I have spoken up more than once in favor of balance. I do not regret this. But I believe there are different kinds of balance. There is the balance that merely meets somewhere in the middle and tries not to be too excited about anything. This is a position that seeks moderation for moderation's sake. But there is another type of balance, which is advocated by G. K. Chesterton, that consists in the holding on to both extremes and letting each have their proper place.
I am convinced that the heart of this is to be found in the gospel. In the gospel we are faced with God's love and grace and with God's holiness and justice, both in the extreme. We might want to think of some middle ground, where God was just but His justice was somewhat tempered with mercy, and we had to live up to this moderate moral standard. But He is so just that He demands perfection (Matthew 5:48; James 2:10; 1 John 1:5), but so loving that He gave His Son to offer salvation as a free gift (John 3:16-18; Romans 5:6-8; 3:21-26). He calls those who put their faith in Him to make the goal conformity to the image of His Son (2 Corinthians 3:18; Romans 8:29,30; 1 Peter 1:14-17), but to do so in the context of grace and security (Romans 8:31-39; 5:1,2; Hebrews 13:5). We are told that this is all based on God's work in us (Philippians 2:13; Colossians 1:29; 2 Peter 1:3), but we are to put out every effort to bring it about in our lives (Hebrews 12:1,2; 5:11-14; 1 Timothy 4:7,8). We are to recognize ourselves as sinners and humble ourselves before God (1 John 1:8-10; James 4:6-10; Proverbs 1:7), but are encouraged to rejoice even in difficult times because of what God has done for us (Philippians 4:4; 1 Thessalonians 5:16; John 16:33). We are to stand firmly for the truth (Jude 3; Romans 16:17,18; 2 Timothy 4:1-4), but to do so in love (2 Timothy 2:24-26; 1 Peter 3:15; Galatians 6:1).
However, it makes us nervous to grasp both extremes and have them come together to define us. It seems so much easier to find a nice safe place in the middle that is comfortable and does not demand too much from us. But to live out the truth of God I am convinced we need a wild balance rather than a tame balance. So that we might incorporate the right extremes into our lives, not by doing everything in a moderate, reserved way, but by giving every good thing its appropriate importance.
Indeed the Church from its beginnings, and perhaps especially in its beginnings, was not so much a principality as a revolution against the prince of the world. This sense that the world has been conquered by the great usurper, and was in his possession, has been much deplored or derided by those optimists who identify enlightenment with ease. But it was responsible for all that thrill of defiance and a beautiful danger that made the good news seem to be really both good and new.
G. K. Chesterton, 1874-1936, The Everlasting Man, The God in the Cave (Dover Publications, 2007, p. 176)
Is this how the Christian faith is to be viewed, as a revolution? How does this affect our approach to it?
It is asked how we can make the spirit of Christmas last the rest of the year. Christians particularly may ask this. But is it just a piece of wishful thinking? Or is it somehow possible? Now much of what people want to continue is rooted in good feelings. I have nothing against good feelings. But good feelings by themselves are not enough to make a permanent change work. We see it in the other departments of life. A couple falls in love; then they get married and settle down. And they find they need more than just good feelings to make the marriage work. Or a Christian goes to a retreat or a series of special meetings and feels really pumped up to live for God. And then, as they go back to their everyday life, their feelings fade and vanish. The problem is that all feelings, over time, tend to vanish. They can point out the direction that needs to be taken. But it takes something else to get us there. It takes commitment. Or does it?
Commitment in its own place is a good thing, but it is often equated with sheer will power. And anyone who has ever made a New Year's resolution knows how well that works. We grit our teeth and decide we are going to gut it out. Occasionally, particularly on the minor things, it seems to work. But more often then not, we fail and fall flat on our face. Then we try to drum up more will power, and we still fail. And if we work long enough and hard enough, we can, at least for a while, convince ourselves we are succeeding. But in doing so we can set ourselves up to fail spectacularly. And even if we manage to hold it together, we will feel exhausted and worn down on the inside from the stress of maintaining this level of control.
Which brings me back to the meaning of Christmas. The meaning of Christmas is not just some vague message of cheer and good will. The meaning of Christmas is that, when our good feelings fail, when our will power is not enough, God steps in. When we were sinners and disobedient to God (Romans 3:23; Isaiah 64:6; Jeremiah 17:9), God became a man to redeem us (John 1:1-18; Philippians 2:5-11; Hebrews 2:9-18). As a result of this, God forgives (Ephesians 1:7; Colossians 2:13,14; 1 Peter 2:24,25) and begins to work in the lives (2 Corinthians 3:18; Ephesians 2:10; Philippians 2:13) of those who put their faith in Him (Ephesians 2:8,9; Romans 4:4,5; Philippians 3:9). And it is as we look to Him that we obtain a meaning for Christmas that is lasting, even for the rest of the year.
The most common way to water down the teaching of Jesus is to try to make Him a moral philosopher advocating a new moral system. To do so is to make Him irrelevant. Now do not get me wrong; because I am convinced Jesus is the Son of God, I believe He put forth the perfect moral system. That means that where He differs from other moral systems, He is correct in His answers. But this amounts to deciding the details. The broad principles of morality are agreed upon by various moral systems. Yes, there are differences. There may even be the occasional case where a specific group has gone completely out of the way. But what we have is what you would expect in a fallen world where God revealed His moral principles in the beginning, but people have since tried to forget and distort them. The problem is, it is hard to believe that getting every detail exactly right in our moral code is all we need to do to produce a truly moral society. We need, not just a minor course correction, but a major reorienting of our lives. We do not need a new standard, but a new capability to meet the standard. If Jesus was just a moral philosopher, even if He was the great or correct one, we would simply put Him on the shelf with Socrates and Confucius and other similar practitioners. And He would only be pulled out occasionally, to check His opinion on a particularly interesting controversy or to supply an occasional inspirational quote.
In Jesus' own time, they had plenty of moral philosophers, and one more would have been lost in the crowd. The Jews had a long list of significant rabbis. The Greeks and Romans had a long list of philosophers. Why would one more example of the same be any more more than an interesting footnote in history? One more book to put on the shelf. It is interesting that hardly anyone at the time regarded Him that way (there may have been a few break-offs that held to something like this, but they are so obscure we know little about them). Even some of the earliest pagan observers characterized Christians as worshiping Jesus as God. Which brings us to what we really need. We do not need another great moral teacher. We have already broken the teachings of the great moral teachers we have. As C. S. Lewis points out, even if Jesus is the perfect teacher, that does not help us. If we have already flunked mathematics, how will it help to be taught calculus? What we need is for God to come down and pay the price for our failures to keep the moral law, that we might be forgiven. Then we need God to work in our lives to begin to make us more like what the standard requires. Nothing else can meet our real need with a real response.
