Tuesday, May 31, 2011

Ask RC: Can Someone Be Damned If They Repent and Continue to Repent?

Of course. Even Judas was sorrowful over his sin, according to the Bible. The world is full of people who are disgusted at at least some of their sins, who seek to put particular sins behind them. This kind of sorrow is not how we have peace with God. While repentance is intimately connected to how and why God forgives us, it is not at all by itself a sufficient cause.

Properly speaking that repentance which “saves” is not merely a turning from, but is a turning to. We have peace with God because Jesus suffered the wrath of the Father that is due to us for our sin, and because He lived a perfect life. The work of Christ becomes ours when we, because of the work of the Holy Spirit in first regenerating us, repent and believe, or trust in the work of Christ. If we so trust all our sins are forgiven, because they have already been punished. This describes all our sins, past, present and future.

If our repentance includes turning to the finished work of Christ, if it includes trusting in His life and atoning death, the promise of God is that we will indeed be forgive (I John 1:9). Because His promises are true, we can and must trust them.

We do, of course, continue to sin. Satan, the accuser, delights to make much of this. He loves to rub our faces in our sins, to tell us that sinners such as we surely cannot be saved. If our response to this kind of assault is to deny the reality of our sin, he wins. If our response on the other hand is to wallow in our sin, he wins. The right response is, “I am a sinner. Worse even than you know Satan. But my Father sees me as pure and whole, a spotless bride, because He has dressed me in the perfect righteousness of His Son.” Telling the devil, “No, I am good” invites more attack. Telling the devil, “Yes, I am evil” only invites more attack. Telling the devil, “Jesus is righteous and I am in Him” will make him flee.

When we diminish our sin, we foolishly rest in ourselves. When we despair in our sins we foolishly diminish His grace. Our calling is to own our sin, to plum its depths, but then to know that God’s grace in Christ is greater still. Deep sorrow and repentance followed by deep confidence in His grace will lead to deep and immovable joy.

Continue to repent. We do so not because our future sins are not forgiven, but so that we might nor presume upon that grace, that we might rejoice in our forgiveness. Let us all, however, also continue to repent for our unbelief in His grace. When God says “I forgive you and I love you” to respond “I don’t believe you” is pure folly, To respond “I’m not worthy” is to belabor the obvious. To respond “Thank you” is to grasp the Good News.

Friday, May 27, 2011

Ask RC: Adultery and Remarriage

How would you counsel someone who has committed adultery (and subsequently been divorced by his spouse) regarding any future relationship with the person with whom he committed adultery?

Here is a classic case that illustrates the importance of this hermeneutical principle- we are to interpret the historical in light of the didactic and not the didactic in light of the historical. That is, our wisdom here will come from God’s law as it is rightly recorded in the Bible, not from God’s history that is rightly recorded in the Bible. That David married Bathsheba has no more bearing on the right thing to do than that David committed adultery with Bathsheba. Both are historical realities. Neither is biblical wisdom.

There are, of course, nearly countless permutations on the ethics of divorce and remarriage. There are likewise varying understandings of what the Bible teaches. One principle has long been the strong majority report in the church for centuries- that divorce is permissible to the victim of either adultery or when a believer is left by an unbelieving spouse. Without these circumstances we are left with illegitimate divorces that tangle the whole question. And even here, with adultery taking place we have at least this tangle- what about the guilty party?

When we speak of the guilty and innocent party in the context of divorce we haven’t lost sight of the universal reality of sin. That is, it isn’t as though only one party sins. But there is a guilty and innocent party in a biblical divorce. If a man’s wife is a horrible shrew, but does not give him biblical grounds for divorce, and he commits adultery, even though her shrew-ness may have contributed at some level to his sin, he is still the guilty party, and she the innocent, in the divorce. She may have been more guilty in the marriage, but he is guilty of the divorce. Can he remarry?

The tension here is that we want on the one hand to recognize the guilt, but also want to affirm forgiveness for the repentant. Though I confess that I cannot provide chapter and verse I have always counseled guilty parties in a case of divorce to not pursue another relationship at all at least until the innocent party has remarried. This leaves open the possibility for reconciliation. (Two important points here. First, one of the great evils in these kinds of situations is when well meaning people counsel the innocent party this way- “God permits you to divorce, but the better choice would be…” We give freedom with the right hand and then bind with the left. If God permits it, so must we. Never let us try to be more pious than God. Second, however, the Bible is clear that a couple that has divorced, and if one or both parties remarry someone else, the original couple cannot latter remarry.)

