The Great Christian Metanarrative

The-Adoration-of-the-Lamb

The Essence of the Faith and Why it Matters

Christianity is grounded in history.  While some might think of the Bible as a disjointed collection of ancient writings, the events recorded in the Bible really happened, and there is an overarching, central theme and message.  It is in understanding this theme, this metanarrative, that we find God’s purpose for humanity, and by extension for each of us as we seek to make sense of the world and find meaning for our lives. 

The writers of the biblical texts never attempt to show any beginning for God; they simply posit that He exists.  “In the beginning, God.”  He preexists creation.  (“He” because the Bible uses male pronouns.  “He” although God of course does not have a human body, incarnate God – Jesus – was a man.)  As God, the eternally existing God, the One by whom and through whom and for whom all things exist, God’s great design in all His works is the manifestation of His own glory.  Properly so; God is God.  

The Introduction – Creation

The Bible teaches us that we were created “in God’s image,” in some limited sense corresponding to Him and resembling Him, able to reason, able to choose, able to and meant to live in relationship with Him as well as with each other.  God created mankind out of His love and goodness in a condition of communication with Him and knowing Him.  It is here that we find the introduction to the grand story of human existence.

It is easy for those of us who accept creation as fact to get caught up in debates about details (and the details are not unimportant) and miss the point that ultimately cannot and must not be missed.  Eternal God, for His own purposes and in great display of ability, power, knowledge, and wisdom, created by fiat what we know as creation.  He created the physical universe substantially as it is, the celestial bodies, the earth, all designed and created as part of His plan.  He created the earth substantially as it is (great geological changes have occurred).  He created life on the earth, plants as plants, animals as animals.  All of this creation was designed as a home for humanity.  And he created humans – as humans.  Innocent of evil, in the image of God, mentally, morally, socially able to interact with Him, created for His divine purpose.  The Bible says in Colossians 1:16-17, “For by Him all things were created that are in heaven and that are on earth, visible and invisible, whether thrones or dominions or principalities or powers.  All things were created through Him and for Him.   And He is before all things, and in Him all things consist.”  This truth is both assumed and restated throughout scripture.

The Conflict – The Fall

Everywhere around us we see the manifestation of God in creation.  The world as we know it, humanity as we know it, all that we can perceive, is simply unimaginable without a Creator far beyond anything we can contemplate, far beyond anything of the natural world, far beyond chance development from eternal space-plus-time-plus-energy/matter.  Simultaneously, all around us we see disaster and destruction.  We sense the obvious, that something is not at all right.  The Genesis story of the creation of man is quickly followed by the story of man’s rebellion against God.  Made in God’s image, Adam had the capacity to make free choices.  Fully in relationship with their Creator, Adam and Eve made the disastrous choice to rebel against their Creator.  Life in obedience and harmony with God was an existence of enjoyment, life, knowledge, and achievement, but sin – disobedience to the Creator – brought disaster, loss of life, eternal death. 

The aftermath and consequences of that rebellion against God is the story of human history.  The earth itself became tainted, a punishment to mankind for sin, becoming less hospitable to humankind, with famines, plagues, pestilence, earthquakes, floods, droughts and disasters and hardships throughout time.  Disease, various maladies, and physical death became the fate of all.  Genesis chapter 6 records the great Flood, a dramatic act of divine destruction against an ancient world deeply in sin.  Untold millions have died in wars.  Persecution against perceived enemies, greed, selfishness, pride, murder, human sacrifice, and slavery, have characterized human history. 

Humanity exists amid this Fall, the great rebellion against the Creator.  The divine nature demands justice and judgement against that rebellion; God’s nature as God demands that He doesn’t merely tolerate rebellion.  Humans are not somehow merely flawed yet perfectible.  We are rebels against God.     

None of this came as a surprise to God.  The scriptures help us to understand that God is not the cause of sin, but for His own divine purposes allowed sin.  He is all-knowing and all-powerful, who exists outside of creation, outside of time.  As difficult as it might be at first to accept, God knew when He created man “in His own image” that man would sin and rebel against Him.  That rebellion, and more importantly the solution to that rebellion, is the heart of the great metanarrative. 

The Resolution – Redemption

God in His grace provided the way that we can be forgiven and restored.  The apostle Paul wrote of Christ in Colossians 1:19-21, “For it pleased the Father that in Him all the fullness should dwell, and by Him to reconcile all things to Himself, by Him, whether things on earth or things in heaven, having made peace through the blood of His cross.   And you, who once were alienated and enemies in your mind by wicked works, yet now He has reconciled . . .”  This was the plan of God, for His own glory, before creation, before time began.  Ephesians 1:4 reminds that God “chose us in [Christ] before the foundation of the world.”  It is here we find the culmination of history, the grand purpose of God, the reason for human existence. 

Jesus is God incarnate, born into humanity for the express purpose of dying for us, to demonstrate the consequences of sin and to pay the penalty for our sins.  After His death on the cross, Jesus rose again from the dead in triumph over death that came with human sin.  All who trust Him for salvation will be forgiven and made new, as Jesus’ death was the payment and full atonement on behalf of the people of all nations and of all history who turn from their sins and embrace Christ as Savior.  This is, essentially, the gospel, the essence of Christian teaching.  The gospel is based on the life, death, and resurrection of Jesus Christ, as Paul explains in 1 Corinthians 15 and elsewhere in his writings.  For since by sinful man death and destruction came, by the incarnate God Man came resurrection and restoration.  In Adam all died, even so in Christ we are made alive.  God created man, physical death and destruction came because of disobedience, and the Cross brought atonement, reconciliation, and the promise of a new heaven and earth.  The solution to human estrangement from God is not to be found in sacramentalism, ceremony, religion, or reformation.  Jesus Christ did the only needed and acceptable work.  What is required of us is acknowledgement of our guilt, humble admission of our rebellion both individually and as a human, and acknowledgement of Christ as Savior and Lord.  We must admit that we are rebels who must lay down our arms.

It is “The Cross” and what happened there that is the centerpiece of the metanarrative. The Old Testament points to and predicts it, the New Testament presents and explains it.  By it the sins of Christ’s people are atoned for; they are reconciled to God.  Everything else is subordinate to this plan, put in place by God’s providence for the sake of this plan.  In Jesus Christ on the cross divine holiness was demonstrated and justice was carried out.  God put the punishment of all our sins on Him, so that He might freely and graciously pardon believers, to the honor and exaltation of His justice, grace, and mercy, as Paul explained in Romans 3.

We should and must also consider the earthly ministry and teaching of Jesus and live our present lives in light of his teaching, but we should always remember that the purpose for which Jesus came was to die on the cross.  In the Bible’s book of Acts, chapter two, recording a sermon of the apostle Peter, one reads,  “Men of Israel, hear these words: Jesus of Nazareth, a Man attested by God to you by miracles, wonders, and signs which God did through Him in your midst, as you yourselves also know— Him, being delivered by the determined purpose and foreknowledge of God, you have taken by lawless hands, have crucified, and put to death; whom God raised up, . . .”  The reason for the incarnation and death of Jesus plainly centered around His death for us.  He was not merely a great leader or teacher or martyr who died for a cause.  It is here – the incarnation and the cross – that we begin to understand the grand plan for humanity.  Creation showed his abilities and much of what characterizes God as God, but it only went so far.  God’s ultimate purpose was not merely creation; it was Jesus Christ on the cross and on His eternal throne worshipped as savior by His redeemed for all eternity. 

The Bible indicates that outside of the creation we inhabit, there are “the hosts of heaven,” other created beings such as angels.  We might expect that an eternally existent infinite God would create throughout timeless eternity.  And in Christ and what He came to do God uniquely manifested Himself not only to humankind but to these numberless created beings.  When man sinned, God did something startling, grand, unexpected.  He demonstrated divine grace and love.  Infinite holy God provided a way for humans to be saved by the sacrificial substitutionary death of Christ.  It is here that we find the grand purpose for human existence.  God vividly displayed His infinite grace, love, mercy, and forgiveness.

