The Importance of History To A Nation And To The Christian

I recently read “The Pioneers,” a new book by noted American writer and historian David McCullough.  Subtitled “The Heroic Story of the Settlers Who Brought the American Ideal West,” the book recounts the story of early settlers in Ohio following Britain’s ceding of the Northwest Territory lands and the adoption of the Northwest Ordinance by the American congress in 1787.  At the end of the book is a short section called “Why History,” an excerpt from the acceptance speech McCullough gave for an award in 1995.  He remarked,

“We, in our time, are raising a new generation of Americans who, to an alarming degree, are historically illiterate.

The situation is serious and sad.  And it is quite real, let there be no mistake.  It has been coming on for a long time, like a creeping disease, eating away at our national memory.  While the clamorous popular culture races on, the American past is slipping away, out of sight and out of mind.  We are losing our story, forgetting who we are and what it’s taken to come this far.” . . .

“Everywhere in the country there are grade school and high school teachers teaching history who have had little or no history in their own education.  Our school system, the schools we are responsible for, could rightly be charged with educational malpractice.” . . .

“History shows us how to behave.  History teaches, reinforces what we believe in, what we stand for, and what we ought to be willing to stand up for.  History is–or should be–the bedrock of patriotism, not the chest-pounding kind of patriotism but the real thing, love of country.”

To the extent that education occurs in the government school systems today, there is a critical failure to emphasize important academic subjects such as literature and language, civics, and history.  Professional and technical subjects are often the focus; we hear much of STEM–science, technology, engineering, and math.  Other liberal arts subjects are often thought of as not interesting to today’s students, not relevant, not practical to their daily life.  The study of history has increasingly been replaced by all sorts of studies thought to appeal to aggrieved groups and that in reality are nothing more than the advancement of progressive agendas.

The loss of an understanding of and an appreciation for American history has brought us to a dangerous point.  American exceptionalism is denied and even ridiculed by many, if not most, in academia, the media, and in the political sphere.  The brilliance and heroism of the Founders is ignored and denied.  The founding documents of the nation are not appreciated for their unique value and the wisdom they contain.  Our national heroes are dismissed for their perceived imperfections.  Recent immigrants often seem to expect immediate equality of outcome, attributing failure to achieve overnight success as racism, rather than understanding that America has never guaranteed and cannot guarantee equal outcomes, only a degree of equivalence of opportunity.  My own ancestors, descended from legal immigrants from Europe in the early nineteenth century, benefited from the Homestead Act as they moved West, but otherwise knew nothing of guaranteed outcomes or public welfare.  They and their descendants endured failure and backbreaking labor for decades before achieving any degree of success.  But they enjoyed the benefits of freedom and opportunity.  The United States has many blots on its history, not to be ignored or minimized, but that does not change its exceptional role in the world.  One notes that immigrants continue to seek entry into the country, but few choose to leave.

Victor Davis Hanson is a classicist and historian at the Hoover Institution at Stanford University.  Recently he wrote,

“In their radical progressive view—shared by billionaires from Silicon Valley, recent immigrants, and the new Democratic Party—America was flawed, perhaps fatally, at its origins.

Things have not gotten much better in the country’s subsequent 243 years, nor will they get any better—at least not until America as we know it is dismantled and replaced by a new nation predicated on race, class, and gender identity politics agendas.

In this view, an “OK” America is no better than other countries. As Barack Obama once bluntly put it, America is only exceptional in relative terms, given that citizens of Greece and the United Kingdom believe their own countries are just as exceptional. In other words, there is no absolute standard to judge a nation’s excellence.

About half the country disagrees. It insists that America’s sins, past and present, are those of mankind. But only in America were human failings constantly critiqued and addressed.

America does not have to be perfect to be good. As the world’s wealthiest democracy, it certainly has given people from all over the world greater security and affluence than any other nation in history—with the largest economy, largest military, greatest energy production, and most top-ranked universities in the world.

America alone kept the postwar peace and still preserves free and safe global communications, travel, and commerce.

The traditionalists see American history as a unique effort to overcome human weakness, bias, and sin. That effort is unmatched by other cultures and nations, and explains why millions of foreign nationals swarm into the United States, both legally and illegally.

These arguments over our past are really over the present—and especially the future.

If progressives and socialists can at last convince the American public that their country was always hopelessly flawed, they can gain power to remake it based on their own interests.”

Partly as a result of a lack of appreciation of our past, American society is in decline, dangerously so, and is deeply divided.  Professor and author Walter Williams noted in a recent article in “The Daily Signal” that

“A society’s first line of defense is not the law or the criminal justice system, but customs, traditions, and moral values. These behavioral norms, mostly imparted by example, word-of-mouth, and religious teachings, represent a body of wisdom distilled over the ages through experience and trial and error.  Police and laws can never replace these restraints on personal conduct.  At best, the police and criminal justice system are the last desperate line of defense for a civilized society.  Today’s true tragedy is that most people think what we see today has always been so.  As such, today’s Americans accept behavior that our parents and grandparents never would have accepted.”

                                                                                  

Remembering American history is critical to our nation.  Perhaps more importantly, we as Christians need to remember our history.

It has been suggested that the evangelical church needs to “unhitch” from the Old Testament.  We need more of the spirit of the Sermon on the Mount, nothing of the Ten Commandments, it is argued.  Increasingly, evangelical churches feature TED talks and motivational speeches referencing a Bible story or verse in place of preaching and teaching from Scripture.  Many churches no longer talk of doctrine and eternal truth, emphasizing topics like relationship advice, achieving prosperity, success, love, acceptance, and affirmation.  Church services feature contemporary entertainment in place of distinctively Christian congregational singing of music that centers on doctrine, sin and salvation, Who God is and what He has done for us in Christ.  Children are entertained and taught benevolence and environmentalism, not the Bible.  After all, the church needs to be “relevant.”  We must give people what they want and think they need if we are to attract them and help them to have a better life.

