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

‘I know who holds the future’ of 2018

Ecc 7 14

The Economist issue on “The World in 2018” is summarized succinctly by its editor thus: “It promises to be a nerve-jangling year.”  So it may prove to be.

Futurology is the study of future possibilities based on current trends.  That it uses scientific tools differentiates it from divining out of crystal balls or tarot cards.  There is certainly nothing wrong with that.  In fact, it is responsible to use current patterns – economic, political, demographic; etc. – to extrapolate expectations.  Proper preparations can then be set up.

That conceded, a Christian must be alert to the pride that often attends such prognostications.  The future that experts predict as sure has so often bombed.  We are periodically inconvenienced by a failed weather forecast.  Investments deemed to earn sure profit fall flat.  Stock  markets jitter between bear and bull.  And need we be reminded of who, the polls were sure, to win the last American presidential elections?  Overheard of a crew member trying to assure an anxious passenger of the Titanic were the words, “Madam, even God cannot sink the Titanic!”  Whether or not the story really happened, it is an everyday fact that human pride excludes God from consideration of the future.

While we do our responsible preparations for what the future may bring, it must be in humble spirit.  It is balance that is struck by biblical Wisdom: The horse is made ready for the day of battle, but the victory belongs to the LORD. (Prov. 21:31 ESV).  Whatever the battle confronting us, there is to be due readiness with all tools and implements at disposal.  This applies to our academic studies, our jobs and commerce, and national plans.  But behind even the most meticulous planning should be the humble recognition that only God’s favour can give success.  So James advises for every human plan, you do not know what tomorrow will bring. What is your life? For you are a mist that appears for a little time and then vanishes. Instead you ought to say, ‘If the Lord wills, we will live and do this or that’ (Jas. 4:14-15).

James touches the most basic of human limitations: you do not know what tomorrow will bring.  This is true of the tomorrow of the next 24 hours; and that of the next 365 days of 2018.  It calls for humility that casts oneself upon the God who alone knows and holds the future.  The Lord is jealous for His sovereignty over the future.  Against the false gods of Babylon, He claims for Himself: I am God, and there is no other; I am God, and there is none like me, declaring the end from the beginning and from ancient times things not yet done, saying, ‘My counsel shall stand, and I will accomplish all my purpose’ (Isa. 46:9-10).

But in our generation, to be told that one is unable to shape his future by himself goes against present wisdom.  Bookstores are littered with bestsellers that assure their readers, Your best life now!  It is pride that will laugh at the words of the song, I do not know what lies ahead / The way I cannot see / Yet One stands near to be my Guide / He’ll show the way to me!

Without the assurance of the God who holds the future, anticipating that future will alternate between a fearsome darkness, or a prideful path.  One may face the future like Dylan Thomas, Rage, rage against the dying of the light!  Or else, own the resolve of William Ernest Henley, I am the master of my fate, I am the captain of my soul!

Neither is acceptable to the believer who has learned to submit to God in His sovereign control.  That submission will not yield to a fearsome darkness of superstition, nor will it own a prideful path of self-direction.  Instead it confesses in the wise words of biblical Wisdom: In the day of prosperity be joyful; but in the day of adversity consider: Surely God has appointed the one as well as the other, so that man can find out nothing that will come after him (Ecclesiastes 7:14).  The Christian will own every line of that song, adding its plea:

I know who holds the future,

And He’ll guide me with His hand.

With God, things don’t just happen,

Everything by Him is planned.

So as I face tomorrow,

With its problems large and small,

I’ll trust the God of providence,

Give to Him my all.

A God-blessed future for everyday of 2018 to all!

Making a Stand

Teaching

Did Martin Luther really say, ‘Here I stand.  I can do no other.  So help me God!’?  That statement, after all, creates the drama of that speech in the Diet of Worms in 1521.  To remove it is like saying that Douglas MacArthur never had his I shall return moment.   Or that Han Solo never said to Skywalker, May the force be with you.  Or that Apollo 13 did not call to base, Houston, we have a problem!  To eliminate that line gives the feeling of an amputation of a precious part.

