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

Old Books

I have an old set of the “World Book” encyclopedia.  I remember that my mother bought it at a second-hand store when I was a kid.  It was published just after World War II, and I have no idea why my parents bought it, probably because they could not afford a new set of encyclopedias.  It was long obsolete even then, and likely neither I nor my brother ever used it much.  I also have our old set of the “Funk & Wagnalls” encyclopedia.  If I recall correctly, the grocery store where Mom shopped used these as a promotion, featuring a new volume every few weeks for a nominal cost.  I’m missing a couple of volumes; we likely didn’t need groceries those weeks.  With way too much stuff, I have considered throwing out these books.  My kids will never want them.

But given recent events, I think I’ll keep these books.  For reference.  To pick up and read an entry here and there.  To perhaps donate to an educational institution that might value them.  Recent events feature people with no knowledge of history, no understanding of economics, no understanding, frankly, of much of anything, seeking to destroy and tear down the society.  Burning books.  Defacing monuments.  Pulling down statues erected to honor people that they know nothing about.  Violent anarchists and people who constitute angry mobs likely don’t spend much time reading, at least studying anything of objective truth.  They are not interested in books – only in burning them, literally or figuratively.  Cancel culture is a goal and a mantra.

A book published in the 1950’s “Fahrenheit 451,” describes a society intent on burning books in order to erase history (titled for the temperature at which paper burns).  Even at that time, the author feared that the United States might eventually turn away from truth and true history.  Destruction of books, statues, and historic sites, obliterating the remembrance of history, is anarchy leading to totalitarianism.   Remembrance and respect for history, even the bad aspects of past events, is vital to a society, essential to a freedom-loving people.

My old encyclopedias are obsolete.  They do not contain the most recent scientific data.  They do not document more recent events, but they document facts and much real history to the point that they were published.  They precede the Leftist textbooks and far-Left teaching in the educational institutions of recent decades.  They record historic truths in a variety of fields that have been denied or ignored.  They record much vital and important information, minus Marxist bias.

When one understands some of the information in these books, one can begin to understand why many of us believe in American exceptionalism.  We come to understand that the American Revolution wasn’t fought just to make a bunch of old rich white guys richer as some today claim, and that the causes of the Civil War were complex.  We come to understand that the “Noble Savage” myth is just that, a myth, and aboriginal societies were not exactly ideal.  We come to understand that character, principles of personal responsibility, deferred gratification, and free-market capitalism bring prosperity to both an individual and a nation.  We come to understand the progression and flow of history.  We come to understand the basis of true science.

I have many hundreds of books.  I’ve asked that if I should die before I move them along, at least an attempt be made to donate them to a Christian institution.  I’ll add these old encyclopedias to that request.

While many of us are concerned for our nation and its fate, I am even more concerned for the fate of the church.  We have an ancient Book – the Bible – that, unlike my encyclopedias, has no degree of obsolescence.  It is timeless and completely true.  And yet sadly it has lost its importance to much, maybe most, of the perceived faithful church.  A “cancel culture” of ignorance, neglect, and denial has invaded the church.

Months ago, a seminary that once may have been the premier seminary among Bible believers featured a chapel speaker who is a graduate of that school.  He is a well-known megachurch pastor in the southeast, a gifted motivational speaker, but no preacher of Scripture.  He is noted for his almost disdain of the use of the Old Testament and exhorted the seminary students accordingly.  Surely seminarians must be well educated in a variety of fields, able to deal with and relate to people and understanding the society in which people live, able to help people deal with the difficulties they face each day.  But at the very foundation of the education a faithful pastor must be – the Bible.  He must know systematic and biblical theology.  And he must be able to teach and preach scripture, in its entirety, to confront people with the gospel and all of its ramifications for the lives of believers, to help them gain an understanding of scripture and develop a thoroughly Christian worldview and philosophy of life.

That is being forgotten throughout evangelicalism, to an almost stunning degree.  “Cancel” the truths from scripture that might offend someone.  In effect, “cancel” the gospel.  Give people a more acceptable, up to date concept of Jesus.  People are advised as to how to “achieve their dreams,” how to “follow their hearts.”  People are given life lessons and motivational speeches, advice, formulas for success.  Congregations (obsolete word, I know) are exhorted to develop a personal vision, to follow a vision, to have some sort of encounter with God.  Self-esteem is big; God is “crazy about you.”  God wants you to be prosperous, or successful, or feel good about yourself, or know your true self, or realize how special you are.  Create your own reality through positive thinking.  Unbelievers are affirmed in their sins, told that they are “awesome,” told that they are “special,” advised to, in effect, add a little Jesus to their life.  Church has become a raucous rock/pop concert followed by such a “talk.”  One wonders how that can even be considered a “worship service.”  Is it really to be compared to hearing from God’s Word, of singing truth from the scriptures, of considering Who God is and what He has done for us in Christ?  Did Jesus die to atone for our sins, or to make us feel good and make our dreams come true?  Disney message, Disney music, a Disney version of Jesus.  “Cancel” all of that absolutist, doctrinal stuff.  Help people feel good and learn to be tolerant.

