Friday, May 31, 2013

Dan Fincke on the Validity of Morality

Introducing Dr. Fincke
    One of the more difficult challenges facing atheists is that of establishing a basis for morality. Individual atheists, of course, are capable of being decent, humane, and civilized people. They are, after all, human beings and have feelings just like the rest of us (at least the ones that aren't scientists!). But the problem lies in trying to establish an objective code of conduct. If there is no God one would suppose that there are no transcendent, universally binding rules. In trying to establish a code of morality the atheist runs up against what is known as "the naturalistic fallacy," the problem of trying to deduce an "ought" from an "is." He can say what is, but he cannot say what ought to be. All he knows is that things are just the way they are. It is precisely this point that gives many of the rest of us grave misgivings about atheism. It erodes the very foundations of civilization.
    Dr. Daniel Fincke, however, an atheist blogger at Patheos, believes that he has found a way out of the problem. Raised in a devout evangelical Christian home, he underwent a difficult process of deconversion and eventually became enamored with the writings of Nietzsche. He went on to earn a doctorate in philosophy and has several teaching positions at universities in the metropolitan New York area. He specializes in writing about ethics and morality.
    Dr. Fincke has devoted a page on his website to an essay entitled "Morality's Validity".  Most of the essay is devoted to refuting the extreme nihilist position. He describes himself as "an indirect consequentialist" and says that he believes in "modest, non-absolutist, instrumental moral norms." What he apparently means by this is that values and moral norms are not completely relative. As human beings we have the shared experience of living in a physical environment and in human society. As a result, actions have consequences, some of them detrimental. Therefore some choices in life are manifestly better than others, and this forms the basis for an objective moral code. Dr. Fincke summarizes his position this way: we have an "intrinsic rational interest in pursuing our own functioning, on pain of practical contradiction if we choose otherwise." He says "we can rank competing values and recognize that the kinds of achievements for powerfully living in, predicting and mastering the world that we get from thinking like modern, scientific people make our standards of rational investigation and affirmation better than theirs. Our values and the norms we follow are in some ways truly better." What he appears to be offering then is a modern, scientific version of Utilitarianism, the doctrine of the greatest good for the greatest number, with the "good" defined in terms of usefulness.


But who decides?


    The theory sounds attractive on the surface, but on closer inspection is fraught with difficulties. Dr. Fincke says that "our" values and norms are truly better than "theirs." But who are "we" and "they"? Who decides which values make for "achievements for powerfully living" and "mastering the world"? The problem here, quite simply, is that oftentimes crime pays. If moral standards are based on "our own functioning," then the drug dealer, the organized crime boss, the predatory capitalist, and the crooked politician can all claim to be acting morally, since they are all apparently successful at what they are doing. To their minds they have made rational choices in life, and their choices are paying off. Nice guys finish last!
    There is an obvious objection to this, of course. Because we are constrained to live in human society, we have to have a common set of rules. And so we are said to have entered into a "social contract" with our fellow human beings, and in so doing have surrendered some of our individual autonomy to some central authority. There is then some sort of political process that makes rules for society as a whole. But is this really the same thing as "morality"? Several problems arise.
    First of all, there are some human actions that are too petty to fall under the purview of civil legislation – things like gossip, lying and quarreling. Are these things moral just because they are legal?
    Then there are the logical inconsistencies that arise in the laws. Selling marijuana is still illegal in most U.S. states, but selling tobacco is not. Does this make selling tobacco moral? What is the difference between the two? If anything, tobacco is more harmful that marijuana.
    And then there is the process by which laws are made. As they say in politics, you don't want to know how the sausage was made – it would turn your stomach. Can a corrupt process yield a moral result? Isn't politics itself often morally suspect?
    And what about morally dubious actions taken by the government itself? We have witnessed numerous instances of torture, aggression and genocide. On what basis can we say that these are wrong? By what standard shall the body politic as a whole be judged?
    So who decides, the individual or society? If the former, then there is no stability in government. If the latter, there is no room for dissent.
    Here we see the dilemma in which feminism finds itself. When it comes to abortion, feminists insist that morality is a matter of "personal choice" – due process of law simply doesn't apply. But when it comes to rape, it is a different story. No man has a right to rape a woman. But what about the moral autonomy of the rapist? Does he have "freedom of choice"? One would hope not. So are there universally binding norms or are there not? The feminist position looks suspiciously self-serving.


