Wednesday, October 31, 2012

The Other Candidates

     Well it is now less than one week to the US Presidential election, and to hear the mainstream media tell it there are only two candidates running for the office, Barack Obama and Mitt Romney.  To some of us the menu is unpalatable.
     President Obama is personally likeable, and as far as I can tell honest and sincere.  But his record is lackluster at best.  His policy decisions have often been muddled.  He appointed a bipartisan commission to study the debt crisis, and when it issued its recommendations he ignored them.  He has not proposed a serious budget in three years.  His health care reform program is a bureaucratic monstrosity.
     Mr. Romney is undoubtedly an astute businessman, but he gives the distinct impression of simply telling audiences what they want to hear. His plan to handle the deficit is incomprehensible.  He doesn't want to cut defense spending, doesn't want to raise taxes, and waffled on his running mate's plan to reform Medicare.  He wants to lower marginal tax rates, but won't state which credits and deductions he would eliminate to make up for the lost revenue.
     Both candidates are enamored with a grandiose vision of spreading American democracy abroad and reforming the Islamic world.
     Frankly, both candidates represent what is wrong in Washington today.  They are more intent on getting elected than they are in finding real solutions to the problems that beset us.  There has to be a better way.
     Actually, there is.  President Obama and Mitt Romney are not the only candidates running for president.  There are, in fact, a number of third party candidates who deserve our attention.
     Virgil Goode is the Constitution Party's candidate.  He is a former congressman from Virginia.  The Libertarian Party's candidate is former Gov. Gary Johnson of New Mexico.  Both the Constitution and Libertarian parties are in favor of balancing the budget immediately, ending the war in Afghanistan, auditing the Federal Reserve, and protecting Second Amendment gun rights. There are some sharp differences between the two parties, however, particularly in the area of social issues.  The Libertarian Party is calling same-sex marriage a "fundamental right," and is in favor of legalizing marijuana.  The Constitution Party, on the other hand, wants to define marriage as being between one man and one woman, and is strongly pro-life on the abortion issue.
     Former Salt Lake City mayor Rocky Anderson is running for President on the Justice Party ticket.  His position is similar to that of the Libertarians on a number of issues, including the war in Afghanistan and ending the war on drugs. But Anderson also wants a single-payer national health insurance plan and a federally funded jobs program.
     Dr. Jill Stein is the candidate of the Green Party, and she would also like to see a federal jobs program.  She likes to call her plan the "Green New Deal."  It is not certain how either Anderson or Stein would pay for such a proposal.
     Third parties play an important role in American democracy.  They typically address issues that the major parties don't want to touch, and put forward new ideas.
     Many conservative voters are inclined to vote for Romney just to get Obama out of office.  But it makes little sense to vote for Tweedle Dee just to remove Tweedle Dum.  We cannot sustain the current level of deficit spending forever.  To balance the budget we must reform the entitlement programs, cut defense spending, and reform the tax code.  In short, we need to act on the proposals of the Bowles-Simpson Commission.  The reason we don't is because each program and each tax break has its own constituency, and the the politicians are afraid that they will be cutting their own throats if they take a scalpel either to the budget or the tax code.
     Are you "throwing away your vote" by voting for a candidate who has little chance of winning?  You are throwing away your vote by voting for a candidate who doesn't really believe what you believe, and who is part of the problem rather than the solution.  The way to make your voice be heard is by supporting the candidate who is saying what you want to be said.  The third party candidates deserve to be heard.

