Archive for the ‘ Biblical Principles ’ Category

The Pillars of Christianity

When I was working on my master’s and doctoral degrees in history, I distinctly recall an attitude that some of my professors had toward the American colonial and revolutionary eras—they conveyed to us, their students, the idea that the leaders of those eras were just so backward when compared to the more enlightened age we live in now. I didn’t accept that attitude then; I don’t accept it now.

Yes, we have progressed technologically in ways our Founders would find astonishing. Technology, though, is hardly a substitute for principle. Neither can we be considered more advanced if we have dismissed the Biblical framework that gives us a proper understanding of the place of man in God’s creation. That Biblical framework offers us, as well, a greater comprehension of the role civil government should play in the overall society. Personally, I believe a lot of those early Americans have a lot to teach us still.

When I was writing my master’s thesis, I researched the lives and writings of two prominent Americans of the Founding Era: Timothy Dwight and Jedidiah Morse. Most people today have no idea who they were. Dwight served ably for many years as president of Yale, ensuring it retained its Christian foundations. Morse, a pastor, also was famous as the Father of American Geography; he wrote the first American textbook on the subject, which was the first to include key geographical features of North America. His fame was eventually superseded by that of his son, Samuel F. B. Morse, who invented the telegraph.

Jedidiah MorseJedidiah Morse gave a sermon in 1799 that includes one of the best quotes I’ve ever read on the relationship of Christianity and civil government. A lot of quotes from this era, both genuine and spurious, have made their way to the internet, but I’ve never seen this one make the rounds. I’d like to offer it now for your consideration. Here’s what Morse would have us remember:

Our dangers are of two kinds, those which affect our religion, and those which affect our government. They are, however, so closely allied that they cannot, with propriety, be separated. The foundations which support the interests of Christianity, are also necessary to support a free and equal government like our own. . . .

To the kindly influence of Christianity we owe that degree of civil freedom, and political and social happiness which mankind now enjoy. In proportion as the genuine effects of Christianity are diminished in any nation, either through unbelief, or the corruption of its doctrines, or the neglect of its institutions; in the same proportion will the people of that nation recede from the blessings of genuine freedom, and approximate the miseries of complete despotism. . . .

Whenever the pillars of Christianity shall be overthrown, our present republican forms of government, and all the blessings which flow from them, must fall with them.

When I read those words, I am impressed by the wisdom behind them. Religious beliefs always provide the context of what a people accept as appropriate in society. Christianity, in particular, lends itself to genuine liberty. When Christianity recedes into the background, liberty recedes also. Morse’s words are a warning to a people who, in their pride, abandon Biblical principles and replace them with man-centered, humanistic ideas. If the blessings of our republican forms of government seem to be disappearing, we would do well to ponder what Morse says—the reason is that we are attempting to overthrow the “pillars of Christianity.”

We have a lot to learn from those who have preceded us. It’s not too late to take their warnings seriously and make a course correction. It will take humility on our part, however. Are we up to the challenge?

Finney: Man’s Ability to Obey

Finney's Systematic TheologyCharles Finney, in his Systematic Theology, makes some statements regarding moral law that many find controversial. As for me, I find them eminently sensible. Here’s what he says:

Moral law is no respecter of persons—knows no privileged classes. . . . That which the precept demands must be possible to the subject. That which demands a natural impossibility is not, and cannot be, moral law. The true definition of law excludes the supposition that it can, under any circumstances, demand an absolute impossibility. Such a demand could not be in accordance with the nature and the relations of moral agents [i.e., human beings with free will], and therefore practicability must always be an attribute of moral law. To talk of inability to obey moral law is to talk nonsense [emphasis mine].

I realize this disturbs some people, but think: if you are incapable of doing what God says, you are also not accountable for your actions. There would be no reason to feel guilt or shame; we would all simply be victims. There’s enough victimology in our society already; Christians should never contribute to it. “Inability” undercuts the whole idea of man being responsible for his sins. I believe all real Christians understand, in their hearts, that they are accountable for their actions. Why don’t we allow our theology to support that obvious fact? Why don’t we line up our theory with what we know to be true in practice?

