Do not Pray for the Dead; But Prepare for Death

Thoughts for this day of remembering the dead

Should we pray for the dead?

“Please pray for the repose of his soul.”  This is a very common request that one reads in scores of obituaries that are published every day.  Accompanying that request may be a scheduled mass, or novena, for the deceased.  Behind this is the practice of praying for the dead.  This, of course, is rooted in the belief that, through prayers for the dead, there can be change in the course of the soul of the dead loved one.  If this is a valid hope, nothing can be more loving than to spend time praying for the departed.

Is there a basis for this hope in the Word of God?  The Roman Catholic Church, chief proponent of this practice, admits that this practice is linked with its notion of purgatory.  In the Roman Catholic Encyclopedia entry in “Prayers for the Dead,” it asserts: “Catholic teaching regarding prayers for the dead is bound up inseparably with the doctrine of purgatory and the more general doctrine of the communion of the saints, which is an article of the Apostle’s Creed.”  The practice of praying for the dead, by this assertion, stands or falls on the validity of the doctrine of purgatory. 

This is not the place to refute this belief in a purgatory.  Suffice it to say that this is what drove the Reformation of the 16th century which led to the division of Catholics and Protestants.  Catholic clerics used this doctrine to swindle the superstitious population of precious money on promise that the souls of their loved ones will spring from purgatory once the money rings on the coffer.

The Catholic doctrine of and practice of prayer for the dead is built on the sinking sand of lack of assurance.  This is contrary to the assurance of the gospel and salvation that saving faith brings about.  Lack of assurance is the fruit of salvation by human merit and works.  Whereas assurance grows out of the certainty of the saving work of Christ received by faith.  “Therefore He is also able to save to the uttermost those who come to God through Him, since He always lives to make intercession for them” (Heb. 7:25 NKJ).  Salvation is not contingent on human works, but guaranteed by what Christ has accomplished.

The Bible teaches that death is the final closure of moral opportunity.  The time to be saved is now.  If salvation is not received now, there is no post-mortem salvation opportunity.  “It is appointed to men to die once, and after this, the judgment” (Hebrews 9:27).

Prepare for a good death

The Puritans make a different emphasis that believers should be doing.  That is to prepare to die in a way that is glorifying to God.  This is, unfortunately, a well-nigh absent note.  It may be generally because we do not want to discuss such an unpleasant subject as death – even among Christians.  There is so much more amusement in life, that some are loathed to think of abandoning this in death.  This is unrealistic.

No matter how silent we may be about dying, and studiously avoid its mention, we will still die.  It is still the one appointment with providence that we cannot avoid.  For the Puritans, the way to prepare for death is not only that one is assured of his salvation.  It is, in the language of Paul, “with all boldness, as always, so now also Christ will be magnified in my body, whether by life or by death” (Phil. 1:20 NKJ).

Richard Baxter wrote the classic Dying Thoughts at a time that he was sick, and thought that he was dying.  The Lord spared him then, but he bequeathed to the Church an immortal plea for believers not only to be sure of heaven.  It is imperative that when we are close to death, we have a life and testimony that will point the living to the Lord we have served faithfully in our lives. 

Will the Lord be magnified in our dying?

June-Pride Open Letter

I plead with you, my dear friend, to consider neither the suppression of self, nor the unrestrained expression of whatever you consider your “authentic self.”  To be misled into what you are told as “authentic” but against the way you are made is really the triumph of the “plastic self.”  God’s will is for you to be the best version of yourself.

My Dear Friend of the LGBTQ+ Community:

This is June Pride – the month of celebrating the LGBTQ+ community.  Let me assure you that I do not write this out of contempt, much less, with any condemnation.  I would not have earned any right to address any individual about sin, unless I am ready to confess with Paul, “I am the worst of sinners” (1 Timothy 1:15). 

Let me not waste your time addressing masculinity and femininity in physical behavior or social habit.  That boys should be playing toy guns, while girls cuddle their dolls – these are social constructs that do not define male or female.  For good measure, I also will not raise the important issue of gender intervention in children through puberty blockers and the like.  It is significant, and especially heinous where, as in many American states, this is mandated without parental authority, let alone, knowledge.  The significant number of those de-transitioning (getting back to their original sex after undergoing ‘gender-change’) cannot be ignored.  I will just suggest for your reference the book, Irreversible Damage, by Abigail Shrier.

Let me be to the point on the advice given one with gender dysphoria to just “be true to oneself,” or something similar: “find your authentic self.”  Behind this language is the rejection of the body as defining of one’s gender.  It may be admitted that the body reveals one’s birth-sex; but it is militantly denied that it is equivalent to gender.  The latter is to be decided by the self.  The body may be male, but the mind may decide that the “authentic self” is female.  And vice-versa, a female body may be reversed by the mind’s decision than one is male.  And the world is expected to accept – on threat of all mechanisms of canceling at the disposal of today’s culture influencers.

NO to Self-Suppression

First of all, let me stress that I am with you in rejecting the option of suppressing self.  This finds its worst form in asceticism – depriving the self of legitimate pleasures and enjoyment, because it will only defile the already native sinfulness of the body.  I do not believe this is a Christian option.  It is the Gnostic heresy that despised the nobility of the physical as part of God’s creation.  The Word of God holds a dignified view of the body.  It teaches, “everything created by God is good, and nothing is to be rejected if it is received with thanksgiving, for it is made holy by the word of God and prayer.” (1 Tim. 4:4-5 ESV).

Unrestrained Self-Expression?

That said, I want to admonish your choice which is at the other end of the spectrum.  You opt for unrestrained expression.  You are made to believe that it is your way to happiness.  This is the kind of self, described by theologian-philosopher, Carl Trueman, “The modern self assumes the authority of inner feelings and sees authenticity as defined by the ability to give social expression to the same. The modern self also assumes that society at large will recognize and affirm this behavior.” [ Strange New World: p. 19; Crossway (2022) ]

The problem with this option is its failure to see that there is in self a dimension that is broken.  The Scriptures call this sinfulness, or theology uses the word “depravity.”  To depend on what the heart dictates is to encounter the reality of what a prophet of old declares, “The heart is deceitful above all things, and desperately wicked.” (Jeremiah 17:9).  No, my friend, no matter how plausible and even singable, the advice “Listen to your heart” is a dead-end street to disappointment and self-inflicted misery.

From Self-Expression to Best Version

My plea, from the compassion of Christ, is be true to your creation.  If you sense a militant contradiction of your feeling, listen to those who have gone through the same struggle but have overcome: once-transgender, but now straight, not by sheer resolve, but by the grace of God.  Sam Allberry writes of his thoughts in Is God Anti-Gay? “Desires for things God has forbidden are a reflection of how sin has distorted me, not how God has made me.”  Christopher Yuan writes his testimony in Out of a Far Country: “I had always thought that the opposite of homosexuality was heterosexuality.  But actually the opposite of homosexuality is holiness.” 