Friday, October 26, 2012

The Significance of the Sermon on the Mount

    Atheists love to dwell on the atrocities committed in the name of religion – the Crusades, the Inquisition, the 9/11 terrorist attacks – and argue from that that "God is not good," and "religion poisons everything." Many of the charges are, unfortunately, true. But they are also beside the point. Many atrocities have been committed in the name of religion. But if perverse human beings mangle Scripture to rationalize their own ungodly behavior, that is no fault of God's. In fact, in an ironic sort of way it confirms the moral purity of Scripture. The miscreant acknowledges that the Bible reflects God's moral standard, and he needs to justify his own behavior by God's standards. But when Christopher Hitchens and company attack religion, they think that they are attacking God. But they are not. What they are attacking is a caricature of religion, a perversion of what God intended. The real question, then, is what did God intend?
    We are told that when the original audience heard the Sermon on the Mount, "the people were astonished at His teaching, for He taught them as one having authority, and not as the scribes" (Matt. 7:28,29; NKJV). What evidently struck them was His authoritative tone. He presumed to tell them what was the correct interpretation of the Torah, and what would happen to them if they failed to heed His words. It was apparent that He was no ordinary rabbi, but was, at the very least, a prophet sent from God.
    But was He an impostor? Two things would indicate that the answer was "no." First of all, His personal demeanor would have indicated that He was perfectly honest and sincere. He had obviously made a positive impression on a large number of the people. "Great multitudes" followed Him (8:1).
    But more importantly Jesus validated His ministry through miracles. Matthew devotes most of the next two chapters of his gospel describing some of these miracles. Most of the same miracles are also reported in Mark and Luke. As we noted previously ("Who Wrote the Gospels"? – 4/17/12), early church tradition states that the gospels were written in the order in which they appear in our modern Bibles. Matthew was one of Jesus' disciples, an eyewitness of many of the events he recorded. According to early tradition, Mark took down the gist of Peter's preaching and apparently he used Matthew's gospel to fact check his information. Luke was an educated physician, evidently from a Gentile background, who claims to have "investigated everything from the beginning" (Luke 1:3; NASV). Since he apparently used Mark and possibly Matthew as two of his sources, it suggest that in his mind at least the first two gospels were historically reliable. Hence we have the testimony of three First Century authors that these miracles actually took place.
    That leaves us with only one conclusion: Jesus was the real thing. Jesus really is the Son of God, and in the Sermon on the Mount He has given us an authoritative interpretation of God's moral law.
    That being the case, what are the implications for us today? Most of us have a kind of sociological morality – we more or less conform to the mores of society around us. To get along we go along. Unfortunately this means that there is always the temptation to cheat if we can get away with it.
    Jesus, however, has shown us a higher standard of morality. He has reminded us of the fact that we are ultimately accountable to our Creator for what we do. And what God requires of us is not a mere outward conformity to a civil law code, but purity of heart.
    In a sense, He has set before us a standard that no man can attain. But this is precisely why we need salvation, and salvation is exactly what Jesus came to provide. The Sermon on the Mount increases our awareness of our guilt, and that is the first step towards finding forgiveness and peace. We must come to see ourselves as God sees us, as fallen, sinful human beings, and then when we cry out for mercy and forgiveness we can receive it. The Doctor has written the prescription; all we need to do is to follow it.

Tuesday, October 23, 2012

Choices Have Consequences

    The choices we make can have far-reaching consequences. Jesus, in the Sermon on the Mount, has laid out for us a way of life, and now, at the conclusion of the Sermon, He reminds us of how important our life choices can be.
    In verses 13 and 14 of Matthew chapter 7 Jesus had described two paths, one that is wide and broad, the other narrow and difficult. Now He picks up the theme once again, and compares the two paths to two different ways to build a house. One person builds his house on a rock. ". . . and the rain descended, the floods came, and the winds blew and beat on that house . . ." (v. 25; NKJV), but the house stood, "for it was founded on the rock." This represents the person who heeded Jesus' message and build his life on sound moral and ethical principles.
    On the other hand there is the person who is said to have built his house upon the sand. Subjected to the same weather conditions as the first, this house collapsed: "And great was its fall" (v. 27). This is the person who ignores Christ's teachings and tries to structure his life on some other basis.
    People basically either live for God or they live for themselves, and the vast majority are living for themselves, pursuing their own self-interest. They claim to believe in God, but ignore Him when it comes to everyday decision making. Or, they might be outright atheists who have consciously decided that there is no God, and consciously and deliberately pursue their own self-interest.
    The self-conscious secularist (atheist / agnostic / humanist) has staked his entire life on a single debatable proposition, that evolution as a completely naturalistic process can account for the appearance of design in nature, and that therefore there is no evidence in nature that God exists. But the assumption is doubtful. The end product of the supposed process of evolution is far to complex and structured to the be result of pure accident, even granted the mechanism of natural selection. The secularist has essentially constructed for himself a false worldview, one that distorts reality and ignores the long term consequences of our decisions in life. But he cannot run away from the truth forever, and eventually reality will catch up with him.
    The person who is truly wise, however, will ground his hopes in God, Who holds our lives in His hands. God controls what happens to us in this life through His providence, and it is God Who determines our final destiny. Granted, we still live in a world filled with tension and conflict. We struggle to control our own impulses and desires. Yet even in this trouble-filled life it is possible to achieve peace and happiness as we strive to fulfill God's will for us, and the final reward is eternal. As John Newton, the hymn writer, famously put it, "Through many dangers, toils and snares / I have already come, / 'Tis grace has brought me safe thus far, / And grace will lead me home."

