But the wide extent of Christian grace has given us yet greater reasons for loving our neighbour, which, reaching to all parts of the whole world, looks down on no one, and teaches that no one is to be neglected.
Leo the Great, 400-460 AD, Sermons of Leo the Great, Sermon XII, II, (translated by Rev. Charles Lett Feltoe, The Nicene and Post-Nicene Fathers, Philip Schaff and Henry Wace, T & T Clark and Wm. B. Eerdmans Publishing, 1997, Second Series, Volume XII, p.122)
What people might we be tempted to look down on or neglect? How does God's grace speak to this?
If I just believe it hard enough, it will come true. This is an idea that has been around for a long time in various forms. And it is bogus. I have tried it on many occasions over the years, and it does not work. Now I have to admit there are occasions when the person who confidently forges ahead will succeed where the person who too easily gives up will fail. But I have also observed cases where the naive individual rushes in rashly and makes a mess of things where a more cautious, measured approach was really what was called for. I would suggest the ideal is the right mixture of confidence (best rooted in trusting God) and caution (from a realistic view of a world under sin and a curse). The unmixed extremes are dangerous.
But the biggest error is thinking that if we believe in something hard enough, it will make it so. It will not. Some would try to use the idea of faith to make this idea Christian. If we just have enough faith, things will work out the way we want them to. But this ignores the fact that Christian faith is faith in a Person and not some power we can use to manipulate God into doing what we want. Also, faith in God does not just involve the ability to trust God for a miracle but the ability to trust God even if no immediate miracle comes. David had the faith to trust God to enable him to kill Goliath. But he then had to trust God through the years of fleeing from Saul, when he did not see any evidence of God fulfilling His promise to give him a kingdom. Paul was used by God to heal many (Acts 19:11,12) but he was refused healing for himself (2 Corinthians 12:7-10). God's ways are often mysterious and beyond our understanding (Isaiah 55:8,9; Romans 11:33-36; 1 Corinthians 3:18-20). And often God's plan can only be understood, if at all, by looking back at a later time, as it was for Joseph in Egypt (Genesis 50:20).
But the bottom line is that reality is something that is beyond our simply being able to mold it to our wills. Some degree of cautious optimism is useful. Naive optimism is a hindrance. But what we really need is to trust God even if things do not seem to be going our way (Proverbs 3:5,6; Psalms 127:1,2; 37:3-6). However, we should avoid the idea that we have a magician's power to shape the world to our will. For this contradicts real experience and observation.
One of the chief things required to live for God is humility (James 4:6-10; 1 Peter 5:5-9; Luke 14:7-11). But humility is not something that is highly respected in our current culture. We must assert ourselves. We must put ourselves forth. And if we do not, others will ignore us. But this is not the Biblical approach.
However, before we can talk about cultivating humility, we need to understand what humility is, not just our society's caricatures of it. To understand what Biblical humility is, we need to start with what it is based on. The common idea of our modern culture is that human beings and their desires are basically good and humans need to overcome their humility and reluctance, to express themselves and follow their true inclinations. This can often encourage people to charge heedlessly ahead into wrong and destructive behavior. However, it is equally destructive to decide you are worthless and your life is pointless. This leads to depression and hiding in the corner, avoiding doing anything not strictly necessary. And this latter view is really the natural result of the modern view that we are a meaningless accident spewed forth by a indifferent universe. So in reaction, we assert ourselves loudly, affirming we are somebody. The people we are trying to convince are ourselves.