Many scholars are of the belief that the dramatic line of Luther’s speech was a later addition, not part of the original.  The line was in the earliest printed version of the speech.  But it was not in the minutes, the on the spot record, of the Diet.  I have this weird idea that probably, at that point, the recorder(s) of the minutes was himself riveted by the drama of the moment, and skipped that line – and someone else was making his own on the spot record, which found its way in the printed version.

Of course, that cannot be the way we write history.  The Reformation historian, Heiko Oberman, in his masterful Luther: Man Between God and the Devil (English edition Yale, 1989), suggests the following as original in Luther’s speech:

Unless I am convinced by the testimony of the Holy Scriptures or by evident reason – for I can believe neither pope nor councils alone, as it is clear that they have erred repeatedly and contradicted themselves – I consider myself convicted by the testimony of Holy Scripture, which is my basis; my conscience is captive to the Word of God. Thus I cannot and will not recant, because acting against one’s conscience is neither safe nor sound. God help me. Amen.[i]

But ultimately, does it really matter if that line was uttered or not?  To me, the most profoundly radical line is in the words: My conscience is captive to the Word of God.  And because of that, Luther made the stand that he did, whether or not he uttered the dramatic words.  He made a stand that defied the most powerful institution of that period.  Because he made a stand, history changed course.

This poses a penetrating question to each of us who espouses the principles of the Reformation in our own generation.  Are we making a stand where it is most challenging?

 

Making a Stand in a Roman Catholic Household

 Living in a society where more than 80% of households are Catholic, any member of such household who experiences gospel conversion is immediately cast into a gauntlet.  Because the challenged party is of loved ones, it makes the dare even more excruciating.  That many families today happily recognize and practice freedom of religion for their own members does not make the decision to make a stand any less poignant.

There is a significant number, however, that is still saddled with Middle Ages intolerance.   For any member of its own household changing religious affiliation is unacceptable rebellion.  Short of the honor-killing that still transpires in Islamic household, there are other options, such as, disinheritance, ostracism, and banishment from home.  Under these conditions, many converts choose to be silent; and some of them still go through the motions of Catholic rituals in the family – e.g. rosary and mass.  One must exercise every sympathy for those who choose this option.  But at the end of the day, it is a lamentable compromise – a failure to make a stand.

It was Jesus who challenged loyalties in His words, Do not think that I have come to bring peace to the earth. I have not come to bring peace, but a sword. For I have come to set a man against his father, and a daughter against her mother, and a daughter-in-law against her mother-in-law. And a person’s enemies will be those of his own household. Whoever loves father or mother more than me is not worthy of me, and whoever loves son or daughter more than me is not worthy of me.  And whoever does not take his cross and follow me is not worthy of me. (Matt. 10:34-38 ESV)

No religious faith promotes family faithfulness and dutifulness more than does the Judeo-Christian religion.  But such is the world-altering impact of the kingdom of Christ.  Since its inauguration in the death-resurrection of the Christ-event, all who will become members of His kingdom, those who submit allegiance in faith to His Lordship, must have no greater authority over them – not the state; and no greater love – not even the family.  A member of the kingdom of Christ will love his family even more – for the sake of Christ.  But he will not, and must not, on account of love for family, abandon Jesus in His demands as Lord.

This is where a gospel convert in a Catholic family is being called to make a stand.  To make a stand is not to abandon the family.  That is what cults on the fringe will tell their followers; not the Christian gospel.  A converted husband or wife will be even more loving and faithful to the spouse; and a converted son or daughter will be the more obedient and compliant to parents.  What marks their stand is the Lordhsip of Christ giving the direction, the motivation, and yes, also the limitation in the practice of their relationship.

The discovery of the gospel of grace would have exposed the contradiction of Catholic rituals and their false hope in human righteousness.  A true believer glories in what the Reformers call alien righteousness that is in Christ.  A believer’s liberation from self-righteousness would bring with it a similar change of judgment as Paul had of his Judaism: I count everything as loss because of the surpassing worth of knowing Christ Jesus my Lord. For his sake I have suffered the loss of all things and count them as rubbish, in order that I may gain Christ (Phil. 3:8 ESV).

