Whoever Loves God Must Also Love Whom?

August 15, 2017

Many have condemned both the violence and racial hatred evident in Charlottesville last weekend. Praise God. Russell Moore’s op-ed piece in the Washington Post is an especially strong and biblical example of such condemnations.

Yet I am always concerned when Christians together condemn others for sinning in a way that does not tempt them.

Why?

Because I know my own heart. I know that if I am in a group in which all think the same way, our joint condemnation of others subtly tempts me to glow inwardly, thinking: “We’re not like them!” We very easily slip into such pharisaical, self-righteous attitudes – and self-righteousness is a deadly sin.

Furthermore, such self-righteousness has increasingly infected our political realm. Instead of political dialogue, arguing with evidence and studies about what type of policy can best serve the American people, so much of our politics today – on both the left and the right – is taken up with self-righteous condemnation of those who differ with us.

How should we then live within the church to combat these attitudes?

In this regard, consider what the Apostle Paul says in Romans 15:5-6:

May the God of endurance and encouragement grant you to live in such harmony with one another, in accord with Christ Jesus, that together you may with one voice glorify the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ.

Paul is writing about differences in the church on disputable matters of doctrine and practice, as well as the ethnic differences between Jews and non-Jews. In these verses, he says that when, despite our differences, we live in supernatural harmony with each other, we glorify God. That is: overcoming our natural inclinations to despise and reject those who are different from us and instead truly loving each other glorifies God.

Now, this is the purpose of the church: To glorify God. Therefore, harmony across our many differences is a key way that we fulfill the purpose of the church. Being diversity-loving, aiming to express love across our differences, is thus not optional for a biblical church; it is a necessity.

Paul continues: “Therefore welcome one another as Christ has welcomed you, for the glory of God” (Romans 15:7).

This is pivotal: Paul says that since such harmony is key to fulfilling the purpose of the church, we must welcome one another as Christ welcomed us.

My friends, how did Jesus welcome you?

  • Because you were like Him?
  • Because you shared some common interests?
  • Because you were in the same life situation?
  • Because you had something to offer him?

No! You were repugnant to Him. You could not have been more different. You had absolutely nothing to offer Him. But He loved you with a love that surpasses knowledge. He accepted you as you were, on the basis of His death on the cross – not on the basis of anything in you.

That, then, is the way you are to welcome other believers – especially those who disagree with you on disputable matters and those from different ethnicities.

This passage has clear implications for racial harmony; there is absolutely no place for racial hatred or discrimination in the church of Jesus Christ.

But the importance of welcoming one another extends well beyond race to every area of difference. We are to live in great harmony with everyone in the church of Christ.

So think: Who in the church do you have problems getting along with? What type of person would you least like to sit down with for a long conversation, or have over to your place for a meal? Are you willing to welcome this person as Jesus Christ welcomed you?

My friends, not to welcome this person as Jesus welcomed you is to fail to love your neighbor as yourself. It’s thus a sin. It makes God look less glorious than He really is.

Consider what the Apostle John says:

If anyone says, “I love God,” and hates his brother, he is a liar; for he who does not love his brother whom he has seen cannot love God whom he has not seen. And this commandment we have from him: whoever loves God must also love his brother. (1 John 4:20-21)

Whoever loves God must also love whom? Every brother or sister in Christ!

  • Your brother who is black, your brother who is white,
  • your brother who is fat, your brother who is skin and bones,
  • your brother who is poor, your brother who is rich,
  • your brother who is socially awkward, your brother who is smooth and debonair,
  • your brother who is highly educated, your brother who never finished elementary school,
  • your brother who doesn’t listen to music less than 200 years old, your brother who doesn’t listen to music more than 6 months old,
  • your brother who is a great athlete, your brother who can’t throw a ball 10 yards,
  • your brother who is politically liberal, your brother who is politically conservative,
  • your brother who is a genius, your brother who is unable to learn to read.

Whoever loves God must also love his brother – whoever that brother might be. If we are to be diversity-loving, if we are to be a biblical church, you must love those who are hard for you to love. For some of us the hardest person to love is someone of another race. For others, the hardest person to love will be different in another way. But: when God’s glory is overarching everything, when God’s Word is permeating and saturating everything, when prayer is supporting everything, when joy in Christ is motivating everything, then we will not only tolerate but we will also pursue diversity. We will love across the barriers that naturally divide us.

And such love is completely inconsistent with self-righteousness.

So, yes, by all means, we together condemn racial hatred and violence. But may such public sins lead us to search our own hearts to see how we are failing to love those different from us. Ask yourself: What people are hardest for me to love?

Answer the question. Then step out and do a practical act of love for them – for the glory of God.

[Part of this devotion is taken from the sermon, “How Can the Church Fulfill Its Purpose?” preached January 8, 2006. Text and audio are available.)

 

Voting as a Joyous, Secure Christ-Follower

November 4, 2016

Who are you?

Where does your security come from?

Where does your joy come from?

We who call ourselves Christians must ask these questions whenever we are making decisions. Whether we are deciding how to budget our income or how to vote, we need to test our motives and passions: Are we acting consistently with who we are in Christ, with our security in Christ, with our joy in Christ?

With the election four days away, let’s think about each of these questions with respect to Christians in this world, and then draw some implications for how we should vote.

First: Who are you in Christ?