But for the church to truly be the church, to do what we have been commissioned to do, to present the gospel and disciple people, to teach them how they should live in light of the gospel, we must systematically preach, teach, and adhere to the Bible.  All of it.  And that of necessity is a study of history.

The Bible, though recorded over several centuries by a number of human authors, is a unified story of the Divine plan for humankind from creation to the end of time.  The Bible tells us where we came from; it teaches us about creation and our origin; it answers the questions as to the meaning and purpose of life.  It teaches why God created us and it shows us Who He is to the extent that we can understand Him.  The Scriptures tell us of the origin of sin, God’s offense and righteous anger at our sin and rebellion, and help us to understand why things are the way they are in a world after the Fall.  The Scriptures explain the necessity of salvation and tell us the story of our redemption, the unfolding of the divine plan for human salvation from the Fall through the centuries culminating in the Cross.  And it tells us how we can each individually enter into eternal life through the atonement Christ has made for our sins.  He did not live merely give us a lot of really good philosophy and advice.  In space and time, in history, God in Christ entered into the world and endured torture and death on a real Roman cross and bodily rose from a real grave as the One perfect and acceptable sacrifice for human sin.

The events recorded in both Old and New Testaments are real, historic events.  They happened in space and time, and it is important to remember this and consider the context that this gives to all that Scripture teaches.  The Bible is not merely a book of musings, a collection of inspirational writings.  We are not asked to empty our minds in esoteric contemplation or meditation; we are asked to fill our minds with Scripture, thoughts and words rooted in history.  The Old Testament gives us an important context for understanding the life of Jesus and his teachings.  When we understand the Judaism of Jesus’ time and the history of the Jewish people, we can better understand the New Testament.  When we remember these things and understand something of the Roman empire and the world in which Jesus and the disciples lived, we can better understand the books of the New Testament.  The New Testament and the Old Testament are writings inspired by God, and they are also rooted in history and record events that really occurred.

The pastor of the church I attend preaches Scripture, systematically, in context.  He does not deliver motivational speeches propped up with out-of-context passages from the Bible, designed to appeal to a particular demographic, designed to attract people looking for something inspirational and relevant to their perceived needs.  Currently, he is preaching an extended series on Sunday mornings, preaching the book of Isaiah.  But while he is preaching the book, he is not merely teaching a course in history.  He is teaching vital truth, relevant to the timeless needs we all have.

The ancient Jewish prophet Isaiah wrote some eight centuries before Christ.  During Isaiah’s lifetime, the apostate northern Jewish kingdom of Israel with its capital at Samaria was conquered and destroyed.  Judah, the southern Jewish kingdom with Jerusalem as its capital, was repeatedly threatened, and knew periods of decline as well as periods of revival and faithfulness to God.  In the background was the ancient superpower of Assyria, who conquered Israel as well as other kingdoms in the region and repeatedly threatened Judah.  If one is a typical prosperous American looking perhaps for a little religious inspiration, entertainment, or life coaching, the response might be, “So What?  Who Cares?”

But the book of Isaiah contains much that is completely relevant to the real, timeless needs that we all have.  The divinely inspired prophet Isaiah spoke many prophecies that were fulfilled in his lifetime, prophecies that were fulfilled in the following decades, and prophecies of the Messiah that were fulfilled centuries later in Christ.  We learn that we can trust Scripture when we observe these fulfilled prophecies, and we understand that just as these events happened exactly as Isaiah predicted, so will events still future be fulfilled just as Isaiah foretold.  We learn that God is sovereign, ultimately in control in the affairs of man, and we thus learn that we can trust Him in our life.  Isaiah warned the kings and people of his day against sin, exhorted faithfulness to God, and reminded them of the results that would follow; and just as he foretold, repentance brought deliverance, sin brought judgement.  We would be wise to learn and heed this principle.  Isaiah warned Judah against alliance with surrounding kingdoms in a bid to stand against Assyria, and records both the pronouncement of doom and the fall of those kingdoms.  Even powerful Egypt suffered defeat at the hands of Assyria, confirming the words delivered by the inspired prophet.  We would do well to remember that our hope is not with the petty solutions and worldly wisdom that might appeal to us, but when an overwhelming circumstance threatens us, our help comes from the Lord.  Old Testament history records an amazing deliverance by God when an Assyrian army threatened Jerusalem.  Tens of thousands of the invaders died in their sleep; the surviving army was forced to return to their homeland.  The Assyrian empire ultimately fell just as Isaiah prophesied, replaced by Babylon just as Isaiah prophesied.  Judah ultimately was unfaithful to God and fell to Babylon, just as Isaiah prophesied, Babylon rose and fell just as Isaiah prophesied, and the Jewish remnant returned to Jerusalem, just as Isaiah prophesied.  God preserved the Jewish nation through whom Messiah would come; God was faithful to His ancient promises.  Secular history confirms and aligns with these events recorded in Scripture.  The accounts and sermons of the Old Testament prophets are powerful, timeless, and supremely relevant.  Keep the motivational speeches and inspirational talks and entertainment; I prefer to listen to the timeless lessons of Scripture that are firmly rooted in verifiable history.

When Jesus bodily rose from the grave, he taught his followers for some forty days before ascending into heaven and declaring that one day he would return.  His disciples began to declare the gospel to their world; the story of Christ and the gospel began to spread and was widely believed.  Luke, Paul, John, and others under inspiration penned the New Testament books, which record verifiable history that helps give context to the theology, doctrine, and teachings conveyed in those writings.  For some two thousand years, the gospel has been declared, shared, believed, studied, and loved by millions.  The world has been completely affected by Christianity and by Christians who have been transformed by the gospel.  History confirms this.  The sacrifice of martyrs–from the Twelve and other early disciples to those in our day who still give their lives–to those who have lived under persecution or who still live under persecution, are the historic heritage of the faith.  Some heroic, most anonymous and ordinary, history tells us of countless individual Christians who have lived their faith and left us stories of great inspiration and example.  We do well when we study the history of the church.  It is our heritage, and we profit from knowing it as surely as Americans profit from knowing, appreciating, studying, and learning from our national history.

