Tribulation Saint

Historic Christianity in the Twenty First Century

THE SPIRITUAL WAR

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“How beautiful upon the mountains

Are the feet of him who brings good news,

Who proclaims peace,

Who brings glad tidings of good things,

Who proclaims salvation,

Who says to Zion,

‘Your God reigns!’”

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

THE CHRISTIAN 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!

PARENTING

 

4.2.7

Anthony van Dyck: Family Portrait, 1621

 

 

Being a parent is perhaps one of the greatest challenges any human being can face, and we have all probably fallen short in this area.  And here as in other areas of life God’s Word offers valuable guidance.  If there was ever a time when it was needed, it is now.

“And you, fathers, do not provoke your children to wrath, but bring them up in the training and admonition of the Lord” (Eph. 6:4; NKJV).  Significantly, this is addressed specifically to “fathers.”   Mothers obviously have an important role in parenting, but as the head of the household the responsibility for childrearing falls squarely on the shoulders of the father.  He bears ultimate responsibility for the upbringing of his children.

And like so many biblical exhortations this one contains both a negative and a positive.  The negative command is this: “fathers, do not provoke your children to wrath . . .”   Or, as it stated in the parallel passage in Colossians, “Fathers, so nor provoke your children, lest they become discourage” (Col. 3:21).  Tragically this is where many fathers fail today.  How many adults still bear the emotional scars that resulted from the abusive treatment they received as youngsters from their fathers?

But no child likes being disciplined; how is a father supposed to correct his children?  Obviously a spanking would cause short term pain, but what leads to lasting anger and resentment is the perception of injustice.  If the rules have not been made clear, if punishment is haphazard and inconsistent, if the children are treated differently from each other, this will naturally lead to anger and resentment.  This the father should never do.

On the positive side fathers are instructed to “bring them up in the training and admonition of the Lord.”  It is not exactly clear how Paul intended to differentiate “training” and “admonition.”  The two words mean nearly the same thing.  The Greek word translated “training” (paideia) originally meant childrearing, and then by extension education in its broadest sense.  But in the Greek translation of the Old Testament, the Septuagint, it is used to translate the Hebrew word musar, which carries with it the distinct meaning of chastisement, punishment, correction and discipline.  The difference is significant.  For the ancient Greeks the root of man’s difficulty was ignorance, and the aim of paideia was to impart knowledge, and its highest form was found in literature.  But the Bible presents a different view of things.  Man is partially ignorant because his will is stubborn.  He does not want to behave righteously, and therefore he more or less deliberately distorts his view of reality.  He uses a false worldview as a cover for his rebellion.  Child discipline, then, involves changing both the mind and will, and this in turn requires the skillful use of rewards and punishments.  “Foolishness is bound up in the heart of a child; / The rod of correction (musar) will drive it from him” (Prov. 22:15).

But there is more to child-rearing than just corrective discipline; there is also “admonition” or verbal instruction as well.  And that raises the question of what we should be teaching our children.  Significantly, in this passage says “bring them up in the training and admonition of the Lord.”  In other words, parents have a responsibility to provide their children with an education that is Christian.

The reason is simple.  First of all, the purpose of an education ought to be more than prepare one for a job.  It should equip one to live life.  Solomon outlines the purpose of education in the opening verses of the Book of Proverbs:

“To know wisdom and instruction,

To perceive the words of understanding . . .”

(Prov. 1:2)

Wisdom, in the Bible, is the ability to manage one’s affairs in every area of life, and it involves both technical skills and human relationships.  To that end the aim of education should be

“To give prudence to the simple,

To the young man knowledge and discretion . . .” (v. 4).

(The word “simple” here refers to a person who is gullible and naïve.)  Thus the aim of a sound education is not just simply to be able to earn a living, but to make wise decisions in every area of life.

This, in turn, requires a well-defined set of values based on a Christian worldview.  If we live in a world that was created by God, the only way we can make sense out of it is to understand it as God’s creation.  Everything has meaning and purpose because of the way that God created it.  Once God is removed from the picture all we are left with is a jumble of unrelated facts.  This is why Solomon could say, “The fear of the Lord is the beginning of knowledge . . .” (v. 7a).

Never have the stakes been higher.  American family life has crumbled.  We have raised a whole generation that does not know what a stable family life is, has no sense of morality, and has been fed a steady diet of consumerism.  As society around us goes to hell in a handbasket, it is up to Christian parents to preserve what is left of Western Civilization by bringing up their children “in the training and admonition of the Lord.”

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?