The Biblical approach starts from the facts that we are created by God in His image (Genesis 1:26,27; 9:6; James 3:9), but we are also sinners in rebellion against Him (Romans 3:23; Jeremiah 17:9; Isaiah 64:6). But God still loved us and has made a way for our sins to be forgiven through the sacrifice of His Son (Romans 5:6-8; John 3:14-18; 1 John 5:11-13), not as a result of what we do, but through putting our faith in Him (Romans 4:4,5; Ephesians 2:8,9; Philippians 3:9). And even after accepting His salvation, we are unable to change ourselves (John 15:5; Romans 7:14; 8:8), but He is at work in our lives to transform us (2 Corinthians 3:18; Philippians 2:13; Colossians 1:29). Therefore, we should not sit trembling in a corner, but go out boldly, in confidence, trusting God (Proverbs 3:5,6; Psalms 127:1,2; 37:3-6). But we will keep ourselves in perspective, knowing that everything we have comes from Another (Romans 12:3; 1 Corinthians 1:26-31; Galatians 6:3-5). Rather, we will avoid trying to make a final judgment of ourselves or others (1 Corinthians 4:1-5; Romans 14:4: James 4:11,12), and leaving concern with ourselves behind, will press on to love God and others (Matthew 22:36-40; Romans 13:8-10; Galatians 6:9-10). For this is true humility, not focusing on ourselves but on loving others.
For with what reason should we believe of a crucified man that He is the first-born of the unbegotten God, and Himself will pass judgment on the whole human race, unless we had found testimonies concerning Him published before He came and was born as man, and unless we saw that things had happened accordingly—the devastation of the land of the Jews, and men of every race persuaded by His teaching through the apostles, and rejecting their old habits, in which, being deceived, they had their conversation; yea, seeing ourselves too, and knowing that the Christians from among the Gentiles are both more
numerous and more true than those from among the Jews and Samaritans?
Justin Martyr, 100-165 AD, First Apology, Chapter LIII, (The Apostolic Fathers with Justin Martyr and Irenaeus, Philip Schaff, Wm. B Eerdmans Publishing, 2001, p. 242)
How important is the issue of fulfilled prophecy in showing the truth of Christ? What objections are there to this, and can they be met?
There are passages in Scripture that argue for the truth of its teachings (Romans 1:19,20; Acts 17:22-31; 1 Corinthians 15:1-11). But one of the earliest who was specifically labeled an apologist for devoting himself to the defense of the Christian faith was Justin Martyr. (There were earlier writers who are regarded as fitting in that category, but their works are not preserved in as much detail as Justin's.) Justin started off as a philosopher and made the rounds of the various Greek philosophies available until an old man introduced him to Christianity. He then devoted himself to persuading people of his new-found faith in comparison to philosophy, pagan mythology, and Judaism (and ultimately died for it). He did so with calmness and thoughtfulness. While he is pointed at times, he does not fall into rancor. He did perhaps fall into the apologist's common error of adopting too much of his opponents' mindset. It is easy, in discussing things with people from differing philosophical viewpoints, to begin to fall into their way of thinking.
The apologists were part of the Christian church from the very beginning. It has been claimed by some that they were one thing instrumental in the early spread of Christianity. But in modern times the practice of apologetics has become controversial. There are those who advocate it. There are others who consider it worthless or even damaging. I do not believe we should so easily desert the intellectual realm. One of the reasons for the superficiality of much of modern Christianity is that it throws aside the rational for vague emotional experience. I am convinced that God is involved in all of life, including the intellect, and it is not right to neglect it. But that does not mean it should be allowed to eclipse other aspects of our humanity. However, it also should not simply be cast aside. I know I would have had great difficulty following Christ without having my intellectual questions answered. I do not believe there is any magic formula for convincing people to come to Christ. I believe there is room for various approaches. But apologetics has been an important part of the Christian church from its very beginning. And I am convinced it still has a part to play today.
Sometimes the hardest thing we can do is wait on the Lord. But God requires us to do just that (Isaiah 40:31; Psalms 25:3-5; 130:5-8). However, we live in a culture where we want what we want when we want it. But I am convinced that the only way we can learn to trust God (Proverbs 3:5,6; Psalms 37:3-6; 46:10) is to go through the process of waiting for His timing. This can very difficult. Especially if we are not really sure where He is leading us. But it is something we must learn to do.
Scripture says all human beings are made in the image of God (Genesis 1:26,27; 9:6; James 3:9,10). There are various implications to this. It would indicate that a human being is a human being, and it is wrong to kill them, even the unborn (Psalms 139:13-16; 51:5; Jeremiah 1:5). But it goes deeper than that; even verbally assaulting another is wrong because of this. It also means it is wrong to look down on people of other races and ethnic groups (Colossians 3:11; Acts 17:26-28; 8:25-40). Also, it requires we treat all people with equity, including the poor and downtrodden (James 2:1-9; Exodus 23:6; Proverbs 14:31). The image of God is the only solid basis for unity without requiring uniformity. One of the immediate impressions of people is that they are all different. But the image of God indicates there is an underlying basis for this kind of equality. Other approaches often cannot find a basis for equality without exaggerating the degree of uniformity between people.