Nancy Pearcey in Love Thy Body has a very pertinent observation: “The sovereign self will not tolerate having its options limited by anything it did not choose — not even its own body.  By contrast, Christianity assigns the human body a much richer dignity and value.  Humans do not need freedom from the body to discover their true, authentic self.  Rather we can celebrate our embodied existence as a good gift from God.  Instead of escaping from the body, the goal is to live in harmony with it.”

I know the foregoing to be true.  While I have never been myself a transgender, I know the lies I tell myself to justify my own lusts and impurities.  They never lead to a good end.

I plead with you, my dear friend, to consider neither the suppression of self, nor the unrestrained expression of whatever you consider your “authentic self.”  To be misled into what you are told as “authentic” but against the way you are made is really the triumph of the “plastic self.”  God’s will is for you to be the best version of yourself.  This is made possible through Christ who made the new creation of one new humanity (Ephesians 2:15).  You will then express in awe of God’s old creation, “O Lord how manifold are your works!  In wisdom, You have made them all” (Psalm 104:24).  Then, you will accept the beauty of God’s creation of man in His image: “Male and female He created them” (Genesis 1:27).

In pleading for Christ,

NAE

The Intermediate State of the Dead in Christ

The body of the dead believer is no better than any dead person.  But it is the condition of the soul that sets apart the believer’s intermediate state – it is to be in the presence of the Savior that once defined his earthly life (Phl 1:21).

A recent death in our Church generated much lament.  The brother was so young, and so actively useful in our ministries.  What is more, he had no known precondition.  This event drove me to refresh the subject of the intermediate state of the righteous.  It is compelling to think of an answer to the condition of one who dies in Christ, but before the consummation at the Second Coming of Christ.

Other subjects attach to this issue which are beyond the purview of  this article.  One may logically ask about the constitution of man – as body and soul (spirit).  Or one’s view of heaven, and its counterpart of hell, may be evaluated.  But they can only be assumed at this point, subordinate to the main question, What happens to the believer at death before Jesus’ return in triumph?

No Soul-Sleep

A view held mostly by fringe cults is that the soul is in a state of unconscious sleep, awaiting the end at Christ’s coming or the Judgment Day.  This notion sounds plausible because there are, in both Old Testament and New Testament, references to dying as ‘sleeping.’  It only takes a step to make the conclusion that the reference is to the soul.

Its main error is the rush to conclusion that it can refer to nothing else but the soul.  But some key references to ‘sleep’ as descriptive of death should lead to a different deduction.  The connection is made in Matthew 27:52: “The tombs also were opened. And many bodies of the saints who had fallen asleep were raised.”  Here, those that are described as “fallen asleep” are explicitly “bodies of the saints.”  This is a difficult passage that does not now demand detailed exposition.  Suffice it to conclude that the figure of sleep for death is clearly that of the body.  Another reference is the death of Stephen with this conclusion: “And as they were stoning Stephen, he called out, ‘Lord Jesus, receive my spirit.’  And falling to his knees he cried out with a loud voice, ‘Lord, do not hold this sin against them.’ And when he had said this, he fell asleep.” (Acts 7:59-60 ESV).  It only needs pointing out that Stephen expected welcome by Jesus to his spirit as he was dying.  And when he died, it was described as, “he fell asleep.”  Clearly, the spirit of Stephen was received by Jesus, but his body fell asleep.

The simple reason for this figure of sleep as reference to the body is the counterpart of the resurrection as being raised (as in being awakened) from death (sleep).  This is Paul’s corrective to the misconstruction of the Thessalonians who thought that the dead in Christ had missed out on the blessing of the Second Coming.  On the contrary, they will even precede those who are alive: “since we believe that Jesus died and rose again, even so, through Jesus, God will bring with him those who have fallen asleep” (1 Thess. 4:14 ESV).

This error was so obvious that the young John Calvin wrote his first book in 1534 to refute soul-sleep.  Its title was Psychopannychia (Literally, “All-night-vigil of the soul”).  So obvious was the error that Calvin in his youth could easily demolish this notion.

No Death Wish

On the other end of the spectrum is the belief that such is the happy state of the soul of the righteous dead that their death should rather be celebrated than mourned.  This attitude is only a small step away to justifying death-wish.  But this is also wrong.

Death is not a good thing.  The biblical position is to regard death as the consequence of sin (Romans 5:12, 18; 6:23).  Adam, had he obeyed the test in the garden, was made to live in a confirmed eternal life.  But his sin has brought death – not only to him, but to all his posterity.  Therefore, death is considered an enemy – the last to be subdued at the end which is through the resurrection of the body (1Cor 15:26).

The believer’s death is still rightly to be mourned.  So the brethren, as they buried Stephen, “made great lamentation” (Acts 8:2).  One reason for this is that earthly fellowship with the dead is totally cut-off.  We may look forward to a reunion, and we do not mourn as those without hope (1Thes 4:13).  But we still rightly mourn.

That Paul asserts, “To die is gain” (Phl 1:21) is regularly misconstrued as a positive view of death for the believer.  But Paul does not say that death is gain.  But rather because of Christ, the event of dying (an evil in itself) can result for the believer something that can be counted as gain.  Note, however, that this is tempered by Paul’s assertion of desire (even preference) to live on and bear fruit of service (1:19, 24).

To look at death as itself desirable is inconsistent with the New Testament teaching about death.  Dying is not the blessed hope of the believer.  The Second Coming of Christ is (Titus 2;14).  There is still a rightful fear of death itself, but redemption should have delivered the believer from the bondage of this fear (Heb 2:14, 15; 2Cor 5:1ff).

“Far Better”

Paul does describe the state after-death of the believer as “far better” (Phl 1:23).  There is one reason that he consistently thrusts to prominence.  At the believer’s death, just like any dead person, his body begins to decay; but his soul/spirit is in the presence of Christ’s company.  His summary of the believer is “to depart and be with Christ” (Phl 1:23).  In another place, “absent from the body, but present with the Lord” (2Cor 5:8).  There can be no more explicit description of the believer’s condition beyond death.  The body of the dead believer is no better than any dead person.  But it is the condition of the soul that sets apart the believer’s intermediate state – it is to be in the presence of the Savior that once defined his earthly life (Phl 1:21).  Other passages corroborate this.  To cite just one more, Jesus promised the penitent thief on the cross, “Today, you shall be with me in paradise” (Luke 23:43).

It is right to describe the after-life of the righteous as “far better.”  It is so in comparison to this earthly life.  But in the redemptive plan of God, it is not yet the best.  Thus the souls in the intermediate state still express their longing for the day of consummation (Rev 6:10).  The best is yet to come.  And that is the reunion of body and soul at the resurrection.  This is now the Final State where the saints’ inheritance is not just heaven, but heaven and earth (2Pet 3:13).