We live in a decaying and dying culture that is in desperate need of truth.  Recent events remind us of that.  The Gospel is essentially all that the church has.  Found in both Old and New Testaments, God has given us the truth that we need both for life in this world and for eternal life.  We dare not forget that.  When society crumbles, people do not need anything so much as they need the timeless truth of scripture.

That puts a burden and a great responsibility on us as believers.  It is not enough to hear a sound sermon and sing a few true doctrinal hymns on Sunday.  We cannot merely lament decline.  We may have to separate from churches that do not hold to Scripture and preach Christ instead of culture.  We must become disciples and students of the Word.  We must study it and read it, and we must live it so that we might relate it to the people around us.

In the Old Testament, there is an account of young Josiah coming to the throne in Judah, the southern Jewish kingdom.  Israel, the northern kingdom and apostate from God, had already gone into captivity.  Judah survived, sometimes apostate, sometimes knowing a time of revival.  In II Kings 22, it is recorded that

Josiah was eight years old when he became king, and he reigned thirty-one years in Jerusalem.  . . .  And he did what was right in the sight of the Lord, and walked in all the ways of his father David; he did not turn aside to the right hand or to the left.  Now it came to pass, in the eighteenth year of King Josiah, that the king sent Shaphan the scribe . . .  to the house of the Lord, saying:  “Go up to Hilkiah the high priest, that he may count the money which has been brought into the house of the Lord, which the doorkeepers have gathered from the people.  And let them deliver it into the hand of those doing the work, who are the overseers in the house of the Lord; let them give it to those who are in the house of the Lord doing the work, to repair the damages of the house—  to carpenters and builders and masons—and to buy timber and hewn stone to repair the house. . . ” Then Hilkiah the high priest said to Shaphan the scribe, “I have found the Book of the Law in the house of the Lord.” And Hilkiah gave the book to Shaphan, and he read it.  So Shaphan the scribe went to the king, bringing the king word, saying, “Your servants have gathered the money that was found in the house, and have delivered it into the hand of those who do the work, who oversee the house of the Lord.”  Then Shaphan the scribe showed the king, saying, “Hilkiah the priest has given me a book.” And Shaphan read it before the king.  Now it happened, when the king heard the words of the Book of the Law, that he tore his clothes.  Then the king commanded . . . , saying,  “Go, inquire of the Lord for me, for the people and for all Judah, concerning the words of this book that has been found; for great is the wrath of the Lord that is aroused against us, because our fathers have not obeyed the words of this book, to do according to all that is written concerning us.”

The ancient Jews forgot God.  They forgot His Word.  It brought calamity.  When the ancient scrolls were discovered in the time of Josiah, it brought some degree of revival and postponement of ultimate judgement.  It brought life and hope to another generation.  As a nation, we cannot forget the truths found in the Old Books.  The church dare not forget the truth found in The Old Book.

Tell your children about it,
Let your children tell their children,
And their children another generation.  (Joel 1:3)

The Simple Mission of the Church

Pandemics, Protests, and Purpose

 

Often things aren’t as simple as they seem.  Sometimes they actually are.

An article titled “NAE calls on Christians to pause, mourn 100,000 COVID-19 deaths in US” was featured a few weeks ago in an on-line publication.  The piece stated that “The National Association of Evangelicals is calling on Christians and churches to pause and lament the death of more than 100,000 Americans from COVID-19 on Pentecost Sunday, ” and quoted the NAE’s president’s observation that “It’s a reason for us to pause, to remember the dead, to mourn their passing, and to lament the fact that we have not been able to grieve as we typically would as Christians.”  The piece further noted that “The call is being made by “an unprecedented group of 100+ national faith leaders—from Christian, Jewish, and Muslim traditions representing major denominations, national faith-based organizations, local congregations, and millions of people of faith across the country.”

The same article related that the founder of the organization Sojourners said “One hundred thousand people, citizens, friends, and family dead is a terrible marker we must not miss or pass by quickly or easily.  We must stop. We must weep. We must mourn. We must honor.  And we must lament which is to feel and bear great grief and sorrow, and to reflect upon it.”  The executive director of Sojourners commented that “Every one of the over 100,000 lives in the U.S. lost to COVID-19 is precious and sacred.  While the need for social distancing has precluded funerals and other traditional forms of mourning, we can and must find ways to grieve and lament together as a nation.  These tragic deaths include so many heroic frontline and essential workers who risked their lives to heal, protect, and serve others.”

These are not necessarily doctrinally solid organizations, but there is nothing explicitly wrong with and in fact everything right about sound churches and individual Christians supporting people who have lost loved ones and friends to the virus.  Paul wrote in Romans 12:14-16, “Bless those who persecute you; bless and do not curse.  Rejoice with those who rejoice, and weep with those who weep.  Be of the same mind toward one another.  Do not set your mind on high things, but associate with the humble.”  But what about the tens of thousands of survivors of diseases like malaria, typhus, or dysentery, which largely occur in less developed countries, and those who have lost loved ones to such diseases?  What about tens of thousands of cancer survivors or those who have lost loved ones to that condition?  Or auto accidents?  Or seasonal flu?  Or old age?  Or poverty?  What about a special day for them?  Why single out COVID-19 just because it dominates the secular news cycle?  Is it a hook to somehow attract people concerned with a current and on-going event?  Or is it maybe because some would let society and current events set the agenda for the church with the thought that addressing solutions to the societal problems of the day is primary to the mission of the church?

