Friday, June 28, 2013

David Bercot on the Church and the World

David Bercot
    The Kingdom That Turned the World Upside Down
    David W. Bercot
    Scroll Publishing, 2003
    268 pp., pb.


    David W. Bercot is a thought provoking writer if nothing else. He is a practicing attorney who spent most of his adult life in Texas but now resides in Pennsylvania. He has written a number of books, and his vision of radical Christianity is sure to challenge the modern American Christian who has grown comfortable with the popular blend of Christianity, patriotism and middle class prosperity. Mr. Bercot takes us back to the early church with its strong emphasis on the moral and ethical teachings of Jesus. It is a book that will no doubt shock and disturb many.
    And it is a message that sorely needs to be heard. We are far too complacent and far too ready to compromise our beliefs. We pass all too lightly over the ethical passages of the New Testament. But when Christ returns His assessment of the modern church may not be as comforting as we would like to think.
    Nevertheless we feel that Mr. Bercot's work, as valuable as it may be at many points, is marred by several serious flaws. First and foremost is his black-and-white treatment of church history. For Mr. Bercot the Christian church can be divided up into two opposing camps: those who advocate what he calls "the Constantinian Hybrid" (the alliance between church and state) and "Kingdom Christians" who advocate what Mr. Bercot calls the simple kingdom gospel of Jesus. Chief among the former were St. Augustine and the major Protestant Reformers. Included among the latter are such groups as the Anabaptists, Mennonites and Quakers.
    Mr. Bercot's tendency to see everything in black-and-white, either / or terms leads him into a series of false dichotomies. He tells us at one point that Jesus "didn't come to preach a message about changing governments and kingdoms of the world. He sought to transform individuals, not to transform the world" (p.115). But the Great Commission calls us to disciple the nations. By transforming individuals we transform the world. Likewise Mr. Bercot tells us that "The banner of Jesus' disciples wasn't 'God and country!' It was God or country" (p. 120). But if we are to love our neighbor and let our light shine before men, would that not include a care and concern for our country?
    A major issue for Mr. Bercot is non-resistance. At one point he has a quote form John Calvin to the effect that, in Calvin's view, if God permitted even good kings in the Old Testament to wield the sword, why would He forbid Christian believers from serving in the government or in the military (p. 249; cf. Calvin, Treatise against the Anabaptists). Mr. Bercot criticizes Calvin on this point, saying ". . . in Calvin's mind, nothing had changed with the coming of Christianity. Everything – except theology and ordinances – was just the same as it had been in Israel" (Ibid.).
    But Calvin raised a legitimate question. One of the Ten Commandments said, "Thou shalt not kill." The sanctity of human life has always been a basic moral principle right from the very beginning. Yet when taken in the context of the Mosaic legislation as a whole, the commandment obviously did not preclude either capital punishment or just war. In fact, long before Moses or the birth of Israel as a nation it was laid down as a basic principle that
        "Whoever sheds man's blood,
         By man his blood shall be shed;
         For in the image of God
         He made man." (Gen. 9:6; NKJV).
The word translated "kill" in the Sixth Commandment is used only to refer to the shedding of blood by a private individual, whether it be murder or manslaughter. It does not apply to acts of war or judicial punishment. (The Hebrew Bible has different words for killing in those contexts.)
    So does the situation change in the New Testament? There we are told specifically that "the authorities that exist are appointed by God," and that the civil magistrate is "God's minister, an avenger to execute wrath on him who practices evil" (Rom. 13:1-6). So if capital punishment is specifically ordained by God, what prevents a Christian from serving in the capacity that God has ordained? Mr. Bercot would have us to believe that the fundamental principles of God's moral law have changed over time; that God forbids in the New Testament what He specifically enjoined in the Old. And while there are some things which doubtless pertained only to the theocracy of Old Testament Israel, the New Testament makes it plain that civil government, per se, is an institution ordained by God. It is hard to see how Mr. Bercot's position can be squared with Scripture when taken as a whole.