In the Bible’s book of The Revelation, we observe that the “hosts of heaven” worship this “Lamb that was slain.”  The centerpiece of worship in heaven for eternity will be the display of the glory of the grace of God in the “Lamb that was slain.”   The suffering of Jesus Christ will be at the center of our worship and our wonder forever.  This is not an afterthought of God.  This was the plan before creation, the goal and purpose of creation and human existence, the reason why we exist.  The sacrifice of Christ is the focal point of the ages and of eternity for us.  It forever removed the sins of those who believe.  Angels and the redeemed of earth will sing of the suffering of this sacrificed Lamb forever; the suffering of the Son of God will never be forgotten.  We exist for God.  Jesus satisfied the Father’s justice, made the necessary atonement for sins, and created a people for God.   

The Epilogue – The Consummation

Over the last two thousand years, in the wake of the life of Jesus and the spread of Christianity, the gospel has been taught, people throughout the ages have believed that gospel and entered the spiritual kingdom of Christ’s followers.  Millions have believed the gospel, and in His divine plan God continues to add to the ranks of His eternal worshippers.  They have physically died but live on as worshippers of God, as subjects of His eternal kingdom.  They have left this life and entered a new existence with their Savior.  There is a consummation for each of us individually – we will all pass from this world and enter the eternal state.    

But the world still “groans” as the Bible says, still largely existing in the consequences of the Fall.  Of Christ’s first coming, Paul wrote in Galatians 4 that “But when the fullness of the time had come, God sent forth His Son, born of a woman, born under the law, to redeem those who were under the law, that we might receive the adoption as sons.”  Christ came “in the fullness of time,” at the time planned from the beginning.  After His resurrection, as He prepared to ascend into heaven, Jesus told His assembled disciples (Acts 1:6-11),

 Therefore, when they had come together, they asked Him, saying, “Lord, will You at this time restore the kingdom to Israel?”  And He said to them, “It is not for you to know times or seasons which the Father has put in His own authority.  But you shall receive power when the Holy Spirit has come upon you; and you shall be witnesses to Me in Jerusalem, and in all Judea and Samaria, and to the end of the earth.  Now when He had spoken these things, while they watched, He was taken up, and a cloud received Him out of their sight.   And while they looked steadfastly toward heaven as He went up, behold, two men stood by them in white apparel, who also said, “Men of Galilee, why do you stand gazing up into heaven?  This same Jesus, who was taken up from you into heaven, will so come in like manner as you saw Him go into heaven.” 

The epilogue of the metanarrative tells us that in God’s divine plan the present age will end at a divinely chosen time.  In His time, Christ will return suddenly and dramatically, as Earth’s rightful King to reclaim His country.  Judgement on the sins of the unrepentant will come.  God will intervene and bring righteousness, equity, and justice to the world, and believers will live eternally in unending praise of the One who died for their sins, in a world free from sin and its effects on a restored earth that will be ours to inhabit for eternity. 

Revelation 5:12-14 tells, “Worthy is the Lamb who was slain to receive power and riches and wisdom, And strength and honor and glory and blessing!” And every creature which is in heaven and on the earth and under the earth and such as are in the sea, and all that are in them, I heard saying: “Blessing and honor and glory and power Be to Him who sits on the throne, And to the Lamb, forever and ever!”  Believers of the ages will eternally worship, thank, and praise the Lamb who was sacrificed for our salvation.  This is the eternal plan and purpose of God.

This is essentially Christianity 101.  But, one might ask, so what? 

The Implications

For the Individual.  Creation in its grandeur displays something far beyond natural processes.  Observing creation, one does not necessarily come to conclude that the God of the Bible exists, but one must at least be open to the existence of a creator beyond creation.  The Bible causes us to understand that it is more God who seeks man rather than man seeking God, but observation of God demonstrated in creation and the created world coupled with the human conscience to some degree makes it incumbent that men do seek Him.  “God . . . now commands all men everywhere to repent.”

Those who have come to Christ and understand the great story of God’s plan for human redemption begin to understand that there is meaning and purpose to the world, to life, and to themselves.  Life is moving forward and heading toward an ultimate perfect eternal existence with God.  Our faith dictates the way we see the world, our attitudes and actions toward others, and our view of our self.  Individuals find their significance in knowing God.  Our existence has meaning; therefore, my existence has meaning.  As a believer, one comes to understand that we as human are sinful and fundamentally flawed, acknowledge our sin and rebellion, and humbly come to God.  We must live a repentant life, forming our attitudes and behavior in obedience to Him.  We understand that God our creator loves us so much that Christ died for us, and therefore we can and should live joyous, purposeful lives.  “Because He lives, I can face tomorrow.”  Despite difficulties, or enjoying positive circumstances, we live with an eternal perspective, understanding that our losses and our gains are both transitory.  God is sovereign and ultimately in control of His great grand purpose for creation and in His presence and purpose for us individually.  We are eternal worshippers of God; that is at the center of His reason for creating us, and we worship Him now in the totality of life.  As followers of Christ, it is He whom we worship in attitudes and actions, in giving excellence to the tasks in life, and serving those around us.  We worship Him when we learn and practice His ways outlined for us in the Bible.  While secularism and postmodernism cannot adequately answer the quest and longing for significance, meaning, and worth, Christianity with the unchanging central theme of Jesus Christ as Lord and Savior brings the answer to those questions.    

 There is an eternal Creator who has created and expressed His love toward us; thus, He is the source and definition of truth and knowledge.  Truth becomes absolute, not relative, in the Christian metanarrative, and this profoundly affects our perspectives and our behavior.  Our understanding about reality and how we see the world and therefore how we live, becomes completely different from those who have a different worldview not informed by an understanding of God’s program.  The great Christian metanarrative is the source of concepts long taken for granted in western culture, like human dignity and basic human rights.  The cultures and nations influenced by Christian teaching have historically developed in expression of those virtues.  Believers are uniquely able to be a positive force in society. 

Benevolence, charity, equity, fairness, justice, deference, humility, and respect for rights, are ultimately rooted in this understanding that God created and loves people.  Christ’s followers should love those who like us are created in God’s image.  Our virtues are to be an expression of our identity as a follower of Christ, and our desire to demonstrate the love of Christ is the primary motivation for expressing those virtues.  Christ died for sinners, so we declare the gospel, persuade, and convince sinners to end their rebellion and acknowledge Christ as Lord and become worshippers of Him.    

Paul wrote in Philippians 2 that ultimately every knee will bow at the name of Jesus Who humbled Himself to death on the cross.   All of creation—in heaven and on earth—ultimately will bow before Jesus Christ and Him alone (Philippians 2:10).  Believers will worship Him eternally and are called to worship Him supremely in this present life.  We live in anticipation.  We live with hope and optimism.    

For the Church.  Biblical churches are assemblies of followers of Christ, and churches have been found in cultures and societies throughout the centuries.  There is no liturgy given in the New Testament for the assembly of the local church, and those assemblies are very different in various circumstances and times.  Two ordinances have been given to the church, baptism and communion, and the central feature of both is the central truth of Christ.  In baptism, the death, burial, and resurrection of Jesus Christ is pictured, and the individual being baptized identifies with Christ and with the church.  In communion, the broken body and blood of Jesus is vividly remembered.  These ordinances are acts of worship, remembering and commemorating Christ as the atonement for one’s sin.  They put the work of Christ in the central place in the church.  That centrality is to be present in everything that the church is and does.    

It might be easier for a persecuted church to remain focused on Who God is and what Christ has done for us.  But too often the American church seems to have set the central metanarrative aside.  In previous decades especially, many in Fundamental and Evangelical circles embraced a decisional approach that often used some combination of ease and convenience, guilt, and emotion to elicit a “repeat after me” prayer that would then pronounce the convert as “saved.”  The danger here is that the person fails to understand the gospel, understand true repentance, and genuinely turn to Christ as Lord and Savior. 

The bigger failure today is the failure of churches to emphasize anything of the gospel at all.  Too often the concept of Jesus that is presented is as a great teacher, a martyr, an affirmer, a friend, a social reformer.  He is a source for inspiration, principles of success, and prosperity.  He condemns no sin, instead affirms every action and choice.  The Jesus that might be put forward is “radical” or “revolutionary,” with an emphasis on various social issues. The church assembles more to be entertained than to glorify God and commune with Him.