Development of a Christian worldview is supremely important, and we do that through knowing and understanding the Scriptures.  They are our foundational documents.  The Scriptures record for us the truths, doctrines, philosophy, and the timeless information God has given us for life.  In churches and individually, we must be committed to the Bible.  It is “malpractice” and worse when a church does not teach Scripture.  It is sin when believers do not read, study, believe, and practice the teachings of the Bible.  Through the Bible, we are inspired, comforted, challenged, instructed.  The Scriptures are “the words of life,” giving us the gospel and giving us the plan and purpose of God for our lives.  We cannot fully understand the Scriptures until we understand that they are true in total, recording real events, and we are prepared to learn from that history.  We must constantly remember them as our founding documents, and remember above all our allegiance to Christ the Founder of the historic orthodox Christian faith.

 

 

Crossing An International Border

My wife and I recently visited Niagara Falls for a quick vacation.  We flew to and from our destination, and both times we presented documentation and were screened before we were able to board the plane.  It was inconvenient, but in the age of terrorism not unreasonable.  From the New York side where we stayed, we crossed into Canada twice, once with our rental car, and once on foot.  We paid a small toll at the bridge, and both times we presented our passports and were briefly questioned by border patrol agents on both sides of the border.  This is exactly what should happen when one crosses an international boundary; crossing without proper documentation should be allowed only rarely for limited reasons and with intense scrutiny.

The Canadians were happy to have us as American tourists.  I am confident we could have stayed in that country for an extended period of time if we wished to do so and followed Canadian law.  Every time we might make a financial transaction, we would pay taxes and support an employed Canadian selling us a product or service.  Should we have required emergency medical care, I am confident we could have secured it.  Beyond that, I have doubts as to our eligibility to receive Canadian welfare-state benefits or “entitlements” at the expense of the Canadian taxpayers.  I have not investigated it, but I am confident that I could not secure employment there without some sort of additional documentation or work permit.  I doubt that I would have been recruited to vote in the next election.  Canada is a sovereign nation of which I am not a citizen.

Meanwhile, hundreds of undocumented aliens pour into the United States each day, from who-knows-where, for who-knows-what reasons, carrying who-knows-what contraband.  Most are simply poor and uneducated and seek to come to a place of affluence.  They are not scrutinized, almost welcomed into the country, and recruited to claim their “entitlements” from the American taxpayers, settling into sub-cultures that continue to divide society.  Most remain in the country permanently to bear or father children who will be financial wards of the American taxpayer.  The social and economic costs are enormous.  Progressive politicians seem to favor open borders, almost as if they wish to profoundly change the country according to their vision, through a flood of illegal immigrants.  Progressive religious leaders seem to be in favor of this as well.

Something is not right here.

                                                                          

There is no illegal immigration into the Eternal Kingdom of God.  All who enter God’s kingdom are immigrants.  No one is born a citizen, and entrance into eternal life is not universal.  All who enter into God’s kingdom must submit to the One who is Sovereign over that Kingdom and enter in by the manner He has proscribed.  Jesus said, recorded in John 14:6, “I am the way, the truth, and the life. No one comes to the Father except through Me.”  The body of Scripture affirms this.  Peter spoke, as recorded in Acts 4:12, “Nor is there salvation in any other, for there is no other name under heaven given among men by which we must be saved.”  Romans 3 spells out the necessity of faith and repentance, predicated by God’s grace, made possible by the atonement that Christ has made for us.  The gospel – the good news of eternal life – is that Jesus has atoned for the sins of all who acknowledge their sin and inability, repent of their sin and call out to God for salvation.  And the Scriptures tell us that He wants us to come.  He seeks us; He has commissioned the church to actively proclaim the gospel and take it to all the world, near and far.  But without the proper “documentation,” if you will, we are not citizens of God’s kingdom and cannot enter into eternal life.  We must enter on His terms.   

The American church is forgetting this message.  There is much talk of God’s love, much about health and happiness and about what He wants to give us in this life.  We hear from liberal churchmen of the universal fatherhood of God but not much of the unique fatherhood of God toward those who believe.  This is a deficient message, leaving out a biblical view of the saving gospel.  The same liberal post-christian religion that seeks to facilitate illegal immigration into the country deceives people into believing that they can enter into an eternal kingdom of God that is without borders, with no entrance requirements.  Increasingly, this message is permeating evangelicalism.

The writer of the New Testament book of Hebrews wrote, in chapter 11,

13 These all died in faith, not having received the promises, but having seen them afar off were assured of them, embraced them and confessed that they were strangers and pilgrims on the earth. 14 For those who say such things declare plainly that they seek a homeland. 15 And truly if they had called to mind that country from which they had come out, they would have had opportunity to return. 16 But now they desire a better, that is, a heavenly country. Therefore God is not ashamed to be called their God, for He has prepared a city for them.

Abortion, Conscience, and the Church

I recently read an editorial page piece in my local newspaper, reprinted from The Washington Post.  Titled “When I Needed It, Abortions Weren’t Illegal,” the author shares, “I had an abortion in Alabama when I was 14.  If the state’s laws had been the same then as they are now, my whole life would be different.”  The article was written in response to recent pro-life legislation in that state and at least two others.  The author relates her story of that abortion experience, aided by her mother and an aunt who “wanted to inform and empower me,” although it was opposed by her father.  Of the abortion experience, she notes, “The doctor was kind. While taking the ultrasound, he said that I could look at the screen if I wanted to – that, in fact, it might make me feel better. I’d had little in the way of sex education and could barely conceptualize what was happening in my own body. Was there really a baby inside me?  What I saw was gray and cloudy, a barely perceptible swirl of cells. That simple encouragement has stayed with me to this day. The doctor knew that an abortion was a routine medical procedure — he wanted to reassure me, to give me a sense of normalcy, to inform me about what was happening in my own body.”