True & False Liberty

The latest political firestorm, the revelation of the extent of the NSA’s data-mining to include storage of records of nearly all phone calls placed by American citizens, has led to deep concerns about the liberties supposedly guaranteed by the Constitution, particularly the Fourth Amendment’s protection against unreasonable searches and seizures. These concerns are showing up regularly in political cartoons such as this one:

Free from Unreasonable Searches

I share that concern. I believe in liberty. However, this controversy has also helped highlight two very different definitions of liberty, one I believe to be true and the other false. My worldview is Biblical, so I want to view everything through that prism. There is a Biblical basis for liberty, properly understood, that is not the same thing as modern libertarianism. In fact, I consider that movement, however right it may be on some points, to be destructive of true Biblical liberty.

Here’s the difference: pure libertarians put the concept of liberty on a pedestal as the highest virtue. They are devoted to the idea that everyone should be able to do whatever they choose without any government telling them what is right or wrong. That is not liberty; it is license, and there’s a big difference. Now, the best libertarians do say that one’s actions can’t bring harm to another; I realize that. Yet what is their standard for determining “harm”? Pure libertarianism doesn’t think there’s a place for government to legislate on matters such as abortion, homosexual behavior, or anything else they deem private morality. Man is free to do as he wishes.

Again, I am a great believer in free will; that’s one of my theological cornerstones. But freedom—liberty, if you will—exists only within a framework of eternal right and wrong, and it is always attached to personal responsibility. Yes, I am “free” to sin, but there will be consequences. My sins, and those of others, don’t affect me alone; they ripple out into society and damage others, even those sins that some think are purely private. What you are in private will eventually show up in public. What you do in the privacy of your home will affect your character adversely over time, and that will be detrimental to society as a whole.

For many libertarians, civil government is no better than a necessary evil. I understand how one may come to that opinion even apart from libertarianism just by watching the actions of an administration such as the one under which we currently suffer. Yet government is not an evil, not if I truly comprehend the Biblical explanation of its source and purpose.

God & GovernmentThe most basic passage in the Bible about government is Romans, chapter 13. If you read it carefully, here is what you learn:

  • God is the one who has established civil government authority.
  • We are supposed to obey legitimate authority.
  • Government is a minister of God for good.
  • Government officials bear the “sword” to bring judgment upon evildoers.
  • We are obliged to pay taxes for the maintenance of that government [sorry about that one].

Implicit in the passage is the opposite: if government doesn’t carry out its God-given authority and becomes an enemy of the good, promoting evil instead, one’s obligation to obey everything it says is modified. Otherwise, we would be making government our god; but government is accountable to the One who established it and set up its boundaries.

Consequently, there is nothing unchristian about criticizing a government that oversteps its legitimate authority and/or advocates evil behavior. When the IRS unfairly singles out conservatives, abridging their freedom of speech, we can resist that and call for remedy. When the DOJ attempts to criminalize journalism, we can demand a redress of this grievance. When the NSA chooses to collect phone records and e-mail communications from the entire population, we can remind them that the innocent are not to be treated as if guilty without due process of law. When an administration covers up a botched operation in Benghazi that led to loss of life, it needs to be called to account for its actions and inactions, and those involved hardly should be promoted.

So, in those instances, from my Biblical foundation, I fully support genuine liberty. But that’s not the same as having a predisposition against all authority and harboring a view that all government is inherently evil. What bothers me most, I think, is the tendency of libertarianism to morph into a kind of semi-anarchy. Yes, the collectivism of Marxist ideology is perverse, but a state of near-anarchy is not the solution. It is an evil in the opposite direction. Further, the unforeseen consequence of throwing off most civil government and societal regulations will be an unwitting return to heavy-handed rule via the Darwinian principle of survival of the fittest. Neither option is the Biblical way.

