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Theology

Criticizing like a Christian

“Any fool can criticize, condemn and complain – and most fools do” – Dale Carnegie

*****

In his bestseller How to Win Friends and Influence People Dale Carnegie begins with the story of “Two Gun” Crowley, a famous killer from the 1930s. When authorities tracked him down:

…150 policemen and detectives laid siege to his top-floor hideaway. They chopped holes in the roof; they tried to smoke out Crowley, the “cop killer,” with tear gas. Then they mounted their machine guns on surrounding buildings, and for more than an hour one of New York’s fine residential areas reverberated with the crack of pistol fire and the rat-tat-tat of machine guns.

Shortly before, Crowley had been parked along a country road, kissing his girlfriend, when a policeman had walked up and asked to see his license. Crowley responded by immediately shooting the officer several times, grabbing the officer’s gun, and shooting the now prone man with his own gun. He then fled to his hideaway where he was soon discovered. Though completely surrounded Crowley shot back incessantly, but also found time to write a letter, addressed “To whom it may concern.” In this letter Crowley described himself as a man with “a weary heart, but a kind one – one who would do nobody any harm.” When he was finally caught, convicted and sentenced to the electric chair he continued to think highly of himself. Instead of admitting this was the consequence of his sins he said: “This is what I get for defending myself.” The moral of this little story? Even when our guilt is clear, we will find ways to justify our actions and convince ourselves that someone else must be to blame. Or as Carnegie puts it “ninety-nine times out of a hundred, people don’t criticize themselves for anything, no matter how wrong may be.” A solution? Carnegie has it exactly right. It is human nature to try to elude criticism, and when we can’t manage that, we will at least try to spread the blame around. After all, we know we’re good, so if we did something bad it must be someone else’s fault.

“…but you made me lose me temper!” “They had it coming.” “You wouldn’t believe what she said first…”

We are all prone to presenting “the devil made me do it” excuses and justifications as if they were valid reasons for our behavior. Carnegie concludes that because we all hate criticism, and pay so little attention to it, “Criticism is futile.” He suggests that, as a general rule, we “Don’t criticize, condemn or complain” and instead focus on the positive and the praiseworthy. God’s thoughts on criticizing Most of us could benefit from taking a large dose of Carnegie’s advice. But does it work as an absolute rule? Should we never criticize? While Jesus spoke against quick, thoughtless, and hypocritical criticism (Matt. 7:1-5), He also called on listeners to “repent and believe” (Mark 1:15), which is a decidedly critical message. It demands that people stop and turn from the evil they are doing! In fact, God says a dividing line between the righteous and the fool is in how they take criticism. Whoever loves discipline loves knowledge, but he who hates reproof is stupid. - Prov. 12:1 A wise son hears his father’s instruction, but a scoffer does not listen to rebuke. – Prov. 13:1 A fool despises his father’s instruction, but whoever heeds reproof is prudent. – Prov. 15:5 A rebuke goes deeper into a man of understanding than a hundred blows into a fool. - Prov. 17:10 Clearly, if taking criticism is a mark of wisdom, then there is a need also to give it – for Christians it is not a matter of whether we should ever criticize, but instead when and how we should go about doing it. When we look to the Bible for guidance, we find at least four questions to consider. 1. Is criticism needed...or grace? To those all aware of their sins and already sorry for them, further fault-finding isn't needed (though some who say they are sorry for their sin are simply sorry they were caught). If a person is already broken, then we can make them aware of our Saviour – we can skip the criticism and get right to grace! It is only those who don't know the bad news – who as Carnegie puts "don’t criticize themselves for anything, no matter how wrong may be” – that we need to first bring to Moses, the law, and the evidence of their sinfulness, before we bring them to Jesus. 2. Are we doing it in love? There are so many wrong reasons to criticize – because we are angry or frustrated, because we want to feel superior, because we want to defend ourselves and don’t want to listen to someone’s criticism of us. That’s why when we are going to criticize it is important to question our motivations. Do we want to build this person up, or tear them down? Are we doing this out of annoyance, or out of love? A good rule of thumb might be that, if we really want to criticize, we probably aren't doing it with the right motivations. But the reverse is also true. If we see a friend, our spouse, a brother or sister, or our children, heading off down the wrong path and we don't want to speak up, that's also a good time to question our motivations – are we being apathetic and cowardly, and, consequently, unloving in not going after a straying sheep? Now, in 1 Cor. 13:4-7 we read that love is patient and keeps no record of wrongs. And 1 Peter 4:8 communicates a similar thought – love overlooks a multitude of sins. If we are to lovingly criticize one another this means we will only speak up about something substantial – something that matters – and won’t keep a running tally of petty grievances. Criticizing lovingly also means doing so inclusively – a matter of coming alongside rather than lecturing from high atop our pedestal. As Paul Tripp puts it, we need to make it clear we are “people in need of change helping people in need of change.” How might this look in practice? Street preacher Ray Comfort, when confronted by a homosexual, will talk first about the sins they hold in common. He will ask whether the man has ever stolen anything, ever lied, ever hated someone in his heart. By starting with the sins they hold in common, rather than the sin they do not, Comfort makes it clear he has no delusions of grandeur. He knows he is in need of this same promise of forgiveness he’s preaching. 3. Are we criticizing with care? We should criticize with care. In Matthew 7:1-5 Jesus condemns how quick we are to judge others by standards that we don’t measure up to ourselves.

“Why do you look at the speck of sawdust in your brother’s eye and pay no attention to the plank in your own eye? How can you say to your brother, ‘Let me take the speck out of your eye,’ when all the time there is a plank in your own eye? You hypocrite, first take the plank out of your own eye, and then you will see clearly to remove the speck from your brother’s eye.

This rules out casual critiques. We too easily evaluate the faults of those all around us, and know just what they should do to fix their hair, their wardrobe, their children or marriage. But this sort of flippant evaluation isn’t done out of love. We aren’t looking to help our neighbor; we point out their flaws so we can feel superior to them. It also rules out reactive criticism. Jesus wants us to consider our own problems and sins – the “plank in our own eye.” So when these problems are pointed out to us, it is may be human nature to respond in kind with a snap assessment of our critic, but that isn’t the godly response.

There is one whose rash words are like sword thrusts, but the tongue of the wise brings healing. – Prov 12:18

4. Have we tried it privately? Whenever possible, we should offer criticism privately. In Matthew 18:15 the first step in correcting a sinning brother involves a private meeting “just between the two of you.” This is the approach Aquila and Priscilla used when they wanted to explain the “way of God more adequately” to Apollos, who “knew only the baptism of John.” They invited him back to the privacy of their home to talk and teach. None of us like to be criticized but we especially don’t like to be criticized publicly. In the spirit of doing unto others as we would like them to do unto us we should offer our criticism privately. This is just as true for our children. We clearly have to criticize and correct them – that is a parent’s God-given role. But we can try to do this in private as much as possible. Spankings can be administered in a room far from guests or other children. Talks, too, can be done behind a closed door, away from the ears of their siblings. Matthew 18 also makes it clear that not all criticism can be done privately, but when it is possible it is best. Conclusion We should criticize carefully, lovingly and privately, but we most certainly should criticize. God has put us together in a community so that we can “teach and admonish one another” (Col. 3:16). Sometimes there can be a temptation to stay quiet, even when we have some godly wisdom to offer a brother having problems. We can even fool ourselves into thinking we are simply “minding our own business” (and that our silence has nothing at all to do with cowardice). But minding our own business isn’t exactly a Christian virtue - we are our brother’s keeper and we must be concerned with his welfare. So if we love him, and he is in need of correction, silence is simply not an option.

“My brothers and sisters, if one of you should wander from the truth and someone should bring that person back, remember this: Whoever turns a sinner from the error of their way will save them from death…” – James 5:19-20

A version of this article originally appeared in the February 2012 issue.

****

Postscript: How should we receive criticism? As Carnegie notes, it is human nature to bristle at criticism and ignore it, but human nature is sinful, so the way we do react might not be the way we should react. God tells us that it is simply stupid to hate correction (Prov 12:1). We know we are far from perfect, and clearly in need of improvement, so we should “listen to advice and accept instruction” (Prov. 19:20). So how do we overcome our defensiveness? How can we learn to welcome criticism? We need to ask God to make us want to be wise, rather than foolish. We need to pray for a growing awareness of our own sins, and our need for correction. It is only when we understand how needy we are that we will embrace the help that is offered. That doesn't mean listening to every critic – many are fools. But it does mean we need to recognize that criticism of the godly sort is a precious, if not always pleasant, commodity.

Theology

Infant baptism vs. believers-only baptism: What’s the main difference?

The fundamental difference between the two positions is revealed in how one answers this question: Is baptism primarily God’s action or is it a human response? The Bible tells us that we are dead in sin (Eph. 2:1). Consequently, it is God who makes us alive in Christ Jesus (Eph. 2:4). Even our faith, which is our response to God’s great work of salvation, is of divine origin. Faith itself is gift of God (Eph. 2:8). Infant baptism testifies to the grace of God in salvation: God is the one who initiates, acts and saves. Believers-only baptism testifies to our response of faith to God’s saving work in ourselves. On this view, baptism is a sign and seal of my public profession of faith in Christ Jesus. An overlooked argument There are plenty of helpful resources on infant baptism, and most of them rightly link baptism to circumcision. In Genesis 17, God promises to be “God to you and to your offspring forever (Gen. 17:7). There is great comfort in knowing that God binds himself by covenant to infants even before they can respond to him by faith. Truly, we love him because he first loved us. Often overlooked, however, in the discussion on infant baptism are Paul’s remarks in 1 Corinthians 10:1-5. Although these verses do not provide a comprehensive understanding of infant baptism, they provide another important line of thought. Put simply: Paul assumes that New Testament baptism is the fulfillment of Mosaic baptism. Paul writes: "For I do not want you to be unaware, brothers, that our fathers were all under the cloud, and all passed through the sea, and all were baptized into Moses in the cloud and in the sea, and all ate the same spiritual food, and all drank the same spiritual drink. For they drank from the spiritual Rock that followed them, and the Rock was Christ. Nevertheless, with most of them God was not pleased, for they were overthrown in the wilderness." (1 Cor. 10:1–5) Four observations There are many golden truths that need to be mined from these few verses but consider the following four simple observations, which help us understand the meaning of infant baptism. 1. The Church is the new Israel First, in 1 Corinthians 10, Paul applies lessons from Israel’s history to the church. Paul can do this only because he sees the church as the fulfillment of Israel: the church is the new Israel (Gal. 6:16). More specifically, Paul sees Mosaic baptism as having relevance for the Christian church. This explains why Paul can tell the Corinthians that this event – Israel’s baptism in the Red Sea – is an example for them (1 Cor. 10:6). The Old Testament is not a random collection of stories in which God interacts with a people that have no connection to us. No! For Paul, the Old Testament is part of our story. The story of Israel is the history of the church. These are our parents - these are our “fathers” (1 Cor. 10:1) – and since God does not change, he continues to relate to us in the same way he related to Israel: by means of the covenant. 2. In this case all means all Second, Paul notes that all of Israel was baptized, ate the same spiritual food, and drank the same spiritual drink. In this case, “all” means “all.” The elderly, the infants and everyone in between were baptized. Whatever else we can say about this passage, it is clear that infants were baptized when they crossed the Red Sea, as they escaped from Egypt. And if infants were baptized, numbered among God’s people, and partook of Christ in the Old Testament, it only makes sense that they would enjoy the same privileges and blessings today. 3. The Red Sea was the work of God Third, Israel’s baptism was pre-eminently the work of God. It was God who led our fathers by pillar of cloud. It was God who opened wide the Red Sea and provided the dry ground. It is true that the adults had to respond to God’s work by faith – they had to walk on the dry ground. And it is also true that the infants who could not walk, but were carried by their parents, were beneficiaries of this baptism. They were delivered from Egypt along with their parents. 4. Baptism is not a guarantee Fourth, baptism does not guarantee salvation. Paul says that God was not pleased with most of Israel, and they were overthrown in the wilderness. Who were these people? They were the adults who rebelled against God and the leadership of Moses. They wandered in the wilderness for 40 years until they died off and their baptized children were old enough to enter the Promised Land. God was indeed the God to these children despite the apostasy of their parents, and their baptism reminded them of God’s faithfulness toward them. Conclusion There is much more than can be said about this passage. However, these brief observations are sufficient to lead us to the following modest conclusion: The Apostle Paul retells the story of Israel’s baptism in the Red Sea because he believed that they participated in an event that corresponds to the sacrament of Christian baptism.1 Endnote 1 Meredith G. Kline, By Oath Consigned: A Reinterpretation of the Covenant Signs of Circumcision and Baptism(Grand Rapids, MI: William B. Eerdmans Publishing Company, 1975), 67. Rev. Garry Vanderveen blogs at Show, Don’t Tell where a version of this first appeared. It is reprinted here with permission....

Politics, Theology

Haggai and the call to rebuild the temple: a case study in Church/State relations

Canadians find themselves beginning 2021 under varying levels of lockdown. Across our country churches are wrestling with how to respond. The Bible seems to contain few practical examples of believers facing something comparable to our current scenario. However, over the Christmas break, I stumbled across an article about the story of Haggai and its connection to the book of Ezra. The story struck me as having particular relevance, or at least uncanny parallels, for the church in Canada today. I offer this reflection not to recommend a particular way forward for churches in Canada as it relates to restrictions on corporate worship, but to at least help some Christians better understand the decisions of some church leaders who have made the decision to continue worshipping corporately despite (near) total prohibitions in their province. In the May 2020 edition of The Messenger (a denominational magazine of the Free Reformed Churches), the late Pastor Gerald Hamstra published a meditation about the rebuilding of the temple in the post-exile period. Though the books are spaced far from each other in the Old Testament canon, the events of Haggai and parts of Ezra occur simultaneously. Many of us are familiar with the narrative of Haggai, where the prophet calls on the people of Israel to rebuild the temple: "This is what the Lord Almighty says: “These people say, ‘The time has not yet come to rebuild the Lord’s house.’” "Then the word of the Lord came through the prophet Haggai: 'Is it a time for you yourselves to be living in your paneled houses, while this house remains a ruin?' "Now this is what the Lord Almighty says: 'Give careful thought to your ways. You have planted much but harvested little. You eat, but never have enough. You drink, but never have your fill. You put on clothes but are not warm. You earn wages, only to put them in a purse with holes in it.'" – Haggai 1:2-6 It appears, on first reading, that the people of Israel were selfishly caring only for themselves and their own houses and ignoring the worship of the Lord without a thought for the temple in ruins. However, that is not the whole picture. In the book of Ezra, we find the rest of the story. Why had the rebuilding of the temple ceased? King Cyrus had issued a decree permitting the Jews to return from Babylon to Jerusalem and charging them to rebuild the temple (Ezra 1:2-5). But the Jews, soon after their return, faced many challenges and obstructions from those living in the region and even from the local civil magistrates (Ezra 4:1-5). Eventually, these opponents, with malicious lies, convince a subsequent king, King Artaxerxes, to stop the building of the temple entirely. Having been persuaded by the reports of the local magistrates in Judea, the king concludes that the temple-building efforts are a threat to the security of his kingdom and decrees that the temple work must cease. "As soon as the copy of the letter of King Artaxerxes was read to Rehum and Shimshai the secretary and their associates, they went immediately to the Jews in Jerusalem and compelled them by force to stop. Thus, the work on the house of God in Jerusalem came to a standstill until the second year of the reign of Darius king of Persia." – Ezra 4:23-24 For some sixteen years, the temple lay in ruins because of the king’s edict. Over the course of those years, the crops began to fail and the people were struggling. They were not flourishing following their return from Babylonian exile. Pastor Hamstra, reflecting on this story, explains: “ interest in the temple and the worship of God was waning. They erroneously viewed the encountered opposition as a divine indication that the work on the temple should be discontinued.” (emphasis mine) It is worth noting that the order from King Artaxerxes for the Jews to cease building the temple was not a form of direct persecution. The king was not operating with anti-Semitic animus or anti-religious prejudice. He had been convinced by his officials that there was a threat to the safety and security of his realm. So, he ordered the project to cease. Questions of safety and security are under the proper authority (or “sphere”) of the king. So, the Jews submitted to the civil government, ceasing work on the temple. But in this case, the people of God had mistakenly viewed the challenges to building the temple and the intervention of the local authorities as an indication from God that the temple work must stop. God sends Haggai to call the people to repent, to return to building the temple, and to observe the corporate worship of the Lord in the way He prescribed. Haggai makes it clear that the worship of God is to be held in the highest regard, and that King Artaxerxes had been wrong to stop the building of the temple for the worship of God. In the face of opposition, the people begin to rebuild God’s people respond in faith to the call of the prophet. They recognize the punishment for their disobedience, and the suffering they were enduring because of it. Just a few weeks after Haggai delivers his message and encouragement from the Lord, the Jews restart the temple building project. In Ezra 5 we read that the local magistrates came to the building site to see why the people had begun building again in apparent defiance of the king’s orders: "At that time Tattenai, governor of Trans-Euphrates, and Shethar-Bozenai and their associates went to them and asked, “Who authorized you to rebuild this temple and to finish it?” They also asked, “What are the names of those who are constructing this building?” But the eye of their God was watching over the elders of the Jews, and they were not stopped until a report could go to Darius and his written reply be received." – Ezra 5:3-5 Though the local rulers questioned them, the Jews continue to rebuild the temple. The call from Haggai was to obey God, regardless of what the earthly king or the local magistrates declared or forbade. They obey God unquestioningly. Interestingly, as the Jews resume their work, the local governor Tattenai sends another report to the Persian king, King Darius, about how the Jews were rebuilding the temple contrary to the decree of the previous king, Artaxerxes. In that report, Tattenai lists the Jews’ legal defense: that King Cyrus had decreed that they should build the temple (Ezra 5:6-15). King Darius orders a search of the archives and confirms the truth of the matter. He orders the local governors and their associates to “keep away” and to “let the work on this house of God alone” (Ezra 6:6, 7). The Jews are vindicated! Are there any lessons here for today? The parallels to today are striking. In this Old Testament story, we see conflicting government decrees, human opposition to corporate worship, the disdain of the people of God by some levels of civil government, and hasty orders by rulers motivated by fear for safety. We also see commands from God and confusion on the part of His people as to the right way forward. We also see God giving direction, and redirection, patient with His people while unwavering in His call to worship. We see His mighty hand turning the hearts of leaders for His glory and the good of His people. Some lessons in this story for the people of God today include how God’s people can appeal to, and be vindicated by, the higher laws and decrees of civil governments. Perhaps appealing to the original decree of Cyrus (where he first granted permission to the Jews to build the temple), is comparable to church leaders appealing to a constitutional guarantee of freedom of religion and freedom of assembly. Perhaps the Jews’ refusal to abide by the second decree of Artaxerxes while their appeal makes its way to the court of Darius is comparable to the path chosen by some church leaders to resume corporately worshipping God while challenging the legality or constitutionality of overly broad public health orders through the court system. Though I don’t think this story is prescriptive of the way forward for churches in Canada today, the story of the rebuilding of the temple does provide some insight for the 21st-century church to ponder in light of significant restrictions by the civil government on corporate worship. Even if you don’t agree with the decisions made by some churches to continue worshipping, that decision should at least be understandable in light of the Ezra and Haggai story. One thing we can remain confident in is that God rules over the nation of Canada today, just as He has over the nations and empires of the past. He is faithful to those who put their trust in Him. It is our daily duty to pray, work and worship to the glory of His name! "Blessed is the man who trusts in the LORD, whose trust is the LORD. He is like a tree planted by water, that sends out its roots by the stream, and does not fear when heat comes, for its leaves remain green, and is not anxious in the year of drought, for it does not cease to bear fruit." – Jeremiah 17:7-8 This article first appeared on the ARPA Canada blog here. Colin Postma is the Federal Issues Manager for ARPA Canada...

Politics, Theology

2K is not OK

A review and discussion of Willem J. Ouweneel’s The World is Christ’s: A Critique of Two Kingdom’s Theology **** A tour a few years back by ARPA Canada prominently featured a famous statement by Abraham Kuyper: “There is not a square inch in the whole domain of our human existence over which Christ, who is Sovereign over all, does not cry, Mine!” Many Christians undoubtedly agree that Christ is king over every aspect of human life. However, there is a relatively new theological movement within conservative Reformed and Presbyterian churches in North America that stands in direct opposition to Kuyper's view. This new movement draws a sharp distinction between the kingdom of God and a secular “common kingdom” that is not directly under the rule of Christ. Hence the movement is often referred to as “Two Kingdoms” or 2K theology. Sometimes it is known by the acronym NL2K which stands for “Natural Law Two Kingdoms” theology. This is because it teaches that most institutions in society (e.g. schools, businesses, civil governments, etc.) are to be governed by “natural law” (or the law that we can deduce, not from the Bible, but from the “natural” world around us. And the reason these institutions are to be governed by natural law, rather than the Bible, is because schools, business, the civil government and more, are said to be in that secular “common kingdom.” Two Kingdom’s growing popularity in some Reformed circles has prompted Dutch scholar Willem J. Ouweneel (who holds PhDs in Biology, Philosophy, and Theology) to write an extended analysis called The World is Christ's: A Critique of Two Kingdoms Theology (Ezra Press, 2017). This book demonstrates that 2K is highly problematic from a confessional and biblical perspective. New, but not so new It is legitimate to label 2K as “new” because it has only appeared within the Reformed and Presbyterian churches in the last decade. However, there is a sense in which it can be considered to be the return of an old error. According to Ouweneel, 2K is deeply rooted in medieval scholasticism which has a dualistic perspective that divides human activities into the sacred realm and the secular realm. For 2K, the authority of the Bible is restricted to the church and the life of individual Christians. It is not to be used as a guide for politics, economics, science, literature, etc. because those fields are part of the “common kingdom” governed by natural law. Ouweneel’s simple summary of scholasticism also functions as a summary of the basic 2K perspective: “there is a spiritual (sacred, Christ-ruled) domain and a natural (secular, common, neutral) domain, which have to be carefully kept apart. There is a domain under the authority of God’s Word and a domain that is supposedly governed by the God-given ‘natural law’ . . .  There is a domain under the kingship of Christ and a ‘neutral’ domain (which is at best a domain that falls under God’s general providence)” 2K versus the early Reformers However, 2K advocates claim that their view is the original Reformed position. They believe Abraham Kuyper’s “not one square inch” perspective added a new twist that conflicts with the teachings of the Reformers. The confessions indicate otherwise. The confessions formally summarize the essential theology of the Reformers, and their statements on civil government demonstrate 2K to be in error. The original wording of the Belgic Confession on civil magistrates included this statement: “Their office is not only to have regard unto and watch for the welfare of the civil state, but also that they protect the sacred ministry, and thus may remove and prevent all idolatry and false worship, that the kingdom of antichrist may be thus destroyed and the kingdom of Christ promoted.” The Belgic Confession (at least in its original form) saw an active role for the civil magistrate in advancing the kingdom of God. He was not outside the authority of the Bible. Modern Christians may not agree with that statement in the Belgic Confession, but it is clearly in conflict with 2K. The original Westminster Confession contains similar statements about the civil magistrate. For example: "...it is his duty, to take order, that unity and peace be preserved in the Church, that the truth of God be kept pure and entire; that all blasphemies and heresies be suppressed; all corruptions and abuses in worship and discipline prevented or reformed; and all the ordinances of God duly settled, administered, and observed.” Ouweneel summarizes the confessional point this way: “it would have been unthinkable for the divines who wrote the Belgic Confession (Guido de Brès, d. 1567) and the Westminster Confession to accept the idea that the “secular” state falls outside the kingdom of God.” Therefore, if we use the confessions of the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries as the standards for determining early Reformed and Presbyterian theology, 2K cannot be said to represent the original position. 2K versus Christian schools Many Reformed Christians send their children to Christian schools because they want their children taught from a Christian perspective. Each of the subjects in such schools is rooted in a Christian approach. However, according to Ouweneel: “This is the very reason why many NL2K advocates object to Christian schools: they do not believe in the possibility of a Christian approach to all these disciplines. In their view, both the school and the disciplines taught there belong to the ‘common realm,’ which is neutral and secular. So why should we need Christian schools?” If there is no distinctively Christian perspective for subjects like English, science and history, then there is no need for Christian schools. This is a consequence of the NL2K theology. Neutral history? Ouweneel asks, “Can you imagine studying history from a ‘neutral’ perspective?” How is that even possible? How do we determine whether particular historical events or people are good or bad without a biblical perspective? Someone may argue that a figure like Adolf Hitler is widely regarded by almost all people, Christian and non-Christian alike, to be evil. Therefore that demonstrates the existence of a common “natural law” standard for judging historical figures. But wait just a minute. In the 1930s there was no consensus that Hitler was evil. In fact, he was supported by millions of people in Germany and he had numerous admirers in other countries as well. It was only after he lost the war that he was regarded everywhere as being evil. If he had won the war, Hitler would have likely remained popular, at least in Germany. From a biblical perspective, Hitler was evil right from the start. But from a “natural law” perspective (whatever that means), things aren’t so obvious. As Ouweneel writes: “If a person is a radical Christian, let him look for an equally radical Muslim or Hindu, and try to find out how much ‘natural law’ the two have in common!” Natural law does not provide a clear and objective standard for determining right and wrong. But the Bible does. Ouweneel describes 2K’s usage of natural law as follows: “Such a Scripture-independent natural law is nothing but a loincloth, a fig leaf, to hide the shame of refusing to acknowledge Christian philosophy, Christian political science, a Christian view of the state, etc.” Two kingdoms in the Bible Now, the Bible does teach that there are two kingdoms. However, they are not the kingdom of God and a “common kingdom,” but the kingdom of God and the kingdom of Satan (Matt. 12:25-28). According to Ouweneel, every societal relationship (e.g. family, school, business, political party, etc.) is either a part of the kingdom of God or a part of the kingdom of Satan. As he puts it: “in every societal relationship, the kingdom of God can be, and is, manifested if this community is, in faith, brought under the rule of King Christ Jesus and under the authority of God’s Word.” This means that a political community where the citizens and government have placed themselves under the authority of the Bible manifests the kingdom of God. There are historical examples of such communities: “The kingdom of Christ did indeed clearly come to light in various German lands and European countries (Scotland, England, the Netherlands) in which Protestant convictions dominated public life (sixteenth and seventeenth centuries).” Clearly, the early Protestants did not believe 2K theology. And as Ouweneel asks, “Can you imagine John Calvin telling the city council of Geneva that they had to be ‘neutral,’ and that for their rule it did not matter whether they were Christians as long as they were good rulers?” The key issue Ouweneel sees the dispute over 2K coming down to one key point: “This is the issue: either God’s Word has full authority over the entire cosmic reality, or only over a limited part of it: the church.” For 2K, the Bible is authoritative only over the church. It does not have authority over politics and government or the other spheres of the “common kingdom.” The real-life consequences of 2K are serious. As mentioned, it undermines the rationale for Christian schools. Another effect is to remove all Christian influence from political life. As Ouweneel points out, 2K plays “…into the hands of all the atheists and agnostics who propagate the neutral, secularized state and wish to restrict religion to the church and to the private religious lives of people. The growing number of non-Christians in North America should be thanking their new gods for the support they are receiving from NL2K advocates with their commitment to a secular state.” Conclusion The consequences of embracing 2K theology would be devastating to Christian influence in politics and society. Public policy in Canada, the United States and other Western countries has been moving in an increasingly anti-Christian direction for years. If Christians were to abandon their distinctively Christian efforts to influence government, that trend would only get worse. Yet that is what 2K theologians essentially advocate. Abraham Kuyper was certainly correct that Christ is sovereign over every square inch “in the whole domain of our human existence.” Excluding the Bible from certain spheres of society is a recipe for accelerated decline and ultimate disaster. As Ouweneel puts it, “All talk about a so-called ‘common kingdom’ means in the end that we allow the kingdom of Satan to prevail in the public square.” Michael Wagner is the author of "Leaving God Behind: The Charter of Rights and Canada’s Official Rejection of Christianity,” available at Merchantship.ca....

Gender roles, Theology

Who’s Afraid of Proverbs 31?

