Sunday, August 28, 2005

God Is A Confounder

God is a Confounder, isn't He? Now I don't mean that He isn't also infinitely gracious and compassionate as a Revealer; for through His Word He has revealed much about His purposes and ways to finite creatures such as ourselves, knowing that without that revelation, we are truly lost.

But what I mean is that just when we think that we have got Him pegged; just when we think we understand everything about His methods, or can easily predict what He'll do next, He confounds our expectations by doing or saying something quite mysterious, something we can't explain.

I was thinking about this idea, and how it relates to the formation of theology. Traditionally Christians believe that the Bible is the inspired Word of God that tells the Truth about life, and shows us the Way to relate to God and man properly. Yet that Word which is such a gift to us also challenges us to interpret it accurately. And there's the rub-- it seems so many interpret so many things in it differently, yet all claim to have the right interpretation. How one interprets Scripture leads to the formation of a theology-- our understanding of who God is and how He and the universe that He created works. This in turn affects the development of the nature of our faith and also our daily life, for we act according to faith.

Now believing that there is such a thing as Truth, I believe that yes, there is a correct interpretation on most issues in the Bible-- one that our omniscient God would stamp His approval upon. But certainly we must admit that every one of us is interpreting the Bible in order to decipher its meaning and then live according to our understanding. Whatever your theology-- Pentecostal, Reformed or somewhere in between-- we as Christians read, study and interpret the Bible to the best of our ability, seeking the leading and aid of the Holy Spirit, whom Jesus promised would lead us into all Truth. We do so because this is our responsibility and privilege as believers: to rightly divide the Word of God; to defend sound, and rebuke unsound, doctrine; to be able to teach others. These are deadly serious matters-- the eternal destiny of souls requires that we listen to Jesus and hear what He is saying correctly, and help each other to do so as well.

So what are we to make of the vast differences of interpretation of Scripture, within the body of Christ, on so many issues? Why these differences anyway-- aren't we all working from the same textbook, so to speak? The Bible though, isn't like any other book. It does not offer a systematic theology, but rather presents a narrative of God's relations with humanity, using a variety of literary forms to weave its tale. And unlike other books, its truths cannot be apprehended by intellect alone, but must be revealed to us spiritually. They are rational, yes, usually logical, but also "the word of the cross is foolishness to those who are perishing, but to us who are being saved it is the power of God". Jesus, when asked by His disciples why he spoke in parables, gave this reply:

"To you it has been given to know the secrets of the kingdom of heaven, but to them it has not been given. For to the one who has, more will be given, and he will have an abundance, but from the one who has not, even what he has will be taken away. This is why I speak to them in parables, because seeing they do not see, and hearing they do not hear, nor do they understand. Indeed, in their case the prophecy of Isaiah is fulfilled that says:

"'You will indeed hear but never understand,
and you will indeed see but never perceive.
For this people's heart has grown dull,
and with their ears they can barely hear,
and their eyes they have closed,
lest they should see with their eyes
and hear with their ears
and understand with their heart
and turn, and I would heal them.'

But blessed are your eyes, for they see, and your ears, for they hear. Truly, I say to you, many prophets and righteous people longed to see what you see, and did not see it, and to hear what you hear, and did not hear it (Matthew 13: 11-17)".

The Lord was speaking of the blind religious leaders of His day, who claimed to be searching the Scriptures in order to find God and gain eternal life, but who could not see the Messiah standing in the flesh right there before their eyes. These were educated, literate, intelligent men, but they could not understand the truths of the Bible because they were hard-hearted, sinful men, unwilling to really submit themselves to the authority of the Scripture.

Likewise all who come to the Bible and to the words of Jesus must be willing to humble themselves, and become willing to do what the word says. Jesus said, "If anyone chooses to do God's will, he will find out whether my teaching comes from God or whether I speak on my own (John 7:17)".

So the prerequisite for basic recognition of Scripture as God's revealed word is this humble willingness. Yet to understand even more deeply the profound truths in the Word, another condition must be met. We must be born again.

