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Monday, December 28, 2009

Repentance Must Keep Pace

“With every increase of mercy you receive from God there will be an accompanying increase of responsibility. . . . As you grow in grace and in the knowledge of the Lord Jesus Christ and receive more and more of His mercies with each passing day, your repentance must keep pace. Any failure here is an open demonstration of a lack of love and appreciation for the boundless mercies of our Lord Jesus Christ. Tragic is the case of any individual whose repentance does not increase with the gifts and graces of God he daily receives.”

Richard Owen Roberts, Repentance: The First Word of the Gospel, 297

Tuesday, December 22, 2009

Worshiping the King: Bethlehem's Line in the Sand

Some 2,000 years after His birth, Jesus Christ still remains the most divisive figure in human history.  The testimony of the Gospel writers clearly shows this. 

 "If anyone comes to me and does not hate his own father and mother and wife and children and brothers and sisters, yes, and even his own life, he cannot be my disciple.” (Luke 14:26)

When they heard these words, some of the people said, "This really is the Prophet." Others said, "This is the Christ." But some said, "Is the Christ to come from Galilee? Has not the Scripture said that the Christ comes from the offspring of David, and comes from Bethlehem, the village where David was?"  So there was a division among the people over him. (John 7:40-43)

Some of the Pharisees said, "This man is not from God, for he does not keep the Sabbath." But others said, "How can a man who is a sinner do such signs?" And there was a division among them. (John 9:16)

Those who are confronted with the truth of Jesus Christ are forced to make a choice.  There are only two options – believe or reject, love or hate, worship or ignore.  Everyday all over the world people are making that choice.  And interestingly, Christmas, a time when Christ seemingly gets more attention than at any other time of the year, is a time when we can see most clearly this choice being made.  There are those who want nothing to do with Christmas, who are offended by the greeting, “Merry Christmas.”  Then there are those who embrace the holiday, enjoying the festive season of the year…while silently denying the reason for Christmas and refusing to worship the baby.  Then there are those who celebrate Christmas as an act of worship.  And while outwardly those appear to be three different groups, the Bible would present them as two – those who believe, love, and worship Him and those who don’t. 

Matthew’s account of the wise men coming to visit the Messiah shows just this kind of division in humanity.  Herod is the central character in Matthew 2:1-18.  For this reason, his choice about how to respond to the birth of Jesus is portrayed in the most detail.  Herod was appointed king of the Jews by Rome.  In v2, he received word of a baby born king of the Jews.  V3, When Herod the king heard this, he was troubled. 

Herod the Great could go down as one of the most paranoid rulers of all time.  He imagined conspiracies under every rock in Jerusalem, and was so zealous to retain his power that over the years he executed his wife, several sons, and a number of other relatives.  So it is no surprise that Herod would do what he did, which was to seek to kill the baby born the King of the Jews. 

The first couple of steps in his plan are very telling.  First, he gathered all the chief priests and scribes and asked them where the Christ was to be born (v4).  What is so significant about this?  Herod believed that the baby of whom the wise men spoke was the Christ.  That was why he asked for the chief priests and scribes – they were experts in the Hebrew Scriptures and he knew that they would know the details of the prophecies of the Messiah.  And he was right.  They did know.  They told him that the Christ was to be born in Bethlehem of Judea.

Next, Herod summoned the wise men and sent them to Bethlehem to find the baby (vv7-8).  Why is that significant?  It shows that Herod believed the Scriptures.  The Scriptures foretold that the baby would be born in Bethlehem, and that is where he sent the wise men.  He sent no one to Bethany.  He sent no one to En-karim or Emmaus or Bethphage.  Herod was so ruthless and paranoid that if he had any doubts about the truth of the Scriptures he would have sent out people to search all over.  But so sure was he that the biblical prophecy was right that he sent them only to Bethlehem.

Later in the chapter, we find even more disturbing evidence of Herod’s belief in the trustworthiness of the Scriptures.  When it became clear to him that the wise men had tricked him and were not coming to tell him the exact location of the child in Bethlehem, he ordered all the male children in Bethlehem two years old and younger to be murdered.  He was so convinced of the veracity of the Word that he was certain if he killed all the young boys there, he could know that the Christ was dead and the threat to his own power was eliminated.

Think about the implications there.  Herod believed that Jesus was the Christ and he believed what God’s Word said about Him.  In the eyes of many in the evangelical church today, those two truths mean that Herod was a Christian, saved from his sins.  But the teaching of this story and the teaching of the Bible as a whole is that an intellectual agreement with certain facts about God is not tantamount to saving faith.  There is another component needed.

What instructions did Herod give the wise men?  Treacherous ones: "Go and search diligently for the child, and when you have found him, bring me word, that I too may come and worship him" (v8).  This was nothing more than a self-serving charade intended to preserve his own power.  Clearly, Herod did not intend to worship the baby, but to kill Him.  He desired to refuse the baby king’s rightful authority over him. 

The counterpoint to Herod’s treachery in this chapter is the earnestness of the wise men.  They came from the east.  Some scholars estimate this trip could have taken months, requiring the wise men to cross some of the most inhospitable territory in the world.  Knowing nothing more than that a king had been born, they came to Jerusalem hoping to find help in locating Him. 

V2 tells us that they came for one reason only, “For we saw his star when it rose and have come to worship him."  This is the necessary component.  This is what Herod lacked.  Like him, the wise men also believed that the baby was the Christ (v2) and that the Scriptures were true in their prediction about Bethlehem as His birthplace (v8).  But unlike Herod, they left everything and worshiped Him.  They bowed to His authority: They rejoiced exceedingly with great joy.  And going into the house they saw the child with Mary his mother, and they fell down and worshiped him. Then, opening their treasures, they offered him gifts, gold and frankincense and myrrh (vv10b-11).

Many people will celebrate Christmas this week, believing in the historicity of the birth of Jesus in Bethlehem and even believing that He was the Christ, and yet they will be no more saved than was Herod.  They will refuse the rightful authority that the baby holds over their lives.  They may claim to be His followers, but they deny Him in that they refuse to recognize the line that He draws in the sand.  They will not forsake all and follow Him.

We have a Savior who divides the world into two groups – those who love and worship Him and those who don’t.  True saving faith drives us to our knees in submission to the King.  May our actions this week reveal hearts of worship for the Christ.  When He looks down on us this Christmas, may He see a familiar sight – those who have left all and traveled far to worship a baby King.

Tuesday, December 15, 2009

Who Can Make Good People?

I’ve just read a thought-provoking article entitled “Have We Stopped Trying to Make Good People?”, written by syndicated columnist Dennis Prager.  It reminded me once again why it is so important to try to be as biblical as possible in our understanding of man, his biggest problem, and the only hope for a solution. 
Prager offers in his opening line, “The most important question any society must answer is: How will we make good people?”  He says that the question is one addressed by the American Judeo-Christian values that emphasize individual character: 
One cannot make a good society if one does not begin with the arduous task of making good individuals. Both Judaism and Christianity begin with the premise that man is not basically good and therefore regard man's nature as the root of cause of evil.

