Thursday, January 28, 2010

In Search of a Tame God

One of the great desires of mankind is to find what I would call (following C. S. Lewis) a tame God. This is a God who comes when we call Him and leaves us alone when we do not want Him. He is there to start up and superintend the universe, possibly to lay down a few broad moral principles, and perhaps to rescue us if we really get in a bind. The question is, where can we get such a God?

One option is the pantheistic God who is the sum of all things. But there are problems with this. If God is the sum of all things, He cannot create or superintend those things. Nor can He lay down any moral standards, because He is present in all things good and evil. Nor can He help us in our needs, for everything is equally an expression of Him. One can call such a being God, but since He does nothing, says nothing, and requires nothing, it is difficult to understand what that means. We can try to get around that by claiming God is not what all things are, but what all things are becoming. The problem with this is, if all things are becoming something, this implies a goal outside themselves, and this is the real God.

Now if God is distinct from the world, it is not clear why would He create things and then leave us alone without making demands on us. One could believe in an Unmoved Mover (similar to Aristotle's) that was simply something that started the universe but does nothing else. God could have started the world as some sort of vast experiment or simply have other purposes. So he would be unconcerned with us. These views of God certainly conflict with our idea of goodness. Which leaves us with the question, if these Gods exist, where does our idea of goodness come from? If you are simply looking for something to start the universe, these Gods may work. But if you are looking for a God to lay down moral principles or help you in time of need, they are woefully inadequate.

The bottom line is, people believe in a tame God because they find Him convenient. And we have to ask why God should behave how we happen to find convenient. Also, a tame God fits basically good people living in a basically good world, one where we can handle most of our problems ourselves. This does not seem to fit the real situation. But one thing is abundantly clear. The God of the Bible, the God who splits Red Seas and sends fire down from heaven, the God who became a man to pay the penalty for sin and break the power of death, is not a tame God. He is not the God we want. But He is the God who really exists and who we desperately need. And maybe the problem is we are just unable to admit this.

Tuesday, January 26, 2010

Cheap Grace

One concern in the Evangelical church today is the issue of cheap grace. If we teach salvation is free, will people just go out and sin? What is required for salvation?

Scripture makes it clear that we are saved by faith (or believing), apart from works (Romans 4:4, 5; Ephesians 2:8, 9; Philippians 3:9; 1 John 5:11-13). If someone promises something based on meeting a certain condition and then adds others later, we consider them underhanded. God is not underhanded. What is this faith? Faith is relying on the promises of God even when they seem impossible (Romans 4:17-22). It is not just a casual, intellectual assent; even the demons have that (James 2:19). God makes it clear that He knows our hearts (1 Samuel 16:7; Jeremiah 17:10; Luke 16:15; Romans 2:16). He knows if we mean it.

What is this faith in? It is in Christ, His death to pay the price for our sins and His resurrection (John 3:14-18; Romans 3:21-28; 1 Corinthians 15:1-11; Galatians 3:13, 14). It is not in turning over a new leaf or having a mystical experience, but relying on the work He has done for us. If anything can be done to earn grace, it is no longer grace (Romans 11:6; Titus 3:4-7).

What, then, about repentance (Mark 1:15; Acts 2:38)? If repentance is something added to our faith, salvation is not truly through faith. But repentance is recognizing we are sinners who need to be saved by faith (Romans 3:23; Ephesians 2:1-3). It results not in trying to do better (the resolutions of an unsaved person are worthless: see John 15:5; Romans 8:8; Isaiah 64:6), but in realizing we must rely on Christ (Romans 5:6-8).

Must we make Christ Lord of our lives to be saved (Romans 10:9)? Christ is Lord of all the universe, and both saved and unsaved will someday acknowledge that (Philippians 2:9-11). But this Lordship is not fully realized in us until we are totally obedient, something we will not reach in this life (1 John 1:8-10; Philippians 3:12-15). But to recognize that I am a sinner, I must realize that there is a God to whom I am responsible (Psalms 51:4; Matthew 7:21; John 3:19-21), and since Jesus is God (Hebrews 1:8; John 1:1-18), He is Lord. However, we grow in understanding of this as we grow in Christ.