I can still see the cartoon in my memory – she was robed in white, her nose in the air, gracing a marble pedestal under which lesser women cowered. Inscribed on the pedestal were the words, “The Proverbs 31 woman.” It was illustrating a comedic piece in a Christian women’s magazine, describing exactly what the author felt when faced with such a perfect, perfect woman. My mother lifted the magazine out of my hands. “Don’t read that nonsense,” she said. “Why not?” I wanted to know. She thought a moment. “People like to mock her. It’s easy to make fun of her. But I don’t like it.” *** Lots of women do feel intimidated by Proverbs 31. We feel if we were to meet her in real life, we would only meet with judgment. We react to her as if she is a standard that points out all our inadequacies. And authors who write about her know this – they feel compelled to include an apologetic paragraph somewhere near the beginning of their article: Don’t worry, everyone comes from a different life situation. Don’t worry, this woman appears to be rich, and you might not be. Don’t worry, everyone is unique, and not everyone needs to live up to this passage in the same way. A recent article I read started off with, “Reading Proverbs 31 can be discouraging! Who can live up to such expectations?” The first reaction to her is to downplay her a little, and make her more approachable. The assumption is that an unsoftened look at the woman in Proverbs 31 will lead to discouragement. The assumption is that the first emotions this passage will raise in us will be negative emotions, and that these negative emotions will need to be navigated and managed before we can get anything useful out of the passage. I don’t deny that this is often the case, that often these are the emotions stirred up by this passage. But I don’t think this needs to be the case. It should be possible to re-frame the passage as a whole, from discouraging and disheartening to uplifting and inspiring. Maybe the Proverbs 31 woman can be encouraging without being softened. Actually, I know it is possible. I have often read this passage with a sense of excitement, a sense of possibility. In contrast to many human writings, it does not downplay the capabilities of woman, and it acknowledges and appreciates them (and urges the rest of society to do so). It is not a passage that needs to be clarified with the sentence, “oh, this applies to women too,” but it is directly applicable. However, this woman can clearly inspire either excitement or discouragement in many women. What causes the difference? Can she be inspiring to everyone? The value of ideals One problem is that we tend to think of ideals in the wrong way. The woman in Proverbs 31 is an ideal, and ideals are judges. Ideals are meant to draw our attention to the gap between them and us. They do give a verdict on our conduct by demonstrating the ways we fall short of them. But ideals are meant to be a vision of what could be, of what we can strive for, rather than a standard that is meant to crush and punish us. They aren’t there to push us to quit, but instead give us a vision of a different way to live. Our modern world doesn’t like ideals very much. In the past, people did frequently talk about the ideal country or ideal city or ideal king. But nowadays, who talks about the ideal prime minister? We don’t believe any politicians could ever be ideal. Our cynicism is unavoidable – we are much more comfortable speaking about the way our current society is not just and equal, than speaking of what a just and equal society would actually look like. Human realities have led us to give up on utopias, and create lists of our problems instead. But maybe we should take our eyes off our lists of problems, and learn to feel inspired once again. We can draw fresh enthusiasm from working towards a vision of the good. When presented with an ideal, we feel like ideals force conformity on us, tell us to be all the same, and can only make us feel bad about ourselves. But instead, the power of ideals is that they can open our eyes to a better way of living. In that way they are not limiting, but rather are a demonstration of opportunities we would never have imagined in our current circumstances. After all, children look to their parents to see what it is like to be a person who can accomplish more than what their childish limbs can manage. They can’t do what their parents do, but they can imagine growing into a future where they will be able to do more. When they look to their parents they can see an example of how to live a life they have never yet experienced – an adult life. And Christians are inspired by Christian role models too. Paul the apostle advises the Corinthians to imitate him as a model in their Christian life, as an example of a more mature Christian (1 Cor. 11:1). Having examples can be freeing rather than limiting, because we see how different lives than ours can be lived. Yes, visions of what could be are intimidating. But to erase them is to limit ourselves only to what exists right now. An ideal woman And this is the way I think the woman in Proverbs 31 can function. She can demonstrate the power of a virtuous woman, and lead us in turn to feel enthusiasm about what is possible for us in our femininity. After all, it does not take much for us to feel ground down in our femininity – we're confronted daily by negative portrayals of silly women, clingy women, bullying women, or passively helpless women in media, online, or just mentioned in general conversation. We can feel hormonal and wonder if our genetic makeup is a curse. We can struggle to perform heavy labor and feel dependent on others as a result of who we are. We can hesitate to speak up and make our voice heard, and feel held back. And when others reject us and label us or neglect to appreciate us, and we become vulnerable to harmful images of femininity. When we turn to our Bible to counteract this, we find the Bible itself does not shy away from portrayals of the shortcomings of women (just as it does not shy away from the shortcomings of men). Women can be gullible (2 Tim. 3:6), weak, (1 Pet. 3:7), or just unpleasant (see elsewhere in Proverbs itself, such as Prov. 21: 9). Faced with all this, how does one remain hopeful about womanhood? Is there any vision of a woman being a woman in a positive way? Yes, there is. When we need a picture of a woman exercising female traits and positively affecting the world around her as a result of being a woman, we can look to Proverbs 31. We can look to Proverbs 31 and begin to heal from our doubts and worries about womanhood. There are many things a woman can do, even a very “traditional” woman such as this woman. She can be strong, both physically and mentally, even though we’re tempted by negative images to believe we’re doomed to be fragile and unstable. She can be effective, even though we’re afraid we’ll only be passive and ineffective. And she can be courageous, even though we’re worried and anxious. In this way she is purely encouraging. We are not fated to be that taunting caricature of ourselves that may live in our imagination. When we need to insist our womanhood is a gift God has given us and the world, she is on our side. “A heroic poem which recounts the exploits of a hero,” is how one commentator classes this passage. Another calls it, “an ode to a champion.” What women do is not only worthy of being recorded, it is worthy of being applauded in exactly the same way as a warrior who slew a lion. But she girds her loins and takes up the heroic role in a very different setting. We can feel confident in this picture that we receive in Proverbs 31. This is not like the argument over whether Cinderella is a good role model for girls or not; we can take it as a given that this woman is a good role model. And if she is, what opportunities does that present to us?  She brings so much to the discussion that I cannot begin to include everything in a single article, so I’ll have to limit myself to the example of her strength. Strength is not the first word I associate with women, but it is the first association brought out here, in the very first line: “A woman of strength, who can find?” She draws our eyes to the quality of female strength specifically. Looking for a strong female character What is a strong woman? On one hand, we have many talking heads in media calling for more “strong female characters” in entertainment. On the other hand, strength is not typically the first female trait that comes to mind. If asked to come up with a list of feminine qualities, and you weren’t too afraid of going with the honest associations that came into your mind, you might come up with words like delicate, soft, gentle, meek. Asking for strong female characters is seen as one way to counteract this, to create new stereotypes that counteract the old. But too often “strong females” are interpreted as physically strong, as demonstrated by the number of “kickass” female characters who keep up with, surpass, or beat up men. But this kind of knee-jerk, opposing reaction to the stereotype of a weak female often glosses over the reality that women actually live. Women live their lives under the awareness that they will never be as strong as men. There is a limit to what we can physically do, and aside from a few exceptional women, most of us will burn out measuring our strength against men’s. Because of this, some of us can conclude it is not worthwhile to develop our own strength and capacity. Or others may choose to highlight only these exceptionally strong women as a defense against perceptions of weakness, in a way that makes regular women feel inadequate. Another way we do not feel strong is in our awareness of our vulnerability—we live knowing we can be overpowered and harmed by others with more strength. We structure our lives because of our awareness of our vulnerability, not walking alone in the dark, or holding our keys in our fists when we feel threatened. So no, I don’t believe that physically strong female characters in media are enough by themselves to encourage and inspire us in our regular lives. Strong and weak stereotypes However, it does not follow that in order to be a woman, we must emphasize our weakness. There has been a growing awareness through time that strength in women is a benefit and not a drawback, starting with the nineteenth-century encouragement to throw off tight-laced corsets and be physically active. Nowadays, the capacity of women is recognized on a society-wide level, and women are encouraged to develop and use their abilities to accomplish what they set their hand to do. And Proverbs 31 gives no support to ideas that weakness, fragility or delicacy are defining characteristics of womanhood. It is at this intersection between “kickass” female stereotypes and the experiences of regular women that the woman in Proverbs 31 stands. Remember, this passage is “a heroic poem which recounts the exploits of a hero,” or, “an ode to a champion.” In this way, she stands alongside Achilles and Beowulf. And yet she is not unreachable or alien to us in our everyday life. In fact, one thing many commentators notice about her is the mundane normalcy of what she is described as doing, even as the passage uses phrases such as “girds her loins” as she does these things. We might expect a woman who does “great things for God” would have more in common with female superheroes than with us. But we can relate to the strength needed to consider a field and buy it – or, in more modern terms, decide to launch a business, or plant and harvest a garden, or challenge ourselves with an activity we have never tried before. Let’s take it a step further and compare the Proverbs 31 woman with some older female stereotypes – she may be rich and of high status, but she does not spend her days in the cool shade of her porch, being fanned by servants. She has not retreated from the world to seek the safety of a carefully ordered life, buffered from anything that might jolt her poor nerves – an image of femininity that would be unreachable to most of us, even if we did desire such a life. Instead, her strength is demonstrated by taking up the task of living, including the hard things, and by working with her own hands. In other words, she demonstrates that strength is a non-gendered Christian quality. It is not men with strength, and women with fragility. But both draw on God’s strength to use their full capacity. Christianity has never been about strong men and weak women. Christianity has always been about strong men and strong women. A woman of strength We’re not used to hearing the first verse of this passage quoted as, “a woman of strength, who can find?” It is more recognizably quoted as, “a wife of noble character.” The description is translated in various ways: a wife of noble character, an excellent wife, a virtuous woman. Literally, it is a woman of valor, and the description is the same description given to Gideon (“The Lord is with you, O mighty man of valor”) and Ruth (“I will do for you all that you ask, for all my fellow townsmen know that you are a worthy woman”). When we read it translated as “virtuous woman” we might not quite get all the overtones of power, competency and initiative this word carries. But it would be misguided to read this chapter and come away thinking this woman is not empowered (she is a woman of power), or that she is a passive housewife experiencing a lack of control over her life. And it doesn’t really matter if the power this woman possesses does not come through in every translation, because further verses in the passage underscore it: “She dresses herself with strength and makes her arms strong,” and “Strength and dignity are her clothing.” If there exists any strong female character, it is this female character! She is the purest demonstration that strength and women can, in fact, go together. It is clear that while she is described with power, capacity and strength, this is not reduced to the physical ability to bench-press heavy weights. It is not an ability to defend her home from intruders, or protect herself through hand-to-hand combat. The various translations demonstrate the meaning of this word is much broader. Her strength is her competency at what she does, and her capacity to consider a plan and complete it. Strength in this passage is not only physical strength (though a certain amount of physical strength would be necessary for her to accomplish all the things she does), but also includes competency and strength of character. And when we talk about “strengths” we tend to use this term in a broad way as well. Strength of character in particular is important, as she is “a woman who fears the Lord.” When we think of that other “worthy woman,” Ruth, we understand it was her character that brought her notice, and not only her unflagging energy while gleaning for grain. Lastly, don’t forget that this passage is directed to a man – a king, instructing him on what kind of wife to look for. A strong woman will not be a drawback for him. “She does him good, and not harm, all the days of her life.” Strength in action There is, then, such a thing as female strength, in that woman can develop and exercise their strength. There are some aspects of this that are uniquely female, such as the ability to bear a child, but in a more general way it is women intentionally developing their capacity, skills and character. Developing one’s individual capacity is something everyone can do, regardless of what your starting point is. Sometimes women don’t realize how strong they are. They may hesitate to do things by themselves, or to take initiative to develop an idea of theirs, or to build on their skills and talents. There is nothing wrong with depending on other people, as humans are made to interconnect and rely on the strength of each other. But sometimes, if we habitually rely on others, we forget what we ourselves can do. In Proverbs 31, it does not mention her consultations with her husband over her initiatives, such as buying a field or planting a vineyard – this is not to say that she did not consult her husband (and I would argue most likely she did, and it says he trusts in her completely and her plans always brings him good).  But it does demonstrate that the emphasis in this passage is that this woman can have an idea and carry it through. She knows her strength, and does not shrink away from taking action. She makes plans, and then puts in the grunt work necessary to bring her vision into reality. This is especially true when it comes to our own faith life – we all need spiritual leaders to follow, but we also need to be able to study, learn, grow, tell truth from error, and so on, even when not directed by someone else. When many sections of Christian publishing target fluffy, easy, devotional reads to women, we can get a glimpse at what some marketing bodies think of the readers of these books. But we can also counteract these stereotypes by growing in our own faith. Strength can be used wrongly, of course. Strength can be used to bully. Strength can be used to overwhelm others. This is true of female strength too, and there can even be extremes such as female-on-male abuse. However, strength and gentleness are not contradictory. After all, 1 Peter 3:4 still applies: “let your adorning be… the imperishable beauty of a gentle and quiet spirit.” If you can think of strong men who are gentle, you will know strong women can be as well. Am I a strong female character? There are two responses to this idea of strength. The first is to glorify the strength of women as if this strength did not come first from God. To elevate the strength of women to the point where we almost require women to attain the same level of strength as men, or to speak as if female strength always surpassed men’s. We are afraid we’d be betraying our gender by speaking of our fragility A broader understanding of strength is a good defense against this. The other response is to feel intimidated because we personally feel so very beaten down and weak. There are many of us who hate hearing about how strong women are because we don’t feel able to take even another step. Can you tell I relate more to the second? I have never considered myself the strongest, and because of health reasons I’ve spent the past couple years feeling very weak. I was weak to the point where, when certain types of men have expressed the idea that women are inconveniences, I felt like I agreed, in that I wasn’t sure I could help anyone much. It is a modern cliché – “the strong, female hero”– but I tend to notice all the ways I am not strong, physically and otherwise. And then I am reminded of verses like 1 Peter 3:7: “live with your wives in an understanding way, showing honor to the woman as the weaker vessel,” and I feel like a weaker vessel. “A woman of strength, who can find?” In this regard, it’s worthwhile to remember that weakness is not a gendered characteristic either. What does Paul say about weakness? “For when I am weak, then I am strong,” he says, because as he says elsewhere, “I can do all things through him who strengthens me.” He knows his weakness points him to the power of Christ. We all know what it is to be weak, and we all need to know where to turn to be strong. The modern female hero can feel intimidating and unreachable and alien, in a way the woman in Proverbs 31 is not. Female superheroes might be fun to watch, but they do not change how I live. But Proverbs 31 is different. Proverbs 31 inspires me, because she is both like me and better. She challenges me to reach higher, through Christ who strengthens me. The greatest ideal Let me conclude with a question: what do you do if you don’t feel this way? What do you do if, instead of being inspired, you feel ground down by Proverbs 31 and don’t feel enthusiastic about its picture of opportunities for women? First, you need to recall there is another ideal that is very familiar to Christians, and that is the ideal of Jesus Christ himself. All Christians are called to conform themselves to Christ. And all Christians are aware of where we fall short in this. Do we look to Christ to feel bad? Of course, the woman in Proverbs 31 is not an ideal in the same way Christ is. We are not required to live up to the ideal of Proverbs 31 in the same way we are commanded to put on Christ-likeness.  But while pursuing Christ we can see the examples of other Christian role models, who give us ideas about how to apply Christ’s work in our own lives. The Bible has not neglected women – rather, it speaks right to us. Second, there is an undeniable cultural context here. It’s not wrong to point out that this woman is set in a specific place and time, and this affects the way she is described. She acts in the way a wife of a rich, high-standing husband would act. And since this passage is advice given to a king by his mother (see Prov. 31:1), it is, in a sense, an ideal woman viewed through the eyes of a man who will need to find a wife someday, which does explain why some features are emphasized more than others. After all, Jesus Christ himself put on human flesh in a specific place and time, and we still understand that the universal application of his example is not tied to being an unmarried carpenter. It is correct to say she’s rich and you’re not, but not as a way of downplaying her achievements or making her easier to stomach, but rather as a way of re-contextualizing your response to her. In your circumstances, what can she inspire you to do? Therefore, the third point is that we can see her as an example of a different way to live, rather than a standard meant to intimidate us. We are not doomed to some of the repeated negative stereotypes about females that are spread around: neurotic, weak, anxious, gullible. None of this is our destiny. It is not encoded in our genes, a sentence given by God at birth. No, we can draw enthusiasm about our femininity from this picture presented here. The woman in Proverbs 31 does many things. As Wikipedia sums it up, she is “an industrious housewife, a shrewd businesswoman, an enterprising trader, a generous benefactor (verse 20) and a wise teacher (verse 26).” You can look at all that and think, oh wow I have to do all that? Or you can think, wow, I could be a businesswoman. I could be a trader. I could be a benefactor. Look at all the things I could do and be. And that sense of possibility is a good place to start. Don’t be afraid of her. Remember, she comes to you with words of kindness in her tongue. Author Harma-Mae Smit loves theology and loves the Lord. If you want more articles like this, you’ll be interested to learn she has started a monthly newsletter (where this article first appeared) as an antidote to the shallow and negative stories that tend to get shared online. Join her by signing up at the bottom of this webpage to get a new issue every month, and engage in discussion....

Theology

Bill, and The Brothers Karamazov, on the Problem of Evil

“All right, so this passage shows Jesus’ lordship and control over all creation.” Bill glanced at his watch. It was already 3:45 and his class started at 4:00. It was at least a 10-minute walk across the campus. “Are there any questions?” Bill hoped that the passage was clear enough to Victor, the only visitor at the Bible study. The group of four sat in silence staring at their Bibles briefly. Then Peter spoke up, “Well, there aren’t any questions, I guess we can close in prayer. Steve, could you close with us?” During the prayer, Bill felt his stomach tighten. The next two hours were going to be rough. As Steve finished, Bill added a few extra words asking God to strengthen him for what was coming. “Well, I’d love to stick around and talk, but I really gotta get going. My class starts in 10 minutes. See ya!” Bill walked briskly into the cold October air. The darkening dusk added to the tension in Bill’s body. He quickly ran through in his mind the topic for the Intellectual History seminar. He thought of whether he should just keep his mouth shut. “Maybe,” he thought, “maybe I should just go home and skip.” But then he remembered how many classes he’d already missed. It wasn’t an option. ***** In the seminar room, the prof and most of the students were already seated. The professor, Dr. Hamowy, was a short man, but he compensated for his stature with an antagonistic personality and sharp tongue. He gloried in debate and loved the thrill of the attack. Bill took his place at the end of the long table, opposite Hamowy. With two minutes left, Bill quickly reviewed the book to be discussed. A couple more students drifted in – it was time. “Okay, today we’re looking at Dostoevsky. You guys’ll like this. Always creates a good debate. Who’s giving the introduction? Miss Hogan? All right, go ahead.” Hogan launched into it. Bill had heard her talking with some of the other students and she mentioned something about going to a Lutheran church. Could she be a Christian? Bill listened intently. Not a word about Dostoevsky and Christianity. “Thanks, Miss Hogan, but that was rather superficial. I’m wondering, why didn’t you mention anything about Dostoevsky and Christianity?” Hogan’s face bleached. “Umm…I just didn’t think it was that important.” “Miss Hogan, did you even read the book?” “Sure, but I didn’t really see anything religious.” “Miss Hogan, next time you better do a closer reading of the book. If you’d thought about it or even done some research, you’d see we can’t understand this thinker apart from religion. Come on guys, get your act together.” The first part of the class was over. It was now completely dark outside. “Okay, let’s get the discussion going here. We’re especially interested in what Dostoevsky has to say about the problem of evil. You’ve read the book, so you should know that Dostoevsky approaches the problem religiously. Open your books to page 240 and we’ll start reading that second paragraph and go to the end of the following page. Mr. Kosinski, could you read it for us?” Bill opened his copy of The Brothers Karamazov and followed along. Ivan was complaining to his brother Alyosha: “People sometimes talk of bestial cruelty, but that’s a great injustice and insult to the beasts; a beast can never be so cruel as a man, so artistically cruel. I’ve collected a great deal about Russian children, Alyosha. There was a little girl of five who was hated by her father and mother…” Ivan went on to describe how this little girl had been horribly abused by her parents. He concluded by asking Alyosha if he would design the world in such a way that little children suffer so terribly. Kosinski stopped reading and looked up. Hamowy started the discussion. “Okay, what’d you guys think of this?” Silence. “Come on, somebody must be thinking in this room!” More silence. Bill felt his stomach tighten more. He leaned against the table and slightly pulsated back and forth with the rhythm of his thumping heart. One of the other students raised his hand. “Good, Mr. Bosley. You’d like to comment?” “Yeah, this book pretty much nails it right on. How could anybody believe in God when there’s so much evil in the world? Think of the Holocaust, all those Jews dying, where was God then? How could anyone believe in a powerful good God who could control all this evil, but doesn’t?” “Thank you, Mr. Bosley. Anyone else? Surely you don’t all agree with Mr. Bosley?” It was time for Bill to strike. He slowly raised up his hand, but Evans beat him to it. “Okay, Miss Evans, enlighten us.” “I agree. Believing in a good God in a world where there’s suffering is completely illogical. I don’t get all these god-freaks. Are they even thinking with their brains? We aren’t going to get anywhere in dealing with evil as long as those brain-dead ideas are around. We’d be better off with something like when we’re all god and we all work together.” “All right, thanks Miss Evans. There seems to be a consensus developing. What’s wrong with you guys? Mr. Gordon, I saw your hand. What do you think?” Finally, Bill had his opportunity. “It intrigues me that everyone agrees there’s such a thing as evil and wickedness.” Bill’s heart beat faster and harder and his voice trembled. “I’d like to just ask a question to all of you: can we all agree that sexually abusing children is absolutely immoral?” Most students nodded their head in agreement. Only Bagchee didn’t. “Mr. Bagchee, you disagree with Gordon? Why?” “Well, there may be some societies where adults having sex with children is completely normal. In my country, in some of the cultures, it was at one time custom to make mothers sleep with their boys. In other cultures, teenage girls must be deflowered by tribal leaders to prepare for their arranged marriage.” Hogan couldn’t restrain herself. “I think that’s completely disgusting! Sexual abuse is wrong no matter what!” Dr. Hamowy smiled as the class finally heated up. “Miss Evans, you have something to add?” “Yeah, Subhash you can say that about your country or other cultures, but what if part of their culture was to smash their children’s head against rocks while sexually abusing them, would that be okay too? And what if it was you or your child?” Bagchee shrugged. “Mr. Gordon, where’d you want to go with this? “Well, pretty much everyone agrees there’s an absolute moral rightness or wrongness to certain things, like sexually abusing children or brutally murdering them.” Bill’s voice was quivering again. “But when you ask how can there be a God with so much evil in the world, you’ve missed the hidden assumption in your question – that there is such a thing as evil. And the fact that you get upset about evil in the world shows that in your hearts you know there is such a thing as absolute good and evil. But when you deny the God of Christianity, you deny the possibility of there even being absolute right and wrong. Apart from God, morality is an individual or cultural matter, and like Subhash’s examples, sexually abusing children could conceivably be acceptable. But we’ve agreed that it’s absolutely not. When you ask the question, you’re stuck. You’ve betrayed yourself and the real nature of your problem with Christianity.” “Umm, thanks Mr. Gordon. Okay, what’d the rest of you think of those comments?” Kosinksi leapt in again. “Yeah, I think Bill’s wrong. You’ve got a contradiction in your idea here. You say God is good. You say God is powerful, right?” Bill nodded. “But you say evil exists! You’ve got a contradiction, ‘cause if God was all-good and all-powerful, there’d be no bad stuff. So, ya see, Christianity isn’t so true after all.” Bill thought carefully for a moment. “Joe, you just said God is all-good and I completely agree with that – it’s found in the Bible. His character defines right and wrong. God is all-good and because I’m a Christian, I look at everything in the light of that. And so when I see evil, I can be consistent by inferring God has a morally good reason for the evil we see around us. Any evil we see must somehow fit with God’s goodness. Look at Jesus for example. Jesus was crucified. It was an act of evil – he was 100% innocent. But the cross fit in with God’s good plans to rescue those who’d believe in him. God therefore has a good reason for the wickedness in the world and there’s no contradiction. It all fits.” Bill took a long deep breath and carried on. “But within the non-Christian way of looking at the world, you can’t justify your contradiction between having absolute moral standards and not having an absolute source for those standards. If all we are is ooze, what difference does it make if one glob of ooze sexually abuses another glob of ooze? Who cares? Only with Christianity can absolute standards of good and evil have any meaning. And I think that was the point Dostoevsky was trying to make too.” “Okay, thanks Mr. Gordon. Anyone have anything to say? Mr. Bosley?” “Yeah, this is stupid. What about the influence of Dostoevsky on feminist scholarship?” ***** The rest of the seminar rambled in inanities. Bill’s heart rate and blood pressure were still coming down 20 minutes later when the class ended. As he got up to leave, he tried to make eye contact with some of the other students. He made his way out and walked down the hall of the history department. Hogan came up behind him and stopped him. “Bill, I really liked all those things you said. That was really good.” “Thanks.” Bill walked away wondering why no one ever spoke up in class to support him. As he stepped out into the chilly darkness, he still felt the aching of his chest and the tightness in his stomach. The only thing not bothering him was his conscience. Dr. Bredenhof blogs at yinkahdinay.wordpress.com where this first appeared....

Theology

Is it real corporate worship? - a parable

In this time of pandemic, Christians are carrying on a vigorous discussion about the character of corporate worship. When many if not most of the congregation members are watching online, can we really say that we are gathered as the Body of Christ, worshipping Him in corporate worship? I’ve read many of the arguments for and against, and I tend to agree with all of them. My position is basically this: yes, we are gathered for corporate worship. At the same time, it is only a pale imitation of how corporate worship should be. Some speak quite forcefully against calling a live-streamed service real corporate worship, calling it only a “pale imitation.” Others argue quite forcefully that live-streaming is real, corporate worship; the congregation is gathered together in the building and over the internet, and together the Body comes into the presence of the Lord and worships. It may be pale (less than desirable), but it’s not an imitation: it is real worship. A real imitation As I said, in a sense I side with both.  I would like to insist on maintaining the word “imitation.” The word “imitation,” derived from a Latin root, conveys the idea of “copy.” I think of what the letter to the Hebrews says about the temple and the sacrificial system. They were “copies” of the real thing. The real Holy of Holies is in heaven. The temple was a pale imitation of the real thing. But it was the best that was available until Jesus came, died, rose, and ascended, opening up for us a new and living way beyond the veil, past the very real cherubim (not the gold pale imitations), into the very throne room of God. I would argue that something can be a pale imitation, but can at the same time be real, in the sense that it is the best we have available at the moment. So how can live-streamed worship be real, and at the same time a pale imitation? Let me tell you a parable which might convey how these two things might be true at the same time. The parable of the packed and pollinated country wedding Imagine a wedding going on in a country church. The bride’s cousin has unfortunately come down with a bad case of allergies, and is sneezing a lot. The church auditorium is very small and the cousin doesn’t want to sit amongst the guests and sneeze on them continuously, nor does she want to ruin the video with the sounds of her sneezes. So she stands in a separate room, with the door slightly ajar, and she can more or less see the wedding ceremony from a safe distance.  She’s thankful to be there, and to witness the marriage. But it doesn’t feel quite right: she doesn’t sense that she’s participating fully in the event, because she’s alone in a separate room. She has trouble hearing everything and she has a hard time joining in with the singing.  Meanwhile, the bride’s brother has a large family. Their flight was delayed and their rental car took quite a bit longer to arrange than they had thought. They arrived at the church building only to discover that all of the seats are already filled. It’s a beautiful, sunny day, so they find themselves obliged to stand outside the building by an open window and try to participate as best as they can. (They had considered standing in a separate room, but there was a lady in there sneezing away). This family has to crowd around the little window, and, in fact, take turns peeking in to see the ceremony which they can more or less hear. It’s certainly not what they had imagined when they planned their trip to see the wedding of their sister and aunty.  Is the cousin really at the wedding? Are the brother and his wife and children really at the wedding? Yes, they are. They are there, they are witnessing the vows, they are participating in the event, they are trying their best to sing along.  At the same time, their experience is really a pale imitation of what being at a wedding should be. They are there, but they’re not there. They feel one with the gathered group of family, friends, and fellow believers, but at the same time they feel separate. Now, is this a real wedding? It certainly is!  Is it only a real wedding for the people sitting in the pews? Certainly not!  The cousin in the separate room, and the brother and his family standing outside by the window, are witnessing and participating in a real wedding. Real but not optimal I would suggest that when in our Sunday worship, the Bride comes into the holy presence of the Bridegroom, and their vows of covenant love are renewed and celebrated, this is a real Wedding. It is real worship. It is real for the people who are physically there, and it is real for the people who are straining to participate through “a door ajar, or an open window,” or, in other words, through an online connection. It’s real participation in real worship.  But it is certainly not optimal. For those obliged to “look through the window,” it is a pale imitation of the experience they long to have: to be physically present in the gathered assembly of God’s people, singing and participating physically as the Bride communes with the Bridegroom. Addressing one concern Some are concerned that if we say participation via live-stream is considered real participation in real worship, then once the pandemic restrictions are lifted, some people will say it doesn’t matter if they stay home and watch the church service instead. I believe this concern is unwarranted.  Think again of those in the wedding parable, and the one obliged to participate from a distance because of a health condition. God knows the heart. There is no negligence or lack of commitment when a child of God is obliged to watch the live stream because they have to stay home for a lawful reason.  Think of the family watching through the window. They are forced to do so by the circumstances. Everyone will understand this. If, however, there are lots of pews open in the building, but the brother and his family insist on standing outside and looking through the window, this would be at the very least rather strange, if not offensive.  The same goes for participating in worship via livestream. We do this reluctantly because we are obliged by the circumstances, namely the restrictions imposed because of the pandemic. In a normal state of affairs, however, someone staying home to “watch” church of their own volition, when this is not imposed on them as a necessity, would constitute “despising the Word and the sacraments” and reveal a heart not committed to the Lord, His people, and His worship. Conclusion Is participating in public worship via livestream really worship? Are we really worshipping God together as a gathered church? The answer, during this pandemic, is “certainly!”  It may be a pale imitation of the type of gathered congregational worship we are used to, but given the circumstances, it is the very best we can do. And because it is the very best we can do, given the restrictions, we can be certain that in Christ the gathered congregation is certainly meeting with God in real corporate worship. Rev. Ken Wieske is the pastor of the St. Albert Canadian Reformed Church....