Sound churches sometimes purport to aspire to “change their city” or perhaps “transform their community for Christ.”  But is that really the role of the church?  Or is the purpose of the church to be something both more basic and ultimately more important?  Jesus commissioned his followers to go into the world and preach the gospel and to make disciples.  To reach people with the message that Christ came to atone for their sin and if they will respond to the gospel and call on Christ in faith they will be saved, not just from disease and calamity, but from eternal judgement.  The church cannot cure any disease.  But in understanding and fulfilling its real purpose the church can help people see the One and Only Cure for their most fundamental underlying condition, sin.

In a book published in 1983 titled “Idols for Destruction,” Herbert Schlossberg wrote that  “Now American religion is full of the contradictions and paradoxes that come from the attempt to merge a true gospel with the faltering creeds of the surrounding society” (Page 9).  Later (Page 38) he observed that “God is still active in history and still makes himself known in blessing and judgement.  The message is as unpopular now as it was then, and there are many places in which the church is faithless to its charge, preferring to preach on popular themes that find ready acceptance among those who have rejected the first principles of the Christian faith.”  Surely those words are even more true now than they were in 1983.

What is the mission of the church?  What are we supposed to be doing?  The changing of people is surely fundamental to the mission of the church, but the only way to change people is to lead them to Jesus Christ – the Jesus Christ of scripture.  The only way for the church to change people is to declare the gospel.  The mission of the church is primarily redemptive.  The mission of the church is the gospel, the scriptures, declaring the gospel and then “teaching them to observe all things” that God in His Word has commanded.

Attempts to be contemporary, to be “relevant,” ensures irrelevance.  By constantly responding to current events, the disease or disaster of the day, or the media event of the week, churches completely lose their unique and fundamental function.  The desire to sympathize with suffering  aside from declaring the nature and cause of that suffering – human rebellion and sin against God – sacrifices eternal truth on an altar of misguided sympathy and emotion.  The church becomes just another voice in the crowd.  Current societal upheavals pose a huge risk of being sidetracked for many in the American church, even in sound circles where the gospel is believed. “Social justice” concepts are not merely a distraction from the gospel; rather, such things are antithetical to gospel.  Where social justice is accepted, the gospel is twisted.

The Great Commission speaks of Christ’s followers being a witness to people of all nations, men and women of all races and cultures. Evangelism and the gospel message is the absolute and only starting point for all Christian teaching and discipleship.  “Unless one is born again, he cannot see the kingdom of God” (John 3:3).  Believers and churches thus must be engaged in confronting the lost and presenting to them the saving gospel of Jesus Christ.  But Christ did not limit His teaching to the message of individual salvation from hell.  Discipleship follows and involves training in the Christian faith. The New Testament affirms the Old Testament teaching on fundamental marriage and family relationships.  Both testaments speak much of material goods, affirming private property rights, affirming the necessity of industry and work, saving and deferred gratification, honesty, and instructs as to the relationship between rich and poor and employer-employee relationships.  Throughout the Bible is instruction on all areas of life and relationships to others.  Scripture enjoins believers to live all of life under Christ’s authority.  When that occurs and becomes the focus, when individual believers throughout society begin to live out the gospel and its ramifications for life, governments, societies, and communities are changed.

In a sermon reprinted in the February 2020 Decision magazine titled “The Answer to Our Deepest Needs,” Billy Graham said,

“Yet here is where the tension in the church becomes acute. What is the church’s primary mission? Is it redemptive or social—or both? When most major Protestant denominations have their annual councils, assemblies or conventions, they make pronouncements on matters having to do with any number of issues, but very rarely are any resolutions passed that have to do with the redemptive witness of the Gospel.

The changing of people is the primary mission of the church, and the only way to change people is to lead them to Jesus Christ. Then they will have the capacity to live up to the Christian command to “Love your neighbor” (Matthew 22:39).

There is no doubt that today we see social injustice everywhere.  Looking on our American scene, Jesus would see something even deeper.  The great need is for the church to call in the Great Physician, who alone can properly diagnose the case.  He will look beneath the mere skin eruptions and pronounce on the cause of it all—sin. If we in the church want a cause to fight, let’s fight sin.  Let’s reveal its hideousness.  Let’s show that Jeremiah was correct when he said: “The heart is deceitful above all things, and desperately wicked” (Jeremiah 17:9).  Then, when the center of man’s trouble is dealt with, when this disease is eradicated, then and only then will man live with man as brother with brother.”

People don’t need a vaccine for the virus so much as they need the cure for sin that is found in the blood of Christ.

We don’t need to pander to the crowd.  We need to declare the gospel to the crowd.

People don’t need sympathy or advice from the church.  They need clear teaching from the Scriptures.

We don’t need politics or more government.  We need to acknowledge Jesus as Lord and Eternal King.

We don’t need to argue.  We need to in deed and in word clearly, lovingly, and forcefully proclaim Christ as the only hope.

