good reason to be angry with us because of our sin and rebellion against Him.  But He is slow to anger.  He is not easily provoked, and when He does become angry it is because it is well-deserved.

And then our text says that God is “abounding in goodness and truth,” or “steadfast love and faithfulness” (ESV).  His “goodness” or “steadfast love” refers to God’s willingness and desire to show kindness to His creatures.  His “truth” or “faithfulness” refers to the consistency and reliability of His character.  He can be depended upon to keep His word.

Our text goes on to explain how this all works out in actual practice.  First, God is “keeping mercy for thousands.”  The word translated “mercy” here in verse 7is the same word translated “goodness” in verse 6.  It is the kindness that God shows toward His creatures, and the fact that He “keeps” it “for thousands” shows how rich and abundant it is.

But there is more.  He “forgives iniquity and transgression and sin.”  This is what is truly remarkable.  The implication here is that the objects of His attention are, in fact, sinners – they have sinned against Him and are guilty in His sight.  The logical thing to do would be to punish them.  Yet His kindness is displayed in His “forgiving” them.  It is possible to be a guilty sinner and yet be forgiven.

Yet there is another side to this as well.  For the text goes on to say, “by no means clearing the guilty, visiting the iniquity of the fathers upon the children . . .” Is there a contradiction here?  Does God forgive sin or does He not?  The answer is that there is an implied but unmentioned condition.  Sinners can be forgiven, if they repent.  But if they persist in their sin and rebellion they will be punished.  How is it possible for a just and holy God to forgive sins is not fully explained until the New Testament: God would sent His into the world to die on the cross as an atonement for our sin.  God sent forth His Son “as a propitiation by His blood . . . to demonstrate at the present time His righteousness, that He might be just and the justifier of the one who has faith in Jesus” (Rom. 3:25,26).  And so it was that Israel was warned that if they sinned they would be sent into exile; but if they repented they would be restored (Dt. 30:1-6; II Chron. 7:13; Jer. 29:10-14).

The text also says that God “visits the iniquity of the fathers upon the children and the children’s children to the third and the fourth generations.”  On the surface this hardly seems just: God is punishing one person (the son) for another person’ sin (the father’s).  Strictly speaking, however, it is not a punishment directed toward the children and grandchildren, but a recognition that we are each affected by the decisions made by our parents.  Bad decisions can have effects that last for generations.  It ought to be a warning to all who treat sin lightly.

God is by nature kind, gracious and compassionate – He genuinely cares about the welfare of His creatures.  But by the same token He is genuinely angry with those who are cold and indifferent, who abuse, exploit and mistreat others.  God is love, and cruelty and injustice are an abomination in His sight.

THE LEGACY OF LUTHER

 

martin-luther

 

This Tuesday (Oct. 31) marks the 500th anniversary of the Protestant Reformation.  Specifically it was 500 years ago that Martin Luther nailed his famous 95 Theses on the door of the Castle Church of Wittenberg, Germany.   The theses, written in Latin, attacked the practice of selling indulgences on the supposition that penitent sinners could purchase the forgiveness of their sins by making a cash donation to the church.  Luther intended his theses to be an invitation to scholarly debate, but others translated them into German and distributed them to the press.  Probably no one at the time could have foreseen what would happen as a result.

The theses touched on just a small part of a much larger issue, viz., how can a guilty sinner find forgiveness from a holy and just God?  The Roman Catholic view, as it had evolved over the centuries, was that one’s sins are initially washed away in baptism, but that sins committed after baptism had to be dealt with through the sacrament of penance.  The sinner must make confession, show contrition, and make satisfaction.  This, in turn, could involve spending a lengthy period of time after death in purgatory.

But how can a guilty sinner make satisfaction for his sins?  That was the question that plagued young Luther during his early years.  Originally destined to become a lawyer, he was nearly killed one day by a bolt of lightning.  Terrified, he took a vow to become a monk and joined an Augustinian monastery.

But the monastic life brought him no peace of mind.   Try as hard as he might, he could not convince himself that he had won God’s favor.  But as he studied the Scriptures, especially Paul’s Epistles to the Romans and Galatians, he slowly came to realize that we are “justified,” i.e., made righteous in the sight of God, through faith. Christ died on the cross to pay for our sins, and we receive forgiveness by placing our trust in Him as our Savior.  For Luther this was an eye-opening understanding.

This is why Luther became so alarmed when Johann Tetzel came through the area selling indulgences, proclaiming “As soon as the coin in the coffer rings, the soul from purgatory springs.”  Luther posted his theses, and the controversy was on.