This may sound basic and even obvious, but it is not. In the Western world since the Enlightenment, belief in the inherent goodness of human beings has taken over. This has resulted in an increasing neglect of character development because evil has come to be regarded not as emanating from human nature (which is essentially good) or from morally flawed individuals but from forces outside the individual -- especially material ones. Thus, vast numbers of the best educated in the West have come to believe that "poverty causes crime."

Prager’s assessment about the root of evil is right.  A proper understanding of the root cause of evil is essential.  The past several decades have seen the collective conscience of the country engage in wholesale blame-shifting.  The author is correct to identify this shift as a movement away from Judeo-Christian values.  At the heart of the question about the source of all human suffering and evil is the issue of the root nature of man.  If we view man as inherently fallen and sinful (as taught in the Bible), then we will view social ills as the result, not the cause, of evil.  If, on the other hand, we embrace the pagan notion that man is inherently good, then we are forced to regard social ills as the cause of evil - i.e. people commit crime because they are poor.  The former holds the individual responsible; the latter absolves the individual of responsibility and assigns blame to something external. 

For example, a Judeo-Christian ethic might view violent crime as an issue of self-control, while a more humanistic ethic would regard it as an issue of gun control.   One side sees the individual as the evil element, the other side sees the availability of guns as the evil element.  The contrast is stark, and Prager is right to recognize the difference as a matter of the embrace or rejection of a Judeo-Christian worldview.

Where Prager misses the mark, though, is in that opening line: “The most important question any society must answer is: How will we make good people?”  There is a logical misstep in believing that man is not basically good, but that man can make good people.  If man’s nature is fallen, how is it that he can act upon himself or upon another man to change that?  Can the Ethiopian change his skin or the leopard his spots? Then also you can do good who are accustomed to do evil (Jer 13:23). 

In the end, Prager’s notion about making good people is as flawed as the humanistic worldview that he assails.  He rejects the idea that evil can be dealt with by some kind of external change, i.e. a war on poverty; but his own solution amounts to the same thing, a kind of external change, albeit in the area of individual behavior.

Those of you who were in Sunday School this week will remember Paul Tripp’s excellent illustration, and it certainly applies here.  The idea that a focus on individual character development will solve the nation’s problems is akin to the idea of treating a rotten apple tree by nailing red delicious apples to its branches.  It may look good for a few days, but eventually the red delicious apples will spoil and the following season the tree will go right back to producing rotten apples.

Teaching an outward morality devoid of an inner devotion to and worship of the One True God will always eventually lead any culture back around to the humanistic idea that man is inherently good.  Why is that?  Because man’s problem is what is inside of him, not what is outside of him.  The heart is deceitful above all things, and desperately sick (Jer 17:9).  If a man’s behavior is changed without any accompanying heart change, his still-fallen heart will eventually deceive him, and his behavior will once again reflect that fallenness.  The current state of morality in America does not represent a breakdown in the teaching of outward morality – it is the very result of the teaching of outward morality.

I would present that the most important question a people can ask is “Who will be our God?”  The only way that people become good is through the sanctifying power of Jesus Christ transforming the heart.  And that only takes place in the lives of those who repent of their sin and trust in Christ’s death and resurrection to save them from that sin.  Should we teach morality?  Certainly.  But unless it is done in concert with the spreading of the gospel, it is a striving after wind.  Christ alone makes good people.  Man can’t.

Thursday, December 10, 2009

Book Recommendation: When People Are Big and God Is Small

There is a specific malady of the soul that all of us suffer from to some degree.  It shows up in the teen who is struggling with peer pressure, wanting to do, say, and wear the right things so as to gain the acceptance of others.  It shows up in church members who are over-committed, having difficulty saying no to any service opportunity.  It’s in the life of the person who hates to speak in public.  It’s in the life of the person struggling with anger and depression.  It shows up in the antics of the gregarious “life-of-the-party” type.  It’s there in the strivings of the super-competitive.  It’s the fuel of the Fortune 500 CEO, and it drives the woman who is desperate for her husband’s attention.  It’s alive in both the conceited and those with “low self-esteem.”

What is it that ties all these things together?  Some may call it “peer pressure.”  Others may call it “people-pleasing.”  The psychological world calls it “co-dependency.”  The Bible refers to it as “the fear of man.” 

“Fear” in the Bible has a much broader range of meaning than simply being afraid or frightened.  It can carry the idea of being in awe of someone, being controlled or mastered by someone, worshiping someone, trusting in someone, or needing someone.  When we “fear” man, we put people in God’s rightful place in our lives.  Instead of our lives being guided by a biblical fear of the Lord, we are guided by fear of people. We allow our behavior to be controlled by our fear of what people will do or think.

So the overcommitted church member takes on more and more responsibilities at church because he is afraid that others will think he isn’t faithful.  Some hate to speak in public because of the fear of saying something stupid and being rejected by everyone.  The outgoing “life-of-the-party” person cracks jokes and tells stories in order to be liked.  The desperate wife does anything she can to gain her husband’s attention because without it she is hopeless.  The fear of man is a universal problem that can absolutely control one’s life. 

In recent years, there have been two main approaches to dealing with this problem. In secular psychology, the sure cure for “codependency” is to love yourself more.  While some in the evangelical world have jumped on that bandwagon, others have proposed that the key to treating codependency is to know that God loves you more than you could possibly imagine.

Ed Welch, in his book When People Are Big and God is Small, rejects both solutions.  He notes the obviously unbiblical nature of the “love yourself more” approach.  Of the evangelical “God loves you” approach, he writes, “It still allows us and our needs to be at the center of the world, and God becomes our psychic errand boy given the task of inflating our self-esteem.”

In order to offer a more biblical approach, Welch takes his readers through the Scriptures, giving a better understanding of the problem as well as the most God-honoring solution.  His book takes a three-pronged approach. First, the author explains the how and why the fear of man.  “To really understand the fear of man, we must begin to ask the right questions.  For example, instead of ‘How can I feel better about myself and not be controlled by what people think?’ a better question is ‘Why am I so concerned about self-esteem?’ or ‘Why do I have to have someone – even Jesus – think that I am great?’”

Second, Welch delves into the Bible’s clear teaching about the solution to the fear of man: “The most radical treatment for the fear of man is the fear of the Lord.  God must be bigger to you than people are.”  In this section, the author not only explains what the fear of the Lord is, but also how to grow in the fear of the Lord.

Third, Welch provides a biblical understanding of how we are to view and relate to the people in our lives.  “Regarding other people, our problem is that we need them (for ourselves) more than we love them (for the glory of God).  The task God sets for us is to need them less and love them more.  Instead of looking for ways to manipulate others, we will ask God what our duty is toward them.”

This book has been very helpful to me personally, and I believe it would be a benefit to you, too.  I truly believe that we all struggle with the fear of man in some form.  This book provides a thoroughly biblical understanding of the problem, as well as the biblical antidote – fearing God and loving people.  I highly recommend it. 

Tuesday, December 8, 2009

Differences in the Genealogies of Christ

We’ve spent a little time over the past couple of Sundays looking at the genealogies of Jesus in the Gospels of Matthew and Luke.  We’ve noted that Matthew begins with Abraham and works his way forward to Jesus, while Luke starts with Jesus and works his way backward to Adam.  Of course, since the two evangelists were making different points with their respective genealogies, it is to be expected that there may be some stylistic or presentational differences.