If the innocent party has remarried, and the adulterous spouse has repented to the wife and to the church publicly, I would suggest he or she is free to remarry. That said, I would have a hard time imagining encouraging someone to marry someone in such a circumstance. I would not want one of my children to marry someone who not only was willing to dishonor him or her by engaging in sexual intercourse when they weren’t married, I surely wouldn’t want my children to marry someone who has already shown a willingness to commit adultery. That doesn’t mean the adulterer can’t be forgiven. A man who embezzles from the church can certainly be forgiven. That doesn’t mean we make him the church treasurer. It does mean, which is precisely why the divorce is allowed to begin with, that trust seems virtually unattainable. In short, I wouldn’t, as an elder in the church, forbid such a marriage. I would, however, likely counsel against it.

Tuesday, May 24, 2011

Humility: In the Name of Love

One of the deepest theological and exegetical conundrums is found in Mark 13:32: “But of that day and hour no one knows, not even the angels in heaven, nor the Son, but only the Father.” We know that Jesus, touching on His humanity, was not omniscient. But we don’t know how it could be possible for God the Son not to know. That may not be what Jesus is saying, but it sure seems that way. This we do know, that it is a good thing from time to time for even the most astute theologians to find themselves giving this most astute answer to some hard questions- I don’t know.

We know in turn that it takes rather a lot of pride to respond to this text how Harold Camping did- “Jesus did not know the day or the hour, but I do.” One did not need to dig deep into Mr. Camping’s mathematical calculations to find the problem. It was always out there for all of us to see, his pride. How he dealt with difficult apocalyptic texts, and how they inter-related was beside the point, because he couldn’t deal with this text in Mark. It’s a tough text, but the last thing one should get out of it is “I can know the day and the hour.”

Is then the devil dancing this morning that he was able to spread the evil of pride first into the heart of an 89 year-old man who had once done so much for the kingdom? Is he excited that this same man infected tens of thousands with that same pride virus? Perhaps so. We would be wise to remember, however, that the serpent is more crafty than any of the beasts of the field. I suspect his real goal is rather more grand in scope.

Last night thousands of Camping’s followers went to bed disappointed and confused. Their pride bubbles deflated rather quickly when 6:01 came. This morning, however, millions of evangelicals woke up not with rapture fever, but with a bad case of pride. We woke up this morning praying, “Lord, I thank you I am not like other men. I don’t follow embarrassing gurus. I have a nice and respectable millennial position. I don’t cause you embarrassment on the national news, giving the devil room to laugh” and of course, the devil laughs, roars in fact, his plan a success.

It is not my desire to make light of Camping’s errors. I want neither to mock them nor to minimize them. They are egregious, his views on the church most egregious of all. It is my desire, however, to own my sin, to guard against my own temptation more than to point and laugh at others. It is my desire daily to hope that Jesus would come back, and that He would find me not pointing and laughing at others, not either looking up to heaven in expectation, but looking to the ground in humility, beating my breast and praying, “Lord be merciful to me, a sinner.”

Saturday, May 21, 2011

Harold Camping: False Prophet?

As I type we are still days away from the purported rapture of the church, as predicted by Bible teacher and radio guru Harold Camping. Though his first prediction, that Jesus would return in 1994 failed, that hasn’t kept him from predicting, nor his followers from expecting that Jesus would come for His own May 21, 2011. Which raises the question- when the sun rises again on May 22, are we warranted in concluding that Harold Camping is a false prophet? The Bible, after all, says that one way to distinguish the false from the true prophet is to see if their prophecies come true. What God speaks happens. What men predict usually does not.