What really caught my attention were two statements later in the article.  She goes on to note, “Today, I live in Texas with my three children, where in my spare time, I volunteer to drive people seeking an abortion to and from their appointments,” and later, “From my own experience, having two more abortions after I became a mother, and from my volunteering, I know the reality of the procedure.”  Although I know that this attitude is commonplace, I was stunned at the almost celebratory and militant attitude toward the subject.  The article, obviously, remained in my mind, enough so that I was moved to pray for this woman, and her living children, when I prayed the next few mornings, rather than being merely angered.

Later, I happened across a piece entitled “The Epidemic of a Seared Conscience” on the internet site News With Views, authored by Dr. Mark Spaulding, a Calvary Chapel pastor, a portion of which reads,

“What has happened to a great number of men and women in America is that their conscience has become seared. Their mind is in a state of depreciating ability to grasp morality personally and interpersonally. They have become incapable of moral reasoning and logical analysis that lead to guilt or shame related to their thinking and behavior. They are being turned over to the darkness they crave and prostitute themselves to and on behalf of.

Depending on the severity of the behavior, psychologists call this psychopathic or sociopathic behavior. The difference between the two is that a psychopath has no conscience remaining. The psychopath’s conscience is completely seared and devoid of any emotion of shame or guilt associated with their behavior. Ironically, Hollywood glamorizes this behavior, giving tacit approval to the violent and murderous results of psychopathic people.

The sociopath has a small amount of conscience remaining. This person might still feel a twinge of guilt but not enough to stop their evil behavior. Both the psychopath and sociopath are dangerous to others with which they interact and especially those with whom they disagree.  Courtrooms across this nation are filled with cases involving the egregious behavior of people with little to no functioning conscience.

All of the examples above demonstrate varying states of the inability to reason morally. America is well down the path of being wrested from its moral foundations by psychopaths and sociopaths whose faculties have been impaired by evil. What can be done to correct this development? We must first understand what we are dealing with.

The late J.I. Packer said concerning conscience that:

“An educated, sensitive conscience is God’s monitor.  It alerts us to the moral quality of what we do or plan to do, forbids lawlessness and irresponsibility, and makes us feel guilt, shame, and fear of the future retribution that it tells us we deserve, when we have allowed ourselves to deny its restraints…Satan’s strategy is to corrupt, desensitize, and if possible kill our consciences.  The relativism, materialism, narcissism, secularism, and hedonism of today’s Western world help him mightily toward his goal.  His task is made yet simpler by the way in which the world’s moral weaknesses have been taken into the contemporary church.”  (J.I. Packer, Rediscovering Holiness)

Packer identified the real crux of the issue. Conscience is a God-given warning system that has been deliberately turned off today in a large number of Americans. An alarm cannot warn of danger if it is not connected to a power source.

Slowly and over time the innate ability of Americans to determine right from wrong has been strategically and with malice corrupted. The constant drive to remove and even erase Christianity from the public mind and memory has borne the rottenest of fruit culturally speaking.

How can a culture sustain moral uprightness from generation to generation when even the Church, that instrument of God meant to inform and when necessary, correct culture, begins to emulate the culture? When a society becomes seared in conscience, when a critical mass of people begin to think and advocate for evil under the guise of good, and exchange light for darkness, their minds become seared as with a branding iron and the resultant scar tissue renders them incapable of returning to correct thinking and behavior absent a radical surgery.

The Church is meant to be God’s scalpel, guided by His hand to make perfect incisions to remove the cancer of evil, the scar tissue of a seared conscience, and in so doing, restore right thinking and behavior to all individuals. When the Church refuses to do that mass deception is allowed to congeal and that environment creates hostility toward the truth of man’s precarious condition and toward the only solution to his dilemma.”

The woman in the editorial is a demonstration of the observation that “When a society becomes seared in conscience, when a critical mass of people begin to think and advocate for evil under the guise of good, and exchange light for darkness, their minds become seared as with a branding iron and the resultant scar tissue renders them incapable of returning to correct thinking and behavior absent a radical surgery.”  Again, I was moved to pray for her after reading her story.  She needs to believe the Gospel and come to Christ by faith and repentance, just as all humans do.  She needs to realize her true guilt, as we all do as part of the human race in rebellion against God, and find freedom from that guilt and sin at the Cross where Jesus died as the One Perfect Sacrifice in atonement for the sin of all who would believe.

There is no moral social consensus currently concerning abortion.  Some states have recently passed legislation to make abortion legal at any stage of pregnancy, even suggesting that if a late-term abortion results in a live birth, it is permissible to let the child die without medical attempt to save the child.  The Empire State Building was lit up in celebration of the passage of New York’s extreme abortion bill.  Statistics tell us that repeat abortions, abortions after a mother has already had an abortion, are common.  It is regarded merely as a form of birth control, a minor medical procedure, almost akin to having a tooth pulled.  The New York legislature is, meanwhile, considering legislation to stop the declawing of cats.  The ancient prophet Isaiah wrote, in Isaiah 5:20, “Woe to those who call evil good, and good evil; Who put darkness for light, and light for darkness: Who put bitter for sweet, and sweet for bitter!”

I am ardently pro-life, and perhaps only somewhat comprehend the complexity of the issue.  We have two adopted children whose birth mothers could have, I suppose, chosen to abort them.  We were recently blessed by the birth of a granddaughter, who we saw for the first time via ultrasound before her birth.  I understand that situations are different, and many women with unplanned pregnancies agonize over their situation.  An unplanned and unwanted pregnancy can be devastating.  Recent legislation in at least three states is solidly pro-life; I have no doubt that the progressive left judiciary will not allow these laws to stand.  Without a societal consensus, legal restrictions on abortion will have only minimal effect.

The American religious community in many ways fails to effectively address this issue.  Some pro-lifers do not realize that threats of violence and hateful rhetoric do not aid their cause.   Liberal progressive denominations not only do not oppose abortion but in many cases support it.  The Evangelical community broadly is ineffective in addressing moral issues as well, sometimes through silence, but perhaps more importantly by diverting away from emphasizing the need for believers to grow in their faith and develop a truly Christian perspective so they can effectively live out the Gospel.