Tuesday, October 16, 2012

The Test of Spiritual Genuineness

    One of the standard village atheist arguments against religion involves the bad behavior of people who claim to be religious. The atheists love to dredge up the muck of the Crusades, the Inquisition, and modern sex abuse scandals. The criticism is a little hypocritical – they generally do not like to talk about Stalin or Mao. If we may paraphrase Scripture here, if the Catholic Church has killed its thousands, the Communist Party has the blood of literally millions on its hands. But nevertheless, the record of organized religion is hardly unblemished, and requires some sort of response.
    Jesus made it clear right at the outset that there would be such a thing as a false Christianity. "Beware," He said, "of false prophets, who come to you in sheep's clothing, but inwardly they are ravenous wolves" (Matt. 7:15; NKJV). Not all is what it seems to be.
    A "false prophet" is someone who purports to be speaking on behalf of God, but really is not. In the Old Testament the prophet Jeremiah was told by God "The prophets prophesy lies in My name. I have not sent them, commanded them, nor spoken to them; they prophesy to you a false vision, divination, a worthless thing, and the deceit of their heart" (Jer. 14:14).
    The character of these false prophets is insidious. Disguised as sheep, they are really "ravenous wolves" ("ravenous" in the sense of "rapacious" or "voracious"). In other words, their true aim is not to promote the truth and welfare of the people, but to advance a hidden agenda, usually for their own profit or benefit. They are a deadly cancer, eating away in secret at the vitals of the Christian community.
    How then, can we tell them apart? Jesus offers a remarkably simple, common sense solution to the problem: "You will know them by their fruits" (Matt. 7:16). Look at how they live – how they think and behave. "A good tree cannot bear bad fruit, nor can a bad tree bear good fruit" (v. 18). In other words, the inward character will eventually reveal itself; we need to look for the signs of inconsistency, signs of behavior not in keeping with the character of Christ Himself.
    The use of religious rhetoric, and even the ability to perform miracles, is no sure indication of spiritual genuineness. "Many will say to Me in that day, 'Lord, Lord, have we not prophesied in Your name, cast out demons in Your name, and done many wonders in Your name?' And then I will declare to them, 'I never knew you; depart from Me, you who practice lawlessness!'" (vv. 22,23).
    Churches, if they claim to be Christian churches, must screen their candidates for the ministry more carefully. It is not enough merely to have a theological degree. To be a spiritual guide the pastor himself should be a man of God – a man of prayer, of Scripture, of holiness and heart-felt compassion. He must "walk the talk." Most people will go by what they see, not by what they hear, and what they need to see in their pastor and the other spiritual leaders of the congregation are clear models of what the Christian life should be like. The blind cannot lead the blind, and the lust for power, wealth and fame has no place in the ministry.
    In choosing our spiritual leaders A.W. Tozer put it well when he said, "Listen to no man who fails to listen to God" (The Root of the Righteous).