We don’t need to march arm-in-arm and sing “Kumbaya” with protestors.  We need to invite them to join us in the eternal chorus of “Worthy is the Lamb.”

Lost people don’t merely need physical healing or reconciliation to each other or social reform.  They need the reconciliation to God that comes only through Christ and the gospel.

We don’t only need to decry the oppressor and sympathize with the oppressed.  We need to tell both of their need to repent and believe the gospel.

Simplistic?  Maybe so.  Maybe not.

 

Customizing The Cross


Cross  Just about any jewelry store features cross jewelry, most often as a pendant on a necklace.  The display of ornamental crosses is common among traditional Christians, and some subcultures use the cross as well.  Gothic outfits sometimes feature black crosses in their jewelry; rock stars occasionally even wear a cross.  The simplicity of the cross shape allows customization, and some would say that different variations allow for self-expression.  An icon in western societies, the cross has long been recognized as a universal symbol of Christianity and has been featured as an ornament not only in jewelry but in wall hangings and other items of decor.

But to the Christian who believes the Gospel of Scripture, the Cross is more than just an item of jewelry, a wall hanging, or a knick knack.  And unlike jewelry or home decor, the message of the cross cannot be customized.


Cross 3In a recent article in the on-line “The Resurgent”  Erick Erickson wrote that

In 2013, the Presbyterian Church (USA), the Mainline and increasingly heretical version of the Presbyterian branch of Christendom in the United States, cast out the popular Christian hymn “In Christ Alone” from its hymnal revision.

The reason was that hymn authors Keith Getty and Stuart Townsend refused to change a line of the hymn. The PCUSA wanted the line “on that cross, as Jesus died, the wrath of God was satisfied” changed to “the love of God was magnified.”

The PCUSA has increasingly embraced the idea that God is fully love, “love is love,” and the concept of His wrath needs to be downplayed. This drags into long term theological problems that often wind up dragging proponents of this theological revision right out of Christendom. If the God of the Old Testament and the God of the New Testament are the same unchanging God, why must so much blood be spilled in the Old Testament if God is all “love is love?” Trying to resolve it all with God’s love being magnified makes no sense.

The correct theological answer is that God loves us, but cannot tolerate sin. Sin must be punished for us to be able to have a relationship with the Creator and the punishment of sin is death — our own or someone or something else’s. Throughout Biblical history, blood must be shed to make us right with God. On the Day of Atonement, blood is shed. On the cross, blood was shed. 1 John 2:2 states that “Christ is the propitiation for our sins, and not for ours only but also for the sins of the whole world.”

Paul in Romans 3:21-25 states, “But now the righteousness of God has been manifested apart from the law, although the Law and the Prophets bear witness to it— the righteousness of God through faith in Jesus Christ for all who believe. For there is no distinction: for all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God, and are justified by his grace as a gift, through the redemption that is in Christ Jesus, whom God put forward as a propitiation by his blood, to be received by faith. This was to show God’s righteousness, because in his divine forbearance he had passed over former sins.”

John Murray noted “The doctrine of the propitiation is precisely this that God loved the objects of His wrath so much that He gave His own Son to the end that He by His blood should make provision for the removal of this wrath.” (John Murray, “The Atonement”)

(The Resurgent, August 20, 2019, article titled “The Atoning Sacrifice of the Union Soldiers Means Nothing to the New York Times’ 1619 Project.”)

Why can’t God simply forgive sin?   Why can’t he simply offer forgiveness by fiat, by decree?  Why did there need to be a cross?  Like many other questions related to good and evil and salvation, this is not an easy issue to comprehend, but it is pivotal.  If we are to understand the Bible’s presentation of the cross, we must first have some understanding of the divine nature, of who God is.  It is only by remembering his complete self-sufficiency, glory, holiness, justice, and love, that we will begin to understand the nature of our sin problem and its only solution in Christ.  In large part, God cannot simply forgive because of who he is as the moral authority of the universe.  All of God’s attributes are a part of him, including his holiness, righteousness, and justice. He is not like a human judge, who adjudicates a law created by others; instead, God himself is the law. Our sin is not against a principle or law, but it is against God who is holy and just (Psalm 51:4).  When God forgives sin, he does so by remaining true to his nature, and that is why our forgiveness is only possible if the satisfaction of his moral demand is met. For God to declare sinners justified, Jesus perfectly obeyed all of God’s moral demands for us and paid for our sin in his substitutionary death on the cross (Romans 3:21–26; 2 Corinthians 5:21). 

At the root of every caricature of the cross, every bad customization, is an incorrect understanding of God. To think that God can forgive our sins without the full satisfaction of his justice, we must deny that God’s holiness and justice are essential to him and that he is not the moral standard of the universe, or, that God’s love is greater than his other qualities and so God can forgive us without the consideration of his justice and holiness.  But in forgiving us of our sins, God’s love is not opposed to his justice; instead the ultimate demonstration of God’s love is that in Christ and his death on the cross, God’s own righteous demand is met.  He doesn’t ignore evil or neutralize it by edict, but He provided the full and perfect atonement for sin in the person of his own Son, “whom God set forth as a propitiation by His blood, through faith, to demonstrate His righteousness” (Romans 3:25).  God’s love is not at all unjust and his justice is not unloving.  Sin is not  overlooked or condoned, but our sin is paid for in full either in Christ or in final judgment when all sin, evil, and death will be destroyed.  God has graciously provided the necessary atonement through the death of Christ on the cross. 