Despite this, and my overwhelming confidence that the Rapture will not occur in a few days (or ever for that matter) I would argue that this does not mean Camping is a false prophet. It means instead that he has erred as an exegete. That, while sad, disappointing, and perhaps for some disillusioning, is not nearly so bad as being a false prophet. What’s the difference? The false prophet is the one who says, “God has revealed new information to me and called me to reveal it to you.” The false, or erroneous exegete merely says, “God has spoken in His Word, and I understand Him to be saying this…” In both instances we have a man saying God is saying something God has not said. In the latter, however, the Word of God in the Scripture remains the sole final and binding authority on men.

In the internet age we often miss these kinds of distinctions. Consider the creation debate. I am a young earth guy. Have been for decades. The issue matters to me. I believe the Bible to be abundantly clear on the issue, and believe those who deny the young earth view to be wrong. I don’t believe, however, that they are self-consciously denying the Bible. I know of no evangelical scholar who has said, “God, in the Bible, teaches a young earth view. God and the Bible are wrong.” These folks don’t deny the Bible. They simply misunderstand it.

Just like you and me. If being wrong about what the Bible teaches is the same as denying the truthfulness of the Bible, we are all guilty. Not a one of us is right about everything the Bible teaches. Which means in turn, if we have opportunity, that we should show grace to the disappointed May 22. They were wrong, and thankfully then will know it. We, however, will still find our errors difficult to nail down. Let us pray that their eschatological disappointment will lead them to correct a far more grave error, their understanding of the church. We are the body that often misunderstands God’s Word. We are the body which is often led astray. But we are those who affirm that the Bible is true in all that it teaches, including its teaching that the gates of hell will not prevail against the church. May we see on May 22 not the return of Jesus, but the return of these prodigals to His church. And may we feast together with them, remembering that such once were we.

Tuesday, May 17, 2011

Ask RC: Does the Bible say anything about cremation?

No. Cremation, however, may have something to say about the Bible. The proper handling of human bodies after death is not something the Bible expressly deals with. There are sundry ceremonial laws in the Old Covenant about touching dead bodies, but no instruction on what to do with these bodies. As such we need to be careful not to condemn what the Bible does not condemn. How though, could cremation speak to the Bible?

Cremation, strange as it may sound, is a form of liturgy. It is a form for dealing with matters of eternal consequence. As a form it in turn communicates a message. That message, it seems, does speak against the Bible’s understanding of death. Cremation, however subtly, suggests that our bodies are of no significance or import, that they are simply so much trash that must be burned. It is implicitly a Gnostic practice, a denial of the goodness of the creation in general and the human body in particular.

Burial, on the other hand, communicates something far more consistent with the Bible. It affirms not only that the human body has dignity, but also that it has a future. It affirms that death is not the end of the body. Consider for a moment why so many cemeteries have in their name some variation on the notion of “Garden.” That cemeteries are well kept and green is consistent with our dignity, but that is not what “Garden” in this context communicates. Because of the promise of the gospel, because of the promise of the resurrection, we are not so much burying the bodies of our loved ones when they pass, as planting them. We are put in the ground to wait for the return of Christ when our corruptible bodies will be made incorruptible.

The practice of burial is so closely identified with the Christian perspective on death and the human body that anthropologists track the spread of the Christian faith westward across Europe through history by looking to the spread of cemeteries. They know that Christianity came to dominate a given region at that time that cemeteries came into use.

Anytime we consider how our behavior communicates we need to be careful. On the one hand we don’t want to be Gnostic enough to suggest that our bodies, and how we treat them are meaningless and communicate nothing. On the other hand this does not mean that anyone who ever approved or requested a cremation has self-consciously denied the gospel and affirmed Gnosticism. Of course buried bodies decompose. And of course, better still, cremated bodies will in fact be resurrected. Nothing we do can undo the promises of God and the glory of the resurrection. Balance, however, suggests that we think through our behavior, that we think deliberately. Balance also suggests that we ought to honor our fathers who gave us this liturgy in the first place.

One cannot say that cremation is a sin. One might say that burial better reflects the biblical perspective on life, death and the body. One can say with certainty that Christ will come again, and our bodies will be raised again, never to die again.

Friday, May 13, 2011

Faux Pearls

Maslow was wrong. Well, he was right before he was wrong. It is true enough that we all have a hierarchy of needs. Some things are more important than others. Trouble is, he didn’t know what the most important things were. Foundational in his system are those things necessary for survival, things like food and water. King David had a different, a better perspective. He said that the Lord was His Shepherd, and he shall not want (Psalm 23:1). David, at this point, has no green grass, and no still water. To be sure God does provide these things, but before He does, David already has everything he needs, the Lord for His Shepherd. Survival is still up in the air, but David has already finished with his worrying. He has what he needs.