"I tell you the truth, no one can enter the kingdom of God unless he is born of water and the Spirit. Flesh gives birth to flesh, but the Spirit gives birth to spirit. You should not be surprised at my saying, 'You must be born again.' The wind blows wherever it pleases. You hear its sound, but you cannot tell where it comes from or where it is going. So it is with everyone born of the Spirit."

In His conversation with Nicodemus about the necessity of being born again, Nicodemus seem surprised and perplexed by the idea of being born again. Jesus went on:

"Truly, truly, I say to you, we speak of what we know, and bear witness to what we have seen, but you do not receive our testimony. If I have told you earthly things and you do not believe, how can you believe if I tell you heavenly things? No one has ascended into heaven except he who descended from heaven, the Son of Man. And as Moses lifted up the serpent in the wilderness, so must the Son of Man be lifted up, that whoever believes in him may have eternal life."

Jesus showed Nicodemus that being born again is a spiritual matter, one connected with believing in the Son of Man (Jesus) for eternal life. So being a Christian means to be born again of the Spirit, to receive a new type of life from the Spirit.

Then later Jesus taught His disciples that the Holy Spirit to be given them when He was gone would enable them to remember and recall all of His teaching. The Spirit would lead them into all truth by revealing the things of Christ to their understanding.

To return now to our previous theme, it seems that although Christians of many denominations share these basic understandings of the nature of spiritual truth, nevertheless controversies still remain over other important issues. For example, are miracles for today? Are prophecy and tongues valid spiritual gifts? What is the baptism of/in the Holy Spirit? How do we know God's will- does God speak to us by an internal, subjective impression, or mostly through the correct interpretation of Scripture? Or both?

On these and hundreds of other issues of biblical interpretation, there are a variety of different answers given by many groups. Now I am encouraged by the fact that Jesus promised that our teacher would be the Holy Spirit, and that Holy Spirit would faithfully lead us into all truth. At the same time, I recognize that understanding spiritual truth is a daunting task, one that calls upon the rigorous use of the mind, with all its God-like faculties of reason and logic, and at the same time, to be led by the Spirit so that I "see" truths that apparently I would never have discovered by the use of mere unaided intellect.

Sometimes the Christian answers are simple, but they are never easy. For example, the gospel message of salvation is simple, "Christ died for our sins in accordance with the Scriptures ...He was buried... He was raised on the third day in accordance with the Scriptures". But the profound nature of what took place on the Cross and how it affects every human being and how it is played out in the life of every believer in Christ is not at all simple. It requires that we spend much time in meditation on these truths, humbly entreating the Lord for insight into them by His Spirit, and asking Him daily for His grace in order to be able to apply to our lives the truths He reveals.

Perhaps because the Bible is such a profoundly deep book spiritually, and because of the effects of sin, our spiritual perception is murky, we should not be surprised that so often, human beings interpret the Bible differently from one another. There is room for all of us to mature and grow in our understanding. This of course does not mean that all interpretations are equally valid, but so often the controversies arise because of the challenging nature of the truths we are trying to figure out.

If God's word is hard to figure out, so too is He. And I like that. If He wasn't, maybe I would become proud and silly enough to think I could manipulate Him into performing my bidding. But God will have none of that. In His sovereignty, He reigns majestically over every aspect of life, completely and utterly authoritative. No one thwarts His plans. No one can force His hand. And He confounds us with His mysteries every day. Why do some prayers for healing go seemingly unanswered? Why are evil men allowed to commit their atrocities? Why does He speak to us in the way that He does? Where is He when natural disasters happen?

To all of these questions there are only partial answers given. Yet what we do know of God is also remarkable. We know that He is good. We know that He loves us with a love that is unshakeably faithful and true. We know that:

"in all these things we are more than conquerors through him who loved us. For I am sure that neither death nor life, nor angels nor rulers, nor things present nor things to come, nor powers, nor height nor depth, nor anything else in all creation, will be able to separate us from the love of God in Christ Jesus our Lord (Romans 8: 37-39)".