The metanarrative with the central truth of Christ as Savior and Lord are to be the core subject of what the church teaches, the superstructure on which all else is supported.  Scripture addresses a vast number of subjects, helps us understand how we should live, and so the church continuously addresses those topics.  We must learn to live successfully in the present world as a believer, to overcome the corruption present in society, to live out our faith in the totality of life.  We should enjoy interactions with other believers and help each other in life.  But if one attends a church and does not regularly hear of human sin, the need for repentance and faith, and the death, burial, and resurrection of Jesus Christ as the atonement for human sin, there is something wrong in that church.  If the themes and concerns of contemporary society crowd out the centrality of Christ, there is something wrong.  If the corrupt entertainment of the world is used in place of congregational singing of the gospel, there is something wrong.  If the blood of Christ is thought to be unattractive to a target audience and so is never mentioned, is never remembered in song, something is wrong.  The Lamb is the subject of the eternal “new” song and so should be now.         

Jesus at Calvary is the center point of human existence.  It is the theme of human sin and Christ as the solution to that sin that is to remain central – to the individual believer, and to a church.   

“Worthy is the Lamb who was slain to receive power and riches and wisdom, And strength and honor and glory and blessing!”

 

Music, Vacations, and Pandemics

Music is a powerful influence in both the life of an individual and of a society, and the music of a culture or subculture is a deep and profound reflection of that culture, its values, its underpinnings, and its perspectives on life.  The music one listens to demonstrates to some degree who that person is.  It is an expression of the soul.  Further, the kind of music one listens to ultimately shapes what that person is becoming; it has a definite effect on people.  We are constantly surrounded by music when we are in public places.  On a recent vacation, we went to play miniature golf at a course near our hotel, and a group of workers were performing maintenance on a small restaurant building near the course.  They were listening, perhaps on a local radio station, to music that was blaring, not quite deafening as we played the holes nearest to them.  I am not sure of the genre, perhaps rap and hip-hop, and it was loud, certainly featuring no pleasing melody or harmony, the lyrics generally indiscernible and when occasionally understandable the words were unsavory at best.  I silently wondered why one would listen to such, and what effect it might have on a person.

Often in stores, restaurants, and places of business, sometimes in public conveyances, certainly in current movies or entertainment, we are confronted by the music of the society and various subcultures.  If one is fortunate, perhaps it is merely “elevator music,” perhaps banal and benign country, or “soft” rock.  Less fortunately, one might be subjected to excessive volume, a driving beat and percussion, noise, and lyrics that are raunchy.  Hollywood, rock, hip-hop, rap, shock radio, and a host of other pop culture obsessions, helped by mainstream media and the general secular academy, have indoctrinated recent generations to encourage depravity and distract from that which is important, worthwhile, and virtuous.  Everywhere it seems we are surrounded by the music that is one of the manifestations of the self-destructive nature of morally deviant pop culture.

__________

When we returned home from the vacation, we went to church on the next Sunday.  As a believer, it was a joy to be assembled with other believers, singing words expressing Christian doctrine, singing the gospel, singing biblical themes with joy and reverence, with music featuring pleasing sounds of melody and harmony.  Singing that proclaimed the gospel, that expressed corporate worship to the Lord, that spoke “to one another in psalms and hymns and spiritual songs.”  Not the music of movie themes, not of a contemporary subculture, but of a profoundly different culture – the body of Christ.

During the early days of the Covid panic, we were of course unable to gather on Sunday with other Christians in church.  Our church was able to go online with the Sunday services from a nearly empty auditorium, but it was not close to the same.  A big part of what was lacking was the experience of reverent, orderly, joyful congregational singing.  The Bible says much about the subject of music, and there are perhaps five hundred references to music in the Bible.  The Creator knows that music has an effect on people’s lives.  He is worshipped when the assembled church sings of who He is and what He has done for us in Christ with mindful, joyful reverence.

In Revelation 5:9, the Bible depicts a scene in heaven for us and tells us, “And they sang a new song, saying: “You are worthy to take the scroll, And to open its seals; For You were slain, And have redeemed us to God by Your blood out of every tribe and tongue and people and nation . . .“  This is not a “new” song merely in chronology; it is “new” in kind and substance, recognizably different in nature from something else of a similar type.  Different than the old songs of the earth.  Just as in heaven, so it can and should be in this life.  The psalmist speaks of a “new song” in, for instance, Psalm 40:3, 96:1, and 98:1, a song that reflects the direction of our heart, a song that reminds us of Who God Is and, now in this age after the cross, what He has done for us in Christ.

“And do not be drunk with wine, in which is dissipation; but be filled with the Spirit, speaking to one another in psalms and hymns and spiritual songs, singing and making melody in your heart to the Lord, giving thanks always for all things to God the Father in the name of our Lord Jesus Christ, submitting to one another in the fear of God.  (Ephesians 5:18-21)”

“Let the word of Christ dwell in you richly in all wisdom, teaching and admonishing one another in psalms and hymns and spiritual songs, singing with grace in your hearts to the Lord.  And whatever you do in word or deed, do all in the name of the Lord Jesus, giving thanks to God the Father through Him.  (Colossians 3:16-17)”

Invasive Species

A local media story headlined “Invasive New Zealand mud snails lead to closure,” noted that access to a popular creek area was closed after the discovery of that invasive species in the creek.  The mud snails are about the size of a grain of rice and one can produce a colony of 40 million snails in a year because of their ability to rapidly reproduce through cloning, disrupting aquatic ecosystems, harming fish populations, and displacing native insects.  The species can easily move from one body of water to another by attaching to things like an animal or fishing equipment.  The parks department, struggling with how to manage the presence of the species, urged people to avoid accessing streams or creeks where the snails have been found, to thoroughly clean waders and fishing equipment, and to brush dogs to make sure that they are not carrying any of the snails.  Invasive species like this tiny mud snail can bring great harm.

Our nation is currently in turmoil and in great danger.  Our constitutional republic has seemingly become an oligarchy, ruled by a small Leftist elite.  “Patriot” has become a word considered to be almost hate speech.  Virtue is mocked while immorality is rampant and accepted.  Christianity has largely been abandoned.  This did not happen instantly; it began with small steps that over time grew and ultimately brought about the perilous state in which we find ourselves.

The history of the church is marked by the presence of “invasive species.”  The New Testament writers observed that this was happening and wrote against it.  Theological error was present very early in church history and is addressed in the New Testament.  False teachers and unworthy leaders, full of pride and bad character, were already present before the closing of the writing of the New Testament.  Immorality infected the early church and is denounced by the New Testament writers.  Paul, Peter, and Jude in their writings clearly warned against these “invasive species” and gave instruction to be diligent and to deal with these and other issues.   

This has continued through the centuries.  By the nineteenth century, rationalism and liberalism began to invade many denominations and churches and eventually drove out gospel truth.  In the twentieth century, as theological liberalism continued its destructive path and theological error became widespread, the sins against which the New Testament authors warned became accepted, and by the twenty-first century even unspeakable immorality has become accepted and celebrated.  Slowly at first, in almost imperceptible steps, “invasive species” have infected churches and institutions, diverting them away from truth and true gospel ministry. 

Often there is not much we as individuals can do about these things.  But perhaps more importantly we need to be vigilant about “invasive species” in our own lives, things that distract us, things that will sideline and ultimately do great harm to us.   Anger can become destructive if we nurture it and allow it to grow in our life.  In Ephesians 4:3, Paul instructed, “Let all bitterness, wrath, anger, clamor, and evil speaking be put away from you, with all malice.”  Fear and anxiety can grow and sometimes paralyze us, especially when we focus on difficult or disagreeable circumstances.  The Psalmist wrote in the 118th Psalm, “I will not fear.  What can man do to me?”  Envy and jealousy can become poisonous.  Immorality may start out in small, almost imperceptible ways and grow into something that brings disaster.  In the Ten Commandments, there is a prohibition against idolatry and having any sort of other god before God, and this is repeated throughout the Bible.  All sorts of attitudes and actions can grow and become idols and take us away from devotion to the Savior.  Further, in the Commandments we are forbidden to murder, commit adultery, steal or even covet, bear false witness, or dishonor parents.  These forbidden things can become introduced into our lives in small ways.