Now Scripture teaches the result of genuine faith is a changed life (Ephesians 2:10; James 2:20; Titus 2:11,12). This is not the cause of salvation but the result of it. It is motivated in response to God's love for us (1 John 4:19; Luke 7:36-50) and is the result of God's power working in us (2 Corinthians 3:18; Philippians 2:13; Colossians 1:29). Now if someone accepts salvation with the deliberate intention of continuing in sin, this is not sincere faith. To hold God went to the trouble of saving us from the penalty of our sin so we can still live in it is preposterous. But we should be careful of judging others (Matthew 7:1-5; Romans 2:1-3; 14:10-12), rather correcting them with gentleness (Galatians 6:1; 2 Timothy 2:24-26).

Thursday, January 21, 2010

Hearing the Voice of God

There are many today claiming to speak for God. Is it possible to hear the voice of God today? And how do we evaluate those who claim to speak for Him?

Some claim God does not speak except through Scripture and where there is no Biblical command we must make decisions based on wisdom. (I have sympathy with this position; I used to hold it.) But the majority of Christians, regardless of denomination, hold that God gives them specific guidance in their lives. (One reason I left my former position was it seemed to contradict the experience of most Christians at most times.) But is there a distinction that needs to be drawn here?

The Scripture is inspired by God (2 Timothy 3:16,17) and is true in all it claims (John 17:17). If someone claims to be producing Scriptural level revelation, they must pass the tests for it. It must agree with what is taught in Scripture (Isaiah 8:20; Deuteronomy 13:1-3; Galatians 1:8, 9), including teaching the same faith (Jude 3). Someone unwilling to be checked against Scripture is a false prophet (Acts 17:11, John 5:39). Every prophecy they make must come to pass (Deuteronomy 18:21, 22). Also, everything they claim must be true (John 17:17). Further, if an individual receiving inspired revelation were present today, they would rebuke our errors (Ezekiel 14:1-11). Needless to say, in the current divided state of the church, some of us must be wrong. If there exists an individual today who meets all these tests I do not know of them.

I am not willing to regard my or other people's leading from the Lord on this level. But between the idea that God does not speak and the standard of inspired revelation, we are left with a matter of degree. If I say, "The Lord led me," do I mean one thing, and if I say, "I had a word from the Lord," do I mean another? There are Biblical examples of God speaking, but are these inspired revelation or God's leading (Acts 8:29; 16:6)? Also, there are spiritual gifts which are interpreted as hearing the voice of God, such as word of knowledge, word of wisdom, and discernment of spirits, but what these mean can be questioned, as all we have is the list (1 Corinthians 12:8-10). In the end, I would conclude there is a legitimate work of God involved here. But I would advise caution. It is easy to believe you have heard from God and to be mistaken. The Spirit's leading will not contradict Scripture, but this is just the minimum qualification. In 1 Thessalonians 5:19-21 it gives instructions for dealing with prophetic utterances. Whether they refer to inspired revelation or the Spirit's leading, I believe the principles still apply. Do not quench the Spirit; listen to what He is trying to tell you. But test all things and hold to what is good.

Thursday, January 14, 2010

It's All a Conspiracy?

Conspiracy theory seems to be all the rage nowadays. It's the vast Right Wing Conspiracy versus the New World Order, and may the best conspirator win. (You do know they are both backed by space aliens.) And many historical events, from the Kennedy assassination to the moon landing, have been claimed to be faked as the results of some far-reaching conspiracy. But is this approach plausible?

