Tribulation Saint

Historic Christianity in the Twenty First Century

GOD’S AUTHORITY

 

The Bible describes God as an all-powerful King who has dominion over the entire world.  “For the Lord Most High is awesome; He is a great King over all the earth” (Psalm 47:2); NKJV).  He is also called “God of gods, and Lord of lords, the great God, mighty and awesome . . . “ (Dt. 10:17), and “The Lord of Hosts . . . the King of glory” (Ps. 24:7-10), Who “has established Hi throne in heaven, / And His kingdom rules over all” (Ps. 103:19).  Nor is this kind of language confined to the Old Testament.  The apostle Paul, writing to Timothy, could say, “Now to the King eternal, immortal, invisible, to God who alone is wise, be honor and glory forever and ever.  Amen” (I Tim. 1:17).  Theologians refer to this as “the sovereignty of God.”

But what does that mean in actual practice?  What it means is that God commands and we are to obey.  First of all, because God is the all-powerful Creator, He is the One who ultimately controls what happens in the universe.

“By the word of the Lord the heavens were made,

And all the host of them by the breath of His mouth . . .

For He spoke, and it was done;

He commanded, and it stood fast.”

(Ps. 33:6,9)

Theologians refer to this as God’s “decretive will,” by which God “works all things according to the counsel of His will” (Eph. 1:11).

But God can also tell us how we ought to live our lives.  God could tell Moses, “But as for you, stand here by Me, and I will speak to you all the commandments, the statutes, and the judgements which you shall teach them, that they may observe them in the land which I am giving them to possess” (Dt. 5:31).  It is noteworthy here that Moses received a direct revelation from God himself, and that it took the form of verbal commands.  The commands, in turn, carried the full weight of God’s authority: “Therefore you shall be careful to do as the Lord your God has commanded you . . .You shall walk in all the ways which the Lord your God has commanded you; you shall not turn aside to the right hand or to the left.  You shall walk in all the ways which the Lord your God has commanded you, that you may live and that it may be well with you, and that you may prolong your days in the land which you shall possess” (vv. 32,33).  This is what theologians call God’s “perceptive will,” the precepts and commandments by which we should live.

But, one may ask, doesn’t this sound tyrannical?  At first it may seem that way.  We as Americans in particular are used to thinking that governments “derive their just powers from the consent of the governed,” to quote the Declaration of Independence.  But we forget that we exist as creatures of God – we owe our very existence to Him.  It is not for us to decide for ourselves the terms of our existence.

The apostle Paul, addressing the Greek philosophers in Athens, pointed out to them that God is the One “who made the world and everything in it,” and is “Lord of heaven and earth” (Acts 17:24).  He “gives to all life, breath, and all things,” and has created every nation of men “so that they would seek the Lord” (vv. 25-27).  But now God “commands all men everywhere to repent” (v. 30).  And why should they repent?  “. . . .because He has appointed  a day on which He will judge the world in righteousness . . .” (v. 31).  As human beings, whether we like it or not, we live in a universe created by God and ruled by God.  In the end it is His will that will prevail.

But does that mean that we are doomed to lead a dreary life of abject slavery, subject to the will of an arbitrary tyrant?  No, not at all; because God is good, benevolent and wise.  His ways are always best.  Psalm 19 glories in the wisdom and goodness contained in God’s law: “The law of the Lord is perfect . . .The statutes of the Lord are right . . .The commandment of the Lord is pure . . . The judgements of the Lord are true and righteous altogether” (vv. 7-9).   God has our best interests at heart, and because we live in a universe that He created, we can find happiness and fulfillment only when we live the way He wants us to.  To avoid an accident, obey the traffic laws!

What God’s sovereignty means for us personally is that we are called to fear Him.  Moses could tell the children of Israel, “You shall walk after the Lord your God and fear Him, and keep His commandments and obey His voice; you shall serve Him and hold fast to Him” (Dt. 13:4).  When it says that we should “fear Him,” it does not mean that we should live in constant terror of Him.  Rather it means that we should have a profound reverence and respect for Him, that we take with utmost seriousness everything that He says, and that we are always careful to obey Him.  He is our Lord and Master; we are His servants.  It is not for us to question His will for our lives.