Grieving and Solace

The foregoing thoughts will mean the mixture of grieving and solace when a beloved believer dies.  There will be pain from the poignant void left behind; but there will be anticipation for the reunion yet to come.  For as long as we have not crossed that dividing river of death, such will be the lot of brethren left behind on earth.  But make no mistake.  It is not the living to say goodnight to the dead in Christ.  It is those who have departed to be with Christ who must say goodnight to us who remain in this dark world of sin and death.

The Magnificat of Mary

Our problem is we are so beholden to the status quo.  We think the powers of this world hold sway.  Filipinos are intoxicated with politics.  And here we are again in a political season – everybody is looking for a messiah!  They all are arms of flesh who will, at some points, fail.  We are not to put our hope in princes.  The true Messiah has come!

Our problem is we are so beholden to the status quo.  We think the powers of this world hold sway.  Filipinos are intoxicated with politics.  And here we are again in a political season – everybody is looking for a messiah!  They all are arms of flesh who will, at some points, fail.  We are not to put our hope in princes.  The true Messiah has come!

My soul magnifies the Lord; and my spirit rejoices in God, my Saviour!  (Luke 1:46, 47).  Thus, Mary exclaims in her song of response to Elizabeth’s words.  This song is well-known as the Magnificat.  It comes from the first words of Latin as translated in Jerome’s Vulgate: Magnificat anima mea Dominum.

The song itself is full of references and allusions to the Hebrew Scriptures that Christians call the Old Testament.  Of most notable parallel is with the song of Hannah (mother of Samuel), recorded in 1 Samuel 2:1ff.  It demonstrates Mary’s profound knowledge of the Word of God.  That becomes the substance of her Magnificat – her magnifying of her Lord.  It is indeed a blessed privilege to be chosen as the vessel to bear the Messiah in human conception.  This is a blessedness that Mary herself owns, Behold, from now on all generations will call me Blessed.  Mary is profoundly overwhelmed and humbled by the thought of such blessedness. 

Unfortunately, what is a gracious state that calls forth Mary’s Magnificat, the mainstream Church of history has transformed into a Church title – to be made into an object of reverence by the pious.  In the process, the focus of the Magnificat is lost.  And Mary, as a marvelous model of humility, has undergone an apotheosis into a counterpart mediator.

Humility as God’s gracious instrument

Humility is the character that stands out in Mary’s Magnificat.  Even earlier, her humility emerges in her response to the angelic annunciation that she will conceive in her womb the One who will be the Messiah.  And humility is the grace that befits one who is called to a vocation of instrumentality in God’s plan.  We must frame the blessedness that Mary owns by her words, He has looked on the humble estate of His servant.  This is a woman who is not exalting herself; much less, accepting the exalted status endowed by men, or by the Church.  This is a woman who understands her status as servant – and is duly overwhelmed!

I have admiration for Mary because of her humble attitude.  She understands that it is God’s mercy that has intervened in her life – it is an act of saving grace on her.  We know this from Mary’s own exultation my spirit rejoices in God, my Saviour!  After this, there is only one other place for the title Saviour in the Gospel of Luke.  It is in the angelic announcement to the lowly shepherds: Unto you is born this day in the city of David a Saviour, who is Christ the Lord! (2:11).  Exactly the same two titles in Mary’s Magnificat are attributed to Jesus Christ.  No immaculate conception here of a sinless woman.  She needed a Saviour.  What a glorious privilege that she should bear in her womb the incarnate form of the Saviour, Jesus Christ!  She is not putting her blessedness on top of the rest of humanity.  She expresses wonder why she is counted among the blessed ones!  This is the spirit of one who knows herself to be a sinner, on whom God graciously intervenes.

Reversal through Kingdom invasion

The substance of the angelic announcement to Mary is couched in the language of the Davidic covenant.  In summary, God pledged that One from the progeny of David will be born to claim His throne and reign in a kingdom that will never be destroyed.  That time for fulfillment has come in Jesus.  Mary’s Magnificat is anticipating the reversal of status.  This is because the coming of the Son of God is no less than a kingdom invasion that will reverse the ruling powers of this world.  Mary puts it in a series of contrasts: He brought down the mighty from their thrones… He exalted those of humble estate… He filled the hungry with good things… the rich He has sent away empty; etc.

It calls on us to understand that with the coming of the Son of God, a new age has been inaugurated.  At His resurrection, the Lord Jesus has come to rule.  Certainly, not everyone has yet acknowledged that rule.  There is still very much human power ruling in this world.  But make no mistake, the Christian expectation is: every knee shall bow, and every tongue confess that Jesus is Lord (Phil 2:10, 11). 

Our problem is we are so beholden to the status quo.  We think the powers of this world hold sway.  Filipinos are intoxicated with politics.  And here we are again in a political season – everybody is looking for a messiah!  They all are arms of flesh who will, at some points, fail.  We are not to put our hope in princes.  The true Messiah has come! 

But perhaps, your life is one characterized by a quest for power in other forms – wealth; positions in career.  We cannot be against vocational excellence.  But it does not define what became the last word of the Magnificat – forever!  What defines forever is the One from eternity born in time.

In this season when there is every claim of remembering the birth of Christ, be focused on the One born – Jesus; not the one giving birth – Mary.  But let her Magnificat inspire us to magnify the Lord, and rejoice in God our Saviour!

COVID-19, Christians, and Churches – Concise Sequel

GBC Group

While we accept the necessity of the present situation, there must be an inner mourning in genuine believers that their ability to gather for the covenant assembly of church worship is disrupted. There is something degenerate in a heart that welcomes this disruption from the regularity of church assembly. Every covenant member of a genuine church will make it a matter of prayer, and yearning, that soon society will get back to normal – and the church may assemble again.

 

The viral spread of COVID-19 can be minimized, and hopefully, contained, by avoiding mass gathering. Thus, the government has taken extreme measures of enhanced lockdown and community quarantine. This affects the assemblies of churches. Having taken the position that love of neighbor necessitates the suspension of large gatherings of churches, a qualification is necessary. This is a concise sequel to my previous blog.

Whatever may be put in place of the gathering of the church – live-streaming; etc. – it is not a substitute. It is a disruption of what the church, by nature, must be – a gathered church. Therefore, whatever is disabling this gathering of the church must be seen as a disruption – a necessary disruption, perhaps – but a disruption still.

We can see this in the language that is deliberately chosen for the church in the biblical languages. The word from Old Testament Hebrew that is translated in the Septuagint (LXX) as the Greek word ekklêsia is the Hebrew word qahal. The latter denotes assemblies gathered for various purposes; e.g. war (Gen 49:6; 1Sam 17:47; 2Chr 28:14). The most significant are those that refer to Israel when assembled to accept the covenant with Yahweh (Dt. 4:10; 9:10; 18:16; 23:2; 31:30); especially in the three annual feasts; and in the dedication of Solomon’s temple (1Ki 8:14, 22, 55). There is an OT word which has an even more strictly religious connotation, ‘edah (Ex 12:19; Lev 4:13; Num 8:9). But this is not the word that ekklesia takes over from. There is something in qahal that is not essential in ‘edah – that is the idea of assembly, especially for Israel, with a covenantal orientation.