Wednesday, June 26, 2013

Redeeming the Culture

   Today the U.S. Supreme Court handed down its long awaited decisions involving two same sex marriage cases. In one case the court struck down provisions in a federal law that restricted marriage, for purposes of federal benefits, to heterosexual couples. In the other case, involving a referendum in California ("Proposition 8") that outlawed same sex marriage, they dismissed the case on technical grounds – the appellants had no "legal standing," i.e. they were not entitled to bring the case before the Court because they had not been injured by the lower court ruling overturning the proposition. Thus homosexuals will soon be able legally to wed in California. The decisions are lamented by the conservative religious community. It is hard to see how the institution of marriage can remain viable if virtually any sexual behavior is tolerated by society.
    As it so happens, hundreds of thousands are determined to do something about the moral decline of our country. On this coming Sunday, June 30, 2013, over a million and a half Christians are planning on participating in a mass event called "Call 2 Fall," in which believers in churches all across America will literally fall on their knees "in repentant prayer to reshape our lives and renew our land." The "Call 2 Fall" purports to be based on the familiar passage found in II Chron. 7:14: ". . . if My people who are called by My name will humble themselves, and pray and seek My face, and turn from their wicked ways, then I will hear from heaven, and will forgive their sin and heal their land" (NKJV). The sincerity of these believers can hardly be questioned, but it remains to be seen whether a brief gesture during a church service will be sufficient to arrest the moral and social decline of the nation.
    Conservative American Christians have been concerned about the direction of the country for quite some time now. As early as the 1960's there were Christian thinkers such as Francis A. Schaeffer, Rousas J. Rushdoony, and C. Gregg Singer who were warning about the direction of western culture. Encroaching secularism was already having a corrosive effect on morals and manners, undermining the core values of Western Civilization. But the dramatic turning point in American culture came in 1973 when the Supreme Court handed down its infamous decision in Roe v. Wade, legalizing abortion throughout the entire nation. The conservative religious community reacted with alarm.
    A host of books appeared urging Christians to organize and take action. One book in particular provided some insightful analysis of the legal aspect of the problem. It was The Second American Revolution (1982) by noted attorney John W. Whitehead. He demonstrated the ways in which our constitutional rights and liberties were slowly eroding as society in general gave up belief in God and in moral absolutes.
    But the question was, what can we, as evangelical Christians, do about it? Whitehead criticized the church for being too "Pietistic" – for being too narrowly focused on personal salvation while ignoring the culture at large. His solution was for Christians to become politically active, and he goes so far as to say, "Getting involved in local politics will eventually mean Christians running for office. This will include attending and eventually taking control of party conventions where grass-roots decisions are made" (p. 166).
    But it is precisely here where the trouble begins. Winning elections requires forming broad-based coalitions, and broad-based coalitions are bound to include non-Christian elements as well as Christian ones. The inevitable result is that the Christian message is compromised. It is one thing to bear witness to society at large, to preach and to teach, to publish and to broadcast; it is quite another thing to get involved in the hurly-burly of electoral politics.
    In retrospect the attempt to take over the culture has been a dismal failure. We have tried for forty years to reverse Roe v. Wade, and what we got instead was same sex marriage. The culture is clearly moving away from Christianity, not closer to it.
    The problem with the attempt to use the political process to reverse the country's moral decline is that it badly misconstrues the mission of the church. It is perfectly fine to want to influence the culture in a positive direction, but how do we do this?
    The first thing that we must understand is that the central task assigned to the church is contained in the Great Commission: "Go therefore and make disciples of all the nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father, and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, teaching them to observe all things that I have commanded you. . ." (Matt. 28:19,20). The reference to baptism clearly indicates that what is in view here is winning converts to Christ, i.e., personal salvation.
    When we look at the contemporary scene in America, however, we do not see this happening. Why? Because the church has gone about it the wrong way. It is not that we haven't tried – we have tried every strategy, method and technique imaginable. But all of it failed. It failed because the blessing of God was not upon it.
    Nowhere in the New Testament do we see Christians trying to Christianize the Roman Empire through politics, law or the arts. Rather, the primary means of advancing the Kingdom of God is the preaching of the gospel. But in order for preaching to get results the blessing of God must be upon it. "And my speech and my preaching were not with persuasive words of human wisdom, but in demonstration of the Spirit and of power . . .," the apostle Paul could declare (I Cor. 2:4).
    And why don't we experience that today? It is because we have failed to pray. We are disunited. We are careless and indifferent about our own relationship with God. We have grown carnal and worldly. Our "worship" is little more than entertainment. And we have substituted human organization, psychology, and marketing for the work of the Holy Spirit. The results speak for themselves.
    Yes, we need to fall on our knees and cry out to God. But it will require more than just a brief pro forma prayer one Sunday morning. It will require real repentance, and real confession. The sad part about it is that the average Christian today probably does not realize what the church is doing wrong, and scarcely knows what he should confess.
    We need to pray that God would open our eyes, especially the eyes of our pastors and "spiritual leaders." Only then will real reformation and revival come.