But more than that, we should love God, and if we genuinely love Him, it will be our delight to obey Him.  “Therefore you shall love the Lord your God, and keep His charge, His statutes, and His commandments always” (Dt. 11:1).  God did not create us to have a hostile relationship with Him, and had we not rebelled and sinned against Him we would have enjoyed uninterrupted communion with Him.  And even now, in spite of our sin and rebellion, He sent His Son into the world to die for our sins so that our communion with Him can be restored.  The object, then, is not to keep us in servile fear, but that we should love Him – love Him for all that He is; love Him for all that He has done for us.  But if we love Him we will obey Him; we will always want to please Him.  God always remains God, and we are His servants.

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GOD BOTH FAR AND NEAR

 

Psalm 113

            God is infinitely greater than anything we can even imagine – unlimited in His being, knowledge and power – the Creator of heaven and earth.  Yet at the same time He is close to us, and has personal knowledge of us.  Theologians refer to this as God’s “transcendence” (God is exalted far above all else) and His “immanence” (God is present with us).  But how God could be both at the same time is truly extraordinary.

Both ideas are brought out in Psalm 113.  It begins with a call to praise the Lord (Hallelu Yah – praise the Lord – v. 1), and then reflects on God’s infinite majesty and glory:

“The Lord is high above all nations,

His glory above the heavens” (v. 4; NKJV).

The nations (goyim – Gentiles) are all the nations of the earth, whether they have any conscious knowledge of God or not.  Empires and civilizations come and go – some are powerful and hold sway over large portions of the earth.  Yet God is above them all.  They are all relatively nothing in His sight.

Moreover God’s “glory” is “above the heavens.”  God’s “glory” is certainly His reputation and honor, but the Bible also uses the term to refer to the splendor of God’s presence.  This is God’s brilliant radiance, which makes Him stand out above all others.  And this, the psalm says, is “above the heavens.”  We stand in awe at the vast expanse of the night sky, the distant galaxies millions of light years away.  And yet God’s glory is greater even still, and stands above all these.

But then the psalm goes on to ask a striking question:

“Who is like the Lord our God,

Who dwells on high,

Who humbles Himself to behold

The things that are in the heavens and in the earth?”  (vv. 5,6)
The underlying Hebrew is a little hard to translate, but the main thought is clear: God makes His dwelling in heaven, far above the sphere of human activity; yet at the same time He graciously condescends to view what goes on down here on earth.  How both could be true at the same time boggles the imagination, yet Scripture asserts both truths at once.

But then what does God do in light of what He sees?  The last three verses of the psalm describe the care He exercises on behalf of the poor and disadvantaged.

“He raises the poor out of the dust,

And lifts the needy out of the ash heap,

That He may seat Him with princes –

With the princes of His people.”  (vv. 7,8).

The language is very similar to that of Hannah’s prayer in I Sam. 2:8.

Likewise,

“He grants the barren woman a home,

Like a joyful mother of children.”  (v. 9).

The implication here seems to be that in ancient Israelite society a woman’s social position within the home was not secure until she bore children, again apparently referring back to the experience of Hannah, who had been childless while her husband’s other wife had children.  In both cases God sees the situation, is concerned about it, and does something to resolve it.

Here, then, are the two sides of God’s existence: His transcendence and His immanence.  His transcendence, the fact that He is “high above all nations,” should move us to awe and wonder.  God is infinitely greater than any earthly, created thing, and infinitely greater than ourselves.  That fact should have a profoundly humbling effect on ourselves.  When we approach Him in prayer we should do so with the utmost reverence and humility.

And yet, at the same time, God is near at hand.  He knows about our personal circumstances, cares about what happens to us, and can take appropriate action.  And this, in turn, should fill us with joy and praise – that such a great God, high and lifted up, the Ruler of heaven and earth, can condescend to view our poor plight and come to our aid – who can conceive of such a thing?  And yet it is true!  And thus the psalm begins and ends, “Praise the Lord!”

DIVINE PROVIDENCE – II

 

 

We have seen that God controls the forces of nature and can even override them as necessary.  But what about the actions of human beings?  Can God control those as well?  Are we not at the mercy of others, stronger and more powerful than ourselves?  Can God answer prayer in the face of human opposition?