The honor and glory of the Creator is the ultimate reason that all of creation exists.  God created us with the ability to choose good and evil, but his nature and the fact that he is the cause of all that exists does not allow rebellion to go unchallenged.  It is in the gruesome death of God incarnate on the cross that the horrible nature of sin is exposed, and it is at the cross that his love is demonstrated.  The supreme display of God’s love is the Father giving his own Son on the cross as our propitiation, as the necessary satisfaction offered for our sins, which turns back his wrath against us and meets the demands of his holiness and justice on our behalf (1 John 2:1–2, Romans 5:8).  In the cross, we see the greatest imaginable demonstration of God’s holiness and justice as well as his love; it is there he remains supremely just and the one who justifies of those who have faith in Jesus (Romans 3:21–26).  His holiness and justice is upheld, his grace and mercy is gloriously manifested.  It is in the cross that we see the greatest imaginable display of his glory.    


Cross 3Given the centrality of the cross, it is crucial that we understand it correctly.  All orthodox Christians from the very beginning have agreed that Christ’s death brings forgiveness of sins resulting in our reconciliation with God.  This is the very foundation of the faith.  A variety of atonement theologies emerged throughout church history.  As with other central doctrines, the church’s understanding of the atonement clarified quickly and theologians began to recognize that penal substitution was the theological explanation for why the cross happened and what it achieved even as other views developed and came to be accepted by some.  One early view of the cross reasoned that Christ’s work on the cross was to be seen primarily in terms of his identification with humanity through the incarnation.  By becoming human, Christ overcame the corruption of our nature in his incarnation and in his death on the cross.  Especially in Christ’s resurrection, immortality is restored to us as well as reconciliation with God.  Another view, sometimes associated with the idea of ransom to Satan, sees the primary objects of Christ’s death as the powers of sin, death, and Satan, the thought being that on the cross, Christ liberates us from these powers.  Others deny that God’s justice necessitates the full payment of our sin since God’s justice is not viewed as essential to him. Instead, as the moral Governor, God can choose to relax the demand of the law similar to a human judge, thus forgiving us by his mercy.  Another view, the example or moral influence view has been promoted within non-orthodox, liberal theology, and became prominent with the rise of liberal theology in the 18th  and 19th centuries. It taught that God’s love is more fundamental than his justice and that God can forgive our sins apart from Christ and the cross. God, then, is not the primary object of the cross, as Christ’s death primarily shows us God’s love and sets an example for us.  This idea has become the dominant thought in many circles, certainly in post-modern liberal christianity, and increasingly it is becoming accepted in some evangelical circles.   

But it is the fact that Christ was our substitute on the cross and died to pay the penalty for our sins that is the real, non-customized cross of Scripture.  Could God have chosen another method?  Perhaps, but it is Christ dying on the cross as our substitute that was the divinely preordained method chosen for the atonement.  The idea of substitution does not deny aspects of Christ’s death such as the restoration of what Adam lost, the defeat of sin and death, or the revelation of God’s love.  But the Bible teaches that central to the cross is the incarnate Son acting as our substitute to satisfy God’s righteous demand against us due to our sin.  To justify sinful humans, God provided a Redeemer who can pay for our sin and act in perfect obedience for us. Christ must be our penal substitute, paying the penalty for our sin. Ultimately, satisfying God’s justice is the central purpose of the cross.  Scripture does in fact present Christ and his cross as the supreme moral example of love, obedience, and suffering. But the cross only functions this way because of who dies and what he achieves, namely the full satisfaction of God’s righteous demand against our sin, which is the ultimate demonstration of divine love (1 John 4:7–10).


Cross 3We need more than an example to redeem us.  It is not enough for Christ to identify with us in his incarnation and show us how to live. Our problem is not merely that we need a great teacher to show us how to live. Our problem is sin before the holy God, and this problem requires the incarnation of God’s own Son to live for us and to die for us as our substitute. It is only Christ as our substitutionary appeasing sacrifice that meets God’s righteous demand, and enables believers, in Christ, to receive salvation.  The center of Christ’s work on the cross is that he has come to offer himself before God because of human sin. The substitutionary atonement of Christ so beautifully foretold by Isaiah some seven centuries before the cross (Isaiah 53) tells us why the Son had to die, and why he alone saves.  All any sinner can possibly do is receive salvation by penitent faith, believing that a perfect atonement has been made by Christ that satisfies the wrath of God against sin.

