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Wednesday, December 21, 2011

Dealing with the Problem of Evil, Pt 4

(Previous posts in this series: part 1, part 2, part 3)
In the past few weeks we have been looking at the problem of evil.  The problem of evil refers to a common objection to belief in God.  To some, there seems to be a logical contradiction between the existence of a good, all-powerful, and all-knowing God and the existence of evil.  If God is good and knows how to prevent evil and has the power to prevent evil, why does evil exist?  For some, the existence of evil represents an impassible barrier to belief in God.
Our first task in dealing with this problem was to determine whether or not the Bible teaches that God is good, all-knowing, and all-powerful, and if so, whether or not these truths are essential to the Christian faith.  If any one of these three attributes are not true of God, the problem of evil goes away.  But we found that not only does the Bible clearly teach that God is all three of these things, but also that without any one of the three, the Christian faith is destroyed.  It is the teaching of the Bible that the goodness, omniscience, and omnipotence of God are essential truths of our faith.  We cannot deal with the problem of evil by sacrificing one of these attributes.
So what next?  A very simple method is to just show that the problem does not actually exist.  This post and the next will focus on the fact that both the Bible and logic tell us that there is no such problem, that is, that there is no contradiction between the existence of the God of the Bible and the existence of evil.  Of course, that doesn’t make the emotional tension go away all together, and future posts in this series will deal with popular but biblically faulty approaches to dealing with the problem of evil, as well as how to understand the providence of God as it relates to the existence of evil in the world. 
First of all, the most simple way to deal with the problem of evil is to note that the Bible does not recognize the co-existence of a good, omniscient, and omnipotent God and evil as a problem.  Perhaps that statement should be qualified somewhat.  The Bible does recognize that man has a problem it, but also affirms that God has no such problem.  In other words, the Bible notes that man may not understand how and why God allows evil, but the Bible also notes that God does not feel obligated to explain himself on the issue.
The story of Job is a prime example of this tension.  As you may know, the book of Job begins with an assessment of Job’s righteousness: “that man was blameless and upright, one who feared God and turned away from evil” (1:1).  The Lord then called Satan’s attention to Job: “Have you considered my servant Job, that there is none like him on the earth, a blameless and upright man, who fears God and turns away from evil?” (1:8) Satan replies that the only reason Job is upright is because God has blessed him.  “But stretch out your hand and touch all that he has, and he will curse you to your face” (1:11).  So God gives Satan permission to take away everything dear to Job, and eventually gives him permission to take Job’s health as well (1:12; 2:4-6).  Satan does so.
Most of the rest of the book details Job and his friends trying to make sense of the suffering that has befallen him.  Job’s friends insist that if evil has come upon Job, it must be because of some evil found in him – it must be God’s punishment.  Job denies this possibility, arguing that he has lived a morally upright life.  Job’s “final argument” is in chs29-31, in which he makes a case for his own righteousness, laments the suffering he has experienced, and appeals to God for an explanation.
In the next section (chs32-37), a young man named Elihu comes and chastises both Job and his friends for their approach to the question.  Finally, the Lord Himself addresses Job in chs38-41.  His response could be summed up in one question: “who do you think you are to question the Almighty?” 
The book ends with Job repenting of his presumptuousness and God blessing him beyond his original state.  In the end, Job does not get his question answered.  He does not learn why a good and just God allowed such intense evil to befall him.  The message seems to be that God is sovereign and all-knowing and good…and owes no explanation to man for the things that He does and allows.
It is fine to ask God questions.  It is quite another thing to demand answers and to act as if God is bound to give them.  There are areas of mystery that we cannot understand, but we must trust that the Bible is true and that God is who He says He is.  What we do know is clear: Scripture consistently denies that God is in any way responsible for evil.  1 John 1:5 tells us that “God is light and in Him is no darkness at all.”  We have already noted in this series that James 1:13 affirms that “God cannot be tempted with evil, and he himself tempts no one.”  Nevertheless, evil exists.  The Bible teaches both truths side by side and we are bound to believe them both.  In our finite human minds, we may not be able to reconcile the two, but the Bible does not recognize the problem of evil as a true problem. 
It is important to understand this as we begin to look at how to understand these issues.  We must start where Job ended – humbly acknowledging that our understanding is limited, our God is inscrutable, and no matter how far we progress in making sense of the issue at hand, God is worthy of our worship and love.
Oh, the depth of the riches and wisdom and knowledge of God!  How unsearchable are his judgments and how inscrutable his ways!  For who has known the mind of the Lord, or who has been his counselor?  Or who has given a gift to him that he might be repaid?  For from him and through him and to him are all things. To him be glory forever. Amen.  (Rom 11:33-36) 
Posted by Greg Birdwell