Some imagine that man has a free will, and therefore his actions cannot be determined by God – that if God can control what human beings do, that would, in effect, make God the author of sin.  The Westminster Confession of Faith, on the other hand, makes the assertion that “God from all eternity, did, by the most wise and holy counsel of His own will, freely, and unchangeably ordain whatever comes to pass: yet so, as thereby neither is God the author of sin, nor is violence offered to the will of the creatures; nor is the liberty or contingency of second causes taken away, but rather established’ (Westminster Confession, III.i).  The question is, how does divine sovereignty relate to human responsibility?  This is, in fact, one of the most difficult of all theological questions.

The Bible makes it clear that God “works all thins according to the counsel of His will” (Eph. 1:11; NKJV), and that includes His ability to control the human will: “for it is God who works in you both to will and to do His good pleasure” (Phil. 2:13).  “A man’s heart plans his way, / But the Lord directs his steps” (Prov. 16:9)  God can control what a powerful human ruler does: “The king’s heart is in the hand of the Lord, / Like the rivers of water; / He turns it wherever He wishes” (Prov. 21:1).  And ultimately God controls the destinies of entire nations. Hanna could exclaim:

“The Lord kills and makes alive;

He brings down to the grave and brings up.

The Lord makes poor and makes rich;

He brings low and lifts up.

He raises the poor from the dust

And lifts the beggar from the ash heap,

To set them among princes

And make them inherit the throne of glory.”

(I Sam. 2:6-8)

Even the worst crime in human history was done according to God’s plan: Peter could tell a Jewish audience, “Him [i.e., Christ], being delivered by the determined purpose and foreknowledge of God, you have taken by lawless hands, have crucified, and put to death . . .” (Acts 2:23).  And yet God is not the author of sin: “Let no one say when he is tempted, ‘I am tempted by God’; for God cannot be tempted by evil, nor does He Himself tempt anyone.  But each one is tempted when he is drawn away by his own desires and enticed” (Jas. 1:13,14).  But how can how can both the sovereignty of God and human responsibility both be true at the same time?

A classic illustration is Pharaoh at the time of the Exodus.  God told Moses at the very start “I will harden Pharaoh’s heart, and multiply My signs and My wonders in the land of Egypt” (Ex. 7:3).  As the narrative unfolds God sends the plagues on Egypt to demonstrate His power, and yet it was not until after the last one that Pharaoh finally consented to let Israel go.  What happened in the meantime?  In five places the text says that God hardened Pharaoh’s heart (Ex. 9:12; 10:1, 20, 27; 11:10); and in three places it says that Pharaoh hardened his own heart (Ex. 8:15, 32; 9:34).  So which was it – God or Pharaoh?

The answer is found in the verse from James just quoted: “But each one is tempted when he is drawn away by his own desires and entice” (Jas. 1:14).  “The heart is deceitful above all things, / And desperately wicked; / Who can know it?” (Jer. 17:9).  Thus the immediate cause of sin is our own depraved human nature: we sin because we want to sin.

But how, then, could God be said to have “hardened” Pharaoh’s heart?  The answer is found in Romans chapter 1 where, describing human depravity, it says in no less than three different places that God “gave them up” (vv. 24, 26, 28) – gave them up “to uncleanness, to the lusts of their hearts” (v. 24), “to the passions” (v. 26); “to a debased mind” (v. 28).  In other words, the impulse to commit sin lies within human nature; God acts as a restraining influence.  God will then sometimes removes the restraint, allowing human depravity to take its natural course, knowing full well what we will do as a result.  The sin is ours, but the outcome is part of God’s plan.  And God can use the evil actions of human beings to bring about the ultimate good.  Joseph, in the Old Testament, could tell his guilt ridden brothers, “But as for you, you meant evil against me; but God meant it for good, in order to bring it about as it is this day, to save many people alive” (Gen. 50:20).  And, of course, the ultimate example of this is the crucifixion of Christ himself – the most horrible crime ever perpetrated by mortal man, and yet all a part of God’s eternal plan.

God, then, is in control of human events, and as a result He controls what happens to us personally.  This, then, should affect how we respond to the various trials and difficulties that come our way.  We need to look to God for the solution to our problems, and put our trust in Him

“For exaltation comes neither from the east

Nor from the west for from the south.

But God is the Judge:

He puts down one,

And exalts another.”

(Psalm 75:6,7)

Or, as Hannah put it in her prayer, “For by strength no man shall prevail” (I Sam. 2:9b).  That consideration should cure us of the disease of self-sufficiency, and make us realize how truly dependent we are upon God.  But it should also give us confidence and strengthen our faith – no matter how great the obstacle before us, God is even greater.  If it is His will, it will be accomplished!