Therefore, when the time came, dearly beloved, which had been fore-ordained for men's redemption, there enters these lower parts of the world, the Son of GOD, descending from His heavenly throne and yet not quitting the Father's glory, begotten in a new order, by a new nativity. In a new order, because being invisible in His own nature He became visible in ours, and He whom nothing could contain, was content to be contained: abiding before before all time He began to be in time: the LORD of all things, He obscured His immeasurable majesty and took on Him the form of a servant: being GOD, that cannot suffer, He did not disdain to be man that can, and immortal as He is, to subject Himself to the laws of death.
Leo the Great, 400-460 AD, Sermon XXII, On the Feast of the Nativity, II, II (The Letters and Sermons of Leo the Great, translated by Rev. Charles Lett Feltoe, Nicene and Post-Nicene Fathers, Second Series, Vol. XII, Philip Schaff and Henry Wace, T & T Clark and Wm. B. Eerdmans Publishers, 1997, p. 130)
How can we maintain the wonder of God becoming a man? How can we prevent it from becoming just a piece of routine knowledge?
Remember in the old westerns (or similar stories) where the heroine has been captured by villains or the fort is under attack or some other catastrophe has happened. Then the hero grabs his hat, straps on his six-gun, mounts his horse, and rides to the rescue. The story of Christmas and the story of Christianity is similar. When we were helpless sinners and unable to save ourselves, God took on flesh and came to our rescue (Romans 5:6-8; 3:21-26; John 3:13-21). This is a message that is different from that of all the other faiths in the world.
We, as human beings, have come up with all sorts of world views to try to explain the universe. While some try to leave Him out totally, many types of belief consist in our searching for God. And while we have looked many different places and tried many different approaches, they have all ended in question marks (Acts 17:24-29; 14:15-17; 1 Corinthians 1:18-25). There have been numerous systems built, a multitude of ideas proposed, but no solid basis for deciding which is right. But it is hard to avoid the impression that there is something wrong with the world we live in. There are wars, crime, hatred, and disasters, and again there are all sorts of theories and no real answers. We can try to say that what we see is normal, that it is the way it is supposed to be. But then we are left with the question, why do our minds revolt against it? As C. S. Lewis points out, one of the problems with the problem of evil is that if there is no God, where do we get the standard to judge this world as evil? In the end, the only thing that makes sense of the world that is, is the Christian idea that we live in a world under sin and a curse (Romans 8:19-23; 5:12-21; 2 Corinthians 4:3,4). The standard we hold is true, for it is the original standard, but we have departed far from it. And all our attempts to find the answer and solve the problem fall short. And we can hope that, with a little more trying or a little more education, we can find the answer. But we are left with the nagging feeling it is beyond our capacity to solve.
Then when all seems lost and the cause seems hopeless, the hero comes riding to our rescue. God Himself comes down from His throne and comes looking for us (John 1:1-18; Philippians 2:5-11; Hebrews 2:9-18). He dies to pay the price for our sin (1 Peter 2:24,25; Colossians 2:13,14; 2 Corinthians 5:21) and proves it by rising from the dead (1 Corinthians 15:1-20; Romans 1:4; 4:25). And He rescues those from sin and death and hell who put their faith in Him (Ephesians 2:8,9; Romans 4:4,5; Philippians 3:9). However, though this has taken place, there are still many who are looking for God in all the wrong places. But they should let themselves be found by Him.
God is not Santa Claus. Santa rewards us based on our performance, whether we are bad or good. But Santa is a soft touch; very seldom does he ever really refuse to bring a child presents. We can see God the same way. We can feel that as long as we do not do something really bad, He will reward us with a good life. And if things do not go the way we want them to in life, we blame God or stop believing in Him altogether. But the Biblical idea of God is that He is absolutely holy (Isaiah 6:3; 1 Peter 1:14-17; Romans 1:18). And He is also absolutely loving (1 John 4:7-12; John 3:16; Romans 5:6-8). Therefore, He forgives those who put their faith in Christ (Ephesians 1:7; Colossians 2:13-15; 1 Peter 2:24,25), even though we fall far short of His standard (Romans 3:23; Isaiah 64:6; Jeremiah 17:9). Because of this, we can understand even bad things in view of this God and His working in our life (2 Corinthians 4:17,18; Romans 8:18; James 1:2-4). And while this does not lead to easy answers, it helps avoid the problems that too-easy answers produce.
I am very much convinced that Christians should pick their battles. I believe there are times when Christians must stand up against true injustice and in defense of the poor and oppressed. There are also times we need to stand up and be bold and defend our ability to openly proclaim our faith. But I am also convinced we need to avoid being petty and making big issues over virtually nothing. The holiday season seems to be a time when there is ample opportunity for these sort of pettiness. It does not help that there are many on the opposite side who are also being petty and being offended over trivia. But that does not mean we should follow them in it.
Christians are called to stand up for truth, are called to do so boldly, but with gentleness (1 Peter 3:15; 2 Timothy 2:24-26; Colossians 4:5,6). Now there is a point where this requires standing up to the people in power (Acts 4:19,20; 5:29; Daniel 3:16-18). But these are contentions over matters of substance. It is one thing to stand on principle, and it is another thing to argue over details. Now part of my problem is, I feel both sides have put too much importance on these issues. I am sure if you search land and sea you will find someone who was converted to Christianity by a nativity scene in a public building.. I knew a man who was converted to Christianity by "Jesus Christ, Superstar." But I question whether there is anything here worth fighting over on either side. There may be some purely symbolic struggle here over who is in charge of society. But I do not see that it is the Christian's job to try to be in charge of society. And if we were, I do not see how we would accomplish it by these types of arguments. I am not at all sure that much of this is not a promotion of a nominal Christianity that gets confused with the real thing.
Now there can be a hard line to draw when what is involved is the individual Christian's being allowed to express their faith. If a Christian is required by their employer to only say "Happy Holidays" and never "Merry Christmas," should they go along? This is one of those marginal things that each person must establish in their own mind. Nor should we accept the concept of the establishment of secularism, which is no different than the establishment of religion. But in many of these fights we make ourselves look as petty as our opponents. And I do not see how this accomplishes anything useful.