Thursday, December 8, 2011

Dealing with the Problem of Evil, Pt 3

(To read the first two posts in this series, click here and here.)
A couple of weeks ago, we started to look at how to deal with one of the most common and most serious objections to the Christian faith, the problem of evil.  The objection proposes that the existence of evil in the world is incompatible with the existence of a good, omniscient, omnipotent God.  The problem of evil could be formally stated as follows:
“If God is good and loves all people, it is reasonable to believe that he wants to deliver the creatures he loves from evil and suffering.
If God is all-knowing, it is reasonable to believe that he knows how to deliver his creatures from evil and suffering.
If God is all-powerful, it is reasonable to believe to he is able to deliver his creatures from evil and suffering. 
…But evil exists.”[1]
Some then conclude that since evil exists, the God of the Bible – a good, all-knowing, and all-powerful God – cannot exist.
In past posts, we have discovered that the first two of those attributes of God – goodness and omniscience – are essential to the Christian faith.  Not only does the Bible teach that God is good and all-knowing, but also that if we lose those attributes, Christianity is gone.  Today, we will look at the last of the three attributes, omnipotence.  Does the Bible teaching that God is all-powerful?  If so, is that attribute essential to the Christian faith?
It is the consistent testimony of Scripture that God is all-powerful.  Twice in Scripture the rhetorical question is asked, “Is anything too difficult for the Lord?”, implying, of course, a negative answer (Gen 18:14; Jer 32:27).  In one of those contexts, Jeremiah makes the explicit statement, “nothing is too difficult for You” (Jer 32:17). 
In Luke 1:37, when the angel tells Mary that she will conceive a Son by the Holy Spirit and that her elderly and formerly barren relative, Elizabeth, will also bear a son, the angel concludes by saying, “For nothing will be impossible with God.”  In Job 42:2, Job says to the Lord, "I know that you can do all things, and that no purpose of yours can be thwarted.”  Paul writes in Eph 3:20 that God is able to do far more abundantly than all that we ask or think. 
God’s power is also demonstrated in His acts of creating and sustaining the universe.  Men hold the power to destroy, but only God has the power to create something out of nothing.  And He did so with nothing more than the sound of His voice (Gen 1).  Further, He maintains the existence of all things by the word of His power (Heb 1:3). 
So God is all-powerful but we have to be careful how we define omnipotence.  We cannot say that omnipotence means that God is able to do absolutely anything.  There are a couple of categories of things that God cannot do.  First, God cannot do logically impossible actions.  For example, can God make two mountains without a valley in between?  Of course, not – it is not logically possible.  Thomas Aquinas called such acts “pseudotasks.”  A logically impossible task is not an task.[2] That God cannot do such things does not count against His omnipotence.
(While we’re here, I’d like to address another popular objection to God’s omnipotence: “Can God make a rock so big that He cannot lift it?”  This ends up being a pseudotask, too.  God’s power to create is infinite.  His power to lift is also infinite.  It is logically impossible for one infinite power to be greater than another infinite power.  So it is nonsense to ask if God can make a rock so big that He can’t lift it.  Such a question could be asked of a human, though.  Man’s power to build is finite, as is his power to lift.  Two finite powers can be compared to determine which is greater.  But such a question cannot be asked of an infinite being.)
The Bible also teaches that God cannot commit immoral actions.  He cannot tempt or be tempted (Jas 1:13).  He cannot lie (Titus 1:2; Heb 6:18).  He cannot deny Himself (2 Tim 2:13).  So it is clear that it is not accurate to say that God can do anything.  A better definition of omnipotence then is that God is able to do anything that is consistent with His will and character.
With this definition in mind, we can say that the Bible does teach that God is omnipotent.  The next question is, is this attribute of God essential to the Christian faith?  We can answer this by considering all of the things (some of which have already been mentioned) that Scripture attributes to the power of God.
God spoke the world into existence (Gen 1).  God sustains the existence of the world with the word of His power (Heb 1:3).  God gave power to Christ, by which He fulfilled His earthly ministry (Acts 10:38).  It is by God’s power that the gospel saves sinful men (Rom 1:16; 1Cor 1:18).  By God’s power He raised Christ from the dead (2Cor 13:4; Eph 1:20).  By God’s power we will be raised from the dead (1Cor 6:14).  God’s power enables us to suffer for the gospel (2Tim 1:8).  By God’s power we are being kept in the faith (1Pet 1:5).  His divine power has granted to us all things pertaining to salvation and sanctification (2Pet 1:3). 
To limit God’s power is to put all of salvation history in jeopardy.  Christianity cannot exist without an omnipotent God.  This attribute is essential to our faith. 
Now we know that the three attributes of God detailed in the problem of evil – goodness, omniscience, and omnipotence – are clearly taught in the Bible and are essential doctrines of the Christian faith.  So we cannot deal with the problem of evil by denying any one of the three.  We will have to address the issue from another angle.
Until next time, I encourage you to take a few minutes to meditate on the blessings that are ours in Christ by God’s power, as described in 1 Pet 1:3-5.

[1]Ronald Nash, Faith & Reason: Searching for a Rational Faith (Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 1988) p178.
[2]Ibid., 185.
Posted by Greg Birdwell