If Jesus is your Savior, if He is your Lord, you are a citizen of the Kingdom of God (Philippians 3:20). You are loved by the Father as His child (John 16:27, Romans 8:13-17). You were dead in trespasses and sins, but He has miraculously made you alive in Christ (Ephesians 2: 1-5). Having begun this great work in you, He guarantees that He will complete it (Philippians 1:6), as He makes you – together with all those in Christ – into the perfect, spotless Bride of Jesus (Ephesians 5:27).

Thus, your identity does not come from your race, your ethnicity, your class, your income, your education, your height, your weight, your physical prowess, or your intelligence. Nor does your identity come from the country of your birth, or the country of your earthly citizenship. We can celebrate our ethnicity; we can rejoice in our countries. And all these factors influence how we think and how we serve. But our identity in Christ trumps them all. Our identity in Christ is far more central than them all. Thus, as children of God we are free from the control of government (Matthew 17:24-27). So the apostles did not bow to the will of powerful leaders when commanded not to speak of Jesus (Acts 5:27-29). Nevertheless, for the sake of Jesus we submit to government when to do so does not conflict with God’s commands (1 Peter 2:13-17).

Second: Where is your joy?

As those united to Christ, our greatest joy must come from Him – not from the things of this world, not from our position in this world, not from the country of which we are a part (Philippians 4:4-5, 1 John 2:15-17, Psalm 73:25-26).  Jesus is our great treasure – worth more than all the world has to offer, so that even if we lose all in order to follow Him, our joy increases (Matthew 13:44-46, Mark 10:17-31).

Thus, your joy is not rooted in your country. Your country might fall apart, or be overcome by a foreign power, or be taken over by evil men. Such has happened to Christians time and again over the last 2,000 years. Yet you have an indomitable joy in Christ.

Third: Where is your security?

Jesus tells us that He has all authority in heaven and on earth – all authority, over every ruler, over every terrorist, over every spiritual power. Furthermore, He promises that He is with us; God will never leave us nor forsake us (Matthew 28:18-20, Hebrews 13:15). He knows exactly what we need, and will provide us with everything necessary for us to grow in Christlikeness and to serve His purposes (Matthew 6:25-33, 2 Peter 1:3). Furthermore, Jesus will return in power and great glory (Matthew 24:30); He will overwhelm all rebels against His authority, right every wrong, end all human countries and states, and establish His eternal Kingdom of peace (2 Thessalonians 1:5-10, Revelation 11:15). God Himself will wipe every tear from our eyes, and we will see Him face to face (Revelation 21:4, 1 Corinthians 13:12).

So our security does not depend on the defense policy of our government or on the effectiveness of the police force or on the equity of the criminal justice system. The IRS may run amuck and the Fed may exercise foolish economic policy. We may be persecuted; we may be convicted unjustly and sentenced to death. But, as the Apostle Paul said even when facing execution, “The Lord will rescue me from every evil attack and will bring me safely to his heavenly kingdom. To him be glory for ever and ever. Amen” (2 Timothy 4:18). Not a hair of our head will perish, even if we are hated by all and put to death (Luke 21:16-18).  In Christ, we are completely secure.

What, then, are our responsibilities as citizens?

In this world, we are aliens and exiles (1 Peter 2:11), similar to the Jewish exiles in Babylon. The prophet Jeremiah tells these exiles that their sojourn in that foreign country will not be permanent, but will be lengthy – longer than the lifespan of most of the exiles. So he instructs them, “Seek the welfare of the city where I have sent you into exile, and pray to the LORD on its behalf, for in its welfare you will find your welfare” (Jeremiah 29:7). Just so for us. We and we are to work to improve the country of our sojourning in a variety of ways – but especially, of course, in bearing witness to the love and grace of God the Father through Jesus His Son.

Surely voting is one way that we exercise that responsibility. We are to seek the welfare of the United States where God has sent us into exile. By voting, we can help to bring into local, state, and national offices men and women who will serve the country well, who may improve the welfare of our city, our state, our country – and even the world.

So I am mystified by statements from some Christian leaders, arguing that we have no obligation to vote. Surely the state cannot force us to vote – let us obey God rather than man! But just as surely we are to seek the welfare of this country – and we can, we must do so through voting (and through thousands of other means).

Voting as a Joyous, Secure, Christ-Follower

So if we are to vote, how do we decide on which candidates to support?

On my ballot in North Carolina this election are candidates for 23 offices. Some of these candidates are wise and well-qualified; they will serve well. Enthusiastically support such candidates. Vote for them as a way to seek the welfare of those around you. Your hope, your joy, and your security are not wrapped up in their winning the election. But learn about the candidates and vote for those who you think will improve life for your fellow citizens.

But the big question this year is how to vote for president – an office which is consequential not only for the welfare of this country, but for the welfare of the entire world. Some Christian leaders have opined that no Christian should vote for Trump; others have said no Christian should vote for Clinton; still others have argued that no Christian can vote in good conscience for either of them.

I think these arguments are wrong. Why?

First, as we’ve indicated, our identity, our hope, and our joy are not wrapped up in any candidate. We can vote for a candidate without setting our hope in him or her, without identifying ourselves as followers of him or her.

Second, in voting we are seeking the welfare of our country, state, and city to the glory of God. That voting decision – particularly in a case like this year’s presidential election – is a judgment call. Indeed, it is a particularly complex judgment call. We should expect different Christians  – with varying levels of understanding of economic policy, foreign policy, and judicial policy, and different weights on the importance assigned to each– to differ in their judgments. Past experience will also affect the way such judgments are made. So surely how to vote in a presidential election like this is a disputable matter among Christians, a matter of wisdom. We therefore should treat it like the disputable matters discussed in Romans 14. In particular, “Let us not pass judgment on one another any longer, but rather decide never to put a stumbling block or hindrance in the way of a brother” (Romans 14:13). Your brother or sister in Christ had better be much more precious to you than your presidential candidate. And the way you discuss politics could indeed put a stumbling block in the way of your brother or sister. So treat this presidential election as a judgment call – and respect the judgment calls of fellow believers, even when you think they are wrongheaded.