At the cross we see a revelation of God’s love, grace, and mercy, and we see the depth of our sin – not our own goodness and worth. Christ died for the ungodly (Romans 5:6), not worthy, good people that needed help in discovering their true identity or affirmation of their self-esteem. This message is denied by many throughout christendom, and is even being denied among many who identify as evangelicals. Many erroneously teach that people are inherently good. They have designed a customized cross that is not the cross of Scripture.  If people are inherently good, they don’t need a savior, they need an inspiration, they need an example, they need to be affirmed, they need a new perspective. That is not the premise of scripture: “And this is the judgment: the light has come into the world, and people loved the darkness rather than the light because their works were evil” (John 3:19).  Where human goodness and moral relativism is the accepted basis of belief, people don’t feel the evil of their own sin against God, and thus don’t understand that the death of Jesus was needed because we have rebelled against and disobeyed our Creator.  Jesus came to restore the image of God within us when he died on the cross for our sin. Our self-esteem thus shouldn’t be based on anything except the love of God in Christ who willingly gave his life for us when we were unworthy sinners.  In this showed his tremendous love for us. Romans 5:8 tells us, “But God demonstrates His own love toward us, in that while we were still sinners, Christ died for us.”

Our worth is affirmed by the atonement that was made for us at the cross. When missionary William Carey was suffering from an illness, he purportedly was asked, “If this sickness should prove fatal, what passage would you select as the text for your funeral sermon?” He answered, “Oh, I feel that such a poor sinful creature is unworthy to have anything said about him; but if a funeral sermon must be preached, let it be from the words, ‘Have mercy on me, O God, according to your steadfast love; according to your abundant mercy blot out my transgressions.'” In the same spirit of humility he directed in his will that the following inscription and nothing more should be cut on his gravestone:

WILLIAM CAREY,

BORN AUGUST 17th, 1761:

DIED-

“A wretched, poor, and helpless worm On Your kind arms I fall.”

Carey understood the real message of the cross.


Cross 3The cross is everywhere in Scripture.  In the Old Testament, the need for the cross is explained and it is prophesied in detail.  Paul preached the gospel of Jesus according to the Scriptures.  The death of Jesus was at a predetermined time in history and was for a specific predetermined purpose. It was not merely the death of a martyr or philosopher who recklessly challenged the authorities of his society.  Paul declared its necessity (Acts 13:27–33), and like Jesus before him, Paul established from the Old Testament scriptures the reasoning why Messiah had to suffer (Luke 24:25–26).  Jesus had to die because righteousness could not come through any other means (Galatians 2:21).  The message we must understand and explain today is that it is only through Jesus’s atoning death on the cross as our substitute that we are forgiven, reconciled to God, and rescued from the evil dominating the present world (Galatians 1:4).  This is the message that must be at the center of evangelism. This is the cross that must be taught and preached.

Music is at the heart and soul of believers and of churches.  Given the centrality of the cross, a list of hymns and gospel songs about the cross would be lengthy. Isaac Watts, perhaps the leading early voice of English hymnody, wrote the well-known “When I Survey the Wondrous Cross,” beginning with the words, “When I survey the wondrous cross, On which the Prince of Glory died.”  Prolific hymn writer Charles Wesley in “And Can It Be?,” wrote in the refrain, “Amazing Love! how can it be, That Thou, my God should die for me!,” connecting the substitutionary death of the savior to the “Amazing Love” of God.  Present time hymn writer Chris Anderson (hymnody is very much alive), in “My Jesus Fair” has written of the death of the Savior on the cross,

My Jesus, fair, was pierced by thorns, By thorns grown from the fall. Thus He who gave the curse was torn To end that curse for all.

Refrain: O love divine, O matchless grace— That God should die for men! With joyful grief I lift my praise, Abhorring all my sin, Adoring only Him.

My Jesus, meek, was scorned by men, By men in blasphemy. “Father, forgive their senseless sin!” He prayed, for them, for me.

My Jesus, kind, was torn by nails, By nails of cruel men. And to His cross, as grace prevailed, God pinned my wretched sin.

My Jesus, strong, shall come to reign, To reign in majesty. The Lamb arose, and death is slain. Lord, come in victory!

My Jesus, pure, was crushed by God, By God, in judgment just. The Father grieved, yet turned His rod On Christ, made sin for us.

Not all songs that use the word “cross” are about the “real” cross. This is readily apparent in contemporary entertainment that has replaced hymns and gospel songs in many churches. Some use the word “cross” without explaining anything of what it means. Others see the cross merely as a selfless act of love for our encouragement. Some come close to actually remembering what Jesus accomplished at the cross while leaving out any mention of the details. Few mention salvation from sin or the blood or the wrath of God against sin or the concept of atonement. But the power of the cross is in those details. Jesus, the perfect Son of God, bore our sins in his body on the cross to endure the wrath of God for us so that we might be forgiven and reconciled to God. That is the song of the redeemed believer, the source of joy and the ultimate cause of true worship.


Cross 3The building of the church of which we are members has an auditorium that has a balcony and so has a high ceiling. On a recent Sunday night I sat in a seat adjacent to the center aisle, and looking up the aisle I reflected on what I saw. There is a communion table at the front of the aisle, a matching wooden pulpit above that, the platform for the musicians and choir, and a baptistry against the back wall. Above the baptistry is a beautiful large wooden cross. There are screens well off to each side for the display of things like the speaker’s notes, but it is the cross that is the central architectural feature at the front of the room. That cross is there in the background, above everything that happens in the room. It likely looks little like the crude Roman cross upon which Jesus was crucified, but it beautifully reminds of that sacred event.