Evangelical churches in twenty-first century America often seem to be caught up in post-modernism and focus on attracting adherents through motivational speeches and pop psychology and prosperity theology and trendy contemporary entertainment and love and acceptance without mentioning sin and forgiveness.  But when the Church fails to rigidly adhere to Scripture and the consistent teaching of the Gospel and its ramifications for all of life, it will not have an impact.  Churches must be committed to the job of “equipping of the saints for the work of the ministry (Ephesians 4:12)” so those mature believers can effectively minister to people and have an impact on their communities.  Again quoting Dr. Spaulding, “The Church is meant to be God’s scalpel, guided by His hand to make perfect incisions to remove the cancer of evil, the scar tissue of a seared conscience, and in so doing, restore right thinking and behavior to all individuals. When the Church refuses to do that mass deception is allowed to congeal and that environment creates hostility toward the truth of man’s precarious condition and toward the only solution to his dilemma.”

 

The Goodness of God

I recently attended an event where I heard a contemporary christian entertainment song that I have heard many times before.  Here are some of the lyrics:

You are good, good, oh, You are good, good, oh, You are good, good, oh, You are good, good, oh
Let the King of my heart, Be the wind inside my sails, The anchor in the waves
Oh, He is my song
Let the King of my heart, Be the fire inside my veins, The echo of my days
Oh, He is my song
You are good, good, oh, You are good, good, oh, Yes, You are good, good, oh
You are good, good, oh
You’re never gonna let, never gonna let me down
You’re never gonna let, never gonna let me down
You’re never gonna let, never gonna let me down
You’re never gonna let, never gonna let me down
You are good, good, oh
You are good, good, oh
You are good, good, oh (when the night is holding onto me)
You are good, good, oh (You are holding on)
You are good, good, oh (when the night is holding onto me)
You are good, good, oh (You are holding on)
You are good, You’re good, oh
You are good, good, oh
When the night is holding onto me

I submit that these words are a deceptive half-truth.

Say what?

I believe that, indeed, God is good.  Unquestionably, God is good, always good, depending on one’s perspective.  And I understand from Scripture that God often delights in blessing His people with good things in life.  As I write this, it is early May.  A tree in our front yard is in bloom, with a beautiful fragrance that I very much enjoy, and beautiful blooms cover the tree.  I go to the front door several times each day just to appreciate the tree.  Any person with a sense of smell and any sighted person can appreciate the tree.  The general goodness of God allows for this.  The magnificence of the Creator is on display everywhere.  But, is God still good when one loses the sense of smell, or the ability to see?  Is God still good when one is hungry with no food, when one loses a relationship, when one becomes unemployed?  Depending on one’s perspective, does God sometimes let me down?  Or, is He just always the wind in my sails and my anchor and my inspiration who never lets me down?

The idea of never-ending triumph sets us up for failure.  The contemporary church often tries to be attractive to society by presenting this overly positive triumphant happy attitude.  God really, really loves and affirms and accepts you just like you are and wants you to add Jesus to your life and be happy and successful and so do we.  This is not the message of the Bible.  Further, in this life, Christians are not promised that they will never know difficulty.  In fact, often our faith can cause difficulties, heartaches, and conflicts.  God’s love is not a divine version of the love of a spouse or boyfriend or genie-in-a-bottle.  Sometimes God allows conflict and difficulty, and this is according to His plan and purpose.  When we don’t acknowledge this reality, we set up both ourselves and others for failure.

In Romans 2:4 (New King James Version) we read, “Or do you despise the riches of His goodness, forbearance, and longsuffering, not knowing that the goodness of God leads you to repentance?”   Mankind is not merely living in a broken world, and I don’t just make mistakes.  Mankind is hopelessly lost in sin and rebellion against the Creator.  Mankind is subject to the righteous wrath of God against sin.  The very nature of God demands that sin be dealt with, atoned for.  Jesus didn’t die on the cross because He spoke truth to power, because He made religious hypocrites and those in political power uncomfortable.  He didn’t come primarily to bring a message of justice and love and affirmation.  He came according to the divine plan and purpose of God in order that He might suffer and die on the cross as the only perfect and acceptable sacrifice for the sin of those who would repent and believe.  That is offensive to many.  How could a good God be involved with blood and sacrifice and suffering and death?  Why would a good God allow people to go to eternal loss in Hell?  Why wouldn’t a truly good God just overlook sin and declare everyone righteous by divine fiat?  All that blood and sacrifice and eternal punishment stuff, many would say, doesn’t sound like love.  In fact, it is repugnant to post-modern man.  So too often the church no longer preaches and teaches and sings these truths.

The Bible tells me that I don’t merely make mistakes that He can just overlook; I am a born sinner who commits sins, acts of disobedience and rebellion against the eternal, holy, righteous, perfect God.  While this sin of the created is a massive affront against the Creator, it is His goodness that allows for His forgiveness.  It is His goodness that provided a way for my regeneration through faith and repentance.  Incomprehensible divine love provided for the Savior to atone for my sin on the cross.  His goodness doesn’t just accept and overlook sin, like a loving grandparent or a spouse or boyfriend or other offended human, but His goodness provided the avenue for my salvation from the consequences of sin.  And that requires that I believe that the gospel is true, that I acknowledge my sin, and turn to Christ in faith.  It isn’t enough to just acknowledge that God is good and is my inspiration and will never let me down.  I must acknowledge my sin and true guilt and acknowledge Him as Lord and Savior.  I cannot reform or perform religious rites or vow to become a better person to merit salvation; salvation is all of God’s grace.  But salvation doesn’t just affirm me in my sin; it requires that I turn away from sin and willingly give myself to Him as Lord and Savior.  This is the essence of the gospel, the central message of the church.