Thus, the New Testament writers, following the LXX, use ekklêsia for the New Covenant community. The word itself is used in the Greek literature of the period for political gatherings (cf. Acts 19:39; cf. vs. 32, 41). The scholarly Dictionary of Paul and His Letters gives this essential element of ekklêsia:

 The term was applied only to an actual gathering of people, or to a group that gathers when viewed as a regularly constituted meeting. Although we often speak of a group of congregations collectively as ‘the church’ (i.e. of a denomination) it is doubtful whether Paul (or the rest of the NT) uses ekklesia in this collective way. Also, the notion of a unified provincial or national church appears to have been foreign to Paul’s thinking. An ekklesia was a meeting or an assembly. [ p. 124 ]

Let every church make arrangement so that the members will continue to have their feeding of the Word of God. But genuine preaching is live preaching in the assembly of God’s people. And genuine church worship is the corporate worship in the assembly of the people of God. Any other arrangement than an actual assembly of the church is still a disruption, not a substitution.

While we accept the necessity of the present situation, there must be an inner mourning in genuine believers that their ability to gather for the covenant assembly of church worship is disrupted. There is something degenerate in a heart that welcomes this disruption from the regularity of church assembly. Every covenant member of a genuine church will make it a matter of prayer, and yearning, that soon society will get back to normal – and the church may assemble again.

It is every believer’s delightful response: I was glad when they said to me, ‘Let us go to the house of the Lord!’ (Psa 122:1).

COVID-19, Christians, and Churches

COVID-19

But another factor is pressing upon us. The issue is not just preservation of one’s life from persecution of one’s faith. The issue now is what Jesus calls the second of the greatest of commandments: Love your neighbor as yourself. Since the exponential growth of the viral infection is largely due to mass assembling, the believer must take responsibility that he does not contribute to this viral spread. And if one proven effective way to do that is to avoid mass gathering, then we must heed to the mandate of love: Love does no harm to a neighbor

 

In his The Briefing for Monday, March 16, 2020. Albert Mohler describes the current crisis so succinctly: “The entire world is learning a new vocabulary, a new set of habits, a new set of rules, and a new set of expectations — expectations about today, not to mention expectations about tomorrow. We are looking at all of the world as we know it being reshaped socially and morally, politically and economically, by a tiny invisible coronavirus, known as COVID-19.”[1]

According to a facts-list released by the World Health Organization, this began as a pneumonia of unknown cause detected in Wuhan, China and was first reported to the WHO country office on New Year’s Eve on December 31, 2019. In just one month, on January 30, 2020, it was declared a Public Health Emergency of International Concern. On February 11, WHO announced a name for the new coronavirus disease: COVID-19. A month later, on March 11, WHO declared COVID-19 as a pandemic.

Today, nations of the world are in panic. One of the most affected is Italy. On March 15, the country reported 3,590 new cases in one day and 368 deaths in that same day of 24 hours. As of this writing (March 18), the Philippines has recorded 193 confirmed cases, 14 people have died from the disease. The government has put Metro Manila under Code Red Level 2, which later escalated as enhanced lockdown and community quarantine of the island of Luzon. This included a ban on mass gathering – including those of religious in nature. One official defined ‘mass gathering’ as exceeding more than 10 people.

Two questions are in every believer’s mind, in the immediate: What now of the assemblies of churches? A more fundamental question is: Why is this happening in, what we love to hail, “This is my Father’s world”?

Why is this happening?

We must begin with what builds the right foundation in addressing crisis such as this one. A rightly-taught Christian cannot even begin to answer this without invoking the sovereign control of God over all things. This includes the events, cycle, and movements of the natural processes. As Creator, God is the Originator of all things that exist. But the Word of God will not stop at nature’s origination. It reveals clearly the over-all control of God as He sustains nature – both in its most benevolent produce: such as, rains for the harvest (Acts 14:17); as well as, in its more malevolent side, such as, calamities and plagues. Faith is inadequate where God is not recognized on both sides of nature’s movements. The biblical faith’s confession is in God’s declaration: “I form light and create darkness; I make well-being and create calamity; I am the LORD, who does all these things.” (Isa. 45:7 ESV)

As to why a universe created good by God should turn destructive, Christian theology’s answer is clear, even if unpalatable to many: Because original man, as mandated to be the ruler of God’s creation, sinned, he dragged with him the pristine goodness of nature. Creation now, Paul describes, “For the creation was subjected to futility… For we know that the whole creation has been groaning…” (Rom 8:20, 22). That groaning will sometimes take the form of calamities as gigantic cyclones. Or it can come in the form of a plague – as unseen in its microscopic dimension as a virus.

Put it in this way, the answer will come as dissatisfying for those looking for a definitive ‘this-and-that!’. There is no human answer to the ‘Why?’ of this crisis. The skeptic and the contemptuous of religion will take this as another ‘proof’ of Christianity as being a ‘pie-from-the-sky’ religion. It is nothing of the sort. When we say there is no human answer to the ‘Why,’ that is only because we do want to yield the answer to the wisdom of God. On rare occasions, the answer may be immediate. But more ordinarily, the answer takes a while – even generations. Or perhaps, the answer is yet for eternity. When eternity comes, so will be the final redemption – including that of creation (Rom 8:21).

But of this we can be certain. Even plagues, which we sometimes call outbreaks as though they are out-of-control events, are under the control of God. He has revealed this in the 10 plagues that He visited on the most powerful nation at one period – Egypt. Egypt at last was forced to yield to the will of God, but only reluctantly. In many instances, God’s Word declares God’s sovereign control of plagues. By acknowledging this, we also recognize that God alone is the ultimate Protector from plague’s ravages. “For he will deliver you from the snare of the fowler and from the deadly pestilence.” (Ps. 91:3 ESV)

Because plagues are within God’s control, we can be certain that when a plague strikes, it is consistent with God’s justice, but always mindful of the fulfillment of His good purpose for His people and for His kingdom. It cannot be inconsistent with either. This is not to say that believers will be immune from the plague. Some may have already died from the present one, and more are bound to suffer. But the purpose of God is unmoved in fulfilling His design – until its judgment is accomplished, or the good of His kingdom-glory is secured. The Reformer John Calvin had his own share of plagues and commotions in the 16th century. His confidence in the sovereignty of God is worth emulating:

 In the same way, when the tumultuous aspect of human affairs unfits us for judging, we should still hold, that God, in the pure light of his justice and wisdom, keeps all these commotions in due subordination, and conducts them to their proper end`.[2]

