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Treasure in Earthen Vessel

First blog post

 

With this piece, I join the blogosphere.  There are now more websites than people on earth.  For yet another one, an explanation is due.  It is hoped that this blog will be a commentary on a wide spectrum of issues.  But it will be defined by clear-cut boundaries.

First, I will primarily draw my thoughts from the Scriptures.  The conviction that, I hope, will define every piece of this blog is Sola Scriptura – that the Scriptures are the Word of God, and the only Word of God now.  Not dreams or visions; not popular opinions or dramatic experiences; and certainly, I reject vox populi, vox Dei.  I avow with full confidence the Confession:

The holy scriptures of the Old and New Testaments are the word of God, the only rule of faith and obedience. 

The scriptures manifest themselves to be the word of God, by their majesty and purity; by the consent of all the parts, and the scope of the whole, which is to give all glory to God; by their light and power to convince and convert sinners, to comfort and build up believers unto salvation: but the Spirit of God bearing witness by and with the scriptures in the heart of man, is alone able fully to persuade it that they are the very word of God.[1]

 A substantial part of my commentary will therefore be exegetical and expository.  This is the essential task of the virtue of honesty to the text of the Word of God.  I will not twist the text just to have a charming aphorism.  The text, as the author intended it to mean, shall always be supreme.  But because I believe in the perennial freshness of the Word of God, the meaning of the text in its time will always have a meaning that is timeless and an application that will be timely.  I am committed to engage the text in its historical meaning, as well as engage the readers in their relevant context.

Secondarily, I will draw from the rich reservoir of history.  Specially so of Christian history.  It is enriched by councils and confessions; controversies and disputes; Christian men and women in their profound wisdom and egregious follies; Reformers and heretics; persecution and martyrdom; visionaries and missionaries.  To ignore these is to be impoverished in thought.  Indeed, if we are sensitive to the lesson of providence, we can see in history the pattern of the gospel.  As Michael Horton puts it:

The Christian who is alert to God’s clues in history knows that the pattern is always bad news followed by good news.  The Gospel always has the last word over sin, death, and temptation – whether it be the believer’s individually or the church’s generally.  It was, after all, into a world fallen as a result of the will to power that our race heard the surprising announcement of saving grace:  The seed of the woman will crush the serpent’s head.  He who beguiled the royal couple into seeking their own autonomy would himself be destroyed.  And just as the world was looking upon the disfigured body of the crucified Messiah in disgust and mockery, God was acting for the salvation of his enemies.[2]

Finally, I can only draw from my own thoughts and experience – and it will always be with limitation and infirmity.  This is not to detract from the greatness of the message; but to admit the frailty of the messenger.  Apostle Paul puts it best: But we have this treasure in earthen vessels, that the excellence of the power may be of God and not of us (2 Cor 4:7).  Having referred to the unsurpassed New Covenant glory in the previous section, Paul is humbled by his calling as one of its ministers (3:6).  He combines these two thoughts – calling the New Covenant message as treasure, though he as its messenger is but an earthen vessel.

The same consciousness will pervade every commentary in this space.  I will seek to spell out the treasure of the truth of the New Covenant.  It will sometimes sound positively assertive without being arrogant; confident without being contemptuous; challenging but not defying.  But because the treasure is in earthen vessel, it will always be subject to correction and criticism, and open to dialogue and exchange – for that is the way to growth and maturation.

Every piece in this blog will consciously seek after the truth of the Scripture.  It may not sit well with the current version of political correctness and orthodoxy.  In this, it is merely extending the mission of the church on earth – a mission depicted by Paul as to take every thought captive to obey Christ (2Cor 10:5).  C.S. Lewis makes an excellent analogy in his Mere Christianity:

 Enemy-occupied territory – that is what this world is.  Christianity is the story of how the rightful king has landed, you might say landed in disguise, and is calling us all to take part in a great campaign of sabotage.[3]

[1] Westminster Larger Catechism # 3-4

[2] Michael Horton, We Believe: Recovering the Essentials of the Apostles’ Creed (Word Publishing): 4

[3] C.S. Lewis, Mere Christianity; cited from A Year with C.S. Lewis: Daily Readings from his Classic Works: 78

The Home-Focused Mother

Pro 31 29

 

Put in such a negative way, who will not lose the joy of living?  But it is spotlighting the struggle side, which all vocations have share of, while dismissing the triumph side of home-keeping.  What about a stable family, well-reared children, a well-ordered house fit for hospitality, and with all these, a fulfilled woman?  Definitely this latter side sees no torture, but enjoys family life.

The sheer patience and determination is born of a principled belief in the value of motherhood.  It is not the torture of Sysiphus with its endless cycles.  Motherhood sees its triumph in children who become crowns for their generation… I submit without question that the mother has contributed more to society than any female roles.

 

 

The emancipation of women, it is claimed, is the noble cause of Feminism.  If by this emancipation is meant deliverance from the oppression of male-dominated society that has treated women as mere sex-objects, Christians should stand to be counted.  But it appears in their discourses that feminists mean something more radical.  Their cause is emancipation of women from the “bondage of the home.”

Leading feminist champion, Simone de Beauvoir, makes this vivid description of the woman’s domestic bondage,

Few tasks are more like the torture of Sysiphus than housework, with its endless repetition: the clean becomes soiled, the soiled is made clean, over and over, day after day. The housewife wears herself out marking time … The battle against dust and dirt is never won … Severe, preoccupied, always on the watch, she loses the joy of living…1

Put in such a negative way, who will not lose the joy of living?  But it is spotlighting the struggle side, which all vocations have share of, while dismissing the triumph side of home-keeping.  What about a stable family, well-reared children, a well-ordered house fit for hospitality, and with all these, a fulfilled woman?  Definitely this latter side sees no torture, but enjoys family life.  It should applaud the sentiment of Edith Schaeffer,

The mark of Christian families should be the demonstration of love in the day-by-day, mundane circumstances of life, in the many moments of opportunity to show that love suffereth long… What is a family? A formation center for human relationships — worth fighting for, worth calling a career, worth the dignity of hard work.2

Is the home a woman’s torture chamber from which she needs eman­cipation, or is it a relationship center upon which the woman must focus?  The Bible has a very definite side to this issue.  One may wish to be a feminist and reject Scriptures, she must do so openly and honestly.  But no one can honestly subscribe to Scriptures as the Word of God, and espouse the feminist view of the home as domestic bondage.

DEFINED ROLE

The rationale for the woman’s creation is stated in Genesis 2:18ff.  She is to be a “helpmeet” to the man.  This word has provoked misunderstanding.  It is often employed by those who hold the view that women are inferior to men by nature.  And in reaction to this view, the opposite side do everything to wrest this word of its sober intent.

Perhaps, before setting forth the defined role that is contained in this text, let us take a look at the whole of Scriptures.  Two clusters of Scriptures must govern our understanding of women.

(a) Scriptures giving dignified place to women

The classic representative is Proverbs 31:10ff.  It is unique in contemporary literature in its exultation of the virtuous woman. [ See separate article by Steve Hofmaier in this issue ]. Women in the Old Testament played prominent roles in the central events of Israel’s history.  This led Old Testament scholar, Walter Kaiser, to observe:

Women were not chattel to be ordered about and used as men pleased in the Old Testament, ranking slightly above a man’s ox or donkey! They were fellow heirs of the image of God, charged with tasks that exhibited the originality, independence and management ability of the ‘woman of valor’ in Proverbs 31 and were called to enter holistically into sharing all of the joys and labors of life.3

(b) Scriptures safeguarding the rights and worth of women equal with men

The feminist favorite text of Galatians 3:28 is as vigorously asserted by Evangelicals who do not espouse feminism.  This is a text that shows the absolute equality of all under the blessing of the grace of God.  This equality is acknowledged in what traditionally was male-dominant privileges.  In Matthew 5:27-32; 19:3-9, Jesus’ permission of divorce in case of adultery, which the Jews understood and practiced as a male prerogative, notably was extended to women.  Jesus accepted that they can be (and often were) the aggrieved party.  Following this train of thought, Paul’s pronouncement in 1 Corinthians 7:4 establishes the woman’s mutual right and authority on her spouse’s body.

The cause of biblical womanhood is not served by unwise pro­nouncements on the supposed superiority of the man over the female.  The common assumption is the supposed physical superior­ity of the male.  But it is only a one-dimensional measure.  Science has established that women have a greater pain-threshold than men.  There is always another dimension whether one uses the intellectual superiority or emotional superiority argument.  The structure does not stand on gender superiority.  Man and woman are equal.