Further, we must acknowledge the reality of God’s goodness in the context of His sovereignty and His divine plan for us.  I don’t completely understand human suffering.  I don’t understand why good things happen to seemingly bad people while bad things happen to seemingly good people.  But I do rejoice in the fact that it is all for His ultimate glory and therefore for the best.   Paul wrote in Ephesians 1:3, “Blessed be the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ, who has blessed us with every spiritual blessing in the heavenly places in Christ.”  No, He never “lets me down,” but that is a matter of perspective.  An eternal perspective.  I think H. G. Spafford presented a more realistic tone a century ago when he wrote, after the tragic loss of his family in a shipwreck, “When peace like a river, attendeth my way, and sorrows like sea billows roll, Whatever my lot, Thou hast taught me to say, it is well, it is well, with my soul.”

An Old Testament Hymn of Praise

I have the joy of being part of a church where the Bible is systematically preached.  Not merely referenced, but actually taught and preached.  The pastor is in the midst of preaching through the book of Isaiah, one chapter each week.  A benefit of this approach is that, knowing the text for the next week, one can read and ponder the text for the coming week and over time develop a better understanding of the book.  The chapter for the address for the coming week as I write this is Isaiah 12.  I was moved as I read through this chapter yesterday.  I’ve read it aloud more than once since, as a prayer, as a song of worship.

Isaiah 12  (NKJV)

“And in that day you will say:

“O Lord, I will praise You;
Though You were angry with me,
Your anger is turned away, and You comfort me.
2 Behold, God is my salvation,
I will trust and not be afraid;
‘For Yah, the Lord, is my strength and song;
He also has become my salvation.’ ”
3 Therefore with joy you will draw water
From the wells of salvation.

4 And in that day you will say:

“Praise the Lord, call upon His name;
Declare His deeds among the peoples,
Make mention that His name is exalted.
5 Sing to the Lord,
For He has done excellent things;
This is known in all the earth.
6 Cry out and shout, O inhabitant of Zion,
For great is the Holy One of Israel in your midst!”

I do not know Hebrew, but in English this poem easily divides into two sections, section one the first three verses, and section two verses four through six.  They are parallel both in feel and in content, like two verses of a hymn.  Earlier in Isaiah, there have been recurrent denunciations of the sins of the Jewish nation and prophecies of coming judgement and destruction, as well as promises of the future Messiah and preservation of a faithful remnant.  Chapter eleven speaks of the future Deliverer and regathering of the Jewish nation, and chapter twelve is a hymn of praise to the future Deliverer and celebrates the future kingdom.

This is a writing of true worship.  It worships God for Who He Is, for salvation from His just anger at sin, for what He has done and has promised to do for His people.  The words are deeply meaningful, substantial, and true.  It is not merely a song of faint praise for how He might make someone feel or how He might make someone feel good when He gives them a lot of good stuff or makes them successful.

The old commentator Matthew Henry wrote of this passage,

“This is a hymn of praise suited to the times of the Messiah.  The song of praise in this chapter is suitable for the return of the outcasts of Israel from their long captivity, but it is especially suitable to the case of a sinner, when he first finds peace and joy in believing; to that of a believer, when his peace is renewed after corrections for backslidings; and to that of the whole company of the redeemed, when they meet before the throne of God in heaven. The promise is sure, and the blessings contained in it are very rich; and the benefits enjoyed through Jesus Christ, call for the most enlarged thanksgivings. By Jesus Christ, the Root of Jesse, the Divine anger against mankind was turned away, for he is our Peace.”

As a believer, I’m excited to, as verse five says, “Sing to the Lord, for He has done excellent things.”  I’m excited to sing that song of Who He Is and what He has done for me in Christ, both now, and in “that day.”

I can’t wait to hear this chapter preached on Sunday!

What Easter Is – And Isn’t

Perhaps more than at any other season, professing Christians throughout Christendom will attend a Good Friday or an Easter Sunday church service.  They will hear any of a variety of perspectives.  Easter might be presented in the context of thoughts about Spring, a time of new beginning after Winter.  Jesus might be spoken of as a divine messenger from God, a fabulously inspired teacher, who offended  the religious and political authorities of His day and so was silenced, but whose inspired teachings didn’t die but live on in the minds and hearts of His followers.  Jesus on the cross might be presented as demonstrating the love and acceptance of God for all of humanity, who bore the sins of His people on the cross in the sense that His sacrifice served to inspire and motivate us to overcome our difficulties.  Like a great cosmic boyfriend, He inspires us to reach our full potential and accepts us and affirms us just as we are because, after all, He really, really likes us!  I once listened to an Easter sermon that was built on the premise that the moved tombstone at the empty grave of Jesus was a metaphor for obstacles we need to have removed in our life.  The real point of the moved tombstone, however, and the point of the empty grave, is much more than a reminder about our personal obstacles; it is that Jesus was alive after being dead, and because of that there is eternal life in Christ.

The Bible teaches that humans are sinners in need of salvation, not merely salvation from bad things that happen to us in this life, but from the righteous anger of God against our sin and rebellion both individually and corporately as part of the human race.  In 1 Thessalonians 1:10, the Bible reminds us “to wait for His Son from heaven, whom He raised from the dead, even Jesus who delivers us from the wrath to come.”  Jesus died to deliver us from the wrath of God, preaching and repeatedly warning of an impending judgment of the world, at which point God is going to pour out His wrath against the unredeemed, the ungodly, and the impenitent. The only hope of escape from that outpouring of divine wrath is to be covered by the atonement of Christ.  Jesus’ work on the cross was to placate the wrath of God.  He didn’t die by accident; it was the divine plan of God from the very beginning.  He didn’t die because He took a risk of offending, He didn’t die merely as a martyr or an example, or as a general expression of love and acceptance toward all of humanity.  He died as the perfect sacrifice, the One Saving Plan of God, to turn away God’s righteous anger and make possible a change of God’s disposition toward those who would repent and believe the Gospel.   The idea of placating the wrath of God is not popular today.  Some would say that it is beneath the dignity of God to think that we should have to do something to soothe Him or appease Him.  But this is the very core of the biblical concept of salvation, not that we ourselves can do something to merit salvation, but that it has been done for us by God Himself in Christ.  The only hope of escape from God’s wrath is to be covered by the atonement of Christ.