Tuesday, December 6, 2011

A Couple of Caveats on Peacemaking

Last Sunday, as we studied the seventh beatitude, Blessed are the peacemakers, for they shall be called sons of God.  An important question to consider is this: In our roles as peacemakers, should we pursue peace at all costs?  I think the biblical answer is 'no.'  There are at least two caveats to our mandate to pursue peace.  
The first caveat is demonstrated by what could appear to be a contradiction in the book of Matthew.  On Sunday, we noted that God is our model for peacemaking.  He is the quintessential peacemaker.  Through Christ, He has reconciled us to Himself, and He calls us to be peacemakers by taking His gospel to the lost and by making peace in interpersonal conflicts.
However, in Matthew 10:34-36, Jesus says, "Do not think that I have come to bring peace to the earth. I have not come to bring peace, but a sword.  For I have come to set a man against his father, and a daughter against her mother, and a daughter-in-law against her mother-in-law.  And a person's enemies will be those of his own household…”
Wow.  It sounds like Jesus is doing the exact opposite of what he says a true disciple should do.  It sounds like He believes He came to bring conflict rather than reconciliation.  How do we explain this apparent contradiction? 
As always, context is king.  In Matthew 10, Jesus is preparing to send his disciples out on their own for the first time.  He is warning them about the persecution that awaits them, encouraging them to have no fear.  And in vv32-33, He says, “So everyone who acknowledges me before men, I also will acknowledge before my Father who is in heaven, but whoever denies me before men, I also will deny before my Father who is in heaven.”  Jesus’ desire is for the disciples to maintain their devotion to Him in the face of certain persecution.  If they deny Him, He will deny them. 
Keeping that in mind, now let’s read again vv34-36, but this time continuing through v39:
  34 "Do not think that I have come to bring peace to the earth. I have not come to bring peace, but a sword.
 35 For I have come to set a man against his father, and a daughter against her mother, and a daughter-in-law against her mother-in-law.
 36 And a person's enemies will be those of his own household.
 37 Whoever loves father or mother more than me is not worthy of me, and whoever loves son or daughter more than me is not worthy of me.
 38 And whoever does not take his cross and follow me is not worthy of me.
 39 Whoever finds his life will lose it, and whoever loses his life for my sake will find it.
Now that we have framed Jesus’ statement, “I have not come to bring peace, but a sword,” we can see clearly that Jesus does not mean that He came to just cause random strife and familial disharmony.  The context shows that the subject at hand is the decision that everyone must make – "how serious is my devotion to Christ?"  Jesus explains that for the true disciple that devotion must be ultimate.  vv37-39 can be used to interpret vv34-36.  When Jesus says, “I have come to set a man against his father,” v37 indicates we should understand Him to mean that the true disciple must love Christ more than father or mother.  Discipleship is a line in the sand.  It has been the experience of many throughout the history of the church that the decision to follow Christ has meant being disowned by loved ones.  If put in a situation to have to choose between one’s family or following Christ, the true disciple will choose Christ.  And that decision will mean alienation from family and a lack of peace in one’s closest earthly relationships.
So if we were to try to reconcile the seventh beatitude with this passage in Matthew 10, we could say that the true disciple will pursue peace with all men, but not at the expense of his devotion to Christ.  Christ came to reconcile men to God, but only those who surrender completely to Him.
Another caveat that we should note is that the true disciple will pursue peace with all men, but not at the expense of sound doctrine.  Church history is replete with examples of those who with grand intentions downplayed doctrinal distinctives for the sake of unity, but always with disastrous results. 
It may seem counterintuitive to many, but the Bible teaches that commitment to sound doctrine is not a barrier to peace and unity in the church, but rather is vital to it.  On Sunday, we read a few verses from Ephesians 4:
  1 I therefore, a prisoner for the Lord, urge you to walk in a manner worthy of the calling to which you have been called,
 2 with all humility and gentleness, with patience, bearing with one another in love,
 3 eager to maintain the unity of the Spirit in the bond of peace.
 4 There is one body and one Spirit--just as you were called to the one hope that belongs to your call--
 5 one Lord, one faith, one baptism,
 6 one God and Father of all, who is over all and through all and in all.
This is a clear call to peace and unity in the church.  Based on what we see in many mainline denominations today, we might expect Paul to then go on to write, “and the way to achieve this unity is to not get bent out of shape over doctrine. Doctrine divides.”
But this is nothing like what we actually find in Ephesians 4.  Rather, Paul immediately writes about the function of spiritual gifts in the church, particularly those gifts that major on doctrinal teaching:
  11 And he gave the apostles, the prophets, the evangelists, the shepherds and teachers,
 12 to equip the saints for the work of ministry, for building up the body of Christ,
 13 until we all attain to the unity of the faith and of the knowledge of the Son of God, to mature manhood, to the measure of the stature of the fullness of Christ,
 14 so that we may no longer be children, tossed to and fro by the waves and carried about by every wind of doctrine, by human cunning, by craftiness in deceitful schemes. 
Notice that those tasked with teaching in the body do so for equipping the saints for ministry so that body will become mature in Christ, with the result that they will not be carried about by false doctrine.  In other words, the peace and unity to which we have been called in the church is not accomplished in spite of sound doctrine, but because of it.
We are called to be peacemakers, but we must do so without compromising those things that are essential to our faith, which include total devotion to Christ and sound doctrine.
Posted by Greg Birdwell

Wednesday, November 30, 2011

Dealing with the Problem of Evil, Pt 2

Last time we began to look at how to answer an objection to theistic belief called the problem of evil.  The problem of evil notes the apparent incompatibility of several essential attributes of God and the existence of evil in the world.  The objection could be formally stated as follows:
“If God is good and loves all people, it is reasonable to believe that he wants to deliver the creatures he loves from evil and suffering.
If God is all-knowing, it is reasonable to believe that he knows how to deliver his creatures from evil and suffering.
If God is all-powerful, it is reasonable to believe to he is able to deliver his creatures from evil and suffering. 
…But evil exists.”[1]
Some then conclude that since evil exists, the God of the Bible – a good, all-knowing, and all-powerful God – cannot exist.
Today we will continue looking at those attributes of God – goodness, omniscience, and omnipotence.  Are they essential truths of the Christian faith?  Or can we afford to sacrifice one of them in order to deal with the problem of evil?
Last time, we saw that God’s goodness was an absolute essential.  Without God’s goodness, we have no gospel.  So now, what about omniscience?  We actually need to break that question down into two smaller questions: (1) does the Bible teach it? and (2) is it essential to our faith?
There is no question that the Bible teaches that God is omniscient, that is, that He knows all things actual and possible – past, present, and future.  God knows everything that is actual. Job 37:16 describes God as the one who is “perfect in knowledge.”  1 John 3:20 tells us that He “knows everything.”  He knows every bird (Psa 50:10).  He knows every thought of man (Matt6:7-8; Psa 94:11). 
God also knows everything that is possible.  Matt 11:21-23:  21 "Woe to you, Chorazin! Woe to you, Bethsaida! For if the mighty works done in you had been done in Tyre and Sidon, they would have repented long ago in sackcloth and ashes. 22 But I tell you, it will be more bearable on the day of judgment for Tyre and Sidon than for you. 23 And you, Capernaum, will you be exalted to heaven? You will be brought down to Hades. For if the mighty works done in you had been done in Sodom, it would have remained until this day.  Here Jesus tells what would have been true had circumstances been different.  Consider also 1 Sam 23:11-13 and 2Kings 13:19.
If God knows everything that is actual and possible, that would have to include all things past, present, and future.  However, because of recent debate about God’s knowledge of the future, I’d like to take minute to address that specifically. 
In Isaiah 41:21-23, knowledge of the future is presented as the test of a true God. Speaking to worshipers of false gods, Isaiah writes, Set forth your case, says the LORD; bring your proofs, says the King of Jacob.  Let them bring them, and tell us what is to happen. Tell us the former things, what they are, that we may consider them, that we may know their outcome; or declare to us the things to come.  Tell us what is to come hereafter, that we may know that you are gods; do good, or do harm, that we may be dismayed and terrified.
In Isaiah 46:9-10, the Lord declares that He alone has this ability: …remember the former things of old; for I am God, and there is no other; I am God, and there is none like me, declaring the end from the beginning and from ancient times things not yet done, saying, 'My counsel shall stand, and I will accomplish all my purpose'…
There are nine separate sections of Isaiah 40-48 whose point is essentially the same: the God of Israel is the one true God as evidenced by the fact that He alone knows and declares the future (Isa 41:21-29; 42:8-9;43:8-13; 44:6-8; 44:24-28; 45:20-23; 46:8-11; 48:3-8; 48:14-16). 
Psalm 139 is also a classic text on the foreknowledge of God.  v4: Even before a word is on my tongue, behold, O LORD, you know it altogether.  v16b: In your book were written, every one of them, the days that were formed for me, when as yet there was none of them.  
There is really is no denying that the Bible teaches that God knows all things.  So now the question is, is the omniscience of God an essential truth of the Christian faith?  This question can be answered by referring back to the Isaiah passages above.  If we take Isaiah seriously, we would have to conclude that if God does not know all things, He is not God, since that is the standard that God Himself presents as the difference between true and false deity. 
So in the end, asking the question “is the omniscience of God an essential truth of the Christian faith?” is like asking “is God an essential truth of the Christian faith?”  Without omniscience, God isn’t God.  Without God, there is no Christian faith.  The bottom line is that like the doctrine of the goodness of God, the omniscience of God is an essential doctrine for us.  We simply cannot sacrifice it in order to deal with the problem of evil.
Next time, we’ll consider the omnipotence of God – does the Bible teach it and if so, how important is it?
Between now and then, I would encourage you to take some time to read and meditate on Psalm 139 and consider how intimately essential God’s omniscience is in your life.

