In Christ, Everything; Outside Christ, Nothing

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA2 I said to the LORD, “You are my Lord; apart from you I have no good thing.”

3 As for the saints who are in the land,
they are the glorious ones in whom is all my delight.

4 The sorrows of those will increase who run after other gods. I will not pour out their libations of blood or take up their names on my lips.

Psalm 16:2-4 (NIV)

Now that our next-door neighbors present us with a multitude of religious choices, the pressure to choose other faiths can be very attractive. Even more alluring is the possibility of mixing and matching; we construct our own garments of faith from the exotic cloth now available from the local religious malls. Our culture revels in diversity and do-it-yourself religion. We are told that we are narrow and intolerant if we stick to the way, the truth, and the life in Christ.

On the run from his enemies, David ran into an earlier version of this option in his day. Israel was surrounded by colorful, foreign alternatives that promised real tangible benefits socially and materially. Yet he did not budge an inch. He had discovered that his own personal faith in God was pivotal to his welfare; apart from the Lord, he had no good thing (v. 2). He knew who his heroes were; his delight was in the saints of the land (v. 3). He was not taken in by the superficial allure of alternative religion; he saw the sorrow that resulted from misplaced confidence in other gods (v. 4). He made up his mind; he would neither join in their practices nor take their names on his lips (v. 4).

Christians are totally indebted to Israel for her refusal to negotiate on her hard-won monotheism. Being tenacious in faith is not being perverse; it is a matter of standing by the truth. Faith is rooted in reality. Christ confirmed and enriched this faith by nailing it down in history with His cross and by conquering all the alternatives in His resurrection from the dead.

The great heroes have proven this faith’s worth over the years. Just to recount their lives is a source of delight and inspiration.

Abandoning the faith or mixing and matching it with bits and pieces of other religions are recipes for disaster and regret. We gladly take Christ’s name upon our lips absolutely and exclusively. His is “the name that is above every name, that at the name of Jesus every knee should bow, in heaven and on earth and under the earth, and every tongue confess that Jesus is Lord, to the glory of God the Father” (Phil. 2:9-11).

In making the case for Christ, believers cannot shirk the clear-cut choice that Christ presents. We can do so with confidence when we are secure in our own confession of the Lord and when we remember that apart from Him we have “no good thing.” Christ delivers the goods; the alternatives multiply sorrow.

 

Can Theology Be True If It’s Self-Contradictory?

The General Assembly of the Presbyterian Church (USA) took the curious step recently of adopting an “Authoritative Interpretation” (AI) of its constitution that blatantly contradicts the document it purports to interpret. Passed by a vote of 317-238, the AI allows PCUSA ministers to perform gay wedding ceremonies in the 19 states where the practice is legal. But the PCUSA constitution states (at least for now)1 that “marriage is a civil contract between a woman and a man.” How can a document that defines marriage as a heterosexual institution be “interpreted” to permit homosexual marriage? When a commissioner at a PCUSA committee meeting raised this issue, his point was ruled “not well taken” in parliamentary rules.2

contradictorySad to say, this is not the only instance in recent times of a prominent theological or ethical assertion that involves foolish contradiction. Fortunately, Scripture tells us how to respond to such assertions in Colossians 2:8, “See to it that no one takes you captive by philosophy and empty deceit . . .” The Louw and Nida Greek lexicon explains that the phrase translated “empty deceit” refers to a “misleading or erroneous view concerning the truth” related to “a complete lack of understanding.” Though Paul likely had a broad array of errors in mind, contradictory statements certainly fall under that umbrella. Of course, some doctrines taught in the Bible (like the Trinity and creation ex nihilo) are mysterious and may seem unreasonable at first blush. But nothing in the Bible is a true contradiction. We accept biblical mysteries by faith as we pursue a fuller understanding. But any assertion that involves irreconcilable contradiction is unbiblical and must be rejected, lest it “take you captive.” Consider the following examples:

Atheist ministers. A 2010 study by Daniel Dennett and Linda LaScola profiled five Protestant “preachers who are not believers.”3 The study described the supposedly victimized atheist ministers as “ensnared in their ministries by a web of obligations, constraints, comforts, and community.” These five individuals may have served in church-related vocations, but it is a contradiction to claim that any atheist is a true minister of the gospel.