Problems with "functionality"


    But does "functionality" really give us clear answers to ethical questions? We see several problems here as well.
    First of all, how do we determine what is "functional"? How do we determine what the particular function of any particular thing is?
    The idea of "function" almost suggests the medieval notion of teleology, or its more modern step-child, Intelligent Design. The underlying assumption here is that everything exists for a purpose, or naturally tends towards a predetermined end. But if there is no Designer (and Dr. Fincke assures us that there is not), and if everything came about through a blind, purposeless, impersonal, natural process, how can anything properly be said to have a specific "function"? Isn't the "function" the purpose for which something was designed?
    Dr. Fincke might reply that natural selection supplies function. If the iron rule of evolution is "the survival of the fittest," then whatever enhances the chances of the human species for survival would be "moral."
    But to make matters even more complicated and confusing, if we are all in an ongoing process of evolution, then there really are not fixed categories in nature. Everything is in a state of flux. And if there are no fixed categories then there are not fixed functions. The species is constantly being "redesigned," as it were. Thus what may appear to be dysfunctional today may simply be a transition to something more functional tomorrow. And since we cannot predict what tomorrow may hold, how can we say the function of a given thing may become?
    By either standard, whether by design or by accident, it is hard to see how homosexuality could conform to our functionality. The obvious function of our reproductive organs is, well, reproduction, and that requires a heterosexual relationship. From a traditional, theistic perspective, homosexuality is a "perversion," a deviation form the divinely ordained norm. From an evolutionary standpoint, it would constitute a regressive tendency that diminishes the species' chances for survival. What the ancients understood and we moderns have forgotten, the welfare of humanity depends on women having babies. How then does homosexuality enhance functionality?
    But the problem of assigning function becomes even more perplexing when we consider the possibilities of the human imagination. How we are not talking about what exists now, but rather about what might come into being. But of the myriad possibilities for future development, which ones should we choose? Do we focus on our physical and material well-being, or is there a spiritual and aesthetic side to life as well? Do we wish to maximize individual freedom, or should we strive for the common good? Does social justice consist in equality of outcome, or merely in equality of opportunity? Sparta and Athens gave different answers to questions life these.
    In the final analysis, it is not function that determines values, but values that determine function. We first decide what we want to achieve, and we set goals for ourselves. It is the goals that determine whether or not something is functional. Thus in the broader realm of human culture, functionality is determined by our a priori values.

Searching for Utopia

    Philosophers, in fact, have never been able to reach a consensus as to what our values should be. But why is this so? Dr. Fincke himself hints at the underlying reason when he speaks of "those flourishing goods which we all most basically value," but then adds "or would if we understood properly." Why don't we "understand properly"?
    It could be argued that if people "understood properly," they would want to live in a society in which everyone lived by the Golden Rule. It would be a society in which everyone dealt honestly, respected each other's dignity and rights, and looked after each other's welfare. It would be a society entirely free of poverty, crime and war. Everyone would have access to healthcare. In other words, if everyone understood properly, they would arrive at pretty much the same conclusion that Jesus did in the Sermon on the Mount.
    Why don't we then? The answer lies in human nature. We are wedded to the iron law of self-interest. Rationally we know that everyone would be better off if we were all altruists, if they realized, as Dr. Fincke put it, that "there are some rules worth adhering to even when they violate our short term interest because they contribute vitally to the group's thriving which indirectly is in our own long term interest. . ." But when the interests of society come into conflict with our individual self interest, we hesitate. We are back where we started. The simple fact of the matter is that sometimes crime pays.
    Even "enlightened self-interest" is still self-interest. As long as we are wedded to self-interest we are bound to negotiate with the rest of society to find a compromise. The end result is something less than Utopia. A morality based on "indirect consequentialism" and "modest, non-absolutist, instrumental moral norms" is ultimately a morality of convenience. Concepts such as "duty," "honor," and "integrity" evaporate. Can this really be called "morality"? Is morality really nothing more than avoiding negative consequences? We are afraid that in the end Dr. Fincke's solution leaves us unsatisfied.
    But more to the point, why do we think that certain actions are somehow morally wrong even when they are perfectly legal and even patently successful? How could we argue with success?
    The answer is that we have been endowed with a conscience. What sets us apart as human beings from the animal kingdom is our sense of morality. We do not simply act of instinct and conditioning as the animals do, but have a definite sense that certain things are right and others wrong. We feel an uncanny sense of accountability to some standard of conduct outside of ourselves, and we feel a sense of guilt and shame when we violate it. It is nothing less than the Law of God written upon our hearts, and it is an important evidence for the existence of the Deity.
            "He has shown you, O man, what is good;
             And what does the Lord require of you
             But to do justly,
             To love mercy,
             And to walk humbly with your God?"
                                (Mic. 6:8; NKJV)

Related blog posts:
Atheism and Morality 
Good Without God? 
A Scientific Basis for Morality? 
Alasdair MacIntyre: A Study in Moral Theory 
The Case for Moral Absolutes



Tuesday, May 28, 2013

Born Again!