Third: How can you make a wise judgment between Trump and Clinton?

Let me lay out four scenarios. Which is most applicable to you depends on your judgment of the candidates and what other considerations you think are most important for the future welfare of the country.

a)      First possibility: You think there is a good chance one of the two major candidates would end up on balance being good for the country. You disagree with some political stands that candidate takes, and you recognize and regret his or her character flaws – yet, on balance, with the uncertainty about the future that always accompanies voting, you honestly believe there is a chance this candidate could serve the country well. If so, vote for that candidate.

b)      Second possibility: You think both candidates are deeply flawed, and electing either as president could have serious negative consequences for the country and the world. But while you think both are potentially disastrous, you think one has the potential to be much worse than the other. You may decide to vote for the lesser disaster (but may not – see scenarios three and four also). For example, abstracting from this election: If I thought one candidate would end up killing ten million people, and the other would end up killing thirty million people, I might well vote for the one who would kill ten million. I would not be endorsing that candidate; I would not be aligning myself with that candidate; I certainly would not be setting my hope in that candidate. Rather, in wisdom before God I would be making the decision that as far as I can tell will lead to the greatest welfare for the country of my exile.

c)       Third possibility: Your assessment of the two major candidates is similar to (b) above – you think either would be disastrous. But in this scenario you want to do all you can to raise the low probability of another candidate becoming president. That would require that neither Trump nor Clinton attain 270 electoral votes, and that some electoral votes go to another candidate. In that case, the House of Representatives would choose the president from among the top three candidates in the electoral college, with each state delegation getting one vote. With Clinton’s lead in the polls shrinking and Evan McMullin having a decent shot at winning Utah this outcome is not impossible. In this case, you would vote for McMullin in Utah, Johnson in New Mexico, or any other third party candidate in states where they might win. But North Carolina is different. Should Clinton win here, she almost certainly will get 270 electoral votes. The only candidate who can beat her in this state is Trump. So in this scenario, you would vote for Trump in North Carolina as the strategy that will most effectively raise the probability of someone other than the two major candidates becoming president.

d)      Fourth possibility: Again, you think both Clinton and Trump would harm the country. You may or may not think one is considerably worse than the other. But in your judgment, the two parties are able to nominate deeply flawed candidates and then run predominantly negative campaigns because they do not believe voters will abandon them for a third party. You think the country would benefit from having more than two choices in future elections – and you think that the two parties would be more likely to work together during the next four years if they were to perceive a third party threat (as they did after the 1992 election, when Ross Perot received 19 percent of the vote). In this case, vote for whichever third party or write-in candidate you consider the best.

My friends, in Christ we are secure. In Christ we have indomitable joy. And in Christ we know who we are: Chosen, beloved, set apart for Him. No election will change any of that.

So work for the welfare of the country of your exile. Pray for this country. Vote wisely – following whichever scenario most accurately fits your judgment.

And then – with joy, with confidence – entrust the church in this country to God and to the word of His grace (Acts 20:32).   He is able to build her up and to give her the promised inheritance – and will do so. And in the end – whatever the outcome of this election – the gates of hell will not prevail against her (Matthew 16:18).

 

Keith Lamont Scott and Brentley Vinson

September 21, 2016

Keith Lamont Scott, 43, father of 7, is dead, killed by Police Officer Brentley Vinson, 26, a 2012 graduate of Liberty University, where he played football.

Both are African-American.

It should go without saying – but unfortunately still needs to be said – that black lives matter.

It should go without saying – but unfortunately still needs to be said – that black cops’ lives matter.

Was Officer Vinson acting out of racial hatred? Clearly not.

Was Officer Vinson acting out of a justified assessment that he and other police officers were about to be attacked? That is what Police Chief Putney – also African-American – states emphatically.

Based on our past experience, some of us tend to believe what police tell us.

Based on our past experience, some of us tend not to believe what police tell us.

Thus we can react very differently to the same set of facts.

Our local political leaders, Democrat and Republican, have handled the situation well in my assessment, calling for calm, condemning violence, acknowledging the right of peaceful protest, and assuring the city that there will be a full and fair investigation. Some of last night’s protestors rightly called for accountability – and there must be. May we all work to make sure that happens.

Yet right now, in the fog of these chaotic events, many people are speaking out, in public and on social media, after hearing what can only be partial accounts of what happened, condemning Officer Vinson, condemning Chief Putney.

Brothers and sisters, all Christians should be “quick to listen, slow to speak, and slow to become angry” (James 1:19). All Christians should know that “the one who states his case first seems right, until the other comes and examines him” (Proverbs 18:17).  And all Christians should know that:

There are six things that the LORD hates, seven that are an abomination to him: haughty eyes, a lying tongue, and hands that shed innocent blood, a heart that devises wicked plans, feet that make haste to run to evil, a false witness who breathes out lies, and one who sows discord among brothers. (Proverbs 6:16-19)

If Officer Vinson is guilty of shedding innocent blood, and if Chief Putney is guilty of having a lying tongue, they should be convicted in a court of law, and in the end will be found guilty before our Lord’s perfect tribunal. So may the process play out justly. If others are acting as false witnesses, breathing out lies, trying to sow discord, they too in the end will be found guilty before our Lord’s perfect tribunal.