Articles in which you may also be interested:
Was the "Relgious Right" a Mistake? 
Christianity and Politics 
William Jennings Bryan: A Lesson in Faith and Politics 
The Real Issue in Gay Marriage Debate 
The Legacy of the Counterculture 
The Future of Playboy America 

Friday, June 21, 2013


Moses Breaking the Tables of the Law

    We have been challenged numerous times on this blog by one of our most faithful (an antipun?) commenters to explain how we can accept the Bible as the inspired Word of God when other religions can make the same claim for their sacred books. Are not all claims equally valid? And since they cannot all be valid, equally worthless? Is not the real reason I hold the Bible in high regard the fact that I was conditioned to do by my own culture? Would I not feel the same way about the Qur'an if I had been born and bred in an Islamic culture?
    The question is a fair one and deserves a candid answer. Admittedly we do have a bias here, and yet the question itself is far too important simply to leave it as a matter of personal preference. As human beings faced with our own mortality we have a vital interest in knowing the truth, no matter what that may turn out to be. Our eternal destiny rides on the outcome. And so we must examine the competing claims of the various religions and evaluate them as objectively as possible.                                        
    First of all, what exactly does the Bible claim for itself? The short answer is contained in II Peter 1:21: ". . . for prophecy never came by the will of man, but holy men of God spoke as they were moved by the Holy Spirit" (NKJV). To read the descriptions of the phenomenon of prophecy in the Old Testament, sometimes God would speak directly to the prophet, as for in example the case of Moses. Sometimes the prophet would see visions, hear voices, or dream dreams. Sometimes the Holy Spirit would simply descend upon the prophet and speak through him. By whatever means the Holy Spirit communicated the message to him, the prophet would then put it down in writing. The Bible we have today is the collection of what they wrote.
    But, our interlocutor might say, exactly the same claims have been made for the Qur'an and the Book of Mormon. How can we say that the Bible is true and the other two are false? How can we tell who, if any, is telling the truth? Shouldn't we simply dismiss them all?
    The problem is analogous to a courtroom trial. Suppose that you are sitting on a jury in a criminal trial. The attorneys for each side produce witnesses to support their respective cases. But both sides cannot possibly be right. The defendant is either guilty or he is not. How would you decide who is telling the truth?
    What is not an option is simply dismissing the whole case as nonsense. The defendant's name, freedom, and possibly even his life are at stake. The court has the responsibility to make a determination. Somehow a way must be found to arrive at the truth. The evidence must be sifted through and weighed carefully.
    The prosecution presents the first witness. The first thing we would want to consider is the witness' credibility. Does he appear to honest and sincere? Is there anything in his background that would cast doubt upon his character? Is there any apparent conflict of interest? Was he in a position to have first-hand knowledge of the case?
    Secondly, we would want to weigh the testimony itself. Is it self-contradictory? Does the witness keep changing the story?
    But perhaps more importantly, are there corroborating witnesses? Are there others who saw the same thing?
    Now I cannot said that I have read every piece of religious literature that has ever appeared in the world, but I am fairly familiar with the Bible, and have read sections of the Gnostic gospels, the Qur'an, and the Book of Mormon. I have also available to me general information about several other major world religions. What, then, do we make of all of this?
    The Book of Mormon can really be dismissed at once. Not only was it written by a single author, but it was an author who had a reputation for dishonesty. He claimed to be translating tablets which were then taken back by the angel Moroni. Much of the material appears to have been plagiarized from other sources, including the King James Bible. Our conclusion, then, is that Joseph Smith is hardly a reliable witness.
    As for the Qur'an, it too has the problem of having been written by a single person whose testimony is impossible to corroborate. Moreover, when we examine the content of the Qur'an, it too looks suspicious. Much of it is bitter invective directed at Mohammed's critics and enemies. In some cases there are outright misrepresentations of the facts, such as when Mohammed accuses the Jews of being polytheists (9:30). Moreover it grants Mohammed himself special exemptions from the rules that apply to everyone else, such as the number of wives he was allowed to have (33:50). In short, the Qur'an looks as though it were the self-serving product of a single author.
Tintoretto, Transport of the Body of Saint Mark
  But what about the Bible? It comprises the cumulative testimony of over thirty different authors writing in three different languages over a span of more than a thousand years. The authors, as far as we can tell, appear to be humble, self-effacing men sincerely believed what they were writing. In some cases they suffered severe persecution for their beliefs. With the exceptions of David and Solomon, none of them became rich through their religion. Yet in spite of the tremendous diversity of authorship, they spoke with one voice down through the centuries. Their message centered around one grand theme - - the history of redemption that culminated in Jesus Christ.