Thus the nature of the two substances displayed Him as man and God, - in one respect born, in the other unborn; in one respect fleshly, in the other spiritual; in one sense weak, in the other exceeding strong; in one sense dying, in the other living.
Tertullian, On the Flesh of Christ, Chapter 5 (translated by Peter Holmes, The Ante-Nicene Fathers, Volume III, Rev. Alexander Roberts and James Donaldson, T & T Clark and Wm. B. Eerdmans Publishers, 1997, p. 525)
What are the implications of God becoming man? What does it mean to us today?
C. S. Lewis pictures Christ's work in our lives as the renovation of a dilapidated house. When we first come to Christ there are things in our life that clearly need to be fixed: the roof leaks, and all the drains are clogged. We expect Christ to fix those things. But after we get those obvious things fixed, we can feel we have got what we wanted and expect Christ to stop there and let us live our lives the way we want to live it. But He does not stop there. He starts breaking down walls and building new wings. And to do this He often has to put us through trouble and discomfort. For He is rebuilding us into a palace, a fit dwelling place for the King of Kings. And we would be willing to settle for much less.
God has purposes He wants to accomplish in our lives that culminate in our being conformed to the image of His Son (2 Corinthians 3:18; Romans 8:28-30; Ephesians 2:10). This is a long process that requires our continued involvement (Philippians 3:12-16; 2 Timothy 4:7,8; Hebrews 12:1-2). Now God Himself provides the power to make this possible (2 Peter 1:3; Philippians 2:13; Colossians 1:29). But we still have to make a choice to let Him do this in us (Romans 12:1,2; Titus 2:11-14; Galatians 5:16). However, often we are willing to settle for less than that. We are willing to settle for being good moral people, as our culture describes it, or good church-goers, good moral person who do some religious exercises.
The reason we do this is that we feel, whether we will admit it or not, that our standing before God is based on what we have done. Therefore, we are afraid to admit we do not measure up for fear that since this is so, God might reject us. But Scripture says we are sinners (Romans 3:23; Isaiah 64:6; Jeremiah 17:9) who cannot save ourselves (Romans 7:14; 8:8; John 15:5). However, we can be saved through faith in Christ (Ephesians 2:8,9; Romans 4:4,5; Philippians 3:9), based on what He has done for us (1 Peter 2:24,25; Colossians 2:13,14; 2 Corinthians 5:21). This results in our not being condemned in the sight of God (Romans 8:33,34; 14:4; John 3:18). Therefore, we are able to honestly look at our lives and see what needs changing. And we are able to let God do His job of rebuilding in our lives, knowing that our place with Him is secure.For even though the goal seems far beyond our present reach, He will not give up on us until He has accomplished it in us.
G. K. Chesterton likens life, and particularly the Christian life, to an adventure. I have found this to be a helpful perspective. And as Christians, we know the ending. We will ultimately be victorious (Romans 8:37; 2 Corinthians 2:14; 1 John 5:4), and we will be with Christ forever (1 John 3:2; Philippians 3:20,21; Revelation 21:3,4). But every adventure has its dark places, its difficult points, when it looks like the situation is hopeless. Belle deserting the Beast at the last minute to go help her father. Frodo and Samwise on the stair of Cirith Ungol, about to face a giant spider. Luke Skywalker brought a prisoner before the Emperor, who has a functioning deathstar. All things seem lost; then the situation turns around. We see the same thing in Scripture. Joseph in Egypt. Gideon facing the Midianites. Christ in His death, burial, and resurrection. In the same way, God can bring us through dark times into the glory of His presence (Romans 8:18; 2 Corinthians 4:17,18; John 16:33).
Apostolic succession is a very old Christian idea. It is also a very dangerous one. For it justifies people and things just because they can claim historical continuity. In the later Middle Ages it allowed those in charge to perpetrate all matter of corruption, based on a position of authority passed down from earlier times. And they were immune to correction, for they were above even being required to keep their oaths.
But Protestants have renounced this principle. Or have we? While we do not generally profess it, there is often an unspoken assumption that our beliefs and practices have some sort of authority just because they have been passed down to us. Now I am not saying no one can ever make use of older practices. But they should be maintained because they are valuable, not simply because they are traditional. There is a large amount of wisdom that has come down to us from Christians of previous ages. But there are also serious mistakes. Which are which may be debated. But this is impossible to discern when mere succession is seen as a justification for them. Then there are those who reject the traditional forms and produce their own nontraditional traditions, often held as firmly as the traditional ones. While cutting themselves off from whatever is valuable in the traditional ones. We must recognize that mere historical continuity means nothing, and things should be weighed by the teachings of Scripture and their own merits. Then we could avoid throwing out valuable practices, without getting caught up in fights over the date of Easter or whether people should cross themselves with two or three fingers.
We need to realize that this idea is not found in Scripture. It does not teach an authority based on who you are ordained by. In fact, the word "ordination" in this context in the New Testament is a dubious translation. Nor is there any special inherited authority required to administer the ordinances or do the work of the church. The declaration in Matthew 16:13-20 was based on Peter's profession of faith, not who he was ordained by. Those who have the faith of Peter have the authority of Peter. In Hebrews 5:1-10 it speaks of the legitimacy of Christ's high priesthood, and nowhere is it traced back to who He was ordained by, as we are never even told that He was ordained. The Pharisees and Sadducees had the claim of historical continuity, and Christ rejected them (Matthew 23:1-12). The idea that someone has unquestioned authority on the basis of historical continuity is foreign to Scripture. And trusting we have the only right tradition can lead to taking God for granted. We need to look for something more basic than that to assure ourselves we are God's people.
He glorifies Christ most who takes most from him, and who then gives most back to him. Come, empty pitcher, come and be filled; and, when thou art filled, pour all out at the dear feet of him who filled thee. Come, trembler, come and let him touch thee with his strengthening hand, and then go out and work, and use the strength which he has given thee.
Charles Haddon Spurgeon, 1834-1892, Metropolitan Tabernacle Pulpit, Christ's Pastoral Prayer for his People, A Sermon (No. 2331), On Lord's-day Evening, September 1st, 1889.
Do we need to be filled by God to give back to Him? How does that affect how we serve Him?