WHAT GOD THINKS OF THE MODERN CHURCH

 

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

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

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

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

And so it is with us today.  We have impressive looking buildings and institutions and “ministries” galore, but can scarcely bring ourselves to spend any meaningful time in prayer.  What passes for “worship” is hardly more than glorified entertainment.  We sit passively in the pews (or theater seats) and when the service is over we go our merry ways, scarcely giving any thought at all at how we may serve Christ in our daily lives.  We are all too prone to ethical compromise.  “ . . .these people draw near with their mouths / And honor Me with their lips, / But have removed their hearts far from Me, / And their fear toward Me is taught by the commandment of men . . .” (Isa. 29:13; Matt. 15:8).

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

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

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

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

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

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

What Christ tells the church next is nothing less than stunning: “Behold, I stand at the door and knock.  If anyone hears My voice and opens the door, I will come in to him and dine with him, and he with Me” (v. 20).  This verse is often taken out of context and given an evangelistic meaning.  But taken in its context Christ is standing outside of the church.  This, of course, is not where we would expect to find Him, and yet that is where He is all too often.  He has, in effect, been excluded from the life of the church, so used has it become to operating without Him.  But there may be a few within the church who are still listening to His voice, and to them He makes a promise: “I will come in to him and dine with him, and he with Me.”  Even in the worst state of the church it is still possible for individual Christians to maintain a meaningful relationship with Christ.

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

THE SHACK: The Book and the Movie

 

Review:

The Shack: Where Tragedy Confronts Eternity

Wm. Paul Young

Windblown Media, 2007

248 pp., pb.

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

 

THE SANCTITY OF HUMAN AUTHORITY

 234

 

 

Thomas Jefferson famously stated in the Declaration of Independence that “to secure these rights governments are instituted among men, deriving their just powers from the consent of the governed. . .”  And most Americans sincerely believe that – they routinely drive over the speed limit when the cops are not watching.  The law, in and of itself, means nothing to them.  But is Jefferson’s statement really true?

In the limited sense in which Jefferson probably intended it, it undoubtedly is true.  Human governments are, after all, institutions created by human beings for the purpose of establishing law and order in society.  Society could not function without government of some sort.  And so it logically follows that “whenever any form of government becomes destructive of these ends, it is the right of the people to alter or abolish it, and to institute new government, laying its foundations on such principles and organizing its powers in such form, as to them shall seem most likely to affect their safety and happiness.”

But that does not mean, however, that individuals are free to disobey the government any time they happen to feel like it.  A lawfully constituted government must be obeyed except in cases when it is acting immorally.  If everyone took the law into his own hands it would defeat the whole purpose of government and chaos would ensue.

Respect for authority begins in the home.  And so it is that when the apostle Paul wrote his letter to the church at Ephesus he had a special word of exhortation to the children of the congregation: “Children, obey your parents in the Lord, for this is right” (Eph. 6:1; NKJV).  He then goes on to point out that this is, in fact, one of the Ten Commandments: “Honor you father and mother” (v. 2; cf. Ex. 20:12; Dt. 5:16).

Paul says “for this is right” (v. 1).  When he says “right” he does not just mean that it is technically correct.  The Greek word that he uses (dikaion) is usually translated “righteous,” and means “morally right,” i.e., in accordance with God’s moral law.  The idea here is that there is a certain form of behavior expected from us as human beings.  We have a moral obligation to Someone outside of ourselves, and our actions must be brought into conformity with His moral law.  And part of our moral obligation is respect for duly constituted authority.

We are confronted with the issue at the age of two, when we throw our first temper tantrum.  We didn’t get what we wanted and we responded with an outburst of rage.  It is total depravity in its rawest form, and if left unchecked it will lead to a lifetime of ruinous, destructive behavior.  It is the very opposite of that love for neighbor that God requires from us as His creatures.

Paul points out that this is the first one of the Ten Commandments that has a promise attached to it: “that it may be well with you and you may live long on the earth” (v. 3).  In its original context in Deuteronomy, the promise refers specifically to the land of Canaan, a land flowing with milk and honey, which God promised to bless if Israel remained faithful to Him (Dt. 11:8-17).  But there is also a broader sense in which human prosperity is tied to the soil, and is ultimately dependent upon God’s blessing on that soil.  We are the offspring of our parents, and a harvest is the produce of the land.  If we fail to honor our parents who brought us into the world, and upon whom we are dependent during our childhood years, we cannot expect the land to yield its fruit.  In this, as in other areas of life, we really do reap what we sow.