And finally, it should cause us to give God all the glory.  Everything we have we owe to Him – it came to us through His providence.  “Now to Him who is able to do exceedingly abundantly above all that we ask or think, according to the power that works in us, to Him be glory in the church by Christ Jesus to all generation, forever and ever.  Amen” (Eph. 3:20,21).

DIVINE PROVIDENCE – I

 

Can God answer prayer?  Almost every Christian would emphatically say “yes.”  But skeptics remain unconvinced.  To them there are two major objections to the idea that God can answer prayer: 1) the physical world operates on the basis of natural law, in which every effect has a natural cause; and 2) human beings have a free will, making it difficult to see how their actions can be controlled or governed by God.  How, then, do we answer these objections?

We will begin with the first objection: how can God control what happens to us in life, if what happens in the physical realm is the result of natural causes?  Did God cause it to rain, or the cold front that moved through our area?  The weathermen, after all, never mention God in their forecasts.  So what really causes the weather – God or the forces of nature?

The answer is both.  God is the Creator of nature, and thus created the natural forces as work in the physical world.  But the Bible goes beyond that and asserts that not only did God create the world, He actively sustains it as well.  The apostle Paul, speaking to the Athenian philosophers, could say of God, “In Him we live and move and have our being . . .” (Acts 17:28; NKJV).  And writing to the Christians of Colosse he could say of Christ, “. . . all things were created through Him and for Him.  And He is before all things, and in Him all things consist” (Col. 1:16,17).  And the author of the Epistle to the Hebrews could say that Christ is “upholding all things by the word of His power . . .” (Heb. 1:3).  How is this possible?   Bear in mind that the idea that everything in nature must have a natural cause is only an assumption.  There is much in nature, from subatomic particles to the distant galaxies that we cannot observe directly, and much is shrouded in mystery.  And what is the ultimate source of energy and life?  Might it not be God himself?

Some theologians have explained the relationship between God and nature in terms of “concursus” in which God is the first cause, and the forces of nature are the second causes.  The first cause acts on the second cause, which, in turn, produces the observable effect.  In this way it is God who ultimately controls what happens in nature.

Scripture also makes it clear that God can override the course of nature and perform that which is miraculous and supernatural.  The Bible contains many accounts of such miracles, including everything from the Exodus out of Egypt to the resurrection of Christ.  It is at this point, of course, that skeptics will flat-out deny the biblical record.   But in the four gospels of the New Testament, all written in the First Century, two of them by eye-witnesses, there are accounts of Jesus performing miracles and Himself rising from the dead.  The Gospels according to Mark and John are especially vivid accounts, Mark based on the eyewitness testimony of Peter, and John being an eyewitness himself.  In both cases it is evident that Jesus left a very deep impression on those who knew Him personally.  If it were just a matter of only one account it could conceivably be dismissed as a fraud or delusion.  But the New Testament writers, coming from a wide variety of backgrounds, were unanimous in asserting that Jesus had actually risen from the dead.

What, then, do we make of all of this?  First of all, we should be able to go to God in prayer for our physical and material needs in the full confidence that He can meet those needs.  “Ask, and it will be given to you; seek, and you will find; knock, and it will be opened to you,” our Lord said (Matt. 7:7).  God is omnipotent; He is the Maker of heaven and earth.  He can “supply all your need according to His riches in glory” (Phil. 4:19).

By the same token it is pure folly to trust in human means when it is really God who controls our destinies.

“Unless the Lord builds the house,

They labor in vain who build it;

Unless the Lord guards the city,

The watchman stays awake in vain.”

(Psalm 127:1)

We may think that we have plentiful resources at our disposal: education, wealth, physical strength, and personal connections.  But how often have our plans been frustrated by forces beyond our control?  In the end it is God who determines the outcome, and thus it is on God on whom we must rely.  Our failures in life should be fresh reminders of Who is in control, and we should be humbled accordingly.