So long as we remain in our present in-between state, no longer of the world, but not yet fully redeemed, we will continue to make some mistakes in our reading of the Bible. We will continue to wrestle with determining the meaning of difficult passages. It is a worthy endeavor and one we are responsible to do well: "Do your best to present yourself to God as one approved, a worker who has no need to be ashamed, rightly handling the word of truth (2 Tim 2 :15)."

Still there are times we must humbly admit our limitations, our fumbling when it comes to God's ways. We must be bold in our convictions yet meek as we admit we don't know all. With the Psalmist, we can proclaim about God's wisdom: "Such knowledge is too wonderful for me, too lofty for me to attain" (Psalm 139:6).

And yet, we eagerly look forward to that Day when we will understand, when we will see and know:

"Now we see but a poor reflection as in a mirror; then we shall see face to face. Now I know in part; then I shall know fully, even as I am fully known (1 Cor 13: 12)."

Thursday, August 18, 2005

Scorecard on Justice Sunday II

My thinking about what Steve Camp calls "Evangelical Co-Belligerence" had been challenged by reading posts from his websites, CampOnThis and AudienceOne. Camp is certainly impassioned (to make an understatement) on this subject, and believes that not only are evangelical events such as Justice Sunday II misguided and wrong-headed, but its leaders are actually sinning, because according to his arguments such events:

1- use an approach to fighting evils in society not endorsed by Scripture.
2- use the pulpit to make political points, but such points are not being made in the context of worshiping God and instructing the congregation biblically about how it should engage culture.
3- distract the Church from being true to its primary calling of preaching the gospel and bringing its members to full maturity as disciples in Christ.

It was with such thoughts running through my mind that I sat down to watch the broadcast of Justice Sunday II on TBN this past Sunday evening.

The event was held at a church (Two Rivers Baptist Church in Nashville, TN), and on a Sunday, so it does seem that at least for this particular night, the church's evening service was being co-opted and turned into a political rally. Apparently, the evening opened up with praise and worship singing, such as would happen at a typical service, but this was not broadcast. In any case, what followed was definitely more a political event than a worship service. Here Camp's criticism seems valid. Is it right to turn the evening service of a church into a political rally?

There were calls to prayer made by various speakers at JS II. Yet it was my impression that the overall challenge was to political (call your Senators, call the White House, write letters, etc.) rather than spiritual action (pray for your leaders, repent, submit to authorities, etc.). Political activity must be part of the solution to America's woes, but is it not far more important that believers should first pray for their leaders as instructed, and be led by example into such prayer by their leaders? For the ultimate solution is not in political activities, which can only change laws, but in the gospel, which alone brings about transformation of the heart. So prayer, together with a clear presentation of the gospel message, must be central to our efforts to engage and change culture. Here again the JSII score card is mixed-- though there was some prayer and calls to prayer, the context emphasized praying for the political stratagems regarding the immediate issues at hand (John Roberts' confirmation to the Supreme Court; a Federal judiciary that should interpret the Constitution, rather than legislate from the bench). But if our nation's primary problems are spiritual in nature, then the Church should first be calling itself and the United States to repentance. As for the gospel, why did one not hear it presented throughout this evening?

Most of the speakers were given only a few minutes each to make their points. I understand the thinking behind this is probably that including as many speakers as possible at this type of event will help convey that this "fight for justice" has a broad range of support, but the limitations on speaker time was conducive to superficiality of commentary. I would have liked to have heard a deeper analysis from these leaders as to the problem, and a clearer presentation of the biblical and theological rationale for their solution. But mostly there was only time for "sound bites", though some of the speakers were more effective and eloquent than others. James Dobson (participating via a taped video) spoke articulately about recent Supreme Court decisions to justify why Christians need to be involved in the political process; Chuck Colson referred to a passage of Scripture from the prophet Amos to effectively make points about Christian involvement in justice, and I thought Senate House Majority Leader Tom Delay gave a good speech that challenged listeners, "it's never enough to stand on the sidelines and watch history pass you by."