One of the most foundational principles in the modern marketing of the church is the notion that we need to tap into not Maslow’s needs, but “felt needs.” This language leaves open the question of what is truly needful, and calls us instead to make our pitch for what our target audience believes their needs to be. Is our target market afflicted with fear? Offer them peace. Is our market suffering from ennui? Offer them excitement, adrenaline.

We serve a big God. He does indeed give us not just peace, but the peace that passes understanding. We serve also a thrilling God. He is no tame lion. So why wouldn’t we meet the lost at their point of need with all the riches our God has to offer in Christ Jesus? Because our greatest need is to stop worshipping ourselves. When we market Jesus, telling people that He will provide for them this or that, when we list the bullet point benefits awaiting those who will walk the aisle we do not meet people where they are, but leave them where they are. Their problem, which is my problem, is self-worship. If the glory of God is that He allows me to better serve myself, I am still worshipping myself. When He becomes a means, I remain the end. Jesus didn’t tell us to count His benefits. He told us to consider the cost, and to take up the cross.

I don’t need to survive. I need to die. I need to do the will of my Father in heaven. That must be my meat and my drink. I need His life, His death, His Spirit, His Word, His fruit, His resurrection, His promise, His obedience. I need Him. And I need to come to understand that every other desire, no matter how pious, is the pathway to death.

The glory of God isn’t that He so potently serves me. The glory of God is that in His grace He teaches me to serve Him, working in me to do and to will His good pleasure. Every good gift, every drop of still water, every blade of green grass, is designed to show us Him. They are just the shimmering reflection of the one true gift, the one needful thing, the Pearl of Great Price.

Tuesday, May 10, 2011

Ask RC: How Do We Learn to Best Pick Our Battles?

The devil, who is more crafty than any of the beasts of the field, is well aware of the nature of our warfare. He knows that eternity is at stake, and delights first to make us forget the reality of the war. As we identify with the world we lose sight of the antithesis, and find ourselves at home in Babylon. If, however, we are rightly conscious of the battle, such doesn’t mean we are rightly focused on the issues that matter most. If the devil can distract us, encourage us to focus our energies on peripheral issues, it’s almost as good for him as if we weren’t fighting at all.

There are, after all, innumerable problems in our world. We live under a rapacious and irresponsible government. The evangelical church is sliding swiftly toward theological liberalism. Souls remain under the wrath of God, and babies are being murdered in broad daylight as I type. All of these issues matter, but some matter more than others.

The temptation (there’s the devil showing up again) we all face is to measure the relative importance of this battle or that based mostly on what we’re good at, or what merely interests us. Reformed people are apt to be more passionate about theological looseness than abortion. Broad evangelicals are going to be more concerned about lost souls than political issues. There is an element here of body life, that some in the church are called to be eyes and others are called to be hands. As we all serve the same Master, and will answer to Him, we don’t want to be looking down our noses at His calling on another.

So how can we tell what issues matter most? First, consider what is actually at stake. I believe passionately in limited government. I hate it that the state thinks itself God, and confiscates more than a third of all that I make. I have friends who have devoted their lives to toppling not the state itself, but its idolatrous self-aggrandizement. Some of them are persuaded that income taxes are not only immoral (I agree) confiscatory (I agree) and intrusive (I agree) but are illegal, or not required (I don’t pretend to know.) The irony is that these same people understand quite well that our entire system is based on worthless paper. They risk their liberty and their families in order to protect Federal Reserve notes. Should my passion be more over the state’s unbacked paper, or its backing of the wanton destruction of God’s littlest people through abortion? Jesus tells us where to place our priorities when He reminds us that our money bears Caesar’s image. Our children bear His image.