Parmigianino, The Conversion of Paul

    The phrase "born again" is standard jargon in the evangelical lexicon, yet few understand what it really means. What exactly is "the new birth"? What is the difference between someone who has been "born again" and someone who has not?
    The phrase itself goes back to a conversation that Jesus once had with a Jewish religious leader named Nicodemus, recorded for us in John chapter 3. Nicodemus was interested in learning more about this famous miracle worker, and was astonished when Jesus told him right at the outset of the conversation, "Most assuredly, I say to you, unless one is born again, he cannot see the kingdom of God" (John 3:3; NKJV). Nicodemus was befuddled by this cryptic remark, and asked how it would be possible to reenter one's mother's womb and come back out again. Jesus went on to explain that what He was talking about was a spiritual birth, and that the agent of this birth was the Holy Spirit: "That which is born of the flesh is flesh, and that which is born of the Spirit is spirit" (v. 6).
    So what exactly is the new birth? The apostle Paul gives us a description in Eph. 4:17-24. He begins by describing what the Ephesian Christians were like before they became believers. The Gentiles, he says, "walk in the futility of their mind" (v. 17). The word "futility" suggests that their reasoning processes routinely arrive at the wrong conclusions. Why is this?
    Paul points to a variety of psychological factors. He says that their understanding was darkened, they were "alienated from the life of God," their hearts were blind, and they were "past feeling" (vv. 18,19). In other words, their hearts were unreceptive to the truth of God. This, in turn, ultimately led them to a lifestyle of licentiousness and greed. Once the external restraints were removed, their self-centeredness knows no bounds.
    The genuine Christian, however, has experienced something different. "But you have not so learned Christ, if indeed you have heard Him and have been taught by Him, as the truth is in Jesus" (vv. 20,21). When the gospel is being preached a variety of people may hear the audible words being spoken, but they do not all respond alike. For some, the message makes no sense. It is out of synch with their own perception of reality. But for others the message rings true in an uncanny sort of way. It unnerves them. They are undone. The have caught the awful sight of their own depravity, and finally understand why Christ had to die on the cross. The light breaks through, the way of salvation becomes clear, and they tearfully embrace it. "For the message of the cross is foolishness to those who are perishing, but to us who are being saved it is the power of God," as Paul says elsewhere (I Cor. 1:18). The difference is that in the case of the believer, Christ Himself has spoken to the heart with indelible force and conviction. He has been taught by Christ Himself.
    So what, then, is the end result? First of all there is a clean break with the past: "that you put off, concerning your former conduct, the old man" (Eph. 4:22). But more than that, we are to "be renewed in the spirit of your mind" (v. 23). We acquire a new way of thinking: new motives and a new outlook on life. As Paul puts it in Rom. 12:2, we are not to "be conformed to this world, but be transformed by the renewing of your mind, that you may prove what is that good and acceptable and perfect will of God." The Christian life begins with an inward transformation. This, in turn, results in "the new man which was created according to God, in true righteousness and holiness" (Eph. 4:24).
    How can one tell whether or not he has been genuinely born again? For someone converted as an adult it can be fairly easy. He knows what he was like before. He knows how he came to understand the truth. He is conscious of the decision he made. He is now experiencing a different life and a meaningful relationship with God. He has passed from death into life, from night into day.
    But for a young person raised in a Christian home it can be a much more difficult question to answer. He has always been told what to believe. He has always been told how to behave. He is actively involved in a whole range of church programs. But is he saved?
    Only he and God know what is really in his heart. But there are several things to look for. Since salvation involves a conscious choice to trust in Christ as your Savior from guilt and sin, there must be a cognitive understanding of the basic facts of the gospel, a consciousness of one's own sin and guilt, and a conscious decision to trust in Christ. There should presently be signs of spiritual life – a desire to know God, a prayer life, serious Bible study, and a willingness to serve others. In the final analysis you are spiritually what you are in your prayer closet. Where there is no regular, consistent prayer there is no relationship with Christ.
    The question is an all-important one. Let each be honest with himself. "Examine yourselves as to whether your are in the faith. Test yourselves. Do you not know yourselves, that Jesus Christ is in you? – unless indeed you are disqualified." (II Cor. 13:5).