But if we look more closely, we find other differences that cannot be explained as stylistic, but appear to be more accurately referred to as discrepancies.  Most of these pertain to the generations from David to Jesus.  For example, of the generations from David to Jesus, only two of the names match in the respective genealogies – Shealtiel and Zerubbabel.  Surprisingly, the two Gospels don’t even agree about who Joseph’s father was – Matthew says it was Jacob, Luke says it was Heli!

This is thought by many skeptics to be the silver bullet destroying the notion of inerrancy.  Luke and Matthew cannot both be right, they say.  One must be wrong, and if that is so, the Bible contains factual errors.

Well, there are several ways to account for these discrepancies, all of which are plausible, though a couple stand out.  No matter which is right, together they add more than enough room to stand on in denying the claims of skeptics.  

The first approach has been to argue that Matthew gives Christ’s genealogy through Joseph, while Luke gives the genealogy through Mary.  This view is based largely on Luke 3:23 which refers to Jesus as “being the son (as was supposed) of Joseph.”  Obviously, with a virgin birth there will be no literal human father.  So Luke took Mary’s family line and substituted Jesus’ legal father in the place of Mary, thus showing a typical genealogy, that is, one with all male names.  This was the first explanation I ever heard, and I still think it is a plausible one.

A second approach, which happens to be the oldest, was proposed by Julius Africanus in the 3rd century A.D. (and cited by Eusebius in Ecclesiastical History 1.7). The view holds that Matthew’s genealogy provides Jesus’ physical line and Luke provides His royal line.  The differences in the genealogies between David and Joseph can be explained by the principle of levirate marriage. 

Levirate marriage is described in Deuteronomy 25:5-6:  "If brothers dwell together, and one of them dies and has no son, the wife of the dead man shall not be married outside the family to a stranger. Her husband's brother shall go in to her and take her as his wife and perform the duty of a husband's brother to her.  And the first son whom she bears shall succeed to the name of his dead brother, that his name may not be blotted out of Israel.  Therefore, the first son born as a result of a levirate marriage was the legal son of the dead brother, while being the literal physical son of the living one.

According to Julius Africanus, Jacob (Matt 1:15) and Heli (Luke 3:23) were “uterine brothers” – born to the same mother by different fathers.  Heli died without an heir.  So Jacob took Heli’s widow in a levirate marriage to raise up a son in his dead brother’s name.  Therefore, Joseph was Jacob’s physical son (Matthew) and Heli’s legal son (Luke).

On problem with this view is that there are two names in Luke’s genealogy between Melchi and Heli – Matthat and Levi.  So the generations do not appear to line up exactly with Julius Africanus’ assessment.  However, this is not a deal breaker since Matthew omits numerous generations from his genealogy.  His repeated wording, “___ was the father of ___” frequently means “was the descendant of”.  Matthew’s intent was not to name every link in the chain, but to simply to show a connection between Abraham and Jesus.  This is why Matthew only shows 27 names between David and Jesus, while Luke shows 40.  With this in mind, Julius Africanus’ suggestion is certainly plausible. 

A third view proposed by historians is that Heli (Luke 3:23) was the father of Mary.  It is supposed that because Heli had no male heirs, Joseph was adopted by Heli through Joseph’s marriage to Mary.  There are occurrences in the Old Testament of the continuation of a family line by such means (Ezra 2:61; Neh 7:63; 1 Chron 2:34-36).  By this view, Luke reflects adoption so that his genealogy shows both physical descent (Adam – Heli) and legal descent (Heli – Joseph). 

While we may never have enough information to come up with a definitive understanding of the differences between the two genealogies, there are enough plausible explanations that we have absolutely no reason to reject the doctrine of inerrancy. 

Wednesday, December 2, 2009

Legalism vs. Justification

In our men's bible study that meets on Tuesday mornings we've been going through the book of Galatians. This great book places Legalism in the cross-hairs of biblical truth. Through our study and discussions I'm reminded of the absolute danger of this counterfeit hope.

Recently I heard a sermon by CJ Mahaney dealing with Legalism and it's assault on Justification. I cannot recommend this sermon highly enough. If you have an hour I exhort you to take the time to listen. You can get it here.

In his sermon, CJ states, "Simply put legalism is substituting your works for His (Christ’s) finished work.” He also defines legalism as the "height of arrogance" and is an effort at "self-atonement".

CJ also poses some questions that really help expose the heart of legalism.

1) Am I more aware of and affected by my past sins than I am the finished work of Christ?

2) Do I live thinking and believing and feeling God is disappointed with me rather than delighting over me?

3) Do I have an undue concern about what others think?

4) Do I lack joy?

5) Do I consistently experience condemnation?

6) Am I more aware of areas I need to grow than I am of the cross of Christ?

These questions leave many of us standing guilty of legalism, but we need to know how to rightly process the indictment.

The remedy to legalism is the cross. Robert Murray McCheyne says, “Take 10 looks at Christ for every one look at yourself.”

Jerry Bridges seeks to explain how God sees us in our sin, and how understanding justification rightly frees us up to grow deeper in Christ.

When we pray to God for blessing, He does not examine our performance to see if we are worthy. Rather, He looks to see if we are trusting in the merit of His Son as our only hope for securing His blessing. Disciplines of Grace, 19

We need to hear the gospel every day of our Christian lives….It is only the joy of hearing the gospel and being reminded that our sins are forgiven in Christ that will keep the demands of discipleship from becoming drudgery. Disciplines of Grace, 21.

Let us stand in the hope of Christ and not in our own hopelessness. He is our hope, strength, and absolute salvation.

Tuesday, November 24, 2009

Thanksgiving - A National Holiday

As we approach Thanksgiving this year, I think it is appropriate to look back to the proclamation by President Abraham Lincoln that established this as a national holiday. Emphasis is mine.

Proclamation Establishing Thanksgiving Day
October 3, 1863

The year that is drawing towards its close, has been filled with the blessings of fruitful fields and healthful skies. To these bounties, which are so constantly enjoyed that we are prone to forget the source from which they come, others have been added, which are of so extraordinary a nature, that they cannot fail to penetrate and soften even the heart which is habitually insensible to the ever watchful providence of Almighty God. In the midst of a civil war of unequalled magnitude and severity, which has sometimes seemed to foreign States to invite and to provoke their aggression, peace has been preserved with all nations, order has been maintained, the laws have been respected and obeyed, and harmony has prevailed everywhere except in the theatre of military conflict; while that theatre has been greatly contracted by the advancing armies and navies of the Union. Needful diversions of wealth and of strength from the fields of peaceful industry to the national defence, have not arrested the plough, the shuttle, or the ship; the axe had enlarged the borders of our settlements, and the mines, as well of iron and coal as of the precious metals, have yielded even more abundantly than heretofore. Population has steadily increased, notwithstanding the waste that has been made in the camp, the siege and the battle-field; and the country, rejoicing in the consciousness of augmented strength and vigor, is permitted to expect continuance of years, with large increase of freedom.

