Archive for the ‘ Biblical Principles ’ Category

Finney & the Travail of the Soul

Charles Finney 3Continuing in Finney’s autobiography, I came to another instance of what God taught him about prayer that I think worth sharing. Here is how he explains it:

The Lord taught me, in those early days of my Christian experience, many very important truths in regard to the spirit of prayer. Not long after I was converted, a woman with whom I had boarded . . . was taken very sick. She was not a Christian, but her husband was a professor of religion. He came into our office one evening . . . and said to me, “My wife cannot live through the night.” This seemed to plant an arrow, as it were, in my heart. It came upon me in the sense of a burden that crushed me, the nature of which I could not at all understand.; but with it came an intense desire to pray for that woman.

Finney then writes of the struggle in his spirit as he prayed. Twice he went to the church to intercede for her, but couldn’t say much; all he could seem to do was groan. He picks up the story again:

I returned to the office again, and still found I was unable to rest; and I returned a third time to the meeting house. At this time the Lord gave me power to prevail. I was enabled to roll the burden upon him; and I obtained the assurance in my own mind that the woman would not die, and indeed that she would never die in her sins.

. . . Early the next morning the husband of this woman came into the office. I enquired how his wife was. He, smiling, said, “She’s alive, and to all appearance better this morning.” I replied, “Brother, she will not die with this sickness; you may rely upon it. And she will never die in her sins.” I do not know how I was made sure of this; but it was in some way made plain to me, so that I had no doubt that she would recover. She did recover, and soon after obtained a hope in Christ.

A Christian brother then explained to Finney that he had experienced “the travail of your soul.” How many of us, I wonder, have ever experienced this? I believe it happens to those whose hearts are open to receiving it.

Lewis: A World of Free Beings by God’s Design

The age-old controversy over free will continues to plague us. I have very settled views on the matter. Some of what I believe on this is enunciated quite well by C. S. Lewis in a couple of his works. For instance, in The Problem of Pain, he zeroes in on the one who is truly accountable for evil entering into this world:

Man is now a horror to God and to himself and a creature ill-adapted to the universe not because God made him so but because he has made himself so by the abuse of his free will.

This, of course, leads to a question:

Why Free Will

In one of his essays, “The Trouble with ‘X’ . . . ” he lays out the rationale for why God made us with choice:

God has made it a rule for Himself that He won’t alter people’s character by force. He can and will alter them—but only if the people will let Him. . . . He would rather have a world of free beings, with all its risks, than a world of people who did right like machines because they couldn’t do anything else. The more we succeed in imagining what a world of perfect automatic beings would be like, the more, I think, we shall see His wisdom.

I see that wisdom clearly. Thank God that He made us with the capacity to love and to have loving relationships with Him and other “free beings.”

Finney: God’s Moral Government a Model for Civil Government

Lectures on Systematic.TheologyI write a lot about civil government, but the basis for civil government is found in the government of God, in how He directs, guides, and controls the universe He has created. Charles Finney demonstrates, in his Systematic Theology, the two very different types of government that exist within God’s creation, distinct because His various creations are distinct:

All government is, and must be, either moral or physical. . . . Physical government is control, exercised by a law of necessity or force, as distinguished from the law of free will, or liberty. . . .

Moral government consists in the declaration and administration of moral law. It is the government of free will by motives as distinguished from the government of substance by force. . . . Moral government presides over and controls, or seeks to control, the actions of free will. . . . It is a government of motive, . . . in accordance with the law of liberty, as opposed to the law of necessity. . . .

Moral government includes the dispensation of rewards and punishments; and is administered by means as complicated and vast as the whole of the works, and providence, and ways, and grace of God.

Finney argues that God is the great Moral Governor who seeks to govern His beings made in His image, not by force, but by administering rewards and punishments as a means to work on the motives of all those free beings. He uses many means to accomplish His purposes in the lives of those He made to live in communion with Him. We are to look to God’s ways of dealing with men to figure out the best means for governing men in civil society. The two are indissolubly linked. God has always been interested in government; after all, He is the originator of the whole concept.

Lewis: Understanding Forgiveness

I like the way C. S. Lewis deals with sin and forgiveness in the following passages. First, he unfolds how people often, but erroneously, think of it:

If you had a perfect excuse you would not need forgiveness: if the whole of your action needs forgiveness then there was no excuse for it. But the trouble is that what we call “asking God’s forgiveness,” very often really consists in asking God to accept our excuses. What leads us into this mistake is the fact that there usually is some amount of excuse, some “extenuating circumstances.” We are so very anxious to point these out to God (and to ourselves) that we are apt to forget the really important thing; that is, the bit left over, the bit which the excuses don’t cover, the bit which is inexcusable but not, thank God, unforgivable. . . .

What we have to take to him is the inexcusable bit, the sin.

He then zeroes in on the heart of receiving forgiveness, and what must come first:

The demand that God should forgive such a man [one bent on evil] while he remains what he is, is based on a confusion between condoning and forgiving. To condone an evil is simply to ignore it, to treat it as if it were good. But forgiveness needs to be accepted as well as offered if it is to be complete: and a man who admits no guilt can accept no forgiveness.

Acknowledgment of sin and a genuine turning from sin—a.k.a., repentance—are prerequisites to forgiveness.

Repentance & Forgiveness

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.