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

 

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!

Freedom of the Press

Press Freedom quote

It is the press that has the mandate of not only informing the people of events in society, but also to check official announcements and policies.  This it does by having competent people who check the facts and report on views other than that of government.  In the course of doing this, as human beings they make mistakes.  News can be faked by irresponsible journalists.  There are laws that the press may not violate in the name of freedom of expression.  Defamation law covers false statements made in writing that destroy the reputation of the innocent.

 But this is not a reason to muzzle the press.

 

Philippine President Rodrigo Duterte imposed a ban of coverage on Rappler News, a news social media sharply critical of the President.  More than ten cases were filed against Maria Ressa, Rappler’s chief editor and her staff – cases that many perceive are at the instigation of the president.  The President threatened to suspend the writ of habeas corpus to arrest his media critics.  The ban on Rappler has been in effect for fourteen months when its correspondents filed a petition to the Supreme Court seeking to end the ban.  The petition argues that the coverage ban violates constitutional guarantees of a free press, free speech, equal protection and due process.  This is now a significant press freedom test case.  Should Christians care?

Christians should very much care.  Intimately linked with freedom of the press is freedom of religion.  Because Christians care very much about the latter, they should care as much for freedom of the press.  The battle for freedom of religion was a long and bloody history.  The American Pilgrim Fathers crossed the Atlantic to escape persecution in England.  They founded New England in America.  America became the birthplace of the concept of separation of church and state.  It was the Baptists who had led in the advocacy, and had suffered most in the cause, of freedom of religion.  18th century Baptist theologian Andrew Fuller summarizes the Baptist position thus,

In former times liberty of conscience and the right of private judgment in matters of religion were denied both by ecclesiastics and politicians.  Of late they have been very generally admitted, and much has been said and written in their defense… The right of private judgment in matters of religion appears to be the right which every individual has to think and to avow his thoughts on those subjects, without being liable to any civil inconvenience on that account.[1]

Freedom of religion can only be sustained where there is freedom to express oneself.  This is where freedom of the press matters most.  It is the press that has the mandate of not only informing the people of events in society, but also to check official announcements and policies.  This it does by having competent people who check the facts and report on views other than those of government.  In the course of doing this, as human beings they make mistakes.  News can be faked by irresponsible journalists.  There are laws that the press may not violate in the name of freedom of expression.  Defamation law covers false statements made in writing that destroy the reputation of the innocent.

But this is not a reason to muzzle the press.  There is a 1964 landmark legal case in the US Supreme Court known as New York Times vs. Sullivan.  The New York Times published a report that ultimately was proved false.  L.B. Sullivan, the city official who was the aggrieved party, sued the newspaper and a local jury awarded him a big sum.  It was raised to the Supreme Court which reversed the local court.  It established that even false statements by the press should not be liable to prosecution, if the statement is made in good faith, and not out of malice.  Establishing malice made it almost unprosecutable.  But this right to make a false statement in good faith must be protected if the basic right of public discourse is to have the “breathing space” it needs to survive.[2]

This is similar to freedom of religion in that even those who teach false doctrines should have protected freedom to do so.  Even as Christians detest what is taught, we counter it with the truth of the Scriptures.  But to prosecute religious teachers because their teachings are deemed as damning will only come back later to the teachers of the truth.  False teachers will have their judgment from God.  But let society have freedom for all religious discourses.  That way, truth will have its converts.

I urge that supplications, prayers, intercessions, and thanksgivings be made for all people, for kings and all who are in high positions, that we may lead a peaceful and quiet life, godly and dignified in every way.  This is good, and it is pleasing in the sight of God our Savior, who desires all people to be saved and to come to the knowledge of the truth. (1 Tim. 2:1-4)

Using the enormous power of the presidency to harass his critics in the press is demeaning of the President and of his office.  He does not have the principled stance of Thomas Jefferson, third president of the United States, who said: Our liberty depends on the freedom of the press, and that cannot be limited without being lost.

These are trying times to endure a presidency that has lost decency.

[1] The Works of Andrew Fuller (First published in 1841; Banner of Truth edition, 2007): 829

[2] Michael Trachtman, The Supremes’ Greatest Hits: The 37 Supreme Court Cases That Most Directly Affect Your Life: 162-165

Social Justice – Common Grace or Saving Grace?

Rom 3 26

This is the good news that is to be proclaimed by the Church, as the agent of the kingdom of Christ.  It is imperative that the Church should not lose sight of this mission as one of saving grace.  It must not be confused with common grace.  The task of proclamation for salvation cannot coalesce with militancy for a just society.  Preaching is not protest.  Justification is not social justice.