[1]Ronald Nash, Faith & Reason: Searching for a Rational Faith (Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 1988) p178.
 Posted by Greg Birdwell

Thursday, November 17, 2011

Dealing with the Problem of Evil

Perhaps the greatest objection to belief in the existence of God is the "problem of evil."  There are a number of essential Christian beliefs about God that seem to many to be incompatible with the existence of evil in the world.  Orthodox Christianity teaches that God is good, all-knowing, and all-powerful.  Some would say that it is impossible for a God like this to exist and for there to be evil in the world.  How do they arrive at that conclusion?  Like this:
“If God is good, it is reasonable to believe that he wants to deliver his creatures from evil and suffering.
If God is all-knowing, it is reasonable to believe that he knows how to deliver his creatures from evil and suffering.
If God is all-powerful, it is reasonable to believe to he is able to deliver his creatures from evil and suffering. 
…But evil exists.”[1]
The existence of evil seems incompatible with a God who is good, omniscient, and omnipotent.  If God exists and allows evil, they argue, he cannot be good, omniscient, and omnipotent.  He could have any two of those three attributes and it would make sense that evil exists; but he could not be all three and allow evil to exist.  We could have a God who wants to deliver his creatures from evil and knows how, but who does not have the power to do so.  Or we could have a God who wants to deliver his creatures from evil and has the power, but doesn’t know how.  Or – most concerning – we could have a God who knows how to deliver his creatures from evil and has the power to do so, but who is not good and does not want to deliver them.  Any of those conceptions of God would be compatible with the existence of evil in the world.  But not a God who is good, omniscient, and omnipotent. 
Many have found it natural to simply take the extra step of saying that the existence of evil makes it unlikely that God exists at all. 
This is not just a philosophical and theological conundrum with which professors busy themselves on a theoretical level.  Though many books have been written on a scholarly level, the problem is painfully real where the rubber meets the road.  4-year-olds die of Leukemia.  Innocent people lose their lives in acts of terrorism.  The weak are victimized and abused by bad men.  Tsunamis, earthquakes, car accidents, serial killings, and suicide bombings testify to a world where evil runs rampant.  We have all experienced it in some way.  We have all seen it with our eyes.  It is real.  No one in his right mind denies the existence of evil.
It is much easier to deny that God is good, all-knowing, or all powerful…or that He exists at all. 
So how are we to make sense of this?  Is this an insurmountable problem?  Does the Christian armed with Scripture have a meaningful reply?  Or should we just ignore the dilemma?
I don’t think we can ignore it.  Sooner or later, we will all be confronted by someone struggling with this issue.  And we need to be prepared to answer the question biblically and without fear. 
The first thing we need to consider is whether or not those three attributes of God – goodness, omniscience, and omnipotence – are essential truths of the Christian faith.  Can we afford to sacrifice one of those in order to deal with the problem of evil? 
First, is God good and if so, is that essential?  Certainly the Bible testifies that God is good: “The LORD is good” (Nah 1:7; cf. Ps. 34:8, Ps. 100:5, Ps. 135:3, Ps. 145:9, Jer. 33:11, Lam. 3:25, 1 Pet. 2:3).  This is goodness in a moral sense.  He is the very standard of goodness.  Jesus said in Luke 18:19, “No one is good but God alone.”  The psalmist instructs, “O give thanks to the Lord, for He is good” (Psa 106:1).  The psalmist also connects God’s inherent goodness with the goodness of His deeds: “You are good and you do good; teach me your statutes” (Psa 119:68).  We also know that God is the source of all good things:  Every good gift and every perfect gift is from above, coming down from the Father of lights with whom there is no variation or shadow due to change (James 1:17).
So clearly, the Bible affirms that God is good, so we must believe it.  But for the sake of argument, let’s consider whether or not His goodness is an essential doctrine of the Christian faith. 
It is not too bold to assert that if God is not good, Christianity cannot exist.  The gospel of Jesus Christ is founded upon the goodness of God.  Consider the role that God’s goodness plays in our salvation according to Titus 3:3-7:  
  3 For we ourselves were once foolish, disobedient, led astray, slaves to various passions and pleasures, passing our days in malice and envy, hated by others and hating one another.
 4 But when the goodness and loving kindness of God our Savior appeared,
 5 he saved us, not because of works done by us in righteousness, but according to his own mercy, by the washing of regeneration and renewal of the Holy Spirit,
 6 whom he poured out on us richly through Jesus Christ our Savior,
 7 so that being justified by his grace we might become heirs according to the hope of eternal life.
If God were not good, He would not have made any effort to save sinners.  We should back up even further and note that without God’s perfect goodness as the standard for human conduct, there would be no way for us to know sin.  Further, if God were not good, there would be no punishment for sin, since the justice of God arises from His moral perfection.  If God were not good, Christ would not be good and would therefore be unable to atone for our sins.  In short, if God is not good, we lose every part of the gospel – there would be no sin, no judgment, no Christ, and no salvation. 
We simply cannot afford to sacrifice the doctrine of the goodness of God in order to deal with the problem of evil.  But what about God’s omniscience and omnipotence?  We’ll address those in our next post in this series.
Until then, I would encourage you to take some time to meditate on Psalm 16, in which the psalmist writes, I say to the LORD, “You are my Lord; I have no good apart from you.” 