Philippians 4:8 reminds, “Finally, brethren, whatever things are true, whatever things are noble, whatever things are just, whatever things are pure, whatever things are lovely, whatever things are of good report, if there is any virtue and if there is anything praiseworthy—meditate on these things.”  The closing of churches in response to the virus disrupted the church life of American believers, and it has become too easy for some to continue to stay away from church and the discipleship and fellowship that is so vital to assist us in the task of “meditate on these things.”  Diligence is required.  Nations – churches – families – individuals – are brought down slowly by the “invasive species” that are everywhere. 

Proverbs 4:3 reminds, “Keep your heart with diligence, For out of it spring the issues of life.”

Idols of Our Own Making

Augustine wrote, ” O poor soul, how you debase yourself when you love earthly things.  You are better than them!  Only God is above you and you were made to love him only!”

God – the God of the Bible – is the Creator of all and leaves no room for any other imagined deity.  He is eternal, uncaused, self-existing and absolute perfection, and nothing can be added to him or taken from him.  No other being is its own cause.  No other being rivals the One True God.  In the Ten Commandments we read,   

6 ‘I am the Lord your God who brought you out of the land of Egypt, out of the house of bondage.  7 ‘You shall have no other gods before Me.  ‘You shall not make for yourself a carved image—any likeness of anything that is in heaven above, or that is in the earth beneath, or that is in the water under the earth; 9 you shall not bow down to them nor serve them.  For I, the Lord your God, am a jealous God, visiting the iniquity of the fathers upon the children to the third and fourth generations of those who hate Me, 10 but showing mercy to thousands, to those who love Me and keep My commandments.  11 ‘You shall not take the name of the Lord your God in vain, for the Lord will not hold him guiltless who takes His name in vain.

Deuteronomy 5

That message is repeated throughout the whole of Scripture.  The Christian believer is to love and serve Him as Lord and as God; there is never to be any place given to any other god, idol, or power.  Further, we are to worship and revere Him as He is, as He has objectively revealed Himself to us in His Word, and not merely as we might wish or imagine Him to be. Idolatry, at times incorporating the religious influences of the pagan nations around them, and ultimately essentially forgetting the One True God, brought ruin and destruction to the Jewish kingdoms in the Old Testament.  Isaiah 44 conveys a key and powerful message:

 Thus says the Lord, the King of Israel,
And his Redeemer, the Lord of hosts:
‘I am the First and I am the Last;
Besides Me there is no God.

The superiority of God over idols is the main point of this writing of Isaiah, proven by the ability of God to foretell the future.  At the end of the chapter is a detailed prophecy of events fulfilled more than a century in the future at the time of writing, and throughout the writings of Isaiah there are a number of very detailed prophecies that have been fulfilled.

And who can proclaim as I do?
Then let him declare it and set it in order for Me,
Since I appointed the ancient people.
And the things that are coming and shall come,
Let them show these to them.
Do not fear, nor be afraid;
Have I not told you from that time, and declared it?
You are My witnesses.  Is there a God besides Me?
Indeed there is no other Rock; I know not one.’ ”

Other “gods” made by men are idols that cannot see, speak, hear, or even do what humans can.  The ancient workmen who created idols from the natural elements of creation were mere men who could make nothing superior to themselves. 

Those who make an image, all of them are useless,
And their precious things shall not profit;
They are their own witnesses;
They neither see nor know, that they may be ashamed.
10 Who would form a god or mold an image
That profits him nothing?
11 Surely all his companions would be ashamed;
And the workmen, they are mere men.
Let them all be gathered together,
Let them stand up; Yet they shall fear,
They shall be ashamed together.

12 The blacksmith with the tongs works one in the coals,
Fashions it with hammers,
And works it with the strength of his arms.
Even so, he is hungry, and his strength fails;
He drinks no water and is faint.

13 The craftsman stretches out his rule,
He marks one out with chalk; He fashions it with a plane,
He marks it out with the compass, And makes it like the figure of a man,
According to the beauty of a man, that it may remain in the house.
14 He cuts down cedars for himself, And takes the cypress and the oak;
He secures it for himself among the trees of the forest.
He plants a pine, and the rain nourishes it.

15 Then it shall be for a man to burn,
For he will take some of it and warm himself;
Yes, he kindles it and bakes bread;
Indeed he makes a god and worships it;
He makes it a carved image, and falls down to it.
16 He burns half of it in the fire; With this half he eats meat;
He roasts a roast, and is satisfied.
He even warms himself and says,
“Ah! I am warm, I have seen the fire.”
17 And the rest of it he makes into a god, His carved image.
He falls down before it and worships it,
Prays to it and says, “Deliver me, for you are my god!”

18 They do not know nor understand;
For He has shut their eyes, so that they cannot see,
And their hearts, so that they cannot understand.
19 And no one considers in his heart,
Nor is there knowledge nor understanding to say,
“I have burned half of it in the fire,
Yes, I have also baked bread on its coals;
I have roasted meat and eaten it;
And shall I make the rest of it an abomination?
Shall I fall down before a block of wood?”

Nothing could be more foolish than worshipping something made of metal or wood or other materials of creation.  Idolatry is declared to be a deception, which profits nothing and brings judgement.  The chosen Jewish nation failed to maintain strict loyalty and obedience to God.  Few of us, either individually or in our churches, have any sort of statue or image that might be considered an idol, but too often we too are given to very real idolatry. 

In Colossians 3:5, Paul wrote  “Therefore put to death your members which are on the earth: fornication, uncleanness, passion, evil desire, and covetousness, which is idolatry.”   John warned believers in 1 John 5:21 to “Keep yourselves from idols.”  Earlier he warned, in 1 John 2:16, “For all that is in the world—the lust of the flesh, the lust of the eyes, and the pride of life—is not of the Father but is of the world.”   To love the world is to make an idol of some element of it.  Sexual sin, materialism, jealousy, covetousness, hunger for power and prestige, the inordinate pursuit of pleasure, selfish pride; these things are idolatry and displace God from His rightful place in our lives.  Paul wrote in 2 Timothy 3:1-5 “But know this, that in the last days perilous times will come: 2 For men will be lovers of themselves, lovers of money, boasters, proud, blasphemers, disobedient to parents, unthankful, unholy, 3 unloving, unforgiving, slanderers, without self-control, brutal, despisers of good, 4 traitors, headstrong, haughty, lovers of pleasure rather than lovers of God, 5 having a form of godliness but denying its power. And from such people turn away!”  Too many of us are guilty of these things, and often we must be reminded to turn away from such behaviors and attitudes. 

But all idolatry is not so obvious.  John’s statement to believers in 1 John 5:21 to “Keep yourselves from idols,” is perhaps a contrast with reference to “the true God” in verse 20, essentially a warning against false teachers and false teaching.  A god who is not the god of Scripture becomes in effect an idol, a false god, and the god of growing segments of perceived evangelicalism is just that, a false god of their own making.

“Lovers of self” leads the list of Paul’s description of the last days in the 2 Timothy passage; if unrepentant self is loved and admired it is an idol.  This has been forgotten by a broad part of the church with people often essentially encouraged to be “proud,” “unholy,” and “lovers of themselves” by the church.  God isn’t championed as the living sovereign God of Scripture, holy, righteous, just, intolerant of rebellion and sin, while also love and grace and mercy; but rather merely as accepting and loving as defined by human reasoning.  The gospel that is presented is broadly a man-centered gospel of happiness, hope, prosperity, and success; Jesus the life-coach. The Jesus of history becomes a divine source of inspiration and timeless wisdom but not the source of salvation through His atoning death and resurrection, for a god of purely human-defined love and acceptance requires no atonement. There is little mention of the sin of man and his utter helplessness in turning to God for salvation.  Jesus is frequently referred to in literature, sermons and teaching, and especially in music in terms of filial or erotic love; Jesus the divine boyfriend.  Compromise and secularization of the church is justified by saying that this is necessary to appeal to a broader segment of society and attract the un-churched.  Pragmatism rather than revealed truth becomes a driving principle, with churches that warn no one of eternal judgement or teach that anyone should repent of their sins. As a result of these compromises they are no longer worshipping the living God but are worshipping an idol of their own making.  This is idolatry as surely as bowing down to a statue.