Therefore, while we should voice our concerns over violations of civil liberties, let’s avoid the temptation to dismiss all the proper functions of government: protection of its citizens from attacks both foreign and domestic, and the administration of justice by rewarding those who mirror Biblical morality and by meting out punishment to those who undermine that morality through murder, theft, and all other forms of evil.

Civil government comes from God. Now, let’s just make sure it does what God intended.

C. S. Lewis on Eternal Life

Eternal LifeIn Mere Christianity, C. S. Lewis targets those who think their religious beliefs don’t have to be specific. I like his colorful way of expressing his dissent:

A vague religion—all about feeling God in nature, and so on—is so attractive. It is all thrills and no work; like watching the waves from the beach. But you will not get to Newfoundland by studying the Atlantic, and you will not get eternal life by simply feeling the presence of God in Flowers or music.

Then, in one of his essays, he picks up on the theme of eternal life and spells out the necessary step:

A rejection, or in Scripture’s strong language, a crucifixion of the natural self is the passport to everlasting life. Nothing that has not died will be resurrected.

Amen.

Natural Disasters & the Will of God

Moore TornadoOn this day after the horrendous tornado that hit Moore, Oklahoma, we feel for the families who lost children or other loved ones. By all accounts, this had to be one of the worst tornadoes in American history. Normally, they don’t stay on the ground as long as this one did, and the winds may have approached 200 miles per hour. No sin caused this; it was what is usually termed a “natural” disaster.

Some people promote a theology that seems to attribute any natural disaster such as this to the hand of God. While it is true that God is the ultimate sovereign and could, if He chose, direct all things that happen in this world, I personally don’t subscribe to that theology. Yes, God can and has used the elements to bring judgment on some, but when we try to fit all natural disasters into that theme, we go astray.

Jesus spoke to this when he related to his disciples that the tower of Siloam that toppled, killing eighteen people, was not a result of those people’s sins. Don’t suppose, he taught them, that those who died in that event were necessarily worse than those who survived. That tragedy was not some kind of judgment from God. He did use the occasion, though, to warn them with these words: “But unless you repent, you will all likewise perish.” None of us knows when we may be the victim of a similar catastrophe; if we’ve never repented and received the forgiveness the Lord so freely offers, we will die in our sins, leading to the ultimate judgment.

Jesus also taught, in the Sermon on the Mount, that the sun shines and the rain falls on the righteous and the unrighteous alike. There are laws of nature that He has established that continue on, not making a distinction between His people and those who have rejected Him.

Man’s sin did, however, change the course of that nature. Rebellion against the rule and sovereignty of a loving God led to a degradation of the natural creation. The apostle Paul explains in the book of Romans:

For I consider that the sufferings of this present time are not worthy to be compared with the glory that is to be revealed to us. For the anxious longing of the creation waits eagerly for the revealing of the sons of God. For the creation was subjected to futility, not willingly, but because of Him who subjected it, in hope that the creation itself also will be set free from its slavery to corruption into the freedom of the glory of the children of God. For we know that the whole creation groans and suffers the pains of childbirth together until now.

Yes, for now, we live in a troubled world with natural disasters all around. That will not change until this very world is set free from the bondage caused by sin. That day is coming. All will be made new. Our task until then is to show those who are alienated from the love of God the path of redemption. A loving God continually reaches out to each of us, but it’s always our choice whether to reach back or reject His love. Natural disasters have one redeeming feature in this present age—they jolt us and make us think about the day of our death.

What will follow that day?

Finney: Properly Communicating God’s Truths

Charles Finney explains in his Systematic Theology that there are different classes of truth, and that often Christians confuse them. I’ll begin with a statement he makes about the Bible that I believe is illuminating, then go on to his concern over how Christians communicate truth:

The Bible is not of itself, strictly and properly a revelation to man. It is, properly speaking, rather a history of revelations formerly made to certain men. To be a revelation to us, its truths must be brought by the Holy Spirit within the field of spiritual vision. This is the condition of our either knowing or properly believing the truths of revelation. . . .