Saturday, October 13, 2012

The Straight and Narrow Way

    As Jesus neared the conclusion to the Sermon on the Mount He summarized His message this way: Enter by the narrow gate; for wide is the gate and broad is the way that leads to destruction, and there are many who go in by it. Because narrow is the gate and difficult is the way which leads to life, and there are few who find it" (Matt. 7:13,14; NKJV).
    The idea that life involves a choice between two different possible courses of action was not new. In his farewell address, recorded in the Book of Deuteronomy, Moses declared, "Behold, I set before you today a blessing and a curse . . .," which depended on whether or not Israel obeyed God's commandments (Dt. 11:26-28). And then, toward the end of his address Moses said, "See, I have set before you today life and good, death and evil," and challenged Israel to "choose life" (Dt. 30:15-20).
    In the biblical worldview "good" is defined by the character of God and His creative purposes for man. The world, however, fails to conform to God's will, and so there is a resulting contest between good and evil. And so we must choose. We stand at the fork in the road, as it were, and must decide whether to take the path on the left or the one on the right. The decision we make will affect our lives for many years to come.
    The one path looks attractive and appealing. It is broad and wide. There is plenty of room for everybody. The eager crowds are pressing through it. But what the crowds do not know or understand is where the path eventually leads. According to Jesus, it leads to "destruction," a term which in the Bible has frightful overtones of eternal damnation.
    And then there is the other path. This one looks much less inviting. And it is narrow and "difficult" (the Greek word here means "constricted" or "confined," suggesting a lifestyle that is strict and disciplined). Not surprisingly this road is not nearly as popular as the other: "there are few who find it." But for those who do it pays off handsomely: in the end they receive eternal life!
    The broad way seems to offer freedom, ease, and comfort. The other path calls us to lives of self-sacrifice and submission to God's authority. "If anyone desires to come after Me, let him deny himself, and take up his cross, and follow Me" (Matt. 16:24). The first path is congenial to human nature. All we have to do is give in to our natural inclinations and desires. People who become atheists often exclaim, "At last – I'm free to be myself"!
    The other path is much more difficult. It seems as if we are constantly at war with ourselves, trying to hold back our natural impulses and desires in order to achieve a distant goal.
    The first path, however, doesn't really bring us freedom. Instead our impulses enslave us. Our behavior becomes increasingly compulsive, anti-social and self-destructive – just ask anyone who has tried to loose weight or quit smoking! In the end, amid the ruins of our health, finances and relationships, we are powerless to help ourselves. We have walked into a dungeon and the steel door has snapped shut behind us.
    On the other hand, hard as it may seem to believe, there is a peace and joy to be found in living the way God wants us to. We are at one with our Creator, and hopefully have improved relationships with others. We experience a newfound freedom; not a freedom to do as we please, but a freedom from our own compulsive and irrational behavior. God is love, and to know Him is to be filled with divine love.
    Very often a young adult is filled with guilt and shame, because he knows that his life isn't what it should be. There are two ways to resolve the tension. One way is to deny God and throw the whole thing overboard. The other way is to surrender to Christ, receive forgiveness, and begin living in the power of the Holy Spirit.
    Atheism offers a fool's paradise. While the atheist may try to convince himself that he is living a happy, fulfilled life, it is all based on the premise that is likely to prove false in the end – the premise that there is no God. The gospel, on the other hand, offers us the opportunity to live in harmony with our Creator and to enjoy eternal life hereafter.