Back to the ‘helpmeet’

While equal, man and woman are distinct.  Equality does not lead to interchangeability of roles.  And from its origin, the man-woman relationship in the home have clearly defined roles.  The woman is to be the help meet (= matching, comparable, corresponding to, etc.) for the man’s incompleteness.  The word does not indicate inferiority.  Recent research into the Hebrew root of ‘ezer reveals connection with the idea of strength. (cf. Deut. 33:26, 29)  Kaiser goes so far as to suggest the translation for Gen. 2:18, “I will make a power [or strength] corresponding to man”.  Rather than male superiority, the word reminds us of male inadequacy!  The woman is the strength that man needs to complete his life.

But now that much has been admitted, this text mandates the female focus in marriage.  From the very beginning, there is a role-hierarchy that God mandated in the house.  Paul affirms this in 1 Corinthians 11:9, “Nor was man created for the woman, but woman for the man”.  Also in 1 Timothy 2:12, 13 [ see my separate article, “Evangelical Feminism?” ].  We must agree that this text sees in the order of creation a principle mandatory upon all.  So says Lenski,

God could, indeed, have created both man and woman, Adam and Eve, in one undivided act.  Today many think and act as though God had really done so. But the fact is otherwise. Nor should we think and say that at this late date God’s creative act, which lies far back in time, makes no difference. The facts of creation abide forever. They can be ignored without resultant loss or harm as little as can other facts of nature.4

The resulting hierarchy structure from this order is the mandato­ry authority of the male partner and the subordinate submission of the female partner.  James Hurley observes the consistent appeal of New Testament discussions to the creative act of God,

Our examination of New Testament arguments concerning marriage has shown that the marriage relation was viewed as ordained by God at creation, with a particular structure as a continuing element of that relation. With the exception of 1 Peter 3, the major apostolic discussions of marriage all appeal to the divine institution of marriage at creation as a ground for the present ordering of it (1Cor. 11:7-12; 14:34; Eph. 5:31; 1Tim. 2:13-14). These discussions not only prescribe the institution of marriage, but also demand a particular structure within it.5

DEFINITE PRIMARY SPHERE

The mandated role defines the primary sphere of the woman’s vocation in marriage.  That sphere is the home.  This position will throw feminists into a fit of protest.  “Bondage!”  “Domes­tic oppression!”  As though, secular career has no bondage and oppression all the more cruel?  Why not the emancipation of women from the primary concern of the secular to have her primary freedom at home?  Is this not why the woman was created for the man.  Indeed, her mandated role requires her, under normal circumstances, to devote her primary efforts to being a wife.  Many a home is broken because the wife sees more the ‘well-watered plain’ of career advancement than the laborious task of home-building.

Exalted vocation of Home-building  

Our protest against feminist denigration of the home must be passionate.  Scriptures direct the moral assessment of woman in what she makes of the home.

Every wise woman builds her house,

But the foolish pulls it down with her hands.                                Proverbs 14:1

Here the wisdom (in Proverbs, a moral/spiritual attribute) of the woman is measured in terms of its impact upon the home. Note that woman is the modifier in the original, and might better be translated, ‘womanly wisdom’.  The wisdom that is uniquely femi­nine is exercised in the field of home-building!

The New Testament re-affirms this focus.  Where Paul anticipates marriage to occur, this is his instruction to the woman partner, “… bear children, manage the house, give no opportunity to the adversary to speak reproachfully” (1 Timothy 5:14).  His language indicates how Paul takes this issue as crucial to the interests of the gospel cause.  And in the collection of virtues that he urged on women in Titus 2:3-5, Paul revolved woman’s duties and graces on the concerns of the home: “… love their husbands, to love their children… home-makers… obedient to their husbands,” capped by the now familiar warning, “that the Word of God may not be blasphemed!”

In this connection, we must raise the serious issue of mother­hood, a calling without substitute.  But, perhaps, motherhood is the most unappreciated of human vocations.  This is the age of the career-woman.  It is much easier to feel valuable where there is regular salary and certain promotion.  On the other hand, educated women cringe at the thought that their BS and BA or higher will end up with changing diapers and breast-feeding.  It is thought embarrassing, and at any rate, inferior.  But is it?  Is motherhood the dumping ground for the ill-educated?  We must protest against this with every fiber of our being.

Walter Chantry corrects this sentiment,

Proverbs 10:1 tells those who are children that ‘a foolish son is the heaviness of his mother… Motherhood could not be a part time hobby… Godly women do not live for kisses and nice little gifts, but to see their children walking with the Lord in right­eousness. All of a godly woman’s hopes in this world are bound up with the children of her motherhood.6

To say that only those who can do nothing worthwhile in society should just become mere mothers is tragically foolish.  The infant life deserves the best qualified woman, qualifications that put the stress on patience of character and reliable stock of knowledge.  Of course, education contributes greatly to her knowledge and character, and with whatever livelihood she can render without robbing the home of its primacy.  But the sheer patience and determination is born of a principled belief in the value of motherhood.  It is not the torture of Sysiphus with its endless cycles.  Motherhood sees its triumph in children who become crowns for their generation.

I submit without question that the mother has contributed more to society than any female roles.  Multiply the number of children yet in their crib.  They will make up the fiber of society tomor­row.  What type of fiber that will be, depends on the hands that rock their cradle.  Some of them will end up in the gutter, largely because of slack mother (and a father who is no better).  Others will become pillars of the nation and society.  Let us not forget that behind them are patient motherly hands.  Here lies the value of motherhood — not in salary or degree, but in the life that it builds.

If for this reason alone (there are more!), it is enough to espouse this as a cause for reformation: Home-focused Mother!

Happy Mother’s Day!

NOTES

  1. Simone de Beauvoir, The Second Sex, (trans. by H. M. Parshley) [1952]: p. 425
  2. Edith Schaeffer, What is a Family?; Baker Book House [1975]: p. 81
  3. Walter Kaiser, Toward Old Testament Ethics; Zondervan Publication [1983]: p. 207-8
  4. R. C. H. Lenski, The Interpretation of I and II Corinthians; Augsburg Publsihing [1963]: p. 443f.
  5. James B. Hurley, Man and Woman in Biblical Perspective; Zondervan Publication [1981]: p.160
  6. Walter Chantry; from the tract The High Calling of Motherhood; Banner of Truth

The Atheist’s Option

Thumbnails_5_V2

Not opting?  Is that possible?  Of course not.  In rejecting all claims, he makes his own claim – there is no true God.  Atheism becomes the option left for him.  In other words, this becomes his own religious confession – there is no God.  Atheism is therefore nor merely the rejection of the religious confession, it is itself an alternative religion.  But it is the kind of religious confession that has no control on what to believe and what not to believe, what is right and what is wrong.  By rejecting the option of God, the Atheist opens himself to any kind of belief.  G.K. Chesterton puts it well, “When men cease to believe in God, they do not believe in nothing, they believe in anything.

 

‘I believe in God’ – this is the first confession of almost all religions.  But when asked the next questions, it leads to as many answers as there are religions.  Which God?  How many?  How do we know him?  To take the stance of non-committal to any religious claim, there are those who assert that there is no way we can answer questions about God.  They are known as agnostics – those who forego any claim of certain knowledge of God.  As a matter of fact, they are so certain of this!  Then, there are others who also make no commitment to any religious confessions who, however, claim certainty in their stance.  They believe that there is no God.  They are called Atheists.  In many ways, Atheism is more consistent than Agnosticism.  The Agnostic’s approach is plain cop-out.  The Atheist makes a chilling dare to any God who is supposed to be there and he asserts, “You are nothing!”

On the level of conduct, practical Atheists, those who live like there is no God even if they confess to believing in one, always outnumber serious theists (believers in one God).  But there was a time when to believe in God – with that upper case G – is the natural thing.  An Atheist became one for reasons that probably did not occur to the normal mind.  But the last century going into this new one saw the development of Atheism as something acceptably natural.  There are now more Atheists as a matter of philosophical conviction.  Communism needed the premise of Atheism for its own ideas to flourish.  In 1925, the American Association for the Advancement of Atheism was established, later succeeded by the League of Militant Atheists.  The avowed intent is to propagate Atheism through literature and influence placements.  This writer recently watched a documentary report on TV concerning the active campaign of Atheists in campuses.  One leader of an Atheistic organization said flatly, “We are committed to no god but ourselves!”

But why should anyone come to a militant denial of any true God?

  1. Atheism may simply be one’s despair over the multitude of truth-claims

Should one choose to reject the religious traditions in which he was bred, and really attempt to look at the other options offered, it can really be an exercise in despair.  Even if he should choose to look at the options that offer only one God to believe in, which of the three great religions should he consider?  Judaism, Islam, or Christianity?  And granting that he opts for Christianity, which of the motley groups of churches, denominations, let alone sects and cults?  In his despair he comes to the point where he finds not opting for any claim the less confusing.

Not opting?  Is that possible?  Of course not.  In rejecting all claims, he makes his own claim – there is no true God.  Atheism becomes the option left for him.  In other words, this becomes his own religious confession – there is no God.  Atheism is therefore nor merely the rejection of the religious confession, it is itself an alternative religion.  But it is the kind of religious confession that has no control on what to believe and what not to believe, what is right and what is wrong.  By rejecting the option of God, the Atheist opens himself to any kind of belief.  G.K. Chesterton puts it well, “When men cease to believe in God, they do not believe in nothing, they believe in anything.”