No human counsel hath devised nor hath any mortal hand worked out these great things. They are the gracious gifts of the Most High God, who, while dealing with us in anger for our sins, hath nevertheless remembered mercy.

It has seemed to me fit and proper that they should be solemnly, reverently and gratefully acknowledged as with one heart and voice by the whole American people. I do therefore invite my fellow citizens in every part of the United States, and also those who are at sea and those who are sojourning in foreign lands, to set apart and observe the last Thursday of November next, as a day of Thanksgiving and Praise to our beneficent Father who dwelleth in the Heavens. And I recommend to them that while offering up the ascriptions justly due to Him for such singular deliverances and blessings, they do also, with humble penitence for our national perverseness and disobedience, commend to his tender care all those who have become widows, orphans, mourners or sufferers in the lamentable civil strife in which we are unavoidably engaged, and fervently implore the interposition of the Almighty Hand to heal the wounds of the nation and to restore it as soon as may be consistent with the Divine purposes to the full enjoyment of peace, harmony, tranquillity and Union.

In testimony whereof, I have hereunto set my hand, and caused the seal of the United States to be affixed.

Done at the city of Washington, this third day of October, in the year of our Lord one thousand eight hundred and sixty-three, and of the independence of the United States the eighty-eighth.

Abraham Lincoln

Ephesians 5:20 "giving thanks always and for everything to God the Father in the name of our Lord Jesus Christ"

Friday, November 20, 2009

Book Recommendation: The Difficult Doctrine of the Love of God

In his sermon on “The Uses of the Law” (Gal 3:19), Charles Spurgeon made a poignant comment regarding our tendency toward imbalance in theology: “Generally, when men believe one truth, they carry it so far as to deny another; and very frequently, the assertion of a cardinal truth leads men to generalize on other particulars, and so to make falsehoods out of truth.”
This has never been truer than of the modern church’s view of the love of God.  This attribute is by far the most comfortable, and to some, the most comforting aspect of the divine character.  But it is becoming more apparent all the time that this one attribute has been absolutized in the church so that, by and large, the love of God is assumed to be His most fundamental and defining quality.  It has been sentimentalized to such an extent that it is portrayed outside of the context of His holiness, wrath, sovereignty, etc.  The god who is now preached in many a pulpit, aired on many a broadcast, and sold in many a Christian bookstore is a man-centered, man-serving, man-shaped, only-loving, caricature who in no way resembles the God of the Bible.
How do we know that this only-loving god does not resemble the God of the Bible?  Because when the full counsel of the Word is taught regarding the attributes of God – including His holiness, wrath, self-sufficiency, and absolute sovereignty – He is rejected by the mainstream churchgoer because “that’s not the God I know.”
           When a believer does finally accept these more difficult teachings about God’s character, recognizing their undeniable truth, he or she is many times left wondering what to think about the love of God.  That sentimental, rainbows-and-gumdrops view of God’s love is recognized to be incompatible with what the Bible teaches about the other aspects of His character.  That old definition of love, whether stated or not, includes the concept that God’s highest goal is my highest happiness and comfort.  But the Bible shows that God’s highest goal is His own glory. 
Disillusionment then sets in.  I talked to one such person not long ago.  He said, “I’ve totally accepted the truth that God is sovereign over all things, including evil and the Fall and all that.  I’m just having a hard time seeing how He is loving.  How is He loving?”
Here is an important principle for those who may be in that same place right now: rather than discarding the notion that God is loving, we need to discard that old faulty, error-ridden definition of God’s love, and replace it with a biblical one. 
I praise the Lord for Don Carson.  In his book, The Difficult Doctrine of the Love of God, he addresses this very issue.  The title itself can only be understood by someone who has wrestled with and embraced the other attributes of God that conflict with a sentimentalized understanding of His love.  The love of God is a difficult doctrine, but it is made much more understandable by Carson’s book.
Here is the description on the back cover: “The Difficult Doctrine of the Love of God seeks to restore what we have lost.  In this treatment of many of the Bible’s passages regarding divine love, noted evangelical scholar D. A. Carson not only critiques sentimental ideas such as “God hates the sin and loves the sinner,” but provides a compelling perspective on the nature of God and why He loves as He does.  Carson blends his discourse with discussion of how God’s sovereignty and holiness complete the biblical picture of who He is and how He loves.
“In doing away with trivialities and clich├ęs, this work gets to the heart of this all-important doctrine from an unflinching evangelical perspective.  Yet it does so without losing its personal emphasis: for in understanding more of the comprehensive nature of God’s love as declared in His Word, you will come to understand God and His unending love for you more completely.”
The truth is that the God of the Bible is far more glorious than my former conception of Him and His love.  This book helped me to realize that.  It is essential that in our embrace of the doctrine of God's sovereignty we do not reject the doctrine of God's love, and the key is to arrive at a thoroughly biblical view of God's love.  If you’re struggling with this issue (or if you’re not), this book could be a blessing to you. 

Tuesday, November 17, 2009

Can man be free if God is sovereign? Part 3

(If you are just now joining us in this series on free will and the sovereignty of God, it would be beneficial for you to read the first two posts here and here.)

Can man be free if God is sovereign?  The answer is yes, if we have a biblical definition of freedom.  As you recall, the most common understanding of human freedom, referred to as libertarian freedom, states that I am only free if when I chose"A", I could have chosen "not-A."[1]  I have argued that a more biblical definition is that of compatibilist freedom, which states that I am free when I do what I most want to do.  Compatibilist freedom is the only definition of freedom that accounts for the clearly biblical teaching that God is in meticulous control of all things and that man makes meaningful choices.

Let’s look at a few examples from Scripture.  In my Bible reading just this morning, I read 2 Samuel 17.  This chapter comes in the middle of the account of Absalom’s coup against his father David.  Absalom has entered Jerusalem (after David fled from Jerusalem), and then seeks the counsel of Ahithophel as to how to proceed against David.  Ahithophel gives his advice.  Then Absalom seeks a second opinion from Hushai.  After hearing from Hushai, “Absalom and all the men of Israel said, ‘The counsel of Hushai the Archite is better than the counsel of Ahithophel’” (2 Sam 17:14).

Then comes a crucial editorial comment at the end of v14, For the LORD had ordained to defeat the good counsel of Ahithophel, so that the LORD might bring harm upon Absalom.  The Hebrew literally says “the LORD commanded to break the counsel of Ahithophel.”  In other words, God determined that the counsel of Ahithophel would not be heeded.

Libertarian freedom utterly fails to explain how this can be.  In order for libertarian freedom to be true, Absalom must have been able to not reject the counsel of Ahithophel.  But that is impossible.  Why?  Because God determined that Absalom would reject it.  On the other hand, if we apply compatibilist freedom, everything fits.  Absalom was free when he chose to reject the advice of Ahithophel because that was what he most wanted to do.  God did not force him to do it – Absalom wanted to. 

We find a similar example in 1 Kings 12.  Rehoboam has become the king of Juda and has received conflicting advice about how to treat the people.  The older men advise him to lower the taxes of the people, so that they will serve him faithfully.  The younger men advise him to raise the taxes so as to command their fear of him.  Rehoboam foolishly takes the advice of the younger men.  Why? V15 tells us, So the king did not listen to the people, for it was a turn of affairs brought about by the LORD that he might fulfill his word, which the LORD spoke by Ahijah the Shilonite to Jeroboam the son of Nebat. 