So may we call for justice. May we work for justice. May we mourn with the Scott family, who have to face this tragedy. May we mourn with the Vinson family, who also have to face a tragedy – a tragedy of a lower order of magnitude, but  a tragedy nevertheless.

And may we pray – together, with one heart, with one accord – that God might use even these horrible events to heal our city, to enable the Gospel to shine forth in a thousand acts of love and comfort, and to display the unity all believers of all races really, genuinely have in Christ.

 

Manasseh, Trump, and Clinton

August 4, 2016

Which king of Israel or Judah had the longest reign?

Not David. Not Solomon. Neither Jehoshaphat nor Hezekiah.

The longest reigning king was Manasseh. He reigned for 55 years – the equivalent of 1961 until today. And yet he was a wicked, evil king:

Because Manasseh king of Judah has committed these abominations and has done things more evil than all that the Amorites did, who were before him, and has made Judah also to sin with his idols, therefore thus says the LORD, the God of Israel: . . .  I will wipe Jerusalem as one wipes a dish, wiping it and turning it upside down. And I will forsake the remnant of my heritage and give them into the hand of their enemies (from 2 Kings 21:11-14).

Why did God leave His people for such a long time under the authority of a bad man – such a bad man that, according to Jewish tradition, he had the prophet Isaiah sawn in two? Why did the people have to suffer? Why did God subject His people to injustice, to being led even further astray from Him?

The passage tells us. It is not only Manasseh who is evil. The people also are guilty. The king influences them, but they are responsible for “sin with his idols.” And so they must bear with an evil king for all these decades.

And make no mistake: God is the one who allows Manasseh to remain in power. For “the Most High rules the kingdom of men and gives it to whom he will” (Daniel 4:17, 25, 32).

God’s final judgment is yet to come, but is fully determined: He will send His people into exile. He will use the Babylonians to destroy the very temple dedicated to His Name. As 2 Kings 21 makes clear, Manasseh’s sins, and the sins of the people under him, lead to this horrible judgment of God (see especially Lamentations 2 for a description of some of the horrors).

But the judgment of God does not fall during Manasseh’s reign, nor during the reign of evil Amon, his son, nor during the reign of good Josiah, Manasseh’s grandson. Why the delay?

Perhaps in part because in his old age, near the end of his reign, Manasseh repents:

[The Assyrians] captured Manasseh with hooks and bound him with chains of bronze and brought him to Babylon.   And when he was in distress, he entreated the favor of the LORD his God and humbled himself greatly before the God of his fathers.  He prayed to him, and God was moved by his entreaty and heard his plea and brought him again to Jerusalem into his kingdom. Then Manasseh knew that the LORD was God.   (2 Chronicles 33:11-13)

As the Apostle Paul states in another context: “Note then the kindness and the severity of God” (Romans 11:22). Kindness and mercy toward one of the most evil of all the Judean kings; severity toward the rebellious people; kindness and mercy to their descendants, in bringing them back from exile.

We can continue the thought: Kindness and mercy to all those today from every tribe and tongue and nation who repent, who turn, who believe in the Lord Jesus Christ and are saved; severity to those from every tribe and tongue and nation who continue in rebellion, who suppress the truth in unrighteousness (Romans 1:18), who reject their rightful King and only possible Savior.

Like the people of Judah, we the people of the United States do not deserve even a modicum of God’s mercy, and so we do not deserve an honest, good, principled leader of our government. At this point, it certainly does not look like we will get one this year. But if God could bring Manasseh to repentance, He can bring to repentance any American president; if God could destroy His own temple and bring down the kingdom called by His Name, He can bring down in judgment the United States of America; and if God could restore His people, showing mercy that they did not deserve, and raise up from a descendant of this very Manasseh the Savior of the world, then God can bring a sinful and rebellious nation today to repentance, and use it for His good and wise purposes to bring about the final culmination of His great  plan.

Father, in Your mercy, would you would grant such repentance?

Should We Have Heroes?

July 29, 2016

Should we have heroes? Should we look to people as examples, to show us what is possible and to spur us on to what we can become?

There are arguments on both sides.

On the one hand, honoring heroes can be dangerous. Some Sunday School curricula are based around highlighting certain biblical characters as heroes, as examples that we should emulate. Such curricula – whether by intent or not – can distort the story of the Bible, transforming it from a story of God and His acts to a story of great men and women. Think of Abraham, of Moses, of Samuel, of David; think of Peter, of Paul, of John, of Paul. Scripture tells us of their weaknesses, their sins, and their flaws. They achieve greatness by God’s grace in spite of who they are as persons. God the Father, God the Son, God the Holy Spirit is the hero in their stories.

We easily slip into similar errors when we make heroes of men and women in history: Stories of human achievement, of overcoming all odds, of tremendous sacrifice, and of devotion to country can idolize the person, overlook human sin, and minimize the role of God.

On the other hand, rightly told, stories of men and women like us who attain greatness can lead us to raise our vision above the commonplace, and help us to become what God intends us to be.

In a new book, If You Can Keep It: The Forgotten Promise of American Liberty, Eric Metaxas argues that our tendency in the US over the last fifty years to debunk national heroes is one of several developments that have put our republic at risk. The concept of a country united not by ethnicity and language but by the idea of freedom was strange, foreign, and new at time of this nation’s birth. If “all men are created equal and . . . are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable rights” then those of all classes, all incomes, and all religions are to participate in government “of the people, by the people, and for the people.” What does such government look like? How can it continue to exist? What keeps us together as a people from generation to generation? Metaxas argues that one important element is the telling and retelling of the stories of the great men and women who have exemplified the ideals of America and sacrificed for the furtherance of those ideals.