Theology

Why I'm religious, not just spiritual

I was sitting in the sauna at the local aquatic centre the other day when I struck up a conversation with the man sitting opposite me. When you’re a missionary, it’s easy to turn conversations toward matters of faith, and that’s the direction this particular conversation quickly took. It wasn’t long before the man told me something about himself that I’ve heard before, many times. It’s a statement that, to be honest, makes me cringe: “I consider myself to be more spiritual than religious.” What does that mean? Well, it turns out that to this man it meant that he believed in a “higher power” of some sort, that he didn’t attend church, and didn’t have any appreciation for “organized religion,” and that he tried to live, in his words, a “moral life.” And judging from our brief conversation, he certainly did appear to be, on the surface at least, a “good person.” He looked more than a little rough around the edges – he had full tattoo sleeves on both arms, long hair and piercings, but he expressed respect for my position and the work I do, he spoke with affection about his wife and his kids, and he told me how he worked hard to take care of his family and live a good life. So why did his statement make me cringe? Why do I find myself reacting negatively whenever I hear people speaking ill of “religion,” while speaking positively about “spirituality”? Spirituality's self-made god In this case, and others like it, my reaction has much to do with the fact that a person like this is essentially fooling himself. He believes that he can be a good person (and, in the world’s eyes, he is), and he believes that “God” (whoever or whatever he, she, or it is) will accept him on that basis. When it comes right down to it, he believes that he’ll be okay with God because he has, in his mind, created a god that he can feel comfortable with – a god that doesn’t demand too much, a god that doesn’t ask for things that will take him out of his comfort zone, a god who won’t judge him. Let me put it like this by way of example: on a Sunday morning at 8:00, when you’re enjoying that pleasant drowsiness that marks the end of a good sleep after a hard week of work, when you hear the kids beginning to wind themselves up in preparation for another day of rambunctious activity, it’s a whole lot easier to be “spiritual” than it is to be “religious.” Why? Because the “spiritual” person isn’t going to have to get the kids washed, dressed, fed, and into the vehicle before the Sunday morning service. He’s not going to have to keep those same kids under control for an hour of formal worship. He’s not going to have to spend time talking to people that he may not have much in common with, people who may annoy him or get on his nerves. He’s not going to have to listen to a preacher telling him things that he may not be interested in hearing; he’s not going to have his conscience pricked by calls to repentance. But most importantly, he’s not going to hear the gospel – the good news of salvation in Jesus Christ, salvation that comes to people because of God’s pure and beautiful grace, if only they trust in Him. And because of that, regardless of how good a person he is, if he continues on his “spiritual journey,” while avoiding the trappings of what is now known as “religion,” he will not be saved. So when I hear a non-Christian tell me that he or she is “spiritual,” and not “religious,” it frightens me. And in the faith landscape of North America, this kind of self-definition is becoming more and more common. Prejudice against organized religion, individualistic thinking, and lack of respect for any kind of authority, whether religious or otherwise, has led to this unfortunate development in our recent history. True religion is more than ritual Now, seemingly in response to this shift in our culture, many Christians have begun to distance themselves from any association with “religion,” and have begun to define themselves in terms of “spirituality.” One phrase, in particular, keeps on rearing its (ugly) head: “Christianity is a relationship, not a religion.” “Religion,” we’re told, is a negative concept, and it has to do with outward observance of rituals and behaviors, rather than the relationship that we should have with Jesus. It sounds great because we should all agree that the Christian faith isn’t simply about following the right rules. Being a true Christian means much more than going to church, making the requisite donations, attending Bible study or youth group or whatever church functions may have been organized. It is about living in a right relationship with God. The prophets of the Old Testament knew this, and they would write things like this: “For I desire steadfast love and not sacrifice, the knowledge of God rather than burnt offerings” (Hosea 6:6). So why should we be bothered by the phrase, “Christianity is not a religion, it’s a relationship,” if the person saying it simply means that Christianity is about more than ritual and formality and outward obedience to the moral code of the Christian community? Isn’t this just an argument over semantics? But when I hear that Christianity is not a religion, I think of James 1:26 and 27. James says this: “If anyone thinks he is religious and does not bridle his tongue but deceives his heart, this person’s religion is worthless. Religion that is pure and undefiled before God and the Father is this: to visit orphans and widows in their affliction, and to keep oneself unstained from the world.” James does not say that religion is wrong. He doesn’t say that it’s superior to be “spiritual” rather than “religious.” The goal is true religion, not the absence of religion. True religion means bridling your tongue. It means visiting orphans and widows in their affliction. It means keeping oneself unstained from the world. So true religion is about much more than going through the motions; that’s clear in both the Old and New Testaments. True religion must be a religion of the heart. True religion is lived out But the fact is, it must not stop at the heart! True religion is not simply something that happens within the person. A faithful life is not a life that’s spent contemplating the right things, having the correct feeling in one’s heart. That attitude of the heart must show itself in outward observance – in seeking to live a holy life, in serving others, in speaking in a way that comports with God’s demand for pure speech. And it must show itself even in the observance of (gasp!) ritual! Sometimes people will speak of a divide that exists between the Old Testament and the New Testament, as if the Old Testament was all about ritual and observance of rules and regulations, about offering the right sacrifices in the right way at the right time, and the New Testament is all about the interior life of the person – what goes on in the heart. And so people see the Old Testament people of God as being “religious,” while New Testament Christians are called to be “spiritual.” But this is a false dichotomy. The Old Testament was never about the external divorced from the internal; the verse I quoted from Hosea proves that. And what’s more, the New Testament isn’t about the internal falsely separated from the external. As Christians, we still have rituals – repeated practices, done the same way again and again, that conform to a set standard. We have been given new rituals – the Lord’s Supper, and baptism – the sacraments. But we also participate in the old rituals – gathering together every week as a set pattern for corporate worship is a central religious ritual that we are called to honor. Ritual unexamined and done in an unthinking manner is surely a negative thing; but that doesn’t mean that ritual, the stuff that people now think of as “religious,” is negative in and of itself. Far from it! In fact, the Bible repeatedly speaks positively about these sorts of activities, and strongly encourages Christians to participate in them! True religion is communal And that brings me to my final concern about the religion/spirituality divide. As Christians, we are people who are called to live in community. As Reformed Christians, we speak about God’s covenant, and we speak of ourselves as God’s covenant people. One of my greatest concerns with pitting “religion” against “spirituality” is the individualistic focus of spirituality. “Spirituality” so often seems to be about my personal relationship with God, while “religion” is often associated with activities that involve corporate relationships – groups of people, doing the same things at the same time, together. In focusing on personal spirituality, as contrasted with organized religion, it often seems that the individual, and his or her needs and desires, becomes paramount, while the corporate aspect of our faith, which should be so central, is lost. Conclusion Our religion is not just about a personal relationship with Jesus; it is about that, to be sure, but it’s so much richer than that, so much more! John puts it this way, in the introduction to his first letter: “ That which we have seen and heard we proclaim also to you, so that you too may have fellowship with us; and indeed our fellowship is with the Father and with His Son Jesus Christ” (1 John 1:3). True religion is about the vertical (our relationship with God), but it also includes the horizontal (our relationships with one another). That is what we must strive for – not a vague, individualistic “spirituality,” but a true religion, a religion that defines all activities in our life, a religion that works itself out in love for our neighbor, especially in love for our brothers and sisters in the covenant community, based in our love for the Lord. So maybe we could work out a new motto. Say, something like this: “Christianity: not just a relationship, but a religion made up of relationships – beautiful (and challenging) relationships – with our fellow believers, based in a renewed relationship with God, through His Son Jesus Christ.” It may not be catchy, but it’s true. So let’s reclaim “religion” – a Biblical word that has been much maligned – and rejoice in it, and everything that it stands for. Rev. Witteveen is a missionary who has served the Church in Canada and now Brazil. He also blogs at CreationWithoutCompromise.com....

Theology

Repentance - what does it look like?

It’s embarrassing but true: all around us we see people seriously messing up, ourselves included. It happened to people in the Bible too. If Noah could get drunk and lie naked, if Abraham could lie about his wife being his sister, if Moses could kill the Egyptian, if David could commit adultery with Bathsheba and then kill her husband to cover his tracks, if Peter could deny the Lord three times in a row, then on what grounds would we think we are above similar sins? We too yield to the lusts of the flesh; murder (abortion or suicide), drunkenness (think also of drug abuse), adultery, consumerism, hedonism, wasting one’s time or talents or resources, and so many more sins appear among godly people who regularly attend church. Effect The effect of sin is devastating.  As children of God, unconfessed sin has a way of getting inside our hearts so that we feel guilty – thankfully. But not every child of God immediately admits their sin in repentance.  Then it becomes difficult to pray, and the desire to open the Bible evaporates, and they end up going to church and to the Lord’s Table because you don’t want to draw attention to themselves, and God seems so far away – until they return to the right way through sincere repentance. (See David’s experience of the effect of sin after his affair with Bathsheba in 2 Samuel 11 & 12.) For that’s the gospel of the perseverance of the saints: even when His people fall into terrible sins, God will not desert His own! Rather, He works upon them through His Holy Spirit so that repentance comes about – eventually.  That’s our God: He does not forsake the work His hand has begun. Dying of the old nature What, though, does repentance actually look like? Scripture speaks often about repentance. It consists of two parts, the dying of the old nature and the coming to life of the new. The dying of the old nature in turn is built on three aspects: it is to grieve with heartfelt sorrow that we have offended God by our sin, and more and more to hate sin and flee from it. David speaks of his repentance from his affair with Bathsheba in Psalm 51: “For I know my transgressions, and my sin is ever before me. Against you, you only, have I sinned and done what is evil in your sight, so that you may be justified in your words and blameless in your judgment.” (Psalm 51:3-4) And, “Create in me a clean heart, O God, and renew a right spirit within me. Cast me not away from your presence, and take not your Holy Spirit from me. Restore to me the joy of your salvation, and uphold me with a willing spirit.” (Psalm 51:10-12) 1. Grief The grief we're talking about here is not a sense of "oops."  Rather, it's anguish of the heart: “heartfelt sorrow” that we’ve offended our holy God. Peter “went outside and wept bitterly” (Mt 26:75) – and that’s obviously grief from a broken and contrite heart. His sin bothered him: deep inside he felt absolutely rotten. 2. Hate Sorrow for the sin one has committed comes coupled with a sense of hate. No, it’s not hatred for the neighbor, but hatred of the sin and all that led to the sin. It’s a loathing of self too in the sense that one is far from proud of one’s accomplishments and abilities. The hate leads to a deep sense of humiliation.  It’s what the psalmist called a “broken and contrite heart” (Ps. 51). 3. Flee The result, in turn, is that one flees, gets away from the proximity to whatever led to the sin – for he doesn’t want to fall again into the snare of the devil or the world, or succumb to the weaknesses of his own flesh. Yet it’s not just a fleeing from; it’s also a fleeing to – to Christ in whose blood there is abundant forgiveness. Actually, it takes quite a man to flee.  One can assume that any true man will stand his ground and conquer his opponent.  Yet any General out to win the war knows that there comes the moment when he has to retreat – and that’s not an admission of failure but a display of prudence.  The child of God knows he has no chance against enemies such as the devil, the world, and his own flesh, and so flees to Christ who has defeated the devil and the world, and has poured out His Holy Spirit so that the fight against the flesh is possible.  To stand and fight on our own in this instance is actually a display of pride – and the taller one’s pride the harder one’s fall shall be. Coming to life of the new nature Repentance is more than the dying of the old nature; the other side of the coin is that a new nature is increasingly made alive. This coming to life of the new nature has two aspects: a heartfelt joy in God through Christ, and a love and delight to live according to the will of God in all good works. 1. Joy Fleeing to Christ brings one into the arms of the Savior who conquered sin and Satan, and reconciled sinners to God.  His good news is that my atrocious sin is washed away like gravy off a plate – irretrievably gone.  Holy God, then, does not look upon me as the murderer or adulterer or thief or drunkard I am, but sees me as washed clean in Jesus’ blood.  Instead of anger and judgment, there is mercy and grace.  That reality cannot leave the heart untouched, but fills it with grateful joy and songs of thanksgiving. 2. Live That sense of gratitude for deliverance from the righteous judgment of God results in a renewed determination to live for God in all I do.  Instead of the environment that led to the sin, the repentant child of God actively pursues a different environment, one that promotes a lifestyle pleasing to the Lord God.  He surrounds himself with friends and activities that encourage praise for the Redeemer and discourage another relapse. Repentant people grieve from the heart with a godly sorrow for the sins they have committed; they seek and obtain through faith with a contrite heart forgiveness in the blood of the Mediator; they again experience the favor of a reconciled God and adore His mercies and faithfulness. And from now on they more diligently work out their own salvation with fear and trembling. Important? Is the doctrine of repentance worth repeating for general consumption?  I’d argue that the answer is Yes, simply because our culture does not know what repentance is.  One "apologizes," one says "sorry," but the grief and the hate and the fleeing and the joy and the delighting to live God’s way is a rare thing in our country’s public and not so public life. To cry buckets of tears is not the same as repentance, and an expression of remorse is not the same as repentance either.  Judas Iscariot “was seized with remorse” when he saw that Jesus was condemned, and “returned the 30 silver coins to the chief priests”, and even admitted that “I have sinned, for I have betrayed innocent blood” (Mt 27:3,4).  But his remorse and his admission did not amount to repentance; for he did not flee to the Christ he betrayed and pursue a life of godliness. Similarly, Esau’s tears at missing out on the first-born blessing did not amount to repentance (Hebrews 12:17). Repentance is so much more than saying "sorry," for it involves the heart. Repentance goes beyond remorse, for it involves a changed lifestyle. Repentance is not shallow, for it involves a deep awareness that none less than holy God has been offended. Repentance fills one with joy, because God’s declaration of forgiveness-for-Jesus’-sake heals and thrills the heart broken on account of sin. How merciful my God: He restores the undeserving! Rev. Clarence Bouwman is a pastor in the Smithville Canadian Reformed Church....

Theology

On angels and guardian angels

Does everyone have a guardian angel? Many people are convinced that they have an angel as their special protector. In the film City of Angels, actor Nicolas Cage plays a guardian angel who protects Meg Ryan, an overworked doctor who is caught in the tiresome repetition of everyday life. This idea, of a guardian angel, offers comfort and solace. And efforts such as this, to capture angels on film, have enormous clout in shaping popular understandings of these spiritual beings. Can Hollywood convey a fair, helpful, or faithful presentation of angels? Unfortunately, no. They have distorted Biblical truth and misled viewers about the nature, character, and purpose of angels. The concept of an individual guardian angel for each one of us taps into our popular, individualistic culture, which is searching for spiritual experiences, comfort, and hope. The Roman Catholic Church and guardian angels When did the idea of guardian angels first come about. While the early Apostolic Fathers spoke of angels only incidentally, some of them had the opinion that every believer has his or her guardian angel. And very early in the history of the Church, the belief that an angel was assigned to each human being as a guardian gained currency. The Roman Catholic Church deemed the angels' guardianship over mankind sufficiently based on revelation to demand belief. But as Roman Catholic scholar J. Huby points out, the most important "canonical books" for the knowledge of angels are Daniel, the apocryphal books of Tobias (aka Tobit) and 2 Maccabees, and the book of Enoch which is not in the canon of the Protestant or Roman Catholic churches. The Roman Catholic Church claims human life is surrounded by the watchful care and intercession of angels from infancy to death. Its catechism says, "Beside each believer stands an angel as protector and shepherd leading him to life.... The Church venerates the angels who help her on her earthly pilgrimage and protect every human being." Pope Clement X set aside October 2 as a feast day in their honor, celebrating their protection of human beings from spiritual and physical dangers, and their assistance in doing good. The Bible and guardian angels So what does the Bible say about each of us having a guardian angel who protects us? Very little! Some point to Matthew 18:10 to support the idea: “See that you do not look down on any of these little ones. For I tell you that their angels in heaven always see the face of my Father in heaven.” This does speak to God caring for us through angels, but doesn't show that each of us is paired with an angel. Another passage often pointed to is Acts 12, where Peter is freed from jail by an angel and, when he arrives at the house of Mary the mother of John Mark, those there couldn't believe it was him, and wondered if it was "his angel." This shows that people of that time may have believed everyone had their own angel, but it isn't the Bible endorsing the idea. God's Word does not support the notion that each believer has his or her own personal guardian angel. And while it also doesn't speak clearly against the idea, Reformed theologian Wilhelmus a Brakel (d. 1711) has good guidance for how we should think on this matter: "God's Word does not say anything about it, and one must not be wiser than what is written." But, again, the Bible does say that God cares for us through His angels. Their intervention is not an everyday occurrence, but occasional and exceptional - not as their own option, but only as it is permitted or commanded by God. It is sufficient to know that they are employed for the good of the Church. John Calvin comments: For if the fact that all of the heavenly hosts are keeping watch for his safety will not satisfy a man, I do not see what benefit he could derive from knowing that one angel has been given to him as his especial guardian. Indeed, those who confine to one angel the care that God takes of each one of us are doing a great injustice both to themselves and to all the members of the church; as if it were an idle promise that we should fight more valiantly with these hosts supporting and protecting us round about! (Institutes I,xiv,7) The ministry of angels Angel appearances are not rare as we usually think. Many stories in the Bible reveal the visible and audible manifestations of angels. Repeatedly, we read of those surprised by them. Yet we should not be surprised. Angels do minister to believers. "Are not all angels ministering spirits sent to serve those who will inherit salvation?" (Heb. 1:14). The Puritan theologian John Owen (d. 1683) comments on this text that God employs angels "for the good of them that are heirs of salvation, to manifest unto them the greatness and glory of the work of the gathering, preserving, and redemption of his church." Angels have a special role in the execution of God's providential care. God instructs His angels to keep vigil for our safety and to take care that harm will not come to us. In Psalms 35 and 91 we read that God will encamp around those who fear Him and guard them in all their ways. Even archangels have been put to work in the interest of God's elect (Luke 1:11-38; Jude 9). In times of danger we may freely ask God to send an angel for our protection. And some have received the aid of an angel without even asking for it. When the prophet Elijah, exhausted with the relentless persecution he suffered from Queen Jezebel, "lay down and slept under a broom tree....and behold an angel touched him and said, 'Get up and eat.' Elijah looked around, and there by his head was a cake of bread baked over hot coals, and a jar of water. He ate and drank... and strengthened by that food, he traveled forty days and forty nights until he reached Horeb, the mountain of God" (1 Kings 19:5-8). When Dothan was surrounded by the Arameans, Elisha's servant was deadly afraid. The prophet reassures him, "Don't be afraid. Those who are with us are more than those who are with them." Then Elisha prays, " O Lord, open his eyes so he may see." The servant is astonished to see the hills full of horses and chariots of fire all around Elisha (2 Ki. 6:8-17). Angels guarded Daniel who, when falsely accused, was thrown into the lion's den. He told the king Darius, "My God sent his angel, and he shut the mouths of the lions. They have not hurt me, because I was found innocent in his sight" (Dan. 6:22). Although the Great Commission was given to the Church (Matt. 28:19-20), angels take an active part in the spread of the Gospel. They cooperated with the church in its mission outreach. They saw to it that unbelievers could hear the Gospel despite opposition to the Church. In the book of Acts, the great missionary record of the early church, angels are mentioned 21 times. Angels displayed miraculous powers on behalf of some of the apostles. Apostles were arrested and put into jail. But during the night an angel of the Lord opened the jail doors and brought them out. "Go, stand in the temple courts," he said, "and tell all the people the full message of this new life" (Acts 5: 17-20). James and Peter were imprisoned for preaching the Gospel. Peter, expecting to be executed, was rescued by an angel. A heavenly light shone, an angel poked Peter and said, "Quick, get up!" He led him past two guards, through an iron gate, down the street, and to freedom. Only then did Peter realize that God had sent an angel to rescue him from King Herod's clutches (Acts 12:1-11). Philip, the evangelist, was preaching the Gospel in Samaritan villages, when an angel came and told him to "get up and go south." Philip obeyed the angel, and explained to an important Ethiopian official the good news of the Gospel taught in the book of Isaiah, and led him to the Lord (Acts 8:26-40). Angels today G. K. Chesterton said that the most wonderful thing about miracles is that they do sometimes happen. And this is true also of angels' interventions today. Why should God not send His angels to minister to the saints in the third millennium? Centuries do not make any difference to the eternal and unchanging God. Elizabeth Elliot tells about a blind man her father knew, who was to step into what he thought was his cabin aboard ship. It was in fact a hatchway, but he felt a hand on his chest pushing him back. He asked who was there. There was no answer. Was an angel sent to rescue him? Dr. B. Wielenga in his book Het Huis Gods (The House of God) notes when the Secessionists were persecuted in 19th century Netherlands, it was a time of miraculous answers to prayer. Angels watched over the safety of the faithful believers in all their ways. The history of missions records many authentic stories of heavenly assistance received in critical times. Missionaries have shared amazing experiences about the mysterious intervention of angels when their lives were threatened. G. Van Asselt, a 19th century missionary in Sumatra recalled that one of the Bataks had seen a double row of guards surrounding his house. They stood hand in hand and had shining faces. The Bataks suspected that the missionary had hidden soldiers in his home during the day, but after he was allowed to search Van Asselt's house, he had to admit that he was wrong. When the Batak asked Van Asselt why he had not seen the guard of angels, Van Asselt replied that this was not necessary for those who trust in God's Word. God's providence Many Christians have testified that in times of critical danger they suddenly felt an unseen hand. Some tell of a mysterious warning not to proceed with their travel plans and then to discover later that the plane they were booked to fly with had crashed. Playwright Tony Kushner was greatly troubled by the belief that angels appear to some people and not to others. He said, "I find that horrendously offensive. The question is, why are you saved with your guardian angel and not the woman who was shot to death shielding her children in Brooklyn three weeks ago? That suggests a capricious divine force. If there is a God, he can't possibly work that way." Christians do not subscribe to a New Age theology which says that we live in a benign universe where all you have to do is ask an angel for help. Our view of angels and their activities is formed by Scripture. Any other view is either a fiction or a counterfeit. Since the Bible teaches that God employs angels for our good, we know He uses them to guard us. As the Puritan Thomas Watson (d.1686) testified, "The angels are of the saints' life-guard...The highest angels take care of the lowest saints." But God does not always come to the rescue. Faith in Him does not depend on miracles and angelic interventions. Faith is a relationship to the sovereign God through Jesus Christ, independent of the miraculous. Christians too get into fatal car accidents. In the early church, the first martyr Stephen died by stoning, though God could have prevented it. James the brother of John was executed, though Peter was miraculously rescued from the same prison. But this same Peter, according to tradition, was crucified upside down in Rome. The apostle Paul died in Rome under the cruel persecution of Caesar, though John survived his exile on Patmos under similar persecution and came home to die of old age. God's ways with His people are mysterious. They are beyond our human understanding. Christians don't pretend to know all the answers. Who can understand the mind and ways of God? (Rom 11:33ff). The Bible record of miraculous interventions enriches and encourages believers, as we can see in Hebrews 11:32-40, where we read of those "who shut the mouths of lions, quenched the fury of the flames, and escaped the edge of the sword, " and of women who "received back their dead, raised to life again." However, "others were tortured and refused to be released." There were those who faced jeers and flogging, while still others were chained and put into prison. They were stoned, they were sawed in two; they were put to death by the sword." Some were rescued; others were not. Yet, they were all commended for their faith. They did not count the cost of their faith walk. They lived in complete obedience to their Lord. They were not preoccupied with the ministry of angels. Their faith was not shaken or weakened by the lack of divine interventions. They believed that they were not their own, but belonged body and soul, in life and in death, to their faithful crucified and risen Savior Jesus Christ. A version of this article was first published in the March 2001 issue, under the title "Surprised by Angels." Rev. Johan Tangelder (1936-2009) wrote for Reformed Perspective for 13 years and many of his articles have been collected at Reformed Reflections....

Gender roles, Theology

No, complementarianism is not inherently misogynistic

Complementarianism is the belief that God made male and female different and gave them different but complementary roles in the Church and in marriage. It is also understood as the opposite of egalitarianism, which, aside from acknowledging the obvious reproductive differences, holds that God hasn’t given men and women different roles in the Church or in marriage. Egalitarians will sometimes accuse the complementarian position of being inherently misogynistic. They say, if men are told they are to lead in their marriages and in Church as well, that will puff them up, and get them thinking women are inferior, and then men will feel free to lord it over and even abuse women. Dr. Wm. Dwight McKissic, Sr. is shown presenting this argument in the recent By What Standard? documentary where he puts it this way: “This whole sexual abuse scandal thing is a judgment of God on Southern Baptists, because once you devalue a woman to say she cannot preach on the Lord’s Day…you are telling men it is okay to abuse her, like has been documented.” I was struck by the irony of this accusation coming from a pastor. Wouldn’t this same line of reasoning argue against leadership of any kind? If you put a pastor up on a pulpit and tell him he can preach but his parishioners do not have that same calling, then won’t that get him devaluing his parishioners such that the pastor will feel free to lord it over, and even spiritually abuse, them? It only follows, right? Our example of leadership Or might there be a way for someone called to a leadership role to be able to lead without abusing followers? In her Dec. 10 Christianity Today article, "What if I'm not the 'submissive' type?" Rebecca McLaughlin shows how the male leadership God’s prescribes is the very opposite of misogyny. “Husbands, love your wives, just as Christ loved the church and gave himself up for her” (Eph. 5:25). How did Christ love the church? By dying on a cross; by giving himself, naked and bleeding, to suffer for her; by putting her needs above his own; by sacrificing everything for her. I asked myself how I would feel if this were the command to wives. Ephesians 5:22 is sometimes critiqued as a mandate for spousal abuse. Tragically, it has been misused that way. But the command to husbands makes that reading impossible. How much more easily could an abuser twist a verse calling his wife to suffer for him, to give herself up for him, to die for him? Our example of submission Just as complementarian leadership is nothing like how egalitarians portray it, so too complementarian submission isn’t what it has been made out to be. On the January 2nd episode of the What Have You podcast, Rachel Jankovic addressed submission, and while she did so in the context of feminism, her point is equally applicable to egalitarianism. Jankovic said: “The central heresy of feminism is to believe that submission equal inferiority. We believe that Jesus submitted his will to the Father’s without becoming less than God. it is actually really important that we believe obedience and submission do not mean inferiority.” The leadership husbands and elders are called to is not the dominating, power-corrupts "leadership" of the world, but the dying-for-his-bride servant-leadership of Christ (Luke 22:25–26). And the submission that wives are called to does not make them any less the Image of God than their husbands (Gen. 1:27). Just as Jesus’s submission to his Father's didn’t diminish Him, so too our own submission – whether as a wife to her husband (Eph 5:22) or a congregation to our spiritual leaders (Heb. 13:17) – isn't about inferiority. It is, instead, an opportunity to imitate Christ! Whether men or women, pastors or parishioners, we are all called to submit to the will of our Father. So why would any Christians think submission is inherently bad?...