[1]Ronald Nash, Faith & Reason: Searching for a Rational Faith (Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 1988) p178.
 Posted by Greg Birdwell

Thursday, November 10, 2011

The Benefits of Suffering

It seems that our small congregation is keeping the entire medical industry of Cincinnati afloat.  We have cancer, chicken pox, allergies, shingles, heart arrhythmias, sore throats, high blood pressure, bulging disks, head trauma, melanoma, broken bones, fibromyalgia, and a brain tumor.  (If I left out your specific ailment, it wasn’t intentional – it’s getting hard to keep up.)  We have people recovering from surgery, some preparing for surgery, and others considering it.  We’re waiting for test results, enduring treatments, getting second opinions, scheduling physical therapy, and filling prescriptions.
We have other problems, too.  Beyond our own physical ailments and those of family and friends, we are enduring trials financially, relationally, emotionally, psychologically, and every other way imaginable.  

And I’m so encouraged by it all.  Not so much by the trials themselves, but by how the body is responding to them.  I haven’t heard anyone complain.  I haven’t seen any bitterness.  Instead, I’ve heard people praying for and encouraging one another.  I’ve heard people talk about trusting the Lord in the midst of it all.  I’ve heard those who are coming out of trials speak about what the Lord taught them through it.  It looks as though we are living like we believe what we say we believe. 

There is nothing wrong with wanting trials to be over.  As we saw in Matt 5:4 a couple of weeks ago, it is characteristic of a true disciple to mourn the effects of sin in the world.  But I want to encourage you to continue to keep in mind what God is accomplishing through these trials.  

All of our sicknesses, struggles, and heartaches are mechanisms that God is using to sanctify us.  And this has numerous effects.  First, our trials teach to value God’s Word.  The believer who is enduring a trial is drawn to God’s Word to find comfort and help from the Lord.  Psalm 119:71 captures this well: It is good for me that I was afflicted, that I might learn your statutes.  A trial can be a gift from the Lord to a person whose devotional life has grown stale.  He graciously puts us in a position where we instinctively run to the shelter in His Word.  

Trials are also beneficial to us in that they can be used by the Lord to expose our hearts.  Either the difficulties of life show us sin that we are harboring in our hearts or affirm to us that we are trusting the Lord as we should.  Both are good for us.  For example, if we are enduring a difficult time financially and we find ourselves complaining about all the things we don’t have, that trial has shown us that we are valuing something above God and that we have a grumbling spirit.  This is good because after seeing our sin, we then know what needs to be killed.

On the other hand, if we are enduring an illness or injury and we find ourselves trusting in the Lord rather than grumbling, that trial gives us evidence of God’s grace in our lives and shows how he has grown us.  The pressures of life force whatever is in our hearts to come out.  That is always good for us.

Another purpose that trials can serve is preparing us to comfort those who will suffer in similar ways in future.  Paul writes in 2 Cor 1:3-4, Blessed be the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ, the Father of mercies and God of all comfort, who comforts us in all our affliction, so that we may be able to comfort those who are in any affliction, with the comfort with which we ourselves are comforted by God.  Pain trains us to help others who suffer.  Who can serve a parent who has lost a child better than another parent who has lost a child?  Who can come alongside one enslaved to a besetting sin more effectively than another who has struggled with the same issue?  When we go through that training ground, we are actually getting the same instruction Christ did – He is able to help us because He endured all the trials and temptations of we have.  When use our experience to help others, we follow in His footsteps.

Another benefit of the difficulties of this life is that they make us long for and trust the Lord.  To endure any trial, we must trust Him.  And to maintain hope, we must continue to believe that He will come again, defeat the enemy, and erase the effects of sin for all eternity.  A person who never experiences difficulty will be a person with weak faith and superficial hope.  

Finally, our trials afford us opportunities to spread the truth of the gospel.  We are exhorted in 1 Pet 3:15, be prepared to make a defense to anyone who asks you for a reason for the hope that is in you.  This is a classic verse for defending the faith, but the context is about enduring suffering.  We are surrounded by a lost world.  We are aliens here.  And when we suffer, the world is watching to see how we respond.  If we do not respond as they would, if we remain faithful to the Lord, never losing hope, they will wonder why.  Your specific trial could be the tool that the Lord will use to draw a lost soul to Himself.

All these things together are conforming us to the image of the Son: And we know that for those who love God all things work together for good, for those who are called according to his purpose.  For those whom he foreknew he also predestined to be conformed to the image of his Son, in order that he might be the firstborn among many brothers. And those whom he predestined he also called, and those whom he called he also justified, and those whom he justified he also glorified (Rom 8:28-30).

Everything…even what you are currently suffering through, is part of His plan for your good and His glory.  May we keep this in mind and may we continue to suffer well that Christ might be exalted.