Gay marriage. Though it’s a common phrase these days, it’s a contradiction. God defined marriage as between one man and one woman.

Relative truth. “All truth is relative,” some postmodernists claim. But a statement is either true or relative, not both at the same time in the same sense.

No-fault divorce. Since the late 1960s this has been a common legal designation. But Jesus said there is always sin on at least one spouse’s part when the covenant of marriage is dissolved (Matthew 19:1-9).

Errors in Scripture. The Bibles says, “all Scripture” is “breathed out by God” (2 Timothy 3:16), and God cannot lie (Titus 1:2). Either the Bible is Holy Scripture or it contains errors, not both. Yet some supposed Christians claim the Bible both errs and is God’s Word.

Human non-persons. Abortion advocates have employed this term in attempt to justify the killing of unborn children. But all humans are persons, knitted together by God in the womb (Psalm 139:13).

When discussions of theology or ethics become self-contradictory, some may regard it as a move toward sophistication and enlightenment, a casting aside of outdated truisms. Yet those who believe the Bible know better. They will take care to shun such “empty deceit” and in so doing will find themselves “established in the faith” (Colossians 2:7).

 

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Endnotes:

1 The General Assembly approved an amendment to the PCUSA constitution redefining marriage as between “two people” rather than “a woman and a man.” But the amendment must be approved by a majority of the PCUSA’s 172 presbyteries, which is expected to occur. Until then, the AI contradicts the constitution.

2 Carmen Fowler LaBerge, “Calling Their Bluff—With the Hope of Keeping the General Assembly From Erring,” The Layman Online, June 19, 2014, http://www.layman.org/calling-bluff-hope-keeping-general-assembly-erring/ (accessed June 26, 2014).

3 Daniel C. Dennett and Linda LaScola, “Preachers Who Are Not Believers,” Evolutionary Psychology 8, no. 1 (2010): 122-150, http://www.epjournal.net/wp-content/uploads/EP08122150.pdf (accessed June 26, 2014).


Can God Love Too Much?

“And should not I pity Nineveh, that great city, in which there are more than 120,000 persons who do not know their right hand from their left, and also much cattle?”

Jonah 4:11 (ESV)

Clouds and sunIn his book Bold Love, Dan Allender challenges Christians to think more deeply about a word they use so often: love. “We use the word so easily and might even think we know a bit about it. Surely it’s something we all want and, in our better moments, want to give. Yet there is no more demanding occupation than love.” It is certainly easy to say that God is love; it is another thing altogether to act lovingly toward our personal enemies or enemies of the faith. Furthermore, love is anything but bold when Christians ignore the Great Commission, when they fail to put their lives on the line and enter closed countries, learn difficult languages, and labor among the lost Muslims, Hindus, Buddhists, or animists. The Lord’s love, in contrast, is always bold, rich, and deep.

In the first three chapters of Jonah, the prophet flees God’s command to preach in the wicked city of Nineveh, the Assyrian capital, located in what is now Iraq. In Jonah’s time (eighth century B.C.), Assyria was a marauding and powerful nation that had invaded Israel and Judah more than once. Their methods were infamous: when a people resisted becoming vassals, their nation was looted and destroyed. No wonder Jonah chose to flee instead of preach repentance in the capital of this empire. Not only was there cause to fear for his personal safety, Jonah also knew that God might convert and forgive them, and he wanted nothing to do with that. After all, who wants to introduce his enemies to a “gracious God and merciful, slow to anger and abounding in steadfast love, and relenting from disaster” (Jonah 4:2b)?

Nonetheless, Jonah’s flight was futile; he eventually obeyed God’s command (3:3) and preached repentance on the streets of Nineveh with resounding success. Just as he feared, “the people of Nineveh believed God. They called for a fast and put on sackcloth, from the greatest of them to the least of them” (3:5). By the end of the book, the prophet was downcast once again, clearly disappointed in the generosity of God’s grace. It is one thing for the Lord to choose to love His people, the Jews, but compassion for Assyria was too much for Jonah to take. Of course, Jonah should not have been surprised at the Lord’s bold love initiative beyond His chosen people, for years ago He had told Moses, “I will be gracious to whom I will be gracious, and will show mercy on whom I will show mercy” (Exodus 33:19). So instead of condemning a rebellious and unruly people who did “not know their right hand from their left” (v. 11), God sent a prophet to preach His Word—and, consistent with His loving character, He gave the city life.