Humor, Theology

Humor and the life of faith

"And I knew there could be laughter On the secret face of God"  – G. K. Chesterton ***** Nothing is quite so ironic as to talk seriously about humor. Yet it would be perverse to treat the subject of Christian humor with irreverence or anything approaching vulgarity. And by Christian humor I do not mean those harmless puns and riddles that are often classified as Bible jokes. Who is the shortest person in the Bible? Who is the only person in the Bible who doesn’t have any parents?1 If Christian humor ended there, then we might feel slightly cheated. There must be more. And indeed, humor is more than an occasional joke; it is indicative of a broader attitude to life. We see this most clearly in the word “comedy.” In literature, the term means simply a story with a happy ending – it doesn’t even have to be funny. You might say that the story of salvation is a divine comedy, for it promises a life happily ever after. Of course, to unbelievers this faith in the afterlife is itself a joke. To some extent, then, the question is who will have the last laugh. So let’s take a closer look at this comedy of salvation. Does the biblical narrative include any humor, and what role should laughter play in our life of faith? Humor in the Bible When I was still growing up – a process that may not have ended – my father sometimes liked to refer to “humor in the Bible.” But looking back I had no recollection of what he actually meant by that. Was he referring to some of those funny names in the Bible, like the ones the prophets gave to their kids? Was he thinking of Joshua, the son of Nun? I wasn’t sure, and so I figured that writing this article would be like discovering a forgotten corner of my childhood. Childhood is, of course, an appropriate metaphor for thinking about humor. Those who have studied humor in the Bible suggest, for instance, that the sober attitude of grown-ups obscures the comic aspects of Christ’s rhetoric. Elton Trueblood, in The Humor of Christ, tells how his son burst out laughing at Bible reading over the idea that someone might be so concerned about seeing a speck in someone else’s eye that he failed to notice the beam in his own eye.2 The child has not yet become accustomed to all that is at first glance merely preposterous or grotesque. Trueblood – whose views we’ll focus on here – believes that Jesus is not only a Man of Sorrows, but also a Man of Joys. Jesus’s humor comes from the incongruity of his sayings (particularly in his many paradoxes) and from his sense of irony. Surely, says Trueblood, there is an aspect of comedy in the blind leading the blind, in the notion of “saving by losing,” in the thought that a camel should go through the eye of a needle, in giving Peter the nickname “Rocky.” It is frequently the contrast between the literal and the figurative moment that provides a space for laughter, or at least for a smile. When Christ asks “Do you bring in a lamp to put it under a bowl or a bed?” our trained inclination is to answer “No, because then no one can see the lamp.” A child might respond, “That would be funny, because then the bed might catch on fire.” The examples can be multiplied – at least according to Trueblood. They show Christ not merely as an ascetic and acerbic preacher – as we sometimes imagine John the Baptist – but as a man who drank wine in genial conviviality and spoke in surprising and shocking language. Whatever reservations we may have about this slightly irreverent view of the Savior, the resulting picture actually fits surprisingly well with the general Reformed worldview, which sees Christ as restoring and renewing life and culture. We all know of Luther’s hearty humor and his penchant for beer. What is humor? There are of course problems as well. If humor encompasses everything from outright jokes to fine shades of irony, then where do we draw the line? In addition, humor is fiendishly difficult to trace in written documents, for so much depends on tone and context. Take, for instance, Trueblood’s explanation of the following words of Jesus from Luke 12:58: As you are going with your adversary to the magistrate, try hard to be reconciled to him on the way, or he may drag you off to the judge, and the judge turn you over to the officer, and the officer throw you into prison. Trueblood is surely right that Jesus treats miscarriages of justice with a touch of sarcasm, but he pushes the argument too far when he tries to find the passage humorous: “What Christ seems to be advocating is a clever deal or a bribe. . . . Translated into our language, ‘It may prove to be cheaper to pay the officer than to pay the court, so why not try?’ . . . If this be humor, it is humor with an acid touch.”3 It seems more likely, though, that the adversary is not an officer of the law at all, but is rather a fellow citizen; what Jesus advocates is what we would call an “out of court settlement” – a common practice in ancient societies – and represents prudence, not humor. In the Old Testament There are two other sources of humor that require some attention. The first is, of course, the Old Testament. There are a number of places where God is said to laugh (Ps. 2:4, 37:13, 59:8; Prov. 1:26). This is the laughter of poetic justice: God laughs at the wicked. Surprisingly, the Psalms also suggest that the proper response to God’s laughing judgment should be joy: “Let the rivers clap their hands, let the mountains sing together for joy; let them sing before the Lord, for he comes to judge the earth” (Ps. 98:8-9; cf. Ps. 96). Judgment is no laughing matter, we instinctively feel. However, as the Philistines found out when they placed the ark of God in the temple of Dagon, God will have the last laugh: “When the people of Ashdod rose early the next day, there was Dagon, fallen on his face on the ground before the ark of the Lord!” (1 Sam. 5:3). The man most famed for wisdom in the Old Testament also had a wry sense of humor, something that is often missed. Consider the following ironic passages from Ecclesiastes, that book that we take such pains to explain away: The words of the Teacher, son of David, king in Jerusalem: “Meaningless! Meaningless!” says the Teacher. “Utterly meaningless! Everything is meaningless.” (1:1-2). All things are wearisome more than one can say (1:8). Of making many books there is no end, and much study wearies the body (12:12). Who writes a book to explain that everything is meaningless? The Teacher sounds tired before he even begins. In fact, in an amusing turn of phrase, he explains that he is too weary to explain weariness. Perhaps the appropriate response when faced with such irony is laughter. There is a bad sort of biblical humor But there is also a negative type of humor. There are hints of it in the nervous laughter of Sarah. This is the laughter of those who sit in the seat of scoffers. The man who suffered most from such mockery was Jesus. All those involved in crucifying him try to turn him into a joke. And the joke is always the same: how can a crucified man be king? The soldiers dress him up in a scarlet robe and a crown of thorns before they torture him. Pilate practices his own version of the laughter of judgment by placing a placard above his head that reads: “This is Jesus, the King of the Jews” (Matthew 27:37). The joke then gets passed on to the chief priests and the teachers of the law, who focus on the final paradox of Christ’s ministry: “‘He saved others,’ they said, ‘but he can’t save himself! He’s the King of Israel! Let him come down now from the cross, and we will believe in him’” (27:42). The laughter of the cross is the laughter of Sarah magnified; it is the laughter of skepticism, and it is at heart a nervous defense against the laughter of faith and judgment. As Paul realized, the Christian faith is foolishness to the world, because doubt manifests itself through mockery and laughter. Laughter and tears, comedy and tragedy – the two poles are actually not as far removed from each other as we sometimes think. Since laughter lives on the border with terror and tragedy, it is not surprising that we also find it at the cross. True joy What does this all mean for our life of faith? An elder of mine once pointed out that one of the great gifts of the Christian religion is the joy it provides. And this joy is not simply confined to a kind of internal spiritual peace, although it is that too. The writer G. K. Chesterton suggests that, compared to the Christian, the secular man is generally happier as he approaches earth, but sadder and sadder as he approaches the heavens.4 True – but the happiness of the Christian also extends downwards – to the earth renewed in Christ. There remains one obstacle, however. Franz Kafka once said – in a comment about Christianity – that “a forced gaiety is much sadder than an openly acknowledged sorrow."5 I think this is exactly the problem we face as Christians today. How can we demonstrate the happiness that comes with the good news in a spontaneous way? Laughter is something that you shouldn’t force. So, how can you purposefully live a life of laughter and joy? I think it has to start with something further down in your heart; it has to start with faith and hope. If you start here, then laughter will inevitably come bubbling up. And this is not a nervous laughter, like the laughter of Sarah or the mocking of scoffers – this is a wholesome and healthy laughter. This is the joy of Christ. Endnotes 1 In case you haven’t heard these groaners: Bildad the Shuhite (i.e. shoe-height) & Joshua, son of Nun (i.e. none). 2 Elton Trueblood, The Humor of Christ (New York: HarperCollins, 1964). 3 Ibid., 66. 4 G. K. Chesterton, Orthodoxy, in Basic Chesterton (Springfield, IL: Templegate, 1984), 127. 5 Quoted by John F. Maguire, “Chesterton and Kafka,” The Chesterton Review 3.1 (1976-77): 161. This article first appeared in the December 2014 issue. Conrad van Dyk is the author and narrator of the children's story podcast "Sophie and Sebastian."...

Culture Clashes, Theology

May I judge?

I hear repeatedly that we’re not supposed to judge another.  Young people express themselves this way, and that’s not surprising – after all, not judging others fits hand in glove with the postmodern dogma of tolerance that’s so rampant today. Different strokes for different folks, so let the other be; who am I to say that what you’re doing or thinking is wrong…. I’ve heard Christians appeal to Jesus’ words in the Sermon on the Mount to provide Biblical justification for the position, for Jesus told His disciples: “Judge not, that you be not judged” (Matthew 7:1). Case closed: do not pass judgment on another. Inconsistent But the Internet is full of comments passing distinctly unfavorable judgments. These leave me puzzled.  We’re quick to repeat the mantra "do not judge" but judgments abound. Something is not consistent here. This sort of thing happens more often. In our relatively small community we hear numerous details of what happens in the life of the person in the next pew, or in the congregation up the road.  And very quickly we have a judgment ready on what we hear. It affects what we say to one another, and affects too how we think about or treat the person(s) about whom we heard a story. Do not judge rashly A quick judgment is simply unbiblical. Solomon put it like this: “The one who states his case first seems right, until the other comes and examines him” (Proverbs 18:17). The Lord in the 9th commandment gave the instruction not to “bear false witness against your neighbor,” and the Heidelberg Catechism summarizes the instruction of this command with this confession: “I must not … condemn or join in condemning anyone rashly and unheard” (Lord’s Day 43). That counts for what we say on Facebook too. We do well to repent before God and man of our easy judgmentalism and seek to learn that God-pleasing habit of doing to others as we’d have them do to us (Luke 6:31). As we hate being on the receiving end of perceived gossip or slander, so we need studiously to avoid being on the giving end of gossip or slander. Test the spirits This does not mean, however, that I’m to be neutral concerning all I hear. The postmodern mantra that I’m to be OK with whatever anybody else thinks or does is simply not biblical. Consider, for example, John’s instruction to “test the spirits” (1 John 4:1). So much gets said, and people believe so many things.  But I’m to test whether what they say and believe is “from God.” John emphatically wants us to have an opinion on that – and then reject what is not from God. Testing, of course, involves so much more than hearing one thing and swallowing it dumbly as the final word on the subject. Testing involves listening carefully, understanding the details and circumstances, and then evaluating in the light of the revelation of the Lord of lords. You’re meant to have a considered opinion. That’s why, in 1 Cor. 5, the apostle Paul was emphatic to the Corinthians that they needed to pass explicit condemnation on the brother in their congregation who lived in sin, sleeping with his father's wife. They were not to be neutral on this man’s behavior but were to take a stand and excommunicate him. That’s because in this instance the details were abundantly clear (it wasn’t hearsay but indisputable facts evident to all parties), and so the saints of Corinth were obligated before God to form a judgment and carry it out. That obligation was so self-evident that Paul put the matter in the form of a rhetorical question: “is it not those inside the church whom you are to judge?” (1 Corinthians 5:12). Judging: that’s your duty…. Jesus wrong? Is Jesus wrong, then, when He in the Sermon on the Mount tells His disciples, “Judge not, that you be not judged?” (Matthew 7:1). Actually, Jesus does not tell us not to have a judgment on what we hear or see.  Instead, Jesus’ point is that we’re not to judge rashly. That’s clear from Jesus’ next line, “For” – yes, note that connecting word! “For with the judgment you pronounce you will be judged...” (vs. 2a). If you are quick to condemn another, do not be surprised when others will be quick to condemn you; “...and with the measure you use it will be measure to you” (vs 2b). So if you hear one side of a story and condemn before you’ve heard the other side, be prepared to have folk condemn you on hearsay before they’ve heard your side of the story! Similarly, if you, from a self-righteous height, condemn others' behavior while you are yourself entangled in sin, do not be surprised that you’ll find no sympathy when others find out about your sin. Jesus puts it like this: “Why do you see the speck that is in your brother’s eye, but do not notice the log that is in your own eye?” (vs 3). That, Jesus adds, is hypocrisy (vs 5). As long as you try to hide skeletons in your own closet, you are in no position to draw attention to skeletons you think you see in someone else’s closet. Clincher But Christians are not to hide skeletons in their closets! True Christians are repentant of their sins, and confess those sins to God and to those they’ve hurt by their sins. Then you’ve pulled the log out of your own eye – and at the same time have great understanding and empathy for another’s weaknesses and failures. Then you’ll test the spirits, and you’ll have an opinion on what you hear, and carefully avoid condemning the other in a spirit of lofty self-righteousness – and certainly avoid trumpeting your condemnation to John Public. The person who knows his own weaknesses and failures will instead sit down beside the sinning brother to show him his wrong and lead him on the way back to the Lord. It’s Galatians 6:1: “Brothers, if anyone is caught in any transgression, you who are spiritual should restore him in a spirit of gentleness.” Judge? May I judge another? It depends on what you mean by the word "judge."  I am not to condemn rashly and unheard. But I am to have an opinion on my brother and help him in the way the Lord wants him to help me. This article was first published back in 2014. Rev. Clarence Bouwman is a pastor in the Smithville Canadian Reformed Church....

Science - Environmental Stewardship, Theology

Global warming crisis? A brief biblical case for skepticism

The media tells us that the question is settled, there is a 97% consensus, and that anyone who has questions is a “denier,” likened to those who are either so foolish, or malicious, as to deny the reality of the Holocaust. But there are reasons to question. And while climate science might be beyond most of us, God has given us another means – a far more reliable means – of discerning truth, via His Word. Gender: the Bible shows the way Sometimes it doesn’t take much Bible study to be able to discern truth from error, and that’s certainly true in today’s gender debate. Young children are being surgically mutilated and hormonally sterilized and yet the government, doctors, psychologists, and media are applauding. While it might not be at 97% yet, the consensus is growing such that fines are being issued, teachers fired, students expelled, and Twitter mobs set loose on any who disagree. Despite the pressure, few Christians are being fooled, though that might be due as much to the newness of the debate as it is that Evangelicals are turning to their Bibles for guidance. But if they do open His Word it won’t take a believer long to figure out God’s position. In Genesis 1:27 we learn it is God, not Man, who determines our gender: “So God created Man in His own image; in the image of God He created him; male and female He created them.” Population: following the Bible would have saved tens of millions The overpopulation crisis has a longer history to it and, consequently, many more Christians have bought into it. Since the 1950s we’ve been hearing that sometime soon the world’s population will outstrip the planet’s resources. In his 1969 book The Population Bomb Paul Ehrlich warned: “The battle to feed all of humanity is over. In the 1970s hundreds of millions of people will starve to death in spite of any crash programs embarked upon now. At this late date nothing can prevent a substantial increase in the world death rate.” You would think that by now it would be easy to see that these overpopulation fears were mistaken. As economist Arthur Brooks has noted, what’s happened is the very opposite of Ehrlich’s dire prediction: “From the 1970s until today the percentage of people living at starvation’s door has decreased by 80%. Two billion people have been pulled out of starvation-level poverty.” Yet the overpopulation hysteria has never gone away. And the damage it has done has been on par with that of a Hitler or Stalin – tens of millions have been killed. Under threat of this crisis China implemented their infamous one-child policy, with its fines and forced abortions for couples who tried for two. And the deaths weren’t limited to China; overpopulation fears were used to justify the push for legalized abortion in countries around the world. Murdering your own children wasn’t cold and selfish anymore; now it was a woman doing her part to save the planet. Christians opposed abortion, of course, but some believers started questioning whether overpopulation concerns might be correct. Maybe God’s call to “be fruitful and multiply” and fill the earth (Gen. 1:28) was just a temporary directive that we’ve fulfilled and should now treat as being over and done with. But it takes only a little more digging to find out that’s not what God thinks. Overpopulation proponents saw children as more mouths to find – they saw them as a problem – but God speaks repeatedly of children as a blessing (Ps. 113:9, 127:3-5, Prov. 17:6, Matt. 18:10, John 16:21). And opportunities present themselves when we see children as God sees them. When we understand they are a blessing, then we realize that not only do children come with a mouth that needs filling, but they also have hands that can produce even more than their mouth consumes. And they have a brain to invent and problem solve. When we see children this way – as a blessing and not a curse – then we'll realize there’s a real practical benefit in having lots of them: as we’ve been told, many hands make light work, and two heads are also better than one! That’s why it shouldn’t have surprised Christians when in the 1950s and 60s a group of inventive sorts, led by American Norman Borlaug, helped develop much higher-yielding strains of cereal crops. This “Green Revolution” turned wheat-importing countries into wheat exporting countries by more than doubling yields. And while there are no prophecies in the Bible specifically mentioning Norman Borlaug, Christians could have seen him coming, and in a sense some did. Those who continued having large families, despite the dire predictions, could do so confident that any problems caused by the innumerable nature of their progeny would be solved by something like the Green Revolution happening. Today, decades later, we can look back and see that a country like China, that ignored what God says about children, is facing a different sort of demographic crisis. A young Chinese couple will have two sets of parents and four sets of grandparents to look after and support, but have no siblings or cousins to help them. As soon as 2030 China will see their population start to decline, with not nearly enough working age citizens to provide for their aging population. It’s not all that different in the Western world where, even without government coercion, our families have been shrinking and women are averaging far less than two children each. We aren’t as near the crisis point as China, but by aborting a quarter of the next generation, we’ve created our own coming demographic crisis. Global warming: a biblical case for skepticism The population and gender debates remind us that the Bible is more reliable than any-sized consensus no matter how big. They also teach us that the world can get things not just completely wrong, but monstrously so, leading to the deaths of tens of millions. That’s why when it comes to global warming, where we’re being told once again that the fate of the planet is at stake, we want any and all guidance we can get from God’s Word. Cornelius Van Til once noted: “The Bible is thought of as authoritative on everything of which it speaks. Moreover, it speaks of everything. We do not mean that it speaks of football games, of atoms, etc., directly, but we do mean that it speaks of everything either directly or by implication.” The Bible does speak to global warming, but not directly. This isn’t like the gender debate, which runs smack up against Genesis 1:27 (“male and female He created them”) or the overpopulation crisis, which directly opposes the very next verse (“be fruitful and multiply”). When it comes to global warming the Bible isn’t as direct. But there are lots of implications. Time and space only allow me to present a half dozen texts. I’m not pretending that any one of them makes the definitive case for skepticism. But I do think that together they start pointing us decidedly in that direction. "You will know them by their fruits" – Matt. 7:15-20 In Matthew 7 Jesus tells us that we can tell a good tree from a bad one by the fruit on it. His concern wasn’t with trees though, but with telling false prophets from good ones. When it comes to global warming the science is beyond most of us, but we can evaluate the people. So let’s return to this 97% consensus we’ve heard so much about. This statistic is used to argue that there is no question but that the planet is headed to catastrophic climate change. But is this a reliable number, or is it like the greatly exaggerated 10% figure commonly given for the homosexual population? The figure has a few different origins, but one of the more commonly cited is a paper by John Cook and his colleagues reviewing 11,944 published peer-reviewed papers from climate scientists. Did 97% of those papers’ authors agree with the statement “humans are causing global warming”? That’s what we would expect. But instead of 10,000+ papers with that position, there were 3,894, or approximately 33%. So how did the 97% figure come out of that then? Well, it turns out only approximately 34% of the papers took a position one way or the other, with just 1% disagreeing or uncertain, and 33% agreeing. Thus, of the 34% who took a position, 97% agreed that humans are causing global warming. Is it honest to ignore the two thirds who didn’t state a position, and say there is a 97% consensus and no room for a debate? How this statistic has been used reminds me of a trick from another debate – equivocation about the definition of “evolution.” In his book, The Greatest Show on Earth, Richard Dawkins notes that when poachers shoot elephants with long tusks, the next generation is liable to have shorter tusks. Okay, but creationists also believe species can undergo changes over time. We’re the folks arguing that the array of cats we see today are all modified versions of a single cat kind brought on the ark. Dawkins has presented “minor changes over time” – a definition of evolution so broad that it enfolds even creationists into the evolution camp – as if it were proof of the from-goo-to-you sort of evolution that is actually under dispute. Similarly, the 97% consensus is being presented as if all those counted hold that the warming is catastrophic, humans are the primary cause, and there is a need for immediate, drastic, global action. But the agreement was only that “humans are causing global warming.” And that’s a statement so broad as to enfold even many of the so-called “deniers.” So on a statement we can verify – whether there really is a 97% consensus on catastrophic global warming – we find “bad fruit.” There are many other facts and claims we can’t evaluate, but doesn’t this tell us something about the “tree”? “The one who states his case first seems right, until the other comes and examines him.” – Proverbs 18:17 God says that to find the truth good questions are helpful. That’s not going on here, where questioners are likened to Holocaust deniers. But here’s a few questions worth considering: Aren’t there bigger priorities than global warming, like the millions who will starve to death this year, or the billions who lack basic access to clean water and sanitation? If fossil fuels are harmful, and solar and wind problematic, why aren’t we turning to nuclear? How will the world’s poor be impacted by a move away from fossil fuels toward more expensive alternatives? Are we again (as we did in response to overpopulation fears) seeking to save the planet by harming those who live on it? Samuel’s warning against kings – 1 Samuel 8:10-22 President Obama’s chief of staff famously said, “You never want a serious crisis to go to waste” and if you want to understand what he meant, looking no further than Justin Trudeau’s proposed ban on single-use plastics. This past year a video of a sea turtle with a plastic straw stuck up deep inside his nose went viral, alerting the tens of millions of viewers to the growing problem of plastics in our oceans. The movement to ban plastic straws has taken off since then. But will Trudeau’s single-use plastics ban save turtles? No, because our straws don’t end up in the ocean. Of the mass of plastic in the ocean it’s been estimated the US is responsible for one percent, and it’d be reasonable to conclude that Canada is responsible for far less. So how, then, does all the plastic end up in the ocean? It turns out that the vast majority of it comes from poorer countries that don’t have proper trash disposal. They simply dump their waste into the ocean and into their rivers. Trudeau’s ban will do nothing to help the turtles…but it will expand the government’s reach. The proposed solutions for climate change all involve expanding the government too, giving it a larger role in directing all things energy-related. So, how is 1 Samuel 8 relevant? Here we find Samuel warning against an expansion of government – get a king and he’ll start intruding into all areas of your lives. If there is a biblical case to be made for limited, small government (and there is) then Christians have a reason to question crises that seem to necessitate an ever-expanding role for the State. “…and it was very good.” – Gen. 1:31 While we no longer live in the perfect world Adam and Eve started with, we have only to wriggle our toes, or watch a ladybug crawl across the back of our hand to recognize that God’s brilliant design is still evident and at work all around us. We are on a blue and white marble, spinning at just the right angle, and orbiting at just the right distance from the sun, for it to rain and snow in season. We have a moon just the right size, and circling at just the right distance for us to study our own sun, and to bring the tides that sweep our beaches each day. And our planet is graced with a molten iron core that generates the very magnetic field we need to protect us from the solar winds, which would otherwise strip away the ozone layer that protects us from ultraviolet radiation. It is wheels within wheels within wheels, and while we can do damage to it, when we appreciate how brilliantly our world is designed we aren’t surprised there is a robustness to it. Meanwhile, the unbeliever thinks our world is the result of one lucky circumstance after another – a tower of teacups, all balanced perfectly, but accidentally. If the world did come about by mere happenstance, then what an unbelievable run of happenstance we’ve had, and isn’t there every reason to fear change? Sure, the teacup tower is balanced now, but if we mess with it, how long can we count on our luck to hold? “He who oppresses the poor taunts his Maker” – Prov. 14:31 At first glance, this text might not seem to provide much direction in this debate. After all, couldn’t a Christian who holds to catastrophic man-caused global warming cite it in support of their position too? Yes they could. If climate change is real, then the oppression it would bring on the poor would be a reason to fight it. Yet this text does provide a very specific sort of direction. It lays out limits on what sort of global warming plans Christians should view as acceptable: any plan to save the planet that does so by hurting the poor is not biblical. That means increasing energy costs has to be out. Millions are starving already and raising energy prices will only increase those numbers. “Be fruitful and multiply” – Gen. 1:28 Children come with an inevitable “carbon footprint” which is why some global warming proponents echo the same sentiments as the overpopulationists before them. “Save the earth; don’t give birth” is catchy, but if that was the only possible way we could lower carbon emissions then Christians could, on that basis, conclude there was no need to worry about CO2. Because God tells us children are a blessing, not a curse. Of course there may be other ways to lower carbon emissions. But the more we hear people portraying children as a problem, the more we should recognize there is an element in the global warming movement intent on attacking God’s Truth, rather than taking on any real problem. Conclusion Other passages could be mentioned like Genesis 8:22, Romans 1:25 and Psalm 102:25-26 but this is good for a start. And that’s what this is: a start. My hope here is to encourage an exploration of what Scripture says that’s relevant to the issue of global warming.  The Bible isn’t silent on this topic; we need to look at global warming biblically....

Theology

The Bible doesn’t have a lot say about ___________

We often hear it said, "the Bible really doesn't have a lot to say about ________" Into this blank liberals will insert terms such as "homosexuality" or "creation" or "gender" and, as Douglas Wilson has noted, they'll make this claim because they are the sort of liberal that still professes God's Word as authoritative, and they know that if the Bible does speak to their cause, then they really should listen. But they don't want to so they pretend God has not spoken. Then when we see what they're doing we get frustrated. How can they ignore what God has so clearly said? Not a business manual, but.... But conservative Christians also talk this way and sometimes for the very same reason. We know that God is sovereign, but there are some areas of our life where we want to rule supreme. For some it might be the type of music they like, or the movies they prefer. For others, it could be the way they treat their spouse, or the way they discipline their children. Of course, we know better than to say, "You can have it all Lord, but not this one part." So, instead, we pretend He has not spoken when the truth is we haven't looked and we don't want to. Other times Christians dismiss the Bible's relevance out of ignorance. We insist the Bible doesn’t have a lot to say about business, or the environment, or painting, or playing sports because, in our daily reading, we’ve never noticed chapters on business, the environment, painting, or playing sports. A fellow might say, "The Bible doesn't have a lot to say about being an executive – it's not a management manual after all." And there is some truth to that since the Bible doesn't contain all there is to know about life, the universe, and everything. But what it does contain are God's very thoughts about the purpose of life, the universe, and everything. Might that have some relevance to business practices? It's easy enough to answer with a "yes" and leave everything there – a hypothetical acknowledgment of God’s sovereignty in business too, but then we don’t go any further. We don’t pursue how exactly His rule works itself out in the boardroom. That’s why the better question here is one that apologist Del Tackett loves to ask: "Do you really believe that what you believe is really real?” Do we believe God really is sovereign over every square inch of creation? And do we believe that God really is wise, and really is loving? Do we really believe He knows what is best for us? That’s what we say we believe. But do we really? Because if we do, then instead of dismissing His relevance to whatever we are doing, we should be eager to search out what He does have to say. Even if it is only a little, we know it is brilliant and completely reliable (and what business books can say that?). God has a lot to say for anyone who has ears to hear If we start that search, the results are sure to be astounding. When we eagerly comb through the Scriptures to find every last thing God might have said about our particular interest – when, instead of avoiding his authority over our favorite activity, we look to see how we can place it under His rule – then we'll find God gives us more guidance than we ever realized. Yes, the word "business" is hardly ever mentioned in the Old and New Testament, but the Bible has lots to say about office life. One example: in a recent post by business blogger David Mead, he writes about what to do when you are in a meeting surrounded by brilliant folk and you're feeling intimidated. You feel like you really don't belong here "at the adult table." Mead lays out our two choices. We can either: "Show up in an attempt to prove that we're good enough, smart enough, experienced enough, or educated enough to be there..." "Show up knowing that we don't yet belong at the adult table and use it as an opportunity to learn, ask questions and contribute..." He then notes that if you try the first approach, you're likely to find "others in the group will take some pleasure in knocking you down a few pegs." But if you go with choice two, you may just find "the group will take pleasure in helping you gain..." I don't know if David Mead is a Christian but I do know this advice is. I can state that with confidence becuase God has given His people the means to evaluate such advice – we can verify that Mead got it exactly right, even if we've never been in a boardroom. How can we be so sure? Because in Luke 14:8-11 Jesus says the same thing. In this passage, Jesus is talking about a wedding feast, not a business meeting, but his point speaks to human nature, which remains the same everywhere. "When you are invited by someone to a wedding feast, do not take the place of honor, for someone more distinguished than you may have been invited by him, and he who invited you both will come and say to you, ‘Give your place to this man,’ and then in disgrace you proceed to occupy the last place. But when you are invited, go and recline at the last place, so that when the one who has invited you comes, he may say to you, ‘Friend, move up higher’; then you will have honor in the sight of all who are at the table with you. For everyone who exalts himself will be humbled, and he who humbles himself will be exalted.” Maybe David Mead was trying to build on Luke 14. But whether he was or was not, we can. And we should because we will never find a more reliable foundation than God's Word. Car mechanic The same holds true for any profession, any recreation, our food choices, the typical time we head to bed, the friends we choose – anything! For some, the everywhere-and-everything reach of God’s sovereignty will strike them as an imposition – there’s no square inch of creation left for us to call our own! But when we understand that God loves us, and is smarter than us, then we’ll see this not as restrictions, but as a comfort. God is watching out for us and has guidance for us, no matter what we are doing. So let’s try this again. Can we think of any subject, any area, any endeavor that the Bible doesn’t speak to? Let’s try and think of the toughest possible example, by focusing on something that the Bible couldn’t possibly speak about because it hadn’t even been invented in biblical times. What about cars? Wouldn’t it make sense for someone to say: “The Bible doesn’t say a lot about being an auto mechanic – after all, it isn’t a car repair manual”? The answer is still no. The Bible might not speak about cars, but it does offer warnings about the pull of idolatry, which may be a concern for any young gearhead whose interest is bordering on obsession. This is also a profession where most of the work he does has to be taken completely on trust. A client’s automotive knowledge may well end right where the front of the car begins, so the client won’t understand the problem, let alone have a clue as to the best solution. They are depending on an honest man giving them honest advice and putting in honest work. And the Bible has a lot to say about honesty too (Prov. 16:11 for example). Conclusion The Bible isn't an accounting textbook, or a self-help guide, or a cookbook – the Bible doesn't contain all there is to know about all of life. But God is sovereign over all of life, and what He says speaks to all of life. So, in whatever we do, the question is not whether God has something to say, but rather what is it that God has said? This is the calling and the privilege of being one of God’s own: we get to seek out God’s thoughts on math and bookbinding, art and child-rearing, environmental stewardship and counseling, and so much more! Of course, that doesn’t mean we are going to understand everything perfectly. We might seek God’s thoughts, and have a hard time figuring out what He has to say on a particular topic. We are not omnipotent – we will never know it all. But that speaks more to our own limitations than to the Bible’s. So enough with “The Bible doesn’t have a lot to say about _________.” We know God really has spoken, really is Ruler of all, and really does love us. That’s why we have every reason to seek out how God’s Word speaks to every aspect of our lives....