What Christ’s achieved on the cross is nothing less than the reality that He placated the wrath of God that is inherent in the nature and purpose of God and which condemns us if we not covered by the sacrifice of Christ.  Further, the atonement at Calvary didn’t take away the sins of all of humanity and so leave us with a Gospel defined as merely a path to living a better life in this world since we’re all going to heaven anyway, about making one’s life better or to becoming part of a movement to “make the world a better place.”  Many speak such ideas about “Jesus,” but they don’t acknowledge the real message of Jesus, which is the  Gospel of the Holiness of God and His Law and the truth of our utter lostness in light of that.   Without the real Gospel of salvation by God’s grace through faith and repentance, made possible by Jesus’ death and resurrection, human beings remain under the penalty of their sin.  But there is no wrath for those whose sins have been paid. That is what salvation is all about.  That is what The Cross – and the Resurrection – is all about.

The Bible says that everyone born in Adam is a sinner at birth and needs to repent of their own sin and look to Christ by Faith Alone.  The apostle Paul in the letter to the Romans clearly explains this.  All have sinned, and have fallen short of the glory of God, everyone born in Adam is an enemy of God and must be born from above as a supernatural work of God, a work that only the Holy Spirit can do by virtue of regeneration.  A failure to do so will result in receiving the payment of their own sin–the wrath of God.

We understand the love of God only in this context.  He doesn’t merely love us as His created beings.  He doesn’t merely love us and accept us and affirm us and forgive us just as we are.  He loves us far more than that.  He loves us enough that “He became sin for us, Who knew no sin.”  Christ the God-man became the sacrifice for those of the ages who simply by God’s grace through faith would believe the Gospel.  God suffered and died on the cross for us!  He loves us enough to forgive our rebellion – creature against Creator – by providing Himself as the only acceptable atonement for our sin.  He loves us and forgives us on that basis.  The Resurrection and empty tomb demonstrate that He has conquered sin and death for us and has given us eternal life.  Good Friday is “good” because of the good news that if you accept Jesus as Lord and Savior you get eternal life with Him.  It is “good” because He died on a Roman cross willingly as a substitute for you.  He conquered death for you.  On the cross the Father turned His back on Jesus as all of the sins of the world were placed on Him.  Jesus bore our sin, guilt, and shame.  And now you just need to trust Him.

The empty tomb guarantees the end of the dominion of death over those who believe the Gospel.  In John 14:19, speaking to His disciples shortly before His arrest, Jesus told them, “A little while longer and the world will see Me no more, but you will see Me.  Because I live, you will live also.”

“Because I live, you will live also.”  That is the real meaning of Good Friday and Resurrection Sunday.

 

The Ten Commandments and God’s Love

Some suggest that the Ten Commandments are harsh and are not really consistent with the message the church should present today.   Recently a well-known megachurch personality even delivered an address titled “Thou Shalt Not Obey the Ten Commandments.”  The thought is that the Commandments and the Old Testament Law in whole comes across as judgmental and unattractive to the people who today’s church seeks to attract, and besides, the Beatitudes are really more demanding and more consistent with the message for the current age.  We should hold out the Sermon on the Mount and the love of God, not the Old Testament teachings.  Yet, throughout the history of the church, pastors and theologians have upheld the Ten Commandments as well as the whole of the moral and civil requirements enumerated in the Old Testament as an expression of God’s character and of His requirements for humanity.  The church needs to recover the practice of considering and meditating on the Ten Commandments as we grow in understanding the ramifications of the gospel and pursue the life of Christ has for us.  The church needs to present and proclaim the requirements of the moral Law and the Ten Commandments, recognizing that failure to do so is a grievous error.  It is not judgmental to recognize the commandments; rather the Ten Commandments and the moral Law are supremely the expression of God’s love.

In the first table of the commandments, the people of God were told to rigidly uphold the centrality, primacy, and holiness of God.  They were to recognize no false deity, have no idols, reverence the true God supremely, and set aside a day each week to consider and meditate upon Him.   The second group of commandments regulates human behavior in family and society.  The family unit was to be upheld, parents to be respected.  The sanctity of human life was to be observed, with murder prohibited.  Honesty and truthfulness were commanded.  Private property rights were advanced with the prohibitions against theft and coveting.  And the prohibition against adultery regulates sexuality in society and upholds the sanctity of marriage.  These principles appear throughout the moral and civil Law in the Old Testament.  Further, they are not replaced or repudiated in the New Testament; rather, they are foundational to the principles of the Sermon on the Mount and the way of life exhorted throughout the New Testament.

It is abundantly clear that the Scriptures present the necessity of salvation from sin, salvation not by works or upholding the Law, but by grace and faith.  One cannot be saved by the Law, by upholding the Ten Commandments, or for that matter by aspiring to live by the high standards of the Sermon on the Mount.  The New Testament, particularly the books of Romans and Galatians (especially chapters 3 and 5), make it absolutely clear that salvation is not obtained by keeping the Old Testament Law, but by grace.  And yet, the Law points us to Christ.  First Corinthians chapter 6 beginning in verse 9 tells us, “Do you not know that the unrighteous will not inherit the kingdom of God?  Do not be deceived.  Neither fornicators, nor idolaters, nor adulterers, nor homosexuals, nor sodomites, nor thieves, nor covetous, nor drunkards, nor revilers, nor extortioners will inherit the kingdom of God.  And such were some of you.  But you were washed, but you were sanctified, but you were justified in the name of the Lord Jesus and by the Spirit of our God.”  Recognizing their sin, repenting of sin, lost people turn to God by faith in Christ and are saved.  That is the only way of salvation.