He contends:

We are more than political ideas. We are a people who live those ideas out in common. Knowing those ideas is a vital first step, but part of how we know them is knowing how they came into being and how they were subsequently lived out in history. So by pushing away these common stories of our heroes, we have allowed ourselves to be drained of our very common identity as Americans. Our emotions must be as engaged in “keeping” the republic as our minds are engaged in it. It is the real stories of heroes like Washington and Nathan Hale and others that help us to properly feel the power of the ideas behind them. . . . By deciding that every potential hero is too flawed to celebrate and venerate, or that such stories are somehow corny, we have done a grave disservice to several generations and to the country. (p. 131)

So Metaxas includes stories of great men to illustrate his point: Americans George Washington, Nathan Hale, Benjamin Franklin, and Paul Revere, as well as Englishmen George Whitefield and William Wilberforce. Washington in particular “lives in a world in which virtue and honor are accepted as vital to the life they all wish to lead” – something we have lost as a country in the intervening years (p. 165).

Metaxas agrees with the point above about the danger of idolizing heroes. He is careful to argue that we must be open about the flaws of our heroes as well as the flaws in our country’s history:

Heroism and ignominy both are part of our history. The only question is whether, having seen both, we can repent of the one and rejoice and be inspired by the other. Or whether we will let one of them tempt us so far away from the other that we have a deeply distorted view. (p. 227)

So he says we should be inspired, even as we acknowledge the weaknesses and sins that come out in every country, and in all men and women.

So should we have heroes? How should we judge this biblically?

Heroes are a lot like parents. We parents must raise our children well; we must set an example for them; we must teach them Scriptural truths and live out those truths before them. We will fail. We will sin, against others and against them. We are flawed. But nevertheless, in a God-centered family, the children should be able to look at their parents, model themselves after the good aspects of their parents’ lives, and learn from their parents’ flaws.

Just so with heroes from past generations. We can and should look to a George Washington and learn from his devotion to others, his sacrifice for the common good, his wise leadership, and his critical stepping away from power after two terms. We can and should honor him, use him as a model, and be encouraged by his example of what God chooses to do through men. At the same time, we can see his limitations, how his view of slavery was shaped by his culture, how his view of God, similarly shaped by his society, was not entirely biblical, and be careful not to fall into similar errors.

Jesus is our only hero without flaws. We must look to Him above all. But we also need to see examples of other sinners, others stained like us, who through dependence on God, through turning away from themselves and giving up their own goals and comforts, glorify Him and serve their fellow men. Our role likely will be less prominent than theirs; our accomplishments likely won’t result in recognition now and biographies in the future. But as we follow Christ – and as we learn from and are spurred on by others who have followed Christ – we too can play key roles in God’s plan to fill the earth with the knowledge of His glory as the waters cover the sea.

So praise God for heroes. May we learn from their flaws, be inspired by their lives, living to God’s glory – and so become heroes ourselves.

Total Depravity: More Sinful Than We Ever Dared Believe, More Loved Than We Ever Dared Hope

July 17, 2016

By Fred T. Balbuena

In trying to understand humanity, it is apparent that people like to be told they are good, but they cringe when they hear how sinful and corrupt everyone is at the very core of their being. This is because all of us have an inclination to believe that man is generally good and that sin is basically a deficiency, imperfection, or a weakness. Take for example the optimism of the last 200 years which was ushered in at the Age of Enlightenment. It was a period in time where man was believed to be perfectible and that humanity was improving.[1] This idea is contrary to what Romans 3:10-12 says, “None is righteous, no, not one; no one understands; no one seeks for God. All have turned aside; together they have become worthless; no one does good, not even one,” and Romans 3:23, “For all of sinned and fall short of God’s glory.” We intuitively assume we are capable of moral progress. But as we can observe in the history of humanity no generation can be said to be better or worse than others. Certainly, in our day, this idealism that has permeated Western thought no longer exists. It is now replaced by the contemporary philosophy called postmodernism. In the postmodern culture many sins are no longer called sins but something else, such as a bad judgment call, a mistake, oversight, weakness, or a psychological disorder. Today many people have this notion that there is no absolute. Truth today is basically defined as “whatever feels good” or “whatever seems right for you”, which has a devastating effect on society and individuals. We have created a new society where sin and conscience have vanished, and the prevalent mindset is to regard all values, beliefs, lifestyles, and truth claims as equally valid. This is what postmodernity is doing by comprehending that the reality of sin cannot be eradicated.

We can liken this moral situation with the game of Monopoly where the players can accumulate a lot of money and get “rich”. Similar to this are our good works. We cannot assume that by accumulating human goodness we can please God.[2] The currency is only useful in the game, it cannot be used for any real purchases.  In the same way, good works are not the type of currency which God accepts. As Romans 14:23 says, “For whatever does not proceed from faith is sin.” God requires divine righteousness through faith not human righteousness through works. Clearly, it is hard to exaggerate the importance of admitting our condition to be this bad, but we need to see sin in this light in order to understand God’s grace, mercy, and forgiveness. If we think of ourselves as basically good or even less than totally at odds with God, our grasp of the work of God in redemption will be defective. But if we humble ourselves under this terrible truth of our total depravity, we will be in a position to see and appreciate the glory and wonder of the work of God in salvation. One of my favorite quotes by Tim Keller in articulating the gospel is this: “We are more sinful and flawed in ourselves than we ever dared believe, yet at the very same time we are more loved and accepted in Jesus Christ than we ever dared hope.”