Luther went on to write books, participate in debates, and make his famous stand before the Holy Roman Emperor.  He had to go into hiding, and while there he began his translation of the Bible into German.  Returning to Wittenberg he devoted the rest of his life to teaching and preaching, all the while under the ban of both the Catholic Church and Empire.  He wrote catechisms, reformed the liturgy, and composed hymns, including his famous “A Mighty Fortress is our God.”

Luther was a very capable and talented theologian.  But he could never have gained the insight he had or achieved the results that he did if God had not been at work achieving His own sovereign purposes in history.  Luther’s key insight (justification by faith) came about through an intense spiritual struggle.  And it was often Luther’s opponents who forced him to see the implications of his doctrine.  And in the end it was larger historical forces beyond Luther’s control that achieved the final result – the Protestant Reformation in all of its breadth and diversity.  But in the providence of God it fell to Luther to strike the first blow.

Was Martin Luther a perfect human being?  By no means.  He could be irascible, and intemperate in his use of language.  He was subject to bouts of depression.  In his later years he became increasingly hostile towards Anabaptists, Jews and Roman Catholics.  Even his fellow Reformers sometimes found him difficult to work with at times.  “But we have this treasure in earthen vessels, that the excellence of the power may be of God and not of us” (II Cor. 4:7; NKJV).  The remarkable thing about church history is that an infinite, holy, all-powerful and all-wise God could choose finite, mortal and fallible human beings to accomplish His purposes here on earth.

The Protestant Reformation resulted in the recovery of the Christian gospel – the message of salvation by grace through faith.  Not that it had entirely disappeared; but during the Middle Ages it had been buried under layers of tradition, canon law and scholastic philosophy.  But it was during the Reformation that it reappeared in all of its power, grace and glory.  It has since then spread to the distant corners of the world, and untold multitudes have found salvation, the forgiveness of their sins, in Christ.  And in the providence of God it was Martin Luther who sparked the flame.

WHAT IS GOD LIKE? – I

 

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Paul in Athens

 

But if God exists, what is He like?  What can we know about Him?

On this point it is important to emphasize that we must go by what the Bible says on the subject.  God must reveal Himself to us.  While we may be able to infer a few things about Him from the physical creation and have a vague sense of Him in our individual consciences, for the most part He must tell us what He is like.  We have no other means of knowing about Him.

The Bible, of course, has a great deal to say about God, and we cannot possibly summarize it all here.  However the apostle Paul did give a brief summary in a speech he delivered before an assembly of Greek philosophers in Athens recorded for us in Acts 17:22-31.  The Greeks at that time were pagans and had a polytheistic religion.  They worshiped idols in temples.  The irony of it all, of course, is that the idol had been made by human beings.  People were bowing down and worshiping lifeless images that they themselves had made.

Paul began by pointing out that God is the Creator – He “made the world and everything in it’ (v. 24; NKJV).  Because of that He is “Lord of heaven and earth.”  Since He has made it all, and it would not have existed if He had not created it, it all rightfully belongs to Him.  Moreover our continued existence depends upon Him: “He gives to all life, breath, and all things” (v. 25), and “in Him we live and move and have our being” (v. 28).  Once created we do not exist independently of Him.  Life itself is a gift from God, something He can take from us whenever He pleases.

In other words, Paul’s audience had gotten it all backwards.  God is not dependent upon us; we are dependent on Him.  He exists independently of us, not the other way around.  And that being the case, strictly speaking, God does not need anything from us.  “Nor is He worshiped with men’s hands, as though He needed anything” (v. 25).

What all of this means is that we owe Him our love and devotion, our worship and our obedience. God is the Creator of the entire human race, “in the hope that they might grope for Him, and find Him, though He is not far from each one of us” (v. 27).  God wants us to “grope for Him.”  The picture here is that of being in the dark, not being able to see, and groping with one’s hands to find the object being sought.  And this is a picture of our relationship with God.  We cannot see Him physically; His presence is not obvious.  But we must search for Him, and keep searching until we find Him.  He will not reward us for our apathy and indifference.  We must make the effort to seek Him by praying and meditating on His Word, and then we will “find Him” – we will receive salvation and the presence of the Holy Spirit in our hearts comforting and guiding us.

The irony is that “He is not far from each one of us; for in Him we move and have our being” (vv. 27,28).  We are surrounded by God, our very existence depends on Him. Yet most of us do not know Him.  The tragedy of it all!