 The response to this behooves us His creatures to be contrite in our smallness, yes, even our sinfulness. Plagues, such as this, must not be used to cast blame on specific individuals or people groups. That was the mistake of Job’s friends whom Job called ‘miserable comforters!’ (Job 16:2). But what it does is to expose man still in his helplessness, for all the advances of civilization, when plagues visit beyond all our power to immediately resolve. As Mohler puts in another of his The Briefing:

 The reality is that there is a deeply humbling experience taking place in the United States where even those who are believed to be the most powerful human beings on earth wielding the most powerful instruments of political, economic, and military power, they are unable to control a tiny little microscopic virus as it replicates and of course as it does so much damage amongst humanity as it does so. But we’re looking not only the fact that this is a humbling experience for those in political leadership. It’s humbling for all of humanity if we will only observe and understand what is going on here or you might put it another way, our failure adequately to understand at this point what is going on here. We’re all called upon in different spheres of life to make responsible decisions based upon the threat of this virus, but it’s not at all clear exactly what that means in every circumstance. [3]

Let us be in prayer for government and for those tasked to contain the spread of the virus, and especially for those who have the means and equipment to look for an antidote – a vaccine to stop this rampage, and return society to normal. Peace and normalcy are still friends of the gospel mission (1Tim 2:1-4).

Let us also make this a personal occasion for examination of our spiritual standing. For believers, it is a time for self-examination of their state of sanctification – including the issues of sin in their lives. In the Puritan divine John Owen’s sermon entitled, The Use and Advantage of Faith in a Time of Public Calamity, he urges believers:

If we live by faith in the approach of a calamitous season, this will put us upon the search and examination of our own hearts, what accession we have made to the sins that have procured these judgments. This is that which faith (where it is in any measure sincere) will assuredly put us upon.[4]

These are times to seek the mercy of God upon us, the people of the Philippines; and indeed, for the people of the world, all of humanity. It is also an opportunity for witness. We call on people to own the Psalmist’s invitation:

3 Put not your trust in princes, in a son of man, in whom there is no salvation.

4 When his breath departs, he returns to the earth; on that very day his plans perish.

5 Blessed is he whose help is the God of Jacob, whose hope is in the LORD his God (Ps. 146:3-5 ESV)

What of the Assemblies of Churches?

A prohibition has been imposed on mass gathering, with a given definition of it as exceeding 10 people in assembly. That disqualifies most of our churches in our regular Sunday assemblies. There are many whose knee-jerk reaction is to follow the suspension of assemblies, because Christians are supposed to follow government authorities. But there had been prohibitions of that nature in the past. One may cite the Conventicle Act in England in 1664 forbidding the assemblies of Dissenters and non-conformists (churches outside of the state Church of England) on threat of persecution. But many dissenting congregations continued to assemble – some in forests – in their courageous stand against legal sanction on their religious liberty. Clearly, mere government prohibition alone should not be enough reason for us to suspend assemblies.

Love of Neighbor

But another factor is pressing upon us. The issue is not just preservation of one’s life from persecution of one’s faith. The issue now is what Jesus calls the second of the greatest of commandments: Love your neighbor as yourself. Since the exponential growth of the viral infection is largely due to mass assembling, the believer must take responsibility that he does not contribute to this viral spread. And if one proven effective way to do that is to avoid mass gathering, then we must heed to the mandate of love: Love does no harm to a neighbor (Rom 13:10 NKJ).

The balance in the words of Martin Luther during a plague in his letter to John Hess is insightful for a man of his time:

I shall ask God mercifully to protect us. Then I shall fumigate, help purify the air, administer medicine and take it. I shall avoid places and persons where my presence is not needed in order not to become contaminated and thus perchance inflict and pollute others and so cause their death as a result of my negligence. If God should wish to take me, he will surely find me and I have done what he has expected of me and so I am not responsible for either my own death or the death of others. If my neighbor needs me, however, I shall not avoid place or person but will go freely as stated above. See this is such a God-fearing faith because it is neither brash nor foolhardy and does not tempt God.[5]

For the sake of the good of neighbor, then, which in this case involves the whole country, churches may consider suspending their large gatherings until this pestilence is past. How they may still carry on their services, there are now more means to answer that than were available in previous generations. But one should not flagellate his conscience because the church assembly is temporarily suspended. It cannot be shown to be disobedience to Hebrews 10:25 as this does not come to the level of forsaking the assembly. This is protecting the perpetuation of assembly for some safer times. Safer times mean the lifetime of the virus which is estimated to be 14 to 21 days – give or take. This temporary suspension of large assembly is a step of wisdom for the continuing of assembly more permanently.

Self-flagellation (what Filipinos call penitensiya) became a practice during the Black Death of the 14th century.[6] It was thought of as pacifying God that He may withdraw the plague seeing the faithful inflict self-pain. It was a blind superstition. It is no less a blind superstition today to insist on large assemblies and presume on God’s protection of His people.

Again, the simple but incisive words of Albert Mohler are to the point:

We have to understand as Christians that love of neighbor now makes demands upon us that we had not considered even a week ago, and that comes right down to the fact that we cannot meet when we otherwise would meet, we cannot go where we otherwise would go, and we have to take what just days ago would have been considered extreme if not irrational measures to try to prohibit, or at least to slow down the spread of the COVID-19 virus.[7]

May the Lord have mercy upon our churches; upon our country; and upon humanity.

Be still, and know that I am God. I will be exalted among the nations, I will be exalted in the earth! (Ps. 46:10 ESV)

Christians may still sing William Cowper’s immortal hymn:

        Judge not the Lord by feeble sense,

        But trust Him for His grace;

        Behind a frowning providence

        He hides a smiling face.

 

        His purposes will ripen fast,

        Unfolding every hour;

        The bud may have a bitter taste,

        But sweet will be the flower.

 

        Blind unbelief is sure to err

        And scan His work in vain;

        God is His own interpreter,

        And He will make it plain.

 

[1] https://albertmohler.com/2020/03/16/briefing-3-16-20 (cited with permission)

[2] John Calvin, Institutes of the Christian Religion I. 17. 1

[3] https://albertmohler.com/2020/03/11/briefing-3-11-20 (cited with permission)

[4] John Own, Work, Vol. IX (Banner of Truth): 497

[5] Luther’s Works Volume 43, “Whether one may flee from a Deadly Plague” written to Rev. Dr. John Hess… (Thanks is due to Christian Camacho of Grace Baptist Church of Los Baños for posting this on our Church Facebook)

[6] See Barbara W. Tuchman, A Distant Mirror: The Calamitous 14th Century (Ballantine Books; 1978)

[7] https://albertmohler.com/2020/03/16/briefing-3-16-20 (cited with permission)

 

 

Future of Humans becoming gods vs. Past of God becoming Man

Hard cash of science vs. Historical certainty of Faith

Harari vs Lewis

Perhaps, for more people today who have lost the attraction of faith, the promise of hard cash is much more alluring. But I ask the men and women of faith to go back to the certain past of the God-Man in the Manger, the Teacher of Galilee, the Dying Figure of Calvary, and the Immortal from the Empty Tomb, to steady their faith. Do not be beholden to the promise of man-made immortality, much less, divinity backed by hard cash.