Atheism, as well as Agnosticism, can sit well as partners with polytheism (belief in many gods).  Paul found this out in Athens (Acts 17:16ff).  As a city given to idols, its populace however had sense enough to dedicate an altar to the unknown God.  Is this out of fear that they may have missed one more deity?  Probably this is a confession of their own despair – that amidst the open syncretism of religions and idols, there is still one they cannot represent to their own satisfaction.  That is what Atheism is – an altar of despair masquerading as a denial of God.

  1. Atheism often boasts of itself as the scientific choice

This boast is nurtured by the false (and unscientific) premise that all that is true is a matter of scientific observation.  And by observation is meant the five human senses and the tools for measurement and other quantification.  Conclusions beyond this ability to observe and quantify are deemed unscientific and speculative.  That includes religious notions.

But what could be more inconsistent than to limit one’s system to the observable phenomena, and then make pronouncements about the non-observable?  For if God is outside the observable and the quantifiable by the scientist’s laboratory, the most that he should say is ‘I cannot tell!’  But to conclude that there is no God because He is unobserved is to intrude beyond science’s set limits.

It is the contention of the Christian that if the evidences of phenomena are given objective investigation, they point to God.  Job, even with a severely tried faith, gives expression to this eloquently:

But now ask the beasts, and they will teach you

And the birds of the air and they will tell you;

Or speak to the earth, and it will teach you;

And the fish of the sea will explain to you.

Who among all these does not know

That the hand of the Lord has done this,

In whose hand is the life of every living thing,

And the breath of all mankind?       Job 12:7-10

In the language of Christian theology, this is called General Revelation.  God is disclosing Himself to all mankind through the phenomena that we observe.  Instead proud claims of science are blind to their own limitation, and make bold claims outside their legitimate field.  Atheism is like a man who is facing a high wall that he could not mount.  Refusing to admit his smallness, he instead concludes that there is nothing more beyond the high wall.  The Atheist, confronted with the issue and claims of God, finds One who is “dwelling in unapproachable light whom no man has seen or can see” (1Tim 6:16).  In his pride, he simply declares, “I cannot see God because he does not exist!”

  1. Atheism is really an attempt at free rein in selfishness and sin

Of course, it is every sinner’s ambition to go on in sin with abandon.  Except that there is this thing called Conscience.  Assuming that it has not come to the point of hardening, conscience does something we do not wish, but we cannot escape.  It accuses us of wrong! (Rom 2:14f).  This accusation becomes intensified when it stands on a serious belief in God, specially when recognized as a just Judge of all the earth.

The act of removing God in one’s thoughts is an attempt to quiet conscience.  For then wickedness can be indulged with abandon without the discomfort of those moments of solace and silence.  Rightly did the Psalmist observe,

The wicked in his proud countenance does not seek God;

God is in none of his thoughts.          Psalm 10:4

Paul sees this as the negation behind sinful indulgence.  “Even as they did not like to retain God in their knowledge, God gave them over to a debased mind” (Rom. 1:28).  God in one’s knowledge – even in an unchristian society is the guarantee of some decency and civility in human relations.  Of course many sorts of baseness have been committed in the name of God; but these are the gods produced by those who change the glory of the incorruptible God into an image made like corruptible men (Rom. 1:23).  But so long as some silhouette of God’s character is retained in one’s knowledge there is restraint.  God’s justice in one’s knowledge restraints our proneness to be unfair and unjust; His compassion confronts our cruelty; and more.

What General Revelation in creation and that personal imprint of God’s law in human conscience do in combination is to leave man with a sense of God that is inescapable.  He breathes with it and moves with it, for God is “not far from each one of us” (Acts 17:27).  What then of Atheism?  It is the unnatural option.  It is a make-believe illusion.  That sense of God is still present even in the Atheist, but he kicks it into silence so that he could go on with life without accusation.

Reformed theologian Robert Reymond makes this case, “All this means that there is no actual atheist.  There are only theists, some of whom claim to be atheists.  But God’s Word declares that these atheists are not real atheists; they only attempt to live as though there is no God.  But they know in their hearts that He is ‘there’ and that He will someday judge them for their sin.  They are theists who hate, and attempt to do everything they can to suppress, their innate theism.  Their ‘intellectual problems’ with Christianity are in reality only masks or rationalizations to cover up their hatred of God and their love of and bondage to sin… Thus their ‘atheism’ is their unproven ‘grand assumption’ – an assumption, by the way, with which they cannot consistently live!” [ A New Systematic Theology of the Christian Faith: p. 143 ]

The Christian Confession

 Together with the basic confession of the Israelites, Christians confess “The Lord our God, the Lord is One” (Deut. 6:4).  Paul echoes this with the unambiguous declaration, “there is no other God but One” (1Cor 8:4).  This confession clearly belies the common idea that all these religions worship the same God, they are different roads taking different routes but will arrive at the same destination.  In effect, the Jews’ Yahweh is the Islam Allah, and so on.  The Lord’s being One is not just numerical, it denotes His uniqueness – that there is no other like Him.  He is not a formula that one can re-produce by just giving it different names.  He is a Living Being.  Anyone who will deal with Him must deal with Him on His own terms.

Furthermore, the Christian confesses that this one true God on His own initiative disclosed Himself.  For there is no other way that He could be known by mere creatures, much less by sinners, except if He chooses to make Himself known.  This He did – that is make Himself known by revelation.  There is an inescapable general revelation in creation and conscience rendering all mankind without excuse (Rom 1:19-21).  But even this revelation is not adequate to save sinners.  God revealed Himself with redemptive intent through the Lord Jesus Christ.  This is the saving knowledge of God.  It is this saving knowledge that we cannot attain by our efforts.  “No one has seen God at any time.  The only begotten, He has declared Him” (Jn 1:18).  The clearest revelation we have of this God is the Person of His own Son, the Lord Jesus Christ.  This implies that there is no coming to know God savingly unless the sinner bows to the claims of Christ.  This is called special revelation.  Now, all of God’s special revelation has been committed into writing.  The most complete and sufficient revelation of God for us today is in the Holy Scriptures.  It is through them that we get a knowledge of Christ, and through Him of God as our Father.

Salvation is not just about believing in a God.  it is coming to know the true God.  But that true God is One we can only know savingly in the Lord Jesus Christ, for the “light of the knowledge of the glory of God (is) in the face of Jesus Christ” (2Cor 4:6).  Obviously, Atheism has refused to take even the first step toward this knowledge.

Conclusion

Atheism is the option for the mental sloth who, in despair, refuses to think through the issues of truth-claims.  It is also the option of the proud who thinks science is the new omniscience (all-knowing).  But over-all this is the option of the selfish sinner who wants to make a free trip of his sinfulness without the cargo of conscience.

Beyond the sophisticated arguments, Atheism is really, in the final analysis, dehumanizing.  It is not what a self-respecting man is expected to opt for.  It is not surprising that the Bible hardly takes any space for addressing Atheism as a philosophical option.  The New Testament has only one place that uses atheios.  Paul calls them as those ‘with no hope and without God in the world’ (Eph 2:12).  The OT Hebrew has no equivalent at all for Atheist.  But in a memorable statement, the Psalmist tells us of how to regard this: “The fool has said in his heart, ‘there is no God’” (Psa 14:1; 53:1)!

Singleness is not Singular

1Cor 7 32

What is imperative is to determine one’s present calling.  If one is called – and duly prepared – for marriage, the partner will be provided in the course of ordinary relations and prayer.  If otherwise the calling is to present singleness, one should pray for self-control, and use the opportunity for undivided attention to serve the Lord.  Singleness is a unique condition of opportune service without the encumbrance and pre-occupation of family concerns.  It will be, for most, a temporary period; for a few, the choice of a lifetime.  But for them, singleness does not mean singular.

 

“Although many women complain about the lack of single men, did you know that there are 4 million more males who have never been married than there are never-been-married females?”  So asks George Barna of the Barna Research Group.[i]  He is describing the American situation.

Barna’s query reveals that remaining single is still slanted on fear.  Perhaps more on the part of women than of men.  As age increases, fear of lifetime singleness rises.  To avoid it, many resort to desperate mode – anybody there?  When there is no taker, there ensues a resignation to the inevitable, while desperately hoping for a reversal; almost akin to a terminal patient.  Others opt for rationalization – a defensiveness to prove that being single is superior to being married.

Single is Better?

Defending singleness as the better choice can employ many resourceful contentions.  The TIME website posted in 2014, “7 Ways Being Single Affects your Health.”  It noted among others, “You’re less likely to gain weight… You’re more likely to exercise regularly; etc.”[ii]  Then, there are witty quotations everywhere: “I like being single.  I am always there when I need me.” Or, “I think, therefore, I am single!”