Church history, Theology

Original Sin: Luther’s other life-changing doctrine

Every Reformation Day we remember how God used Luther to teach the Church that we are justified by faith alone, not by what we do. But often overlooked is how God used Luther to revive another forgotten, life-changing, doctrine.  **** Martin Luther is more than another dusty historical figure – he has become a symbol of the Reformation itself. His legend is vivid enough to obscure the details of the actual man and the world in which he lived. The legend tells us the story of the tight way his life mirrored his theology, in his journey from the bondage of doubt to freedom in Christ. Yet this is not the only legend told – a man as famous as Luther collects negative portrayals as well as positive ones. Not all Roman Catholics would see Luther as a man to celebrate.1 In fact, Martin Luther has been characterized as a coarse man, a divisive man – worse than that, a man who allowed his own personal struggles with his faith to split the church. He was offered every comfort in the church he was raised in. His priest confessor grew tired of listening to the litany of sins he had committed, sins so minor they were hardly worth the breath it took to confess them.2 Why couldn’t Luther find comfort in his faith? It is said of him, that surely he must have been of a depressive temperament, or mentally unstable.3 Surely he was a peculiar man, an unusual man, and not a man others should've followed. Of course, it shouldn’t come as a great shock to anyone that a Roman Catholic might disparage Martin Luther as being unhealthily obsessed with sin, even as a Protestant might respect him as a great mind. Yet what we are after in this article is an honest evaluation of the life and thinking of this pivotal figure who has had such an enormous impact on Christianity. So this is the necessary question:was Luther unhealthily obsessed with his defects, or was this an important piece in the formulation of his theology? Awareness of the full horror of our sinful inclinations Luther’s theology is well-known: justification by faith alone. But to focus on justification by faith alone is to miss the rest of the story. It misses Luther's awful awareness of sin, and his dawning realization that sin was not limited to his conscious actions but was linked to the very nature of who he was. In fact, Luther suffered because he was aware not only of his actualsin, but also his sinful nature. And the comfort his church offered him all the years he struggled as a monk was rooted in a very different view of humanity's original sin, a view that did not provide him with the strategies to address his own sinful nature as the fountain of his sinful impulses. This is not a mere scholastic discussion. Not only does one’s opinion of Martin Luther as a human being affect the way one views the Reformation, but it also affects the way one approaches anyone who experiences distress, as Luther did, over their sinful inclinations. Luther’s understanding of his sinful nature, can give comfort to those who are also rightly realizing the full horror of the sinful inclinations running through their every action. This is an important point. Understanding the sinfulness of our nature is necessary if we’re going to give true comfort to believers who produce sin continually. To neglect to define human nature as actively inclined to sin, even after conversion, leads to spiritual distress. Luther’s life illustrates this, and Reformed theology further confirms this. Consequently, it is necessary to first look at the doctrine of original sin as the Roman Catholic Church understood it, and then how Luther differed and how it affected his life. A sinful nature or an ungoverned one? Did Roman Catholics in Luther’s time, then, not think humans had a sinful nature? It is perhaps better to say they did not talk in terms of a sinful nature at all. Theologians defined original sin as a lackof a special gift God had granted at creation. This special gift, which is often called “original justice” in their writings, enabled man to conform his will to God. And as a result of original justice, man’s will could be rightly directed towards God. Then, when man fell, this special gift was removed, and therefore man in his nature was wounded and no longer directed to God.4 Man’spassions became unleashed as a result of losing original justice in the Fall, and these passions were no longer rightly directed by man’s will and reason. This ungoverned desire or passion was not in itself regarded as sinful unless it resulted in an actual sinful action. Therefore there did remain in man the “tinder of sin” or “concupiscence,” from which actual sins sprung, but which was not sin itself.5 Concupiscenceis not a replacement for the Reformed understanding of man’s sinful nature, but rather a separate concept, separated from man’s will and reason, and not something active in every part of a man. This illustrates that medieval theology had quite a different formulation of the nature of man, and used these divisions to explain original sin in a very different way than later Protestant theology. This doctrine had developed throughout the Middle Ages, with theologians such as Anselm and Thomas Aquinas increasingly defining original sin as a lack of something, rather than an active inclination against God, as Augustine had.6 In one sense their move in this direction makes sense, because to define original sin as a lack and a removal of a special gift appears to preserve the justice of God. If God only took back what had never been essential to man’s nature, God is not unjust because he may grant or not grant gifts as he wishes. A division of the nature of man was one way to address this, and medieval theology was further influenced by philosophical traditions of the time.7 This conception of original sin was carried over by the Nominalist theologians that Luther reacted most strongly against. In this school of thought, God adapted his righteous requirements to mercifully accept the very best acts man could do, and that God would, in return, give grace to man if man did his very best.8 This has obvious implications for justification, but it affects original sin as well, as it teaches that man, after the fall, is still able to detest sin and seek God.9 It was asserted that man in his natural powers could achieve selfless love out of his own will, and God would graciously respond to this.10 This theology can only result from a conception of original sin as a lackof something, rather than an activeinclination to rebel against God. Luther’s struggle When expressed this way, the division between the usual Protestant and Roman Catholic view of Luther becomes clearer. Our opinion of Luther might hinge on the nature of the sinful inclinations Luther detected in himself. If God did nothold Luther guilty for his concupiscence, all of Luther’s fellow priests were right to be exasperated by his continual struggle with his worry over it, and Roman Catholics today are right to dismiss Luther’s obsession as anxious mental instability. But if he truly stood condemned before the face of God, as he felt he was, then he was justified in his terror and his struggle to find a source of comfort. As a result, the Reformation that resulted from his shift in theology was justified, and more than justified– it was necessary! Luther suffered deeply as he grew more and more aware of the sea of sinful inclinations inside him. He would confess his sins daily – for as long as six hours – searching his memory and analyzing his every motive to be sure he had not missed a single one. While his priest grew exasperated with listening, Luther grew more and more frightened that he could go on thinking of new sins even after six hours. Roland H. Bainton underscores this in his biography of Luther, Here I Stand: “There is, according to Luther, something much more drastically wrong with man than any particular list of offenses which can be enumerated, confessed and forgiven. The very nature of man is corrupt. The penitential system fails because it is directed to particular lapses. Luther had come to perceive that the entire man is in need of forgiveness.”11 This realization plunged Luther into terror. Philip Watson describes Luther’s state like this: “The scholastic theologians, it is true, taught that concupiscentiawas not in itself to be regarded as sin… But this again occasioned questionings and apprehension in Luther’s mind. Had his will not consented? … Was he really in a state of grace – for he could perceive no evidence of its effective working in him?”12 The comfort offered by his priests – that God was a merciful God – did little to alleviate this burden. To Luther, this kind of mercy diminished God’s righteousness, and he refused to conceive of God’s justice in such human terms.13 But was Luther’s problem his own sinful inability to accept mercy, or was there a flaw in his theology that needed to be rectified? Luther came to believe there was a flaw in his theology, namely, that every action a person takes, even those which outwardly appear to be good ones, are shot through with sin. One could easily conclude Luther’s conscience was overly sensitive, and that he suffered for nothing.14 It might even be comforting to conclude Luther could not have been in his right mind to have been so bothered by how he fell short of God’s standards. Everyone falls short, after all, and it is comforting to assume God will overlook small shortcomings. And Luther was a monk – he’d devoted everything to being a good one. But it is better to conclude that Luther had the valuable ability not to take his sins lightly. Perhaps his sensitive conscience was necessary to correctly depict a God who doesn’t make compromises with sin. Luther himself mused in this way later in his life.15 Luther experienced intense distress, and part of his distress was a direct result of the way theology was framed at the time. Defining original sin as a loss rather than an active inclination did not give him a conception that equipped him to understand the sinful inclinations he could see in himself. When he felt the desire to curse God, the only way he could fit it into the theology he knew at the time was in a way that damned him. If he truly was a believer he should be moving towards a deeper understanding of God, but despite all his spiritual acts he never felt his sinful impulses lessen. He knew what was inside him was an active inclination. The sins he confessed constantly were active rebellion, an active rebellion against God. And he needed a theology that could incorporate this rebellious inclination that he could not deny was in himself, and yet still grant him the comfort of being saved. Luther’s freedom began when he, finally, not only faced the reality of his depravity, but also grasped that Christ’s sacrifice had the power to atone for not only his actual sins but also his sinful nature. “Thereupon I felt myself to be reborn and to have gone through open doors into Paradise.”16 It was only after this realization that he was freed from his constant inner reflection to be able to go out into the world and actually, by the grace of God, to change it. Luther’s concept of original sin When it comes to original sin it is clear that Luther objected to the church’s doctrine of original sin on two points: first, that natural man can take even a step towards loving God, or make any motion that God could condescend to respond to with grace; second, that even after conversion man still possesses sinful desires that are present even in outwardly good works. Luther never systematically pulls all of his theological ideas together in one work, but he discusses original sin throughout his writings. In particular, his early lectures on Romans are crucial in the development of his ideas on original sin because in connection with Romans he spends a lengthy amount of time considering this doctrine.17 Luther argues on the basis of Romans that original sin was not just a lack of a quality in the will or a lack of light in the mind, but a total lack of uprightness and power of everything in body and soul – a complete inclination to evil.18 The scholastic trend Luther discerned was an attempt to replace divine grace with light of human reason.19 Luther argues, in response, that using human reason to discern what is good will only define the best things according to humans, not God. “e should call ‘natural’ the fact that we are in sin and death and that we desire, understand, and long for things that are corrupt and evil,” Luther states in another one of his works.  He then insists, “Who does not see the contradiction between the statement that the natural powers are perfect, and the statement that nature is corrupted by sin?”20 Human nature will result in doing “good things in an evilway.” Good things performed by natural capacity are good in an evil way, performed not for service of God but in service of the creature.21 In this work on Romans, Luther also works out the sinfulness of believers. One of the reasons Luther was so radical is related to his second assertion, that an active sinful nature still operates in a believer, and that therefore a person can be simultaneously saved and a sinner. Yet his lectures on Romans should utterly destroy any notion that Luther preached righteousness through faith alone in order to dispense with good works: Luther argues that a sinner has the beginning of righteousness and continues to seek more and more of it. In other words, while a man knows he is a sinner and knows every moment that he is entirely incapable of doing anything good, he continues to follow the will of God in his life. He continues to walk the path God has set out, because God’s grace has shown him the first step. Every intentional step a sinner takes is an intentional movement from sin to righteousness.22 Luther was convinced that defining original sin in terms of privation (or lack) alone was a reductionist approach and did not express the real severity of the Adam’s sin. He argued sin is not a localized part but in the whole person, as well as a positive reality and not privation.23 This doctrine needs to be intimately connected with salvation – Christ is the second Adam, and just as the penalty in Adam leads to condemnation, believers receive the gift of grace through Christ to avoid condemnation.24  Roman Catholic response It is clear Luther’s view of original sin was one of part of his theology that Rome objected to. In 1545 the Roman Catholic Church convened the Council of Trent specifically to deal with the theology of Luther and other Reformers. The Council’s decrees state: “This concupiscence, which the Apostle sometimes calls sin, the holy council declares the Catholic Church has never understood to be called sin in the sense that it is truly and properly sin in those born again, but in the sense that it is of sin and inclines to sin. But if anyone is of the contrary opinion, let him be anathema.”25 Here the Council declares that even when Paul laments that he is inclined to actively commit sin, he is not talking about something that is sin in and of itself. Due to conflicting streams of Roman Catholic thought on original sin at the time, the definition of original sin by this council is perhaps more vague than it could have been, and yet it still rejects any formulation of original sin that could fall in line with Luther.26 It is defined as a loss (of justice and holiness), and underscores that the origin and possible effect of concupiscence is sin, while concupiscence itself does not incur guilt – under this definition it is then possible for believers to do good works free of sinful inclinations. More clarity on the decrees of the Council of Trent is provided in TheCouncil of Trent: Catechism for Parish Priests, written soon after the Council of Trent ended. This catechism continues to define concupiscence as the “fuel of sin” and not sin itself.27 It confirms that when concupiscence is used to refer to the remains of sin after baptism, it is not conceiving of concupiscence as identical to the Reformed conception of the sinful nature. It is interesting to note is how concupiscence is defined as the remains of sin after baptism (the “fuel of sin” or the “tinder of sin”), and yet in this Catechism it is also defined as merely a desire for something one doesn’t have. Certainly a desire for warmth when one is cold should not be considered a sin, but can this desire be thought of as a remainder after original sin is removed? It seems more likely that the term concupiscence can be used in two ways, first as a more benign term which refers to desire, and then as a more negative term referring to the unbridled desires that man loses control over as a result of his wounded nature. The Reformed definition of sinful nature would not be a loss of control over human desires, but rather the active sinful bend in every human desire. And this parish priest catechism goes on to highlight the issues with understanding concupiscence in this way, when it goes on to define sinful concupiscence as concupiscence that conflicts with spirit and reason. The Reformed interpretation would emphasize that spirit and reason are bent away from God as well, and so a conflict between desire, spirit and reason would be meaningless as a barometer of sinfulness before God. The medieval Roman Catholic interpretations of original sin flow out of understandable concerns – concerns to preserve the voluntary nature of original sin, and to prevent an overly deterministic understanding of sin. There is an impulse to encourage believers to do good works, and fight against their actual sin. However, the solution runs up against obvious problems. If the radical nature of sin is diminished, and man’s nature is affected by the fall only by the loss of something, any active rebellious tendencies are left without an explanation. Our Comfort How, then, should original sin be defined? As with any doctrine, there are many different ideas about it. But a definition of original sin needs to be practical, and speak directly to the individual believer who sees in themselves a sin-streaked nature. This is why the Reformers formulated confessions to be used in the church, and these define sin clearly. First, the Heidelberg Catechism emphasizes man is unable to do good because he is by nature inclined to hate God and his neighbour. This active turning away from God is at the heart of both our sinful nature and every actual sin.28 The Belgic Confession also devotes an article to the doctrine of original sin, and emphasizes in the same way that man is a slave to sin.29 Original sin, according to the Belgic Confession, corrupts the entire nature of man: “As a root it produces in man all sorts of sin. It is, therefore, so vile and abominable in the sight of God that it is sufficient to condemn the human race. It is not abolished nor eradicated even by baptism, for sin continually streams forth like water welling up from this woeful source.”30 This formulation does a few things. It insists original sin corrupts the entire nature of man, not just one part of it. And it does not diminish the radical nature of human nature’s corruption. The Belgic Confession uses as scriptural evidence not just Paul’s well-known passage about doing the sin he does not want to do, but also Romans 5:12, which declares through Adam all were made sinners. Adam’s sin resulted in more than just a potential from which true sin could spring, rather it produced real sinners. This is necessary to grasp, and the various explanations of original sin must hold onto this central concept. Therefore in the Belgic Confession humans did not just merely lose something because of original sin, just as Luther insisted man did not just merely lose some quality in the will or light in the mind. “For whatever light is in us has changed into darkness,” the Belgic Confession agrees. Scripture supports this by showing the corruption of the will and of every part of man: the heart of man is polluted, the mind of man is set on sin, and the desire of man is contrary to God.31 Humans of themselves are by nature rebellious and always turned away from God – “None is righteous, no, not one” (Rom. 3:10). The Belgic Confession insists the effects of sin are so radical and so widespread, especially in man prior to conversion, that it is impossible to imagine how man can take even a step towards a right relationship with God again. And it underscores Luther’s understanding that even in a believer this sinful nature will continue to produce sin, as it states: “the awareness of this corruption may make groan as they eagerly wait to be delivered from this body of death.” Therefore our confessions present to us a necessary formulation of the biblical passages on original sin – and, in addition, it provide unspeakable comfort. See, for example, the declaration in the Belgic Confession: “We believe that, when He saw that man had thus plunged himself into physical and spiritual death and made himself completely miserable, our gracious God in His marvellous wisdom and goodness set out to seek man when he trembling fled from Him.”32 This is utterly realistic about humanity. It does not shy away from the worst of our nature. Yet it magnifies God. God does not meet us halfway – God goes farther and actually saves those who are actively running away. In conclusion, this confession – and this entire doctrine of original sin – directly reassures those who are distressed because they are real sinners with active rebellious inclinations against God. Just as Luther looked at himself and despaired at his progress toward loving God, unable to leave behind sin and unable to make progress in ridding himself of his sinful nature, so too many believers may look at themselves in discouragement. In order to move on from despair, Luther needed to both acknowledge the bend of his own nature away from God – radically affecting every ounce of him – and to accept this inclination as true sin. Then he could fully grasp the even greater length God reaches, and find the assurance of astonishing forgiveness in Christ. Christ’s blood covers the guilt of our sinful nature just as much as it covers actual sins. Just as in Adam man fell so fully, so man was so united with Christ as to be absolutely saved. And believers today can follow in this comfort. They no longer need to be paralyzed by an inward focus on the depth of their sin, but they can move on from the depth of their sin to look outward to Christ. And this truly frees a believer to live and act. End notes 1 This is not to deny many Roman Catholics do, in fact, view Luther positively despite his excommunication by the Roman Catholic Church. 2 “Look here,” said , “if you expected Christ to forgive you, come in with something to forgive—parricide, blasphemy, adultery—instead of all these peccadilloes.” Roland Bainton, Here I Stand, (New York, Abingdon Press, 1950), 54. 3 For examples of modern speculations on Luther’s mental state, including diagnoses of scrupulosity, see http://catholicexchange.com/from-scrupulosity-to-lutherosity-part-1, and http://www.catholicstand.com/scrupulosity-a-little-bit-of-hell/, for two examples. Accessed November 6, 2017. This Roman Catholic view of Luther stems from writings such as the above, as well as personal interaction with individual Roman Catholics. It is important to note no one view of Luther is unanimous. 4 George Vandervelde,Original Sin: Two Major Trends in Contemporary Roman Catholic Reinterpretation, (Amsterdam: Rodopi, 1975), 30. 5 In medieval theology, the Fall did result in original sin; however, the guilt and condemnation of original sin is removed by God in his grace in baptism. The doctrine of original sin is intimately connected with the doctrine of baptism, however to explore the meaning of the sacrament of baptism in depth is beyond the scope of this paper. According to Roman Catholic theology, baptism remits original sin. 6 There were various theological strains on the doctrine of original sin within the Roman Catholic Church in the Middle Ages, with different scholars following Augustinian, Anselmian and Thomistic formulations of the doctrine. There was not one defined, dominant view. Vandervelde, Original Sin, 27, 28. 7 Jairzinho Lopes Pereira attributes Augustine’s lack of influence among the Scholastics (those Luther opposed) to Aristotelian philosophical influence. Jairzinho Lopes Pereira, Augustine of Hippo and Martin Luther on Original Sin and Justification of the Sinner(Bristol: Vandenhoeck & Ruprecht, 2013), 267. 8 Ibid., 269-270. Gabriel Biel, who spoke of a ‘pactum’ between God and humans, where God promises to reward with grace those who do their best, not because humans deserve grace, but because God is merciful. Luther wrote against this, and others in the Nominalist school of thought. 9 Ibid., 275. 10 Another theologian Luther was likely reacting against was Duns Scotus: see Philip Watson’s description of Luther’s interaction with Scotus’ theology. Philip Watson, Let God be God:  An Interpretation of the Theology of Martin Luther(Philadelphia: Muhlenberg Press, 1948), 50. 11 Bainton, Here I stand, 55. In Luther’s work on Psalm 51 he also describes his struggle to understand the doctrine of original sin, and his conviction that natural man could not will the good. He lectured on the Psalms early in his career, prior to lecturing on Romans. From this passage, it is not clear whether he finds much comfort in this conception of man’s sinful inclinations. He does not move on to justification in his explanation, but rather asserts an explanation of original sin is a mystery. A correct understanding of original sin needs to be tied to salvation in Christ to bring comfort. See “Psalm 51,” in Selected Psalms 1(ed. Jaroslav Pelikan; trans. Jaroslav Pelikan; vol. 12 of Luther’s Works; Saint Louis: Concordia Publishing House, 1955), 351. 12 Watson, Let God be God, 16. 13 Pereira, Augustine of Hippo and Martin Luther, 322n.3. 14 Bainton goes on to address the question of Luther’s mental state, admitting many aspects of Luther’s state at the time do compare with mental disturbances. However, he maintains, Luther’s mental struggle never affected his tremendous work output. In addition, the issues Luther struggled with were real issues that existed in the religion he lived and worked with, and more than that, he did make progress through his struggles to clarify what religious solutions actually addressed his struggles and which were unhelpful. Later, Bainton shows Luther’s mentor, Staupitz, must have considered Luther fundamentally sound despite his exasperation with Luther’s inability to find comfort, because Staupitz told Luther he should assume the chair of the Bible at the university. Despite all Luther’s struggles, he was entrusted with teaching others, and Staupitz appeared to have confidence that by teaching the source of their religion, Luther would learn about what help the Bible offered him in his struggles. Bainton, Here I Stand, 56, 60. 15 Ibid., 361. Throughout his life Luther eventually worked out a technique for dealing with his spiritual depression. One important part was that he came to believe that sensitive believers could, by going through such struggles, understand their beliefs in a deeper way. Sensitive believers could then share these beliefs with less sensitive believers in a way that leads them to agree with the truth of it. 16 Bainton, Here I Stand,65. 17 Pereira, Augustine of Hippo and Martin Luther, 28, 31. 18 Martin Luther, Lectures on Romans: Glosses and Scholia(ed. Hilton C. Oswald; trans. Jacob A. O. Preus; vol. 25 of Luther’s Works; Saint Louis: Concordia Publishing House, 1972), 299. 19 In Luther’s work on Psalm 51, he also describes being taught that man had only lost grace and that if man followed the light of his nature he would be given grace. Luther rejects this formulation. See Luther, “Psalm 51,” 351. 20 Ibid., 351. 21 Pereira, Augustine of Hippo and Martin Luther, 338-339. 22 Luther, Lectures on Romans,260. 23 Pereira, Augustine of Hippo and Martin Luther, 331-332. 24 Pereira, Augustine of Hippo and Martin Luther, 335. 25 Council of Trent, Session 5, June 17, 1546, Decree concerning original sin, in The Canons and Decrees of the Council of Trent, trans. Rev. H. J. Schroeder (Rockford: Tan Books and Publishers, 1978), 27-28. 26 See Louis Berkhof, Systematic Theology(Grand Rapids: 1949), 258, http://downloads.biblicaltraining.org/Systematic%20Theology%20by%20Louis%20Berkhof.pdf Vandervelde argues that the reason the Council of Trent was somewhat vague in its definition was that there were participants from Augustinian, Anselmian and Thomistic traditions. They agreed on which errors to combat, but less so on what ideas to defend (p 33).  It is interesting to note one of the participants at the Council of Trent, Seripando (who was an Augustinian), opposed defining concupiscence as “a morally neutral human drive” instead of a “morally qualified inclination to evil.” However, he was not successful. Vandervelde, Original Sin, 40. 27 Catechism of the Council of Trent, trans. John a. McHugh and Charles J.Callan (Rockford: Tan Books and Publishers, 1982) 183-184, 469-470. 28 “The Heidelberg Catechism,” in Creeds of Christendom: with a History and Critical Notes, ed. Philip Schaff (New York: Harper & Brothers, 1919), 309. 29 “Belgic Confession,” in Creeds of Christendom: with a History and Critical Notes, ed. Philip Schaff (New York: Harper & Brothers, 1919), 3:398-400. Hereafter I will cite the Belgic Confession in the form BC Article 14 with the volume and page number of Schaff following in brackets, e.g., BC Article 14 (3:398-400). 30 BC Article 15 (3:400-401). 31 See Louis Berkhof, Systematic Theology, 258, as well as Jer 17: 9, Rom 8: 7, Gal 5: 24. 32 BC Article 17 (3:402). Bibliography Bainton, Roland. Here I Stand. New York, Abingdon Press, 1950. Beattie, Trent. http://catholicexchange.com/from-scrupulosity-to-lutherosity-part-1. Accessed November 6, 2017. “Belgic Confession.” In Creeds of Christendom: with a History and Critical Notes, edited by Philip Schaff, 3:383-436. New York: Harper & Brothers, 1919. Berkhof, Louis. Systematic Theology. Grand Rapids: 1949. PDF. http://downloads.biblicaltraining.org/Systematic%20Theology%20by%20Louis%20Berkhof.pdf. Catechism of the Council of Trent. Translated by John a. McHugh and Charles J.Callan. Rockford: Tan Books and Publishers, 1982. “Heidelberg Catechism.” In Creeds of Christendom: with a History and Critical Notes, edited by Philip Schaff, 3:307-355. New York: Harper & Brothers, 1919. Luther, Martin. Lectures on Romans: Glosses and Scholia. Edited by Hilton C. Oswald. Translated by Jacob A. O. Preus. Vol. 25 of Luther’s Works. Saint Louis: Concordia Publishing House, 1972. Luther, Martin. “Psalm 51.” Pages 301-410 in Selected Psalms 1. Edited by Jaroslav Pelikan. Translated by Jaroslav Pelikan. Vol. 12 of Luther’s Works. Saint Louis: Concordia Publishing House, 1955. Miller, Leila. http://www.catholicstand.com/scrupulosity-a-little-bit-of-hell/. Accessed November 6, 2017. Pereira, Jairzinho Lopes.  Augustine of Hippo and Martin Luther on Original Sin and Justification of the Sinner. Bristol: Vandenhoeck & Ruprecht, 2013. Trent, Council of. Decree concerning original sin. Session 4, June 15, 1546. In The Canons and Decrees of the Council of Trent, translated by Rev. H. J. Schroeder, 21-28. Rockford: Tan Books and Publishers, 1978. Vandervelde, George.  Original Sin: Two Major Trends in Contemporary Roman Catholic Reinterpretation. Amsterdam : Rodopi, 1975. Watson, Philip.  Let God be God:  An Interpretation of the Theology of Martin Luther. Philadelphia : Muhlenberg Press, 1948. The painting is Ferdinand Pauwels' (1830–1904) "Luther discovers the bible."...

Theology

#4: the forgotten commandment?

In Celebrating the Sabbath pastor Bruce Ray warns that there are two ways to fall off the horse when it comes to Sunday observance: legalism and lawlessness. LEGALISM 138 pages / 2008 Our churches used to lean in the legalistic direction, turning this gift from God into a day of “don’ts.” Riding a bike, going to the lake after church, or playing some basketball with friends were all things that “we niet doen op Zondag!” ("we do not do on Sunday!") LAWLESSNESS But today the pressure is coming from the lawless side. It seems as if Christians in most other churches don’t have a problem with working on Sunday. Sure, many do take the day off (who doesn’t like weekends off?), but if the boss wants them to come in, they won’t object. And when they get to go to church, they think nothing of going to brunch right afterward and putting cooks, waitstaff, and dishwashers to work on their behalf. The 4thCommandment has become a forgotten commandment. It’s curious. It’s as if the Western Church believes there should now be just the Nine Commandments. It's argued that the 4thCommandment was part of the Old Testament ceremonial law, and that like the rest of the ceremonial law it was fulfilled with Jesus’ coming. But as Pastor Ray points out, the Sabbath rest has a history that extends to long before God gave the Ten Commandments. It begins right in Genesis 1 and 2 with Creation. …the Sabbath was ordained before the Fall, for all people of all time. It cannot be confined to the ceremonial law appointed specifically for the nation of Israel, but was intended to be a celebration of creation for Adam and all his posterity BLESSING So, no we are not down to just Nine Commandments….and that is a very good thing. God knows us, and in this command He gives us what we badly need. In Celebrating the Sabbath Bruce Ray includes a good quote from M. J. Dawn about how the 4thcommandment is a blessing. …it forces us to rely on God for our future. On that day we do nothing to create our own way. We abstain from work, from our incessant need to produce and accomplish, from all the anxieties about how we can be successful in all that we have to do to get ahead. The result is that we can let God be God in our lives. So let’s embrace this commandment as both a rule for our lives and as the gift it is, given by our loving Heavenly Father who knows what we need. **** Remember the Sabbath day, to keep it holy. Six days you shall labor and do all your work, but the seventh day is a Sabbath of the Lord your God; on it you shall not do any work, you or your son or your daughter, your male or your female servant or your cattle or your sojourner who stays with you.  For in six days the Lord made the heavens and the earth, the sea and all that is in them, and rested on the seventh day; therefore the Lord blessed the Sabbath day and made it holy. – Exodus 20:8-11...