 

The notable historian, Yuval Noah Harari, in his celebrated book, Homo Deus: A Brief History of Tomorrow, has proposed the tantalizing prospect of humanity being transformed into deity through science. Even now, there are active scientific efforts to extend longevity, even to the point of immortality. He noted,

In 2012 Kurzweil was appointed a director of engineering at Google, and a year later Google launched a sub-company called Calico whose stated mission is ‘to solve death.’ In 2009 Google appointed another immortality true-believer, Bill Maris, to preside over the Google Ventures investment fund. In a January 2015 interview, Maris said, ‘if you ask me today, is it possible to live to be 500, the answer is yes.’ Maris backs up his brave words with a lot of hard cash.[1]

In a later chapter, Harari makes this bold pronouncement:

The humanist religion worships humanity, and expects humanity to play the part that God played in Christianity and Islam, and that the laws of nature played in Buddhism and Daoism. Whereas traditionally the great cosmic plan gave meaning to the life of humans, humanism reverses the roles and expects the experiences of humans to give meaning to the cosmos. According to humanism, humans must draw from within their inner experiences not only the meaning of their own lives, but also the meaning of the entire universe. This is the primary commandment humanism has given us: create meaning for a meaningless world.[2]

This is a breath-taking vision of humans becoming gods to determine their own meaning in an existence that they have rendered meaningless with their death of god theology. This is an echo of Friedrich Nietzsche in his prospect of the emerging Superman in his Thus Spoke Zarathustra. His vision of the Superman was also preceded by his pronouncement that god-is-dead.

Against this vision, all prospective and visionary, is a reality of history that millions remember in this season – the becoming-man of the Almighty God. CS Lewis calls this the miracle of all miracles: The central miracle asserted by Christians is the Incarnation. They say that God became Man. Every other miracle prepares for this, or exhibits this, or results from this.[3]

 CS Lewis points out further the grandness of this miracle, and its human inexplicability ultimately:

It is easier to argue, on historical grounds, that the incarnation actually occurred than to show, on philosophical grounds, the probability of its occurrence. This historical difficulty of giving for the life, sayings and influence, of Jesus any explanation that is not harder than the Christian explanation, is very great. The discrepancy between the depth and sanity and (let me add) shrewdness of His moral teaching and the rampant megalomania which must lie behind his theological teaching unless he is indeed God, has never been satisfactorily got over.[4]

Perhaps, for more people today who have lost the attraction of faith, the promise of hard cash is much more alluring. But I ask the men and women of faith to go back to the certain past of the God-Man in the Manger, the Teacher of Galilee, the Dying Figure of Calvary, and the Immortal from the Empty Tomb, to steady their faith. Do not be beholden to the promise of man-made immortality, much less, divinity backed by hard cash.

What Jesus has done in history can reach out to every sinner.  Because out of this gift of God, in the language of John Piper, “grace towards sinners is the freest of all God’s acts.”[5]

Jesus, my God-Man, Lord and Savior, is my Eternal Life.

[1] Yuval Noah Harari, Homo Deus: A Brief History of Tomorrow (Harper): 24

[2] Ibid, p. 223

[3] CS Lewis, Miracles; cited in A Year with CS Lewis: Daily Reading from His Classic Works (HarperOne): 391

[4] Op. cit.

[5] John Piper, Future Grace: The Purifying Power of the Promises of God (Multnomah): 76

 

Joy to the World, Psalm 98, & Isaac Watts

“Joy to the world!: Yes! But also, “He rules the world with truth and grace!”

Joy to the world

If we profess to welcome the birth of Jesus in history, we do well to sing “Joy to the world, the Lord is come!” But then, it will only be true to those who welcome Him with, “Let earth receive her King!” and “He rules the world with truth and grace!”

 

It was uplifting to read the third part of Albert Mohler’s The Briefing for Friday, December 20, 2019. He makes reference to “one of the most familiar of all the Christmas carols that turns out actually, to perhaps the puzzlement of many Christians, not to have been intended as a Christmas carol at all. I’m talking about the song by Isaac Watts that we call ‘Joy To The World.’ Watts led in the development of hymns in the English tradition, drawing many of his hymn texts directly from the Psalms. The song we know as ‘Joy To The World’ is actually based upon the 98th Psalm, which declares creation’s joy when the Lord comes to rule and to judge.” [1]

Oh sing to the LORD a new song, for he has done marvelous things!

His right hand and his holy arm have worked salvation for him.

The LORD has made known his salvation;

he has revealed his righteousness in the sight of the nations. (Psalm 98:1-2 ESV)

The NIV Faithflife Study Bible explains this Psalm:

In this Psalm of Yahweh’s kingship (or enthronement) the psalmist calls Israel to sing a new and joyful song to Yahweh because he has helped them. He then extends that call to all the people of the earth and eventually the earth itself (vs 4-6). The psalmist concludes by describing how all of creation joyfully anticipates the full establishment of Yahweh’s righteous reign.[2]

The call for a response of a new song extends to all of the nations, because ultimately, what God will do in saving act for His people Israel will also be the saving of the nations of the world.

Isaac Watts would have had enough insight to know that this will not be accomplished in the first coming of Christ as a baby in a manger. When this song first appeared in Watts’ hymnal in 1719, it was originally titled “The Messiah’s Coming and Kingdom.” Its ultimate fulfilment is in the Second Coming of Christ. It is then that what happened on the Cross as atonement will finally reap its harvest. And the fruits will be drawn from “a great multitude that no one could number, from every nation, from all tribes and peoples and languages, standing before the throne and before the Lamb, clothed in white robes, with palm branches in their hands, and crying out with a loud voice, ‘Salvation belongs to our God who sits on the throne, and to the Lamb!’” (Rev. 7:9-10 ESV)

This is a Psalm of Messianic victory. Thus, it is a Psalm of mission to the world and its ultimate discipleship of all nations.

So, is “Joy to the World” a wrong Christmas song to sing? It is a right song of welcome to the Saviour who first came as a baby in a manger. For even in welcome of that event, the angels sang, “Glory to God in the highest, and on earth peace among those with whom he is pleased!” (Lk. 2:14 ESV). With the birth of the Messiah, the shalom (peace) of redemption began to make its presence among sinners on earth. But the formal redemption is yet on the cross and its victory achieved in the resurrection. Finally, its harvest is in the second coming of Christ. This is what Psalm 98 ultimately celebrates.

If we profess to welcome the birth of Jesus in history, we do well to sing “Joy to the world, the Lord is come!” But then, it will only be true to those who welcome Him with, “Let earth receive her King!” and “He rules the world with truth and grace!”

That Isaac Watts was more focused on the Cross than on the manger, another of his hymns reveals:

I’m not ashamed to own my Lord,

Or to defend His cause;

Maintain the honour of His Word,

The glory of His cross.