But this defensiveness about singleness is many generations late.  There was a time when singleness (known as celibacy) was really considered the better choice.  This was when prudery was mistaken for virtue, sex was defiling, and priesthood (or nunnery) was the supreme vocation.  But the choice of the convent did not escape the temptation of lust.  The fornication that went on turned many of these convents no better than brothels.  Singleness, even for a religious calling, did not prove an advantage.  John Calvin reserved sharp rebuke against this presumption:

“The first place of insane audacity belongs to celibacy. Priests, monks, and nuns, forgetful of their infirmity, are confident of their fitness for celibacy. But by what oracle have they been instructed, that the chastity which they vow to the end of life, they will be able through life to maintain? They hear the voice of God concerning the universal condition of mankind, ‘It is not good that the man should be alone,’ (Gen. 2:18.) They understand, and I wish they did not feel that the sin remaining in us is armed with the sharpest stings. How can they presume to shake off the common feelings of their nature for a whole lifetime, seeing the gift of continence is often granted for a certain time as occasion requires? In such perverse conduct they must not expect God to be their helper.”[iii]

Anyone but Single?

Fear of remaining single in agedness makes the search for a partner a frantic occupation for some.  This leads women to an unpleasant style of flirtation.  Men pursue frivolous relationships of easy sex and no commitment.  This is excused as #YOLO (You only live once!).

This is not acceptable for the Christian.  Biblical standards define relationships and sexual intimacy.  At its most straightforward, Elizabeth Eliot says, “For the Christian there is one rule and one rule only: total abstention from sexual activity outside of marriage and total faithfulness inside of marriage.  Period.”[iv]

As to the choice of partner, that too is mandated.  What Paul says of widows applies to marriageable singles “she is free to be married to whom she wishes, only in the Lord” (1 Cor. 7:39 ESV).  The choice is free, but within the boundary of the choice being a Christian.  To insist on a choice outside that boundary is the sin of unequal yoking – an expression taken from the prohibition of 2 Corinthians 6:14: “Do not be unequally yoked with unbelievers. For what partnership has righteousness with lawlessness? Or what fellowship has light with darkness?”  Charles Hodge gives this commentary:

“It is taken for granted that faith changes the whole character; that it makes a man move in an entirely different sphere, having different feelings, objects and principles from those of unbelievers; so that intimate union, communion or sympathy between believers and unbelievers is as impossible as fellowship between light and darkness, Christ and Belial… They may indeed have many things in common; a common country, common kindred, common avocations, common natural affections, but the interior life is entirely different; essentially opposed the one to the other.”[v]

A Matter of Calling

Jesus has given an explicit teaching about singleness by choice.  It was in response to a question on divorce.  His answer to a question posed by the Pharisees struck the disciples by its high standard.  They suggested that it was therefore better not to marry.  To this, Jesus replied: “But he said to them, ‘Not everyone can receive this saying, but only those to whom it is given.  For there are eunuchs who have been so from birth, and there are eunuchs who have been made eunuchs by men, and there are eunuchs who have made themselves eunuchs for the sake of the kingdom of heaven. Let the one who is able to receive this receive it.’ (Matt. 19:11-12).

Eunuchs were male servants of a royal household.  When they served the wives or harem of royalty, they were usually castrated as a precaution.  Jesus’ statement uses eunuchs in the figurative sense of not marrying.  In Jesus’ teaching, this unmarried state is a matter of divine providence.  This may be by birth, such as genetic disability for marriage.  Man-made restrictions may forbid marriage, which may happen due to accident.  More importantly, Jesus refers to those who choose the unmarried state for the kingdom of heaven (God)The kingdom refers to the rule of Christ as Lord and Saviour.  His kingdom rule became formal as a result of His death and resurrection.  One may choose the unmarried state, or lifetime singleness, to serve the interests of the kingdom of Christ.  There is an element of self-decision and dependence on the Lord’s equipping for such a state.

Paul adds what is probably the most succinct statement of the opportunity attached to the unmarried state: “An unmarried man can spend his time doing the Lord’s work and thinking how to please him” (1 Cor. 7:32 NLT).  This is explained simply:

“He offers realistic pastoral counsel, noting that those with the calling to singleness are spared divided interests that require husbands and wives to attend to their spouses desires and needs.”[vi]

Neither defending singleness as superior, nor escaping from it by any means, is the option for the Christian man or woman.  What is imperative is to determine one’s present calling.  If one is called – and duly prepared – for marriage, the partner will be provided in the course of ordinary relations and prayer.  If otherwise the calling is to present singleness, one should pray for self-control, and use the opportunity for undivided attention to serve the Lord.  Singleness is a unique condition of opportune service without the encumbrance and pre-occupation of family concerns.  It will be, for most, a temporary period; for a few, the choice of a lifetime.  But for them, singleness does not mean singular.

Meanwhile…

 The story of Rebekah becoming the wife of Isaac may provide a rather loose illustration (Gen 24).  Abraham commissioned his servant to find a wife for his son Isaac.  The servant offered to the Lord some pre-arranged signs as confirmation of his choice.  But from the perspective of Rebekah, she was just doing the same routine of fetching water from the well.  On that particular day, she was not looking for a husband; rather, she was found by the one looking for his master’s wife.

What may constitute here as a pattern for the Christian single – especially for the woman – is to live one’s life as a day-to-day responsibility to discharge, without a paralyzing concern when to find a partner.  “He who finds a wife finds a good thing, And obtains favor from the LORD” (Prov. 18:22).  The partner is both a personal discovery, as well as, a divine delivery.  We only get to identify someone in a row of people when pinpointing  a crime suspect in a police line-up!  For a partner in life, it is usually a find, like a miner’s gold.  Indeed, the Wise Man compares: “An excellent wife who can find? She is far more precious than jewels.” (Prov. 31:10)

Meanwhile, make friends; pursue some choice close ones – same gender, or opposite – without first presuming a developing romance.  Who knows, you may yet be called to serve the Lord in the capacity that others were called to serve, as unmarried – Thomas Goodwin (1600-1680) among the Puritans; John R. W. Stott (1921-2011), in our lifetime.  Or, it may be that a partner has already been prepared for you.  Just keep fetching your water…

 

[i] George Barna, Single Focus: Understanding Single Adults (Regal Books of Gospel Light; 2003) p. 7

[ii] http://time.com/3446452/how-being-single-affects-health/

[iii] John Calvin, Institutes of the Christian Religion IV. 13. 3

[iv] Elizabeth Eliot, Passion and Purity (1984)

[v] Commentary by Charles Hodge

[vi] The Reformation Study Bible: English Standard Version (2015): p. 2026

Two Lives – and Deaths

Graham Hawking

Two different lives, both celebrated in death.  One was a man of faith, the other a man of science.  In the thinking of many, faith and science, never the ‘twain shall meet.  But in Christian apologetics they are the two arms of God reaching out to His creatures.  Faith is in its place to challenge the claims of scientists that go beyond their science.  Science is right to defy claims of faith which are but a leap in the dark.

 

John Donne (1573-1631) was a Protestant minister of the Church of England during the reign of King James I.  But he is better known as one of the greatest poets in the English language.  Among his better known lines fitly introduce my present piece.  Any man’s death diminishes me, because I am involved in mankind, and therefore never send to know for whom the bell tolls; it tolls for thee.

 Two recent deaths invite reflection.  They are such that any balanced thinking will displease those on the extreme side – as followers or as opponents.  I seek to have a touch of humanity, while committed to my Christian convictions.

Billy Graham (1918 – 2018)

William Franklin Graham, known the world over as Billy Graham, died on February 21 at age 99.  In a tribute immediately following his passing, Christianity Today, founded by Billy Graham, described him as “the most significant religious figure of the 20th century.”  It informs us, “During his life, Graham preached in person to more than 100 million people and to millions more via television, satellite, and film. Nearly 3 million have responded to his invitation to ‘accept Jesus into your heart’ at the end of his sermons. He proclaimed the gospel to more persons than any other preacher in history. In the process, Graham became ‘America’s Pastor,’ participating in presidential inaugurations and speaking during national crises…”[i]

I know that there are those who will readily belittle this tribute.  Sadly, many of those detractors belong to my own group of Christians.  They can point to some glaring errors in Graham’s theology and methodology, and conclude that he has done more harm than good for the cause of Christian orthodoxy.  On the other side are those who will make Graham’s soul-winning zeal the bottom-line of genuine evangelicalism.  As though that covers everything else that he modelled in his ministry.  With both sentiments, I beg to disagree.