My chief problem with conspiracy theories is not that I do not believe people are that evil, but that I do not believe people are that competent. Chuck Colson, in addressing the question of whether Christianity originated as a conspiracy among Jesus' disciples, recalls his own experience in Watergate. He points out that if a small group of men with all the power of the presidency could not manage to keep the events behind Watergate a secret, without someone talking, what hope did a bunch of uneducated Galilean fishermen have of pulling it off? But of course not all conspiracy theories are against Christianity. Christians have been known to come up with their own theories in support of the Christian position. And we need to ask, is this really reasonable? Yes, people may be motivated by ungodly philosophies which lead them to the same conclusions and actions. Yes, Satan and his minions are working behind the scenes to accomplish their purposes. But the idea of an omnicompetent human conspiracy does not fit with the real facts or what we know of human nature.

But there are certain attractions of conspiracy theories. They can allow us to see our opponents as fiends incarnate, beyond the limits of our compassion. But this is not how Scripture would have us look at those who disagree with us (2 Timothy 2:24-26). They can be seen as exonerating everyone (including us) who is not in on the conspiracy. But Scripture says we are all sinners and therefore all contribute to the evil that is in the world (Romans 3:23). They can justify a cynical passivity. If all these forces are arrayed against me, why even bother? But the Scripture calls us to continue in well-doing, knowing God will bring about His purposes in His time (Galatians 6:9, 10).

But the bottom line is that conspiracy theories encourage Christians to react in entirely the wrong way. Forgetting God is in control and working out His purpose even in a sinful world (Romans 8:28; Ephesians 2:10; 1:11), we respond in fear, anger, and hostility rather than the kindness God calls us to (1 Peter 2:15; Colossians 4:5, 6). For our job is not to accuse people, but to invite them to eternal life.

Tuesday, January 12, 2010

White Mice in a Maze

"Its not my fault." This seems to be the standard excuse today. It's all in how I was raised, my heredity, or the defects of society. This comes from thinking we are products of our environment and do not really make our own choices.

But if our thoughts are the result of our environmental conditioning, then none of our thinking reflects what is true, but is only what we are conditioned to believe. And if we cannot know anything to be true, we cannot prove we are determined by our environment. But the individuals who hold to this want to make a exception for their own reasoning. What is even more ironic, many would like to improve the race by better conditioning. As if "better" meant something different than what they happened to be conditioned to prefer.

But let's look at the evidence. It is clear that there is a close connection between our mind and our brain. But we are still far from being able to explain our total mental processes in terms of brain function. It is also true that our thinking is molded by our past experiences and probably our heredity. But this does not mean there is not a self that is making decisions based on these factors. It is frequently held that many forms of mental illness may be the results of chemical imbalances in the brain. But it is a known fact that the ingestion of certain substances (alcohol, marijuana etc.) can have an effect on the mind. Would it be surprising if the chemicals in the brain produced similar effects without an outside agent? What does this prove?

I own a device called an automobile. How it functions depends on its condition. Are the tires in good shape? Has the oil been changed recently? Do the brakes work? Also, it is affected by its environment, by the road conditions, the weather, the behavior of other motorists. All these things affect how the car goes down the road. But that does not mean there is not a driver steering the car. Also, how the car is performing can end up affecting the behavior and mental state of the driver. Could our mind and body work the same way?

But the main reason people hold to this deterministic view of human behavior is it fits in with the philosophy of Naturalism. This philosophy holds that all events can be explained by natural processes working through an unbroken chain of cause and effect. C. S. Lewis held (see, for example, his book Miracles) that the fact Naturalism consistently applied led to the conclusion we cannot know anything indicated Naturalism was false. I am forced to agree with him. And, if so, we are left with the conclusion we really are responsible for our own actions. We are not white mice in a maze, but moral agents who may just ultimately have to answer to a holy God.

Thursday, January 7, 2010

Defending God

Must we defend God? Must we defend the things of God: the Bible, the church, or the family? We are commanded in Scripture to defend the faith (1 Peter 3:15; Jude 3; Titus 1:9). But, as in many things, a lot depends on what we mean by what we say.