But the problem is that a large part of our society does not hold to this position. They hold that human beings are just some accident the universe produced by chance. And under this definition, it is dubious that they have any value at all. Certainly there is no value in simply being a human being; we are just another animal. Therefore, we are seen as having value for being an "individual." There does not seem to be a clear, objective definition of what this is. It is highly subjective. Is a fetus an individual? A two-year old? Someone born with a physical or mental handicap? An old person with Alzheimer's? And who gets to determine this? Society? But society is merely an artificial construct, and if there is nothing higher than society to inform it, what basis does it have to judge who has value? Further, if value is something I acquire, then it becomes something I earn. And this puts me in the position of having to pull myself up by my bootstraps. If I become an individual based on what I do, how can I ever do enough? Where the Christian says, God made me in His image and loved me enough to die for me, not because I deserved it but because He had made me.
But this is a difficult issue, and complicated to discuss. And we are not going to win people over by sloganeering and soundbites. We need to wrestle with the tough issues and encourage others to do so. This may involve challenging our culture's current secular tendencies. Asking how we can claim all men are created equal if there is no Creator. But I am convinced that this is the only way to uphold genuine equality. However, this involves persuading people of the principles involved, not just passing a few laws.
In our daily reading we fall in with many obscure passages which convict us of ignorance. With this curb God keeps us modest, assigning to each a measure of faith, that every teacher, however excellent, may still be disposed to learn.
John Calvin, 1509-1564, Institutes of the Christian Religion, Book III, Chapter II, 4 (translated by Henry Beveridge, Wm. B. Eerdmans Publishing, 1975, Vol.1, pp. 471, 472)
Is this the right approach to Scripture? Is this the right approach to learning?
I looked across the table at the distraught parents, trying to act the part of the sympathetic physician.
"What is wrong with our son?" the mother sobbed.
"There is nothing physically wrong with him," I explained.
"But it makes no sense," said the father. "We are a perfectly normal couple. We both experimented in our youth. Even after we decided to have children together, we had our occasional adventures. What is wrong with him?"
"Could he be gay?" I suggested.
"No," said the mother, "that would be acceptable. We could deal with that. But we've put him through all the tests, and he turned up negative."
"Was he properly educated?" I asked.
"We introduced him to sexoinstructional material at an early age," returned the father. "We enrolled him in experimentation classes. But at a certain point, he just lost interest."
"Has he been hanging around religious people?" I queried.
"We would never allow that," stated the mother fiercely. "I have heard there is something they can slip in your drink."
"That is an urban legend." I retorted, "but people do become like the people they hang around."
"He was never allowed to do that," said the father. "We always worked to introduce him to the right sort of girls. We threw parties, we even hired professionals. But he just isn't interested in sex. You've got to help us, doctor."
"I am going to refer you to a knowledgeable specialist," I said. "In the meanwhile, do not panic. He is young, he may still grow out of it."
As they left the office, Nurse Samantha sheepishly peeked in the other door. "We have a problem," she said reluctantly.
"What is it?" I inquired.
"You know how you told me to bring the Fergusons in the other door so the Arnolds, who just left, would not meet them," she said, dragging out every word.
"Don't tell me they met," I said, alerted. "It is important that these cases not meet. If people find out how widespread this problem is, there will be panic."
"They never met as far as we know," she said, "but someone accidentally brought their son and daughter into the same examining room. And when we came back in, they were talking together."
"Then we have a breakthrough," I said, confused.
"No, nothing like that," she responded, "at least as far as we can tell. They were not flirting or propositioning each other, they were just talking. We are really not sure what to make of that."