Posted by Greg Birdwell

Thursday, November 3, 2011

"Ceremonial Deism"

On Tuesday this week, the U.S. House of Representatives passed a measure reaffirming the national motto, “In God We Trust.”  Some have scratched their heads about this, since the motto had already been reaffirmed in 2002 (it was made the official motto of the country in 1956). 
As expected, numerous secularists decried the action as being a violation of the Establishment Clause in the First Amendment of the Constitution (“Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion”).  This claim has already been rejected in numerous lawsuits either seeking to overturn the national motto or to rid “under God” from the pledge of allegiance.  Earlier this year, the U.S. Supreme Court refused to even hear a case challenging the printing of “In God We Trust” on the nation’s coins and currency. 
As I was reading about it this week, one detail jumped out at me.  The typical way the courts reject these challenges is to identify the national motto and the reference to God in the pledge as “ceremonial deism.”  Ceremonial deism is a legal term used to refer to nominally religious statements that are merely ritual and non-religious due to long usage.  In other words, the phrases “have lost through rote repetition any significant religious content.”[1]  For this reason, the courts maintain, the phrases do not violate the Establishment Clause.
The reason this caught my eye is because just this week in our Wednesday night series on worldviews, we studied deism.  The irony in using the phrase “ceremonial deism” to describe the use of “In God We Trust” as our national motto is that a consistent deist would never affirm the motto in the first place!
The God of deism is perceived to be nothing more than a First Cause.  According to the deist, the world is like a magnificent clock.  It is ordered perfectly and works in absolute precision – just like clockwork.  But to have a universe so well ordered, there must have been a clock maker.  This is the God of deism.  He created the universe as a uniformity of cause and effect, and walked away.  He has had nothing to do with the creation since creating it.  He does not love the creation or have any kind of a relationship with it.  The universe is now a closed system that cannot be acted upon from the outside.
So a deist who is being consistent would never trust this God.  It would be irrational to do so, since the God of deism is not sovereign over the creation and does not act providentially within it.  The deist cannot even trust in himself since everything that happens is the result of a closed system of cause and effect.  Everything that has ever happened and ever will happen was determined at the moment of creation.  Neither God nor man can change the course of history.  The universe is nothing but one big machine.
If the national motto is “In God We Trust,” it can’t be the deistic God.  As we will see in the course of our worldview series, the only God who can be trusted is the God of Scripture. 
Although “ceremonial deism” is not a good descriptor of our national motto, it does accurately reflect the spiritual climate in our country.  At its core, deism is an attempt to rid man of responsibility to God, yet without completely doing away with the idea of God.  That has been the course of America for decades now.  That the legislators of a nation as secularized as ours would vote overwhelmingly to affirm “In God We Trust” proves the point.  We don’t want God’s moral absolutes, but we are not quite ready to remove Him altogether.  This underscores the fact that referring to America as a“Christian nation” is a misnomer.  Though the majority of American’s may identify themselves as Christians, the popular conception of God is the God of deism, a god who cannot save. 
What will it take to change this?  It will take the church living faithfully in the midst of a lost world and a brand of revival that can only be created by the Holy Spirit.  In other words, more than a simple act of Congress.

[1]Justice Brennan’s dissenting opinion in Lynch v. Donnelly, 465 U.S. 668 (1984).
Posted by Greg Birdwell

Thursday, October 27, 2011

To The Golden Shore: The Life of Adoniram Judson

“I have now to ask, whether you can consent to part with your daughter early next spring, to see her no more in this world; whether you can consent to her departure, and her subjection to the hardships and sufferings of a missionary life; whether you can consent to her exposure to the dangers of the ocean; to the fatal influence of the southern climate of India; to every kind of want and distress; to degradation, insult, persecution, and perhaps a violent death.  Can you consent to all this, for the sake of him who left his heavenly home, and died for her and for you; for the sake of perishing, immortal souls; for the sake of Zion, and the glory of God?  Can you consent to all this, in hope of soon meeting your daughter in the world of glory, with the crown of righteousness, brightened with the acclamations of praise which shall redound to her Savior from heathens saved, through her means, from eternal woe and despair?”
This is not your typical, “may I have your daughter’s hand in marriage?” speech.  Yet, it is an excerpt from a letter written in 1810 for that very purpose by Adoniram Judson to John Hasseltine requesting permission to marry his daughter, Nancy, and to take her with him to serve as missionaries overseas.  Mr. Hasseltine gave his consent, and the young couple shortly found their way to shores of Burma.
Whether or not Judson truly expected to face the potential difficulties detailed in his letter, his words were prophetic.  He and those with him would eventually experience all the suffering mentioned there, save the violent death. 
The story of the life of Adoniram Judson, as told in Courtney Anderson’s To The Golden Shore, is all at once inspiring, encouraging, convicting, and horrifying.  The first Baptist missionary sent abroad from the shores of America, Judson exemplified the essence of the missionary heart and task.  After denying the faith in his college years, he was prompted by the death of his best friend to consider his own mortality and the purpose of his life.  Shortly, he was converted and dedicated his life to the spread of the gospel among the “heathen nations.” 
Judson’s dedication to the task is something unparalleled in our modern times.  That dedication, reflected in his letter to John Hasseltine, would lead him to spend his entire life in Burma, a land completely untouched by the gospel prior to his ministry there.  He diligently absorbed the local Burmese dialect so that he could translate the Bible into the native tongue.  He would spend thirty years laboring on that translation only to immediately begin revising it until the time of his death.  All the while, he was also writing and distributing gospel tracts in a land that was hostile to the Christian faith.  It took six years to see the first native convert. 
That Adoniram Judson labored so long and so faithfully is inspiring in itself.  However, the account of how he suffered throughout his ministry makes his dedication all the more amazing.  There was the seemingly constant loss of friends and family to disease, the imprisonment and torture at the hands of the Burmese government, and the numerous personal life-threatening illnesses.  There were two constant themes in Judson’s life: the ever-present specter of death and the methodical translation of the Bible into Burmese.  
To the Golden Shore:The Life of Adoniram Judson is one of the best books I have ever read.  It prompted me to examine the motives behind my life’s pursuits.  It put into blessed perspective the light, momentary difficulties I have experienced thus far.  And it challenged me to consider what meaningful return the cause of Christ is receiving for the investment God has made in me.  It is rare to find such an engaging and challenging story.  Courtney Anderson’s care in the writing of this work has made it an enduring classic in Baptist history, considered by many to be one of the greatest Christian biographies every written.  I highly recommend it to you.
Posted by Greg Birdwell

Thursday, October 20, 2011

Are Mormons Christians?