And let us never forget to acknowledge God’s blessings already received.  “Every good gift and every perfect gift is from above, and comes down from the Father of lights, with whom there is no variation or shadow of turning” (Jas. 1:17)m and we should acknowledge God accordingly.  As ancient Israel was about to enter the promised land, Moses sternly warned them of the spiritually stupefying effects of material prosperity.  They were about to enter a land flowing with milk and honey, but the danger would be that they would forget the God who made all of these blessings possible.  “. . .then you shall say in your heart, ’My power and the might of my hand have gained me this wealth.’”   Moses tells them “And you shall remember the Lord your God, for it is He who gives you power to get wealth, that He may establish His covenant which He swore to your fathers, as it is this day” (Dt. 8:17,18).  When we are prosperous and successful we become complacent and self-satisfied.  We attribute our success to our own effort, and forget who sent the sun and rain, the health and strength.  It is then we spiritually wither and die.  Is this not what is wrong with contemporary American Christianity?  We don’t pray because don’t feel our dependence upon God.  And He is far from us; or, as we might better say, we have departed from Him.  May God help us always to remember the source of our temporal blessings.

 

THE KNOWLEDGE OF GOD

 

Psalm 139

What makes it possible to have a personal relationship with God himself is the fact that God is a Person, a conscious Being who can think and feel and act.  And an important part of His personhood is the fact that He knows things – He is conscious of other objects.  And what is especially remarkable is the fact that the Ruler of the universe knows each one of us individually.

This is brought out in a striking way in Psalm 139.  As David reflects on his relationship with God his is struck by the fact that God knows everything, and that God knows him personally.

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

(Psalm 139:1; NKJV).

Moreover God knew David exhaustively and comprehensively.  God observed all of his actions: his sitting down and his rising up (vv. 1,2), and his lying down (v. 3).  God hears every word that he says (v. 4), and knows what David is thinking (v. 2).

Moreover there is no place where David can go to hide from God.  If he were to go up to heaven, God is obviously there (v. 8).  But what about hell (sheol – the abode of the dead)?  God can even find him there too (v. 8b).  If David went aboard a ship and sailed to some distant land God could find him there as well (vv. 9,10).  Nor can David try to hide in the dark.

“If I say, ‘Surely the darkness shall fall on me,]

Even the night shall be light about me.

Indeed, the darkness shall not hide from You,

But the night shines as the day;

The darkness and the light are both alike to You.” (vv. 11,12)

God’s knowledge of David began while David was still in his mother’s womb (vv. 13-16).  In short, there was nothing about David that God did not know.

The fact that God knows everything about us can be both comforting and intimidating at the same time.  On the one hand David could say,

“You have hedged me behind and before,

And laid Your hand upon me.”  (v. 5)

And,

“Even there Your hand shall lead me,

And Your right hand shall hold me.” (v. 10).

God knows all about us.  He is fully aware of the circumstances we face.  And, in fact, He knows things about our circumstances that we ourselves do not know.  And thus He is fully able to guide and protect us.  This consideration should enable us to go to Him in prayer in the full confidence that He will hear and answer.  But we need to learn to be patient and wait for His perfect timing and solution.  And for us, as finite, mortal human beings, that can be hard.

But God’s knowledge of us can be intimidating as well.  If He knows everything about us – everything we do, everything we say, everything we even think, there is nothing we can hide form Him.  Our entire hearts and lives are an open book to Him.  Thus in a very real sense we are personally accountable to our Creator for our actions.  Thus David concludes the psalm by saying:

“Search me, O God, and know my heart;

Try me, and know my anxieties;

And see if there is any wicked way in me,

And lead me in the way everlasting.”

(vv. 23,24).

Here he invites God to “search” him and “try” him.  The implication is that he wants God to judge his innermost thoughts, motives and desires.  This could also include David’s “anxieties” – his unsettling thoughts that might lead him to do the wrong thing.  And David specifically wants God to determine if there is any “wicked way” in him (lit., a “way of pain,” i.e., actions that cause pain in others).  And the ultimate object is to be led “in the way everlasting” – the path that leads to eternity.

Thus the God with whom we have to do is the true and living God – a conscious, personal Being who wants us to interact with Him in a genuine and sincere way.  As sinful, fallen human beings we try to ignore Him, to exclude Him from our lives.  But when we do so our lives are empty and meaningless.  For no fleeting pleasure, no finite earthly object can take the place of our Creator.  St Augustine said it well when he declared, “For thou hast created us for thyself, and our heart cannot be quieted till it may find repose in thee” (Confessions, I.i).

THE ETERNITY OF GOD

 

Death and eternity are the two great existential questions facing mortal man, and nothing accentuates the differences between God and man than this stark reality.  God is eternal, immortal; man dies.  Between the two modes of existence there is no comparison.

