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?