Theology

Whom Do You Serve? Sphere Sovereignty and the need for limits on power

Children are often told to obey many different folks. Listen to your mom and dad. Listen to the policeman. Listen to your teacher. Listen to the pastor. Adults too are encouraged to obey various authority figures. Which raises a question: what happens when demands of the State and demands of other authorities clash? Whom do we obey? The Dutch philosopher, theologian and prime minister Abraham Kuyper developed a system of thought to assist in understanding the authority structures in the world. The system is called “sphere sovereignty” and it helps answer the question, “Who do we obey when various demands on us and our behavior clash?” GOD OVER ALL Kuyper argued and demonstrated from the Bible that God has created in society a number of different institutions or spheres, each with their own respective roles and responsibilities. Three of the most important institutions created by God are: the CHURCH– starting with Adam, and continuing through Noah, Abraham, the people of Israel and the New Testament church the STATE– whose role is set out in various places including Psalm 72 and Romans 13 the FAMILY – begun with Adam and Eve In the Bible, God gives each of these spheres a distinct task and role. So, for example, the sphere of State is sovereign in matters properly within its jurisdiction as given and defined by God. Some of those matters would include criminal law, national defense, and maintaining a fair and impartial justice system. The sphere of Church (or synagogue/mosque/temple/monastery, etc.) is sovereign over areas within its jurisdiction: theology and doctrine and church discipline and membership. And within the sphere of family lies responsibility for issues of child education and discipline, religious instruction, sexual ethics, moral development, etc. In the graphic accompanying this article, you’ll notice other spheres: a larger sphere of Society and smaller spheres which are each sovereign in their own right: the market, the academy, charities and the individual. Academics will argue over how many separate spheres there might be, but while the number and boundaries of the smaller spheres is a source of debate, there is agreement about the obvious biblical basis for the first three. God has instituted the Church, the State and the Family and invests each with its own specific sphere of authority. There is, of course, some overlap from sphere to sphere. Fraud can’t be limited to the market sphere; it requires the State criminal law power to protect the consumer. Physical assault of a child can’t be limited to the family sphere; it requires the State criminal law power to protect the child. Restorative justice can’t be limited to the State sphere; it requires the family sphere and the church sphere to mend broken relationships. However, there are also boundaries between the spheres. These boundaries are critical. History has taught us that great harm can be done when one sphere takes over the role of another. For example, problems abound when the State interferes in church doctrine issues. This was the greatest problem during the bloody Reformation era. The State used the sword to enforce church doctrine, which was a total abuse of its power, and a violation of the principles of sphere sovereignty. A modern example would be the Ontario human rights tribunal ordering a Roman Catholic bishop to explain himself to the Tribunal for not allowing an openly gay man to serve as an altar boy (this occurred in Peterborough, Ontario in September 2009). A similar violation of the boundaries between the spheres happened when the Ontario Minister of Education, standing outside the Ontario Legislature, declared that Christian schools could not teach that abortion is wrong, since such a teaching was “one of the most misogynistic actions that one could take.” (That statement was made by Minister Broten in October, 2012.) And in the not too distant past, churches and families tried to keep certain criminal acts (child abuse, for example) quiet and internal, when it ought to have been reported immediately to the State. Having shown the boundaries that exist between these spheres, we need to turn our attention to the key of Kuyperian sphere sovereignty: over each and every sphere reigns Christ as sovereign. Kuyper’s famous saying applies here: “There is not one square inch in the whole domain of our human existence over which Christ, who is Sovereign over all, does not cry, ‘Mine!’” As a Christian country, we once recognized this, and it wasn't even that long ago. The preamble to the Charter of Rights and Freedoms (added to our Constitution in 1982) still states, “Whereas Canada is founded upon principles that recognize the supremacy of God and the rule of law…” Recognizing the supremacy of God is necessary in public policy because, when we fail to do so, someone or something else will take God’s place as supreme authority. THE STATE/LAW OVER ALL For example, take a look at the concept of sphere sovereignty through the eyes of our former Chief Justice, the Right Honorable Beverley McLauchlin. We can see in some or her statements a recognition that there are some spheres in life which are distinct: the sphere of society, spheres of religious communities and families and the sphere of the State. But we should take careful note of where, in her mind, the State sits in relation to the other spheres. In a speech delivered in October 2002, Her Honor stated that: the rule of law exerts an authoritative claim upon all aspects of selfhood and experience in a liberal democratic state… influenc local, community, and familial structures. The authority claimed by law touches upon all aspects of human life and citizenship… It makes total claims upon the self and leaves little of human experience untouched. These “total claims” on us as legal subjects, she said, “flow from a conception of authority rooted in the sovereign .” Invoking Kuyper, one could paraphrase what the Chief Justice said in this way: “There is not one square inch in the whole domain of our human existence over which the Law, which is sovereign over all, does not cry, ‘Mine!’” Admittedly, Her Honor does believe that Law must carve out space for religious communities to live according to their particularities. However, it’s Law (and the State, as the authors of the Law) who makes space and accommodations for religion. For our chief justice, law remains the supreme authority. So there remains a tension between the Law of the State and religious precepts, familial obligations, and individual responsibilities. THE ROAD TO TYRANNY Without something (or, more properly, Someone) over all spheres, tension breaks out between the spheres, and a struggle ensures to see which sphere will reign as supreme. Now, of all of the spheres (the State, the Church, the Family, the Market, etc.) which has the most power? Quite obviously, the State does. As the Apostle Paul once wrote, it “bears the sword.” It has unlimited financial resources, it has coercive powers, it writes the laws, and it has lethal force. So, if God is removed as sovereign, who becomes sovereign? The State does. This is absolutely evident in every officially atheist country from the last century: the USSR, China, North Korea, Nazi Germany, Fascist Italy. When the State raises itself above God, then God becomes a problem for the State. And know this: as the State replaces God, or makes itself god, then it naturally also begins to compete with the family, substituting itself for the family. (It’s no coincidence that the leader of North Korea is referred to as “father.”) And when we, free citizens in a free country, begin to think that the State will provide everything for us, not just national defense or a fair justice system (as it ought to) but also total healthcare, education, food, clothing and shelter, unemployment wages, settlement of petty disputes with our landlords and employers, and on and on, then we are looking to the State not just as god, but also as savior. Lord Acton once wrote, “Power tends to corrupt and absolute power corrupts absolutely.” That dictum is true for all of mankind because of our innate sinfulness and our covetous lust for more. This may be why the LORD never allowed all three offices of the Old Testament to be vested in a single person, though there were exceptional cases where a single person was both a prophet and a priest. Think, for example, of the punishment of King Uzziah when he tried to act as priest and burn incense before the Lord (2 Chronicles 26). Applying this anecdotal evidence for division of power to our civil government, we see a three-fold division of power there too, between the judiciary, legislature, and executive. The Canadian Constitution holds all three branches of government in check – each have power to limit the powers of the other. But if that balance is ever upset such that one person (or one small group of people) becomes lawmaker and law interpreter and law enforcer, we will have tyranny. Expanding out from the Biblical offices and expanding out from civil government, we see that there is a natural protection against tyranny in the dispersion of power. Lord Acton also wrote, “Liberty consists in the division of power. Absolutism, in concentration of power.” So we see that for mankind’s good, God gives some power to the church, some power to families, and some power to the State. But if the ultimate power concentrates (as it is tending to do these days) in one of these spheres, we also have tyranny. One example would be in the realm of education: God gives authority over education of children to parents, with the church assisting parents in that calling historically. But in the last century, the State took over, first from the church, and now more and more from parents, such that even the most intimate and personal educational material is being taught by State bureaucrats, often without parents knowing (think of some of the graphic sex education curriculum for grade 3 and 4). REMINDING OUR NEIGHBORS OF GOD'S PLACE One of our responsibilities as Christian citizens in a free country is to keep the State in its proper place, and to remind fellow citizens of what their responsibilities are apart from the State. This is where you come in. Use the graphics in this article to show your friends and colleagues that we all must be under some ultimate authority. The question is simply, which one? Are we willing to submit ourselves fully to the State? Isn’t the Lordship of Christ infinitely better? We must remind our fellow citizens of what their responsibilities are apart from the State, and explain to them the effect of subjecting everything to the ultimate authority of the State – it means losing the freedom to live as we ought to live. Failure to understand this important concept means subjecting our institutions, our businesses, our families, our churches, subjecting even our very selves to the sovereign will, not of God, but of the State. So, to answer the question I posed at the beginning of this philosophical discussion – who do we obey when demands of the State and demands of parents or pastors or professors conflict? The answer is: it depends. It depends on whether the parents or the professors or the pastors or the State are authoritative in the sphere in which they are making the demands. This approach to understanding the very limited authority of the State should not be interpreted as a proposal for anarchy. I once swore an oath of allegiance to the country I love, my Canada, an oath which I stand by to this day. I pray for her leaders every day. I strive to obey all her laws. But here’s the rub: when those in power begin to legislate in areas over which they have no jurisdiction, my trust in the government plummets. And when those in power dare to legislate in such a way that I must either obey the State’s law or violate my conscience, then I say loudly with the Apostle Peter, “I must obey God, rather than men.” One key to a free, prosperous, democratic society is for the State to back off from taking authority unto itself that was not its to begin with, to not arrogate unto itself powers which are not its own. When the State learns restraint, we can and do enjoy freedom. When our society and culture recognizes a Sovereign high above the State, as we once did, then we certainly will enjoy freedom. This article first appeared in the November 2014 issue under the title "Whom do you serve? Sphere Sovereignty and the need for limits on power." Illustrations were created by Lynn VanEerden. André Schutten is the Director of Law and Policy for ARPA Canada. POSTSCRIPT: QUESTIONS TO CONSIDER While sphere sovereignty is a helpful tool, like any other tool it has limitations. For example, while the first three “spheres” of Church, State and Family are quite clearly instituted by God, we could have endless debates about just how many other spheres there might be. In Canada we could list the federal government as one sphere, and the provincial governments as another, but what about towns and cities? Do they get their own sphere? Is Academia a sphere? What about the Market? Also, while the spheres are a helpful concept, defining the exact borders between each of them is hard to do. So the author wants to emphasize that this is not meant to be the Reformed paradigm through which Christians ought to view the world, and he welcomes feedback on the ideas expressed here. What is helpful about this model, and how might it be improved? André Schutten talks about the sphere of the Church as separate from Family and State. Where does a mosque, synagogue or temple fit in? God instituted the State, the Church, and the Family, but did He institute the mosque? We don’t think the State should interfere with mosques, synagogues and temples so they do seem to exist in a separate sphere apart from the State, but is that separate sphere grouped with the Church, or is it, perhaps, under the Family? Or might it be something else entirely? In Western countries it often seems the State that is trying to take Christ’s supreme position. What might the interloper be in countries like Saudi Arabia or Iran? And if a libertarian were going to make their own sphere sovereignty model, who would they put in place of Christ? ...

Theology

BAPTISM DEBATE: Credo vs. Paedo

On Sept. 27 two Reformed pastors debated “SHOULD WE BAPTIZE INFANTS AS WELL AS ADULTS?” The edited version of this video is now available to watch above. It is approximately 100 minutes, or a little under 2 hours long. Pastor Jared Hiebert, of the Covenant Reformed Church of Stienbach holds to Adult baptism / believer’s baptism / credobaptism. This is the belief that while someone need not necessarily be an adult (“adult baptism” is a bit of a misnomer) before being baptized, they do need to be old enough to be able to understand, and confess, their dependency on and devotion to our Lord. Pastor James Zekveld of the Canadian Reformed Church in Niverville holds to Infant baptism / paedobaptism. This is the belief that God’s covenant promises are available to the children of believers, and thus these promises can be given not only to adults, but to infants – baptism is for babies too. Reformed Perspective holds to a paedobaptism position, and in preparation for the debate we’ve shared a list of some of the very best resources available in defense of infant baptism....

Theology

Choosing Evolution: Bad reasons for a big departure

How I Changed My Mind About Evolution is a recent book featuring 25 evangelical theologians and scientists, each taking a chapter to explain why they have adopted the theory of evolution. The editors note at the outset that fully, “69% of Americans who faithfully attend church weekly believe that God created humans in their present form less than ten thousand years ago.” The goal of this book is to reduce the number of evangelicals holding this view. Instead of laying out the evidence of Scripture and the findings of scientists, they opt to tell their stories. And while each contributor has his or her unique story, one can notice that a number of themes recur in the stories. I want to note three major ones. 1. JOHN WALTON'S REINTERPRETATION OF GENESIS 1 & 2 John Walton’s approach to Genesis 1 & 2 was raised by several of the authors, who echoed his argument that the Genesis account only attempts to answer the “who” and “why” of creation, not “how” God did it. Walton claims that Genesis is simply the Hebrew version of an Ancient Near Eastern (ANE) origins account and that such accounts are only intended to teach the function and purpose of each part of the created world. The origins of the material stuff of creation, and the way the world was brought into being, were not the concern in such accounts. And since, according to Walton, Genesis is like these other ANEs, it wasn’t trying to explain how the world was made either, but was only trying to point to who did it. Genesis thus sets out to refute the views of surrounding nations by attributing the existing world to the Hebrew God instead of the pagan gods, and presenting the earth as God’s dwelling, his temple. These claims of Walton have been soundly refuted by Noel Weeks in an article in the Westminster Theological Journal (78:1 , 1–28). Walton incorrectly interprets the ANE texts, brings together ANE texts from extremely diverse times and contexts, and, I might add, presents an exegesis of Genesis 1 & 2 that overlooks all the points that don’t fit with his interpretation. He also makes words like “create” and “make” mean things they simply don’t mean. I’ve listened to Walton deliver his insights in several long speeches and I’ve read one of his books. Unfortunately, John Walton has had a dramatic effect in terms of opening the way for Christians to hold to an evolutionary account of the origins of the universe, and even of the origins of life. As, J.B. Stump, one of the book’s contributors wrote, Walton’s scholarship “has been a gateway for me (and many others) to consider a more sophisticated treatment of Scripture.” More sophisticated? Walton’s interpretation may appear to be more sophisticated than that of the average Bible reader. But it’s patently incorrect. 2. THE "TWO BOOKS" ARGUMENT Quite a few of the contributors referred to Scripture and Creation as “two books”: the book of special revelation (the Bible) the book of general revelation (God's Creation) Theologians are said to draw from the first; scientists from the second; and both of these “professionals” are supplying us with interpretations of divine revelation. This metaphor – of equating certain scientists' conclusions as being God's general revelation, and then calling this "revelation" complementary to the message of Scripture – has been around for some time. It may originate in a misuse of article 2 of the Belgic Confession, where the "the creation, preservation, and government of the universe" is said to be like a "beautiful book." One contributor even speaks of “reading the big book of creation alongside the little book of Scripture,” telling scientists that they are “thinking God’s thoughts after him.” Another says that the “book of works is one that He desires us to take, read, and celebrate.” But the Scriptures never speak of general revelation in this way. Rather, the general revelation that is available to all people in the world is enough to make them know that there is a God, and that he should be served and praised (Ps 19:1-6; Acts 17:24). This revelation leaves them without excuse when they suppress the knowledge of God and substitute idols in his place (Rom 1:18–20). Meanwhile, the discoveries of scientists are not revelations from God, but human interpretations of data that are fitted within particular theories. The Lord never promised a correct interpretation of nature, but he did promise to lead his people in the rich pastures of his Word by the working of his Holy Spirit. Further, since all people, because of sin, suppress the knowledge of God from creation, Scripture must correct those misconceptions; thus, the clear message of Scripture must have precedence. 3. STRAW MAN ARGUMENTS Finally, the third major theme I picked out was not a theme the authors themselves highlighted, but rather, something I noticed. It felt to me that the arguments they mentioned against evolution were some of the weakest; they were blowing over straw men. For instance: dinosaurs never existed Satan buried the bones that testify otherwise “Job invented electricity” But these are not the actual arguments used by “young” earth creationists! N.T. Wright’s contribution – an excerpt from one of his books – tries to trivialize the entire young earth position by treating it as if it were merely a tempest in a North American teapot. He speaks as if only unsophisticated revolutionaries would ever treat the biblical text in such a fundamentalist way. Similarly, another contributor states, “Despite twenty-five centuries of debate, it is fair to say that no human knows what the meaning of Genesis 1 and 2 was precisely intended to be.” I would have expected the editors to excise such nonsense. Readers must also endure the expected jab at Bishop James Ussher, who concluded that God created the world in 4004 B.C.. In fact, Ussher was one of the most learned men of his time, and sought to determine creation’s date because this was an exercise that many other scholars around him had sought to do. Indeed, many Jews still give today’s date as determined from the moment of creation – today, as I write, it is 17th of Tishre, year 5779 since creation began. Finally, all sides in this debate ought to agree that pat responses such as “with God one day is like a thousand years,” will never suffice, and, in fact, represent a misuse of Ps 90:4 and 2 Pet 3:8. CONCLUSION How I Changed My Mind About Evolution was never intended to marshal all the arguments in favor of evolution. Rather, it tells the stories of various evangelical theologians, pastors, and scientists. As such, its style is completely in line with the purpose of its publisher BioLogos, which aims to “translate scholarship on origins for the evangelical church.” In other words, the book seeks to make evolution seem acceptable by holding up this collection of twenty-five models for evangelical believers to follow. They hope to reduce that statistic of 69% that was mentioned at the outset. However, the book only leaves me unimpressed, inasmuch as some of the strongest arguments, the three that recur the most often in the book, the ones that seem to have opened the way for these 25 evangelicals to change their minds about evolution, turn out to be very bad arguments. A version of this article first appeared at CreationWithoutCompromise.com, Dr. Ted Van Raalte is Professor of Ecclesiology at the Canadian Reformed Theological Seminary....

Theology

The limits of the “two-books” metaphor

There is an idea, common among Christians, that God has revealed Himself to us via “two books”: Scripture and the book of Nature. The Belgic Confession, Article 2 puts it this way: "We know by two means: "First, by the creation, preservation, and government of the universe; which is before our eyes as a most beautiful book, wherein all creatures, great and small, are as so many letters leading us to perceive clearly God’s invisible qualities – His eternal power and divine nature, as the apostle Paul says in Rom 1:20. All these things are sufficient to convict men and leave them without excuse. "Second, He makes Himself more clearly and fully known to us by His holy and divine Word as far as is necessary for us in this life, to His glory and our salvation." But what happens when these two “books” seem to conflict? This happens in the Creation/Evolution debate, where the plain reading of Genesis 1 and 2 conflicts with the evolutionary account of our origins. So, as Jason Lisle notes, that has some Christians thinking that since: “…the book of Nature clearly reveals that all life has evolved from a common ancestor….we must take Genesis as a metaphor…. we must interpret the days of Genesis as long ages, not ordinary days.” Analogies have their limits But that's getting things backwards. While the Belgic Confession does speak of Creation as being like a book, metaphors and analogies have their limits. For example, In Matt. 23:37 God is compared to a hen who "gathers her chicks under her wings" – this analogy applies to the loving, protective nature of a hen, and should not be understood to reveal that God is feminine. That's not what it is about. Clearly Nature is not a book – the universe is not made up of pages and text, and it's not enclosed in a cover or held together by a spine. The Belgic Confession is making a specific, very limited, point of comparison when it likens God's creation to a book. How exactly is it like a book? In how it proclaims "God’s invisible qualities – his eternal power and divine nature." It does so with book-like clarity, "so that people are without excuse" (Romans 1:20). But in the Creation/Evolution debate some Christians extend this book analogy in a completely different, and entirely inaccurate, direction. It has been taken to mean that Creation can teach us about our origins with book-like clarity. This misunderstanding then presents us with a dilemma: if we have one book saying we were created in just six days, and another saying it took millions of years, and both are equally clear on this matter, then what should we believe? We need to understand that this dilemma is entirely of our own making. Creation is not like a book when it comes to teaching us about our origins. As Dr. Lisle has noted, it does not speak with that kind of clarity on this topic. Only one actual book here In contrast, the Bible is not merely like a book, it actually is one! It is there, and only there, that we get bookish clarity on how we, and the world around us, came to be. So, yes, the two-book analogy remains helpful when it is used to illustrate the clarity with which God shows "his eternal power and divine nature" to everyone on the planet. But when it comes to the Creation/Evolution debate, the way the two-book analogy is being used is indeed fallacious. God's creation simply does not speak with book-like clarity regarding our origins. We can be thankful, then, that his Word does! Jon Dykstra also blogs on Creation at CreationWithoutCompromise.com....

Theology

Should a Christian ever be discontent?

She sat across from me, sipping coffee, her forehead wrinkled with unhappiness. She’d struggled for two years in a job that clearly made her miserable, and which everyone else thought she should quit. But she couldn’t quite agree, wondering if there was a reason God had blessed her with the position. “I’m trying so hard to be grateful,” she said. “I just want to be satisfied with what I have.” **** My friend’s words hit me right in my chest. I didn’t know what to say, because I’ve struggled with the exact same issues. When is it okay to give up on the path you’re currently traveling on? When is it okay to quit and change what you’re doing? We know God has a reason for everything He brings into our lives, so doesn’t it just make sense that we should figure out that reason – figure out how to glorify Him in this situation – before we think of moving on to something else? But like so many other situations in life, we often don’t understand the invisible plans of God, or know what His goal is for us in our current season of life. And so we can be left unsure if it is okay to move on to something else, or if God means for us to learn contentment where we are. Often, when we find ourselves feeling like I or my friend felt in that moment – recognizing the strain of dissatisfaction running through our lives – we respond with guilt. We might think this discontent points to a lack in our spiritual lives. But is discontent always wrong? Dissatisfaction certainly can be caused by a spiritual lack. We humans never are satisfied with what we have. We never have enough. If we had the power to change everything in our lives, we still would not feel fulfilled. But this does not mean we should never take our discontentment seriously. Discontent might be the motivation to change something in our lives that needs changing. The value of discontent When we look at other people’s lives, it’s easy to recognize what’s causing them unhappiness, and it’s easy to say they should change these things. In fact, we often wonder why they don’t. This person is still young, so why don’t they try a new career? Or this person has the freedom to move, so why don’t they try living in another city? But when it comes to ourselves, we see how hard it is to justify our choices to make changes. Is “unhappiness” really a good enough reason, when we know we’re called to be content? To get here we've struggled, we've prayed, we've relied on God to achieve things – and by the grace of God we have achieved them. We know, because our strength was so weak and we needed God's strength so much to get where we are today, that our current situation is straight from the hand of God. What we need to know is if we can be grateful for God’s gifts while still choosing for change. No wonder people hesitate to make a change! One way forward is to consider when feelings of discontent have value. This is not to say discontentment should be embraced, but that the feeling can point us to areas of our lives we do actually have power over. So let’s look at discontentment a bit more closely. We shouldn’t be content with just this world First, there are some obvious things God intends for us to be discontent about. We are not supposed to be content with the fallen state of the world. We are supposed to be content that all things are in the hands of God, but we are not supposed to look at injustice be pleased about it. Some of our dissatisfaction points us to the new creation we are looking forward to. When we recognize that we never feel fully fulfilled, we also recognize that we are waiting for eternal fulfillment. We live with “eternity in our hearts” – we have a vision of an ideal kingdom this world cannot live up to. This also means that life’s frustrations, dead ends, and futility were never meant to be part of God’s good creation. No wonder we react so strongly to them. And yet, while we understand this, we also understand God is still holding all the threads of our lives in His hands. We cling to His promise that in him everything that seems meaningless has meaning. We shouldn’t be satisfied burying our talent There’s another aspect of discontentment to consider. Contentment ought to be separated from passivity. A wrong emphasis on contentment can make us believe we’re not allowed to change anything in our lives. But contentment and passivity are not the same thing. Perhaps discontentment may be a challenge to us. We may hide behind “contentment” because we’re afraid to take the risk of change, because we might fail if we try something new. But our dissatisfaction could hint that we are not reaching for goals that we could try to reach. We are not risking the bumps and falls that might develop our skills. Discontentment might tell us we are meant to challenge ourselves. And if we are taking the easier path without really thinking it through, our emotions may be a sign something is wrong. We should consider whether we need to choose a more challenging goal. If we do not separate contentment and passivity, it can result in a fatalistic determinism. We might conclude that wherever we happen to be, that is where God placed us so it must be where He wants us to be, and therefore we should be content. But this cuts off the possibility that God also blesses us with opportunities. Determinism leads us to say—You’re still single? God must not want you to be married. You’re poor? God must not want you to be rich. Don’t try to achieve anything. Just wait peacefully. Don’t try to change. Everything you’re meant to have will just happen if it’s meant to be. But clearly this is an unbiblical message. Learning contentment from Paul Contentment is still a good thing, and it is a virtue to be pursued in our lives. After much struggle, I’ve realized that while there may be something behind the vague sense of discontent that so often crops up in our lives, and that these reasons can be addressed, contentment is still the goal, not discontent. How, then, should we pursue contentment while avoiding utter passivity? There are a few things to keep in mind. Content even as we strive First, contentment is about where you are in the present moment. It is not a denial of any change in the future. When Paul talks of being content in all circumstances, he was working towards a goal, and the circumstances occurred while he was attempting to achieve it. Having a goal does imply you expect to cause change in the future. So perhaps it is not the goal you’re supposed to avoid having, but the discontent over the difficulties that spring up on the way to the goal. It may in fact turn out to be that the goal is not one you’re meant to achieve, but contentment in all circumstances includes contentment during the deep disappointment that hits when you don’t achieve your goal. In other words – strive! Keep striving! But be ready to be content with what the Lord brings you. Content in suffering Another caveat is that contentment in Scripture, including the contentment passage in Philippians 4 (“I have learned in whatever situation I am to be content”), is mentioned in relation to suffering. It is an approach to situations that are not in Christians’ control. When life is hard, especially when life is hard as a result of being Christians, Christians are to be content. So the intent is not to say, “don’t change your life path,” but rather, “I know you’re suffering, and this is where you can find comfort.” These passages also emphasize that no circumstances of life ever prevent us from being saved by God – whether in chains or free, whether rich or poor – no one needs to be discontent because their circumstances prevent them from truly being Christians. If such circumstances did exist they would surely be reason for despair—but thanks be to God there are none! We can be content because our circumstances do not prevent our salvation. Content when we have choices and when we don’t We all suffer in some way, but in comparison to many Christians in the Bible we are faced with an endless array of choices – we can choose a career, we can choose a spouse, we can choose where we want to live, we can choose to travel, we can choose our level of education. It’s not a surprise the Bible doesn’t predict that we in the future would be faced with this array of choice, and advise us on how to wrap our minds around the dizzying display. And therefore it is not a surprise when we try to apply biblical principles to our choices instead of our sufferings, and end up at the conclusion that we should never desire anything, and never try to achieve anything. But rather than arriving at this conclusion and automatically accepting it, we should think about whether this is really correct. We are to be content in situations we can’t change, including those which are really, really hard. But our contentment in the present moment doesn’t prevent us moving from one choice to another in the future. Second, we often think contentment means being stationary unless we’re sure God means for us to move. But Paul did not always sit and wait until absolutely sure that God was sending him somewhere else. If he was called by the Spirit he followed, but he continued to work and preach in all places while waiting for the Spirit’s call. He often made plans to go to different places, or to start new missions. When the Spirit of God prevented him from preaching throughout Asia Minor, he continued trying in place after place until he reached the sea – only then did he realized he was being called to Macedonia. In other words, sometimes we are not sure what we should do, but we do not necessarily have to wait for a firm confirmation from God before every action. Content in the day-to-day faithfulness Lastly, we are often discontent with our lives not because of the goals but because of the mundane tasks and the drudgery. Our actions seem so little, and so dull. We cry, like me and my friend did when we were having coffee, “I just want to work in God’s kingdom!” But perhaps the cathedral builders did the same, as they painstakingly placed stone on stone for hundreds of years, unable to see the buildings we’d gasp at in wonder today. Perhaps our grandparents did the same as they struggled to get their children to listen to a Bible story, not knowing if the generations who’d follow would do the same. When we ask God to use our lives according to His plans, we sometimes suppress a fear that God doesn’t want us to go anywhere, or do anything. This is our fear when we walk into the office and face a mountain of paperwork that needs to be done but hardly seems worthwhile – am I really contributing to God’s kingdom, we wonder? But our God is not a God of waste. If we are to be ordinary, it will be worthwhile. Our call to contentment brings us to a new understanding, where ordinary labour is not undervalued. We are not pressured to all conform to the mould of world-changer. We can put our hand to the task in front of us without fear our efforts will be washed from the earth, because we know they’re seen by the eyes of God. Conclusion What, then, is contentment? First, it is a focus on the kingdom of God, not the kingdom of the world. It shifts our focus from yearning for the things of this world, such as money, fame, or power. We can trust there are eternal things that we are building, and contentment means that we can rest. Second, it is not a struggle with God over what can’t change. While we are not called to passivity, in our lives we will sometimes be told “no.” This is where we are most often tempted to fight, not necessarily with our actions, but with a rebellious spirit that insists on despising the situation forced on us. Only by looking to God in His Word and in prayer will we find the strength to turn back to contentment again. When my friend and I left the cafe, our lives were still the same as when we had come in. Yet somehow Christian company and very good coffee gave us new capacity to rest in the goodness of God. Harma-Mae Smit blogs at  HarmaMaeSmit.com. ...