So we need a deeper understanding of the reality of sin and this is how we go deeper in our experience of God’s grace. Knowing the seriousness of our condition will make us all the more amazed at the greatness of our Savior. Comprehending the extent of our deep-seated rebellion, we will be amazed by the longsuffering grace and patience of God towards us. Ultimately, the way we worship God and the way we treat others, especially our enemies, are profoundly and wonderfully affected by knowing our depravity to the full. Let us cultivate a heart of thankfulness. The fact that we still believe in God every morning when we wake up is owing to God’s mercy and grace. God gives what he requires from us, and that is the obedience of faith. Acknowledge him in all your ways and remember that we need God’s gift of faith in order for us to be able to respond to his command to be holy. Let us also strive to grow in faith, for without faith, it is impossible to please God. (Hebrews 11:6) Oh, that you may you worship God and love people as never before. This is the result of a profound experience when you embrace the doctrines of sovereign grace.

 

 

 



[1] The Doctrines of Grace: Rediscovering the Evangelical Gospel – April 1, 2009

by James Montgomery Boice  (Author), Philip Graham Ryken, p.69.

[2] Ibid. pg.76.

Cry Out for Justice

July 8, 2016

Alton Sterling. And Brent Thompson. Philando Castile. And four as yet unnamed Dallas police officers.

We could go on: Thousands trafficked for sexual exploitation. About 2700 unborn babies killed yesterday in the US. In the absence of any effective government, warlords rape and pillage, leading millions to flee their homes in Syria, in Libya, in Congo. Meanwhile, even in this country, the powerful and well-connected get off scot free while the weak are punished to the full extent of the law.

We cry out with the prophet:

How long, LORD, must I cry for help? But you do not listen! I call out to you, “Violence!” But you do not intervene!  Why do you force me to witness injustice? Why do you put up with wrongdoing? Destruction and violence confront me; conflict is present and one must endure strife.  For this reason the law lacks power, and justice is never carried out. Indeed, the wicked intimidate the innocent. For this reason justice is perverted. (Habakkuk 1:2-4 NET)

Or, as a contemporary songwriter puts it:

“I believe you will come, Your justice be done – but how long? . . . How long? How long until this burden is lifted?”

We are right to cry out. We are right to weep. We are right to long for justice, indeed to work for justice.

But Scripture both challenges us and enables us to look at the horrors of this world from God’s perspective.

  • As we ask, “How long must we look at evil?” God asks, “How long will this people despise me?” (Numbers 14:11)
  • As we cry out, “Justice is perverted!” God asks, “How long will scoffers delight in their scoffing and fools hate knowledge?” (Proverbs 1:22)
  • As we long for God to act, He asks, “How long will you refuse to humble yourself before me?” (Exodus 10:3)

God challenges us to look within – to look at our own hearts, and to examine the hearts of our fellow countrymen. And when we look within, what do we see? Individually and as a nation: We have despised Him. We have mocked Him. We have rejected His revelation. We have arrogantly refused to humble ourselves before Him.

Scripture tells us that all the evil we see around us is the result of this human rebellion against God – a rebellion which we must admit, when we’re honest, is deeply ingrained within us. Indeed, all such evil is the logical consequence of that rebellion.

We can and should take palliative measures as a society that will lessen some of the suffering: Checks and balances in government; proper training for the police; equitable and efficient prosecution of criminals – both of the weak and the powerful; wise voting; holding up examples of honorable men and women. Furthermore, as individuals and as churches we can and must love and care for and assist the broken and hurting around us.

But suffering will continue. Injustice will endure. Violence will rear its head. The poor we will always have with us. Sin will thrive.

Until the Right Government takes over. That is, until the government is on Immanuel’s shoulders. Until God’s Kingdom comes, God’s will is done on earth as it is in heaven. Then His government and His peace will increase forever (Isaiah 9:6-7, Matthew 6:10).

After Habakkuk’s cry, God tells His prophet:

If it seems slow, wait for it; it will surely come; it will not delay. . . . The earth will be filled with the knowledge of the glory of the LORD as the waters cover the sea. . . . The LORD is in his holy temple; let all the earth keep silence before him. (Habakkuk 2:3, 12, 20)

And the Apostle Paul assures us:

At the name of Jesus every knee will bow– in heaven and on earth and under the earth – and every tongue confess that Jesus Christ is Lord to the glory of God the Father. (Philippians 2:10-11 NET)

So cry out. Weep with those who weep. Help the hurting. Work for justice.

And know: The Lord is indeed in His temple. He offers reconciliation to all rebels through the wiling sacrifice of His Son. He will bring about His Kingdom at exactly the right time. He is King.

 

Reflections on a New US Citizen

June 4, 2016

Today Ed Conrad and I accompanied Janey to her being sworn in as a US citizen. Forty-eight others joined her, from thirty different countries of origin, including Congo (Janey’s former country), Vietnam, Iraq, Bhutan, Ghana, Colombia, Ecuador, and Hondurus. Most took new name’s; Janey’s legal name is now Mary Jane Rebecca. All forty-nine new citizens joined together in affirming that they:

absolutely and entirely renounce and abjure all allegiance and fidelity to any foreign prince, potentate, state, or sovereignty, of whom or which [they] have heretofore been a subject or citizen; that [they] will support and defend the Constitution and laws of the United States of America against all enemies, foreign and domestic; . . . that [they] will bear arms on behalf of the United States when required by the law; . . . and that [they] take this obligation freely, without any mental reservation or purpose of evasion.