In some post-modern vestiges of christianity, there are beautiful and elaborate crosses, but the true message of the cross has been abandoned – customized.  Some newer evangelical churches might choose to not have a cross in their auditorium, lest someone be offended or find it too traditional, and many have customized their message of the cross.  In our church, the real beauty of the cross is that it is the real message of the cross – not a customized version – that is ever present. When the pastor preaches, the cross is there, not because it is the stated subject of the lesson or sermon, but because the Bible is taught and preached, and the cross is everywhere in the Bible. Hymns and songs are sung, like those mentioned above, that speak of sin and salvation, of the blood, of the atonement – of the cross.


Cross 4  Cross jewelry? By all means wear it. If I were not so, er, frugal, I might buy a piece of cross jewelry for my wife. In the post-christian western world, we can display the cross freely, in our churches, in our homes, on our persons. In a communist Asian country or in an African or Asian country dominated by Islam, one might not be able to openly display a cross. Yes, display the cross.  But more importantly, a Christian must not forget the message of the cross and the reality of a relationship with the One Who died there.  Renunciation of sin, self, and the evils of the world in identification with the crucified Christ is the aspiration of everyone who believes that Christ died on the cross for them.  Jewelry gets shuffled aside, wall hangings get taken down, display pieces get lost among others. This must not be so with the message of the cross. That message must remain an ever present moment-by-moment reality in our life.  

 

The Lord’s Day

When we were boys, my mother took my brother and me to Sunday School and church every week. Dad never went to church, but he didn’t discourage us from going. Every Saturday night, I took a bath, filled out my Sunday School quarterly, and often polished my shoes to get ready for Sunday. We had a big Sunday lunch, usually something Mom had prepared and put in the oven or the electric skillet, and during the NFL season Dad was usually watching football when we got home. Sunday was a “different” day, and there never was a debate about going to church, it was just assumed that we would go.

I continued to go to church every Sunday as I grew up. I met my wife at the church we both attended. After we married, we continued to go to church every Sunday morning, usually again on Sunday night. There was never a debate or discussion. We often had lunch with family, we usually took an afternoon nap, and Sunday remained a day different from the rest. It was a day for church, for rest, for family, for remembering the principle of Sabbath to some degree. It was the Lord’s Day. We took both of our children to church the next Sunday after their birth. They grew up attending Sunday School and church every week, just as my wife and I had done when we were growing up.

A number of years ago we visited with my uncle (brother to my mother) and aunt in the small Nebraska town that my mother’s family was from. My uncle and aunt were living in the town while on an extended furlough from Bolivia where they did missionary work. Conversing with them, they noted that they were involved with an effort to oppose the end of business closings on Sunday in the town. Sunday “blue laws” were still in place then. Years earlier, that might have been common in many American cities and towns. Today, that is no longer the case and hasn’t been for a number of years.

In the past, most people did not work on Sunday unless they were involved in agriculture or services like law enforcement or health care, but that is no longer the case. Now, Sunday is a big day for retail, restaurants, entertainment, and in many other fields businesses operate on Sunday as just another day. We live in a busy world, where we have boats to get in the water, home improvement projects to attend to, sporting events and recreational activities to pursue, kids’ ball games to attend, as well as simply leftover tasks we didn’t get to during a busy workweek. It’s been a long week, we’re tired. We simply can’t commit to go to church every week. And yet, a few generations ago, American Christians managed to make it to church. They considered it important to do so. They may have worked sixty hour weeks in a factory, they may have engaged in relentless agricultural tasks seven days a week, but they somehow managed to make it to church. More and more, this is no longer the case.

Recognizing this, many perceived evangelical churches have attempted to make church more attractive to people and help them to make it fit into their schedules. I drove by a church recently with a sign that said something to the effect of “Come on – Give God a Second Chance.” The idea of “stop in and give God a few minutes once a week” is perceived as a big draw. We’ll keep it informal, short, entertaining, and painless, we’ll offer a service on Saturday night so you can sleep in on Sunday morning if you want; just stop by on your way to or from the movies or the restaurant. We’ll have an early Sunday morning service so you can get it over with and have the rest of your day free if that works for you. Shorts and flip-flops are no problem. In many cases, maybe most cases, sound churches have discontinued their Sunday evening services, in part because they were poorly attended.

Worship should be an existential reality for believers. It should be a way of life, an hour-by-hour part of our life. It is not dependent on our physical location, our lot in life, or any external issue. Our personal relationship with God is a constant and ongoing part of life. Similarly, corporate worship is not limited to Sunday. The Lord of the Church resurrected on the first day of the week and so from its earliest days the church came to assemble and worship on Sunday, but believers can assemble and worship together on Saturday or for that matter on, say, Tuesday. Corporate worship can occur whenever the church meets and sinners are warned of judgement to come, Christ and the gospel is proclaimed, the Scripture is studied, believers pray together. In other countries and societies, a Sunday gathering might not even be an option. One wonders, however, when American churches seek to make their meetings completely convenient and informal and easy, if they haven’t lost something.