Anyone paying even marginal attention to the Republican presidential primary race must be aware of the firestorm ignited recently by the statements of a Baptist minister in Texas.  Dr. Robert Jeffress of First Baptist Church in Dallas made comments claiming that Mormonism is not a branch of Christianity, but rather is a cult.  He also drew a distinction between true, born again believers and Mormons, like Mitt Romney.
The furor that erupted provides the Church with an opportunity to consider an important issue: Are Mormons Christians?  Is the Mormon Church just another denomination within the body of Christ?  Or is it a false religion?
The pluralistic spirit of the age combined with the influence of political correctness has caused many in evangelicalism to either wittingly or unwittingly take a soft stance on the issue.  However, when we understand Mormon doctrine and compare it to the teaching of Scripture, it becomes clear that to ask the question “are Mormons Christians?” is similar to asking “are Muslims Christians?” or “are Scientologists Christians?”  The similarity between Mormonism and orthodox Christianity goes no further than the level of shared terminology.  When compared side-by-side, the god of Mormonism is not like the God of the Bible, the Christ of Mormonism is not like the Christ of the Bible, and the salvation of Mormonism is not like the salvation of the Bible.
Mormonism is purely polytheistic.  That is, there is not one God, but many.  In fact, the God of the earth was once like we are now.  We are of the same species as God.  “Mormon prophets have continuously taught the sublime truth that God the Eternal Father was once a mortal man who passed through the school of earth life similar to that through which we are now passing.  He became God – an exalted being – through obedience to the same eternal Gospel truths that we are given opportunity today to obey.”[1]  In other words, God was not always God.  He was a man and He became an exalted being through obedience. 
Mormonism teaches that you and I have this same potential.  If we are successful, we will become like God, ruling a planet of our own: “You have got to learn how to be Gods yourselves; to be kings and priests to God, the same as all Gods have done before you – namely, by going from a small degree to another, from grace to grace, from exaltation to exaltation, until you are able to sit in glory as doth those who sit enthroned in everlasting power.”[2]
But what does the Bible say about this?  Are there many Gods?  
Isaiah 43:10-11  "You are my witnesses," declares the LORD, "and my servant whom I have chosen, that you may know and believe me and understand that I am he. Before me no god was formed, nor shall there be any after me.  I, I am the LORD, and besides me there is no savior.
Isaiah 44:6  Thus says the LORD, the King of Israel and his Redeemer, the LORD of hosts: "I am the first and I am the last; besides me there is no god.
Other references could be quoted, but these are sufficient to obliterate the notions that there were gods before God and that there will be gods after God.  “Besides me there is no god.”  Therefore, the polytheistic god of Mormonism is a false god.
Likewise, the Christ of Mormonism is a false Christ.  First, according to Mormon doctrine, Christ was not conceived of the Holy Spirit (as Matt 1:18 tells us), but was rather the result of actual sexual relations between God the Father and Mary.  (Mormons believe that God is a physical person.)  So Christ was not born of a virgin.  Second, the blood of the Christ of Mormonism is insufficient to atone for the sins of men.  As Brigham Young taught, “There is not a man or woman, who violates the covenants made with their God, that will not be required to pay the debt.  The blood Christ will never wipe that out, your own blood must atone for it.”[3]  Yet, 1 John 1:7 tells us that “the blood of Jesus his Son cleanses us from all sin.” 
It should be no surprise then that Mormon salvation is a false salvation.  The Mormon doctrine of salvation is not by faith alone, but is also a result of baptism, obedience to the Mormon Church, good works, and “keeping the commandments of God [which] will cleanse away the stain of sin.”[4]  This is a works-based salvation, a notion against which the totality of the New Testament cries out.  Paul wrote in Ephesians 2:8-9, For by grace you have been saved through faith. And this is not your own doing; it is the gift of God, not a result of works, so that no one may boast. 
In Galatians 1:8-9, Paul wrote these words: But even if we or an angel from heaven should preach to you a gospel contrary to the one we preached to you, let him be accursed.  As we have said before, so now I say again: If anyone is preaching to you a gospel contrary to the one you received, let him be accursed.  This is a chilling indictment of all those who teach the Mormon doctrine of salvation.
It is obvious that the doctrines of Mormonism are heretical when compared with the essential doctrines of the biblical Christian faith.  So, are Mormons Christians?  Not if they hold to the propositions of Mormon doctrine.  The Mormon Church holds a different canon of Scripture, a different, polytheistic God, a different Christ, and a different gospel.  That our society would react so strongly against a pastor who claims that Mormonism is not a branch of Christianity demonstrates how pluralistic our society has become. 
Mormons are lost.  We cannot consider them our brothers and sisters in Christ.  We ought to have compassion on them, pray for them, and evangelize them. 
Posted by Greg Birdwell

[1]Milton R. Hunter, The Gospel Through the Ages, 104.
[2]Joseph Smith, Journal of Discourses, 6:3-4.
[3]Brigham Young, Journal of Discourses, 4:219.
[4]Young, Journal of Discourses, 2:4.