Respect for authority does not end at the parent – child relationship; it extends to other areas as well.  The apostle Peter could write: “Therefore submit yourselves to every ordinance of man for the Lord’s sake, whether to the king as supreme, or to governors, as to those who are sent by him for the punishment of evildoers and for the praise of those who do good” (I Pet. 2:13,14).  Paul himself could refer to the civil magistrate as “God’s minister to you for good,” and exhorted his readers to “be subject to the governing authorities.  For there is no authority except from God, and the authorities that exist are appointed by God” (Rom. 13:1-7).  Individual rulers, of course, are chosen by chosen by men, or at least come to power by human means.  But God is ultimately the Lord of history, and controls events through His providence; and thus the authorities can be said in some sense to be “appointed” by Him (NKJV) or “established” (NASV) or “instituted” (ESV) by Him.  Politicians may be dishonest, incompetent, or even corrupt, but society needs politicians nonetheless.  The alternative is rampant crime and chaos.  We are to respect and honor them for the office they hold; not necessarily their personal attributes.  When Barack Obama was in office, he was the President of all of us as Americans.  Now that Donald Trump holds the office he too is the President of all of us.  And both facts are true no matter what we may personally think of the views of either man.

What the Bible offers us, then, is a basically conservative social philosophy.  Yes, we are morally obligated to care for the disadvantaged in our society.  But we must respect and honor those who are in positions of authority.  Human society simply cannot function in the absence of authority structures needed to plan to organize tasks and maintain order.  We are ultimately accountable to our Creator for our actions, and He expects us to act responsibly in all our affairs.  “Rugged individualism is the essence of human arrogance, and is the opposite of Christian love.  It has no place among Christians.

 

THE DUTY OF HUSBANDS TO THEIR WIVES

 

4.2.7

Anthony van Dyck:Family Portrait

 

 

As we have seen, God has placed husbands in a position of authority over their wives.  But does that mean that they are free to do whatever they please to their wives?  Not at all.  In fact, in some ways the burden that God places on the husbands is greater than the one He placed o the wives.

“Husbands, love your wives, just as Christ also loved the church . . .” (Eph. 5:25; NKJV).  The word “love” is agapate, the word used most often in the New Testament to describe a distinctly Christian type of love.  And here Paul specifically points to the example of Christ as a model of how husbands should love their wives.

And how did Christ love the church?  First of all, He “gave Himself up for her” (v. 25).  The word translated “gave” means to “hand over.”  So great was the love that Christ had for the church that He willingly surrendered His very life on her behalf.  But why did He do this?  What did He hope to accomplish by it?  “. . . that He might sanctify and cleanse her . . . that He might present to Himself a glorious church, not having spot or wrinkle or any such thing, but that she should be holy and without blemish” (vv. 26,27).

In other words, Christ’s aim was the church’s well-being.  But the church’s well-being consists in holiness.  Christ does not allow the church to indulge in every sinful passion or lust.  Rather He desires what is in her genuine best interest.  He wants her to reach her full potential.  And so He does what is best for her, which is not necessarily the same thing as what she wants.

So when Scripture says that husbands ought to love their wives, it is not necessarily talking about a specifically romantic attraction – it does not necessarily mean that the husband is enamored with his wife’s beauty or charm.  Rather it means that he has such a care and concern for his wife and her well-being that he is willing to make any sacrifice necessary on her behalf.  He puts her well-being ahead of his own.

But then Paul gives another reason why husbands should love their wives.  “So husbands ought to love their own wives as their own bodies; he who loves his wife loves himself” (v. 28).  Paul quotes Gen. 2:24: “and the two shall become one flesh.”  When a man and a woman get married, they are essentially becoming one person – “one flesh.”  This means that whatever happens to one of them affects the other as well.  This is why Paul could say “he who loves his wife loves himself.”

Paul then draws out the practical implication of this.  “For no one ever hated his own flesh, but nourishes and cherishes it . . .” (v. 29), or as we might more literally translate it, “feeds and warms it.”  We are sensitive to every bodily ache and pain.  We are quick to relieve the suffering by any means possible.  But that should be exactly our reaction whenever our wives are hurting.  We should feel their pain and seek to do something about it.  We should pamper our wives as ourselves!

And here again Paul points to the example of Christ and the church: “ . . .but nourishes and cherishes it, just as the Lord does the church.  For we are members of His body, of His flesh and of His bones” (vv. 29,30).  Christ, of course, did this for us on the cross to atone for our sins.  But His ministry on our behalf did not end there.  He cares for us still.  He promised His disciples that He would answer prayer (John 14:13,14) and that He would send us another “Helper” (parakletos = a person called to someone’s aid, and advocate, intercessor), the Holy Spirit (John 14:16,17).  Christ gives the church spiritual gifts “for the edifying of the body of Christ” (Eph. 4:7-16).  Christ did not ascend to heaven and forget about us.  Rather, He continues to exercise a ministry on our behalf, guiding us, protecting us and strengthening us.  And He does all of this because He actively cares for us.  This, then, is the care that husbands should have for their wives.