Moses was struck by this fact as he led the children of Israel through the wilderness.  What had begun as an exciting adventure turned into a moral tragedy, which led God to pronounce the frightful sentence that a whole generation of Israelites would perish in the wilderness.  Soon after this, or perhaps when it was all over, Moses was led to pen the words of Psalm 90, a somber reflection on death and eternity.

But Moses begins by reflecting on God’s eternity:

“Lord, You have been our dwelling place in all generations.

Before the mountains were brought forth,

Or ever You formed the earth and the world,

Even from everlasting, You are God.”

(Ps. 90:1,2; NKJV).

Theologians have long speculated that God stands outside of time.  But that is a philosophical concept, drawn from secular sources.  It is not really found in the Bible.  Rather, the Bible portrays God as existing for an endless succession of ages.  Moses looks at the mountains, the every epitome of strength and durability, and points out that even they at one time did not exist.  But God was there long before even that.  God was there before even the earth itself existed.

“Before the mountains were brought forth,

Or even You had formed he earth and the world,

Even from everlasting to everlasting, You are God.”

The word translated “everlasting” (olam) means a long period of time in either the past or the future.  Thus the idea here is that the duration of God’s existence defies human comprehension.  In that regard He is infinitely greater than anything that we have ever experienced in the created reality.

Likewise from God’s perspective what seems like a long time to us is nothing to Him.

“For a thousand years in Your sight

Are like yesterday when it is past,

And like a watch in the night”  (v. 4).

For us eighty years is a lifetime.  A thousand years is virtually unimaginable.  But to Someone who has existed from all eternity, however, it is scarcely the blink of an eye.

Man, however, must confront his own mortality.  And this is the result of the sentence which God pronounce on us:

“You turn man to destruction,

And say ‘Return, O children of men.’”  (v. 3)

Moses goes on to compare human existence to a dream or to grass, something that is here today and vanishes without a trace tomorrow.  Herein lies the melancholy fact of human existence: as full of life and vitality as we may be today, there is nothing we can do to stop the approach of death.  Eventually we must all die, and will be nothing more than a tombstone in a cemetery.

All of this should lead us to a profound humility in the presence of God.  Here we are, frail, mortal creatures of the dust, here today and gone tomorrow, standing before God who is infinite, immortal and eternal.  His eternity should overwhelm us, and we should have a proper sense of our own relative insignificance.

But secondly, God’s eternity should inspire our confidence in Him.  We are subject to injury and disease, hunger and privation.  Our grasp on life is tenuous at best, and the best of human aids may fail us when we need them the most.  But God is eternal, untouched by the vicissitudes of human existence.  He will always be there, always able to help.  And, indeed, Moses ends his psalm by appealing to God for His help.

“And let the beauty of the Lord our God be upon us,

And establish the work of our hands for us . . .”  (v. 17).

But most importantly of all, the eternity of God should cause us to value Him far above every earthly, created thing.  Earthly things are finite, vulnerable to injury, and finally pass away.  God is the eternal good, infinite perfection, untouched by earthly weakness and frailty.  Which would we rather have?  Only a fool would choose the former.

As the English Puritan Stephen Charnock put it, “And truly, since nothing but God is eternal, nothing but God is worth the loving; and we do but a just right to our love, to pitch it upon that which can always possess us and by possessed by us; upon an object that cannot deceive our affection, and put it out of countenance by a dissolution.”

And that consideration should be enough to arrest any temptation to sin.  Again Charnock put it this way: “What transitory pleasures will not the thoughts of God’s eternity stifle?  When this work [i.e., meditating on God’s eternity] busieth a soul, it is too great to suffer it to descend, to listen to sleeveless errand from hell or the world.  The wanton allurements of the flesh will be put off with indignation.  The proffers of the world will be ridiculous when they are cast into the balance with the eternity of God, which sticking in our thoughts, we shall not be so easy a prey for the fowler’s gin.”  Charnock concludes by saying, “Let us therefore, often meditate upon this, but not in a bare speculation, without engaging our affections, and making every potion of the divine eternity end in a suitable impression upon our hearts.”  Amen!

WHY CHURCH?

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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)

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.

WHAT MUST I DO TO BE SAVED?