God, then, calls us to have a relationship with Him; but in order for that to happen we must make a conscious effort to seek Him.  He loves us; He wants us to love Him.  But we must never forget that it is not a relationship between equals.  He is infinitely greater than ourselves.  We owe everything that we have to Him.  We should bow down and worship Him in love, humility, and devotion.

THE BIBLE: A BOOK LIKE NO OTHER BOOK

 

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Codex Vaticanus

The extraordinary claim that the Bible makes for itself is that it is nothing less than the inspired Word of God himself.   “All Scripture is given by inspiration of God . . .” (II Tim. 3:16; NKJV).   “. . .for prophecy never came by the will of man, but holy men of God spoke as they were moved by the Holy Spirit” (II Pet. 1:21).  God spoke to Moses directly.  Others saw visions or dreamed dreams.  The Holy Spirit descended on others and they spoke as they were led by the Spirit.  The words that they spoke and wrote down were words in human languages, but the thoughts, concepts and ideas came directly from God himself.  The prophets themselves did not always understand the things that God was revealing to them.  They had to study their own inspired to try to understand what God had revealed through them (I Pet. 1:10-12).

But how do we know that the Bible’s claim for itself is true?  How do we know that the Bible really is God’s Word?  What about other sacred books – the Hindu Vedas?  The Koran?   The Book of Mormon?  Are all of them “inspired”?  Or are all of them, including the Bible, merely human productions?  Why would the Bible be divinely inspired and not the others?

First of all, the Bible is different from the others, and in ways that make it unlikely to have had a purely human origin.  It was composed over a very long period of time (at least a thousand years), by a large number of different authors writing in three different languages (Hebrew, Aramaic and Greek).  And yet in spite of all of the diversity on their backgrounds there is a remarkable unity of thought in the book as a whole.  There is only one God, the Creator of heaven and earth.  He is absolutely just and holy.  Mankind is fallen and sinful, but God is merciful and compassionate.  Sin must be atoned for.  And in the fullness of time God sent His Son into the world to die for our sins and make salvation available to the entire human race.

And then there is the phenomenon of fulfilled prophecy.  Events were predicted before they happened and they subsequently came to pass.   The New Testament writers in particular could cite a large number of Old Testament prophecies regarding the coming Messiah, and note that they were fulfilled in Christ.  The prophecies are remarkable enough that they could not have been fulfilled by accident.

But what is even more remarkable is the nature of the message itself.  On the one hand it presents a high standard of moral conduct.  Men are exhorted to love God and each other.  Pride, lust, greed, envy, jealousy and anger are all condemned.  In the end all human beings fall short of God’s standards.

Most books of human origin, however, glorify man.  They either excuse, rationalize or even condone behavior that is compulsive, anti-social and self-destructive.  And in most books of human origin there is at least one human hero who distinguishes himself above all others.  In the Bible, however, there are no human heroes – all men fall short of God’s standards.  The Bible views human life from God’s perspective, and this suggests that He is the true Author of it.  No human being could write a book of this apart from divine inspiration.

And then there is the manifest wisdom contained in the Bible. Philosophers and psychologists have propounded theory after theory, only to have them discredited over time.  But countless multitudes of ordinary people have found the Bible “a lamp to my feet and a light to my path” (Psalm 119:105).  It provides guidance and gives solace to those who follow its directions.

But in the end it often comes down to a matter of personal conviction.  When the message grips your soul, makes you feel your awful guilt before a holy God and then gives you the hope of eternal salvation in Jesus Christ you almost have no choice but to believe.  It has to be God’s Word – nothing else could bring such conviction.

The Bible is God’s Word, then, and we owe it to Him to study it, meditate upon it, and apply it to our lives.  It is the key to understanding life, and our lives must conform to its principles fi we are to find any lasting happiness or fulfillment.  Our ultimate loyalty must be to God himself, and all human teachings, laws and doctrines must be evaluated in the light of His Word.

Too often today young people who were raised in Christian homes are merely reacting to their upbringing.  But what is often missing is a direct relationship with God himself.  But it is not a matter of “your pastor said this” or “your parents taught you that.”  Rather it is a matter of what God himself has said, and in order to know that we must each individually dig into His Word and seek to understand what it says.  Our parents, pastors and teachers are all fallible human beings.  God’s Word is the final authority.  By that we stand or fall.  May God give us the grace to search, understand and obey!