Friday, May 24, 2013

The Queer Scouts of America?

    Yesterday the National Council of the Boy Scouts of America (BSA) voted to allow openly homosexual youth to join the organization. The BSA will continue to ban homosexual adults from being scout leaders, and it is understood that the boys and teens themselves will be discouraged from engaging in sexual activity of any kind. Nevertheless, it is a monumental cultural change from an iconic American institution.
    The question is, is the Boy Scouts of America being true to its purpose? What is its purpose in the first place?
    The organization's website describes the Boy Scouts as a "values-based youth development" organization. It says that "the BSA provides a program for young people that builds character, trains them in responsibilities of participating in citizenship, and develops personal fitness." It says that "the mission of Boy Scouts of America is to prepare young people to make moral and ethical choices over their lifetimes by instilling in them the values of the Scout Oath and the Scout Law."
    The Scout Oath says: "On my honor I will do my best to do my duty to God and my country and to obey the Scout Law, to help other people at all times; to keep myself physically strong, mentally awake, and morally straight." The Scout Law, in turn, says: "A Scout is trustworthy, loyal, helpful, friendly, courteous, kind, obedient, cheerful, thrifty, brave, clean, and reverent."
    The stated purpose of the organization, then, is to build character. But what is "character"? The dictionary defines it, in this context, as "moral excellence and firmness." It suggests a firm adherence to principle. It implies a set of ethical norms to which we must conform. Hence the emphases on duty, trustworthiness, loyalty, and reverence. In short, the Boy Scouts of America is built on an altruistic moral philosophy that encourages self-discipline and devotion to duty.
    But how can we build character is we cannot define the norms and values? And if homosexuality is normal and morally permissible, then what are the moral norms regarding sex and marriage? Is anything between consenting adults permissible? What is impermissible? In that context how can we inculcate the responsibilities of marriage and parenthood?
    By being "inclusive" and "tolerant," aren't we really making a statement about morality itself? That nearly all things are permissible, that there is no universally binding "norm," that each person is left to make his / her own personal lifestyle choices? And if that is the case, what is there to teach young people? You're OK and God bless you in whatever choices you make? What, then, happens to "character"?  This is the dilemma problem facing all educational and youth organizations in a modern, pluralistic society. What exactly are they expected to teach the youth?
    In the case of the Boy Scouts in particular we have a philosophy based on ideals and standards that stand in direct contrast to the self-indulgent, narcissistic philosophy of contemporary society. The early 20th Century world of scouting has collided with the post-modern world of today. From a modern, secular standpoint it could be argued that the Boy Scouts of America is an anachronism, a relic from the Victorian past. From a religious standpoint it could be argued that the Scouts are in a moral freefall, in the process of collapsing into the rubble of what used to be Western Civilization. Their position is similar to that of the mainstream liberal Protestant denominations. They abandoned their core beliefs and left themselves with little to say beyond a few vague platitudes. Once an organization reaches that point it is irrelevant – it no longer has anything worthwhile to offer.
    The Boy Scouts of America served a useful purpose in its time, but its time has passed. It is time to abandon the sinking ship.

Wednesday, May 22, 2013

The Meaning of Baptism

Philip and the Ethiopian Eunuch, whom he baptized
   As we have seen, what Peter told the Jerusalem multitudes on the Day of Pentecost was, "Repent, and let every one of you be baptized in the name of Jesus Christ for the remission of sins, and you shall receive the gift of the Holy Spirit" (Acts 2:38; NKJV). The verse seems to suggest that we receive the remission of sins through baptism, yet as we have seen elsewhere, we are "justified" by faith. What exactly, then, did Peter mean? What does baptism accomplish?