Like Jonah, Christians today may be tempted to wipe their consciences clean of any responsibility for the adherents of other world religions, some of whom wish the Church great harm. Nonetheless, Christianity leaves no room for hatred or apathy. When Jesus said “something greater than Jonah is here” (Matthew 12:41), He was referring to Himself. He had come to be preached to all nations: the friendly and the militant, the safe and the dangerous, the open and the closed. May the Lord spare the Church today from the indifference, indeed the disdain of Jonah. May He also spare her from those who might think that if God were to convert even a terrorist, He would be loving too much.

Every Christian Family a Little Church

As new believers in 1950, Bob and Fae Tripp were committed to raising their children according to the Word of God. Their children knew that Sunday worship “was a nonnegotiable part”1 of their weekly schedule and that each day began with a time of family devotion. Bob was not a pastor and not even a great teacher, but he was faithful in leading his family to understand what 19th-century Presbyterian pastor and Princeton professor James W. Alexander called the “feeling that God must be honored in everything, that no business of life can proceed without Him.”2

Family DevotionsThe Tripp family sounds as if it could have existed in Puritan Scotland during the 17th century when even “the humblest persons in the remotest cottages honored God by daily praise”3 and family worship. But Bob lived in the middle of the 20th century, when the practice of family worship had been largely dismissed, even among the best churches and best Christian men.4

Early in the morning, before the first light of dawn, the Tripp family was roused from their beds. They gathered with sleep still in their eyes because Bob was convinced that it was important for every member of his family to be involved. In these small gatherings, he would read from Scripture, they would pray for one another concerning the day ahead, and they would lift their voices in praise of their Savior Jesus Christ. The Tripp’s oldest son, Tedd, had recently been hired to work at a factory requiring him to leave the house long before the rest of the family would normally wake. So rather than let his son begin the day without the benefit of family worship, Bob woke the others, letting them return to bed only after Tedd had left the home strengthened by their corporate devotion.5

In the years to come, the younger son Paul could not remember much of what the family read during these early morning meetings, but he was always impressed by his father’s “unaltering commitment to family worship” because “nothing got in the way” of gathering them to participate in their “time of reading and prayer.”6 Bob’s efforts to teach his family to “seek first the kingdom of God” (Matt. 6:33) played no small part in their later openness to the calling of God. Both boys came to a saving faith in Christ at an early age and later committed their lives to vocational ministry. Both Paul and Tedd have been pastors and seminary professors, and both have written books on Christian parenting.

It is possible that these young men would have heeded the call of God upon their lives had they not been trained to honor and worship Him daily at an early age. But without such benefits, the Tripp brothers might well have left the church in adulthood, as is the case with 88% of churched youth today.7 Surely it is time to revive the practice of family worship and to believe with Jonathan Edwards that “Every Christian family ought to be as it were a little church”8

 

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Endnotes

1 Paul David Tripp, Age of Opportunity: A Biblical Guide to Parenting Teens (Philipsburg: P & R, 1997), 190.

2 James W. Alexander, Thoughts on Family Worship (1847; repr., Morgan, PA: Soli Deo Gloria, 1998), 33.

3 Ibid., 11.

4 Donald S. Whitney, Family Worship: In the Bible, in History & in Your Home (Shepherdsville, KY: Center for Biblical Spirituality, 2005), 1.

5 Tripp, 190.

6 Ibid.

7 Alvin L. Reid, Raising the Bar: Ministry to Youth in the New Millennium (Grand Rapids: Kregel, 2004), 44.

8 Quoted in Whitney, 15.

The Faith of the Demons

faith2You believe that there is one God. Good! Even the demons believe that – and shudder.

James 2:19 (NIV)

Most overweight people are quite familiar with the cause of their condition. They know the butter-and-jam laden croissants they are about to eat are loaded with calories and fat. They know that the broccoli they shunned in the supermarket would be much better for them. They know which food would be kinder to their cholesterol count, but they consume the dangerous pastry just the same. Mere knowledge cannot help them; it all depends on what they make of that knowledge. The same is true of knowledge in the spiritual realm.