Unfortunately some of the other speakers weren't as good. Bill Donahue of the Catholic League came across as angry (though trying to be humorous) as he named names and called one of them a bigot. In contrast to Chuck Colson, who had earlier said that we must suppress the temptation to get angry at the opposition and instead demonstrate Christian love towards all, Donahue's speech seemed petty, an "us vs. them” type of speech.

Zell Miller, the former Senator, is a rousing speaker and had one of the more memorable points of the evening. He asked why is it that government makes sure to post “No Smoking” signs near gas pumps as a warning of physical danger, yet removes the Ten Commandments from public places-- which gives the even more urgent warning about the dangers of a sinful life.

As I was watching here in NY, there was a storm raging outside, affecting my satellite television reception. So I seemed to have missed portions of the broadcast, including the remarks of Phyllis Schafly and Cathy Cleaver Ruse, which I understand from the live bloggers I've read were part of the evening. I also did not see the performance by musician Jett Williams (perhaps all these were edited from the broadcast)?

Political rallies such as Justice Sunday II probably have their place in helping to galvanize Christian awareness and action on important current issues, but I am uneasy about the mix of religion with politics, and agree with Camp and other critics about the potential for compromise of the gospel message and its priorities. Also, such an event should be able to take place without substituting for a church's scheduled evening service.

On the other hand, I agree with the need and call for action that evangelical co-belligerents challenge us to. Still the warnings of Camp and others like him seem need to be taken seriously in the light of the scorecard of Justice Sunday II: no presentation of the gospel, no prayer for leaders, little biblical rationale presented for action, a church service turned primarily into a political rally.

An excellent and insightful editorial appears on this topic, by Tom Ascol, appears in The Founders Journal, titled Reformation, Revival and the Religious Right.

I quote from the article below:

<< It is not that the agenda of the religious right is too radical. It is not radical enough. They greatly underestimate the depth of the problem. We cannot "Christianize" culture. The nature of sin guarantees that. Neither are we called to try! Did Jesus or Peter or Paul ever try to organize believers into a voting bloc to "Christianize" any geo-political structure? Culture can and will be positively influenced when its participants are made disciples of Christ.

The moral crisis in our nation will not be solved by getting the right people in the White House, Congress, and on the Supreme Court. Society will not change until people change. And the only way that people can be changed is by the sovereign power of God through the gospel of Jesus Christ. Consequently, proclaiming that gospel in the power of the Spirit is the task to which churches must give themselves. This constitutes the only great commission which we have received from Jesus Christ.

The moral decadence of this generation has a spiritual root. As long as evangelical churches overlook this fact or fail to absorb its implications, they will continue to be seduced by worldly wisdom in their sincere but misguided efforts to "make a difference." Alexis de Tocqueville was prophetic when he warned that if America ever ceased being good, she would cease being great. But why has America lost her goodness? Is it because we have elected the wrong people? Because we outlawed prayer in the public schools? Because we have passed immoral laws? No. These are symptoms, not causes. The reason, very simply stated by Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn, is that "America has forgotten God."

But we must push the question even further. Why has America forgotten God? Whose job is it to speak for God, anyway? Not the schools; not the government; not the culture. That responsibility has been given exclusively to the Church. The sad reality is that the Church--including Bible believing evangelicals--has been derelict in her duty. Our nation is in a mess because our churches are in a mess.

I don't think the choice we as Evangelicals face is between engagement and non-engagement. As my brother Daniel has said on this, "we cannot simply run and hide behind our religion". Unlike the church in New Testament times, we live in a democratic republic that allows us opporunity to speak out for the Christian worldview.

I quote here Francis Schaeffer in his speech titled A Christian Manifesto, on true spirituality:

<< ... what I have been talking about, whether you know it or not, is true spirituality. This is true spirituality. Spirituality, after you are a Christian and have accepted Christ as your Savior, means that Christ is the Lord of ALL your life -- not just your religious life, and if you make a dichotomy in these things, you are denying your Lord His proper place. I don't care how many butterflies you have in your stomach, you are poor spiritually. True spirituality means that the Lord Jesus Christ is the Lord of all of life, and except for the things that He has specifically told us in the Bible are sinful and we've set them aside -- all of life is spiritual and all of life is equally spiritual. That includes (as our forefathers did) standing for these things of freedom and standing for these things of human life and all these other matters that are so crucial, if indeed, this living God does exist as we know that He does exist.