Again, is it possible that Rehoboam had libertarian freedom, that is, that he could have rejected the foolish advice of the younger men and accepted the good advice of the older men?  No, because God determined to bring about the events just as they happened.

We could look at scores of other similar references.  When Israel plundered Egypt in the Exodus (Ex 3:21-22; 11:2-3; 12:35-36), when Assyria waged war against Israel (Isa 10), when Cyrus gave orders for the rebuilding of the temple (Isa 44:28-45:14; 2 Chr 36:22-Ezra 1:11), when Judas betrayed Jesus (Acts 1:16-17), and when the Jews and Gentiles crucified Him (Acts 2:23, 4:23-28), we see men choosing to do what God had already ordained.  They could not have chosen otherwise, yet they were not forced – they did what they most wanted to do, which is the definition of compatibilist freedom.

What about God’s freedom?  Does God have libertarian freedom? When God does good, is He also free to do evil?  No.  Scripture teaches that God can only do good, He cannot sin (1 John 1:5; Jas 1:13; Psa 92:15).  In what sense is He free then? He always does what He most wants to do.  God has compatibilist freedom. 

The main reason people have difficulty with this debate is that they don't want to live with the mystery it creates.  It’s easier to just deny God’s absolute sovereignty.  Even if you accept the definition of compatibilist freedom, there is still the question of how what I most want always coincides with what God has planned.  There will always be an element of mystery here.  But there are some clues in the Word as to how this might work.  

We know that God restrains evil.  When Satan afflicted Job, he could only do those things that God allowed him to do (Job 1-2).  God restrained Satan from inflicting certain calamities on Job.  We also see that Satan needed God’s permission to sift the disciples like wheat (Luke 22:31).  Likewise, the demons needed Jesus’ permission to enter a herd of pigs and drown them (Mat 8:31-32; Luke 8:32-33).  God restrained Abimelech from violating Sarah (Gen 20:2-6).  So it seems evident that there are many evil deeds that the sin nature would do were God not restraining it.  This is evidenced by the fact that Satan afflicted Job in absolutely every way possible within the parameters that God gave him. 

We could think of the sin nature as a raging river and God’s sovereignty like a dam.  He is perfectly capable of restraining the entire river for eternity.  But where a certain act of evil accords with His sovereign plan, He opens a hole in the dam allowing that certain act to take place.  When that act takes place, it is at the same time both what God has ordained and what the sin nature most wants to do.  Every evil act desired by the sin nature that does not coincide with God’s sovereign plan, He restrains.  So God controls evil indirectly by allowing certain evil acts to pass through and restraining others.  He does not cause evil, but He selectively allows the sin nature to do what it already wants to do.

On the other hand, we also find in Scripture that every good thing finds its origin in God (Jas 1:17).  The good things that we do in the process of sanctification come as a result of the good that God is willing and working in us (Phil 2:12-13).  God put it into the heart of Nehemiah to do the work that he did (Neh 7:5).  Jeremiah prophesied a future in which God would cause His people to live righteously (Jer 31:9).  So, it could be said that the good things we do are the result of God giving us the desire for them.  That is why He receives all the glory.  God controls good directly.

In the end, this is a question of whether or not we are going to believe the Bible.  As we have seen repeatedly, the Bible teaches that God is in meticulous control of all things and that man makes meaningful decisions and is held responsible for those decisions.  (The truth of those two things excludes the possibility of libertarian freedom.)  Whether we understand how the two work together or not, we have to acknowledge that both are completely true, if we believe that Bible is the inerrant Word of God.  To deny one or the other is not a viable option without denying the inerrancy of Scripture.

[1]The definitions of both libertarian freedom and compatibilist freedom are taken from Bruce A. Ware, God’s Greater Glory: The Exalted God of Scripture and the Christian Faith (Wheaton: Crossway, 2004).

Sovereignty - an excerpt from "The Rainbow in the Clouds"

The following is an excerpt from a long sermon by John MacDuff, Scottish preacher from the nineteenth century. This is an excellent example of why I prefer to read older works...when a preacher's theology meant something. It is rare to find this kind of insight from today's Christian authors.

"The Lord Reigns." Psalm 93:1
No rainbow of promise in the "dark and cloudy day" shines more radiantly than this. God, my God, the God who gave Jesus, orders all events, and overrules all for my good! "When I," says He, "send clouds over the earth." He has no wish to conceal the hand which shadows for a time earth's brightest prospects. It is He alike who "brings the cloud", who brings us into it, and in mercy leads us through it! His kingdom rules over all. "The lot is cast into the lap, but the whole disposing thereof is of the Lord." He puts the burden on, and keeps it on, and at His own time will remove it!

Beware of brooding over second causes. It is the worst form of atheism! When our most fondly cherished gourds are smitten; our fairest flowers lie withered in our bosom; this is the silencer of all reflections– "The Lord prepared the worm!" When the temple of the soul is smitten with lightning, and its pillars rent: "The Lord is in His holy temple!" Accident, chance, fate, destiny, have no place in the Christian's creed. He is no unpiloted vessel left to the mercy of the storm. "The voice of the Lord is upon the waters!" There is but one explanation of all that befalls him: "I will be dumb, I will open not my mouth, because You did it."

Death seems to the human spectator, the most capricious and severe of all events. But not so. The keys of death and Hades are in the hands of this same reigning God! Look at the parable of the fig-tree. Its prolonged existence, or its doom as a cumberer, forms matter of conversation in heaven; the axe cannot be laid at its root until God gives the warrant! How much more will this be the case regarding every "Tree of Righteousness, the planting of the Lord?" It will be watched over by Him, "Lest anyone hurt it." Every trembling fiber He will care for; and if made early to succumb to the inevitable stroke, "Who knows not in all these things, that the hand of the Lord has wrought this." Be it mine to merge my own will in His; not to cavil at His ways, or to seek to have one jot or tittle of His will altered; but to lie passive in His hands; to take the bitter as well as the sweet, knowing that the bitter cup is mingled by One who loves me too well to add one ingredient that might have been spared!

Who can wonder that the sweet Psalmist of Israel should seek, as he sees it spanning the lower heavens, to fix the arrested gaze of a whole world on the softened tints of this Rainbow of Comfort, "The Lord reigns, let the earth rejoice."

Thursday, November 12, 2009

Selected Psalms: Psalm 12

  1 Save, O LORD, for the godly one is gone; for the faithful have vanished from among the children of man.
 2 Everyone utters lies to his neighbor; with flattering lips and a double heart they speak.
 3 May the LORD cut off all flattering lips, the tongue that makes great boasts,
 4 those who say, "With our tongue we will prevail, our lips are with us; who is master over us?"
 5 "Because the poor are plundered, because the needy groan, I will now arise," says the LORD; "I will place him in the safety for which he longs."
 6 The words of the LORD are pure words, like silver refined in a furnace on the ground, purified seven times.
 7 You, O LORD, will keep them; you will guard us from this generation forever.
 8 On every side the wicked prowl, as vileness is exalted among the children of man.