Ideology often becomes, in effect, an idol embraced by the church.  Patriotism and love of country is a good thing, but it can never be allowed to displace the gospel as the dominant theme of the church, and at times this has become a problem in conservative American evangelicalism.  But God, as it were, is neither Republican nor Democrat.  Themes of socialism, “social justice,” critical theory, multiculturalism, and leftist-Marxist ideas have begun to gain acceptance in the perceived evangelical community; these ideas are completely antithetic to the gospel.  The god envisioned by those who accept these ideologies is not the God of Scripture but rather an idol, a god of human making. 

“Jesus” must be the Jesus of Scripture, the Son of God, the second person of the Trinity who came to atone for the sins of all who will repent and believe His gospel.  The prosperity-promising Jesus, the sin-affirming cosmic boyfriend Jesus, the life coach Jesus, the inspirational philosopher Jesus, the example of divine love martyr Jesus, the socialist Jesus, the Jesus adapted to fit the culture of the day – these are idols, abominations to God.  The Jesus of the Bible will be all or nothing, Lord and Savior, and anything else is a lie and a deception. 

John Calvin (Institutes, 1.11.8) rightly said, “Man’s nature, so to speak, is a perpetual factory of idols.”  Just as idolatry brought disaster to the ancient Jewish nation, it will bring disaster to us. 

6 Now these things became our examples, to the intent that we should not lust after evil things as they also lusted. 7 And do not become idolaters as were some of them. As it is written, “The people sat down to eat and drink, and rose up to play.” “Therefore, my beloved, flee from idolatry” 

1 Corinthians 10:6-7

Climate Change

Human-caused climate change is real.  But I don’t think that it is based on carbon emissions.

I recently picked up an old paperback world history book in my library.  This book was first published in the 1940’s, and I don’t agree with the the authors evolutionary presuppositions and philosophy.  I noted that in the early chapters of the book, the author wrote of the advance and retreat of glaciation during prehistoric ages and the associated effects on the early development of civilization, which is the accepted position of most historians.  Such climate change would precede any possible involvement by humans.

In recorded history, we know of many climate cycles.  Causes and effects can be debated.  For instance, the Medieval Warm Period, roughly ninth to twelfth centuries AD, preceded the industrial era of human development, and it was followed by the Little Ice Age from about the fourteenth to the nineteenth centuries AD.  Seemingly, there has been a sustained period of slight, measurable warming since, with slight cooling periods included in that trend.

I recall as an elementary school student a publication used in school called “The Weekly Reader,” and I recall one memorable edition on the subject of global cooling and the possibility of a coming ice age.  A search of records of “The National Geographic”  and other publications from that era would reveal similar concerns, in light of the slight cooling period that began roughly mid-1940’s.  In 1975, “Newsweek” published an article predicting a coming ice age.  This concern was replaced a few years later, however, by concerns over global warming, as a slight warming trend began perhaps early 1970’s and continues to the present.  The movie “An Inconvenient Truth” was produced in 2006, predicting all sorts of negative effects of global warming, and this helped advance the almost non-stop talk of global warming and  anthropogenic climate change – climate change caused by human environmental pollution and production of carbon dioxide and other greenhouse gasses.

A number of years ago, several municipalities in the Colorado mountains considered a lawsuit against big oil companies, contending that fossil fuels produced by these companies was going to ruin the ski industry.  Since then, there have been a couple of dry winters, especially in the southern part of the state, and several winters with normal and even above average snowfall.  The ski industry is expanding, the mountain towns are flourishing, and their biggest problems center on transporting skiers and snow boarders from and back to Denver, and finding enough workers to accommodate their crowds.  Over the last couple of decades, many Colorado forested areas have seen areas of dying pine trees caused by beetles, leading to large forest fires; the thought is that it hasn’t been cold enough for long enough during the winters to kill the beetle larvae due to climate change.  As I write this, the US mid-west and eastern areas have just emerged from record cold weather due to a “polar vortex” phenomenon blamed on polar region warming.  (Too bad the “climate gods” didn’t steer that cold further west to take out some beetles.)  Unusual record snowfall has this winter hit Seattle and areas in the US northwest, likely, of course, because of climate change.  Immigration issues have been blamed on global warming and climate change, as the effects of climate change prompt people to migrate.  Every extreme weather event, every flood or famine, even wars, are blamed on anthropogenic climate change.  Elements of the progressive Left have proposed their “Green New Deal,” a socialist fantasy to radically alter the American economy, fundamentally alter our way of life, and thus save the planet.  The plan includes ending air travel, stopping American fossil fuel energy use, and even banning meat consumption.

Last summer, I visited the Pawnee National Grasslands in northeastern Colorado, basically in the middle of nowhere.  The countryside near this pristine area was filled with giant wind power generation towers.   A later trip through prairie and farmland in eastern Colorado and western Kansas featured mile after mile of views spoiled by these giant supposedly environmentally-friendly windmills.  Photovoltaic solar panels are becoming commonplace on residential rooftops and in large solar power “farms.”  More and more electric vehicles are on the roads.  Somewhere down the road, the fact of toxic metals in the solar panels and in batteries will become an issue, but enough investment in such supposed environmentally friendly technology will save the planet; at least that is the thought.

Humans do have a responsibility to be good stewards of our planet and our environment.  I’m glad that Denver’s winter time air pollution “brown cloud” is less of an issue than in the past.  I’m glad that people can play in the South Platte river in central Denver, unthinkable fifty years ago due to pollution.  I bemoan the urban sprawl along the Colorado front range.  Efforts to protect clean air and water, to protect sensitive environmental areas, to use technology to decrease pollution and advance the quality of life, are to be lauded and encouraged.

There is validity to the concept that sometimes small actions can cause big results in the future.  Call me a skeptic, but I don’t believe that what vehicle I drive or how many miles I drive it or how much meat I consume will have the slightest impact on the future temperature of any point on earth.  Nevertheless, I do believe in human-caused climate change.


Psalm 2:4 tells us, “He who sits in the heavens shall laugh; The Lord shall hold them in derision.”  This isn’t a reference to a divine sense of humor.  God holds the vain imaginings and futile efforts of sinful humanity in derision.


In the opening section of the book of Genesis, we are told of God’s creation of our universe.  We find the first created humans in Eden, an idyllic environment, in a world unspoiled by any pollution or imperfection, living in perfect harmony with their environment, themselves, and with God.  And then, they rebelled against God; sin came, disaster happened.  They lost their previous relationship with God, and were removed from Eden.  Their posterity would be born with the effects of sin as part of their nature.  But it wasn’t just human nature that was changed.  Their relationship with nature changed, as the effects of sin came to be reflected in the world created for man’s home.  Climate change came, caused not by carbon gas emissions, but because of man’s sin and rebellion against God.

Time passed, and human sin continued.  God acted against the excesses of man’s sin by sending, in effect, a catastrophic climate event to destroy debauched human society.  It seems evident in reading the Genesis account that the climate before the Flood was different than the climate after the Flood.

Everywhere we look, we see the magnificence of God in creation.  Biology, chemistry, astronomy, meteorology, all sciences demonstrate the perfect creation of God.  The nature of water and the associated hydrology cycle involving evaporation, atmospheric circulation, condensation, and precipitation regulates climate and weather (water vapor has far more “greenhouse gas” effect than carbon dioxide).  The cycle of oxygen and carbon dioxide in perfect balance sustains plant and animal life.  God’s grand design is everywhere evident.  And yet everywhere we look, we also see the effects of the Fall, certainly in human affairs, but even in nature.  Floods, droughts, wind storms, earthquakes, all express not the original intent of the Creator for man, but rather the effects of man’s sin and rebellion against God.