 

A heated debate is currently raging among evangelical brethren in America.  The subject is the place of social justice as a theme of gospel proclamation, and as a mandate of church mission.

Concerned evangelical leaders have publicized their position in “The Statement on Social Justice & the Gospel.”  Its key negation states, “We deny that political or social activism should be viewed as integral components of the gospel or primary to the mission of the church.  Though believers can and should utilize all lawful means that God has providentially established to have some effect on the laws of society, we deny that these activities are either evidence of saving faith or constitute a central part of the church’s mission given to her by Jesus Christ, her head.”[1]

Predictably, those on the opposite side have criticized this position.  One critic says of this statement, “At worst, it represents a toxic agenda to discredit and undermine godly men and women crying out for biblical social justice, national and ecclesiastical repentance, and meaningful reconciliation.”[2]

Each side of the debate has legitimate concerns, seeking fair assessment and response by the other.  Both sides must resist polarizing their position, while demonizing the other.  It is my humble submission that the subject can be addressed by appeal to an old pair of perspectives of grace – as common grace and as saving grace.

 

God’s gracious dealing with mankind can be categorized as common grace or saving grace.

While God’s grace is a clear concept of the Bible, differentiating it as ‘common’ grace and ‘special/saving’ grace is a theological construct.  It is not biblical vocabulary as such.  But the legitimacy of such categorization arises from the need to see God’s favor even on unbelievers who do not have the blessing of salvation.  Thus, such favors are described as common grace, because even if they are not saving, they are still undeserved by sinful man.  Whereas, salvation blessings on believers, and the Church, are called saving grace.

Theology traditionally includes under common grace such blessings as morality, civilization, human vocation, and prosperity.  In his address to the farmers of Lystra, Paul affirms that “(God) did not leave himself without witness, for he did good by giving you rains from heaven and fruitful seasons, satisfying your hearts with food and gladness” (Acts 14:17).  It is impressive that even amidst their pagan idolatry, Paul is not restrained from recognizing the hand of God in the blessing of their vocation.  Common grace also includes good works of unbelievers.  Cornelius, even as an unbeliever, was commended for his ‘prayers and alms as… memorial to God’ (Acts 10:4), and yet he still needed to know the way of salvation.

The concept of common grace acknowledges that there is blessedness and goodness in the human community that does not constitute their salvation; but they are still God’s favors that remain undeserved by man – and hence, grace.  John Calvin acknowledges that God honors even the morality of unbelievers:

Hence this distinction between honorable and base actions God has not only engraved on the minds of each, but also often confirms in the administration of his providence. For we see how he visits those who cultivate virtue with many temporal blessings. Not that that external image of virtue in the least degree merits his favor, but he is pleased thus to show how much he delights in true righteousness, since he does not leave even the outward semblance of it to go unrewarded. Hence it follows, as we lately observed, that those virtues, or rather images of virtues, of whatever kind, are divine gifts, since there is nothing in any degree praiseworthy which proceeds not from him.[3]

The significance of this distinction can have a telling effect on the way we weigh God’s various dealings with people.  Michael Horton warns against this confusion,

When we confuse these two categories, it is easy to see success in business as a sign of divine favor and floods in a particular region as the sign of divine reprobation… The ungodly mistake God’s common grace for saving grace by presuming that because things are not so bad right now, they are not under God’s displeasure, while believers wonder, ‘Why do the wicked prosper?’ (Psalm 73).  Unless we understand the difference between common grace and saving grace, unbelievers will be led to presumption and believers will be led to doubt.[4]

This is where we need to rightly place social justice and the gospel in the category of grace each belongs.

 

Social Justice is in the realm of Common Grace

The equality of all mankind is a principle based on God’s creation.  All are equal, regardless of ethnicity and social class, because we are all human beings by virtue of God’s creation.  “The rich and the poor meet together; the LORD is the Maker of them all” (Prov. 22:2).  Upon the equality of all stands the imperative of justice that must treat all equally.  There should be no innate advantage of one race/class over another.  Where racial advantage is obtained, it is unjust because it vitiates the equal creaturehood of every man and woman.

This equality is to characterize society as human society – not Christian society.  Equal treatment is to be extended to all as human beings, not as a believer or unbeliever.  In other words, one does not need to be a gospel believer to receive equal treatment as a human being.  It is his as one created in the image of God – as much as every other man and woman.