    The first thing that should be noted is that what is in view here is believer's baptism. There is no direct command in the New Testament to baptize infants, and there is no clear example of it either. Rather, the Bible virtually equates baptism with believing: "For you are all sons of God through faith in Christ Jesus. For as many of you as were baptized into Christ have put on Christ" (Gal. 3:26,27).
    But if we are "saved by grace through faith" (cf. Eph. 2:8), what is the point of baptism? Why be baptized at all? The apostle Peter explains it this way: " . . . baptism now saves you – not the removal of dirt from the flesh, but an appeal to God for a good conscience – through the resurrection of Jesus Christ" (I Pet. 3:21; NASV). We are not saved by the external action of the water on the body working automatically. Rather, it is what happens internally that is important – "the appeal to God for a good conscience."
    In other words, baptism is a public way of expressing our faith in Christ. In baptism we formally declare ourselves to be Christians. And this public declaration of faith is important. Jesus said, "Therefore whoever confesses Me before men, him I will also confess before My
Father who is in heaven. But whoever denies Me before men, him will I also deny before My Father who is in heaven" (Matt. 10:32,33). There can be no such thing as a "closet" or "secret" Christian: either you are a Christian openly, or you are not one at all. Baptism is the primary means of making that public confession of faith.
    What is required is that we make a formal commitment to Christ. We may say that we believe; we may desire to have a relationship with Christ. But this is all hypothetical until we make a formal commitment, and a formal commitment requires a public action of some sort. Baptism fulfills that requirement. It is only then that our salvation is a "done deal." Baptism serves as both a "sign" (a symbolic representation) and a "seal" of our faith, in much the same way that circumcision did for Abraham's faith (cf. Rom 4:11).
    The preferred mode of baptism is immersion. This is partly because that is what the Greek word signifies ("to dip repeatedly"; "to dip under"), and partly because there was a Jewish precedent for it. But more importantly, only immersion brings out the full symbolism of the rite.
    First of all, baptism by immersion symbolizes our union with Christ in His death, burial and resurrection. By faith we become one with Christ. He is our head and we are His mystical body, and as such we vicariously participate in His death and resurrection. As we have seen, this is how we receive justification – the forgiveness of our sins. We are reckoned to have died and risen with Christ, and are forgiven accordingly.
    But baptism by immersion also symbolizes what happens to us personally. Part of us, "the old man" as it is called in several passages of Scripture, has died – our past identity, or former way of life. It is symbolically buried in the water. What emerges from the water is essentially a new person, a changed man, different from the old. He no longer thinks or acts the way he did before. Significantly Paul concludes his discussion of baptism in Romans 6 by saying, "Likewise you also, reckon yourselves to be dead indeed to sin, but alive to God in Christ Jesus our Lord" (v. 11).
    Baptism is the public, outward, formal means by which we renounce our past and publicly identify ourselves as followers of Jesus Christ. It signifies that we have entered into salvation – a new status, a new relationship, a new vital principle within, a new sense of direction, a new set of values, and a new lifestyle. It signifies the passage from death unto life.

Saturday, May 18, 2013

What Is Saving Faith?