The mood was celebratory. Each new citizen rejoiced in swearing allegiance to the United States of America.

There are great parallels between what happened today in the US District Court of Western North Carolina and what happens in the life of every Christian. We all have been subject to a foreign power. And there is war between this power and the Kingdom of God. Indeed, we have marched in the army of this foreign power, taking up arms against God’s Kingdom. Yet now, pardoned by God’s grace through the sacrifice of Jesus on the cross, we must “absolutely and entirely renounce and abjure all allegiance and fidelity” to that foreign power, Satan’s Kingdom of Darkness. We must bear arms against that Satanic Kingdom, putting on the full armor of God and taking up the sword of the Spirit, the Word of God. We must battle also against the “domestic” enemy within each of us, the rebelliousness that would lead us to revolt against our rightful King and renew our allegiance to Sin. Furthermore, we can’t become citizen’s of the Kingdom of God half-heartedly, or to aim for selfish gain. We must freely offer ourselves “without any mental reservation” to our Lord and Master, for Him to do with us as He sees fit.

Those are wonderful parallels. But there is an important difference between that swearing-in ceremony and our allegiance to the Kingdom of God: Janey was born as a citizen of Congo. There was nothing wrong with that citizenship. She was right to be loyal to her country as long as she was a citizen.

Not so with us. From the creation of mankind, we humans were by right under God’s rule and authority. At Satan’s prompting, we rebelled against our rightful King.

Thus, rather than Janey renouncing her allegiance to Congo, the following would be a closer parallel: A native US citizen leaves this country, joins ISIS, and participates in terrorist acts. He even burns his US passport, and posts a video of that act on the internet. The US government revokes his citizenship. Then, coming to his senses, this terrorist freely gives himself up, accepts just judgment and punishment, and eventually takes the above oath in becoming once again an American citizen.

That’s a closer parallel. But in our case, the rebellion is even more heinous. For our Ruler is perfectly loving, perfectly good, and perfectly just.

And yet, in our case, the just punishment is not administered to us. Jesus became man, and took our punishment on Himself. When we admit our rebellion, absolutely and entirely renouncing all allegiance to Satan’s Kingdom, trusting in Jesus as crucified and risen, we are citizens in the Kingdom for which we were created – the Kingdom of Light – the Kingdom of love, joy and peace.

Praise God that He has “delivered us from the domain of darkness and transferred us to the kingdom of his beloved Son” (Colossians 1:13) so that “our citizenship is in heaven” (Philippians 3:20). May we live out that right allegiance faithfully.

Who Will I Vote For?

May 20, 2016

In this country, we citizens have the great and – considering the history of the world – the unusual privilege of having a role in choosing who will govern us. As Christians, we are foreigners, exiles, strangers in this world. We are ambassadors from our home country, serving our rightful King (2 Corinthians 5:20). Our hope is in Him, not in any political figure or movement. However, during this period of our exile, God commands us, like the ancient Israelites in Babylon, as foreigners and strangers to  “seek the welfare of the city where I have sent you into exile, and pray to the LORD on its behalf, for in its welfare you will find your welfare” (Jeremiah 29:7). One way we work for the welfare of our city and country is through this privilege of voting. Surely we are to vote wisely, prayerfully, and responsibly.

If you spend any time at all on social media, you’ve come across many statements recently, saying, “I will never vote for so-and-so.” A number of you have asked me who I intend to vote for when the candidates are so disappointing. Here is my answer:

  • I will gladly vote for judges in North Carolina who will uphold the law as written and make decisions with wisdom and equity.
  • I will gladly vote for legislators who will represent their constituents faithfully, and will make laws that will improve our country and state.
  • I will gladly vote for school board members and town council members who will help our town to serve its community – especially its children – well.

“But, Coty,” you say, “I want to know which presidential candidate you’ll vote for.” That’s my point. Way too much of the discussion has been about the presidential candidates – whether that discussion has been supporting one candidate or another, or bemoaning the choices we have. There are fine men and women running for office! Find them and support them! And these other offices – collectively if not individually – have more impact on our day-to-day lives than the president of the United States.

We are not electing as president a king with absolute authority. We are electing a man or woman whose role is governed by a constitution and limited both by other branches of government and by state and local governments. So, if you’re dissatisfied with the presidential candidates, take that much more seriously your responsibility to vote for candidates for other offices. Then joyfully support those who will do an excellent job.

In North Carolina, we have a primary election June 7. Neither Hillary Clinton nor Donald Trump will be on the ballot. Vote! Especially consider carefully those running for the position of judge on the North Carolina Supreme Court.

As for president: We have almost six months to go before the November election. While we should not vote for a presidential candidate based on his or her stand on one issue, that stand on a single issue can disqualify a candidate from the office (see this post, written during the 2008 campaign). Perhaps both major party candidates in the end will show themselves to be disqualified. Perhaps one candidate or another will grow and change over the next few months and become much more acceptable. Perhaps one or both conventions will give us a surprise. Or, perhaps there will be a viable third party candidate. (Indeed, if in the next few months a pollster asks me who I would vote for if the election were today, I will give the name of whatever third party candidate is most likely to achieve the 15% support required to gain entrance to the presidential debates. In my view, our country would be much better off if there were a third voice in those debates.)