Tuesday, October 9, 2012

The Golden Rule

    In Matt. 7:12 Jesus lays out for us the basic underlying principle of morality, the precept that has since become known as "the Golden Rule": Therefore, whatever you want men to do to you, do also to them, for this is the Law and the Prophets" (NKJV).
    It is important to note that Jesus here is not saying anything new. The Golden Rule did not originate with Him. Rather He says, "this is the Law [i.e., the Torah] and the Prophets." What He is doing here is correcting a misconception about the nature of morality. The Pharisees of His day tended to put the emphasis on the details of external observance. Jesus, on the other hand, draws our attention back to the basic underlying principles of the Law. True morality is a matter of the heart. It is a matter of genuinely caring about our fellow human beings. True righteousness consists of treating others as we would have them treat us.
    On another occasion Jesus elaborated on the principle involved. A certain lawyer (an expert in the Jewish law) approached Him and asked, "Teacher, what shall I do to inherit eternal life?" (Luke 10:25). The question has reference to a prophecy in the Book of Daniel to a future resurrection: "And many of those who sleep in the dust of the earth shall awake,/ Some to everlasting life,/ Some to shame and everlasting contempt" (Dan. 12:2). The prophecy in Daniel goes on to say that "those who are wise and those who turn many to righteousness" will be those who "shine" after the resurrection. This naturally raises the question posed by the lawyer, "What shall I do to inherit eternal life"?
    Jesus, in response, directed him to the Torah, and the lawyer essentially answered his own question by quoting two passages: Deuteronomy 6:5 ("You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, with all your soul, with all your strength, and with all your mind") and Leviticus 19:18 ("You shall love your neighbor as your yourself"). Jesus then confirmed that this was the right answer.
    So far this has been a discussion between two rabbis over the Torah and what will happen during the end times, and there have been no major points of disagreement. But then the lawyer asks another question that brings out the difference in philosophy. His question was this: "And who is my neighbor?" (Luke 10:29), as if to say that the persons we are required to live are the persons who met the legal definition of "neighbor." The lawyer was, in fact, missing the whole point of the discussion.
    And so Jesus tells another one of His famous stories. A certain man was travelling from Jerusalem to Jericho and was waylaid by some highwaymen, who beat him to nearly within an inch of his life, and then rode off stranding their helpless victim. Several travelers pass by, the first a priest, the second a Levite (an important Jewish official). Both of them saw the wounded man, but went on their way without helping him. Finally another traveler comes by, but this one was a Samaritan, a member of a neighboring ethnic group looked down upon by the Jews. The Samaritan saw the wounded victim, and knew he must help. He did what he could to apply first-aid, then transported the victim on his animal, evidently while he walked the rest of the way to Jericho, and then put the man up in an inn at his own expense.
    As He finished His story Jesus then asked the lawyer the clinching question: "So which of these three was neighbor to him who fell among the thieves" (v. 36)? The lawyer responded with the obvious answer: the one who showed compassion. Jesus said, "Go and do likewise."
    The essence of what our Creator expects from us as human beings is that we love Him with a sincere, heartfelt devotion, and that we genuinely care about each other. When we see someone in need we have a responsibility to assist to the best of our ability and the extent of our resources. That is the whole point of morality.

Friday, October 5, 2012

Fundamentalism Then and Now – II

    The story of Fundamentalism did not end with the 1930's, of course. But with the passage of time the divisions within Evangelicalism only deepened. "Neo-Evangelicalism" made its appearance, and Billy Graham made his controversial decision to cooperate with liberals and Catholics in his evangelistic crusades. All the while strict Fundamentalists refused to compromise. Excluded from the life of the major denominations, Fundamentalist evangelists, some of them marked by colorful personalities, built ministry empires around themselves. It was the age of Bob Jones, Jr. and John R. Rice, of Jack Hyles and Carl McIntyre.
    Over the course of these developments the meaning of the word "Fundamentalist" underwent a change. In the earlier part of the century the contributors to The Fundamentals, a set of books that argued the case for the essential doctrines of Christianity, included such diverse figures as A.C. Dixon, Charles R. Erdman, James M. Gray, G. Campbell Morgan, A.T. Pierson, R.A. Torrey, and B.B. Warfield. Dixon, Gray and Torrey, along with C.I. Scofield, had earlier been associated with D.L. Moody and were also involved in the Keswick Movement. They were men of deep personal piety and had a passion for reaching lost souls for Christ. But by 1960 only the more militant separatists still wished to identify themselves as "Fundamentalists." The word had taken on a negative connotation that few wished to have applied to themselves.
    In 1976 the World Congress of Fundamentalists, meeting in Edinburgh, Scotland, adopted a formal definition of the word "Fundamentalist." Most of the seven individual points that made up the definition could be affirmed by nearly any conservative Evangelical. The major exception is point #6, which stated that a Fundamentalist "exposes and separates from all ecclesiastical denial of that Faith, compromise with error, and apostasy from the truth . . ." The problematical phrase is" "Exposes and separates from all ecclesiastical . . . compromise with error." This is what is sometimes referred to a "second degree separation," i.e., not only will a Fundamentalist separate from unbelievers, he will also separate from a fellow believer if he deems that Christian to be "compromising with error." But what constitutes "error"? Denial of the deity of Christ? Rejection of the idea of a Pretribulation Rapture? Use of a modern version of the Bible? Where exactly does one draw the line? The sentence, after all, says "all compromise with error," presumably no matter how great or small.
    Therein lies the problem. Fundamentalism has become the very epitome of narrow and unseemly sectarianism. What began as a broad coalition of Bible-believing Christians to defend the historic Christian faith instead has become a narrowly based group of zealots bent on fighting over minor differences of doctrine and practice. Fundamentalist historian David O. Beale even distinguishes Fundamentalists from "Neo-Fundamentalists," claiming that these "reconstructionist evangelicals actually differ quite radically from Fundamentalism because they consider anyone a Fundamentalist who holds to the cardinal Christian doctrines" (In Pursuit of Purity, p. 267). In other words, their great crime, in Dr. Beale's eyes, is that they hold to the original definition of "Fundamentalist"!
    The early Fundamentalists faced one of the gravest crises ever to befall Western Civilization. It was their sad destiny to witness the de-Christianization of the West. In this crisis they stood fast amid the raging storm of controversy and persevered to the end. To the extent that the gospel still exists at all in the modern world we owe in large measure to the courage and integrity of those valiant men. Yet it must also be said that in large measure they failed in their objective, which was to rescue the major denominations form theological apostasy, and they failed probably because they put too much confidence in the arm of the flesh and not enough in the Spirit of God. In the end they became a tragic demonstration of the principle "'Not by might, nor by power, but by My Spirit,' says the Lord of hosts" (Zech. 4:6; NKJV).