Billy Graham stands out as a man of integrity in his Christian conduct – in person and in his ministry.  This is not the place to specify, for there are excellent biographies to honour his life.  In a vocation that has been sullied by scandals of televangelist immorality, Graham was conspicuous by his honourable life.  He was a man who lived as he preached.  And he definitely preached Christ as the only Saviour.  Before anything is raised as a critique, one must remember the words of Paul: What then? Only that in every way, whether in pretense or in truth, Christ is proclaimed, and in that I rejoice. (Phil. 1:18 ESV).  Let us acknowledge that because Graham preached Christ, an innumerable company owes their conversion to his preaching.

That said, one must remember another word of Scripture, that those who teach the Word, will be judged with greater strictness (Jas. 3:1).  That he should be considered America’s pastor is an honour – but at the same time, it raises a poignant misgiving.  It points to the inclusiveness that characterized his ministry where everyone of any persuasion is treated as a good Christian as long as supportive of his ministry.  As everybody was welcome to be a part of his crusades, so he was a welcome presence in any religious affiliation.  That is precisely because he was not a threat to serious advocacy of errors – not to Catholicism with its works-salvation; not to liberalism with its denial of inspired Scripture.  In this, Graham’s ministry was conformist that made him popular; but it is not the New Testament portrait of faithful ministry.  Paul’s characterization of a faithful minister is, He must hold firm to the trustworthy word as taught, so that he may be able to give instruction in sound doctrine and also to rebuke those who contradict it. (Tit. 1:9).

Because of this welcoming character, it explains the ease of Christian conversion presented in Graham’s evangelism.  It is summarized by formula steps (coming forward; repeating a dictated prayer; easy assurance; etc.).  Its theology is Arminianism that exalts human free will above that of God’s sovereign grace.  Its methodology is decisionism that pivots that whole experience on the packaged decision by converts.  Its result is a mixture of the genuine and the disingenuous, those who are given the assurance but with no real life transformation.  This is a far cry from what should be biblical conversion, how you turned to God from idols to serve the living and true God (1 Thess. 1:9).

As sad and honest as these misgivings are, I still mourn the loss of this man of God.  I agree with the assessment of Dr. Albert Mohler, “Graham was one of the titanic figures of American evangelicalism and his life spanned some of the interesting and tumultuous years of world history. We cannot even speak about 20th-century evangelicalism without referencing the impact of the ministry of Billy Graham and the movement he led.”[ii]

Stephen Hawking (1942 – 2018)

The image of the man on wheelchair with his face made grotesque by Lou Gehrig’s disease passed away on March 14.  He was 76.  One can only admire the genius of such a mind.  He made popular such concepts as the black hole and other mind-boggling theories about the universe.  His book A Brief History of Time was a blockbuster success.  The science journal Scientific American describes him as “one of the most influential physicists of the twentieth century and perhaps the most celebrated icon of contemporary science.”[iii]

But in his immense genius, there was no place for a Creator God.  In an interview with The Guardian in 2011, Hawking said, “I regard the brain as a computer which will stop working when its components fail.  There is no heaven or afterlife for broken down computers; that is a fairy story for people afraid of the dark.”[iv]

This is a classic example of how scientists arrogate to themselves expert conclusions beyond the boundary of science.  Historic Christianity has always maintained that God personally introduced Himself to mankind not through man’s ability to observe, but by the sovereign revelation of Himself.  He did so by both events of redemption  and by word-propositions.  One may wish to argue the historicity of the events and the validity the words.  But to simply jump to a massive conclusion because of the instrumentality of mental logic and lab equipments, this is haughtiness inconsistent with the caution of true science.  Questions about God and eternity should elicit that attitude expressed by the Psalmist: O LORD, my heart is not lifted up; my eyes are not raised too high; I do not occupy myself with things too great and too marvellous for me. (Ps. 131:1).  But such humility is beyond geniuses like Stephen Hawking.

Still, Hawking’s life should both be an inspiration and a challenge, especially to Christians.

It inspires to know what summit can be reached despite confining limitations.  Many others with half of the disability of Hawking would have been cursing the misfortune of life.  There are good examples like Hawking’s fortitude.  Poetry can still attain enchanting beauty despite the blindness of a John Milton, or a Fanny Crosby.  Music can have breathless wonder despite the deafness of Beethoven.  From the confines of his wheelchair, Hawking’s mind reached frontiers unimagined by the brilliance of his more able counterpart.

It challenges the Christian to know the sort of opposition that is posed against biblical convictions.  With such a formidable genius to face, it is lamentable that many Christian apologists still opt for mediocre defense of the faith.  This will not do.  We must have the best of intellect and consistent life in our arsenal.  It is not because we think the greater genius will carry the fight.  It is because the intellectual quest is still, what Johannes Kepler (1571-1630) said, “thinking God’s thoughts after Him.”

 

Two different lives, both celebrated in death.  One was a man of faith, the other a man of science.  In the thinking of many, faith and science, never the ‘twain shall meet.  But in Christian apologetics they are the two arms of God reaching out to His creatures.  Faith is in its place to challenge the claims of scientists that go beyond their science.  Science is right to defy claims of faith which are but a leap in the dark.

Most of us will live lives that will not merit the attention of the media, and at death will have no celebrated tributes.  For me, as for any Christian, it should be enough, “now as always Christ will be honoured, whether by life or by death.” (Phil. 1:20)

 

[i] http://www.christianitytoday.com/ct/2018/billy-graham/died-billy-graham-obituary.html

[ii] https://albertmohler.com/2018/02/22/preacher-billy-graham-american-evangelicalism/

[iii] https://www.scientificamerican.com/article/science-mourns-stephen-hawkings-death1/

[iv] Cited in World Magazine, March 31, 2018

 

 

Government: Mandate of Justice, Not Religion

Justice scales

The supreme mandate of the state government is justice.  This must be stated with conviction in the light of the megashift that has happened in political philosophy where the state has been turned primarily into a welfare state from what it is supposed to be – a law state.  In a welfare state, the major task of government is seen as provision for the deprived and poor.  And there is nothing wrong with this as a noble goal. Individual morality and philanthropy, together with charitable institutions, do good works pertaining to this goal.  But the government’s role to secure such provision for the poor is to carry out the mandate of enforcing the law.  In brief, the task of the government is to make sure that justice is done for every man.

 

The signatories to the American Declaration of Independence of 1776 affixed their signatures under this solemn oath:

And for the support of this declaration, with firm reliance on the protection of Divine Providence, we mutually pledge to each other our lives, our fortunes, and our sacred honor.

Penned by Thomas Jefferson, and assisted by John Adams and Benjamin Franklin, they produced one of the most important documents that established a philosophy of government.  Unlike European nations which founded their states upon state religions, here is a nation that is not built on religion, without being irreligious.  As Carolyn Kennedy puts it:

Building upon the ideas of the enlightenment philosopher John Locke, and English and colonial declarations of rights, Jefferson wrote for the world and for the ages.  For the first time in history, principles of freedom and equality became the political foundations for a nation.[i]

The supreme mandate of the state government is justice.  This must be stated with conviction in the light of the megashift that has happened in political philosophy where the state has been turned primarily into a welfare state from what it is supposed to be – a law state.  In a welfare state, the major task of government is seen as provision for the deprived and poor.  And there is nothing wrong with this as a noble goal. Individual morality and philanthropy, together with charitable institutions, do good works pertaining to this goal.  But the government’s role to secure such provision for the poor is to carry out the mandate of enforcing the law.  In brief, the task of the government is to make sure that justice is done for every man.  One of the great modern theoreticians of justice, John Rawls, said, “Justice is the first virtue of of social institutions, as truth is of systems of thought.”[ii]

That it is clear in the Old Testament may be expected as the covenant community happened to be the nation of Israel.  Their covenant laws and rules strictly safeguards the application of justice to all.  But there is a special warning against actuations of magistrates who simply follow the popular sentiment that militate against justice.

You shall not fall in with the many to do evil, nor shall you bear witness in a lawsuit, siding with the many, so as to pervert justice.        Exodus 23:2

Interestingly, even the easy sentiment of favoring the poor just because they are poor is also cautioned against magistrates.

Nor shall you be partial to a poor man in his lawsuit.     Exodus 23:3

You shall not pervert the justice due to your poor in his lawsuit.     Exodus 23:6

By the same interest of justice, there is also a strong concern that justice be rendered to the poor. In this regard, the prohibition against taking bribe, since it is presumably the rich who is able to give such a bribe, is deemed as prejudicial against the poor.

For the LORD your God is God of gods and Lord of lords, the great, the mighty, and the awesome God, who is not partial and takes no bribe.  He executes justice for the fatherless and the widow, and loves the sojourner, giving him food and clothing.       Deuteronomy 10:17-18

That much of detailed instructions were integrated in the laws of Israel as a nation which is coevally the kingdom of Yahweh.  Much more relevant to our situation are New Testament references that pertain to the divinely appointed functions of the government, pagan or secular.  And two passages in the New Testament are pertinent to this.