One of the arguments that is made regarding certain behaviors, particularly sexual behaviors, is that I should not complain about them because they do not affect me. What difference does it make to me what people do in the privacy of their own bedroom? But there are serious problems with this argument.
It reflects a totally selfish outlook on life. It says that I should not care what harm people do as long as it has no impact on my life. That I should not care if black people are made to go to the back of the bus, because I am not a black person. That I should not care about the poverty in third world countries, because I do not live in a third world country. Now it should be said, in all honesty, that most who try to make this argument would not make it across the board. They merely make sex a special case and ignore the normal perspective on such things.
But the biggest problem with this idea is that it is completely untrue. What one or two people do in the privacy of their bedroom may not affect me, but when large numbers of people do it, it cannot help but seep out into society as a whole. I have battled the attraction of pornography since I was old enough to do so, and there is no question that accepting such things in private affects how we behave in public and the things that are acceptable in public. I do not have to go to X-rated movies. But when it is acceptable to do so, it affects what is expected in the other movies and in TV shows. I do not need to read porn magazines. But their general acceptance affects what is found in other magazines and books. I may not have to go to porn sites. But it affects what is found on other internet sites. And it puts pressure on everyone, particularly children and young people, to accept the ethic of casual sex. It affects how the sexes relate to one another in other contexts. It also affects the stability of their marriages and their families. This puts a burden on society to deal with the results of these failed relationships. The idea that what it is considered acceptable for people to do in their bedroom can be sealed in their bedroom is pure nonsense.
The only way this argument can be made to work is if it is maintained that people have a right to sexual license and I should be willing to sacrifice my convictions to protect that right. The problem is, I do not recognize any such right. We, as Christians, should avoid being harsh and sanctimonious about this. But we cannot concede the principle. If someone wants to try to convince me of such a right, they are welcome to do so. But do not tell me that it does not affect me, because this is simply not true.
Community is risky. This something we need to remember. Now community is commanded by God (Hebrews 10:24,25; Ephesians 4:1-6; Romans 12:4,5). It is also worth the risk. But we must remember that there is a risk. Any time we love people we risk being hurt by people. I do not see this as an excuse not to love. Love is the chief thing God requires of us (John 13:34,35; 1 John 4:7-21; Matthew 22:36-40). But we need to understand the danger when going in and count the cost. Nor can it be avoided merely by correctly handling the situation. One of Jesus' own apostle betrayed Him. To risk love is to risk hurt. But to avoid love is to lapse into a state of total self-centeredness contrary to everything God wants us to be. For He took the risk of loving us (John 3:16; Romans 5:6-8; 1 John 3:16).
"Is it clear?" I remarked to my partner, Lieutenant Isabel.
"It's unquestionable," she returned. "This couple are teaching their children that there is a God."
I hated these types of cases. But the law had to be enforced. We headed out the door.
We entered a standard cube of working class apartments, our badges out and our hands near our weapons. I ran my finger over the badge's scan spot that activated the police ringtone and cycled the door. I gave them a few minutes to come out voluntarily before forcing our way in.
A middle-aged woman, pretty in a dowdy sort of way, slowly opened the door with a look of shock on her face."What's the problem, officers?" she sputtered.
"You have been accused of corrupting young minds with abusive fables," I stated with a firm voice. "I have a retrieval order. You have the right to a hearing if you want one."
"No!" she screamed bursting into tears.
The man bulled his way past her and ran at me. "You're not taking my children," he screamed. I hit him with my shock grip. As he lay writhing in the room, I called for backup. We would have to take them all in.But there was something nagging at me from the back of my mind.
On the way in we heard the latest on the war with the Theodoules. They claimed all they wanted was to be left in peace in their own territory. But if they got away with it, every godbeliever in the nation would seek refuge there.
Later, I watched the man in the conditioning room on the therapeutic table. It was stimulating pain in his mind whenever he saw a religious image. "Any hope for him?" I asked Dr. Karen, the re-educator, as we walked over to her office on the other end of the floor.
"Not much," she replied. "The children are young and should be easy to reeducate. There is some slight hope for the woman . But the man is unreachable."
Then the lights went out. The standard office area with the lights off is as dark as a cave. Which is why there are three backups, which all seemed to have failed. I heard weapons' fire, but I could not get anywhere in the dark. I only later learned it was a Theodoulian raid. And they had taken all the prisoners.
It took some effort to find them. They had commandeered a cruise foil and were headed back to their so-called state. Our plan was for officers to sneak in from different directions and surround them. I do not know who fired first. But Isabel was caught in a fire fight with a couple of Theodoules in an alleyway. They went down, but Isabel took a shot to the chest. She did not make it.
In anger I turned to face the unarmed fugitives. Legally, I could shoot them down where they stood, and part of me wanted very badly to do so. Then I looked into the horrified faces of the couple I had arrested earlier.
I heard the voice of my middle grade teacher echoing in my head. "Religion has done all matter of evil. It has forced its beliefs on people and even tortured and killed people who would not consent. It stole people's children and raised them in its own beliefs. It made wars on others who had done no harm in order to impose its beliefs on them."
God allows the godly to be powerless and oppressed so that everyone thinks they are done for, yet even in that very moment God is most powerfully present, though hidden and concealed. When the power of man fails, the power of God begins, provided faith is present and expectant. When the oppression is ended, then one sees what strength lies below the weakness. Even so was Christ powerless on the cross, and yet he was most mighty there and overcame sin, death, world, hell, devil, and all ill.
Martin Luther, 1483-1546, The Martin Luther Christmas Book, Visitation (translated and arranged by Roland Bainton, The Westminister Press, 1948, pp. 28, 29).
How does God's producing strength through weakness affect our view of the world? How can we apply this to our lives?
Who were the Pilgrims, and why did they come here? At the time of the Protestant Reformation, there existed a state church which enforced faith. But making Christianity enforceable also made it nominal. If everyone was a Christian, few took it really seriously. But it also made people comfortable; you did not have to worry about your faith being challenged. They could profess Christianity and then live however they wanted to live, as long as they did not do something blatant enough to bring the authorities down on them.
The Protestants, after the Reformation, generally tried to perpetuate the state church model. But there were problems. There were Protestants in Catholic nations or possessions and Catholics in Protestant nations or possessions. And this resulted in a long series of wars and persecutions. As a result, there were those who looked for some place to go, to get away from the troubles. Shortly before this the New World had been discovered. And some thought it might be that place of refuge. The first people to try this were the French Huguenots, Protestants in a Catholic country. They started a colony, but it was in Spanish territory. As a result, their colony was destroyed and the people killed or sold as slaves. But the idea did not die.