[1] Albert Mohler, The Briefieng; December 20, 2019; https://albertmohler.com/2019/12/20/briefing-12-20-19

[2] NIV Faithlife Study Bible: (Zondervan) 923

Herod the Great and Jesus’ Birth

Jesus’ birth as intersection of the mighty powerful and the humbled Almighty

Herod the Great

The day has come in many places when speaking the Word of God will constitute a hate-crime against the new purveyors of morality. The threat is looming against religious liberty. People are threatened not to speak for Jesus and His claims, or a prosecution of Herodian proportion might just take place.

 

Of all the characters of the birth narrative of Jesus, none is more notorious than King Herod. The Herodian dynasty was begun by Antipater. He was appointed by Julius Caesar as procurator of Judea in 47 BC. His son Herod exceeded him in infamy. As the patriarch of the other Herod’s in the biblical narrative, the first Herod came to be known as Herod the Great. His greatness lies in his great building projects. But the Herods, being Edomites, and loyal to Rome, were never fully accepted by their Jewish subjects.

Herod’s place in the birth narrative of Jesus is to be that King who took the coming of Jesus as a rival kingly claim. That the coming Son of God has a kingly claim is true enough, and is thus announced in the counterpart birth narrative of Luke.

He will be great, and will be called the Son of the Highest; and the Lord God will give Him the throne of His father David. And He will reign over the house of Jacob forever, and of His kingdom there will be no end. (Lk. 1:32-33 NKJ)

Herod’s blunder was to misunderstand this as a challenge to his earthly kingdom and dynasty. He did not pull any restraint to make sure of the extermination of the rival king. It will become an icon of terror in biblical history – the infamous massacre of infants in Bethlehem and neighboring towns. A stark contrast is intended by this narrative that exposes the sinfulness of man and the kingdom mission of Jesus. There certainly was a guiding star that guided the magi to the place of Jesus – but it was no lantern ornamentation. Children had a significant role – but not to receive gifts, but to suffer martyrdom. The advent of Jesus was only a celebration insofar as the sin of the mighty is exposed, and the humbling down of the Son of God is duly acknowledged. The humiliation of the Son of God exposed the sinfulness of the mighty in the world.

 Humiliation in the last sentence is used in its theological sense of the becoming-low of the Son of God from His highest position. He became Man, and in thus becoming man, He shared the nature of man-the-sinner, and be a fit substitute for man’s sinful standing. This without Jesus sharing in human sin at all.

The Sin of the Mighty

Thus, the first Advent of Christ is a story of the heinous sin of the mighty on earth represented by Herod. He could not accept the implication of the coming of Jesus. As the prophecy was read to him, based on Micah 5:2, “But you, Bethlehem, in the land of Judah, are not the least among the rulers of Judah; For out of you shall come a Ruler Who will shepherd My people Israel.” (Matt. 2:6 NKJ), he could only draw one conclusion – that this Jesus is out to seize his rule.

He first chose to deceive by pretending to worship the Child. When an angel exposed this subterfuge to the wise men, Herod shred off all scheme and instigated a cruel massacre.

It is easy to distance oneself from such cruelty of Herod. But the same principle lies in the scheme of professing to worship Jesus, while yet refusing His Lordship in one’s life. Is this not rampant in this season when everything is done on the pretext of the birth of Jesus? Every indulgence; ostentation; lavishness – all to celebrate the One born in a manger, and prosecuted by the powerful!

But Jesus is not interested in the celebration of His birth. His call is for men and women to bow down for the reason He was born – to become King of a kingdom that will never be destroyed. The best way to remember the birth of Jesus is to repent of sin, and to cast oneself under His supreme Lordship. This is conversion by faith and repentance.

The most powerful man in Judea who made himself famous by his built structures is remembered today with disdain. His sin was exposed. And the coming of Jesus today through the preaching of the Word still has the same effect of exposing sin. You have the choice of justifying it in Herod’s way. Or repent of it and be saved.

The Claim of the Almighty

The name of Jesus is still under persecution today. No longer by a procurator in Judea. The persecutor is no longer known as Herod the Great. But they are still among the great of this world. They belong to the powerful – in institutions of authority and wealth; in parties of power; among instigators of the sexual revolution that will impose the LGBTQ as the new normal. The noble tradition of believing in God who has a weight in social directions is in retreat against the onslaught of erotic liberty.

The day has come in many places when speaking the Word of God will constitute a hate-crime against the new purveyors of morality. The threat is looming against religious liberty. People are threatened not to speak for Jesus and His claims, or a prosecution of Herodian proportion might just take place.

But the claim of Jesus from the time of the Annunciation of the angel has not changed. He came to inaugurate a kingdom. That kingdom has been inaugurated when He rose from the dead; He sat on His throne beside the right hand of the Father (Acts 2:36; Heb 8:1). The Herodian dynasty is long gone. Even the Roman Empire. But Jesus is still King and someday, “The kingdoms of this world have become the kingdoms of our Lord and of His Christ, and He shall reign forever and ever!” (Rev. 11:15 NKJ).

Do not make this Christmas just a time of celebration – of eating, indulging, decorating, and exchanging gifts; or kris-kringle and Santa Claus.

Jesus came to claim a kingship that is now His. Herod did not succeed denying Him that kingship. Do not fail to bow down to the King of Kings – the Lord Jesus Christ!

Blessed Advent Reflection to all!

The Epidemic of Ritual Confession of Sin

Psa 130 3f

In ritual confession, the offender may demonstrate deep emotion, but it is often dictated by fear of the consequence of sin, rather than sorrow for the gravity of the offence. So different is the contrast of the Apostle Paul between two sorts of emotions. “For godly sorrow produces repentance leading to salvation, not to be regretted; but the sorrow of the world produces death. For observe this very thing, that you sorrowed in a godly manner: What diligence it produced in you, what clearing of yourselves, what indignation, what fear, what vehement desire, what zeal, what vindication! In all things you proved yourselves to be clear in this matter.” (2 Cor. 7:10-11 NKJ). The sorrow of genuine repentance is really a cluster of dispositions all conspiring to oppose sin and to renounce it for its evil and gravity, not merely its dreadful consequence.

 

 Sorry na! (‘I am sorry already!’). To which the expected reply is Ok lang! (‘It is fine!’). This is the common exchange that transpires among Filipinos, between the one at fault and the one wronged. An easy apology with commensurate ease of exoneration. If the fault were due to natural limitation – mistaken information; late appointment due to traffic; etc. – the clemency that follows is just about regular.

But it is a far different issue when we are dealing with moral faults – what we, Christians, still call sins. A sorry na and Ok lang exchange, when it comes to sins, is exposing a very serious epidemic in the impoverished spirituality that is the mark of this generation of Christians. This is the epidemic of ritual confession.