Psalm 12 is a lament, which is a genre that depicts a person or group of people agonizing over a situation and petitioning God for help.  Laments can be particularly “real” in that they speak so honestly to the heartaches that most of us have felt at certain times in our lives.  Psalm 12 seems very real to me today. 
As in a typical lament, Psalm 12 addresses God and then describes the writer’s distress.  The godly one is gone; for the faithful have vanished from among the children of man.  Of course, this is hyperbole – overstatement for effect.  The purpose is to convey the seeming hopelessness of the situation.  The community is devoid of godly persons, and the righteous are completely alone. 
Our society is looking more and more like that all the time.  Reading the news everyday can give you the sense that the world is becoming more corrupt, more cruel, more godless.  The second verse shows even more clearly the parallel between the psalmist’s culture and our own.  Everyone utters lies to his neighbor; with flattering lips and a double heart they speak.
The perversion and twisting of truth is evident in our culture today on a number of levels.  Who hasn’t been the victim of some kind of fraudulent activity?  It could be dishonest sales tactics at a car dealership.  It could be identity theft.  Internet phishing.  Email viruses. 
Deception is rampant in the public square as well.  So common is it for politicians to break promises and lie, that a great deal of the electorate is completely jaded.  Casting a vote in an election seems to be little more than betting which candidate is least likely to lie about the issues I care about.
When I think of the betrayal of truth, I think about those who deceive, exploit, and abuse children.  With flattering lips, the perpetrators gain the trust of the weak, gain access to the innocent, and ravage the unsuspecting.  You don’t have to read long to find this in the headlines every day.
Then in the one arena where one might expect a greater conviction for integrity – Christianity – there is a growing movement to question whether or not truth is even knowable.  With such a lack of certainty regarding truth, anything goes, and the relativity that once only characterized post-modern secular philosophy now characterizes a large swathe of the Christian landscape.
But the wonderful thing about laments is that they are never pretexts for hopelessness.  Laments always turn to God for help, which is what we should do.  May the Lord cut off all flattering lips, the tongue that makes great boasts, those who say, “With our tongue we will prevail, our lips are with us; who is master over us?”
What is the proper response to a culture characterized by deception, where the devious take advantage of the weak?  To pray that God would put an end to the lying tongues. 
It’s interesting to me how slow we are to pray about such things, and how quick we are to appeal to the governing authorities.  It is as if we re-wrote the words to the old hymn, “My hope is built on nothing less than human courts and due process.”  Not that is it inappropriate to seek earthly justice through the legal process.  But I do think that we betray our own lack of faith when we seek justice and protection from men to the exclusion of seeking it from God. 
We need to be reminded that earthly justice is fickle and in some cases never comes.  Whereas, with God, the day of justice is certain.  "Because the poor are plundered, because the needy groan, I will now arise," says the LORD; "I will place him in the safety for which he longs."  I see three words of comfort here. 
First, God sees the oppression of the weak.  Those who are victims of deception and injustice, who have been victimized in any way, may believe that their suffering remains secret.  But God sees the whole thing.  He knows the truth.  Justice may be slow according to our concept of time, but in the eternal scheme, it is sure and swift.
Second, God hears the groan of the needy.  God has perfect eyes and He has perfect ears.  All cries for help are heard. 
Third, what God sees and hears compels Him to act and protect: I will now arise.  I will place him in the safety for which he longs. 
And in a world where you can trust no one, where you can believe nothing, God’s words can be trusted.  The words of the LORD are pure words, like silver refined in a furnace on the ground, purified seven times.  The world lies.  God tells the truth.  The world is deceptive.  God’s words are pure.
An understanding of that, combined with God’s promise in v5 that He sees the weak, hears the needy, and acts accordingly, leads to the kind of assurance that we see in v7:  You, O LORD, will keep them; you will guard us from this generation forever.
There is one word in v7 that is crucial for us to notice – forever.  God will guard His people, but we may not see that in its full manifestation until we see Him in glory.  We know that there will be suffering for us in this life (2 Cor 4:8-18; 2 Tim 3:12).  But our hope is that one day we will be removed from this place and taken to be with Him (Rom 8:20-39).
The laments of the Psalms always point in hope to God.  Psalm 12 is a great reminder.  Even though we live in deceptive times, God sees, God hears, God promises to act, and His promises are always true.  He will deliver us from this deceptive world.

Tuesday, November 10, 2009

" are a mist..."

I’ve just marked the passing of another year of my life.  I’m not yet to the age where it bothers me to be a year older.  I have however reached the place where each birthday prompts me to recognize that my earthly life will not last forever.  Milestone birthdays that used to seem ages away look younger and younger all the time.

I was prompted yesterday to think about the term “midlife.”  The US Census lists “middle age” as including two age categories, both 35 to 44 and 45 to 54.  Other sources peg it between 40 and 65.  In the end, the concept is quite arbitrary.  Although I’ve not yet reached “middle age” by most definitions, it is presumptuous for me to assume that I still have more than half of my life ahead of me.  

James 4:13-15 tells us, Come now, you who say, "Today or tomorrow we will go into such and such a town and spend a year there and trade and make a profit"-- yet you do not know what tomorrow will bring. What is your life? For you are a mist that appears for a little time and then vanishes.  Instead you ought to say, "If the Lord wills, we will live and do this or that."

What if I reached the middle of my life when I was 18 and am now living in my last days?  This is not morbid speculation, but a necessary perspective for all of us.  If we’re not careful, we may not only assume that we have years and years ahead of us, but even worse – we may live like it.  We may end up spending the last days of our lives accumulating and achieving, erroneously planning to minister and love and give in twilight years that will never come. 

The proper response to an awareness of the fleeting nature of life is not to cast off all restraint and go check off entries on some “Bucket List.”  James 4 calls us to continue to be responsible and plan for the future.  It would be poor stewardship to do otherwise.  But in our planning for the future, we must realize that our lives are in God’s hands and the end could be very near.  As a believer, the awareness that my life is a mist should prompt me to live a far more prioritized life right now, not focusing on selfish exploits, but pouring myself out selflessly into the things that have eternal import.  Some backburner things should be moved to the front, and vice-versa. 

I don’t know about you, but as I look back at how I’ve spent my life so far, I see much wasted time and many wasted opportunities.  I should have pursued the Lord harder and more consistently.  I should have loved more deeply.  I should have shared more freely.  I suspect I’m not alone.

Past failures should be confessed.  There should be repentance and the seeking of forgiveness.  Praise the Lord we serve a God who always stands ready to forgive. 

From today on, faithful stewardship requires that I not dwell on failures He has already covered, but that I press on toward the prize.  Faithful stewardship requires that I spend every day of the rest of my life realizing what a gift it is and how fleeting it is.  Faithful stewardship requires that I wring out every moment I have left in service, love, and giving to the Lord and those around me. 

No matter when each of us are taken home, may the Lord find us doing just that.