Tuesday, October 2, 2012

Fundamentalism Then and Now – I

    "Fundamentalism." The very word has an ominous ring about it. Few words in the English language are as emotionally charged as the word "Fundamentalist." But what exactly is a Fundamentalist? The question if difficult to answer, because the meaning of the word has changed over time.
    The word "Fundamentalist" was coined in 1920 by Curtis Lee Laws, editor of The Watchman-Examiner. Describing a gathering of Northern Baptists at a preconvention conference, Laws called them "Fundamentalists," describing them as those who "still cling to the great fundamentals and who mean to do battle royal for the fundamentals." In the face of spreading liberalism within the Northern Baptist Convention, these "Fundamentalists" were determined to preserve the faith once delivered to the saints.
    As it turned out, the story became one of the saddest tragedies in all of church history. To understand why things turned out so badly it must be kept in mind that, going into the conflict American Evangelicalism had already been seriously weakened. Theologically it was considerably more Arminian than it had been a century earlier, and it had come to rely too heavily on institutions to further the work of the gospel. To put it bluntly, the Christian leaders of the early 20th Century were overconfident, and were unprepared for the spiritual battles that lay ahead.
    As the conflict unfolded the Fundamentalists formed new organizations. They engaged in vigorous pamphleteering and parliamentary maneuvering. And in the end, they lost. In retrospect we can discern at least two fatal mistakes. In the first place they did not give enough attention to prayer. The great battles of previous centuries had been won by prayer warriors, but the Fundamentalists of the early Twentieth Century were men of action, impatient for results. Unfortunately they did not take sufficient care to secure the Lord's blessing on their efforts.
    The second fatal mistake was the failure to gain a consensus among themselves. After the Fundamentalist Fellowship, under the leadership of J.C. Massee, failed in 1922 to persuade the Convention to adopt the New Hampshire Baptist Confession, a group of frustrated conservatives formed a rival organization called the Baptist Bible Union in 1923. An even more radical group of Fundamentalists formed what eventually became the IFCA the same year. Thus we saw the beginnings of a cleavage within the ranks of conservative evangelical Christians that persists to this day. The one group seeks peace and tried to remain relevant, almost at any cost. The other group seeks purity almost at any cost. Between these two groups exists a chasm that has never been bridged. Both groups share the blame in this. The militants were too inclined to act precipitously; the moderates were simply too na├»ve about prospects in the old denominations. They both needed to wait upon God for a sense of direction and unity, and to overcome their natural passions and prejudices. The result of this division was catastrophic. Conservative unity was shattered, only small minorities left the denominations, and the denominations ceased to be evangelical.
    What the early Fundamentalists failed to realize fully is that they were engaged in a spiritual battle, and that it would take more than conferences and parliamentary votes to stop Modernism. What was needed was a movement of the Spirit of God to change hearts and minds – to convict the unbelieving, give fortitude to the vacillating, and patience to the impetuous. In particular the folly of relying on human organizations was amply demonstrated in the Baptist Bible Union. One of its key officers, J. Frank Norris, shot and killed a man in his office (he was later acquitted by a jury), and another ranking officer, T.T. Shields, was accused of having an affair with his secretary. To make matters worse the university he headed closed after a student riot. By 1930 Fundamentalism had been discredited in the eyes of many.


More to follow.