In looking at the wrong ways to approach suffering, I need to start with the obvious one. This is the idea that good people do not suffer, and suffering is always connected with sin. There are many Scriptures that firmly contradict this (Job 1,2; John 9:1-3; Hebrews 11:35-38). Now we are told God can use suffering in our lives as discipline to correct us when we need correcting (Hebrews 12:5-11; 1 Corinthians 11:30-32; Galatians 6:7,8). But we must be very careful of jumping too quickly to the conclusion that we or someone else are suffering because of our sins. And even if some suffering is the result of sin, the goal is to produce repentance (Proverbs 28:13; 2 Corinthians 7:10; 1 John 1:9), not to condemn. But if we see the need to correct others, we should do it properly, with gentleness and concern for healing (Galatians 6:1; 2 Timothy 2:24-26; Hebrews 12:12,13). However, we should be very reluctant to rush to any sort of opinion regarding another's suffering. For when you are suffering, the last thing you need is someone mistakenly concluding it is a result of your sin.
One of the great dangers of any organization is that it can forget its purpose and work to perpetuate and exalt itself. You create an organization to accomplish some needed purpose. But once it is in place, focus shifts from really solving the problem to continuing the organization. The prestige of the people involved becomes caught up in furthering the organization and maintaining its importance. In the end the organization can even end up inventing crisises in the hopes of justifying itself . The organization of the Christian church can have the same problem. Its focus can go from its real purpose to perpetuation of the organization or even the perpetuation of one of its internal structures. Egos become involved. And we forget what we were supposed to be doing in the first place.
The purpose of the organization of the Christian church is to build people (Matthew 28:18-20; Ephesians 4:11-16; Colossians 1:28,29). This involves introducing people to Jesus Christ and then building them up in that faith. But the problem is, we can confuse the things that further the organization with the things that really fulfill its purpose.It is easy to confuse externals, such as numbers, large buildings, full offering plates, or exciting programs, for real conversion and spiritual development. One of the things that aids this confusion is to focus on that part of the larger body of Christ which is perceived as mine: my Sunday school class, my home group, my church, my denomination. And this is diametrically opposed to the attitude Christ requires us to have (Philippians 2:1-4; Romans 12:3-5; 1 Corinthians 12:25-27). Christ is at work building His church (Matthew 16:18; Colossians 2:19; 1 Corinthians 3:6,7). But we have fallen into the error of the Corinthians, of dividing into factions (1 Corinthians 1:10-17; 3:21-23; 3 John 9,10). Now I am not speaking of fundamental doctrinal distinctions (Galatians 1:8,9; 1 John 4:1-3; 2 Corinthians 11:4). I am, in fact, not dealing in doctrinal distinctions at all. I am speaking of the attitude that wants to exalt my faction at the expense of other ones, even those with which I have little or no actual disagreement.
But even if we can avoid competition with others, we need to realize that it is easy to confuse furthering the organization with really building people. It is not merely a matter of advocating change. Change can be what is needed to break out of being trapped in the machine. But it can also simply be an attempt to build a bigger and better machine. Nor is it merely a matter of eliminating all organization. Scripture commands that we be organized (1 Corinthians 14:40: Hebrews 13:17; 1 Thessalonians 5:12,13), and we need organization to be effective. However, organization is a good servant, but a poor master. So we must be constantly on guard so that, instead of building Christ's kingdom, we do not end up simply fueling the machine.
Thus all unbelief is foolishness, for it takes such wisdom as its own finite perception can attain, and, measuring infinity by that petty scale, concludes that what it cannot understand must be impossible. Unbelief is the result of incapacity engaged in argument. Men are sure that an event never happened, because they have made up their minds that it could not happen.
Hilary of Poitiers, 300-368 AD, On the Trinity, Book III, 24 (translated by Rev. E. W. Watson and Rev. L. Pullan, The Nicene and Post-Nicene Fathers, Second Series, Volume IX, Philip Schaff and Henry Wace, T & T Clark and Wm. B. Eerdmans Publishing, 1997, p. 69)
How should we deal those things we do not understand? Should we reject things for that reason?