The Church of England was a compromise between Protestantism and Catholicism. And it enforced their compromise on those who deviated from it in either direction. The Pilgrims were clear Protestants who could not go along with the compromise. They fled to Holland, but were uncomfortable there, and decided to start a colony in America. There were earlier English colonies started for commercial reasons, but they were the first to go over seeking religious liberty. It should be noted that religious liberty, in the beginning, frequently meant freedom to practice one's own beliefs and not necessarily willingness to tolerate others. The Puritans, a much larger group of Protestant dissenters in the Church of England, followed the Pilgrims' example. Once this happened many others came and started their own colonies as places of refuge for their people.
When this diverse group of colonies became a nation, they decided, not without controversy, to oppose the establishment of religion and to advocate the free exercise of all beliefs. The United States then became a refuge for those looking for a place to safely practice their beliefs. This was important because one of the results of the religious wars was to move the European nations and their state churches in a more secular direction. Therefore, the United States became a place for people to come who took their Christianity seriously. An enforced faith may seem attractive and may produce a nation that conforms to one's values, but in the end it produces a weak Christianity. So while I believe we should oppose the establishment of secularism, which is as bad as the establishment of religion, we should avoid forcing our faith on others. For this does not produce real faith.
The problem with accepting God's grace for ourselves is that He expects us to apply it to others. If He forgives us (Ephesians 1:7; Colossians 1:14; Acts 26:18), He expects us to forgive others (Ephesians 4:32; Colossians 3:13; Matthew 18:21-35). He does not judge us (Romans 8:33,34; John 3:18; 1 Thessalonians 5:9-11), but based on that, He rebukes our judging others (James 4:11-12; Romans 2:1; 14:4). But we are called, as a result of the love God has shown us, to be transformed by the power of God working in us (Titus 2:11-14; 2 Corinthians 3:18; 5:14,15). With that, we are called to lovingly correct those who are going down the wrong path (Galatians 6:1; 2 Timothy 2:24-26; Jude 22,23). This is difficult to fit together in dealing with people. It is easy to have a brittle self-righteousness, one that looks down on and abhors anyone who falls short of its standards. It is even easier to advocate total indulgence, which accepts any behavior as long it does not affect us. Though even in these extremes it is difficult to be consistent, because the self-righteous person does not really live up their standards and the indulgent person will normally find some behaviors they cannot accept. But to avoid the extremes requires work.
One of the issues involved in this is helping those in need. Scripture makes it clear that we are to do this (Proverbs 14:31; James 2:15-16; Matthew 25:31-46). But one of the common excuses for not doing it is feeling that these people deserve to be in need due to their life choices. They are lazy or addicted to alcohol or drugs, and that is why they are in need. Therefore we can refuse to help them, knowing they have brought this on themselves. Now it needs to be stated from the outset that this view is simplistic. It is a a Job's comforter type of approach to assume that if you are suffering, it is your own fault. Scripture repeatedly denies this (John 9:1-3; 16:33; James 1:2-4). But even if it is their fault, grace would require us to help them. Now Scripture does prescribe a work ethic (2 Thessalonians 3:10; Ephesians 4:28; Proverbs 6:6-11). But we are all sinners (Romans 3:23; Isaiah 64:6; Jeremiah 17:9) who are saved by the grace of God (Ephesians 2:8,9; Romans 4:4,5; Philippians 3:9). However, we are saved, not because sin is tolerated, but because it is paid for (1 Peter 2:24,25; Colossians 2:13,14; 2 Corinthians 5:21). Now it is not always easy to know how best to bring these truths to bear in a specific situation. We need to help people, but if possible we need to help them back onto their feet so they can earn their own living. But we must avoid the too easy solutions of not helping or of helping superficially without dealing with the deeper problems. For we too are recipients of grace.
But the new rebel is a sceptic, and will not entirely trust anything, He has no loyalty; therefore he can never be really a revolutionist. And the fact that he doubts everything really gets in his way when he wants to denounce anything. For all denunciation implies a moral doctrine of some kind, and the modern revolutionist doubts not only the institution he denounces, but the doctrine by which he denounces it.
G. K. Chesterton, 1874-1936, Orthodoxy, The Suicide of Thought, (Dover Publications, 2004, p. 33)
Should a Christian be a revolutionist? What is the right way to go about changing society?
Who does the work for us to grow in Christ, us or God? Now salvation is God's work. He sent His Son to pay the price we needed to pay for our sins (1 Peter 2:24,25; Colossians 2:13,14; 2 Corinthians 5:21). Therefore, we can accept this salvation as a gift by faith (Ephesians 2:8,9; Romans 3:21-28; John 6:28,29). But growth in Christ is more complicated, because it is something that changes us so we behave differently. There are those who give the impression that, having saved us, God has left us to work to achieve moral improvement on our own. And there are Scripture passages that encourage us to put effort into growing in Christ (Titus 2:11-14; Hebrews 12:1,2; 1 Timothy 4:7,8). But there those who say we should just get out of the way and let God take over and change us. Again, there are Scripture passages that would support the idea that growth in Christ is God's work in us (Galatians 2:20; 5:16; John 15:5). How do these fit together?
Now we still have to live our life and to make choices. The Spirit does not take over and replace our will and personality. At least, I have never met anyone who claims to have experienced this. Further, we are admonished in Scripture to respond in obedience to God's commands in every aspect of our life (Romans 6:12-14; 1 Peter 1:13-16; Colossians 2:6,7). And this is presented as a growth process, not something that happens instantaneously (Philippians 3:12-16; Hebrews 5:11-14; Colossians 2:19). Letting God take over is often put forth as a formula for immediate spirituality. There is no basis for it in Scripture. Further, in my experience it does not work.
But God also has not left us on our own to work up within ourselves obedience and service to Him. Rather, we are told God is at work in our efforts to empower us to do what He wants us to do (Philippians 2:12,13; Colossians 1:28,29; Ephesians 2:10). This is something that takes place in all believers and not just those who let God take over (2 Corinthians 3:18; 2 Peter 1:3; Colossians 2:10). Now this is a mysterious thing. We are working, but God is working in us to change us. We may or may not feel anything as a result of this happening (often feelings may come and go), but we take God at His word that it is so. What then is the issue? It is who we are trusting in. We should not trust in our ability, our self-control, our organizational competence, but in God and His power (Proverbs 3:5,6; Psalms 127:1,2; 37:3-6). This does not mean that we are passive or do not put out an effort or do not plan. But it does mean we commit all these things to God, trusting Him to use them to accomplish His purpose in our lives and in the world. For if He is not at work, we will accomplish nothing.