The New Testament presents to us the importance of being part of a church. We are supposed to gather together with other believers, for instruction and discipleship, for corporate worship, for encouragement and fellowship, for ministry. It isn’t optional, it isn’t something to do occasionally when it is convenient. We are supposed to be a part of each other as the body of Christ in the world. As Americans, we have great freedom to assemble in churches. If we are gathering together with other believers to worship together, to hear a clear exposition of Scripture, to sing songs of worship to God that joyfully and reverently proclaim doctrine and remind of what He has done for us in Christ, it should be a priority that exceeds our need for convenience and comfort. Our heritage as believers living in the United States is a heritage of observing the Lord’s Day, preparing our hearts, putting on some better clothes appropriate to assembling with the body of Christ, and attending church regularly, even if doing so might not always be convenient. This should happen not merely as a ritual or habit, but as a commitment from our heart.

There is no explicit New Testament statement mandating Sunday worship, certainly no limitation to corporate worship on that day, but there are several references indicating that the first day of the week was special for the earliest believers. Matthew 28:1-6 tells us of the Lord’s resurrection on the first day,

“Now after the Sabbath, as the first day of the week began to dawn, Mary Magdalene and the other Mary came to see the tomb. And behold, there was a great earthquake; for an angel of the Lord descended from heaven, and came and rolled back the stone from the door, and sat on it. His countenance was like lightning, and his clothing as white as snow. And the guards shook for fear of him, and became like dead men.But the angel answered and said to the women, “Do not be afraid, for I know that you seek Jesus who was crucified. He is not here; for He is risen, as He said. Come, see the place where the Lord lay.”

Several other New Testament passages mention the first day. That tradition endured throughout history, and was an important part of American society for most of our history. That tradition and commitment has been slowly abandoned in recent decades. The reasons are many. Liberal churches hold to no message that is worth a zealous devotion to weekly church attendance. Prosperity takes our focus away from spiritual matters. We’re busy, have many activities and commitments. We can worship anywhere and anytime, we reason. Our favorite YouTube church is more entertaining and can be viewed anytime. Many professing Christians simply feel no need or desire to be involved with a local church.

But I’m convinced that Christians and the faithful church in America have lost something, something profound and vital, in losing our commitment to The Lord’s Day.

Observing Communion

The church in which we hold membership observed communion on a recent Sunday night.  We’ve been present as the ordinance has been observed a few times since we began attending the church, and these services are substantive and meaningful.  For whatever reason, I was reminded of the contrast between this Lord’s Supper service and a time a couple of years ago that we attended a local megachurch on a Saturday night to observe, and they had communion.

          

Entering the megachurch’s expansive venue, I noted on the hand-out that they were going to have communion at the end of the event.  They were having a global outreach month, as I recall.  The speaker that weekend was a thirty-something who was involved with a project in Mexico, and must have had an ongoing relationship with this megachurch.  The topic for his talk centered on the value of remembering Jesus as our friend.  He was an able and articulate speaker, but I began to wonder if there might be any use of the Bible before he referenced a few verses well into his talk.  In the end, I wasn’t sure what his purpose might be for his mission or ministry.  He did not really mention anything of the Gospel; I wondered if perhaps his concern was primarily social or benevolent.

At the end of the sermon, the lead pastor returned to the stage, and he and the speaker sat for a few minutes and chatted; I don’t recall much of the topic of the conversation, likely related to the value of the concept of Jesus as my friend.  At the end of their chat, the pastor indicated that the communion elements should be distributed, and he reminded the crowd to remember the similarity between “communion” and “community.”  I assumed that when the distribution of the elements was completed, the pastor would return, and there would be an explanation or discussion of the meaning and purpose of the ceremony.  The band began to play a bluesy version of “What a Friend We Have in Jesus,” as volunteers circulated buckets of pretzel chips and individually-packaged communion juice.  A few people soon got up to leave, perhaps in a hurry, I thought.  Then, as more people began to leave, I had an almost visceral reaction, as it occurred to me, this is over!  These people in a supposedly evangelical church, designed to attract people who might not like “church,” have participated in a communion ritual without hearing anything of the Gospel, nothing about what the elements might mean.  Volunteers at the doors collected the empty juice containers.  I remarked to my wife that it would have been better to skip the communion elements and just distribute granola bars at the door at the conclusion of the chat.

           

The recent service at our home church was decidedly different.  It was neither somber nor cheery.  The congregation sang joyful and reverent songs appropriate to the occasion, songs about salvation from sin, songs about the body and blood of Christ that the elements depict, songs about Christ’s sacrifice on the cross as payment for our sin.  The pastor didn’t preach, but worked through the Gospel of Matthew, following Jesus’ movements that ended with his death and resurrection at Jerusalem.  The elements were distributed by the deacons after the pastor spoke, and prayer was offered.  Congregants were invited to stand and offer public prayers as we held the bread and juice and reflected on the symbolic meaning of those items before taking them together.  The Gospel was declared, and God was worshiped as we participated together in this remembrance, as we considered the death, burial, and resurrection of Christ as the atonement for our sin, just as believers have for two thousand years.  My thoughts went to I John 1:9, the joyful promise that “If we confess our sins, He is faithful and just to forgive us our sins and to cleanse us from all unrighteousness.”