Let every person be subject to the governing authorities. For there is no authority except from God, and those that exist have been instituted by God.  2 Therefore whoever resists the authorities resists what God has appointed, and those who resist will incur judgment.  3 For rulers are not a terror to good conduct, but to bad. Would you have no fear of the one who is in authority? Then do what is good, and you will receive his approval, 4 for he is God’s servant for your good. But if you do wrong, be afraid, for he does not bear the sword in vain. For he is the servant of God, an avenger who carries out God’s wrath on the wrongdoer. 5 Therefore one must be in subjection, not only to avoid God’s wrath but also for the sake of conscience. 6 For because of this you also pay taxes, for the authorities are ministers of God, attending to this very thing.      Romans 13:1-6

13 Be subject for the Lord’s sake to every human institution, whether it be to the emperor as supreme, 14 or to governors as sent by him to punish those who do evil and to praise those who do good.      1 Peter 2:13, 14

 Both passages teach that the institution of government is a divine appointment:  “instituted by God,” says Paul; and “sent by him,” says Peter. And this is so even if  most of these governments may not acknowledge it to be so.  But the christian believes this divine mandate.  And both passages also teach that the purpose of God in appointing government is for justice to be done.  For this assertion to be underscored, it is necessary to negate alternatives. 

The mandate of government is not religion. 

This was the defect of the philosophy of government since the Edict of Milan in 313 when Constantine the Great elevated the Christian church into a recognized religion in the Roman Empire.  So much persecution was conducted and wars waged in the interest of the Christian religion, let alone Islam and other religions.  Countless number of lives were wasted because government pursued the interest of religion only to compromise the mandate of justice.

The mandate of government is not primarily that of charity or welfare. 

The change in the concept of government in the direction of providing welfare shifted after the Second World War.  Bob Goudzwaard notes this when he said,

Until the Second World War politicians viewed the state as a law state.  The state was seen as the institution necessary for protecting the rights of its citizens… Around World War 2, however, that view enlarged.  Material welfare in society as a whole had increased.  This gave government the possibility of expanding its legal concern for society toward the financially weak.  Government created a system of social guarantees…

Economic growth kept rising, and as it rose so rose the persuasiveness of arguments by people who thought they deserved a bigger piece of the pie.  It is important to see that they formulated their demands as rights…  Economic rights are naturally different from the rights guaranteed by the law state.  Rights of acquisition were added to the earlier rights of protection, and soon they demanded most of the government’s attention.[iii]

 This is certainly not saying that the government may not intervene where the interest of justice has an economic and material component.  This certainly falls within the ambit of justice which government is mandated to watch.  But this must not be deemed as the government’s primary vocation.  Charity is a matter within the responsibility of individuals, of families, and of communities. 

 When a matter of charity is elevated to a government obligation, it transforms a voluntary act (charity) to an issue of legal right which government is required to provide.  When this happens, it proves disruptive.  It distorts the distinction between social privileges and human rights.  It distorts the primary responsibility of the family and transfers the same to the government.  A case in point for this is the care of the widows which was clearly put as a matter of family responsibility, and not of the church (1 Timothy 5:3ff).  The same may be said of the aged and the widows in society. They are not primarily the government’s responsibility, but the family’s.

 This distinction is not merely of theoretical interest.  It affects the moral mood of society.  Acts of charity are received with gratitude for the kindness of the benefactors.  But when such acts are seen as a legal right to be provided by the government, gratitude becomes demands, and demands easily erode into complaints against and denunciation of government.  And this is exactly what is happening in the moral fiber of the social order.

 The government is in place to safeguard justice in society.  Justice in society can be understood as two kinds:

 Justice of Law

This includes what is called rectoral justice, which pertains to rules and laws for the interest of public order; and penal justice, which pertains to the system of just penalty against offenders of the law.  The basic principle upheld to maintain the justice of law is stated in Deuteronomy 16:19,

 You shall not pervert justice. You shall not show partiality, and you shall not accept a bribe, for a bribe blinds the eyes of the wise and subverts the cause of the righteous.

 Not to show partiality is lo’ takiyr phâniym which literally means, “do not look on the face of men.”  This is consistent with our concept of “blind justice.”  The image of Lady Justice who is blindfolded holding forth a balance scale is meant to depict the application of justice equally to everyone without fear or favor with only the evidences to guide decisions. 

Justice, and only justice, you shall follow.      Deuteronomy 16:20

In criminal justice, the central issue is the infliction of punishment on criminal offenders.  It is in this regard that the State is told to not bear the sword in vain (Rom 13:4).  Those who have oversight of this are God’s servants, agents of wrath to bring punishment on the wrongdoer.  But the purpose of this punishment is stated positively in 1 Timothy 2:2, that “we may live peaceful and quiet lives in all godliness and holiness.”     

One can appreciate the essential place of justice of law in society.  Where the institutions of justice are deemed defective, victims of crime and wrongdoing lose hope of being vindicated.  Such victims may turn to criminal elements to seek such vindication, which is vigilantism, a perversion of justice.  The biblical doctrine of human depravity supplies the christian a solid underpinning for his high view of the justice system in society.  It is God’s common grace for the restraint of sin, for the punishment of the offender, and the vindication of the victim. John Calvin puts it in the simplest way possible, “Without the sword, laws are dead.”[iv]

Justice of Sharing

Also called social justice,  this rests on the premise that there are certain commodities that are meant to be shared, and would be injustice if monopolized privately.  As the OT Wisdom of Qoheleth puts it, “The profit of the land is for all”     (Ecclesiastes 5:9, NKJ).  Perhaps, the New Jerusalem Bible captures the sense well, “But what the land yields is for the benefit of all.”

This is certainly not to say that government may forcibly take away private property in the name of common use ~ the flaw of communism.  But precisely because, in a sinful community, there will be anomalies in the system, that government intervention is warranted to maintain fairness for honest traders and workers.  Wayne Grudem explains this very well:

There is some need for government-supported welfare programs to help cases of urgent need (for example, to provide a ‘safety net’ to keep people from going hungry or without clothing or shelter).

I also think it appropriate for government to provide enough funding so that everyone is able to gain enough skills and education to earn a living.  So with regard to some basic necessities of life (food, clothing, shelter, and some education) I think it is right for government to ‘take from everybody else and give to the poor,’  Such assistance can be provided from the general tax revenues.

Those convictions are based on the purpose of government to promote the general well-being of society… That includes enabling every citizen to live adequately in the society.  It is not based on any vague instinct that it would be ‘more just’ to reduce the differences between rich and poor.

But apart from those basic requirements for government, I cannot find any justification in Scripture for thinking that government, as a matter of policy, should attempt to take from the rich and give to the poor.  I do not think that government has the responsibility or the right to attempt to equalize the differences between rich and poor in society.  When it attempts to do so, significant harm is done to the economy and to the society.[v]

What government must do is to perform its main mandate of enforcing the laws so that those who have more wealth will not use the same to oppress those who have less.  God has expressed Himself strongly against this form of injustice.

Woe to those who decree iniquitous decrees, and the writers who keep writing oppression, to turn aside the needy from justice and to rob the poor of my people of their right, that widows may be their spoil, and that they may make the fatherless their prey! What will you do on the day of punishment, in the ruin that will come from afar? To whom will you flee for help, and where will you leave your wealth?    Isa 10:1-3 

They hate him who reproves in the gate, and they abhor him who speaks the truth.  Therefore because you trample on the poor and you exact taxes of grain from him, you have built houses of hewn stone, but you shall not dwell in them; you have planted pleasant vineyards, but you shall not drink their wine.  For I know how many are your transgressions and how great are your sins– you who afflict the righteous, who take a bribe, and turn aside the needy in the gate.  Therefore he who is prudent will keep silent in such a time, for it is an evil time.  Seek good, and not evil, that you may live; and so the LORD, the God of hosts, will be with you, as you have said.  Hate evil, and love good, and establish justice in the gate.     Amos 5:10-15 

It has been asserted by some that God is biased for the poor, and society should follow that model.  But I have a different take on this.  What is wrong is that human society is so biased against the poor that the very impartiality of God appears to it as a bias for the poor.  God is so impartial that He takes into account those who, by virtue of their weakness, are most prone to injustice.  What appears as God’s bias is simply justice! 

Conclusion

It is good to remember one of the woe’s of Jesus directed at the religious leaders of His day.

Woe to you, scribes and Pharisees, hypocrites! For you tithe mint and dill and cumin, and have neglected the weightier matters of the law: justice and mercy and faithfulness. These you ought to have done, without neglecting the others.     Matthew 23:23

This should ring loud to those in our churches who have become complacent in the comfort zone of their worship liturgy, but are callous on issues of justice in society.  Certainly, being salt and light of the world must include showing forth justice in our treatment of our fellowmen, and being an influence to let justice roll down like waters (Amos 5:24).  The truly righteous man listens to God’s requirement:

What does the LORD require of you but to do justice, and to love kindness, and to walk humbly with your God?   Micah 6:8

An ancient saying in the justice system of the Roman Empire goes, “Let justice be done though the heavens fall!  The Christian can put it quite differently, “Heaven has come down upon earth in our Lord Jesus Christ; therefore, let us seek justice for all!