THE GAP THEORY REVISITED

 

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Sedimentary rock formation, Tioga Co., PA

 

Review:

Unformed and Unfilled: A Critique of the Gap Theory

Weston Fields

Master Books, 2005

245 pp., pb

 

In 1976 Weston Fields published his book Unformed and Unfilled: A Critique of the Gap Theory.  It is largely a rebuttal of an earlier work by Arthur C. Custance entitled Without Form and Void, which defended what is known as “the Gap Theory.”  Fields’ book was republished in 2005.

The Gap Theory is an attempt to reconcile the biblical account of creation with the findings of modern geology.  It had become apparent to geologists at the end of the 18th Century that the earth was very old, has passed through several successive geological ages, and that there had been forms of plant and animal life, such as dinosaurs, that had since become extinct.  The question then became how to reconcile the geological evidence with the biblical account of creation, which seemed to indicate that the whole process only took six days a few thousand  years ago.  One possible solution was proposed by the distinguished Scottish theologian Thomas Chalmers, who suggested what became known as “the Gap Theory.”

The Gap Theory posited the existence of an unspecified length of time between the original creation of the universe and the six days of creation mentioned in Genesis Chapter 1.  It assumes that some sort of disaster destroyed the original creation and that what is described in Genesis 1 is a recreation of the earth.  This, then, would allow for the long geological ages postulated by modern science.  The Gap Theory then became popularized in a footnote in the Scofield Reference Bible, as well as in Halley’s Bible Handbook.  A later version appeared in Unger’s Bible Handbook.

Dr. Fields, however, will have none of this.  In his view Ex. 20:11 and Neh.9:6 state that the entire universe was created ex nihilo in just six days, and that the grammatical structure of Gen. 1:1-3 will not permit a gap between verse 1 (“In the beginning . . .” –  NASB) and verse 3 (“Then God said”).  According to him the Hebrew “vav” (“and”) at the beginning of verse 2 links the three clauses of that verse (“the earth was formless and void,” “and darkness was over the face of the deep,” “and the Spirit of God was moving over the surface of the waters”) with verse 1.  Verse 2, then, would describe the condition of the world at the beginning of the process of creation of the entire universe, thus not allowing for a gap between the two.

Dr. Fields’ argument becomes quite involved and arcane at points; and sometimes, in the opinion of this reviewer, a bit too strained, with both sides (Dr. Fields and Dr. Custance) reading more into the text than is actually there.  E.J. Young, for example, whom Dr. Fields sometimes cites in his footnotes, connects the three clauses of verse 2 with the main verb in verse 3 (“Then God said. . .”).  Verse 2, then, describes the condition of the world at the beginning of the six day process described in the remainder of chapter 1.

What neither Dr. Fields nor Dr. Custance may have known at the time is that there is compelling evidence that points to a geological catastrophe that wiped out the dinosaurs and brought on the Ice Age.  A comet or asteroid is believed to have stuck the Yucatan Peninsula in Mexico, spreading a thick cloud of debris.  Gen. 1:2, then, could very well describe the scene immediately after the comet struck.  The sky was darkened; most life had been wipe out.  God then began the creative process anew.

This is not to say that there are no problems with the Gap Theory.  If Gen 1:14-18 were taken in a strictly literal fashion, the sun and moon simply did not exist until the fourth day of creation.  (In my scenario, as the debris in the sky gradually settled, light appeared first, on the first day, and then the sun and moon became visible later, on the fourth day.)

Likewise Paul’s statements that death came through sin (Rom. 5:12-17; 8:19-21; I Cor. 15:21,22) would pose a problem, since under the Gap Theory whole species became extinct before man had sinned.  But the Bible is concerned primarily with what has happened since the creation of man, not with what may have happened before.

Dr. Fields is right in not wanting to let secular science dictate our interpretation of Scripture.  Unbelieving scientists are quick to jump to conclusions that eliminate God from their worldview.  But it is God’s written revelation that gives us the interpretation of the mute facts of nature.  Science has often erred, and a new discovery will often overturn a previously held conclusion.  But we cannot simply ignore or dismiss the physical evidence.  While fossils do not prove the Theory of Evolution, they do suggest that the world is very old, and the evidenced cannot be ignored.

God is the author of both nature and Scripture; and if each is interpreted properly they do not contradict each other.  The two basic questions are, what can science actually prove?  And what does the Bible actually teach?  On the latter question it is not the aim of the Bible to give detailed scientific explanations of natural phenomena, or a detailed history of the cosmos.  It’s focus, rather, is on man, on his fall and redemption; and thus we must be careful not to make the Bible say more than it actually does.  On this point we think that both Drs. Custance and Fields may have been prone to take things a little too far.