C. S. Lewis, in the Screwtape Letters, claims that one of the strategies of Satan and his demons is to get people running as quickly as possible from the error they are least likely to commit. This does fit my observations of the world. That people who are extremely emotional are likely to fear being intellectual. That people who are seriously intellectual or simply stoic are afraid of being too emotional. That fervent evangelists are concerned that Christians are spending too much time learning and very little time doing anything with what they know. While those who are teachers will lament that people are running around doing things for God with only a superficial knowledge of who He is and what He wants. Strict legalistic people will be afraid of grace and be sure that preaching it will encourage people to sin. While those who want license to live however they wish will denounce any restraint as legalism. As Screwtape points out, Satan is willing to promote any extreme except extreme devotion to God. Therefore, we need to be careful. If we want God's mindset (Romans 12:1,2; Colossians 2:8-10; 2 Corinthians 10:3-6), we need to ask what it is we are afraid of. And we need to ask if those fears reflect the error we are least likely to commit and are confirming us in going in the wrong direction.
It is sometimes assumed that the reason unbelievers reject the Christian message is that they just do not understand it. This is not necessarily true. The gospel is a stumbling block, and many reject it because they do not like what it says (1 Corinthians 1:18-25; 2:14; 2 Corinthians 4:3,4). But it is true that there are barriers between us and those we are trying to reach. This is inevitable, but if we can remove some of those barriers it will help us to reach people.
One of the obvious and well known barriers is the barrier of language. But it is important to remember that with a difference in language can also come a difference in understanding the world. Often a different meaning to words means a different underlying concept. There is no single word that communicates to the modern person with no Christian background the meaning of words like "justification" and "born again." They need to be explained. Often it takes time to get the concept across to someone. It may take more than one discussion. And the danger with attempting to translate our concepts into the language of those who are outside Christianity is that we can not only change the words, but the concepts. It is easy to change grace, a concept foreign to many, into salvation by our works or some form of mystical experience. We need to work hard to communicate the right things to people. Now there may be not only words, but also ways of doing things, that we can change to better communicate with people. But we also need to realize we cannot please everyone and to carefully consider what we should and should not change.
Not only is there a tendency to be confused about terminology, but there are many people and organizations who have confused stereotypes of what Christianity is. There may be many out there who do not know that their stereotypes of Christians are just that: stereotypes. In this it does not help that there are Christian individuals who live up to the stereotypes. Therefore, we need to avoid living up to the stereotypes. And if possible, to show people we are not like that. To show we are not self-righteous or uneducated. But this means we need to have carefully considered the issues involved and are able to put forth a thought-out position on them. And again, it will take time for people to get to know us well enough to look past the stereotypes and see us as we really are.
Now none of this is possible without the power of the Holy Spirit (John 6:44). But we still need to ask what we can do to avoid making the matter worse through what we look like and what we do.
(speaking of the Apostle Paul) He prescribes, that love should be maintained; he rebukes, because love is not maintained; he prays, that love may abound. O man! learn by his precept what you ought to have; learn by his rebuke that it is by your own fault that you have it not; learn by his prayer whence you may receive what you desire to have.
Augustine of Hippo, 354-430 AD, On Rebuke and Grace, Book I, Chapter 5 (translated by Peter Holmes and Rev. Robert Frost Wallis, The Nicene and Post-Nicene Fathers, First Series, Volume V, Philip Schaff, T & T Clark and Wm. B. Eerdmans Publishing, 1997, p. 473)
Why do we lack the love we should have? How do we obtain it?
The Stoics were philosophers who believed in upholding conventional morality and self-control. They were firmly opposed to the Epicureans, who thought the pursuit of the largest amount of pleasure was the highest good. This competition started in Ancient Greece but really came to the fore in the Roman Empire. The Stoics tried to maintain the traditional virtues that made Rome strong against the rising tide of decadence, which they blamed, with some justice, on the Epicureans.
A key representative of the Stoics was the Emperor Marcus Aurelius. He possessed considerable power in the position of Emperor. He was a conscientious man who believed in morality and duty. He sought to turn around the raising tide of decadence promoted by such rulers as Caligula and Nero. He failed utterly. His own son did not follow in his footsteps, but became one of the worst of those who promoted decadence. And the Empire continued its downward spiral into corruption.
Now Marcus Aurelius considered it his duty to oppose bizarre new religious sects that turned people from more traditional values. One such sect was Christianity. Therefore, this morally upright emperor promoted its extermination. One place where this was carried out was in the cities of Vienna and Lyons. And it is recorded that initially that campaign was somewhat successful and, being threatened with torture and death, some began to waver. Then there was brought forth a little slave girl. Someone with absolutely no power or prestige. But she refused to deny her beliefs under all the extremities of torment the Roman Empire could muster. For she did not stand for conventional morality. She stood for a Savior, God who had become flesh to break the powers of sin and death and hell and had proved it by rising from the dead. Therefore, He could offer forgiveness and eternal life to all who put their faith in Him. And the life and death of the little slave girl caused many who were wavering to return and stand firm in their faith. Then the faith of the little slave girl went out and conquered the world.
Now many of us today who are Evangelical Christians have seated ourselves in the seat of Marcus Aurelius. We have seen ourselves as the defenders of conventional morality against the rising tide of decadence. And we are bound to fail like he did. For conventional morality cannot stand against decadence. It is too tied to convention and tradition, and when those are no longer the consensus it has nothing to draw on. What we need to do is return to faith in the real, supernatural intervention of God in our lives to redeem and transform us. A mere generalized sense of duty is not enough. We need to be driven by a deep love of God and our neighbors if we are to stand up to the destructive forces of our age.
Why are there all the divisions in the Christian church? The ultimate answer to this is the sinfulness of human beings (Romans 3:23; Jeremiah 17:9; Isaiah 64:6). But it is helpful to ask what the particular causes are.