Thursday, October 6, 2011

A Greater Holocaust

Who do we normally think of as the epitome of human evil?  Who is the quintessential example of the dark potential of human depravity? 
Adolph Hitler.  If you want to cast someone as a tyrant, bigot, or inhuman masochist, compare them to Hitler.  How many times during George W. Bush’s presidency did we see protesters carrying large pictures of Bush with the perennially recognizable Hitler mustache painted on his upper lip?  Recently, Hank Williams Jr. compared President Obama to Hitler, and as a result his song, “All My Rowdy Friends,” was discontinued as the intro to Monday Night Football after serving twenty years in that role.  It’s a serious thing to throw the “Hitler epithet.”
Why is that?  There have been other more murderous figures in human history, several in the 20th century alone.  Yet, Hitler tops the list.  There may be numerous reasons for this.  Perhaps it is because his atrocities were the most widely documented.  Who hasn’t seen the horrific pictures of giants pits full of emaciated corpses and heard the nightmarish tales of the suffering perpetrated in the concentration camps?  Perhaps it is due to the fact that the holocaust represented an ethnic cleansing – millions of people died simply for being Jews.  Perhaps it was the cruelty employed in the murdering of these people.  Perhaps it was the brainwashing of the German people that empowered Hitler and his Nazis to carry out the epic slaughter.  Perhaps it was all these things combined.  Whatever the reasons, Hitler and Nazi Germany remain today the automatic darkest examples of the evil that human beings are capable of committing.
It’s amazing how easy it is to recognize evil that is happening or has happened somewhere else.  We are horrified by a Hitler from which we are over half a century removed, yet we tolerate a more diabolical evil taking place right under our noses.  There is a greater holocaust, both in terms of duration and lives lost, currently happening in the United States. 
Hitler killed a total of between 10 and 12 million people.  The United States has aborted over 50 million children since 1973. 
I recently came across one of the most powerful videos I’ve ever seen.  There is a link below to a video called “180,” released by Living Waters, a ministry founded by Ray Comfort.  In it, Comfort uses his signature street evangelism method to lead people through a discussion of the holocaust, eliciting from them the pure evil of what happened at the hands of the Nazis.  He then relates the holocaust to the modern massacre that we know as abortion.  The results are stunning.
The video is about 33 minutes long, but well worth your time.  It does contain graphic content – there are disturbing images of both the holocaust and the world of abortion, as well as some profanity, all of which is bleeped out, though.  This is probably not something you will want your children to watch with you.  You may also want to view it yourself before allowing your teens to see it.
Let me also say that even as we take a hard stand against abortion, we need to reach out in love and grace to those who have had abortions.  Abortion is a sin, as the Bible clearly demonstrates that it is wrong to murder.  But God is loving and gracious.  If we confess our sins, he is faithful and just to forgive us our sins and to cleanse us from all unrighteousness (1John 1:9).  If you or someone you know has had an abortion and still struggle with guilt, please contact the church.  We want to come alongside and offer hope and help from God’s Word.  The church phone is 513-759-0096. 
Posted by Greg Birdwell

Thursday, September 29, 2011

What is a Worldview?

Romans 1:18-32 shows us that the natural inclination of fallen man is to eradicate God from the mind.  v28, says that they did not see fit to acknowledge God.  A more literal translation would be, they did not approve of having God in their knowledge.  They wanted to remove God from their conceptual framework.  The rest of v28 shows that because of this, God gave them up to a debased mind, which resulted in their practicing all forms of ungodliness.
Removing God from the picture inevitably leads to lawlessness.  But there is another way in which seeking to scrub God from consciousness affects the human mind.  It leads to a faulty understanding of the world as a whole and how it works.  It leads to a faulty worldview.
Most of us have heard the term worldview, but we may not know what it is.  A worldview is a conceptual scheme by which we consciously or unconsciously place or fit everything we believe and by which we interpret and judge reality. It provides the framework for how we live our lives. 
Everyone has a worldview, whether they realize it or not.  Everyone interacts with the world.  Everyone has beliefs, which affect the way they understand the world.  Everyone lives in accordance with that understanding.  The big question is, what is informing our worldview?  On what is it based?
In a world that has largely rejected the notion of the God of the Bible, we should expect there to be many different faulty worldviews, worldviews that cannot sufficiently explain reality, worldviews that are inherently inconsistent, worldviews that do not accord with human experience – in short, worldviews that are wholly at odds with the truths of Scripture.
In our first Wednesday night teaching series beginning October 5, we’re going to be taking a look at the concept of worldview.  That may seem like a completely cerebral endeavor with little practical significance, but nothing could be further from the truth.  Our culture is becoming increasingly pluralistic, that is, society has embraced the notion that there are many avenues to truth, many avenues to God.  Large groups even in the church have accepted this.  For this reason, I see four reasons why an understanding of the major worldviews will be a benefit to us in our everyday lives.
First, understanding worldviews will help us to defend the faith.  The Christian worldview is at its core exclusivistic.  We do not believe that there are many ways to God.  There is one way – salvation by grace through faith in Jesus Christ.  As time passes, we will be more frequently challenged about our beliefs.  We must understand our own worldview so that we can speak the truth in love, answer those challenges, and show that the Christian worldview is the only worldview that accords with reality. 
Second, understanding worldviews will strengthen our faith.  We have become so ignorant of our own worldview, as taught in Scripture, that we are ripe for attack from skeptics who would cause us to doubt the faith.  This happens all the time.  For example, young people are going off to college, perhaps knowing what they believe, but not why.  Secular professors are preying on these students, shaking their faith to its core and sometimes destroying it.  Understanding what the Bible teaches about reality will bolster our faith and prepare us for the attacks of an unbelieving world.
Third, understanding worldviews is an invaluable tool in sharing the gospel, specifically, in answering objections.  Though people deny belief in the Bible and belief in God, everyone presupposes the existence of absolute truth everyday.  It is impossible to live otherwise.  The ability to discern a person’s worldview enables the evangelist to know how to bring Scripture to bear on that specific person’s life and beliefs.
Fourth, understanding worldviews will reveal the greatest influences in our personal lives.  As we learn the characteristics of the various worldviews, it may become clear to us that we have been more influenced by our secular culture than by God’s Word. This provides a great diagnostic tool to correct our thinking and help us in our sanctification.
A great book on this subject is James W. Sire’s The Universe Next Door: A Basic Worldview Catalog.  It is a thorough and easy to understand primer on the subject, demonstrating the superiority of the Christian worldview as well as the incoherence of all other major worldviews.  It would be a great supplement to our study.
I look forward to next Wednesday evening. Our time together will run concurrently with the AWANA activities – 6:30-8:00.  I hope to see you there.
Posted by Greg Birdwell