James rebuked those who thought that an intellectual grasp of monotheism gained them a sort of spiritual advantage. If they, so to speak, signed off on a rudimentary doctrinal statement, then they were somehow blessed by God. But the apostle had no patience for such trivialities, noting that demons themselves believed the basic facts about God—that He existed, that He was one. Indeed, they believed this so deeply that they were wracked with dread. But it availed them nothing, for faith is more than cognitive subscription to propositions. Unless the demons worship and obey God, they are condemned.

Incidentally, James 2:19 offers an example of prophetic sarcasm. When James exclaims, “Good!” (“You do well!”), he means it as an ironic “Whoopie!” This is the same tone one finds in 2 Corinthians 11:19, where Paul calls the church members “wise” for putting up with fools, and on Mount Carmel, when Elijah suggests that Baal might be sleeping (1 Kings 18:27). While sarcasm should be used sparingly, it is not sub-Christian and can be quite effective.

It has been said that evangelicals are doctrinal exclusivists, but functional universalists. They say they believe in hell, but their failure to evangelize is just the sort of behavior one would expect from those who believed that all will work out well for non-believers. Lacking a sense of urgency to witness, they show themselves skeptical of the Judgment.

Any number of church members will express disdain for immorality, hope for cultural reform, and faith in the power of God to change lives, but relatively few will act with boldness upon such stated convictions. Perhaps, if they listened carefully, they would hear the voices of the prophets thundering across the ages, “You believe that abortion is evil. Great! So do the demons—and rejoice.” Or maybe the preacher would hear, “You believe that the pulpit is strategic. Wonderful! So does the devil—and trembles.” But what will these saints and Church leaders make of these beliefs? That is the faith question.


Work as the Christian Calling—Paul Helm

paulhelmPaul Helm teaches theology and philosophy at Regent College, Vancouver, following his retirement as professor of the history and philosophy of religion at Religion at King’s College, London. In his writing on the scriptural teaching about “calling,” he underlines the significance of human labor for Christians. Daily employment is not “just a job;” it is rather a calling from God to serve Him in the world. Moreover, the Christian is to take pleasure in his work, just as the Creator God delights in all that He has made.

[W]ork is part of a Christian’s calling . . . The Christian is not called to be a workaholic, someone for whom only his work matters. What makes for difficulty for the Christian is that there is not one supreme duty which he has to fulfill but there are numerous competing duties and interwoven relationships each of which claims time, energy and commitment. But one relationship may help another, offering support and strength, as marriage may support work, and work marriage. On the other hand they may compete with each other, and a Christian will have to think seriously about which obligations, in a certain set of circumstances, come first. Ought he to work overtime, or be at home with his wife and family?

The old, misleading, sacred/secular distinction relegated much work to the spiritual margins, but the Reformers taught that all labor accepted as a calling and performed “as unto the Lord” was noble. Grasp of this truth has slipped dramatically both in the Church and the culture.

Work is part of a Christian’s calling, part of his ‘vocation’ . . . [T]his biblical idea has had a profound influence in Europe and North America since the Reformation but has largely been forgotten, due to the eclipse of the influence of the Christian gospel from national life, or has been distorted through ridicule and caricature . . . [T]he Bible gives great prominence to the idea that human lives are lived in the sight of God, and this thought includes a Christian’s daily work, as Paul explicitly notes when he reminds Christians that they have a Master in heaven (Eph. 6:9). It is not that the ‘spiritual/religious’ part of a man’s life must be lived before God, those times when he is on his knees, or reading the Bible, and that the remainder of his life is his own affair. The basic motive for serving other men in work is that one is a servant of God.

A Christian’s work is not therefore ‘just a job’, something burdensome which he attempts to make easier by being slipshod or second rate. It is part of his calling, his service to God. Yet this may at first seem rather ridiculous. How could a person whose job it is to serve dinners at school, or to make parts for sewing machines, or to manage people on a factory floor, be serving God? Is not such language merely religious rhetoric? Is it not pious talk which amounts to little? Such language can merely be pious talk but it need not and ought not to be.

–The BibleMesh Team