Again, we have a responsibility to be good stewards of our planet and our environment.  Technology and human genius can and should be used to advance the condition of all people on the planet.  But ultimately, we need to recognize that the future of the world is in God’s hands, not the vain imaginings of atheistic humanity.

Both the Old Testament prophets and the New Testament writers speak of cataclysmic events, including climate events, at the end of the current age that will precede the coming of Christ.  Events that are not merely caused by greenhouse gas pollution but rather by the outpouring of God’s judgement against man’s sin.  And these writers speak of a coming age when by God’s grace the redeemed of the ages will live in a perfect environment to eternally know, love, and serve Him.

On Faith and Repentance

In Luke 13, Jesus said, “There were present at that season some who told Him about the Galileans whose blood Pilate had mingled with their sacrifices.  And Jesus answered and said to them, “Do you suppose that these Galileans were worse sinners than all other Galileans, because they suffered such things?  I tell you, no; but unless you repent you will all likewise perish.  Or those eighteen on whom the tower in Siloam fell and killed them, do you think that they were worse sinners than all other men who dwelt in Jerusalem?   I tell you, no; but unless you repent you will all likewise perish.”

I once heard the speaker at a local attractional megachurch reference this passage.  He noted that the world is imperfect, and we should stop asking why and recognize that in this imperfect world, mistakes happen.  Builders make mistakes; the tower fell; and bad things continue to happen in a broken world.  He explained that to repent means to stop and rethink the way you think about God and suffering.  We should align our life toward God, recognize that suffering is not God’s will, and He is not just waiting for you to screw up so He can punish you.  God’s desire is to leverage our suffering, and so we should rethink our thinking about God.  A well-know hypercharismatic personality has said that repentance means to go back to God’s perspective on reality, since “re” means to go back, and “pent” is like the penthouse, the top floor of a building, and so repent means to go back to God’s perspective on reality.

While change of mind toward God is certainly involved in repentance, it strikes me that these are inadequate expressions of the idea of repentance we find presented in Scripture, and further it strikes me that failure to understand true repentance undermines the doctrine of salvation and the very nature of the gospel.  Repentance is an essential part of salvation.  It is essential for a sinner who has offended God to turn from that sin.  The repeated message of the Old Testament prophets centered on the need for repentance.  The first recorded words Jesus preached, in Matthew 4:17, were “Repent, for the kingdom of God is at hand.”  True repentance comes from the awareness that by nature we are fallen and we have done wrong, and repentance produces a desire and commitment to turn from our sin.  The requirement for entrance into the kingdom of God is to repent and believe in the atoning work of Christ; repentance accompanies regeneration.

The Puritan writer Thomas Brooks wrote, “One of the devices of Satan is to persuade the soul that repentance is an easy work.  . . . But repentance is a mighty work, a difficult work, a work beyond our power. . . . Repentance is a turning from darkness to light.  It affects the sinner’s whole heart and life.  It changes the heart from the power of sin unto God.  Every sin strikes at the honor of God, the being of God, the glory of God, the heart of Christ, the joy of the Spirit, and the peace of a man’s conscience.  A truly penitent soul  strikes at all sin, hates all, and will labor to crucify all.”  Second Corinthians 5:17 says,  “Therefore if anyone is in Christ, he is a new creation.  The old has passed away; behold, the new has come.”  Another Puritan, John Owen, reflecting on this passage, wrote that “Regeneration does not consist in a mere moral reformation of life.  It requires the infusion of a new, real, spiritual principle into the soul and its faculties.  It brings spiritual life, light, holiness, righteousness, and the expulsion of the contrary, inbred, habitual principle of sin and enmity against God.  This alone enables true acts of holy obedience.  The principle of true regeneration always, certainly, and infallibly produces the reformation of the life intended. . .  . Regeneration and reformation are inseparable.”

In Luke 18:13, a repentant tax-gatherer pleaded, “God, be merciful to me, the sinner.”  Pastor and author John MacArthur (“The Gospel According to Jesus,” page 32) reflecting on this passage wrote that “Repentance as Jesus characterized it in this incident involves a recognition of one’s utter sinfulness and a turning from self and sin to God (cf. 1 Thessalonians 1:9).  Far from being a human work, it is the inevitable result of God’s work in a human heart.  And it always represents the end of any human attempt to earn God’s favor.  It is much more than a mere change of mind – it involves a complete change of heart, attitude, interest, and direction.  It is a conversion in every sense of the word.”  Further, “The Bible does not recognize faith that lacks this active element of active repentance.  True faith is never seen as passive – it is always obedient.”  In a sermon in 2000, MacArthur noted “What the sinner needs to do is not accept Jesus Christ or make a decision for Christ, but to repent and cry out and ask Jesus Christ to accept him in spite of his sin.

Failure to understand the necessity of repentance and the nature of the gospel of  repentant faith has brought all sorts of problems.  Many have been deceived into thinking they have been saved when really they have not.  In recent decades, emotional manipulation was often used to invoke a response from people who really did not understand the gospel but responded to maudlin invitation hymns after being warned of the danger of Hell.  It is relatively easy to “make a decision” to walk an aisle, sign a card, or repeat a repeat-after-me prayer after being handed a tract; it is another thing to acknowledge one’s sin and inability and call out to a Holy God in repentant faith.   While some who responded to such appeals fell away, thankfully many did indeed understand and believe, and many later came to acknowledge the truth of the gospel and were truly born again.

But perhaps of much more danger is the total disregard of the idea of repentance we see today.  Part of the issue is doctrinal; doctrine is seldom taught.  Belief in original sin and the sin nature of humans is not an often-considered topic in the American church today and seems to be doubted by an increasing number of evangelicals.  The holiness and just wrath of God is as likely to be downplayed or ridiculed as it is to be taught from the Bible.  Positive thinking preachers are not likely to call people to repent and believe; they are more inclined to remind people of how much God loves them just as they are and try to motivate them to reach their full potential and be happy and not worry about much beyond that.  Prosperity theology also centers more on human worthiness than on human sinfulness.  The seeker-friendly and attractional church movement are loath to mention sin and judgement; that might offend and won’t help attract a target audience.  People need to be attracted and have fun and be comfortably entertained so they keep coming.  Maybe they’ll be inspired to make a decision and live a better life.

But Jesus came to seek us and save us from our sin.  He did not come merely to save us from the consequences of the bad actions of others.  He did not die on the cross just to aid us in overcoming our problems or circumstances.  He did not die on the cross to make us happy, successful, or wealthy.  He came as the One True Saving Plan of God.  He came to die on the cross to atone for the sin, and the sins, of any and all who would repent and believe.  He came to call us to stop loving sin and start loving God.  He came to call us to both a changed mind and a changed life.

Thus, a repentant sinner should manifest brokenness and remorse over sin, and not just the consequences of sin.  Repentance and renunciation of every sin should become an attitude and a way of life.  Repentance calls us to turn from sin and embrace God.  And when we do that, we will know the life of purpose, joy, and fulfillment God intends for us, both eternally and in the present.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Preaching and Teaching Doctrine

I was “blown away,” as they say, by his lesson.

I recently attended a relatively large Baptist church’s Sunday night service.  The church is, in my estimation, very healthy.  The pastor didn’t so much preach but taught, and I was “blown away,” as they say, by his lesson.

A solid expository preacher on Sunday mornings, the pastor taught this night on a doctrinal subject related to the doctrine of soteriology (the doctrine of salvation), as part of a Sunday night series on doctrinal subjects.  My first reaction was that the subject matter (pertaining to the precedence faith as opposed to regeneration) might be over the head of most of the people in my circle of family and friends, though I personally was very interested in listening to his approach to the subject matter as well as his conclusion.