We have forgotten our heritage. A lot of the evangelical complex like to talk about the old revivals and they tell us we ought to have another revival. We nee another revival -- you and I need revival. We need another revival in our hearts. But they have forgotten something. Most of the Christians have forgotten and most of the pastors have forgotten something. That is the factor that every single revival that has ever been a real revival, whether it was the great awakening before the American Revolution; whether it was the great revivals of Scandinavia; whether it was Wesley and Whitefield; wherever you have found a great revival, it's always had three parts. First, it has called for the individual to accept Christ as Savior, and thankfully, in all of these that I have named, thousands have been saved. Then, it has called upon the Christians to bow their hearts to God and really let the Holy Spirit have His place in fullness in their life. But there has always been, in every revival, a third element. It has always brought SOCIAL CHANGE!”

The problem with the current Evangelical Co-Belligerence movement is that while it emphasizes actions we can take in response to problems such as judicial activism, abortion, gay marriage, etc., it has not yet helped to usher in that great reformation and revival of heart in the Church that would bring about the deeper social impact that Schaeffer writes about. It seems to "put the cart ahead of the horse", wanting true spiritual results without the prerequisite spiritual transformation. The movement seems to be superficial.

Again quoting Schaeffer, from his book True Spirituality, chapter one:

"The inward area is the first place of loss of true Christian life, of true spirituality, and the outward sinful act is the result. If we can only get hold of this -- that the internal is the basic, the external is always merely the result -- it will be a tremendous starting place."

So we have a responsibility first, to be good Christians: true disciples who love God with all of our hearts, souls, mind and strength; and second, who love our neighbor as ourselves. From the overflow of reformation and revival in the Christian community that comes through repentance in response to the gospel, we will be transformed, and that inner transformation will in turn move us to impact society in a more penetrating way.

Friday, August 12, 2005

Back from Vacation Into a Heat Wave

I'm back and will be posting my regular kind of stuff again shortly. But tonight, I'll just share a bit about where I've been these past few weeks. We've come right back into the middle of a heat wave here in the NYC area, and temperatures are suffocatingly hot --in the 90's-- but add to that the famous NY humidity and bad air quality and you can imagine how miserable it feels here-- except when you're inside, camped out under the AC. Well, I'm thankful we had a chance to breathe fresh mountain air up in the Smoky Mountains for almost a week and a half.

We were at my wife's family reunion, whose primary hosts were the Fees (Gordon and Miriam Jean). They were kind enough to let us stay at their mountain condo--situated between Pigeon Forge and Gatlinburg-- for our entire stay. With a pool right outside the door, a lovely view of the mountains from the terrace, good air-conditioning, fresh air and lots of quiet, it was a very relaxing place getaway. Thank you Gordon and Miriam Jean!

The Fee's son, David, is rather a well-known name in Pigeon Forge. He owns and manages a couple of entertainment businesses -- The Comedy Barn and Black Bear Jamboree, as well as a restaurant called Happy Days Diner. Since he owns them, we were invited to see these shows and eat at the diner afterward free of charge. We also went to a couple of other popular shows, the Dixie Stampede and Dollywood, as guests of the Fees. Thanks again!

Pigeon Forge and Gatlinburg are interesting towns-- together they comprise kind of a smaller, family-oriented Las Vegas, with entertainment featuring "hillbilly" humor, bluegrass, gospel, racing carts, and amusement parks, and with tons of places to eat. Gatlinburg seems to have more shops and art galleries, while Pigeon Forge was marked by its central "strip" featuring the various entertainments mentioned above.

Traffic on the strip moves along at a stately 35 miles an hour-- it seems the pace of life is a bit slower than that of New York. So it was nice to get away, though I did get a bit tired and stressed at times from all the driving.

Anyway, it's good to be back home. If you visited my blog while I was away, I hope you found something that blessed, or at least entertained you.