One of the common ideas believed today is that what matters is what works. It is not uncommonly said that what matters is not what is true but what works. But can this really make sense? Now to say something works is to say that it is true that it works. If there is no truth, it is impossible to determine what works. Also, to say something works implies a goal. If I jump up, spin around three times, and sit back down, it will work. But if it has no ultimate purpose, it is senseless. Even flapping my arms and jumping off a high building will work, if I do not consider falling and killing myself an undesirable outcome.
The truth is that whether a thing works is one of the criteria to use to test its truth. If I believe eating a double cheeseburger will enable me to leap tall buildings in a single bound, the fact that it does not work in repeated trials is good evidence it is false. But not all truth can be determined this way. Just as not all truth can be proved scientifically. We could not prove the historicity of Columbus' voyage by undertaking it with similar ships and a similar crew, though it might prove it possible.
But more than that, I need some idea of a goal. Just because I can do something does not mean I should do it. With an atomic bomb I can kill a very large number of people. But that does not mean I should do it. Now when what works is applied to morals, it generally comes down to what works to produce pleasure. But does what produces the most pleasure amount to what is right? And does not what produces pleasure often depend on the philosophy and outlook of the person involved? But we have to honestly ask ourselves whether doing what gives me the most pleasure is what life is really all about. And even if we make it the greatest pleasure for the greatest number of people, what this usually amounts to is living for my own pleasure unless it obviously stamps on someone else's toes. But is this what is right?
Now from the Christian point of view, what God wants is for us to trust Him. Now I believe that God has given us enough evidence to have a basis for that trust. But trusting God means believing His promises even if we cannot immediately see that they work. Therefore, while whether something works is one of the criteria for evaluating its truth, it is not the only one. And by embracing it we could be making ourselves blind to other methods of finding truth which are just as valid. And that without any clear logical basis.
Unity in Scripture does not seem to be primarily organizational unity. It is hard to find anywhere that this is specifically mentioned. There seems to be a basic unity of belief and behavior, though I do not intend to deal with it here. But Scripture talks about about a basic unity that involves how we treat one another (Ephesians 4:1-6; Philippians 2:1-4; Colossians 3:10-14). This unity seems, of all the ideas of unity, the most difficult to attain. It is questionable if we will ever perfectly attain it in this life. But it is something worth cultivating. Now it is only as we learn to love others that we can develop the traits that produce this unity (1 Corinthians 13:1-3; Galatians 5:13,14; John 13:34,35). But this is the type of unity we are specifically commanded to produce.
Some see God as Someone who sits afar off and simply observes what is going on and does not interfere. Many strongly oppose the idea that God can really intervene in history. There are two ways you can go with this. You can so identify God with His creation that He is seen as the total of all the things that exist. Or He can also be seen as Someone who merely starts everything in motion to continue without His interference. Now the Christian God is different. God created everything (Genesis 1:1; John 1:3; Revelation 4:11), and not out of something that already existed (Hebrews 11:3; Psalms 33:6-9; 148:5,6). He sustains it in existence (Colossians 1:17; Hebrews 1:3; Acts 17:24,25), but also transcends it (1 Kings 8:27; Isaiah 66:1,2; 40:12,17). He is also willing to intervene as the occasion demands (Matthew 8:23-27; John 9:1-7; 11:38-44), particularly in the incarnation and resurrection of Jesus Christ (John 1:14; 1 Corinthians 15:1-20; Romans 1:4). But can this be sustained?
One of the great objections to this is that it is contrary to the laws of nature. This was one of the first objections against Christianity made by the physician Galen. The problem with this, as C. S. Lewis points out, is that the laws of nature tell us what will happen if no one interferes. But they cannot tell us whether there is Someone beyond the laws who can interfere. One would expect an orderly God to produce an orderly universe. We, as human beings, also need order to be able to function. But that does not mean God cannot intervene to communicate with us or make a point. In fact, it is hard to see any other way He could do so.