Adult non-fiction, Theology

Calvinist vs. Arminian: a tale of two books

Why revisit the debate between Arminianism and Calvinism? Isn't it a waste of precious time to discuss these differences even as the world is aflame with political unrest? No, this is a debate that should always generate interest and discussion. Dr. J. I. Packer once observed that the very terms Calvinism and Arminianism represent opposition: “The words are defined in terms of the antithesis, and the point is pressed that no Christian can avoid being on one side or the other." Arminianism had considerable influence in Anglo-American theological developments and, on the surface, Calvinism might seem to have lost the battle in the theatre of American evangelicalism. Many evangelicals even believe that Calvinism is “irrelevant.” They say, “Christianity cannot possibly teach that.” With a commitment to egalitarianism and the rejection of the traditional doctrine of original sin, American culture is receptive to Arminianism. The Arminian emphasis on individualism and self-determination dominated much of 20th century American evangelicalism. Billy Graham, for instance, uses the language of Arminianism in his crusades when he asks attendees to "make a decision for Christ" – language that Calvinists find utterly foreign to their understanding of salvation. Revival of Calvinism So it seems clear that Calvinism does not fit the American ideal. Why would anyone be a Calvinist then? The reason is quite simple. The gospel of Jesus Christ is countercultural. Perhaps this is why Calvinism seems to appeal to young people, especially college students. There is also a renewed interest in Calvinism among the Southern Baptists, the largest Protestant denomination in the United States. What is at stake? But why should we know the differences between Calvinism and Arminianism? Because they represent stark opposing theological visions, at the heart of which are profoundly different views of God. Two books, published as a set of sorts, highlight just how profound the differences are: What I am not a Calvinist, by Jerry Walls and Joseph Dongell, and Why I am not an Arminian by Robert Peterson and Michael Williams. The authors of Why I am not a Calvinist believe: “...the heart of the matter is how we understand the character of God. The issue is not how powerful God is but what it means to say he is perfectly loving and good.....The breathtaking vision of God's Trinitarian love is obscured by the Calvinist claim that God passes over persons he could just as easily save and thereby consigns them to eternal misery." The following questions then, are at issue: How are we saved from our sins and granted eternal life? Are human beings so fallen that they must be saved exclusively through the unilateral and unconditional actions of God? Is it possible for human beings to successfully resist the saving approaches of God's grace? Can any who were once truly redeemed through faith in Christ fail to receive final salvation? The tone of the debate Considering the seriousness of the differences, it shouldn't come as a surprise that the history of the debate between Calvinism and Arminianism has been one of intense and often "mean-spirited" confrontation. However, Why I am not an Arminian's authors aims to treat their Arminian brothers and sisters in Christ as they would want to be treated. They also note that the Synod of Dordt was right to condemn the Arminian misrepresentation of the saving ways of God. "Yet we do not think of Arminianism as a heresy or Arminian Christians as unregenerate." They observe that Calvinists and Arminians are brothers in Christ. In other words: “The issue of the debate is not between belief and unbelief but rather which of two Christian perspectives better represents the biblical portrayal of the divine-human relationship in salvation and the contribution of both God and man in human history." And Why I am not a Calvinist authors rightly say, "We should all speak with a measure of care and reserve when delivering our interpretative conclusions." Why I am not a Calvinist So what type of argument do the authors Why I am not a Calvinist make? They first provide some background. Arminianism has its roots in the work of Jacob Arminius (1560-1609). It teaches that salvation is available to anybody who exercises faith; it contrasts with the Calvinist understanding that God alone determines who is and who is not among the elect. Arminian popular belief tends toward the overestimation of human ability and the human redemptive contribution. Traditional Arminianism believes that the death of Christ provides grace for all persons and that, as result of his atonement, God extends sufficient grace to all persons through the Holy Spirit to counteract the influence of sin and to enable a response to God. But, they argue, it is possible for sinners to resist God's initiative and to persist in sin and rebellion. Arminianism believes that God's grace enables and encourages a positive and saving response for everyone, but it does not determine a saving response for anyone. Furthermore, an initial positive response of faith doesn't guarantee one's final salvation: “It is possible to begin a genuine relationship with God but then later turn from him and persist in evil so that one is finally lost.” In 1610, the disciples of Jacobus Arminius produced a manifesto called the Remonstrance, which they regarded as a corrective to the Calvinist doctrine of election. The authors view the divine election of Israel and Christ as “that tree of redemption into which all persons can be incorporated by faith.” They state: “God doesn't unconditionally predestine particular persons to salvation. Rather, election is in Christ, and all are saved who do not knowingly and persistently refuse God's gracious offer of life.” Interestingly, Why I am not Calvinist's authors go beyond traditional Arminianism, and seem favorably inclined to Openness Theology, also called Open Theism. Advocates of Open Theism have argued that while God knows everything that can be known, He cannot have exhaustively definite knowledge of the future. Since the future will involve decisions made by genuinely free creatures, knowledge of the future is said to be impossible, by definition. Since God doesn't know future free choices, the future is not completely settled. Clark Pinnock, a noted Open Theism advocate says, “Some prophecies are conditional, leaving the future open, and presumably, God's knowledge of it.” And Richard Rice argues, "Where human decision is presupposed, God cannot achieve his purpose unilaterally. He requires our cooperation.” Open Theist theologians acknowledge “the triune God of love has, in almighty power, created all that is and is sovereign over all,” but in His freedom and desire to enter into a relationship of love with humanity has “decided to make some of his actions contingent upon our requests and actions.” They also believe that God is “dependent on the world in certain respects.” Consequently, they propose that the traditional view of God's infallible foreknowledge is a conviction that should be dispensed with. Open Theist theologians seem to highly esteem people while limiting God. For example, according to Pinnock human freedom can be won only by surrendering divine foreknowledge. I agree with those theologians who call Open Theism radicalized Arminianism. And if our future free actions cannot be known with certainty, even by God, how can we believe in the fulfillment of prophecy? Why would God "promise" anything if He cannot know the future or guarantee it by His almighty power? For the authors, the doctrine of election does not seem to hold any mystery. In fact, an appeal to mystery scandalizes them. They claim that some Calvinists “make a hasty retreat to mystery” when faced with charges of inconsistency. And they argue, “It isn't a sign of true piety for one to be willing to dispense with logical coherence in the name of mystery.” They critique John Piper's declaration that the potter has absolute rights over the clay, and if God chooses not to save some persons, it is not for us to understand but simply to adore. Interestingly, on the one hand the authors state that Calvinists have been zealous evangelists and missionaries and have contributed powerfully to the cause of winning the lost for Christ. On the other hand, they argue that Calvinists can't make coherent sense of their claim that God makes a bona fide offer of salvation to persons he has not elected for salvation, nor can they explain how God can truly have compassion for such persons. They claim, “the consequences for evangelistic preaching are profound indeed.” Why I am not an Arminian What are the counter arguments from the authors of Why I am not an Arminian? In their carefully reasoned, understandable exposition of Calvinism, they address the historical context, theological concerns, and biblical texts in a readable manner. In fact, they are Bible-centered in their presentation. They point out that the question of ecclesiastical authority and the integrity of the church as a confessional body was an intense bone of contention for both sides in the struggle between the Calvinists and the Arminians within the Dutch church. The Calvinists argued that a Reformed church is a confessional church. Hence they pleaded for the maintenance of particular confessional standards. Following in the tradition of Erasmus of Rotterdam, however, the Arminians championed the liberty of the individual conscience relative to doctrinal standards. The authors show that Calvin was not the first one to talk about reprobation or the absolute sovereignty of God. They point to the church father Augustine who emphasized the utter dependence of man upon God alone for salvation and the supremacy of grace to the exclusion of all human contribution. His teaching has proven a problem for many Christians throughout the centuries, and it still lies at the heart of the Arminian rejection of Calvinism, which was in many ways a 16th century revival of Augustine's teaching on sin and grace. The authors show that Calvinism stands for the doctrine that all humankind is sinful. Human beings will not and cannot make their way to God, retrieve their own lives or earn their own salvation. If humankind is to be saved, God must act. God must be gracious. Human beings are utterly dependent upon the saving grace of God. And apparently, God has not acted on behalf of all. He has not chosen to be gracious to all human beings. Sovereign in His grace, God showered His redemptive love upon a Jacob but not on an Esau. It is a mistake, therefore, to pit individual and corporate election against each other. In other words, egalitarian fairness – treating all persons the same – may be a cultural ideal for the modern West, but there is no biblical reason to suppose that God shares it. The authors write: "For his own reasons, God assumes the right to save one and not another – a Jacob, for example, and not his older, more talented brother; for Esau, left to himself and his sinfulness, is deserving divine wrath.” Why does God elect some and others are passed by? God does not elect Abraham and Jacob based on foreseen merit or even foreseen faith. The basis of their election is God's love and will. The authors also show that both individual and corporate election are taught in the Old Testament. God chose Abraham and Jacob, also the nation of Israel. As fallen human beings, Calvinists struggle with a sovereignty that stretches and often transcends our abilities to discern the redemptive ways of God. Scripture leads us to the contention that divine sovereignty – God always prevails – is compatible with human freedom. God is not rendered idle by a world ruled by human freedom. Furthermore, in the new heaven and earth: “the ultimate life of the redeemed will not include libertarian freedom, the ability to choose sin rather than obedience, apostasy rather than faithfulness.” The authors also show that Calvinism is much broader in scope than the TULIP doctrine. The five points of Calvinism do not sufficiently define Calvinism, and certainly do not say all there is to be said about the Reformed faith. They affirm the five points of Calvinism but also a Reformed understanding of the church and sacraments. They explain the particular Reformed contribution to Christian reflection on the covenant and the kingdom of God. They also stress the church as the people of God with a call to seek a cultural life in the world that is typified by justice, mercy, and a transformational vision for individual vocational life. Both Arminians and Calvinists agree that not all believe. One person hears the gospel as the word of life; another sees it as foolishness. But the authors of Why I am not a Calvinist critique Piper's rejection of "the wider hope," which holds that saving grace is available to all persons, not just those who have heard the gospel in this life. The Cannons of Dordt follow Augustine in their explanation. God has sovereignly chosen to save some but not all. And unlike Arminianism, Calvinism believes in the perseverance of the saints. The Canons of Dordt judged the Arminian agnosticism regarding perseverance as a hopeless position. If our salvation depends on us, whether it be our merits, our will or even our striving to keep in step with God's grace, we are most surely lost. The authors of Why I am not a Calvinist claim that an emphasis on God's sovereignty in salvation hinders evangelism, yet that emphasis encouraged the apostle Paul to continue preaching. In the line of Paul, Calvinists believe that the message of the cross is to be presented to all in order that they may believe and be pardoned. The good news of a provided forgiveness is to be as universally proclaimed as is the command to repent. God commands us to take the gospel to the ends of the earth and to every person in it. The Synod of Dordt did not see the doctrine of particular atonement as compromising preaching in the slightest. "God wants all to hear the gospel, but He intends to save only some. Why that is the case, we don't know." As evidence of the compatibility of belief in limited atonement, and a fire for spreading the gospel, Calvinists can refer to Jonathan Edwards, George Whitefield, Charles H. Spurgeon and Francis Schaeffer. They proclaimed a redemption that is definite and yet good news and offered an invitation addressed to all. Much more can be said about the differences between Calvinism and Arminians. I hope that this summary review will enhance our readers' love for our Calvinist heritage and the rich doctrines of sovereign grace. Rev. Johan Tangelder (1936-2009) wrote for Reformed Perspective for 13 years. Many of his articles have been collected at Reformed Reflections. ...

Theology

How are we to understand the Bible?

3 approaches to consider: foundationalism, postmodernism, and something in between ***** Some years ago I attended a three-day conference on the topic how to read the Bible. Actually, the conference organizers used a big name for the topic: hermeneutics. But they explained what they meant with the term: how does one correctly handle the Word of truth in today’s postmodern world? The conference included professors from three different seminaries. Half a dozen winged their way across the Atlantic, from the Theological University in Kampen. This university trains ministers for the Reformed Churches in the Netherlands. Two professors from Mid-America Reformed Seminary (MARS) in Dyer, Indiana – which contributes to the ministerial supply in the United Reformed Churches – braved wintery roads to add their contribution. The host was the Canadian Reformed Theological Seminary in Hamilton, whose faculty also did what they could to supply a clear answer to that vital question. Conference background I am a minister in the Canadian Reformed Churches, which has Dutch roots. Specifically, many of our parents or grandparents were once members of the Reformed Churches of the Netherlands. There is, then, a very strong historic and emotional bond between the Canadian Reformed Churches and the Reformed Churches of the Netherlands. The reason for the conference was the concerns, slowly growing in our churches, about developments we saw happening in these Dutch churches in general and in the Theological University in particular. Given the historic link between these two denominations, it was considered right before God to do a conference with these men in order to understand better what the Kampen men were thinking, and to remind each other of what the Lord Himself says on the subject. How does one read the Bible? There was some common ground. All agreed that the Bible comes from God Himself, so that what is written on its pages does not come from human imagination or study, but comes from the Mind of holy God Himself. So the Bible contains no mistakes; whatever it says is the Truth. Yet this Word of God is not given to us in some unclear divine language, but infinite God has been pleased to communicate in a fashion finite people can understand – somewhat like parents simplifying their language to get across to their toddler. As we read the Bible, then, the rules common for reading a newspaper article, a book, or even this article apply – i.e., you get the sense of a particular word or sentence from the paragraph or page in which it’s written, and when some word or sentence is confusing you interpret the harder stuff in the light of easier words or sentences elsewhere in the article. That’s the plain logic of reading we all use. So far the professors of Kampen and Hamilton and MARS were all agreed. Genesis 1 Differences arose, however, when it came to what you do with what a given text says. In the previous paragraph I made reference to a “toddler.” We all realize that the use of that word does not make this an article about how to raise toddlers. Genesis 1 uses the word “create.” Does that mean that that chapter of Scripture is about how the world got here? We’ve learned to say that yes, Genesis 1 certainly tells us about our origin. (And we have good reason for saying that, because that’s the message you come away with after a plain reading of the chapter; besides, that’s the way the 4th commandment reads Genesis 1, and it’s how Isaiah and Jeremiah and Jesus and Paul, etc, read Genesis 1.) But the Kampen professors told us not to be so fast in jumping to that conclusion. Genesis 1, they said, isn’t about how we got here, but it is instead instruction to Israel at Mt. Sinai about how mighty God is not the author of evil. Just like you cannot go to the Bible to learn how to raise toddlers (because that’s not what the Bible is about; you need to study pedagogy for that – the example is mine), so you cannot go to the Bible to find out how the world got here – because that’s not what Genesis 1 is about, and so it’s not a fair question we should ask Genesis 1 to answer. Or so they argued. 1 Timothy 2 A second example that illustrates how the Dutch professors were thinking comes from their treatment of 1 Timothy 2:12-13. These verses record Paul’s instruction: “12 I do not permit a woman to teach or to exercise authority over a man; rather, she is to remain quiet. 13 For Adam was formed first, then Eve….” This passage was featured on the conference program because a report had recently surfaced within the Dutch churches arguing that it’s Biblical to ordain sisters of the congregation to the offices of minister, elder and deacon. 1 Timothy 2 would seem to say the opposite. So: how do you read 1 Timothy 2:12 to justify the conclusion that women may be ordained to the offices of the church? The Dutch brethren answered the question like this: when Paul wrote the prohibition of 1 Timothy 2, the culture Timothy lived in did not tolerate women in positions of leadership. If Paul in that situation had permitted women to teach in church or to have authority over men, he would have placed an unnecessary obstacle on the path of unbelievers to come to faith. Our western culture today, however, gives women a very inclusive role in public leadership. If we today, then, ban them from the offices of the church, we would place an obstacle in the path of modern people on their journey to faith in Jesus Christ. Had Paul written his letter to the church in Hamilton today, he would have written vs. 12 to say that women would be permitted to teach and to have authority over men. That conviction, of course, raises the question of what you do with the “for” with which vs. 13 begins. Doesn’t the word “for” mean that Paul is forming his instruction about the woman’s silence on how God created people in the beginning – Adam first, then Eve? Well, we were told, with vs. 13 Paul is indeed referring back to Genesis 1 & 2, but we need to be very careful in how we work with that because we’re reading our own understandings of Genesis 1 & 2 into Paul’s instruction in 1 Timothy 2, and we may be incorrect in how we understand those chapters from Genesis. So vs. 13 doesn’t help us understand vs. 12. Or so they argued. Confused… I struggled to get my head around how brothers who claim to love the Lord and His Word could argue for such positions. A speech on the third day of the Conference, by one of the Dutch professors, helped to clarify things for me. The audience was told that the old way of reading the Bible might be called “foundationalism,” describing the notion that you read God’s commands and instructions (eg, any of the Ten Commandments), and transfer that instruction literally into today so that theft or adultery or dishonoring your parents is taboo. This manner of reading the Bible does not go down well with postmodern people, because it implies that there are absolutes that you have to obey. The alternative is to disregard the Bible altogether and adopt “relativism,” where there are no rules for right and wrong at all – and that’s obviously wrong. So, we were told, we need to find a third way between “foundationalism” and “relativism.” This third way would have us be familiar with the Scriptures, but instead of transferring a command of long ago straight into today’s context, we need to meditate on old time revelation and trust that as we do so the Lord will make clear what His answers are for today’s questions. If the cultural circumstances surrounding a command given long ago turns out to be very similar to cultural circumstances of today, we may parachute the command directly into today and insist it be obeyed. But if the circumstances differ, we may not simply impose God’s dated commands on obedience or on theft or on homosexuality into today. Instead, with an attitude of humility and courage we need to listen to what God is today saying – and then listen not just to the Bible but also to culture, research, science, etc. After prayerfully meditating on the Scripture-in-light-of-lessons-from-culture-and-research, we may well end up concluding that we need to accept that two men love both each other and Jesus Christ. That conclusion may differ from what we’ve traditionally thought the Lord wanted of us, but a right attitude before the Lord will let us be okay with conclusions we’ve not seen in Scripture before. Analysis This speech about the “third way” helped clarify for me why the Dutch professors could say what they did about Genesis 1 and 1 Timothy 2. They were seeking to listen to Scripture as well as to what our culture and science, etc, were saying, and then under the guidance of the Holy Spirit sought to come to the will of the Lord for today’s questions. To insist that Genesis 1 is God’s description about how we got here (creation by divine fiat) leads to conclusions that fly in the face of today’s science and/or evolutionary thinking – and so we must be asking the wrong questions about Genesis 1; it’s not about how we got here…. To insist that 1 Timothy 2 has something authoritative to say about the place of women is to place us on ground distinctly out of step with our society – and so we must be reading 1 Timothy 2 wrongly. As a result of deep meditation on Scripture plus input from culture etc, these men have concluded that God leads us to condoning women in office in our culture, accepting a very old age for the earth, and leaving room for homosexual relationships in obedient service to the Lord. This, it seems to me, is the enthronement of people’s collective preferences over the revealed Word of God. Our collective will, even when it is renewed and guided by the Holy Spirit, remains “inclined to all evil” (Lord’s Day 23, Q&A 60; cf Romans 7:15,18). There certainly are questions arising from today’s culture that do not have answers written in obvious command form in Scripture, and so we undoubtedly need to do some humble and prayerful research and thinking on those questions. But the Bible is distinctly clear (not only in Genesis 1) about where we come from, and distinctly clear too (not only in 1 Timothy 2) about the place of women, and distinctly clear also on homosexuality. To plead that we need different answers today than in previous cultures lest the Bible’s teachings hinder unbelievers from embracing the gospel is to ignore that Jeremiah and Micah and Jesus and Paul and James and every other prophet and apostle had to insist on things that were “a stumbling block to Jews and folly to Gentiles” (1 Corinthians 1:23). One questioner from the audience hit the nail on the head: the Dutch brethren were adapting their method of reading the Bible to produce conclusions accommodated to our culture. Where does this leave us? There was a time when the Reformed Churches in the Netherlands and their Theological University in Kampen were a source of much wisdom and encouragement in searching the Scriptures. Given that all the men from Kampen spoke more or less the same language at the Hermeneutics Conference, it is clear to me that those days are past. It was fitting that at the Conference we prayed together as brothers in the Lord, but it’s also clear that we now need to pray that the Lord have mercy on the Dutch sister churches – for this is how their (future) ministers are being taught to deal with Scripture. I was very grateful to note that the professors from the Canadian Reformed Theological Seminary (and MARS too, for that matter) all spoke uniformly in their rejection of Kampen’s way of reading the Bible. They insisted unequivocally that “the whole counsel of God, concerning all things necessary for his own glory, man’s salvation, faith, and life, is either expressly set down in Scripture, or by good and necessary consequence may be deduced from scripture: unto which nothing at any time is to be added, whether by new revelations of the Spirit, or traditions of men” (Westminster Confession, I.6). Postmodernism does not pass us by. May the Lord give us grace to keep believing that His Word is authoritative, clear and true. A version of this article first appeared on the Smithville Canadian Reformed Church blog where Rev. Bouwman is a pastor of the Word....

Humor, Theology

What is humor?

What is humor? It seems a simple question, with a very obvious answer: humor is whatever makes us laugh or smile. But then what of all the cruel pranks and the sacrilegious gags that make so many laugh? Even the crudest of comedians can get big laughs. The fact is, we laugh at a lot of things that just aren’t funny. So we aren’t interested in simply what makes us laugh. Instead we’re going to explore genuine humor, the sort of humor that gets laughs but can be shared without shame – we’re going to explore Christian humor. DEFINITION OF HUMOR Humor is a term used in English since the early eighteenth century to denote a type of writing or speech whose purpose it is to evoke some kind of laughter. So laughter is a key element. But we want to go deeper – we want to go beyond the knock knock joke. Instead of being something merely light or superficial, the best humor depends upon profundity. "A humorous rejoinder, " said Kierkegaard, "must always contain something profound." For example here’s a joke about a person getting their just deserts (as described in Galatians 6:7-8):  While doing his daily rounds a prison chaplain stopped in on a prisoner who had been assigned the task of making pillowcases for the entire 5,000 inmate prison. “Good morning,” said the chaplain, “Sewing, eh?’ “No, Chaplain, “ replied the prisoner with a grim smile. “Reaping.” Elton Trueblood observed that humor takes intelligence: "It is not possible to have genuine humor or true wit without an extremely sound mind, which is always a mind capable to high seriousness and a sense of the tragic." THE NEED FOR HUMOR Sometimes humor is dismissed as being trivial but genuine humor is an important and effective tool in many settings. Properly used, it can allow us to see our lives in more realistic proportions, restrain an explosion of anger, and deliver us from pessimism and despair, and do so much more. For example, it can be a wonderful educational tool and a means to restoring order in a classroom with a smile. It can even be a way to ensure better parent/teacher relations as a wise Grade 1 teacher was said to have done by sending the following note home on the first day of school: "If you promise not to believe everything your child says happens at school, I'll promise not to believe everything he says happens at home.” Humor is a necessity within the church as well. When we lose our sense of proportion and humor, controversies in the church become battlefields. We look for "heretics" in each corner and even tend to look under our bed before we dare to go to sleep. We can be so busy with controversies we can no longer hear the footsteps of our approaching Lord, whose coming is at hand. And how sad it is to see people spend time and energy to paint their position in bright colors and put others in worse light than warranted. We may not build bomb-free shelters where criticism cannot enter. Humor should not be overlooked in evangelism either. It is easy to visit people who are with you, but it is hard when they are filled with bitterness against the Lord and His church. With tact and humor we can make contact with people who are filled with criticism against church members, and especially ministers. Real humor blossoms only where God's Word has taken root. "A cheerful heart is good medicine, but a crushed spirit dries up the bones," says Solomon (Prov. 17:23). So a Christian remembers that he is always in the presence of God, and his speech is the gift of the Creator. As Augustine put it: "Speech is not simply our possession; it is God's gift to us. To recognize and acknowledge this gift in truthful words is to offer grateful praise to the One from whom it comes." LAUGH AT YOURSELF All of us ought to be ready to laugh at ourselves because all of us are a little funny in our foibles, conceits and pretensions. What is funny about us is precisely that we take ourselves too seriously. The ability to laugh at oneself shows we understand some of our imperfections. A Christian who understands he is living his life under the judging eye of God does not boast about his moral achievements. He understands that is pride and folly. One of the qualifications of a missionary is a sense of humor - while learning a new language and new customs it is easy to make embarrassing blunders. When we were serving in the Philippines, I made my share, and a good laugh at myself helped me survive. But there is another side to laughing at oneself. If we keep laughing when we have done something wrong, if we cannot recognize the real evil of sin, laughter turns into folly. If we continue to laugh after having recognized the depth of evil we have committed, our laughter becomes the instrument of irresponsibility. DISTORTED HUMOR It is easy indeed for humor to be distorted. A.D. Dennison, a Christian cardiologist, says in his 1970s bestseller Shock it to me Doctor that he recalls one man who sped up to a drugstore and asked the druggist if he had anything for hiccups. The druggist, without a word, hit the man between the eyes and knocked him to the floor. The man slowly got up and graciously asked again, "Sir, do you have anything for hiccups?" The druggist replied, "You don't have them any more do you?" The man responded, "No, I never did, but my wife out in the car does." This may be a clever joke, but it’s is devoid of compassion and respect for others. Is this Christian humor? A type of humor often used during war is called "gallows humor." Soldiers are known on occasion to engage in hysterical laughter when nerves are tense before the battle. They speak flippantly of the possible dire fate which might befall this or that man of their company. "Sergeant," a soldier is reported to have said before a battle, "don't let this little fellow go into battle before me. He isn't big enough to stop the bullet meant for me." The "joke" was received with uproarious laughter by the assembled comrades. But when the "little fellow" died in battle the next day, everyone felt ashamed of the joke. At any rate, it was quite inadequate to deal with the depth and breadth of the problem of death. But as the American theologian Reinhold Niebuhr points out: "If we persist in laughter when dealing with the final problems of human existence, when we turn life into a comedy, we also reduce it to meaningless. That is why laughter, when pressed to solve the ultimate issue, turns into a vehicle of bitterness rather than joy." HUMOR IN THE BIBLE If we are going to investigate true humor, then we must not overlook the Bible. The Bible deals with very serious subjects – heaven, hell, sin and salvation - but that should not cause us to overlook its literary beauty, and the humor in the Bible. There are critics who regard the Bible as deficient in the sense of humor and they can point to the fact there is little laughter in the Bible. But the Bible is filled with humor. Humor in the Bible appears especially when idolatry is mocked. One powerful example occurs when Isaiah pokes fun at a man who carves an idol from wood. In chapter 44:15-17 he describes in some detail the absurd process: "It is a man's fuel for burning, some of it he takes and warms himself, he kindles a fire and bakes bread. Half of the wood he burns in the fire; over it he prepares a meal, he roasts his meat and eats his fill. He also warms himself and says, ‘Ah! I am warm; I see the fire.’ From the rest he makes a god, his idol; he bows down to it and worships. He prays to it and says, 'Save me; you are my god.'" GOD LAUGHS  The only instance in which laughter is attributed to God occurs in Psalm 2:4, which says, "The One enthroned in heaven laughs; the Lord scoffs at them.” This is not a happy image – God is pictured laughing at man and having him in derision because of the vanity of his imagination and pretensions. God mocks kings who plan to divide the world amongst each other, while God says to the Messiah, " I will make the nations as your inheritance, the ends of the earth your possession" (vs. 8). But the humor in the Bible is not limited to that of derisive laughter. Throughout Scripture God reveals a real sense of humor. When the human race wanted to build a city with a tower that reaches the heavens so that they could make a name for themselves, "the Lord came down to see the city and the tower that the men were building (Gen. 11:5). God acts as if the tower of Babel is so small that He can't see it from heaven – He had to come down to see it. And when Israel is threatened by the Philistines, God uses a most unlikely means to save His people so that the Messiah could come in the fullness of time. What does He do? God writes history with a small stone from a brook. Young David with a small stone smites Goliath and Israel was rescued. JESUS AND LAUGHTER The Heidelberg Catechism confesses that the eternal Son of God took to himself, “a truly human nature so that he might become David's true descendant, in all things like us his brothers except for sin” (Q&A 35). So when we speak about Jesus and humor, we are not disrespectful, We accept His incarnation as real. He was seen as the carpenter's son. Christ's characteristic humor depends, for the most part, upon a combination of ideas rather than upon a combination of words. But it is very important to understand that the purpose of Christ's humor is to clarify and increase understanding rather than to hurt. When Jesus teaches His disciples about being light bearers in this dark world, he uses sly humor about where to put light. The message is about the necessity of witness, but the failure to be a witness is rendered laughable when Jesus asks, "Is a lamp brought in to be put under a bushes, or under a bed, and not on a stand?" (Mark 4:21). Since the lamp mentioned has an open flame, and since the bed is a mattress, it is easy to see that in this situation the light would be suffocated or the mattress would be burned. The appeal here is to the patently absurd. The sensitive laugh; they get the point. When Christ said not to cast pearls before swine (Matt. 7:6), He was again employing the patently absurd to make His point. Christ tells us that we are not to waste precious words or time or effort on those who chronically resist the Gospel. We must remember, of course, that the joke about casting what is precious before the pigs was even more preposterous for a Jewish audience than it is for us. The rejection of pork was deep-seated in their consciousness. Christ's major weapon against the Pharisaic attack was laughter, and He used it fully. The point at which they were most vulnerable was their manifest self-righteousness. There is no one more ridiculous than the sinner who claims to be perfect. Jesus asked the Pharisees, who accused Jesus of casting demons in the name of Beelzebub, "If I drive out demons by Beelzebub, by whom do your people drive them out?" (Matt. 12:27). Jesus pokes fun at the critics, since everyone who listens will realize that the subtle question has no possible answer. Christ's question really means, "By what demonic agency do you perform your miracles?" It is easy to see that the humorous question is a far more effective rejoinder than a serious argument about demons. The severest critics of Christ could not stand ridicule, for seriousness was their central strength. CONCLUSION What then is the secret of true humor? The answer is found in the Gospel. It is to know that you are a forgiven a sinner, to have no illusions about the self, and no inclination to appear morally better than you are, either in the sight of man or of God. Our release from bondage of sin gives joy. This joy expresses itself in an exuberance of which laughter is not the only one, but certainly one, expression. Rev. Johan Tangelder (1936-2009) wrote for Reformed Perspective for 13 years. Many of his articles have been collected at Reformed Reflections....

Theology

The best news ever!

“Truly, I say to you, today you will be with me in Paradise” (Luke 23:32-43) **** Three people were taken that day to a hill outside Jerusalem to be crucified. One died in sin. One died to sin. One died for sin. Two were guilty. One was innocent. Two were paying their debt to society. One was paying our debt of sin. Consider, for a moment, the one who died to sin: the repentant thief. He made some remarkable observations. His was a remarkable conversion. Of all the converts among the rich, the religious and the rejected, his is the most amazing. Both of these men asked Jesus to save them. One of the men being crucified said, "Are you not the Christ? Save yourself and us!" (v.39). His words were sarcastic and sneering. The other man said, "Jesus, remember me when you come into your kingdom" (v.42). His words were simple and sincere. Hear the response of Christ: "Truly, I say to you, today you will be with me in Paradise." The repentant thief rebukes the other criminal. He recognizes his own guilt and admits that he and the other man both fully deserve death, “we are receiving the due reward of our deeds; but this man has done nothing wrong" (v.41). Pilate and Herod said this but did not respond appropriately to that knowledge. There was one essential difference between these two convicted criminals. One sought to be saved from his situation. The other sought to be saved from his sin, and he would hear the best news ever, “...today you will be with me in Paradise." Conviction comes before conversion Notice how conviction comes before conversion. The repentant thief says, “…we are receiving the due reward of our deeds” (v.41). What was happening in this man’s life? Was he afraid of falling into the hands of the living God? The Bible says, "It is a fearful thing to fall into the hands of the living God" (Hebrews 10:31). He understood what was happening. He sensed the eternal significance of the occasion. Scripture also says, "The fear of the LORD is the beginning of wisdom, and the knowledge of the Holy One is insight" (Proverbs 9:10). Here in this unfolding drama there are two very different attitudes to Christ. The repentant thief admits his own sinfulness. What led to his conviction and conversion? Was it fear or was it that he heard Jesus say, “Father, forgive them, for they know not what they do” (v.34). Was it the fact that Jesus forgave His tormentors? Maybe he had heard about Jesus. God was certainly working in his heart. He not only rebuked the other thief, he not only admitted his guilt, but he confessed Jesus as the innocent one. And then he did one more thing for which he will always be remembered. He said, "Jesus, remember me when you come into your kingdom" (v.42). He looked at the battered and bruised body of Jesus and saw a king! And he anticipated Christ's resurrection, and coming of his kingdom. What a remarkable insight! He didn’t ask for a place of honor. All he dared to ask was to be remembered. But he was speaking to the one who is able to do immeasurably more than we can imagine. In all his agony and anguish Jesus had time to win one more soul. The promise of paradise is great news. We know so little about this man. What we do know is that at this point in his life he recognized he was a sinner and that Jesus could help him. That is all he needed to know. Two responses to Christ and the cross Our personal prejudices will sometimes have us writing off this person or that as "not salvageable." Perhaps we have our petty excuses for not reaching others. But in all the discomfort of the cross Jesus reaches out to this undeserving man. This shows the selfless nature of Christ. This shows that the excuses we offer for not reaching out to others are so petty. We should never give up on sinners. The paths of three men met in death. Much of humanity is represented in these two responses to Christ and the cross. The cross is not good news for everybody. One of the dying men mocked Christ. The words of the hymn Three Crosses by Helen Franzee Bower, put this idea beautifully: Three crosses on a lonely hill, A thief on either side, And, in between, the Son of God... How wide the gulf, how wide! Yet one thief spanned it with the words, "Oh Lord, remember me"; The other scoffed and turned aside To lost eternity. Forsaken is the hilltop now, And all the crosses gone, But in believing hearts of men The center cross lives on. And still, as when these sentinels First met earth’s wondering view, The presence of the Lord divides. Upon which side are you? Christ’s Empire This repentant thief looked at Jesus and saw himself as he really was. When we look to Jesus we too see ourselves as we really are. This thief was deemed unfit to live in the Roman Empire but God gave him a place in his empire. Remarkably, the man who asked to be remembered expects Jesus to complete his work. All those who trust in the completed work of Christ can have the same assurance, “...today you will be with me in Paradise.” This passage of Scripture shows us that it is possible to have (in this life) the assurance of sins forgiven and that we can be sure of heaven after death. This must be the best news ever!...