Saturday, November 7, 2009

Book Recommendation: Trusting God Even When Life Hurts

We’ve been spending some time in Sunday School talking about the issue of God’s sovereignty.  Coming to the realization that nothing takes place outside of God’s sovereign will inevitably bring us to question why certain bad things happen to us and to those we love.  Enduring trials in our lives is difficult enough, but it can be even more difficult to understand the reason for those trials. 

If God loves me and He is in absolute control of all things, why does pain, heartbreak, and tragedy befall me?  How can I trust Him in the midst of these things?  How can I know that God loves me when He allows such trials to happen to me?

These are the questions addressed by Jerry Bridges in his book, Trusting God Even When Life HurtsBridges is no stranger to grief.  When he was fourteen years old, his mother died suddenly.  He was in the next room and rushed in just in time to see her last gasp for air.  His brother was away at school and his dad was too grief stricken to help him make sense of it all.  He felt completely alone in that adversity.  In 1988, Jerry’s first wife, Eleanor, died of non-Hodgkins’ lymphoma, only three weeks after their 25th wedding anniversary.

So Bridges does not write from a theoretical point of view.  In an effort to strengthen his own trust in God, he began a broad Bible study on the issue of God’s sovereignty over the lives of His people.  The study helped him immensely and eventually moved him to write Trusting God.

Bridges has this to say in book’s preface: “This book, then, was born out of the results of addressing needs in my own life, and realizing that many other believers have similar questions and doubts.  It is written from the perspective of a brother and companion to all those who are tempted at times to ask, ‘Can I really trust God.?’

“The purpose of this book is twofold: First, I desire to glorify God by acknowledging His sovereignty and His goodness.  Second, I desire to encourage God’s people by demonstrating from Scripture that God is in control of their lives, that He does indeed love them, and that He works out all the circumstances of their lives for their ultimate good.”

Having read the book myself, I can heartily say that Jerry Bridges succeeds wonderfully in accomplishing those two purposes.  The book is biblical, God-honoring, and encouraging.

The first two chapters deal with the questions, “can you trust God?” and “Is God in control?”  These chapters are not cold theology, but purely pastoral and absolutely honest in recognizing the difficulties that these questions pose.  The rest of the first half of the book is dedicated to establishing from Scripture that God is sovereign over all things, including individual lives, nations, and nature.  This section is rounded out with a very helpful discussion of how we are to understand the relationship between God’s sovereignty and our responsibility.

The second half of the book wrestles with the heart struggles that can come from recognizing the fact that God is in control.  I believe this part of the book will be particularly helpful for those who have accepted the doctrine of God’s sovereignty long ago, but who have since been struggling with how to see God as a loving God in light of it.  Bridges has made sense of this for me, and I know that his insight could be a comfort to you as well.

I have read a number of books on the subject of God’s sovereignty and human suffering, but none that goes as far as this one does in addressing the hard questions that seem to come so naturally in times of trials.  God is sovereign.  God is wise.  God is loving.  God can be trusted.  If you or someone you know are enduring a difficult time right now, or if you are simply wrestling with the issue of God’s sovereignty, this book would be my first recommendation. 

Thursday, November 5, 2009

Planned Parenthood obscuring the truth

You may have read the story in the last couple of days about the Planned Parenthood clinic director in Bryan, Texas who quit her job after watching an abortion take place on an ultrasound monitor.  The former director said she had become uncomfortable with the fact that the organization was pushing workers to increase abortion numbers.  She has now joined a pro-life group in praying outside the location of her former employer.

Planned Parenthood has moved into damage control mode, winning a temporary restraining order against her and the pro-life group.  A company spokesperson commented, "Planned Parenthood's focus is on prevention.  Nationwide, more than 90% of the health care Planned Parenthood affiliates provide is preventive in nature... A core component of the organization's mission is to help women plan healthy pregnancies and prevent unintended pregnancies." 

Whether or not this statement is accurate, the fact remains that Planned Parenthood does only one adoption referral for every 120 abortions done in its clinics.  If the organization claims to be predominantly focused on “prevention,” its numbers seem to be going in the wrong direction – the total number of abortions performed in Planned Parenthood clinics per year increased from 168,509 in 1998 to 305,310 in 2007.[1]  Every year, it refers to other facilities almost as many abortions as it does in its own clinics.[2]
“Prevention” is indeed the name of the game, but the question is “prevention of what?”  Planned Parenthood is nothing if not a political organization with a liberal agenda.  Political organizations need funds.  There is no money to be made in preventing pregnancies, but there is much money to be made in preventing births.  The organization brought in $374.7 million in “Health Center Income” for the year ended June 30, 2008.  That’s even more than it received in government grants.  (Consider the monumental conflict of interest in giving government grants for the purpose of preventing pregnancies to an organization that makes the bulk of its income from terminating pregnancies.)  It’s obvious that fewer abortions means reduced income, which means a decrescendo in the volume of the organization’s liberal agenda.  Planned Parenthood has nothing to gain and everything to lose by preventing pregnancies.
So it’s no wonder that the organization is doing what it can to mute the truth spoken by this former clinic director.  It’s also no wonder that this director had worked for Planned Parenthood for 8 years before ever seeing an abortion take place.  The organization profits from ignorance about the different abortion procedures.  The organization’s website speaks about the procedures in such mild terms that it's not clear at all that what is being described is in fact an abortion.  In the entire description of the two most common abortion types, the baby in the womb is referred to only once, and that reference is to “tissue.”  The most graphic language on the site? “In later second-trimester procedures, you may also need a shot through your abdomen to make sure there is fetal demise before the procedure begins.”  Fetal demise?  Why such sterile language?  Because calling it what it is may result in the mother having second thoughts.  The truth would damage the bottom-line.

This is precisely why Planned Parenthood does not want their workers (or expectant mothers) to see ultrasound images of the baby in the womb or of an abortion taking place.  It’s bad for business. 
It is becoming more and more common for pro-life crisis pregnancy centers to offer free ultrasounds.  The motive is to tell the mother the truth – that what is in her womb is not a clump of “tissue”, but a baby with fingers and toes.  When presented with this truth, it is not at all uncommon for the mother to choose to give birth to the child rather than have an abortion.  Of course, Planned Parenthood deplores this practice, warning on its website, “Beware of so-called ‘crisis pregnancy centers.’ These are fake clinics run by people who are anti-abortion. They have a history of giving women wrong, biased information to scare them into not having abortions.” 
A free ultrasound is “wrong, biased information”?  If Planned Parenthood is so interested in providing women with the full, accurate truth regarding pregnancy, it seems that an ultrasound would be an obvious tool?  But Planned Parenthood understands that giving mothers full disclosure of this kind will result in a drop in the organization’s income.  In the end, Planned Parenthood does whatever possible to obscure the true nature of abortion. 
This is also why the organization downplays the emotional effects that may result from having an abortion.  On a page of the website entitled, “If I have an abortion, how will I feel afterward?”, this is the conclusion: “Ultimately, most women feel relief after an abortion.”  I assure you that those who have counseled women who have had an abortion will tell you that this is a categorical lie.  There may be those out there whose consciences are so seared that they do feel relief after having an abortion, but they are in the vast minority.  So why would Planned Parenthood propagate such a falsehood?  Because the truth does not achieve their goal.
For an organization like Planned Parenthood to claim that its highest aim is to prevent unwanted pregnancies is ludicrous.  Unless this former director is one-of-a-kind, even the organization's own workers know this is not the case.
What’s interesting is that the former director, in describing her change of mind, said, "I would say there was a definite conversion in my heart ... a spiritual conversion."  I pray that she is referring to a literal conversion to Christianity.  But whether she is or not, this makes a significant point.  As the pro-abortion lobby thrives in a truth-deprived environment, so the pro-life cause benefits from the truth.  And the greatest force of truth at our disposal with which to combat the depravity of our culture is the gospel.  An intellectual argument for the pro-life position may win a few people to our side, and free ultrasounds may dissuade some mothers from having an abortion, but these can never be substituted for the proclamation of the gospel, which not only changes minds, but changes entire beings from the inside out. 
The evil of abortion benefits from the scarcity of truth.  When we hear stories like this one, we should be encouraged by such a triumph of truth.  We should also be emboldened to speak the truth about what abortion is, about what the abortion lobby is actually pursuing, and most importantly, about the only Savior who can redeem such a fallen world. 