It is for this purpose that human government was put in place to have oversight of justice in human society.  “The king establishes the land by justice” (Pro 29:4).  Such a ruler need not be a believer in order to rule with justice.  Nero was the cruel emperor of the Roman Empire when Paul wrote of such rulers, “he is God’s servant for your good. But if you do wrong, be afraid, for he does not bear the sword in vain. For he is the servant of God, an avenger who carries out God’s wrath on the wrongdoer” (Rom. 13:4).  Peter makes it imperative for Christians, “Be subject for the Lord’s sake to every human institution, whether it be to the emperor as supreme, or to governors as sent by him to punish those who do evil and to praise those who do good” (1 Pet. 2:13-14).

It proves a point material to this debate – that social justice can be obtained, not by necessity of the gospel, but the right application of the truth of creation of all mankind.  Even unbelievers can be instrumental to the promotion of justice and the reformation of society so that equality of all is the order that prevails.  It does not take a Christian president to reform society to become more just, and its people socially moral.  The Christian mission does not depend upon human government to pursue its goal.  Social justice is common grace and not of the essence of the gospel.

 

Church Gospel Mission is in the cause of Saving Grace

 Because individual Christians live in the two realms of common grace and saving grace, they have the responsibility of actively supporting causes and policies that promote social justice.  But the kingdom that Christ brought about by His death and resurrection is about saving grace – salvation of sinners by the grace of God through gospel faith.  This is the kingdom in which Jesus began to sit upon His throne from the time of His resurrection (Acts 2:30-33).  This kingly reign is yet of a priestly nature for the purpose of mediation and intercession (Heb 8:1ff).  This is not to be mistaken for any human government which has the mandate of justice in society.

The justice that concerned most the saving work of Christ is the justice of God that demands the vindication of His broken law.  That vindication demands the punishment of sinners.  This creates that great mystery expressed of old, “How can a man be righteous before God?” (Job 9:2).  What the redemptive work of Christ has done is to solve that mystery through His death.  It was a substitutionary death that satisfies the justice of God.  The result is that God “might be just and the justifier of the one who believes in Jesus” (Rom 3:26).

This is the good news that is to be proclaimed by the Church, as the agent of the kingdom of Christ.  It is imperative that the Church should not lose sight of this mission as one of saving grace.  It must not be confused with common grace.  The task of proclamation for salvation cannot coalesce with militancy for a just society.  Preaching is not protest.  Justification is not social justice.

We commend the usefulness of social action; but the Church has weightier matters in its hand.  Kenneth Myers warns,

Although one might respect the intentions of people who promote them, the use of boycotts in the name of Christ is always liable to distract attention from the authoritative proclamation of truth and repudiation of error that is the first duty of the church of Jesus Christ.  It suggests that Christians are to be identified essentially as part of a political movement, rather than as a spiritual body… If public protest gives the impression that Christians are principally concerned about power in the political order, it will become that much more difficult to take thoughts captive to the obedience of Jesus Christ.[5]

The cry for justice by the oppressed is real.  Christians must be decisive voices to arouse the collective conscience of society.  But the Church is to be another voice, or better, Another’s voice – that of Christ through the preaching of the gospel.  Through living the truth of the gospel, the Church is to be a demonstration of that new humanity that learned to “beat their swords into plowshares and their spears into pruning hooks” – a precursor of the time when “Nation shall not lift up sword against nation, neither shall they learn war anymore’ (Isa 2:4).  It envisions the kind of earth it will someday become when “the kingdom of this world has become the kingdom of our Lord” (Rev 11:15).

But while that is not yet, the Church must be on the mission of saving grace.

 

[1] “The Statement on Social Justice & the Gospel” VIII. The Church; https://statementonsocialjustice.com/

[2] “Why I cannot and will not sign the ‘Social Justice and the Gospel Statement’” RyanBurtonKing.blogspot.com

[3] John Calvin, Institutes of the Christian Religion: III. 14. 2

[4] Michael Horton, Where in the World is the Church? (Moody): 189

[5] Kenneth Myers, “Proclamation Instead of Protest” from Michael Horton (ed.), Power Religion: 46f

Christian-Turned-Mocker


Gal 6 7

It is rightly said, Mockery is the result of a poverty of wit.  I dare say that the real intention of resorting to mockery is not to disprove the Christian faith.  The mocker is often without a rational answer to the Christian apologetic.  His mockery is intended more to alleviate a harassed conscience.  The mocking laughter has the sound of whistle in the dark.