    One of the saddest facts about contemporary Christianity is the large number of people who were raised in conservative, evangelical homes and have since left the faith. They can often point to an event in their childhood in which they "accepted Jesus as their Savior," and for a while, at least, appeared to be honest, sincere believers. Today they are not in the church. What happened?
    Is it possible for a genuine believer to lose his salvation? Or were they not really saved to begin with? Or were they not really saved in the first place? Whatever the individual case may happen to be, we suspect that there are, in fact, many professing Christians, many of them still active members of evangelical churches, who are not genuine believers. Jesus Himself said, "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!" (Matt. 7:22,23; NKJV).
    There are a number of reasons for this state of affairs. First of all, many churches do not do a very good job of explaining the gospel clearly. Anxious to attract new members in an increasingly secularized and materialistic society, many pastors are reluctant to talk about sin, and thus leave the central issue in salvation unclear. In many cases young children, ages four and five, are pressed to "invite Jesus into their hearts" when they are probably too young to understand what the issues are. Our general observation is that people who make professions of faith at age four are generally not Christians at age twenty four. To further confuse matters, if a young person was raised in a strong Christian home, he may not have had a very strong consciousness of sin and guilt – as far as he can remember he always tried to do what was right. Sometimes young people raised in Christian homes get the impression that "being saved" or "having a personal relationship with Jesus" basically means being active in church and trying to do the right thing.
    Very often young people who grow up in this environment have what amount to a second-hand faith. They know how they are supposed to think and act, and may genuinely want to please their elders. But it isn't until they have left home and are exposed to the broader world, and are forced to start thinking for themselves that their true spiritual state becomes apparent. And in all too many cases they wind up falling by the wayside.
    All of which raises the question, what is true, saving faith? What makes a person a genuine Christian?
    First of all, true saving faith is not a mere mental assent to a set of doctrinal propositions. "Even the demons believe – and tremble!" (James 2:19). In that sense Satan is a far better theologian than any mortal human being. He knows the truth, and yet it does him no good.
    Nor is faith a blind leap into the dark – belief in something for which there is no evidence, as our atheist friends like to say. The Bible does, in fact, present rational arguments for belief in God.
    Nor is faith a matter of self-effort or self-improvement. On the contrary, faith is the very opposite of works. "But to him who does not work but believes on Him who justifies the ungodly, his faith is accounted for righteousness" (Rom. 4:5).
    What, then, is faith? The verse just quoted gives us the answer: "believes on Him who justifies the ungodly." Faith looks away from oneself to another – to Someone who is able to save. It is a trust and confidence in God's willingness and ability to do something to help us. Specifically, in this case, it is faith in Christ, a firm trust and reliance on Him and the merits of His shed blood to secure for us the forgiveness of our sins and make us right with God.
    Paul goes on to explain, citing the example of Abraham. Abraham had been given a promise by God that he would become "a father of many nations." Humanly speaking, it did not seem possible – his wife was well past her child bearing years. But Abraham reasoned that God is omnipotent – He "gives life to the dead and calls those things which do not exist as though they did" (v. 17). He then deduce from this that "what He had promised He was able to perform" (v. 21).
Abraham receives God's promise of a son.

    Thus true, saving faith is based on prior knowledge – what Abraham understood God to be and what God had promised; and it resulted in concrete action – Abraham demonstrated his faith by acting on God's promise. But it was fundamentally confidence in what God would do, not an exercise of Abrahams own ability or effort.
    The Westminster Shorter Catechism sums it up well when it says: "Faith in Jesus Christ is a saving grace, whereby we receive and rest upon him alone for salvation, as he is offered to us in the gospel" (Q. 86).

Tuesday, May 14, 2013

Dr. Kermit Gosnell’s House of Horrors

    Yesterday a court convicted Dr. Kermit Gosnell on three charges of murder stemming from botched abortions at this clinic in Philadelphia. The babies were born alive and then killed by snipping their spinal cords with scissors. Dr. Gosnell maintained that there were no live births at his clinic, but the jury found otherwise.
    By all accounts the clinic was a chamber of horrors with unsanitary conditions and an underqualified staff. The jury's verdict was welcomed by both sides in the contentious abortion debate.
    The case, we think, raises a pertinent question in that debate. A woman goes to Dr. Gosnell's clinic to obtain an abortion. If the procedure is successful, Dr. Gosnell has done nothing wrong. (Actually, in this particular case there were numerous other charges involving racketeering, drug trafficking, and other violations of Pennsylvania's abortion law, but for purposes of this discussion we will focus only on the abortion procedure itself.) But what if the abortion was not successful? What if the baby was born alive? The woman came to the clinic to have her pregnancy terminated. She did not expect to leave with newborn infant. What should the doctor do then?
    It appears that in some cases he made sure that the baby did not survive. He ordered his staff to cut the baby's spine with a pair of scissors, and the baby died. Hence the murder convictions.
    This raises a profoundly disturbing question about abortion itself. If the fetus is destroyed before birth, the procedure is perfectly legal. But if it is killed minutes after birth, then we are dealing with a case of murder. What makes the difference?
    If the logic advanced by the "pro-choice" movement is correct, the determining factor in an abortion is the woman's "reproductive freedom" – she should have the freedom to decide if and when she will get pregnant, and that freedom presumably includes the right to terminate a pregnancy if she so desires. She should not be made to bear the burden of motherhood if it would disrupt her life or interfere with her career. The women who came to Dr. Gosnell's clinic presumably came for precisely those reasons. Would that not mean that Dr. Gosnell had a responsibility to make sure that the babies did not survive?
    On the other hand, if taking the life of a newborn is murder, why is it any less so "in utero"? Is the dignity and worth of a human life dependent merely on its physical position relative to the womb?
    Dr. Gosnell reportedly saw himself as an advocate for women who were poor and desperate. His attorney, however, noted the difficulty of the case: "There's a lot of emotion. You have the baby factor, which is a big problem. The media have been overwhelmingly against him." (Associated Press). The "baby factor" was a "big problem" indeed.
    What makes a human life sacred at all? The traditional Judaeo-Christian position is that murder is forbidden because human beings bear a special resemblance to God – we were created in His "image." But what if there is no God? What if we are merely the result of a blind, impersonal, natural process? Would human life still be "sacred"? What would make it so?
    In all the sordid and squalid details of the Gosnell case one fact stands out: abortion involves the taking of a human life. If we permit abortion, we cheapen human life and degrade our own dignity and worth. Can a civilized society tolerate such a practice?