Friday, October 30, 2009

Can man be free if God is sovereign? Part 2

As we continue to try to understand what the Bible teaches regarding human free will as it relates to God’s sovereignty, I’d like to pick up right where we left off.  Remember that last time we were introduced to the more popular conception of human freedom, referred to by theologians and philosophers as “libertarian freedom”.  Libertarian freedom states that I am only free if when I choose “A”, I am equally able to choose “not A”.  (For this reason, libertarian freedom is also referred to as “freedom of contrary choice.”)  We began to look at biblical reasons to reject that definition and I’d like to continue that discussion today.  But before we do, let me give the definition of “compatibilist freedom,” which I believe to be the more biblical concept of human freedom.
Compatibilist freedom states that I am free when I do what I most want to do.  Simple.  The difference between compatibilism and libertarianism is that compatibilism does not insist on a theoretically possible contrary choice in order for an act to have been freely chosen.  Compatibilism considers any act free that came as a result of one’s strongest inclination.
That being said, let’s turn our attention back to libertarian freedom. There is a serious logical problem with insisting that a contrary choice must have been equally possible in order for an act to be freely chosen.  According the definition of libertarian freedom, in order for me to have a genuine choice, the factors that led me to choose option-A must be the same as the factors that might have led me to choose option-B.  If these factors were not identical, then the factors for choosing one caused me to favor that option over the other.  That would mean that I was not equally able to choose either option, but was influenced to choose one over the other.  Therefore, in order for the choice to be completely free, all the factors leading to option-A, must be identical to the factors leading to option-B. 
Let me give you an example.  I had McDonalds for lunch.  (Don’t judge me.)  According to libertarian freedom, in order for my choice to have McDonalds to be a free choice, I must have had the equal opportunity to choose something else, like Subway, Burger King, etc.  But for those other choices to have been equal options, every reason I had for going to McDonalds would have to be the identical reasons for going to Subway, Burger King, etc.  Otherwise, I would have been influenced to choose McDonalds over those other places, which according to libertarian freedom, would mean that my choice wasn’t completely free.  The choices must be equal in order for there to be freedom.
You may have already started to see the problem with this.  Other than the fact that common sense and life experience tell us that the factors for choosing one option are rarely if ever equal to the factors for choosing differently, libertarian freedom fails to provide any explanation at all for why a person chooses a certain option.  If the factors for choosing option-A are identical to the factors for choosing option-B, there is no explanation for choosing one over the other.  That is why some conservative theologians refer to libertarian freedom as the “freedom of indifference.”  Further, if you dig deeper, even with someone who believes in libertarian freedom, and ask him why he chose option-A over option-B, he will say, “I wanted to,” which is actually the definition of compatibilist freedom.
The factors influencing me to choose McDonalds today simply were not identical to the factors influencing me to choose some other place.  First, McDonalds was in a location that allowed me easy access to Cox Road, where I work.  All the restaurants on the south side of Tylersville were excluded, since it is difficult even to turn right onto Tylersville out of their parking lots during the busy lunch hour.  Second, it was almost noon, which is the busiest time to try to get food anywhere – of those restaurants on the north side of Tylersville, McDonalds had the shortest line at the drive thru.  Third, it sounded better than anything else.  All of those factors influenced me to go to McDonalds.  All of the possible options were not equal to me.  The factors for choosing McDonalds were more persuasive than the factors for choosing something else.  In the end, the reason I went to McDonalds is because at that moment with the given circumstances, it was my strongest inclination. Was I forced to go to McDonalds?  No, I wanted to.

If libertarian freedom was true, there would be no reason for my choosing McDonalds over anything else and I would most likely still be sitting in my car trying to make up my mind.  Libertarian freedom makes no sense logically.
Now lets see if it makes sense Scripturally.  Those who believe in libertarian freedom do so, not only because they view it as the only basis of true free choice, but also because without it, in their view, there is no basis for holding a person accountable for his actions.  In other words, it is unjust to punish a person who committed a sin when he did not have the realistic option of doing otherwise. 
One of the first noted libertarians was a 4th century monk named Pelagius.  Pelagius looked at the Bible and saw all the commandments of God and the accompanying punishments for disobeying those commandments.  Since Pelagius believed in libertarian freedom, he surmised that it would be unjust for God to punish people for disobeying commands that they were unable to obey.  Therefore, he deduced that man must be equally capable of obeying or disobeying God’s commands.
As the early church rightly responded, this is impossible in light of the teaching of Scripture.  We know that the law was not intended to demonstrate man’s ability to keep it.  The opposite is true:
(Rom 3:20 For by works of the law no human being will be justified in his sight, since through the law comes knowledge of sin.
Further, as Paul writes in Gal 3:21-24, if man was capable of keeping the law, there would be no need for faith.  But the law was not intended to justify man.  Its purpose was to show us our sin and therefore our need for a Savior:
Gal 3:21 For if a law had been given that could give life, then righteousness would indeed be by the law.  22 But the Scripture imprisoned everything under sin, so that the promise by faith in Jesus Christ might be given to those who believe.  23 Now before faith came, we were held captive under the law, imprisoned until the coming faith would be revealed.  24 So then, the law was our guardian until Christ came, in order that we might be justified by faith.
Our inability to obey was the point of the law.  Prior to salvation, we were slaves of sin (John 8:34, Rom 6:17).  We were dead in our trespasses and sins (Eph 2:1-3).  So it cannot be said that a person has libertarian freedom, since in his natural state he cannot but sin, and yet Scripture clearly teaches that those who sin are the objects of God’s wrath (John 3:18, 3:36; Rom 5:9-10; Eph 2:3).
How then is God just in condemning us?  Because we have compatibilist freedom – each and every time we sin, we do so because it is what we most want to do.
Hang in there. I know these are difficult concepts to understand.  But whether we all understand it or not, my goal is simply to establish that there is no contradiction between God’s meticulous sovereignty on the one hand and human freedom on the other – provided we have a biblically accurate definition of freedom.
Next, we’ll continue with our biblical argument, but in the meantime, consider whether or not God Himself has libertarian freedom.  What does the Bible have to say about that?