[i] Caroline Kennedy, A Patriot’s Handbook (Hyperion, New York 2003): 192

[ii] Quoted from A.C. Grayling, Ideas that Matter: A Personal Guide for the 21st Century (Phoenix, 2009): 283

[iii] Bob Goudzwaard, Idols of our Time: 52f

[iv] Calvin’s Commentaries: Synoptic Gospels, Vol. I: 195

[v] Wayne Grudem, Politics According to the Bible (Zondervan; 2010): 281-82

God’s Love? What about Wrath?

Rom 5 8

How poor is that appeal to God’s love that erodes into a health-and-wealth gospel.  Or even that which is reduced to a formula decision that ends up with a man-based pronouncement of assurance of going to heaven.

 God’s love is at its most resplendent in the darkest hour of the Cross in the Son’s cry of dereliction: My God!  My God!  why have you forsaken me?  It is a cry whose mystery is only illuminated by the concept of propitiation.  The sinner’s Substitute was drinking to the last dregs the cup of God’s judgment on behalf of His people.

 

This piece was conceived near Valentine’s Day, February 14.  As to the origin of this popular lovers’ day, the Catholic Encyclopedia notes,

The popular customs associated with Saint Valentine’s Day undoubtedly had their origin in a conventional belief generally received in England and France during the Middle Ages, that on 14 February, i.e. half way through the second month of the year, the birds began to pair.[i]

One need not be a practitioner of this love feast, serious or superstitious, to observe the power of love’s grip of the human heart.  Monarchs have been known to give up their kingdoms for the sake of love.  In 1936, King Edward VIII startled his British subjects and the world when he abdicated his throne to be free to marry a divorcee, the American Wallis Simpson.  In his radio speech to a worldwide audience, the king declared:

You all know the reasons which have impelled me to renounce the throne. But I want you to understand that in making up my mind I did not forget the country or the empire, which, as Prince of Wales and lately as King, I have for twenty-five years tried to serve.

But you must believe me when I tell you that I have found it impossible to carry the heavy burden of responsibility and to discharge my duties as King as I would wish to do without the help and support of the woman I love.

Demoted as Duke of Windsor, he and his wife were shunned by the British royals.  Only when he died in 1972 was the Duke honoured again by his own country.  A framed message in the Duke’s own handwriting was left for his beloved:

My friend, with thee to live alone,

Methinks were better than to own

A crown, a sceptre and a throne.

Powerful love, a love to the death!  But this is the most of the extent of human love, made sacred in the vow “until death shall part us.”  Indeed, death will part all human lovers.

God’s Love in the Death of Christ

There is another death that seals an eternal bond of love.  The atoning death of Christ secures those in union with Him will never be separated from the love of God.

There is no attribute of God more favored by the religious than that of His love.  Yet few divine attributes are as misunderstood.  Don Carson writes of this in his The Difficult Doctrine of the Love of God:

If people believe in God at all today, the overwhelming majority hold that this God is a loving being.  But that is what makes the task of the Christian witness so daunting.  For this widely disseminated belief in the love of God is set with increasing frequency in some matrix other than biblical theology.  The result is that when informed Christians talk about the love of God, they mean something very different from what is meant in the surrounding culture.  Worse, neither side may perceive that this is the case.[ii]

The confusion on this attribute is most pronounced in its connection to God’s wrath.  To the average mind, there is a total disconnect between love and wrath.  Wrath conjures up the picture of a man ventilating his temper out of control.  But this has no semblance with divine wrath.  God’s wrath is a function of His justice and holiness – in His perfect moral purity, He is essentially and necessarily opposed to all that is impure and sinful.  You who are of purer eyes than to see evil and cannot look at wrong (Habakkuk 1:13).  As such, His wrath is universal and fixed wherever there is sin.  For the wrath of God is revealed from heaven against all ungodliness and unrighteousness of men (Rom 1:18).  Because God’s wrath is out of His justice, its only way of satisfaction is by a just penalty on sinners.  Had it been all wrath and justice, God could have punished all sinners without any violation of His holiness.

This is where God’s love occupies its most indispensable place.  God’s love taking on the demands of His wrath through the death of Christ is called in the Scriptures, propitiation.

In but a few versions, this word is missing in many English translations of the Bible.  In its place, the word expiation is preferred.  Expiation denotes the removal of sin.  The problem is that it is only half of the significance of propitiation.  Left out is the more significant half – the removal of God’s wrath.  But reflecting the rejection of the concept of God’s wrath, whether popular or scholarly, modern construction will only go so far as the removing of sin.  But in the process, they have missed out on the astonishing beauty of God’s love.

The connection of propitiation to God’s love is explicit in 1 John 4:10,

In this is love, not that we have loved God but that he loved us and sent his Son to be the propitiation for our sins.

With a statement like this, it should be impossible to speak of God’s love in its biblical context without its connection to what Christ did in dying as an act to remove God’s wrath – a propitiation.

Christ’s Death as turning point

 I shall argue that the most magnificent statement of the Scripture on this subject is Romans 3:25, 26 which describes the redemption of sinners through the death of Christ,

whom God put forward as a propitiation by his blood, to be received by faith. This was to show God’s righteousness, because in his divine forbearance he had passed over former sins.  It was to show his righteousness at the present time, so that he might be just and the justifier of the one who has faith in Jesus.

The death of Christ as propitiation is presented here as a turning point in the exercise of God’s wrath.  Like any turning point in history, we speak of the period before that, and since that, turning point event; as we may refer to before 9-11, and since 9-11.  Of all the turning points in history, there is none more massive in its effect than the Cross of Christ, understood as a propitiation.

Before the death of Christ, God’s wrath was hanging upon all sinners, and in justice, God could have poured it out in judgment.  But He did not, and the explanation is His forbearance – He passed over former sins.  But with the propitiatory death of Christ, and since, God could demonstrate His righteousness at the present time.  But instead of that righteousness demanding punishment against sinners, and here is the marvellous conclusion, God can be just and the justifier of the one who has faith in Jesus!

 God can now fully exercise His justice.  But instead of sinners being punished, those in faith-union with Christ are acquitted, without any injustice, because Christ has taken the wrath of God fully satisfied in the cross.  This is propitiation – the most wonderful provision of God’s love for sinners!

In Christ’s atoning death, the Last Day judgment of wrath has already been decided for his people.  The wrath to have been poured out on sinners on the Judgment Day was poured upon Christ on the Cross.  This leaves for God’s people no more wrath to mete out (Romans 5:9, 10; Eph. 2:3ff; 1Thes. 1:10; 5:9, 10 ).

This passage, had it been really appreciated, should deserve equal footing with the most popular John 3:16.  As New Testament scholar Herman Ridderbos explains,

Christ is the means of propitiation appointed by God to the manifestation of his deferred righteousness.  In Christ’s death, the righteousness of God thus reveals itself in the demanding and vindicatory sense of the word.  His blood as atoning blood covers the sin which God until now had passed over, when as yet he kept back the judgment.  All that men wish to detract from the real character of Christ’s propitiatory death signifies a devaluation of the language of Romans 3:25, 26, which is unmistakable in its clarity.[iii]

God’s Love magnified by Propitiation

Only a man convicted of his wrath-deserving sinfulness will appreciate the depth of God’s love in sending His Son as propitiation.  Yes, let us continue to sense God’s love in His benevolent provisions of daily bread.  Let us be thankful for His merciful sustenance of our lives.  But a sinner’s greatest need is how to face the just wrath of God.  For this, God, out of His gracious love, sent His Son as a propitiatory sacrifice for sinners.

The continuing pre-occupation today with God’s love that excludes His wrath only impoverishes.  The enriching contemplation on God’s love has the backdrop of justice and wrath.  Reformed theologian John Murray puts it excellently:

Because of the compatibility of love and wrath as co-existing, the wrath-bearing of the Son of God, the vicarious infliction of the wrath of God against those whom the Father invincibly loved, is not only comprehensible, but belongs to the essence of the doctrine that Christ bore our sins as the supreme manifestation of the Father’s love… The propitiation which God made his own Son is the provision of the Father’s love, to the end that holiness may be vindicated and its demand satisfied.  Thus, and only thus, could the purpose of his love be realized in a way compatible with, and to the glory of the manifold perfections of his character.[iv]

How poor is that appeal to God’s love that erodes into a health-and-wealth gospel.  Or even that which is reduced to a formula decision that ends up with a man-based pronouncement of assurance of going to heaven.