Theology

Practicing the Sabbath: on living out the 4th Commandment

It is not uncommon. Under pressure at the office or on the job, at school or right at home, vacation can’t come soon enough. “Ah,” we console ourselves, “Three weeks away from it all, filled with hiking, camping, touring, biking, sailing, and maybe even a trip to Disneyland itself.” When it finally arrives, we throw ourselves into our leisure, making the most of every moment, wringing every last drop of excitement out of our all too brief respite from the drag of our daily grind…and come home plumb worn out. We go back to working, lamenting the brevity of our respite, grudgingly facing the unwelcome demands of the job once more, trapped into knowing we have no other choice: it’s the only way to keep the wolf from the door. Whatever happened to real, solid rest, the kind that refreshes our spirits so deeply it reinvigorates us all the way down to the very depths of our beings, or, as Psalm 23 would describe it, “restores our souls”? Vacation is not enough What happened is that we confused rest with respite, as if a 30-second timeout in the fourth quarter makes athletes as full of energy as when the game began. A vacation is merely a respite (which we all need, just like a good night’s sleep); it’s far from the kind of deep rest the Bible calls a “Sabbath.” Vacations don’t cut it; real Sabbaths do. No wonder our Father commanded that we practice Sabbath every week and he used plenty of words to insist upon it. Have you ever noticed that in the NIV, the Exodus 20 version of the 4th commandment is 99 words long? The final five commandments, altogether, take up just 53 words. God has almost twice as much to say about remembering the Sabbath day than He does about murder, theft, adultery, lying, or coveting combined, suggesting to us that one of the most powerful defenses against immorality of all kinds is (did this ever occur to you?) a soul saturated to the full with God’s kind of deep rest. And then, as if to give it even more firepower, would you observe that it’s the only commandment which reinforces its demand by insisting that we face up to the compelling reality that this is what God Himself did, as if to both warn us that we best follow our Creator if we know what’s good for us, and besides, call us to humble ourselves enough to learn just how to do it from His example. If you came home tired from vacation, or, more seriously, if you sense a weariness in your soul so deep that not even a full night of sleep (induced by medication), or a day of surviving demands (eased by your regular dose of Xanax) gives you the kind of relief you crave, perhaps it’s time to seriously reconsider practicing Sabbath as devoutly as you practice your fitness routine. In other words, have you ever considered fitting, into the rhythm of your week, a 24-hour period where you stop living as a human “doing” and actually enjoy living as a human “being”? If you’re even slightly curious enough to keep reading, then let me be audacious enough to prescribe for you the pathway to deep rest: watch how God rested, and then, go and do thou likewise. The commandment makes it as simple as imitating God. Of course, where it gets complicated is trying to figure out just how God did it. But He has not left us without a description: He finished his work: “Thus the heavens and the earth were completed in all their vast array. By the seventh day God had finished the work He had been doing (Gen. 2:1-2a). He savored the goodness of his workmanship: “God saw all that He had made, and it was very good (Gen. 1: 31). He ceased from all working: “…so on the seventh day He rested (NIV footnote: “ceased”) from all His work. …because on it He rested (NIV footnote: “ceased”) from all the work of creating He had done (Gen. 2:2b, 3b). Each dimension deserves such careful scrutiny, we’ll ponder them one at a time. Finished work God entered into his Sabbath by first having completely finished the work he set out to do during his “work week.” If we are to enter into deep rest, we simply must get our work done first. The commandment is firm on this: Six days you shall labor and do all your work. Finish your homework, your housework, or your assignments at the office. If you have work that was supposed to have been finished during your six days of labor, and could have been finished, but wasn’t due to your own procrastination, I can virtually guarantee this: that undone work is going to infect any rest you try to find on your “day off.” It will weigh on you. It will preoccupy you. You’re compromised! Now I can just hear it already: “My work is never done.” A mother’s work is never done. A farmer’s work is never done. A teacher’s work is never done. True enough, but then God’s work is never done either. Jesus said that his father was always at his work to that very day (John 5:17). But, what was finished was the work of creating. That was completed. True enough: much remained to be done in this creation. There was no pizza or lasagna. Nobody had written poetry yet, and the only music came from birds because there were no violins. There was so much yet to do, which we call culture. But the work of creation itself was fully completed. Every day has its task; every week, its duties; every meeting, its agenda. You want to know what really kills our rest? Work that should have been finished, and could have been finished, but isn’t finished. Unfinished assignments absolutely bar the way into joyful rest. So, be like your Father. Do it. Get ‘er done, even if you have to work extra hard as your particular work week approaches its final day or hours. Nothing relaxes us more than being able to look back upon a truly finished task, be it anything from a reading assignment, having made the required number of sales calls, or having done our rounds in the hospital. The finest picture of such profound rest in Scripture is the utterly still body of the One who had just said, “It is finished” lying quietly and calmly in a borrowed grave even while His spirit savored the joys of Paradise. Imagine the depth of His holy rest having fully drunk the cup of God’s wrath to the very last drop! Can there be any rest deeper than that? The wonderfully good news of the gospel is that, through Jesus, we are called and welcomed to enter into and savor that finished work. There is no richer Sabbath. Savoring accomplished work When He finished creating, God savored his accomplishment. Scripture puts it like this: “God saw all that He had made, and it was very good” (Gen. 1: 31). That is how He entered into His rest. Now that is something most of us moderns hardly take the time to do. Look back? Savor what you’ve done? Who has time for that? Who even thinks of that? Especially on our days off! We’re just glad to be away from the scene of the grind. I recall a breakfast I had with a friend, a highly paid professional in a tough line of work: lawyering! His iPhone lay next to his plate. His eyes darted toward it frequently as we munched on our muffins. I could tell he was preoccupied. I asked him, “Don’t you ever give yourself a break from that thing?” “I can’t,” he said; “in fact, I can’t afford to.” “When do you ever rest?” I probed. “Well,” he said, “I try to rest on the weekends but….” I waited. “But what?” Then he opened a glimpse into his uptight world I’ve never forgotten. “I never get a full weekend of rest because already on Sunday afternoons, right around 3, every week, it starts,” he continued. “What?” I asked. “This tightness in my gut; I can just feel the pressure rising. The stuff waiting for me in my office on Monday morning starts forcing its way into my mind, and from that point on, I’m toast. I can forget about getting any more rest.” “In other words,” I gently teased, “you actually show up at the office about 17 hours before your body gets there?” “You’re not kidding!!” he moaned. I suspect my friend has plenty of company. Our driven hearts are forever pushing us forward, even to the point that we are so focused on what lies ahead, Monday pushes itself up into our Sundays, as unbidden as acid reflux, and as sour. Not so the Trinity! As God entered into His rest, this is the exercise He went through at the end of the sixth day: He looked backward. He surveyed his workmanship. He paused to delight over it. He admired the beauty of Eve, marveled at the masculinity of Adam. He saw all with His all seeing eye and rejoiced over every one of His works. That’s the exercise God Himself went through as He entered his rest. He studied what He had done, and celebrated it. In fact, He ended every day savoring what He had done on that particular day, but at the end of the sixth day, He savored the whole panorama of His creativity, from the light He created the first day to the light-clothed humans He created on the sixth, and He rejoiced over all his works (Psalm 104: 31). A second key to entering a place of deep rest calls us to imitate God and look back, savoring all that He enabled us to do during the previous six days. The doctor looks back in her imagination upon the faces of the patients she has treated. The waitress, the customers she has served. The trucker, the loads he delivered. The teacher, the lessons his students learned. Looking back moves the soul from anxiety to celebration as it disciplines itself to survey the beauty of a steady stream of accomplishments, each a trophy to the God who was right there empowering us every step of the way. That simple exercise has immense power to lay a soul down into deep rest by stiff-arming the intrusions of future “undones” as it relishes the joys of past “dones.” For what the soul is doing at such moment is supercharging itself with wonder and gratitude at the remarkable faithfulness of God who was right there with us during every moment of those six days past, assuring it that so much went well, once again. I wonder if my neighbors just might think I’m nuts. Like all good Lyndenites, I edge, trim and mow my lawn faithfully every Saturday. It’s a rite around here. When finished, I stow my equipment and then do something which, if they are watching, might suggest to them I’m a little “off.” I take a good ten minutes and just walk around my lawn, and yes, frankly, I admire what I and my equipment have just achieved! I marvel at the sharp edges around the flowerbeds and savor the smells of newly mown turf. Odd? No. Like God? Yes. Now God did something there that is crucial to being able to rest. He affirmed his work as valuable; He gave it worth. He savored its beauty. He celebrated His accomplishment. The three persons of the Trinity rejoiced in what They had made, rejoiced in Their workmanship. They stopped, turned around (unlike the other six days which were all forward looking, this was backward looking; from all the undone work ahead to the finished work behind), looked back, and They delighted in Their finished work. Do you ever do that at the end of your work week? Your day of rest begins by looking back. Let’s say you deliver and pick up mail. Do you ever think back to all the people you serve every week by bringing them their mail? Think of the hundreds of people who every week find something in their mailbox they have just been waiting for – and you brought it to them. Now that is something to savor, to celebrate. Most of us try not to think about our work on our day off. Not God. God entered his Sabbath by ruminating, savoring, delighting in what he had just done. One of the key elements of deep rest is savoring a sense of accomplishment. This is what shelters us from the tyranny of future tasks charging in and infecting our rest. You rest when you learn to resist this “Oh, there is so much I have yet to do” (which is very true for all of us) to “But look at what we have managed to accomplish.” We are so driven by the demands of the future that we have forgotten to pause and take delight in the regular accumulation of the accomplishments of our lives. Ceasing from all work There is a third Sabbath practice to consider, but be forewarned: you may not like this. In fact, you may think I’m just being a fussy old legalist. We cannot truly Sabbath, unless every 7th day we totally cease, as much as is reasonably possible, our daily work for 24 hours and refuse to come anywhere near it. We don’t even check our phones for work-related text messages. Why? Because of the explicit prohibition in the commandment itself: “On it you shall not do any work.” Worship? Yes! Play? Sure. Work? None. Zilch. Nada. When deadlines, demands, homework and duties bear down on us relentlessly this may seem hard. Who can afford this, especially in today’s highly competitive, low profit margin, economy? Close up shop, one day a week? Ridiculous. Students stay away from studies a full day in every seven? Sure way to flunk out! Really? Are you so sure it’s ridiculous? Have you checked that with conservative Southern Baptist Truett Cathy, who, from the beginning in 1946 insisted that his fast food Chick-fil-A restaurants be closed every Sunday? Today there are over 2,200 of them, and they are flourishing. In 2014 the chain was #9 in total profit among all fast food restaurants, but #1, by far, in profitability per store. Each store earned $3.2 million vs. second place McDonalds at $2.6 million. They have been #1 in customer service for years. Rested and cared for employees are much more industrious and compassionate, and the result is customer loyalty that creates long lines in the drive-in lane and tidy profits at the bank. And they are closed everywhere, every Sunday. But perhaps that’s not convincing. Then consider this remarkable story. My town of Lynden, Washington has a mother, Phoebe Judson, who founded our city, arriving here in 1871. She promoted Sunday closure. Here’s why. In May, 1853, Phoebe and her husband Holden joined a covered wagon train near Kansas City hoping to reach Washington Territory by mid-October, a distance of more than 2,000 miles over the rough Oregon Trail. Like all wagon trains, they elected a captain. His word was the law. Well, they chose Rev. Gustavus Hines, only to be surprised one Saturday night when he announced the train would never travel on Sundays. Phoebe was shocked. They had half a continent to cross, at oxen pace (15-20 miles per day on a good trail), with at least four mountain passes and innumerable river crossings ahead of them. She sat in her wagon and just fumed. One family deserted the train and joined another. On their first Sunday, while they stood still, one train after another passed them by. But, being the daughter of a minister herself, Phoebe felt they had no choice but to honor their captain’s scruples. They started out again on Monday, bright and early, only to reach their first river cross on Tuesday evening. A long line of wagons stretched out ahead of them, waiting for the single “ferry” to carry them across. They waited 3 days. On Saturday they resumed the journey, only to be told they would still rest the whole next day. Phoebe was livid. This made absolutely no sense to her. Still, the minister’s daughter obeyed. Then, a few weeks later she began to see scores of dead oxen, mules and horses along the trail. They had been driven so relentlessly, they had collapse and died. She grudgingly admitted that perhaps the animals needed a day of rest. A few weeks later, she ruefully admitted that maybe the men needed it too, since they walked most of the time. Then she slowly began to notice that as they worshipped, ate, rested and even played together on Sundays, it had a remarkably salutary effect upon people’s spirits. There was less grumbling, more cooperation. She even noticed that they seemed to make better time the other six days. Finally, what totally sold her on the value of the Sabbath happened one Sunday evening: the family that had deserted them came limping into their campsite, humbly asking to rejoin them. She had assumed they were at least a week ahead; in fact, they had fallen behind. Their own wagon train had broken down! Of course they welcomed them back. And so it happened that they reached their destination in plenty of time, as friends, and out of the 50 head of cattle with which they began, only two were lost. Conclusion May I be so bold as to caution us about spiritualizing the meaning of the Sabbath commandment so much that we forget its literal and physical side? Bodily stepping entirely away from all work for 24 hours is clearly what is prescribed. Its benefits are enormous. For one day, it moves us from life as a “human doing” to life as a “human being.” For one day, it compels us to recalibrate our hearts back to the stubborn fact that “…God is the only source of everything good, and that neither our work and worry nor His gifts can do us any good without His blessing” (L.D. 50, Q&A 125). For one day it allows our souls to catch up with our bodies, or vice versa! For one day it arrests our drive for profits by reminding us that our real wealth is not in what we have but in whom we love and in who loves us. For one day it slows us down enough to ease our anxiety over reaching our destination to actually enjoy the journey. And for one day it brings us back to that Light, in Whose Light, we see the light which brightens every day. Rev. Ken Koeman is a retired pastor living in the quite restful town of Lynden, WA. A version of this article first appeared in Christian Courier and is reprinted with permission....

Theology

The Bible on angels

Who are those mysterious angelic heavenly beings who live in the presence of the eternal, omnipotent Creator of the universe? Can we know more about them? Yes, certainly! When we carefully collect the Scriptural data, we receive a marvelous insight into the world of angels – we can learn a good deal about these wonderful beings. Yet angelology has been frequently dismissed as futile speculation with no practical relevance for the Christian life and mission. And those who write about it at any length are said to divert believers from the weightier matters of the Christian faith. Let's be clear: this is no indulgence into New Age escapist fascination with spiritual beings. Rather, it is to see how God is at work in His world. The task of angels is to direct us beyond them to God. That said, it is true that undue concentration upon the angelic world does distracts us from Him. In this context John Calvin's rule of modesty for his treatment of angels is worth noting: Let us remember here, as in all religious doctrine, that we ought to hold to one rule of modesty and sobriety: not to speak, or guess, or even seek to know, concerning obscure matters anything except what has been imparted to us by God's Word. Furthermore, we ought ceaselessly to endeavor to seek out and meditate upon those things which make for edification. Created by God We know that the angelic world is real, not because we have verified it in experience but because God has said it. The heavenly realms in Scripture are not planets, dead stars, moon rocks or planetary rings, they are personal beings populating the universe. They are unseen spirits having different ranks, attributes and tasks. The physical as well as the spiritual world owes its origin to the Triune God. Through His Son God made the universe (Heb. 1:2). "Through him all things were made," writes the apostle John (1:3). The apostle Paul declares the same truth, "all things in heaven and on earth, visible and invisible...were created by him (Jesus Christ) and for him" (Col. 1:16). The most extended passage on angels, Hebrews 1:5-2:9, makes a special point of establishing that our Lord is superior to them. Because they were created through Him and for Him, they belong to Him. He is their head and the center of their world. Little is said about the origin of angels in the Bible. All that it says about the creation of angels is that "God commanded and they were created" (Ps. 148:2,5). The angelic world then is an enormous gathering of solitary, heavenly beings. They are neither male nor female. They neither marry nor are given in marriage (Mark 12:25). They don't have offspring. Their number is complete (Matt.22:30). They are not eternal as they have a beginning. And they are not omnipresent as God alone is everywhere present. Theologians have speculated when the angels were created, but not one has arrived at a definitive answer. We just don't know. Louis Berkhof argues that no creative work preceded the creation of heaven and earth. And he states that the only safe statement seems to be that the angels were created before the seventh day. But I believe it is not too bold to argue that heaven with its inhabitants were complete at the very beginning of creation. Even before the creation of the material universe there was a vast world of angels and they still exist today. They sang praises unto God when they saw the wonder of God's handiwork. As God said to Job, "Where were you when I laid the earth's foundation?...On what were its footings set, or who laid its cornerstone - while the morning stars sang together and all the angels shouted for joy?"(Job 38:4-7) Angels then existed prior to man. But Man is the crown of creation (cf. Ps. 8). The Number of Angels Do we really need to know the exact number of angels? No, the very existence of angels testifies already to the greatness of our God. But we can consider some of the popular notions. The Pharisees, for example, seem to have an exaggerated view of their numbers. It was said among them, "that a man, if he threw a stone over his shoulder or cast away a broken piece of pottery, asked pardon of any spirit that he might possibly have hit it so doing." Some medieval theologians claimed to know the exact number: one said 266,613,336, after the 133,306,668 followed Lucifer and fell; another said that there was an angel behind every blade of grass. But the Bible does not give us definite figures. We are told that there is an enormous company of heavenly beings. Daniel 7:10 says 10,000 times 10,000 stood before the throne of God, which would amount to 100,000,000, but the point here is to speak of the vast array, rather than the particular amount. Hebrews 12:22 speaks of the city of the living God and an innumerable company of angels. We also know a great company of heavenly hosts appeared to the shepherds, praising God for the birth of the Savior (Luke 2:13). After His arrest in Gethsemane Jesus told Peter that His heavenly Father could put twelve legions of angels at His disposal. (Matt. 26:53). Again, this does not mean that Jesus said that there were literally 120,000 angels. Jesus used the number to tell Peter that He had myriads of angels who were ready to come to His aid. Fallen Angels So innumerable hosts of perfect angels follow their Creator. But not all angels remained faithful to Him. Satan, the mightiest of the angels, became proud. He led a revolt in heaven and was cast out and innumerable fallen angels entered the service of the wicked Deceiver (Matt.25:41; 2 Cor. 12:7; Rev. 9:11; 12:7-10). Their punishment? The apostle Peter said that God did not spare His angels when they sinned "but sent them to hell" (2 Pet.2:4). Jude notes that the rebel angels "did not keep their positions of authority but abandoned their own home – these he has kept in darkness, bound with everlasting chains for judgment on the great Day" (vs. 6). When we consider fallen angels, we can also take comfort in the presence of perfect angels. Because they were in the presence of Satan before his fall, they know the powers of the demonic better than any human being. They understand their wicked ways. Shakespeare, the astute observer of human nature, was well aware of Satan's pride and tempting powers. "Cromwell, I charge thee, fling away ambition; By that sin fell angels; how can man then, the image of his Maker, hope to win by it?...How wretched is that poor man that hangs on princes' favors!... When he falls, he falls like Lucifer, never to hope again" (Henry VIII). The evil spirits and their leader are constantly opposing the advance of the Kingdom of God. One of the greatest missionaries of all times, Ludwig Nommensen (1834-1918), settled among the Toba Bataks, in Northern Sumatra. Central to his belief was that by faith in the living Lord, Christians share in Christ's victory over sin, death, and Satan. Nommensen was very sensitive to the reality of the spirit world. He taught fellow missionaries, "After one has come to understand the people and to be understood by them, one has to begin with the preaching of the Gospel in having a twofold work, namely to pull down the bulwark of Satan and to build up the house of truth." The Nature of Angels Although there are abundant references to angels in the Bible, they are not meant to inform us about their dazzling nature. When they are mentioned, it is always in order to inform us further about God, His actions, and how He works out the plan of salvation. What then can we say about them?  They are not omnipresent. They are not restricted by time or space. Angels are without bodies and hence invisible. And although they are pure spirits, they can take on human form. We see this happening when two angels came to Lot in the form of men to tell them to get out of Sodom (Gen.19). Also, on the day of the resurrection the women who went to the tomb saw two men "in clothes that gleamed like lightening" (Luke 24:4). Matthew records that an angel rolled back the stone and sat on it. His appearance was like lightening, and his clothes were white as snow (Matt.28:2). Angels are endowed with great intelligence (2 Sam. 14:20). Since they are in the presence of God they have a far clearer view of and deeper insight into the meaning of all that happens in this world than we do. Our knowledge is always limited, even in our age of computers, Internet and other amazing technological advances. But angels do not act on their own; they function and intervene in the world only as God commands. Their amazing knowledge and power, like that of all other creatures, are dependent on and derived from Him. They are capable of great feats of strength, whether it is in slaying more than 180,000 in one evening, or setting an apostle free from prison (2 Kings 19:35; Acts 12). When the Bible speaks about heaven and earth, it often links angels and human beings. Our Lord taught us to pray, "Our Father in heaven... your will be done on earth as it is in heaven"(Matt.6: 9f). The presence of angels encourages Christians to obey God. As the angels carry out God's will in heaven so should we do the same on earth. The third request in the Lord's Prayer means, says the Heidelberg Catechism, "Help everyone carry out (his or her work)... as willingly and faithfully as the angels in heaven"(Q&A 124). The angels do more than sing; they also speak. Paul said to the Corinthians, "If I speak in the tongues of men and of angels, but have not love, I am only a resounding gong or a clanging cymbal" (1 Cor. 13:1). But we must not spend time in speculating about the nature of the language which angels use in communicating with one another – this is an exercise in futility. The question is, are we ready to listen when an angel addresses us? God sent an angel to prepare for Israel the way to the promised land. He told His people, "Pay attention to him and listen to what he says. Do not rebel against him"(Ex. 23:21). When an angel spoke to Zechariah the priest, and foretold the birth of John the Baptist, Zechariah did not trust his message. He said, "How can I be sure of this? I am an old man and my wife is well along in years"(Luke 1:18). There is always the tragic possibility that the voice of an angel will come to us but we refuse to listen. Conclusion With joy the angels obey the will of God (Ps. 103:21). Our loving God sends His angels to support His people on their often arduous journey to the heavenly city. From the throne room in heaven He commands His angels. They do His bidding. After his miraculous rescue from prison, Peter said, "Now I know without a doubt that the Lord sent his angel and rescued me from Herod's clutches" (Acts 12:11). The angels before whom Zechariah, the virgin Mary, and the shepherd fell to the ground in fear and awe are actually our unseen helpers. As we mature in our faith, we will increasingly see the beauty and wonder of our Lord's mighty work on our behalf, and gain in our understanding of the role of His ministering angels in our lives. Rev. Johan Tangelder (1936-2009) wrote for Reformed Perspective for 13 years and many of his articles have been collected at Reformed Reflections....

Theology

Heaven-bound: What will it be like?

We've all been told there's no such thing as a stupid question. And we all know that just isn't so. That may be why in our desire to avoid the embarrassment of asking that big dumb one, many seemingly silly, but actually good, even important, questions go unasked. And I think that's particularly true when it comes to the topic of heaven. So, for example, many of us may remember back in our younger years, wondering if heaven was going to be boring. The idea of strumming on a harp and singing all day, every day, isn’t appealing to most children (nor to many musically inept adults). But while this question bothers many kids, few will ask it out loud – even at a young age they’ve discovered asking these sorts of questions can be embarrassing. Adults also have “heaven questions” that go unasked. What is heaven going to be like? When we get there will we remember our time here on earth? And will we recognize each other in heaven? When these questions are raised they rarely get treated with much respect. Instead of garnering thoughtful responses, questions about heaven are usually answered with another question: Does it really matter? After all, we’re going to get to heaven soon enough and then we’ll find out exactly what it’s like, so what’s the use in thinking about it now? What’s the point? Comfort and correction Well, when we turn to Scripture we find out there are at least two reasons to learn more about heaven. First, many of the heavenly descriptions are a means of comfort to us. Those who weep now will laugh in heaven . Mourning, crying and pain will end and God himself will wipe away every tear from our eyes . Yes, here on earth we may have to suffer, stumble, and endure but we can do so knowing that God has prepared a heavenly reward for us . And God does more than comfort us with His descriptions of heaven – He also uses them to correct our misdirected desires. You see, Satan loves to use our desires, even our desires for God and heaven. If he can twist them, just a bit, he can use them to point us in exactly the wrong direction. For example, a friend recently told me about his desire for a “great teacher.” He had learned from some of the smartest men alive, and yet, ultimately, they had all disappointed him. They might provide great insight in one area, and yet be blind in another. This friend wanted to be able to sit at the feet of a great teacher, and just learn. He was very surprised when I told him that what he was really looking for was Jesus. He had wasted all this time trying to satisfy a desire that couldn’t be met here on earth; it was one that could only be fulfilled in heaven. In his book In Light of Eternity Randy Alcorn gives another example of this misdirected desire. A couple in his congregation wanted to give more to the church but also had a strong desire for a “perfect home” in the country. Was that desire wrong? “Not at all,” Alcorn noted. “In fact the dream of a perfect home is from God. It’s just that such a dream cannot and will not be fulfilled in this life.” That perfect home does exist though, but we have to look to heaven for it, where Jesus has prepared just such a place for us . All of us have misdirected desires. We might be looking for that special someone who will finally complete us, or the friend who will totally understand us, or that career that will fulfill us. All of us are busy storing up treasures here on earth, investing our time and energy into things that will rust away or be broken, the sorts of things that will be destroyed by fire when Christ returns. If we focused more on heaven, talked more about it, and thought more about it, perhaps then we would start trying to store up treasures there instead of here. So will heaven be boring? That’s why it’s worthwhile thinking about heaven. Now what will it actually be like? Let’s try and answer a few of those questions.  When we get to heaven will we remember our time here on earth? It would seem we will have to remember our time on earth, as we are going to be called to give an account for our every earthly word and deed . Works done in faithfulness will follow us into heaven, where we will be rewarded for them . so it seem clear we will remember these acts as well. Revelation 6:9-11 gives a glimpse into heaven where the martyrs there remember what happened to them on earth – they call out to God to avenge their blood. And the fact that the crucifixion scars remain in Christ’s eternal resurrected body seems to be conclusive proof that we will remember earth. These scars will forever bear witness to what He did for us; they will be a constant reminder of just how undeserving we were, and how gracious and merciful God is. Since we are gong to remember our time on earth that means what we do here is a foundation for our eternal life. This is only the beginning, but it is a beginning we will build on later in heaven . Will we recognize each other in heaven? Some think that since in heaven we will “no longer marry nor be given in marriage”  we will no longer recognize our marriage partners or any of our other past relationships made on earth. But that reads far too much into a single text. Many other passages in the Bible would suggest that we will recognize each other. For example, in the parable of the rich man and Lazarus , the rich man recognizes both Lazarus and Abraham in heaven. When Moses and Elijah come down from heaven for Jesus’ Transfiguration  they were still recognizable as Moses and Elijah. And according to Luke 16:9 the friends we make through our generosity here on earth will remember us in heaven and welcome us into their eternal dwellings. So friendships, interrupted for a time by death, can continue on in heaven. Will heaven be boring? One of Satan’s biggest lies is his portrayal of heaven as a tedious place of idleness and enforced endless singing. We are not going to be idle in heaven – we’re going to reign with Christ, and be assigned responsibilities based on what we did on earth – and when we sing it will be because we can’t contain the praise within us (and even the musically inept will now be able to carry a tune). Have you ever been to a wedding where the bride beamed happiness? Where the joy just spilled out of her? Her joy is but a pale reflection of the greater Joy we will experience in heaven. Everything good and amazing here on earth, from the Niagara Falls to the Grand Canyon to the intricacy and wonder of a single living cell, reflect only a tiny part of the glory of their Creator. And in heaven we will finally be able to see Him face to face . Face to face! Heaven will be the very opposite of boring! Though most every reader will find some points of disagreement, Randy Alcorn's book "Heaven" is a great, biblically-rooted look at what God has planned for us after this life. It is an encouragement and challenge to Christians - highly recommended! https://youtu.be/zOL8jkWy8MY...