 

Making a Stand in a Compromised Evangelical Church

Rather than an easier challenge, being in an Evangelical church renders making a stand even more agonizing.  Presumably, that is where the believer might have found his converting faith in the gospel.  His commitment to his church would have been animated with gratitude for saving grace.  The people in that church, he would be counting as brethren as dear as, if not more than, his own family.  The leaders, the pastor especially, would be like his spiritual fathers.

But it is often the case that what he has learned to accept as his spiritual abode is challenged by the discovery of Reformation truths, long hidden from him.  He discovers a teaching of grace that has much more depth than what he is wont to hear from the pulpit as no more than opposite to salvation by works.  He learns that grace is the free disposition of the sovereign God.  Knowing that the giving of grace to whom He wills is God’s choice in eternity – unnerving at first – discovers the sinner’s utter unworthiness.  While in his young days, he has accepted the definition of grace as undeserved favor, this is still different from what he now knows as the doctrines of grace.

Reformation truths would have also exposed something wrong about the method of evangelism that he has been taught is the way to get sinners saved.  A few spiritual notions to share which once accepted, there is a ready formula of a sinner’s prayer he was trained to dictate – and then assure the prospect that he has been saved and is going to heaven, and never to doubt it.  He once enjoyed the simplicity of it all.  He joined the chorus of Amen! by the crowd once the pastor reported so many number of decisions for Christ.  Of course, he wondered why many of those so pronounced never showed any sign of change.  But then, after all, he was taught that there was a category of Christians who remained worldly – they were still going to heaven, though without reward.  Carnal Christians, that is what they were called.

This exposes for him another issue.  Where has holiness gone?  The teaching he received is to the effect that holiness is a second blessing that many, unfortunately, never attain to.  They remain unsanctified most, or even all, of their lives.  But he was told it was unkind to doubt that they were true Christians.  Until he hears the Reformation challenge that restores some truths taught from the long past.  He is reminded that there is a warning, For to be carnally minded is death, but to be spiritually minded is life and peace (Rom. 8:6 NKJ).  There is also the exhortation, Pursue… holiness, without which no one shall see the Lord (Heb 12:14 NKJ).  Does this not sound like, no holiness no heaven?  He never hear such a principle in his evangelical church.

As more of the old truths pile up in this Christian, he will soon come to a denouement.  He comes to the conclusion – he may have been avoiding for as long as he could – that his beloved evangelical church is compromised!  What is he to do?  It will be wrong to suggest that making a stand immediately leads to separation.  He will seek what he could do to influence the church to the ways of reformation.  The right balance is to accept that we are in an imperfect church, but that imperfection is not a cover for the degeneration of a church.  The Confession of faith strikes this balance:

The purest churches under heaven are subject to mixture and error; and some have so degenerated as to become no churches of Christ, but synagogues of Satan; nevertheless Christ always has had, and ever shall have a kingdom in this world, to the end thereof, of such as believe in Him, and make profession of His name.[ii]

After trying everything to influence for reformation, and to find that the leadership, instead, is digging its heels for a stand on the compromised ways, a believer must come to a point of decision.  Will he make a stand?  To do so is like tearing his own flesh and breaking his bones.  Many choose to just grit their teeth amidst the falsehood, and they stay on.  It is a miserable decision.

 

Martin Luther made a stand as a Catholic monk in defiance of his beloved Church.  The decision of Luther in the 16th century extends the challenge to us, 500 years since, in this 21st century.  Not to make a stand is the easier option.  It does not make ripples of trouble.  It courts no enemies.  It bears no burden of conflict.  It is to live in quietude.  But it is the immobility of the comatose – just barely living without changing course.

But one cannot catch the infection of the Reformation without being called to make a step of conscience.  Whether one has a dramatic line is immaterial.  It is imperative that one should be of the conviction, My conscience is captive to the Word of God.  That is the man who will make a stand.

 Let goods and kindred go,

This mortal life also;

The body they may kill:

God’s truth abideth still,

His kingdom is forever.

 

[i] Cited in Christian History # 34: Luther’s Early Years

[ii] 1689 Baptist Confession of Faith: XXVI. 3

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