So, in my opinion, it’s much too early to make declarations about who you will never vote for. Pray. Find candidates you can gladly, enthusiastically support. Vote. Seek the welfare of this country of our exile.

 

How Should I Think About Muslims?

December 11, 2015

Donald Trump has called for the US to block all Muslims from entering the US for a period of time in order to keep US citizens safe from terrorists. Franklin Graham says he was the first to call for such a policy.

Let me respond to those calls first by highlighting some facts and inferences relevant for US policy, and, second, by suggesting how we should act given Scripture’s injunctions concerning Christians’ attitudes toward those who do not know Christ.

Some facts and inferences relevant to US policy:

Fact: Islam is highly variegated, as is Christianity. Think of all those who have some sort of roots in Christian tradition; not only Baptists, Methodists, and Roman Catholics – with wide differences even within those groups – but also Russian Orthodox, Egyptian Copts, Mormons, Jehovah’s Witnesses, and cults like Westboro Baptist, the Branch Davidians, the followers of Jim Jones, and the leaders of the 19th century Taiping rebellion. Those having roots in Islamic tradition are similarly diverse.

Inference: It makes no more sense to lump all Muslims together than it does to lump all of those “Christians” together. Many, many Muslims have no more sympathy for ISIS or Al-Qaeda than you and I have for Jim Jones.

Fact: War is raging within Islam. Indeed, the army that has fought ISIS most effectively – the Peshmerga – is made up of Muslims. Muslim leaders such as Egypt’s President el-Sisi have called for a repudiation of terrorism, and a revolution within Islam. See also this recent opinion piece in the Wall Street Journal by an American Muslim, calling for Muslims to act against radicalism.

Inference: It makes no sense to implement a policy that would exclude our allies in the fight against radical Islamic terrorism from entering the US – and a policy which excluded all Muslims would do exactly that.

Fact: A high percentage of Muslims in some countries hold positions which are contrary to basic American values. For example, survey results from the Pew Research Center indicate that more than half of the Muslims in Malaysia, Pakistan, and Egypt think Muslims who convert to other religions should be put to death. (Highlighting the variegation within Islam, only two percent of Muslims in Turkey agree).

Fact: No foreign national has a right to enter any country. I have been granted a temporary right – a visa – to enter India any time in the next four years. But the Indian government can cancel that right at any time for any reason. They need give no explanation. And I would have no legal recourse. The Indian government did just that 30 years ago to a friend of mine (for no reason he could ever discern); the Chinese government did just that recently to a friend of a friend (presumably because a text message that seemed innocuous to this person raised suspicion in some official’s mind). Any sovereign country has the right to bar entry to any foreign national.

Fact: Radical Islamic terrorist groups are actively trying to get operatives into the US, and to radicalize American Muslims (as noted previously).

Fact: During the Cold War, the US denied entry to those whose ideology was thought to threaten the US. In some cases, ideology was a sufficient reason to deny entry; the person did not have to give evidence of being a direct threat.

Inference from these last four facts: It would be consistent with past US policy for this country to exclude from entry those whose ideology is contrary to basic American values. This would not and should not result in all followers of any religion being excluded. But the government could institute ideological tests for entry into the US. Note: This inference still leaves open the question whether such ideological tests are wise and, if so, how they should be implemented.  Would they be effective in making the US safer? Would they advance American interests here and around the world? The answers aren’t clear. But this country should have a reasoned debate about the issue, rather than the hurling of invective back and forth that has characterized the last week.

Those facts and inferences concern public policy. But how should Christians act in our churches and in our individual lives? How does Scripture guide us?

First, we have a clear mandate to disciple all nations (Matthew 28:18-20). The knowledge of God’s glory will indeed fill the earth as the waters cover the sea (Habakkuk 2:14). And He will accomplish that through us, through His people, as we go out and speak of Him among the nations who have not seen His glory, and they in turn go out with the same message, so that all flesh will worship before Him (Isaiah 66:18-23).

Second, this mandate obviously extends to Muslim peoples, here in the US and around the world.

Third, I am to love my neighbor as myself – indeed, I am even to love my enemy (Matthew 22:39, 5:43-48).

At this point in history, a large percentage of the people groups still unreached with the Gospel are Muslim. As we complete the missionary task God has given His church, much of our work will be with Muslims.

So what can you do? Here are suggestions:

First: Visit your Muslim neighbors. Ask them to tell you about their beliefs, and then tell them part of the Christmas story. Tell them you’re happy they are your neighbor and apologize for any sense of fear they may have because of the political gamesmanship going on. Look for a chance to tell them a summary of the story of the Bible. Always be a genuine friend. In my experience, most Muslim immigrants will be delighted to invite you in, and may well treat you more hospitably than your neighbors who grew up in this country.

Second: Consider visiting a mosque. Such a visit is no more dangerous than visiting Wal-Mart. Meet people; make friends. If you want to visit a mosque together with others, let us know.

Third: Don’t get caught up in the political grandstanding. Read from Christians thinking biblically about this issue, including the Zwemer Center at Columbia International University and the Ethics and Religious Liberty Commission.

Finally and most importantly: Pray. Pray for those we support in southeast Asia who are working with Muslims. Pray for those we support in India, who want to have more effective outreach to Muslims. Pray for Muslims in this country and around the world.

More Muslims have come to faith in Jesus Christ in the last two decades than in all prior history. God is working in the Muslim world – and He is even using radicalized Islam to open eyes to the Gospel. So pray – and ask that God might use you also in being a witness to the grace of Jesus Christ to those who need to hear.

 

 

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