The Ten Commandments and the Old Testament moral Law demonstrate God’s love to us by showing us the folly of sin and rebellion against God, and thus pointing us to the Savior.  In so doing, by pointing us to the great atoning acts of Christ, they direct us to the love of God.  Even in the Old Testament ceremonial Law, God’s plan for redemption through the atoning sacrifice of Christ is demonstrated.  Seeing our own sin and unworthiness, we then begin to understand the surpassing greatness of the love of God.  Christ paid the penalty for all sins so that God might be merciful to all sinners.  On the cross Christ satisfied God’s justice.  We need not shy away from the Old Testament; we need to embrace it and clearly explain it.

Yet sadly many pastors reference sin (many won’t even refer to it as such) as if it’s little more than brokenness, hopelessness, lack of motivation, or an overly negative perspective.  While these things show some of the alienating effects of sin, they obscure its real nature and undermine the reality of true guilt before the Lord.  It’s the language of postmodern culture but not biblical truth.  Unbelievers’ most essential problem is not that they’re ignorant, apathetic, or without purpose or direction, but that they’ve personally, willfully, and happily rebelled against the God who made them. Their real enemy is not merely the challenges and difficulties of life in the world, but themselves and their sin.  If this is true—and the Scriptures say that it is—then what unbelievers must concern themselves with is nothing less than escaping the just judgment of God.  And yet, many supposedly evangelical churches and leaders tell them to merely affirm the person who stares back at them in the mirror and aspire to be the best person they can be, to look to Jesus as their divine life coach or inspiring cosmic boyfriend.  This is nothing less than a redefinition of salvation and of the gospel.

I saw a quote recently that indicated it is a mistake if you think that your “mess-up” is bigger than God’s grace.  This is a half-truth.  Sin is far more than just a “mess-up.”  As a child, I might have “messed-up” when I carelessly broke my Grandma’s favorite vase.  I might have felt a bit of remorse, and certainly a little panic.  She loved me, and, though a bit miffed, would have forgiven me.  But my momentary remorse, and her gracious forgiveness of my mistake, hardly compares to God’s grace in the forgiveness of sin.  The poverty of spirit Jesus spoke of in the Sermon on the Mount means recognizing how truly deficient we are apart from God.  It means seeing ourselves as we really are: spiritually lost, hopeless, and helpless.  The “poor in spirit” are people who have recognized their spiritual destitution and their total inability to save themselves and who acknowledge their complete dependence on God.  They know their only hope of salvation is to repent and ask for forgiveness.  No person can enter the kingdom of God until he or she realizes they are unworthy of that kingdom, until he or she realizes the gravity of their sin.  Our sin is not merely a slip-up.  The kind of gospel (so popular today) that omits any need for repentance and mourning because of sin is a false, unscriptural gospel–or, as Paul calls it, “a different gospel” (Gal 1:6).

Churches should speak about sin primarily as personal and willful rebellion against God. They should be clear that Jesus died on the cross as a substitute for sinners (Romans 3:25; 1 John 2:2, 4:10), not as a guide, inspiration, or rudder for the rudderless.  Jesus didn’t come with a controversial, inspiring message and take a risk of rejection that resulted in His martyrdom; He came as the promised sacrifice for sin determined by God before creation and foreshadowed in the Old Testament.  Mercy that ignores sin is false mercy; Christ paid the penalty for sins so that He might be merciful to all sinners.  On the cross Christ satisfied God’s justice.  Thus churches should be clear that humans are sinners by nature and by choice, and we need salvation from that reality, and not just salvation from social and indirect problems given to us by others or ourselves.  Of course, sin in the world causes bad things to happen to us.  It isn’t hard to convince someone that they sometimes make mistakes or that they’re a victim of others’ sin or have been materially affected by others’ sin.  It doesn’t require a work of God to convince people that we live in a flawed world.  It doesn’t take much effort to convince most people that they have “issues” that need to be addressed in order for them to become happy and successful and have better relationships.  But it’s quite difficult, certainly so apart from God’s grace, to convince someone that they themselves are guilty of sin against both God and others.

Scripture reveals an overarching narrative played out in the history of mankind – creation, the fall, redemption, and consummation at the end of the age.  God created mankind, and mankind sinned supremely by rebelling against the Creator.  Yet the Creator in love chose not to merely destroy creation, but to provide for the salvation of sinners.  It is the Law that reveals our sin and leads us to the Saviour.  And further the Law reveals for us God’s standards both for salvation from sin and the standards by which we should live.  The law reveals our sin and leads us to our Saviour.

Following the commandments of God not only points us to salvation from sin, but  regulates human behavior in a positive manner.  It is no accident that societies that have engaged in the enlightened fulfillment of the Judeo-Christian ethical standards have been demonstrably more prosperous, just, and free.  Individually, following God’s wise instruction allows us to escape the consequences that come from choices we later wish we could change and make us freer to enjoy our lives.  The high ethical standards of the Ten Commandments make for happier, more fulfilled lives.  The traditional family enjoined in the Bible is for the benefit of people, not an impediment to their imagined happiness and pleasure. The standard of one man, one woman for life marriage is a bedrock of western civilization, and the ongoing retreat from that standard is leading to societal disaster.

Regrettably, American evangelicals are sometimes known more for their commitment to public displays of the Ten Commandments than to actually obeying them.  But the Ten Commandments are a faithful summary of God’s requirements for humanity.  We need to, in love, remind people of this, both lost people and believers.  God doesn’t want to control us with dos and dont’s; rather, His guidelines show that He loves us.  Romans 13:8-10 tells us, “Owe no one anything except to love one another, for he who loves another has fulfilled the law.  For the commandments, “You shall not commit adultery,” “You shall not murder,” “You shall not steal,” “You shall not bear false witness,” “You shall not covet,” and if there is any other commandment, are all summed up in this saying, namely, “You shall love your neighbor as yourself.”  Love does no harm to a neighbor; therefore love is the fulfillment of the law.”  This passage doesn’t negate the value of the commandments, but tells us that we should observe these principles and present them not in a spirit of judgmentalism or harshness, but with a spirit that shows the love of Christ in us.  God does not give us commandments that are arbitrary or simply designed to prevent our enjoyment of life.  He loves us.  All of God’s commands are for His glory and for our good.