As I listened, several things struck me.  Most Christians I know, including most pastors I have known, probably couldn’t intelligently even discuss the subject.  This pastor (who is personable and engaging)  is both a theologian and student of Scripture and is willing to do the hard work of taking an important,  detailed, and difficult subject and preparing  a lesson that is understandable to his congregation.  He has, as an able teacher of Scripture, put his congregation in a place where they can listen to such teaching.  He understands the primacy of Scripture and the importance of teaching the Bible and doctrine to his people.  He is systematically “equipping the saints for the work of the ministry, for the edifying of the body of Christ,” as Ephesians 4:12 tells us.  They are being built up in their faith, growing in their understanding of the teachings of the Bible, gaining the ability to live out their faith and answer the questions of those in their circles of influence.

This Sunday evening gathering wasn’t the sort of low energy afterthought that helped kill off Sunday evening services in many churches.  It wasn’t a small group meeting devoted to chit-chat and sharing of opinions, or an entertaining video presentation.  It wasn’t a silly motivational talk; it was solid, vital teaching.  The pastor was not overly dogmatic or riding any sort of “hobby horse” in his presentation, but he discussed the clear teaching of Scripture as well as leaving room for disagreement on finer points, even charitably pointing out opposing views on some of the details of the issue.  He was teaching people to study the Word.  The minds of people were engaged as students of the Word.

Days earlier, I had been in a conversation with a person who had grown up in church and been in church for many years, but who seldom has heard solid preaching and teaching.  The conversation broadly pertained to confusion and questions related to soteriology.  Reflecting on the Sunday night lesson, I wonder if this person might have profited from hearing what that pastor said that night, and more importantly, hearing such solid teaching on a weekly basis.   There is no substitute for preaching and teaching Scripture and doctrinal truth from Scripture.

On another recent occasion at the same church, I heard a speaker who had emigrated from China.  As a youth in China, as well as after coming to North America, he had struggled with the question of “what is the meaning of life?”  Post-modern Americans, at least when they allow themselves to think, struggle with the same question.  Christianity has the Answer to that question!  And so many other vital questions!  But, churches will not help people find that Answer without an emphasis on content.  Jesus said, “Sanctify them by Your truth. Your word is truth (John 17:17).”

Church as a Corporate Event

An internet Christian-themed video streaming provider recently sent out an invitation for a series from a well-known megachurch pastor.  I decided to watch at least the first session.

The series was recorded as the sermons at the Sunday service at the speaker’s megachurch, reportedly one of the largest evangelical churches in America.  In his introduction to the week one lecture that introduced his theme, the pastor invited hearers to put aside any skepticism about the Bible, and spoke of the conversion of Saul and his transformation to the Apostle Paul in Acts.  The speaker noted, “You don’t have to accept any of this,” “This has nothing to do with believing the Bible,” and “Take this question seriously, even if you are not a Christian.”  He displayed Ephesians 5:15-17, noting that Ephesians was a letter written telling Christians how to live, and introduced his theme for the series, “What’s the Wise Thing to Do?”  Using words from the Ephesians passage as a sort of springboard, he exhorted hearers not to be “unwise,” or careless, but to be “wise,” or careful, and that “the days are evil”, so “don’t let the flow of culture take you where you don’t want to be.”

He then introduced three questions as a formula for making wise decisions.  With the first, “In light of my past experience, what’s the wise thing to do?”, he emphasized that what is ok for one person may not be ok for another because of differing past experiences.  The second question was, “In light of my current circumstances, what’s the wise thing to do?”, and the third, “In light of my future hopes and dreams, what’s the wise thing to do?”, noting that personal vision is often a catalyst for wise decisions.  At the end of the talk, he assigned homework – “Ask it,” noting that in so doing one might learn something about oneself, and that perhaps people don’t always have their own best interests in mind, but maybe God does.

What hit me as I listened was not anything negative about this megachurch pastor’s formula.  He could make a mint as a corporate motivational speaker.  What really hit me was the thought that many hundreds of people had come to this church and its various satellite locations that week, and heard nothing of the gospel, had heard nothing of grace, nothing of faith and repentance, had heard the word “Jesus” mentioned in passing once or twice, had heard nothing from the Bible.  The attenders likely heard a rousing contemporary music concert before this lecture, but at the end of the day they had not in any way worshipped God and had heard nothing from scripture that would impact their lives.  Perhaps subsequent lectures in this series might have clearly included something like scriptural principles for decision-making or the Christian life or even included a clear explanation the gospel, but not this lecture.  I listened to most of the second and last sermons in the series, but never heard anything of sin, salvation, grace, faith, or doctrine, and barely a mention Jesus.

Several weeks earlier, the same megachurch pastor was featured on a nationally syndicated Christian radio broadcast that I passively listen to on occasion.  The two-part broadcast that aired around July 4 featured a sermon delivered at the megachurch, likely delivered the previous year in conjunction with July 4.  He delivered a good lecture concerning American history, the founders, and patriotic themes.  I recall agreeing with what he said almost in total.  But at the time I remember thinking how tragic it was that a few thousand people had attended this man’s megachurch services that week and heard nothing of the gospel, nothing of Christ, nothing really from the Bible.  They went to an event at what was billed as church, but it was devoid of worship and anything distinctly Christian.  It was essentially a corporate event.

We are told that this is the way to “do church” today.  It is surely a road to destruction.  The New Testament book of Jude, verse 4 reminds us,  “For certain men have crept in unnoticed, who long ago were marked out for this condemnation, ungodly men, who turn the grace of our God into lewdness and deny the only Lord God and our Lord Jesus Christ.”  Verses 12-13 remind, “These are spots in your love feasts, while they feast with you without fear, serving only themselves. They are clouds without water, carried about by the winds; late autumn trees without fruit, twice dead, pulled up by the roots; raging waves of the sea, foaming up their own shame; wandering stars for whom is reserved the blackness of darkness forever.”  Impressive clouds, but empty.

 

Jonathan Edwards and the Sufficiency of Scripture

Shortly before His arrest and crucifixion, Jesus observed the Passover meal with His disciples.  As He spoke to them and explained what was to come, He told them,

“These things I have spoken to you while being present with you.  But the Helper, the Holy Spirit, whom the Father will send in My name, He will teach you all things, and bring to your remembrance all things that I said to you”  (John 14:25-26, NKJV).

As one person of the Triune God, the Holy Spirit was of course always present in the world.  Jesus promised the disciples in this passage that the Spirit was to come in a new and fuller sense.  Jesus told them that, when He was gone and the Spirit came, the Spirit would teach them, help them to understand what they had seen in Jesus, help them to see Christ as the fulfillment of the messianic anticipation and prophecies in the Old Testament.  And the Spirit would “bring to (their) remembrance” the events they had seen and experienced in their time with Jesus.  In John 20:22, after the resurrection, “He breathed on them, and said to them, “Receive the Holy Spirit.”  The eyewitnesses, as they later recorded the gospels and the writings of the New Testament, wrote not just as witnesses with fading memories.  They wrote as eyewitnesses under the teaching, guidance, and inspiration of God the Holy Spirit.

Peter later wrote, “for prophecy never came by the will of man, but holy men of God spoke as they were moved by the Holy Spirit” (2 Peter 1:21, NKJV).  The Old Testament writings were from men under the inspiration of the Holy Spirit.  The New Testament writings are from those who were both witnesses of the life, death, and resurrection of Jesus Christ, and were under the inspiration of the Spirit.  The authors of the Bible wrote the objective message of God that He wanted to convey to mankind.  Jonathan Edwards (1703-1751) is regarded as perhaps America’s foremost early theologian.  He was a brilliant man who spoke and wrote extensively of the sovereignty and holiness of God.  He understood this principle of the sufficiency of scripture.  Edwards wrote,

“And yet some people actually imagine that the revelation in God’s Word is not enough to meet our needs.  They think that God from time to time carries on an actual conversation with them, chatting with them, satisfying their doubts, testifying to His love for them, promising them support and blessings.  As a result, their emotions soar; they are full of bubbling joy that is mixed with self-confidence and a high opinion of themselves.  The foundation for these feelings, however, does not lie within the Bible itself, but instead rests on the sudden creations of their imaginations.  These people are clearly deluded.  God’s Word is for all of us and each of us; He does not need to give particular messages to particular people.”