A ritual, in the concise definition of Merriam-Webster is “the prescribed order and words of a religious ceremony.” Further, a more extended meaning denotes, “any practice done or regularly repeated in a set precise manner so as to satisfy one’s sense of fitness and often felt to have a symbolic or quasi-symbolic significance.” One can easily see how this fits the practice that is performed of confession of sin among Christians. This is observable in two orientations of confessing sin.

Ritual Confession of Sin to God

A precious verse of the New Testament has become the basis of so much ritual confession by Christians. “If we confess our sins, He is faithful and just to forgive us our sins and to cleanse us from all unrighteousness.” (1 Jn. 1:9 NKJ). The call to confess is sufficient for many sinning Christians just to invoke the cliché of confession, and then claim that forgiveness is theirs as a gift in glossy wrapping.

This is isolating 1John 1:9 from the richness of John’s appeal to his readers to be in a serious fight against sin. Every believer who will invoke the promise of forgiveness to the confessing sinner in 1John 1:9 must have come to grips with John’s description of a serious believer in 3:8, 9 “He who sins is of the devil, for the devil has sinned from the beginning. For this purpose, the Son of God was manifested, that He might destroy the works of the devil. Whoever has been born of God does not sin, for His seed remains in him; and he cannot sin, because he has been born of God.” (1 Jn. 3:8-9 NKJ). It is not teaching that believers no longer sin. It is saying that believers do not continue sinning without the break of repentance and renewal.

Unfortunately, many professed believers may be continuing sinning, and the only break they have is a ritual confession that is without genuine repentance that is followed by practical renewal. The Puritan John Owen has a most helpful treatise on this subject that expounds Psalm 130, focusing on those words, “If You, LORD, should mark iniquities, O Lord, who could stand? But there is forgiveness with You, That You may be feared.” (Ps. 130:3-4 NKJ). He warns against the general assurance of forgiveness without having the contrition that is the prerequisite of it, and the fear of the Lord which is the fruit of it. He warns,

This notional apprehension of the pardon of sin begets no serious, thorough hatred and detestation of sin, nor is prevalent to a relinquishment of it; nay, it rather insinuates into the soul encouragements unto a continuance in it. It is the nature of it to lessen and extenuate sin, and to support the soul against its convictions… The doctrine of forgiveness is this grace of God, which may be thus abused. From hence do men who have only a general notion of it habitually draw secret encouragements to sin and folly.[1]

God is willing to forgive. But He can distinguish between contrite confession appealing only to the merits of Christ, and ritual confession that is satisfied with the motion and manner. We must confess our sin in the spirit of David’s own confession: “For You do not desire sacrifice, or else I would give it; You do not delight in burnt offering. The sacrifices of God are a broken spirit, A broken and a contrite heart – These, O God, You will not despise.” (Ps. 51:16-17 NKJ). David knew the distinction between ritual confession of ceremonial burnt offering, and the acceptable confession of a broken and contrite heart.

Know that distinction yourself. The next time you confess your sin to God, examine if it is a broken one – or an empty ritual.

 

Ritual Confession of Sin to Neighbor

The greatest commandment of ‘Love God,’ is followed by ‘Love your neighbor’ as the second of the greatest commandments. This should apply to confession of sin when it comes to people Christians sin against. Sin must be confessed with brokenness to God. So with the neighbor, especially brethren in the faith. The greater the offence the deeper the contrition.

But if ritual confession is something that is epidemic among professing Christians in their approach to God, it is all the more so in confessing to brethren. After all, it is easier to resort to subterfuge and pretense with someone without divine omniscience. That is why it takes an uncompromising inner honesty for the person confessing. He must confess without minimizing, without forgetfulness, and without pretext.

We see shallow confession of sin in biblical characters such as Pharaoh (Exo 9:27); Saul (1Sam 26:21); and of course, Judas (Matt 27:4). They invoked the proper vocabulary – a reference to personal sin; they even demonstrated sorrow and shame – but they were still ritual confession.

In ritual confession, the offender may demonstrate deep emotion, but it is often dictated by fear of the consequence of sin, rather than sorrow for the gravity of the offence. So different is the contrast of the Apostle Paul between two sorts of emotions. “For godly sorrow produces repentance leading to salvation, not to be regretted; but the sorrow of the world produces death. For observe this very thing, that you sorrowed in a godly manner: What diligence it produced in you, what clearing of yourselves, what indignation, what fear, what vehement desire, what zeal, what vindication! In all things you proved yourselves to be clear in this matter.” (2 Cor. 7:10-11 NKJ). The sorrow of genuine repentance is really a cluster of dispositions all conspiring to oppose sin and to renounce it for its evil and gravity, not merely its dreadful consequence.

The stain that will not wash away[2]

There is a particular offence that is often covered over with ritual confession, but its effect is deep and lasting. This is the sin of sexual abuse. The figure pertains to one guilty of sexual misconduct and is drawn from Proverbs 6:33 “Wounds and dishonor he will get, And his reproach will not be wiped away.” (Prov. 6:33 NKJ). One who has committed this sin is often able to hide because the victim chooses to hide – in shame.

It does not help that some, with a sincere desire to help, end up charging the blame on the victim. We have often heard suggested: She is dressed so sexy, she must be asking to be raped! She is so at ease in the company of men, this is flirtation! Every woman fantasizes sexual assault. These are all myths – and among believers, a painful deception.

Thus, victims often have to grapple with self-blame. Why did I allow myself in that situation? It was supposed to be only innocent fellowship! Did I give any suggestion? But the blame is only on the abuser. He must have used an invitation to fellowship – coffee; chit-chat; movie; music; and so many more. But even before the invitation are the calculated moves that would ensure, the woman is in the snare of unavoidable intimacies and touches. And when it is done, it is made to appear that what happened is normal fellowship between Christian man and woman. The woman, often of very young age to understand fully, is left confused. She knows something went wrong but it all seems alright according to the man.

It is time that it is called for what it is – sex abuse of the cruel kind. And for professing Christians, thoroughly hypocritical. One day, the woman grows up and discovers what all the while she has been made to go through, and accountability time comes.

When confession is to be expressed, ritual confession is at its cruelest in this kind of offence. More than the consequence, it is the sense of gravity of the offence that matters. More than the fear of the abuser, it is the hurt on the victims that must be reckoned with. The healing of the victims matters more, without eliminating the restoration of the offender.

Going back to the stain that does not wash away, the text clearly attributes the stain to the one guilty of misconduct, not to the victim. He will carry the stigma.

By the grace of God, the victim can move on because God’s grace fixes what has been broken. By the same grace of God, the offender can also move on, but only after he has gone through the sorrow of true confession, of brokenness and repentance.

Where sin abounded, grace did much more abound (Rom 5:20). Grace will abound so much more when we reject the shallow peace of ritual confession.

[1] John Owen, Works: Temptation and Sin VI: 397

[2] This is a variation of the title of the book by John Armstrong, The Stain that Stays: The Church’s Response to Sexual Misconduct of its Leaders