God’s love is at its most resplendent in the darkest hour of the Cross in the Son’s cry of dereliction: My God!  My God!  why have you forsaken me?  It is a cry whose mystery is only illuminated by the concept of propitiation.  The sinner’s Substitute was drinking to the last dregs the cup of God’s judgment on behalf of His people.

That is why when a believer wants an assurance of God’s love to him today, there is no better time and place to point to than that event.  To say that one is assured of God’s love because of material provision reflects the shallowness of our generation.  Is God’s love shortened when our pocket is not full?  Or some see it in physical sustenance, or perhaps in having a nice family.  But is God’s love failing with our failure in health?  Or a misery in the family?  There is still no better way to see the present love of God than in the past provision of propitiation.  I am sure it goes back to the apostle Paul:

God demonstrates His own love towards us [ present tense ] in that while we were yet sinners, Christ died for us. [ past tense ] Romans 5:8

[i] New Advent Catholic Encyclopedia (CD-ROM v. 2.1): entry on “Saint Valentine’s Day”

[ii] Don Carson, The Difficult Doctrine of the Love of God (Crossway Books): 9-10

[iii] Herman Ridderbos, Paul: An Outline of His Theology: 189

[iv] John Murray, Collected Writings II. 145, 146

Why Christians should strive for Academic Excellence

Kepler

The godly life is not the monopoly of those who are in the pulpit and mission field.  There is godliness in the shuffle of pages in a book as one does his research; or in working with test tubes in the lab; or analyzing data with his computer program.  There is God’s calling of proclaiming the good news of special revelation.  But it is also God’s calling to scrutinize and systematize general revelation.  Godliness for the Christian student should mean seeking to excel in the latter quest.

 

Nelson  Mandela (1918-2013) is one of the greatest statesmen in history.  He became president of South Africa after spending almost three decades in solitary confinement in prison.  One might expect that a man forged in years of bitter struggle would be full of vindictiveness and use his power to exact vengeance.  Not Mandela.  He used his power to do good to his divided people – both white and black.  And when he had power extension for the asking, he chose to step down when his term was up.  What did he believe to be the most important agent for change in society?  One of the most famous quotes from him is, “Education is the most powerful weapon which you can use to change the world.”

The Christian should heartily agree to the extent that education is not used to violate God’s will, but to serve it.  This is to say that Christians should be foremost in promoting education; and therefore, Christians should be marked for academic excellence.

Why the Hesitation?

Not all Christians are of this conviction.  Sometimes consciously, in most cases, more of an attitude absorbed from untruthful teaching in Christian discourses.  The mind should be disabused of any of these.

There is the false application of the nearness of Christ’s coming.  Regardless of one’s eschatology (teaching about the last things), to use the Second Coming as pretext for lack of academic striving is wrong in a number of serious ways.  But just to point one: It is wrong in its idea of what it means to be ready for Christ’s Coming.  Many think that it means a special kind of preparation that renounces the day-to-day affairs of life.  That is precisely the error that Paul needed to correct of the Thessalonians, some of whom were deserting their work because of a wrong expectation of Christ’s return.  As a result, they were becoming dependent on the benevolence of brethren.  Paul exhorted them, to mind your own affairs, and to work with your hands, as we instructed you, so that you may walk properly before outsiders and be dependent on no one (1 Thess. 4:11-12 ESV).  Our faithfulness when Christ comes will be judged on how we used our opportunities on earth; for it will be a judgment “so that each one may receive what is due for what he has done in the body, whether good or evil” (2 Cor. 5:10).  Even on the impossible supposition that one knew that Christ is coming again on a Monday, a Christian student should still be attending his scheduled classes!  That is to be ready for Christ – to find the disciple where he ought to be by vocation.

Another thing is a wrong association of knowledge with worldliness.  The world, when used in connection with its sinfulness, is indeed in rebellion against the rule of Christ.  But the world is also used as the theatre of God’s mercy and provision.  The old divines call it Common Grace – the favours of God short of salvation.  As such, one precious favour of God is the advance of knowledge – much of which happens in an academic atmosphere.  Paul cites the wisdom of pagans: the Cretan philosopher Epimenides (Acts 17:28; Titus 1:12) and the Cilician Stoic philosopher Aratus (Acts 17:28).  Even when the source is not patently Christian, good wisdom is still from God.  “Every good and perfect gift is from above” (James 1:17).

It is true that “God chose the foolish things of the world to shame the wise” (1Cor 1:27).  The context clearly is the contrast between proud wisdom that refuses to acknowledge God, and humility that appears to proud wisdom as folly.  This is not an endorsement of folly as such!

Whose Revelation?

A case may be made for pursuing knowledge in the world from the classic doctrine of God’s revelation.  The only way man can know God is for God to reveal Himself.  Man cannot discover God by sheer experiment or deduction.  God chose to give man a piece of His own mind.  But how?  According to classic theology, there are two ways.  There is special revelation by way of special modes in the past (e.g. visions; predominantly through prophets).  At this present time, that special revelation is now deposited in the inspired writings – the Holy Scripture.

But for man’s productive and peaceful life on earth, God also speaks through His creation – the world and humanity.  This is general revelation.  The Old Testament memorable text is Psalm 19:1, 2: “The heavens declare the glory of God, and the sky above proclaims his handiwork. Day to day pours out speech, and night to night reveals knowledge.”  This reveals the glory of the universe considered as God’s creation.  God is speaking through nature and creature!  The New Testament text connects this to the inexcusable sinfulness of man.  Paul asserts in Romans 1:20: “For his invisible attributes, namely, his eternal power and divine nature, have been clearly perceived, ever since the creation of the world, in the things that have been made. So they are without excuse.”  Reformed theologian, GC Berkouwer, summarizes it very well:

Man is and remains man confronted with the reality of God’s revelation, confronted with the sovereign working of God in nature, in history, and in human existence.  He is confronted with the reality of God who is never far from any one of us and who never allows himself to be without witness in creaturely reality.[1]

Both the beauty and dignity of the creation, as well as, the sinfulness and inexcusableness of humanity are objects of knowledge.  Therefore the Christian has a basis for pursuing knowledge that is God-oriented.  It was well-stated by that great German scientist and a Christian, Johannes Kepler (1571-1630), “Science is the process of thinking God’s thoughts after Him.”  This was a motivation for his formulating the complex Laws of Planetary Motion.  Academic sciences and arts contribute to our understanding of what God is revealing about the earth and about man.  One sees the formulas of God whether they are in the astronomic sizes of galaxies or the sub-atomic realm of quantum physics.  There is truth to Galileo’s assertion: “Mathematics is the language in which God has written the universe.”  Even if one has no predilection for numbers, he should have high regard for the work of calculating and measuring.  Another may choose to dip into the beauty of creation through arts – proportions and colours; representation and symbolism – and they too are noble.

The godly life is not the monopoly of those who are in the pulpit and mission field.  There is godliness in the shuffle of pages in a book as one does his research; or in working with test tubes in the lab; or analyzing data with his computer program.  There is God’s calling of proclaiming the good news of special revelation.  But it is also God’s calling to scrutinize and systematize general revelation.  Godliness for the Christian student should mean seeking to excel in the latter quest.

Delight and Discipline

 I plead to my Christian readers who are students: seek delight and cultivate discipline in your academic studies.

Mould your delight from the thought that you are receiving the speech of God, even if that is not from the inspired writings of Scripture.  What is not inspired by the Holy Spirit, as the original Scriptures are, will not be inerrant and infallible.  But to the extent that it is an expression of God’s general revelation, it is intended for the glory of God and the profit of mankind.  Make your course –  your subject, homework and projects – matters for prayer.  Do not let God’s speech in general revelation become an occasion for proud wisdom.  As you give thanks for your daily food, so give thanks for the feeding of the mind.

Because of the reality of sin, and the anomalies of the world we live in, it is not sensible to expect delight in one’s study at all times.  This is where discipline is necessary.  Discipline is the sense of duty to do what must be done even when delight is not felt.  It is a principle in all Christian works that one must be able to do them with discipline to expect those times to do them with delight.  He who will only perform where there is delight will never be mature.  This is true of prayer – one must pray with discipline, and in the process pray more with delight.  This is true of worship – worship with discipline, and worship with delight will develop.  Make it so in study – study as a discipline, and then delight will grow.

More than three decades ago, I pioneered a church whose first membership was almost all students.  The church was situated in an academic community.  I have seen first hand how it is, not only possible, but a reality and an imperative – that a Christian student serious about his faith will be serious in his academic pursuits.  He seeks to excel.  Those students at the beginning of the church are now accomplished people in various fields.  And they are still robust in their Christian faith.  They took seriously the words of Wisdom, and they are happily reaping the harvest of academic excellence:

Do you see a man who excels in his work?

He will stand before kings;

He will not stand before unknown men. (Prov. 22:29 NKJ)

 

[1] GC Berkouwer, Studies in Dogmatics: General Revelation: (Eerdmans Publishing; 1973): 162