As noted in our last blog post, Paul concludes by saying “Nevertheless let each one of you in particular so love his own wife as himself, and let the wife see that she respects her husband” (v. 33).  In marriage one gives up a lot – you give up your freedom and independence.  You assume a great responsibility, the responsibility of caring for a family.  God’s intention is that marriage would be a permanent, binding commitment between a man and a woman.  Most Americans today are not willing to make that sacrifice and that commitment.  That is why American family life is in shambles today.  We go into marriage for mainly selfish reasons, and then bail out when reality strikes home.

God knows what is best for human society.  We ignore His will at our own peril.  Marriage can be an enormously satisfying experience – if it is done God’s way!

THE DUTY OF WIVES TO THEIR HUSBANDS

 

4.2.7

Anthony van Dyck: Family Portrait

 

America has a marriage problem.  One out of every two marriages ends in divorce.  40% of all children are born out of wedlock.  The American family has clearly become dysfunctional.

Why can’t we make marriage work?  Part of the answer lies in feminism.  Radical feminists have attacked gender roles and put careers ahead of childbearing.  No-fault divorce fundamentally altered the character of marriage and destabilized the family.  But these are all symptoms of an underlying disease.  Our problem as Americans is that we are too narcissistic.  It is “me first” at the expense of everyone else.  And that mentality is a sure prescription for disaster in marriage.  Very few Americans, it seems, are willing to think in terms of the duties and responsibilities of marriage.

In Ephesians chapter 5 the apostle Paul address the subject of marriage.  In verses 22 through 24 he addresses the wives and in verses 25 through 32 he goes on to discuss the role and responsibilities of husbands.  He then concludes by saying “Nevertheless let each one of you in particular so love his own wife as himself, and let the wife see that she respect her husband” (v. 33; NKJV).

Paul compares marriage to the relationship between Christ and the church, and interestingly, in this passage, he spends nearly as much space talking about Christ and the church as he does about husbands and wives.  And so Paul begins by telling the wives, “Wives, submit to your own husbands, as to the Lord” (v. 22), and then goes on to explain why: “For the husband is the head of the wife, as also Christ is the head of the church; and He is the Savior of the body.  Therefore, just as the church is subject to Christ, so let the wives be to their own husbands in everything” (vv. 23,24).

Here, of course, Paul is referring back to what he had said earlier about Christ and the church.  In chapter 1 he had explained that God the Father had placed Christ in a position of authority over the all things, “and gave Him to be head over all things to the church, which is His body, the fullness of Him who fills all in all” (1:22,23).  Here the relationship between Christ and the church is compared to the relationship between a head and the rest of the physical body.  The head contains the brain – it is the head that gives direction to the rest of the body.  But the head is also vitally connected with the body; it does not function apart from it.

The role of the church, then, is to be subject to Christ.  He is the church’s Lord and Savior.  It is not for the church to decide for itself what it wants to do.  Our conscious aim must always be to please Christ – to do whatever He wants us to do.  The church is not a social club, and its aim should not be to pursue its own denominational distinctives.  Nor does it exist to make the pastor rich and famous.  Rather Christ himself should be at the center of everything that the church does.  We need to feel our dependence on Christ, to worship and adore Christ, to be subject to the will of Christ.  “If you love Me, keep My commandments” (John 14:15) – not His suggestions, not His helpful advice, but His commandments.  If we refuse to do so, it is because we don’t really love Him.

Wives, then, are to “submit to your own husbands, as to the Lord” (Eph. 5:22).  The husband, we are told, is the wife’s “head . . .as Christ also is the head of the church” (v. 23).  Marriage is an intimate, hopefully loving, relationship.  The husband is supposed to be the leader, the wife the follower.  She works under his direction.  She was created to be “a helper comparable to him” (Gen. 2:18), not his dictator or boss.

Paul concludes this section by saying, “Nevertheless let each one of you in particular so love his own wife as himself, and let the wife see that she respect her husband” (Eph. 5:33).  The wife is to honor her husband as one who is in authority over her.

A loving husband will appreciate his wife’s opinions on various matters.  But ultimately it is he who must make the final decision.  And if a husband and wife are still arguing and fighting over the matter the wife is simply not submitting to her husband as Scripture has commanded her to do.  And is this not why so many marriages fail?  Wives will fuss and nag over this and the other thing (“When momma ain’t happy ain’t nobody happy”), and fight to get their own way; but in the end they wind up destroying their marriages.  And then what have they gained?  Isn’t God’s way better?