169

The Ethiopian Eunuch

 

If Christ died, then, as an atonement for sin, and His death is of infinite value, does that mean, then, that everyone is automatically saved?  While that may seem like a logical conclusion, it is not what the Bible says.  There is a condition which must be met.  “He who believes in the Son; and he who does not believe the Son shall not see life, but the wrath of God abides on him” (John 3:36; NKJV).  “For God so loved the world that He gave His only begotten Son, that whoever believes in Him should not perish but have everlasting life” (John 3:16).  We are justified (made righteous in the sight of God) by faith.  We must believe on Christ in order to be saved and have our sins forgiven.  We are save by faith in Christ.

But what does it mean to “believe on” Christ?  The Bible defines faith as “the assurance of things hoped for, the conviction of things not seen” (Heb. 11:1; NASV, ESV).  Faith is the firm conviction that what God has said is true and will come to pass.  His word can be relied upon.  People demonstrated their faith by acting upon God’s promises.  “But without faith it is impossible to please Him, for he who comes to God must believe that He is, and that He is a rewarder of those who diligently seek Him” (Heb. 11:6; NKJV).  Hebrews 11 goes on to give us a long catalog of those who acted in faith.  “These all died in faith, not having received the promise, but having seen them afar off, were assured of them, embraced them and confessed that they were strangers and pilgrims on the earth” (v. 13).  In salvation faith means to put one’s faith and confidence in Christ, to rely actively on Him and trust Him only for your salvation.

Faith is more than mere assent to a religious dogma.  “You believe that there is one God.  You do well.  Even the demons believe – and tremble!” (James 2:19).  The demons, obviously, are not saved.  It is one thing to believe something about Christ; it is something different actively to put your trust in Him.  “Believe on the Lord Jesus Christ, and you will be saved . . . “ (Acts 16:31).

True faith is accompanied by true repentance.  You cannot ask God to forgive your sins unless you genuinely acknowledge that they are sins and you desire to turn from them.  There must be a genuine sorrow over sin.

“’Now, therefore,’ says the Lord,

‘Turn to Me with all your heart,

With fasting, with weeping, and with mourning.’

So rend your heart, and not your garments;

Return to the Lord your God,

For He is gracious and merciful,

Slow to anger, and of great kindness;

And He relents from doing harm.”

(Joel 2:12,13)

And a genuine sorrow over sin will include a desire to be free from it and live a life that is pleasing to God.  “Therefore bear fruits worthy of repentance” (Matt. 3:8).  These are not works that you perform in order to earn your salvation or to merit anything from God, but rather evidence that your repentance is real and genuine.  God will save you from your sin; it is all a work of His unmerited favor.  But the question is, do you really want to be saved?  And if so, form what?

But then our faith in Christ should express itself by publicly identifying ourselves with Him, and this is done in baptism.  Peter could conclude his sermon on Pentecost by saying, “Repent, and let everyone of you be baptized in the name of Jesus Christ for the remission of sins, and you shall receive the gift of the Holy Spirit” (Acts 2:38).  Jesus said, “Therefore whoever confesses Me before men, him will I also confess before My Father who is in heaven.  But whoever denies Me before men, him I will also deny before My Father who is in heaven” (Matt. 10:32,33; cf. Lu. 12:8,9).  Some evangelists have used this as a justification for the altar call, but there is no evidence from Scripture that such a practice existed in the early church.  Rather, baptism was the means of publicly identifying oneself with Christ.

Several things should be noted here.  First of all the assumption throughout the New Testament is that the person being baptized is a professing believer.  “For as many of you as were baptized into Christ have put on Christ.  You are all one in Christ Jesus” (Gal. 3:27,28; cf. Rom. 6:3), the implication being that everyone who has been baptized  has actually been incorporated into the universal church, the body of Christ.  Moreover, there is no direct command nor any clear example in the New Testament to warrant the practice of infant baptism.

Secondly, baptism is not a good work that somehow merits salvation, nor is a sacrament that somehow works automatically to impart salvation.  Rather, “. . .baptism now saves you – not the removal of dirt from the flesh, but an appeal to God for a good conscience – through the resurrection of Jesus Christ . . .” (I Pet. 3:21; NASV; cf. ESV).  Baptism is the formal, outward means by which we declare our faith and allegiance to Christ, and as such formally begins the relationship with Him.  It is the faith itself, however, which makes us righteous in the sight of God.  Baptism is the outward expression of the inward reality, the sign and seal of our faith.