Sometimes we get the picture of the truth as a helpless heroine attacked by ninjas with AK-47s. It is our place to charge in and save her before she is hurt by these ruffians. Rather, the truth of God is a Sherman tank being attacked by frogs with firecrackers. Our goal is not to save Sherman tanks but to rescue frogs before they get hurt. And ultimately to get them to come aboard the tank where they are truly safe. To do this, we may need to "defend" the tank. We may need to explain how it is real steel and not plywood. How their firecrackers are useless against it. How, if they are not careful, they will be crushed by its treads.

God is the supreme ruler of the universe (Isaiah 42:5-9; 43:10-13; 44:6-8). He does not need us or what we can provide Him (Psalm 50:7-15), and nothing we do can spite Him (Jeremiah 7:19). Our attempts at rebellion are insignificant to Him (Psalms 2:1-6; Isaiah 40:22-24). He has promised He will build His church (Matthew 16:18; Colossians 2:19). And ultimately He will be victorious, no matter who opposes Him (Psalms 46:8-11; Isaiah 2:2-4).

Our problem is we can believe the propaganda of those who disagree with us. They are utterly convinced that they are going to win and traditional Christianity is going to vanish from the earth. This is not new. The Roman emperors, the Neoplatonists, the Deists and the Communists all believed the same thing. Most of them have become footnotes in history. The Communists are still around, but have not been doing so well since 1989. Their coliseums have crumbled, their walls have fallen, their houses been taken over by the Geneva Bible Society. And we are still here. Traditional Christianity has been around 2000 years. In that time we have been outlawed, put to death, argued against and vilified, and we are still around. Neither we nor our opponents should be too quick to assume our demise is eminent. God has brought us through it before and will again.

What difference does this make? In terms of our attitude, a considerable difference. If we consider that the preservation of God's truth depends on us, we become defensive. We can panic. We can act angry and hostile. But if we trust that God is in control of the world and will win in the end, we can go forth with confidence. And we can demonstrate the kindness God requires us to show to those without (2 Timothy 2:24, 25; Colossians 4:5, 6). Let us therefore consider how best to rescue frogs. For the tank was never in danger and never will be.

Tuesday, January 5, 2010

Go East Young Man?

Many today are turning to eastern religions, particularly Hinduism and Buddhism in their various forms, in the hope that they will have the spiritual answers that traditional western thinking supposedly lacks. Let us examine this.

Hinduism and Buddhism start with the position that the world is an illusion we are trapped in and our goal is to escape it. If this is so, how did we get caught in this trap? Is God (if there is a God) suffering from schizophrenia? How did this strange situation come about, and why? If there are any clear answers to this I have not heard them.

Further, if this world is an evil illusion, where do the apparently good things in it come from? Is there an evil demon that puts fruit on the trees and paints sunsets in the sky to trick us into becoming more attached to the illusion? Yes, there is a considerable amount of evil in this world. But there is also beauty and many good things to enjoy. I really question whether any view that totally denies one or the other can truly explain the world that is. The shallow view that this the best of all possible worlds and all the bad things are superficial is bound to shipwreck on the rocks of reality. But the opposite view, that this world is simply a prison to be escaped, also does not fit the world that really is. In the final analysis, I would conclude that no position makes as much sense as the Christian position that this is an originally good world that has gone bad. It explains how the good and the evil are both there and both real and neither can be dismissed as a purely superficial veneer. But if we honestly dismiss all apparently good things in this world as illusionary or, worse than that, temptations, this must if consistently followed lead to a purely negative view of life. (Now it must be realized that (as I understand it) in eastern beliefs this view is generally only lived out fully by the exceptional individual or by people in certain stages of their lives.) Christians have been accused of being negative, but at our worst we cannot hold a candle to what this view must ultimately lead to.

There is always an attraction for novelty. But I am forced to agree with G. K. Chesterton when he said that the problem with Christianity was not that it was tried and found wanting, but that it was found difficult and therefore has hardly ever been tried. And in the final analysis the real issue is not east vs. west, but what is really true. And I would contend that neither the modern western, hedonistic view of the world nor the eastern, illusionary view but only Christianity explains the existence of both good and evil in the world.