I think there are a couple of reasons people object to this. We think the physical laws are the necessary result of something simple and unchangeable and therefore cannot be set aside. But everything we know would suggest (we still do not have it all figured out) that the basic physical laws are incredibly complicated and beyond our full understanding. But even if they are not, it is difficult to see why the One who made the laws could not intervene if He chose to. I think there is also the idea that a miracle is a sort of deux ex machina, something introduced at the last minute to make things work out the way God wants them to. Like introducing an elf at the end of a standard whodunnit to bring the story to the right conclusion. But it is the Christian claim that the miracles are the heart of the story, the thing that makes it make sense. For if there is a personal God who made intelligent beings, it makes sense that He would want to communicate with them in order to explain to them what their life is about. The real issue is what understanding of the world you start with.
And God the Word was truly born of the Virgin, having clothed Himself with a body of like passions with our own. He who forms all men in the womb, was Himself really in the womb, and made for Himself a body of the seed of the Virgin, but without any intercourse of man. He was carried in the womb, even as we are, for the usual period of time; and was really born, as we also are; and was in reality nourished with milk, and
partook of common meat and drink, even as we do. And when He had lived among men for thirty years, He was baptized by John, really and not in appearance; and when He had preached the Gospel three years, and done signs and wonders, He who was Himself the Judge was judged by the Jews, falsely so called, and by Pilate the governor; was scourged, was smitten on the cheek, was spit upon; He wore a crown of thorns and a purple robe; He was condemned: He was crucified in reality, and not in appearance, not in imagination, not in deceit. He really died, and was buried, and rose from the dead, even as He prayed in a certain place, saying, “But do Thou, O Lord, raise me up again, and I shall recompense them.” And the Father, who always hears Him, answered and said, “Arise, O God, and judge the earth; for Thou shall receive all the heathen for Thine inheritance.” The Father, therefore, who raised Him up, will also raise us up through Him, apart from whom no one will attain to true life.
Ignatius of Antioch, 35-98 AD, Epistle to the Trallians, Chapter X (The Apostolic Fathers with Irenaeus and Justin Martyr, Philip Schaff, Wm. B. Eerdmans Publishing, 2001, pp. 102,103)
Why is it important that Jesus was fully human as well as God? What implication does it have for our lives?
Ignatius was a contemporary of Polycarp, and his great desire was to die for his faith. If anything, he seemed a bit over-eager. He wrote a letter to the Romans, asking them not to intervene and prevent him from being martyred. It is clear that, whatever else, he believed strongly in what he believed. He was from Antioch in Syria, and on his way to Rome he wrote letters to various churches along the way, encouraging them to remain firm in the faith.
He emphasized that Jesus was God, who became a human being to die and be resurrected to save us from sin. He did so against two opponents. There were those advocated keeping the Jewish law as the way of salvation and saw Jesus merely as a man who was God's spokesman. These seem to be the descendents of the Judaizers Paul faced (Acts 15:1-21; Galatians 5:1-12; Philippians 3:1-3). They seem to have ultimately died out, probably due to many more Gentiles than Jews becoming Christians. They were replaced by the new threat of Gnosticism. Gnostics believed that God could not really have become flesh, and therefore Jesus only appeared to be human. There was also the idea that Jesus was just a man who God spoke through. The idea was that the material world is evil, so God could not have become something physical. And therefore all physical things are by nature bad. We see the first hints of this in the New Testament itself (1 John 4:1-3; Colossians 2:16-23; 1 Timothy 4:1-5). Ignatius forms the bridge between the writers of the New Testament and Irenaeus, who deals with the various organized forms of these beliefs.
But Ignatius also made the first step down the wrong path for dealing with this problem. He was probably also trying to deal with the types of dissensions Clement was dealing with among the Corinthians. His answer was, "Do not question your bishop." Now the New Testament does command unity (Philippians 2:1-4; Ephesians 4:1-6; Colossians 3:10-14) and respect for leaders (Hebrews 13:17; 1 Thessalonians 5:12,13; 1 Timothy 5:17). But it also calls us to test what they say and, if necessary, bring them to account (Acts 17:11; Galatians 2:11-16; 1:8,9). Ignatius, in my opinion, goes too far in the direction of advocating unquestioning obedience and therefore laid the foundation for later errors. Ignatius was a zealous follower of Christ who stood firm for God's truth. But I am convinced he took a too-simple solution for the problems he saw in the Christian church of his day. It was the kind of error that looked reasonable at the time, but others took it and ran with it.