This, then, is how we are saved: we must repent of our sins, put our trust in Christ as our Savior, and publicly identify ourselves with Him in baptism.  “. . .if you confess with your mouth the Lord Jesus and believe in your heart that God has raised Him from the dead, you will be saved.  For with the heart one believes unto righteousness, and with the mouth confession is made unto salvation” (Rom. 10:9,10).

JUSTICE CALLED; GRACE ANSWERED

 

But if God is both just and compassionate, what should He do about man’s sin?  Justice demands that He punish it; but compassion wants to forgive the sinner.  And if He punishes sin He destroys man, whom He originally created.  What should He do?

It should be noted that the problem was created by man, not by God.  There is nothing wrong with justice; there is nothing wrong with compassion.  The problem is man’s sin, and man created the problem by doing things that he himself knows is wrong.  The problem lies with us, not with God.

But that being said, what should God do?  There is one possible way out of the dilemma.  If a substitute could be found, someone to take our place and pay the penalty for our sins, God could forgive us while at the same time uphold His justice.  Sins could be punished and forgiven at the same time.

But who would be willing to do such a thing?  And more to the point, who would even be qualified to do such a thing?  The substitute would have to be absolutely innocent himself, or else he would merely be paying for his own sins.   And he would have to be a person whose life would be equal to that of millions of human beings combined, or else he could be a substitute for only one other person.  The rest of us would be lost.  The whole scenario seems highly unlikely.

But then something extraordinary happened.  “But when the fullness of time had come, God sent forth His Son, born of a woman, born under the law, to redeem those who were under the law, that we might receive the adoption as sons” (Gal. 4:4,5; NKJV).  “For God so loved the world that He gave His only begotten Son, that whoever believes in Him should not perish but have eternal life” (John 3:16).

As it turns out Jesus was the only Person qualified to fill the role.  First of all, He was completely sinless Himself.  He was “in all points tempted as we are, yet without sin” (Heb. 4:15).  He can sympathize with us, having lived here on earth as a human being, yet He never succumbed to temptation.  Yet because He was also God, God the Father’s own dear Son, His blood was of infinite value, and could atone for the sins of all those who would come to Him in faith.

And yet at what a cost to God the Father!  “For God so loved the world that He gave His only begotten Son . . .”  Jesus was the Father’s “only begotten Son.”  God has many adopted children, but Jesus was His only eternal Son by nature.  And it was His only begotten Son that He sent into the world to die for our sins.  Jesus was born under the humblest circumstances, was arrested under false charges and given a mockery of a trial.  He was mocked, scourged and suffered an agonizing death on a cross.  And all of this happened to God’s only begotten Son, the only human being who was absolutely without sin Himself, the last Person on earth who deserved to die.  No greater travesty of justice ever occurred in human history.  And He did that of us, to atone for our sins and obtain forgiveness for us.

Christ would not have done it unless it had been absolutely necessary to satisfy the demands of divine justice.  “. . .without the shedding of blood there is no remission” (Heb. 9:23); and yet “it is not possible that the blood of bulls and goats could take away sins” (Heb. 10:4).  Therefore God “sent His Son to be the propitiation for our sins” (I John 4:10).

At the same time God would not have sent His Son to die for our sins if He had not had a great love for us.  “But God demonstrates His own love towards us in that while we were still sinners, Christ died for us” (Rom. 5:8).  God sent His Son to die for us, not because we were lovable – “we were still sinners” – but because of the pity and compassion He has for His ruined and suffering creatures.  And He demonstrates His love for us, but by excusing our sin, but by sending His own Son to die on the cross and atone for it.

“Amazing love, how can it be

That Thou my God shouldst die for me?”

Charles Wesley

In this way the demands of both justice and compassion can be met simultaneously. Sin is both punished and forgiven at the same time.  God is able 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. 3:26).  “Mercy and truth have met together; / Righteousness and peach have kissed” (Psalm 85:10).

It is important to mention that this is the reason why there is no salvation outside of Christ.  It simply not true that Jesus was one of several different great religious teachers down through history, and that “all roads lead to heaven.”  Man’s real problem is his sin and guilt before a holy God, and the only solution to that problem is Christ’s atonement on the cross.  Christ was much more than a great prophet or religious leader; He is the Savior, the only Savior.  “For there is one God and one Mediator between God and man, the Man Christ Jesus, who gave Himself a ransom for all . . .” (I Tim. 2:5,6a).