Second, if the issue is regular fodder in sundry forms of mass media, it is likely it doesn’t much matter. Conservative talk radio is a virtual propaganda department for the devil, not because what they teach is wrong, but because it isn’t nearly as important as they make it out to be. Talk radio is a mildly more sophisticated soap opera, as we tune in each day to find out what the villain at 1600 Pennsylvania Ave. has done this time. And like soap operas, if you tune out for a week or twenty you’ll find the same drama, the same issues are still being addressed with the same hysteria. If conservative talk radio were conservative, how could a day pass that isn’t devoted to the 3500 babies that will die on that day?

Finally, if worry is causing you to lose sleep, whatever is the source of the worry isn’t an issue that should concern you. If, on the other hand, guilt is what keeps you up at night, that’s what you need to be focused on. Repent, rest in Christ’s provision, and then get to work. You’ll sleep much better.

Jesus’ priorities include political issues, life issues, cultural issues, family issues, theological issues, evangelistic issues. But most of all His priority is that we would seek first His kingdom and His righteousness, that we would grow in grace and so tell the world that His kingdom has come.

Tuesday, May 3, 2011

Goodness Gracious

Common grace is more potent than we normally think. Special grace, on the other hand, is likely more nuanced than we tend to think. As these United States celebrate the just end to the life of Osama Bin Laden, I’m afraid we are in danger of missing both of these truths. First, common grace is keeping the world from being populated with nothing but Osama Bin Ladens. The difference between Bin Laden and Gandhi isn’t that Bin Laden was evil enough to embrace an evil, violent religion while Gandhi was good enough to at least choose and teach a more gentle, false religion. The difference is the amount of common grace given by the living God, the Father of our Lord Jesus. Both men were sinners. Neither gave any sign of having turned to cross and clinging to the finished work of Christ. And so both men find themselves well beyond the reach of any grace, in eternal torment. Both are receiving what they so richly deserve.

The state itself is a manifestation of common grace. We would be wise to remember that God killed Bin Laden, not the United States government. God ordained the state to bear the sword, to punish evildoers. And so in this case they have done so. They have rightly served as His ministers of justice. We should give thanks, to the God who gave us government. That said, what does it say about us that we are dancing in the streets today, while we Christians were so silent and ashamed when notorious abortionist George Tiller was killed? Please don’t misunderstand. I do not believe that private citizens should take the law into their own hands to kill abortionists. But the same state that has spent millions of dollars and nearly ten years to hunt down one killer in Bin Laden, in those same years has spent millions of dollars to protect men like George Tiller whose grisly work has resulted in many times over the number of deaths Bin Laden gave us. God bless the USA?

Which brings us to the subtlety of special grace. Today even those who have been born again, who are indwelt by the Holy Spirit, who are daily being remade into the image of Christ, find themselves caught up in the twisted and distorted perspective of the world. We are singing “Ding Dong the witch is dead” while hundreds of bin Ladens are murdering more babies than there were adults killed on 9/11. We, who are called to take every thought captive, fail to think deliberately. We are not sober-minded. We have horrible, evil, murderous men in our own neighborhoods, but we are either caught up in celebratory jingo-ism or fevered conspiracy theories.

The truth is that God is in control. He does cause the rain to fall on the just and the unjust. Thus the beleaguered president gets a bump in the polls. Thus a wicked nation celebrates the death of one man that attacked it. On the other hand, our Christian heritage did not protect us on 9/11. Our Christian heritage does not protect our unborn children. Our Christian heritage does not make sure we think cogently, biblically about the day’s events.

For those of us who have been reborn, may I suggest a few steps towards sound thinking? First, Osama is an example of what we would all be with less grace in our lives. By all means give thanks for God’s just judgment. Then be sure to give thanks for His grace in your own life. Second, evil isn’t what you see on television, or what they talk about on talk radio. Evil is what is advertised in the yellow pages. Evil is what is in your state’s budget, as well as the federal budget. Evil is what we call a political issue that we must nuance. Evil is what is happening in that rundown office on the poor side of town. Evil is killing babies. Third, evil is what is in our own hearts because we know what happens in our neighborhoods, and yet think today a good day because one evil man died on the other side of the globe. Fourth, stop waving the flag. But also stop chattering about doctored photos, hurried “burials” and May surprises. Fifth, ask God that He would give us more repentance and the wisdom to stop being led around by our noses by main-stream media, talk radio, and bloggers. Today is a dark day. Babies are being murdered.