One is the desire to control people (Luke 22:24-27; 1 Peter 5:1-4; 1 Thessalonians 2:3-12). While any view can be used to further this, certain views are more helpful. Such as a view that makes a peculiar individual or group the unquestionable authority or that nitpicks over every detail. The idea is to keep people from thinking for themselves, but simply following you in every detail. But individuals can also advocate complete independence. This view questions if we need to listen to anyone other then ourselves (2 Timothy 3:16,17, Hebrews 13:17; Romans 12:4,5). It results in taking any position just to be different, resulting in division.We need to avoid total conformity or total dependence but carefully test things to see if they are from God (Acts 17:11; 1 Thessalonians 5:21; 1 John 4:1).
Another motivation is to believe we are better than others outside our group (1 Corinthians 1:10; 10:12; Proverbs 16:18). Again, any position can be used for this, but it helps if it claims real spiritual superiority to others. Some magic formula to make us closer to God, especially if it is a mysterious secret. But there is also the danger of spiritual superficiality, believing if we go through the right motions God will be pleased (Malachi 1:10; John 4:24; Isaiah 58:3-8). This also causes divisions, by requiring agreement on all external details. What is needed, rather, is a genuine growth in simple faith and obedience to Christ (Philippians 3:12-16; Hebrews 12:1,2; 1 Timothy 4:7,8).
Another cause of divisions is a denial of God's grace, by believing we can stand before God based on what we do (Ephesians 2:8,9; Romans 4:4,5; Philippians 2:9). With this comes the tendency to say, "It is my particular set of rules and principles that will commend me to God." Now there are those who take the opposite extreme and claim they do not have to be concerned about how they live at all (Titus 2:11-14; Galatians 5:13,14; James 2:26). They are therefore motivated to divide from anyone who questions their behavior. But the correct answer is that God saves us by grace, but works in us to transform us into the people He wants us to be (2 Corinthians 3:18; Ephesians 2:10; 1 Corinthians 6:20).
As long as we are sinful humans there will be divisions in the Christian church. But it helps to know what the tendencies are. Because these include opposite tendencies, it is not always easy to know who is right in every case. But this does offer some warning signs on which directions it is dangerous to go.
Meanwhile, being placed in this most beautiful theatre, let us not decline to take a pious delight in the clear and manifest works of God. For, as we have elsewhere observed, though not the chief, it is, in point of order, the first evidence of faith, to remember to which side soever we turn, that all which meets the eye is the work of God, and at the same time to meditate with pious care on the end which God had in view in creating it.
John Calvin, 1509-1564, Institutes of the Christian Religion, Book I, Chapter XIV, 20 (translated by Henry Beveridge, Volume I, Wm. B. Eerdmans Publishing, 1973, p. 156)
What can we learn about God from nature? Are there limitations to this?
I am convinced that humor has a place in argumentation. I post a cartoon once a week, after all. Sometimes humor can get past the defenses and make a point when nothing else can. And humor can contain within it a legitimate argument, one that deserves to be taken seriously. But simple ridicule is another matter. The kind of argumentation which consists in merely putting another person down serves no real purpose and makes no real point. It is often the result of a person's not having real confidence in their position. They cannot argue and do not really understand both sides of the issue well enough to make real arguments, so they ridicule. We see this more and more among the modern breed of atheist. But there are also those Christians who are taking up this approach. However, it is a pitfall to be avoided.
The first problem with this is that it cannot really convince anyone. The reason it cannot is that there is no logic in it. Anybody, no matter how inadequate their position is, can call names. But calling names, because there is no substance in it, cannot persuade; it can only intimidate. Now some may think this sufficient, but for the Christian who is looking for a real change in heart and attitude, it is superficial. And it is a persuasion that is only liable to last as long as the intimidator is around or until they meet someone more intimidating. What is more likely is that you will produce two groups held together by intimidation, neither able to convince the other because they have no basis of discussion. It becomes nothing more than a shouting match. And often, by ridiculing people you just confirm them in their views. Ridicule tends more to feed the ego of the one who uses it than convince others.
Also, ridicule is based on the idea that your position is obviously right and no intelligent person can differ. For any position seriously held by two differing groups, this is simply not true; there are generally arguments on both sides. And the person who cannot see both side generally does not really understand the issue. There may be a view that is clearly right, but until you can see and weigh the arguments on both sides, it is hard to see what it is. Even those who hold to obviously extreme views like "the earth is flat" and "Elvis Presley is alive and appearing today" deserve to have their views refuted and not just mocked.
Therefore, we should avoid using this approach. Also, we should not be impressed with those who use it. We should do what we can to turn them to arguments of substance. But we should avoid being put off track by such things. For they say more about the speaker's attitude than the truth of their position.
The Bible says we need to rejoice with those who rejoice and weep with those weep (Romans 12:15; 1 Corinthians 12:26; Hebrew 12:12,13). This is an easy thing to say, but hard to do. I often struggle over whether I genuinely care for others, or am I sitting around in my safe intellectual bubble rather than reaching out to people? When speaking to those who are suffering, do I communicate real concern or do I simply try to come up with some trite saying to avoid caring? I do not claim to have all the answers here. But I know I need to let God work this attitude of compassion in me. Sometimes the other half is hard too. It is easy to envy those who are doing well, rather than rejoicing with them. But the more we realize we are part of the same body and part of one another, the more others' pain will become our pain and others' joy will become our joy (Romans 12:3-5; 1 Corinthians 12:8-25; Ephesians 4:16). For while this can be hard, it is what God calls us to do.
The was a good and kind King, and there was a man who wanted to be a citizen of His kingdom. But he was unclear on what he needed to do to become a citizen. So he traveled to one of the cities of the kingdom to ask the people there what he needed to do to be a citizen.
"You need to give your heart to the King," said one of the citizens.
"Does that mean I need to dedicate myself to Him and do good deeds?" asked the man.
"No, it is not based on your works," said the citizen.
"You must be born again," said another citizen.
"Is this some kind of mystical experience?" the man asked.
"Well, not exactly," said the citizen.
"You must repent and make the King the Lord of your life," said the next citizen.
"So I must do enough good deeds to deserve the King's favor," replied the man.
"No, you cannot deserve anything from the King," came the answer.
"You must have a personal relationship with the King," said another.
"But how do I do that?" inquired the man. "Do I just work up the feeling the King loves me?"
"No, it is more than that."
"You must say a prayer or walk down the aisle in a town meeting," said the next.
"But those are obviously symbolic gestures," returned the man. "What are they symbolic of?"