I am fully convinced that much of the inefficiency of religious teachers is owing to the fact that they do not sufficiently study and comply with the laws of knowledge and belief to carry conviction to the minds of their hearers. They seem not to have considered the different classes of truths, and how the mind comes to possess a knowledge or belief of them.

Consequently, they either spend time in worse than useless efforts to prove first or self-evident truths, or expect truths susceptible of demonstration to be received and rested in without such demonstration. They often make little or no distinction between the different classes of truths, and seldom or never call the attention of their hearers to this distinction. Consequently, they confuse and often confound their hearers by gross violations of all the laws of logic, knowledge, and belief.

I have often been pained and even agonized at the faultiness of religious teachers in this respect. Study to show yourselves approved, workmen that need not be ashamed, and able to commend yourselves to every man’s conscience in the sight of God.

The Gosnell Verdict

In a week of breaking news coming at us like a whirlwind, none is more important to me today than the verdict reached yesterday in the Kermit Gosnell trial. The jury did its duty, which was by no means a guarantee. Gosnell was found guilty of three counts of first-degree murder, one count of involuntary manslaughter, and a couple hundred other counts dealing with the breaking of Pennsylvania laws regarding late-term abortions and other matters.

We now come to the sentencing portion. Will he get the death penalty? Keep in mind that those three counts of first-degree murder were only the ones that were formally prosecuted. Gosnell has operated his “clinic” since the 1970s. His horrific practices—killing children after they were born—is something that has been going on for years. Frankly, this makes him one of the greatest mass murderers in American history.

Christians who shy away from endorsing the death penalty have a misunderstanding of Biblical justice. The New Testament doesn’t change the principle established in the Old. The most sacred gift God has given is the gift of life. When another human being takes away that gift arbitrarily, without any good reason, he has broken a barrier that God Himself set up. Civil government, in its job of meting out civil justice, has an obligation to take the lives of those who have crossed that line. This is not contradictory; there is a clear distinction between the murderous acts of individuals and the responsibility of governments to bring someone to account for those acts.

So, yes, I favor the death penalty in this case. There are no genuine mitigating circumstances. This man is monstrous, and an example needs to be set.

Some commentators yesterday surmised that this might change the course of the abortion discussion in America and make people less accepting of it, after having witnessed the barbarity of Gosnell’s practices. I hope so, but I’m not yet convinced. The Gosnell case can serve a valuable public service if we are open to learning from it, but never underestimate the desire of people to simply avoid the issue and continue on as before.

This also points to the moral dichotomy that exists in the minds of our citizens. On the one hand, we are disgusted and sickened by the infanticide portrayed via Gosnell; on the other hand, if those babies’ lives had been terminated prior to leaving the womb, many would find no problem at all with it.

The only difference between the life of the baby in the womb and the life of the baby recently emerged from the womb is only a matter of inches. Both lives are equally sacred. Both are innocent. Both deserve the protection of society.

Since Roe v. Wade in 1973, more than 55 million American children have been slaughtered. This is truly one of the greatest holocausts in human history. War is horrible, but just compare the loss of American lives in all our wars with the number who have lost their lives through abortion. This pictorial illustration should make it clear:

So tell me, which one should concern us more?

If the jury decides on anything less than the death penalty for Gosnell, justice will have been short-circuited. Righteousness will have been diminished. What of mercy, you say? How merciful was Gosnell toward those innocent children? God extends mercy when man has a repentant heart. Gosnell is unbowed in his arrogance. He is a man with a seared conscience. He needs to serve as a testimony that this culture hasn’t turned its back completely on a clear understanding of good and evil.

I’m continually reminded of this short passage in the book of Isaiah:

Woe to those who call evil good, and good evil; who substitute darkness for light and light for darkness; who substitute bitter for sweet and sweet for bitter. . . ; who justify the wicked for a bribe, and take away the rights of the ones who are in the right.

Evil has been clearly identified here. Darkness has been exposed. May the rights of the unborn be restored in our day.