Friday, May 10, 2013

What Must I Do to be Saved?

    To anyone who has given serious thought to the question, "What will happen to me when I die?," and has thought about the moral dimension to the problem, the obvious follow-up question is, "What must I do to be saved"? To the one who come to understand what the stakes are, there can be no more important question.
    As we have seen, Christ offered Himself up as an atonement for sin, but that does not mean that everyone is automatically saved. In order to receive the forgiveness of sins we must be personally joined to Christ in a kind of legal and mystical union, and that requires action on our part.
    But exactly what action? At first the answers found in the Bible seem confusing and even contradictory. When the Jews at Pentecost asked the apostle Peter, he said "Repent, and let every one of you be baptized in the name of Jesus Christ for the remission of sins. . ." (Acts 2:38; NKJV). But when the Philippian jailer asked Paul and Silas the same question, they said, "Believe on the Lord Jesus Christ, and you will be saved, you and your household" (Acts 16:31).
    There is no real contradiction here. The fact of the matter is that repentance, faith and baptism are three different aspects of the same thing. The essential thing is faith – we are "justified by faith." But in order for faith to be genuine it must be accompanied by repentance, and then it must be expressed in a formal commitment to Christ in baptism.
    It is the repentance part with which most modern Americans have difficulty. Americans are possessed with a consumer mentality (see our book America's Deadliest Enemy), and the church has sometimes made the mistake of trying to market Christianity as a consumer product. Evangelists are eager to tout all the advantages of Christianity without mentioning any of the demands of discipleship. It all sounds so easy! "God loves you and has a wonderful plan for your life"!
    The Bible makes it clear, however, that if we would receive the forgiveness of our sins we must first repent of them. "Repent therefore and be converted, that your sins bay be blotted out . . . " (Acts 3:19). The whole problem is our sin and our guilt, and we are hardly sincere in asking for forgiveness is we don't repudiate the lifestyle that created the problem in the first place.
    The point was beautifully illustrated in a story told by Jesus. In Luke 18:9 we are told that He confronted "some who trusted in themselves that they were righteous, and despised others." Jesus proceeded to tell them one of His famous parables, or stories. Two men went up to the Temple in Jerusalem to pray. One was a Pharisee, a member of a very strict sect of observant Jews who were scrupulous about keeping the Jewish law. The other man was a "publican" or tax collector. The publicans, however, were not tax collectors in the modern sense of the word. They were generally private contractors who were hired to collect taxes for the Roman government. They were notoriously dishonest and corrupt, little better than extortioners in some cases. To make matters worse, because they worked with the Roman authorities who, of course, were Gentiles and did not keep the Jewish law, the publicans were regarded by their fellow Jews as ceremonially unclean. They were, in effect, unholy renegades. In other words, in this story the tax collector represented the opposite end of the social spectrum from the Pharisee. The Pharisee represented the elite of Jewish society; the tax collector the filthy scum.

    Jesus goes on to describe the prayers of these two men. The Pharisee's prayer went like this: God, I thank You that I am not like other men – extortioners, unjust, adulterers, or even as this tax collector" (v. 11). He then proceeds to list his own accomplishments: "I fast twice a week, I give tithes of all that I possess" (v. 12).
    Far different was the tax collector's prayer. "Standing afar off," he "would not so much as raise his eyes to heaven, but beat his breast" (v. 13). His request was simple, frank, and to the point: "God, be merciful to me a sinner!" (The text literally reads, "the sinner," as if in his own eyes he was the only sinner in the world, so mortified was he with his own guilt – cf. NASV; Amp.) He did not pretend to be a righteous man. He knew all too well that he was not. He frankly admitted the case and begged for mercy. He realized that that was all that he could do under the circumstances.
    Jesus then drew the moral of the story: "I tell you, this man [i.e., the tax collector – RWW] went down to his house justified rather than the other; for everyone who exalts himself will be humbled, and he who humbles himself will be exalted" (v. 14).
    For many it is this element of repentance that prevents them from coming to Christ in a genuine way. It is our pride that stands between us and Christ. We don't like to admit that we are lost sinners, and we don't like to be in the position of humble suppliants. We would rather pretend that we are basically alright and would like to think that we are doing God a favor by lending our good name to the membership rolls of His churches. But there is no true Christianity where there has not first been sorrow and contrition for sin. Salvation begins with heartfelt repentance.