He got no answer.
"You must let the king into your heart, " said a passerby.
The man walked away, wondering exactly what that meant.
He was about to give up and forget about the whole thing when He almost ran over a young man.
"Why so gloomy?" asked the young man.
"I want to become a citizen of this kingdom," replied the man. "But no one seems to be able to tell me how."
"The King is the true King of the whole world," began the young man. "All of us have rebelled against Him and committed crimes against His laws. But He has found a way to pay the price for our wrongdoing so He can offer us a pardon for our offenses. But to obtain this pardon we must be willing to admit our guilt and trust in His pardon and not in anything we can do to make restitution for what we have done. Then He pardons us, we are reborn, and He makes us His friends and citizens of His kingdom."
And the two men walked off, discussing this novel idea.
(advice of an expert devil to a junior devil on tempting his human charge)
I don't mean on really doctrinal issues; about those, the more lukewarm he is the better. And it isn't the doctrines on which we chiefly depend for producing malice. The real fun is working up hatred between those who say 'mass' and those who say 'holy communion' when neither party could possibly state the difference between, say, Hooker's doctrine and Thomas Aquinas', in any form which would hold water for five minutes.
C. S, Lewis, 1898-1963, The Screwtape Letters, Letter 16, Harper, San Francisco, 1996, p. 84)
Is there a tendency like this for people to argue over words they do not understand? How can we avoid it?
In the book 1984 by George Orwell, the protagonist (I will not say "hero") claims that freedom is being able to say that 2+2=4. Later, he is tortured and forced not only to say, but even to believe, that 2+2=5. The philosophical underpinning of this is that truth is relative and, especially given enough incentive, can be made to be whatever you want it to be. I am not a sufficient expert on the effects of torture to be able to say if such a result is possible, though it seems dubious. But even if it were true, it is self-refuting. For in order for the torture to work, it is required that there be one thing that is true, and true both for the torturer and the tortured. The existence of pain. If truth were really relative, there could be no existence of pain for both parties and therefore no torture.
This illustrates one of the fundamental problems in the idea of relative truth. In order not to be left in a vacuum in which knowing or even thinking is impossible, you have to smuggle truth back in the back door.
If you say the issue is not what is true but what works, then you are saying it is true that something works. There is also the question of, works to do what? Then you have to ask whether this is the true goal. Even if you say the goal is working to produce pleasure, you are saying that the fact something produces pleasure is true. You can say that what matters is what produces progress, but then you are saying it is true that something will produce progress. It also implies that you can identify what direction constitutes progress and can say that this is the true direction that real progress must take. I can say what matters is what is true for me, but that implies it is true that this particular thing is true for me. And how can I decide what is true for me if there are no true criteria to base it on? Or you can say that the important thing is to decide, but that implies, it is true I have decided this particular thing. And if truth is relative, why is it better to decide than not decide? Or we can try to appeal to custom, but this implies it is true we should follow what is customary, and it is true that certain things are customary. Or we can claim that life is absurd but we need to face it courageously. But if life is absurd, what difference does it make if I face it courageously or as a craven coward? It is only when I conclude that it is true that courage is a good thing that I can demand it in a difficult situation. And this is, of course, all nonsense, for if truth is relative, what I have written here is just meaningless shapes that have no significance at all.
The truth is, no one believes in relative truth. You cannot even believe it one second in real life. But people use it as an escape hatch when they find some issue (commonly theological or moral) that they do not want to face. But this really will not work, for once you let truth back into the universe, you have to deal with everything based on it. I may conclude there are things I do not know and cannot know. I may dismiss whole disciplines as false and exercises in futility. But relative truth leaves me with nothing.
Sometimes God's power is confused with magic. Magic is something we control and use to serve our purposes. God's power works in us to transform us (2 Corinthians 3:18; 2 Peter 1:3; Philippians 2:13) and to enable us to accomplish His purposes in the lives of others (2 Corinthians 3:5,6; Colossians 1:28,29; Ephesians 2:10). But He does it His way, to accomplish His purposes and according to His timing. But there is a danger of making Him into a giant vending machine that gives us what we want when we want it. And it is then we move in the direction of the magician and begin dabbling in magic. But we need to remember who is really the Lord and who are the servants.
There is a continuing battle between different methods of sharing Christ with people. On the one side there are those who are for aggressive proclamation and who believe that those who do not engage in this kind of proclamation are not doing their job in terms of evangelism. There are others who take a more relational approach and say no one can reach anyone without a prior relationship. Both positions tend to stand on opposite sides, claiming the other way is totally unacceptable. But as I read Scripture I find it hard to see any particular method legislated. And while I do find more examples of the more confrontational methods (speaking to large crowds for example), I do not believe that an example constitutes a commandment. Also, I expect one of the reasons we see more of this approach is that Scripture tends to follow the high profile people who tend to use this approach.
It is clear that we need to avoid certain extremes. We are told to present Christ in a gentle manner, which precludes hostile attacks (1 Peter 3:15; 2 Timothy 2:24-26; Colossians 4:5,6). But Scripture also exhorts us to be bold and not timidly fearing men in our proclamation of God's truth (Galatians 1:10; Ephesians 6:19; Acts 4:31). Also, the underlying motivation needs to be love for the people involved, not just a mechanical devotion to duty (Matthew 22:36-40; Galatians 5:13,14; Romans 13:8-10). But there is left a broad place between these two extremes which is open for debate. I am convinced there are various options open for different people to use different methods, depending on what is right for them. There are also different people who will be brought to Christ in different ways. There are those who need intellectual answers. There are those who need a friend, perhaps in the midst of difficult times. There are those who need direct assistance and are not open to listening until they receive it. Frequently we need to match the approach to the person who needs it.
I am convinced that these different approaches depend on the spiritual gifts of individuals, along with their personalities and backgrounds (Romans 12:3-8; 1 Peter 4:10-11; 1 Corinthians 12:4-27). Therefore, if someone is a teacher they will try to explain the message so people will understand. An exhorter will encourage people to accept the message. Someone with the gift of service will try to do things for people. Whatever their gift, it can be exercised to bring people to Christ. Now we are called to be involved in helping others find the way to Him (Acts 1:8; Matthew 28:18-20; Luke 24:47). But to try to push everyone into the same box is a mistake. Particularly a box which may not be the one that is really appropriate for that person with their particular set of gifts. But we can all reach out together if we each do it the way God has led us to do it.