The Spirit gave us the Word, and it is that written Word that tells us all we need to know.  The written Word communicates the gospel to us, the gospel that coupled with the ministry of the Spirit brings us salvation.  His continuing ministry to us is to illuminate the written Word.  He does not give us, and we do not need, new revelation outside of the Bible.  It is the Bible that teaches us what the Savior did and taught.  Learning to hear the Spirit in the Bible is our lifelong assignment.  Through our prayerful and careful study of Bible, the Spirit develops our ability to discern truth from error, make decisions, and live the life He has for us.

We don’t need dreams, visions, voices, or impressions.  We don’t need to seek continuing revelation, and we can and should be skeptical of the claims of others that they have received such direct communication from God apart from the written Word.  We need the Spirit’s ministry through the Word.  Reading and studying the Bible, however, might be the easy part.  Obeying it and putting it into practice, well, that is sometimes the real challenge.

 

The Need For A Countercultural Church

Evangelical churches in the twenty-first century seem to be enamored with fitting easily into secular society.  Current social and cultural trends are invited into many churches with numeric growth seen as the primary goal and perceived as being dependent on attracting unchurched people in a manner that will make them feel as comfortable as possible.  Long observed characteristics of church have been completely left behind and, in many instances, what happens in a church today is almost unrecognizable from a traditional perspective.  To some degree this must be expected, as the church will of course reflect the social and economic setting in which it exists.  Times change, society changes, and this will of necessity be reflected in churches.  It is not to be expected that a twenty-first century church in the inner city will have the same look and feel as a church in an American rural area a century earlier.

Unfortunately, this has brought about a tendency for many evangelical churches to become completely focused on being culturally acceptable.  Relevance has been emphasized and misunderstood to mean that the church must be contemporary and completely affirming and accepting toward anyone in its target audience.  Entertainment, consistent with current secular entertainment, has taken center stage as the preferred method to reach unchurched people.  When the Bible is referenced in a sermon, it will likely be used as a backdrop for some sort of affirming motivational talk that the speaker presents rather than as an authoritative basis for the sermon.  In a blog on the “Grace to You” website dated August 22, 2018, pastor and author John MacArthur wrote, “For decades the popular notion has been that if the church was going to reach the culture it first needed to connect with the style and methods of secular pop culture or academic fads. To that end, the church surrendered its historic forms of worship. In many cases, everything that once constituted a traditional worship service disappeared altogether, giving way to rock-concert formats and everything else the church could borrow from the entertainment industry. Craving acceptance in the broader culture, the church carelessly copied the world’s style preferences and fleeting fads.

One wonders, however, if churches wouldn’t be better served by the idea that they should be counter-cultural.  Historically, the church has been counter-cultural in most societies.  In the early centuries of Christianity, the church existed and enjoyed rapid growth completely outside of social acceptance and often under intense persecution.  A countercultural church will have characteristics that will make it unpopular from a postmodern twenty-first century perspective just as was the case with the early church.

A key issue will be authority.  American pastor and theologian Francis Schaeffer wrote in his “The Great Evangelical Disaster,” published in 1984, Notice though what the primary problem was, and is: infiltration by a form of the world view which surrounds us, rather than the Bible being an unmovable base for judging the ever-shifting fallen culture.  As evangelicals, we need to stand at the point of the call not to be infiltrated by this ever-shifting fallen culture which surrounds us, but rather judging that culture upon the basis of the Bible.”  Postmodern thought rejects the very idea of authority.  Right and wrong, the binary/non-binary concept, has been replaced with personal choice and relativism.  A church with a focus on incorporating current societal ideas will do little to challenge this perception of personal autonomy, focusing on how to affirm, aid, and motivate the hearers.   The church operating from the more traditional and biblical perspective, on the other hand, will boldly challenge personal autonomy and declare the absolute authority of God and of the Bible.   People will be reminded that they were made by God for His pleasure and will flourish under His authority.  Authority in a countercultural church will clearly and obviously be presented as coming from scripture.  “The Bible Says” as a concept will be embraced, and the Bible will be affirmed as the Word of God.  Right and wrong, thesis/antithesis, will be presented, affirmed, and taught by a countercultural Christianity.

A countercultural church will challenge current social thinking concerning gender, sexual ethics and morality, and egalitarianism.  To reach people with the message of Christ, there must be a proper emphasis on loving sinners as Jesus did, and churches must present a winsome attitude toward anyone who will come.  Believers must live out the gospel and express love toward all.  The difficult life circumstances of people that may have taken them into sinful behavior, addictions, or relationships will be recognized and confronted in a loving manner.  But there can be no attempt to hide or soften the teaching of scripture.  Biblical marriage must be upheld and cannot be defined as anything other than one man and one woman for life.  Christian homes and marriages that demonstrate submission to the authority of scripture should be the norm among believers, and churches must be dedicated to teaching scripture so that people are instructed and enabled to live out their faith.  The countercultural church will proclaim the teaching of both the Old and New Testament that sexual sin is wrong and will clearly define what constitutes sexual sin according to scripture.  Further, biblical roles for men and women in the home and in the church will be clearly taught and demonstrated.  Male leadership in the home and in the church will be upheld according to biblical teaching.  Relativism in these areas will be challenged, with an appeal to the standards of right and wrong from Scripture.

Social justice issues are ever a focus of media but cannot become confused with the mission of the church.  Speaking out on issues of race and perceived economic issues might be popular, and scripture does give instruction on these issues.  Materialism should be condemned.  It is right and necessary that the church should teach honesty, charity, and benevolence, both corporately and individually.  A church cannot display racism and should teach from scripture that racism is wrong.  But social justice is not the primary mission of the church, and scripture nowhere teaches socialism or wealth redistribution.  The mission of a countercultural church will be tightly defined and tied to the declaration and communication of the gospel.  Further, the nature of the gospel will be clearly defined according to the teaching of scripture.

It is not enough, however, just to make statements.  Churches must reflect and demonstrate biblical authority and teaching.  The weekly gathering of the church that centers on contemporary entertainment and low-content sermons does not accomplish this.  Nor do small groups that focus on social interaction to the exclusion of serious consideration of scripture and Christian teaching.  The weekly gathering of a countercultural church will include a sermon from scripture that is true, substantial, and, well, scriptural.  Music will focus on more than just entertainment or “Jesus as my good luck charm.”  Music in church gatherings will sing back to God His attributes and nature, His grace and the great acts of the atonement in Christ, as an act of corporate worship.  Sermons, lessons, and small groups will proclaim the gospel from scripture and all of its ramifications for life.  Believers will be equipped to live in this world, even as they continually focus on the next world.  Salvation through repentant faith with an eternal focus will be taught, to the exclusion of merely an emphasis on popular themes like prosperity, success, and self-affirmation.  A countercultural church will thus tend to be reflective of a more traditional model than of more contemporary ideas of church.

Francis Schaeffer wrote in “The Great Evangelical Disaster” that If the truth of the Christian faith is in fact truth, then it stands in antithesis to the ideas and immorality of our age, and it must be practiced both in teaching and practical action.  Truth demands confrontation.  It must be loving confrontation, but there must be confrontation nonetheless.”  That confrontation will often be uncomfortable.  The countercultural church, indeed the countercultural Christian, is likely to experience a degree of rejection, ridicule, and even persecution.      

In his 1970 work “The Mark of the Christian,“ Francis Schaeffer wrote, “The Christian really has a double task.  He has to practice both God’s holiness and God’s love.  The Christian is to exhibit that God exists as the infinite-personal God; and then he is to exhibit simultaneously God’s character of holiness and love.  Not his holiness without his love: that is only harshness.  Not his love without his holiness: that is only compromise.  Anything that an individual Christian or Christian group does that fails to show the simultaneous balance of the holiness of God and the love of God presents to the watching world not a demonstration of the God who exists but a caricature of the God who exists.”  Sadly, the contemporary church, and the contemporary Christian, too often are thoroughly wed to current culture and thus demonstrate a bad caricature of God.  The church will not be effective in communicating the gospel if it is not to a great degree countercultural.