Saturday, May 4, 2013

Right with God

Francisco de Zurbaran: St. Francis Kneeling
    We have seen that the problem of evil is pervasive, and that all of the world's great monotheistic religions agree that God is just. But for each one of us as individuals these basic facts create an acute problem. If God is just and we are sinners, how can we escape divine judgment? Our doom is sure.
    How can we possibly be made righteous in the sight of a holy God? There is hardly a question more important, for on its answer hangs all eternity.
    The Bible does offer an answer, however. It says that were are "justified freely by His grace" (Rom. 3:24; NKJV). The Greek word translated "justified" basically means "to declare righteous" or "pronounce righteous." It is the jury acquitting the defendant. The question then is, how can God declare us righteous when He knows perfectly well that we are not; that we are, in fact, sinners? The answer is, by means of imputation.
    To "impute" something means to credit it or charge it to someone's account. The apostle Paul explains it like this: "For He [i.e., God] made Him [Christ] who knew no sin to be sin for us, that we might become the righteousness of God in Him" (I Cor. 5:21). Notice that there is a double imputation here. First of all, Christ was "made . . . to be sin for us." What does this mean? It obviously does not mean that Christ became an actual sinner. He was perfectly blameless. What it means is that our sin was charged to His account. He took the blame for us. "But He was wounded for our transgressions, / He was bruised for our iniquities; / The chastisement for our peace was upon Him, / And by His stripes we are healed" (Isa. 53:5).
    But then, secondly, the righteousness of Christ is imputed to those who believe on Him. As our text puts it, "that we might become the righteousness of God in Him." The phrase "in Him" is critical. We receive the benefits of salvation by virtue of being "in Him." When we put our trust in Christ we are united to Him both legally and mystically – legally we are counted as one with Him, so that the rights that He secured are transferred to us. If He died, we are considered to have died with Him; and if He rose from the dead, we are considered to have risen with Him. If He is righteous, we are also considered righteous (Rom. 6:1-11). In this way His righteousness is said to have been "imputed" to us. Thus our standing with God is not based on our own actual righteousness, the works that we have done, but on the righteous, but on the righteousness of Christ imputed to us.
    The nature of justification became a huge issue during the Protestant Reformation. The position of the Catholic Church is that we are justified by an infused righteousness – that God makes us righteous by producing actual righteousness in us. The Catechism of the Catholic Church puts it this way: "The grace of the Holy Spirit has the power to justify us, that is, to cleanse us from our sins and to communicate to us 'the righteousness of God through faith in Jesus Christ" and through Baptism" (§1987). We receive God's grace through the sacrament of baptism, and then we are required to cooperate with grace to produce actual good works. This, in turn, if accomplished successfully, results in our of achieving merit with God "Moved by the Holy Spirit and by charity, we can merit for ourselves and for others the grace needed for our sanctification, for the increase of grace and charity, and for the attainment of eternal life" (§2010). But even those "who die in God's grace and friendship" may have to undergo further purification in purgatory before they finally enter heaven (§1030). In other words, in the Roman Catholic view, we are judged on the basis of what we have actually done, as imperfect as that is.    But the Protestant (and we believe biblical) view is this: "Justification is an act of God's free grace, wherein he pardoneth all our sins, and accepteth us as righteous in his sight, only for the righteousness of Christ imputed to us, and received by faith alone" (Westminster Shorter Catechism, Question 33). In other words, we are justified by an imputed righteousness, Christ's own righteousness credited to our account.
The difference is crucial. It is the difference between whether we are finally judged on the basis of what we ourselves have done, or what Christ has done for us. If we have to stand before Almighty God on the basis of our own works, we are doomed. But if, on the other hand, we are credited with Jesus' own spotless perfection, our salvation is secure. It is literally the difference between death and life.

For "Why the Reformation Was Necessary," click herehere, and here