 

“Ridicule is the tribute paid to the genius by the mediocrities,” says Irish poet and playwright, Oscar Wilde (1854-1900).  This applies very aptly to the Mocker-in-Chief, Philippine President Rodrigo Duterte.  After the much-publicized meetings with Christian leaders – first with the Catholic Bishops Conference of the Philippines (CBCP), and then, with the Philippine Council of Evangelical Churches (PCEC) – he promised a moratorium, only to break it in subsequent public meetings.  As always, he only displays his mediocre knowledge of religion in general, and of the Christian faith in particular.

This leads me to reflect on a particular type of a mocker of religion.  This is the person who mocks the Christian faith out of his supposed knowledge of it.  He may have been himself a former professor of that faith.  Or more usually, he may have spent his childhood years under Christian parentage, until he came to adulthood and chose “freedom” from his religious tutelage.  Now he feels qualified to scoff on the faith that he once professed.  We can call him a Christian-turned-Mocker.

To mock is to treat with scorn or contempt.  The idea of mockery is to make its object a laughingstock.  It betrays a deep bitterness that may not be present in ordinary resentment.  The Christian faith seems to elicit the most bitterness when it provokes opposition.  Christianity, of all religious faiths, is the most vulnerable to the treatment of mockery.  After all, Christian advocacy of freedom of religion and speech guarantees that there will be no reprisal against the mocker.  Try to mock Islam.

What makes one mock the Christian faith that he once espoused?  The most obvious answer is disenchantment.  The impression of failure on the part of those he once respected for their Christian faith disillusioned him.  Whether the failure is real, or just a misconstruction, a string of the same will create an increasing imprint.  It leads to the wrong conflation that the failure of its followers proves the falsehood of the faith.  No wonder that it creates a bitterness that is turned into mockery.  That such a process of disenchantment is going on should be a sobering reminder for Christians to be mindful of their testimony in the eyes of the world. 

But to the disenchanted, I must appeal.  Christians do not pretend to be perfect.  Indeed, it is a part of our conviction about holy living that we can never attain perfection on this side of glory.  We appropriate by faith the redemption of Christ in His atoning work.  By that, we are forgiven of our sins – but that is not sinlessness; far from it.  Our struggle with sin is real, and perhaps, even more fierce, given the standard we seek to meet – to be like the Lord Jesus.  And if you have witnessed such outbreak of sin in our words and ways, it is one of those failures, of which we will have many in this life.  But that does not mean the spiritual change is not for real; it is not just anywhere near complete.

Our argument for the Christian faith does not stand on any false claim of perfection on our part.  It stands or falls on Jesus of Nazareth who died in time-and-space history, and who rose from the dead alive also in time-and-space history.  In the language of the Scripture, “declared to be the Son of God in power according to the Spirit of holiness by his resurrection from the dead, Jesus Christ our Lord” (Romans 1:4).  If you will object to the Christian faith, conceive your apologetic against Jesus. It is He Who we claim to be perfect, Himself God, but became Man to redeem sinners – including mockers.

If your way out is by mocking Christians, you prove nothing, for we already admit our flaws and sins.  The question confronting you is the same with which Jesus confronted the mockers of His day, “What do you think about the Christ?” (Matthew 22:42).

It is rightly said, Mockery is the result of a poverty of wit.  I dare say that the real intention of resorting to mockery is not to disprove the Christian faith.  The mocker is often without a rational answer to the Christian apologetic.  His mockery is intended more to alleviate a harassed conscience.  His mocking laughter has the sound of whistle in the dark.

Mocking the Christian faith, however, has the tragic consequence of being its own punishment.  When mocking becomes a habit, it is self-confirming.  The mocker will justify his sin.  As the Bible warns, “There will be scoffers, following their own ungodly passions” (Jude 1:18). That is why a plea such as this one will likely engender only more mockery.  So warns biblical wisdom, “Whoever corrects a scoffer gets himself abuse… Do not reprove a scoffer, or he will hate you” (Prov. 9:7-8).  But the worst mocking was endured by Jesus on the Cross.  Why not by a poor follower?

If one becomes a Mocker-turned-Christian, it will not be the first time.  CS Lewis once called Christianity a “false mythology” and became one of its staunchest defenders.  Such is what grace can do even to a mocker.

There is a truth that you can mock but can never overturn.  “Do not be deceived: God is not mocked, for whatever one sows, that will he also reap” (Gal. 6:7).  If you choose to persist in the lie of your own mockery, I will lament for your soul in this life.  But even in eternity, I cannot mock on your mockery turned to wailing!