    But what is even more striking is the content of the message itself. In vivid contrast to all of the other cultures of the ancient Near East, the Hebrew prophets alone proclaimed that there is only one God, and that He is the sole Creator of the universe. Moreover the Scriptures a lofty standard of ethics and morality that stands in stark contrast with the rest of the ancient Near East and the Graeco-Roman world. The Bible paints a dismal picture of human nature, and apart from Christ Himself all of its major characters are deeply flawed individuals. The Bible makes no attempt to flatter humanity. How likely is it that such a book could have had a purely human authorship?
    And at the heart of the Bible's message is the proposition, still held in disbelief today, that mankind needs a Savior, that only a Person Who is both God and man at the same time could fulfill the role, and that He would die on a Roman cross to atone for our sins That Person was Jesus Christ, and His deity was attested by miracles He performed and by His own resurrection from the dead, all of which were public events and seen by numerous eyewitnesses.
    But there is also a more personal reason why I believe the Bible. When I read it, it speaks to my conscience and soul. It has the ring of truth to it, and it imparts wisdom and understanding. It is truly "a lamp to my feet / And a light to my path" (Ps. 119:105).
    In short, there is no other book in the world like the Bible.

For related blog posts see:
!s the Bible the Inspired Word of God? -- click herehere, and here.
Are the Gospels Historically Reliable? 
Who Wrote the Gospels? 
Science and Scripture 

Monday, June 17, 2013

Is It Worth It?

Paul departs for Jerusalem
 As we have seen, a personal relationship with Jesus comes with certain costs attached to it. "If anyone desires to come after Me, let him deny himself, and take up his cross and follow Me" (Matt. 16:24; NKJV). All of which raises the question, is it worth it? What is the point of self-denial?

    Few Christians have suffered more for their faith than did the apostle Paul. In one place he described his experience this way: ". . . in labors more abundant, in stripes above measure, in prisons more frequently, in deaths often. From the Jews three times I received forty stripes minus one. Three times I was beaten with rods; once I was stoned; three times I was shipwrecked; a night and a day I have been in the deep; in journeys often, in perils of waters, in perils of robbers, in perils of my own countrymen, in perils of Gentiles, in perils of the city, in perils in the wilderness, in perils of the sea, in perils among false brethren; in weakness and toil, in sleeplessness often, in hunger and thirst, in fastings often, in cold and nakedness – besides the other things, what comes upon me daily: my deep concern for all the churches" (II Cor. 11:23-28).
    Why did he do it? What drove the man to such lengths? He tells us: "For I consider that the sufferings of this present time are not worthy to be compared with the glory which shall be revealed in us" (Rom. 8:18). He had his eyes on eternity, and he knew that what he had to endure in this present life was but a small price to pay for eternal glory.
    This is not to say that there are no benefits in this present life. For ". . . the love of God has been poured out in our hearts by the Holy Spirit who was given to us" (Rom. 5:5). This, in turn, can give rise to intense joy. The apostle Peter could say ". . . whom having not seen you love. Though now you do not see Him, yet believing, you rejoice with joy inexpressible and full of glory" (I Pet. 1:8). And Paul could talk about "the peace of God, which surpasses all understanding" (Phil. 4:7).
    In one sense these reactions are irrational – they seem detached from surrounding reality. How can one experience "joy" or "peace" when your outward circumstances are filled with conflict and misery? The answer is partly that we have the hope of a brighter future, and partly that God grants us peace in answer to prayer: "Be anxious for nothing, but in everything by prayer and supplication let your requests be made known to God; and the peace of God, which surpasses all understanding, will guard your hearts and minds through Christ Jesus" (Phil. 4:6,7). But partially it is because of the direct action of the Holy Spirit on our hearts: love, joy and peace are the "fruit of the Spirit" (Gal. 5:22, and Paul could say that the love of God "has been poured out in our hearts by the Holy Spirit" (Rom. 5:5).
    That being said, it nevertheless remains true that the Christian lives for the future, not for the present. "For our light affliction, which is but for a moment, is working for us a far more exceeding and eternal weight of glory, while we do not look at the things which are seen, but at the things which are not seen. For the things which are seen are temporary, but the things which are not seen are eternal" (II Cor. 4:17,18). It is expected that there will be trials and difficulties in this life. We live in a world cursed by sin. We look forward, however, to the return of Christ when He will appear in the sky to redeem creation, and then all things will at last be set right. The trials of this life last only for a relatively brief moment. The joys of heaven are forever.
    Sad to say, most modern Americans are so caught up with the cares and pleasures of this life that they never really think about what will happen to them when they die. They just sort of assume that somehow, someone, somewhere up there in the sky will take care of them. But they never give any serious thought as to who that Someone might be, or what He actually requires of us. But death is inevitable and inescapable, and sooner or later we will have to face eternity. What then?

Tuesday, June 11, 2013

What is “a Personal Relationship with Jesus”?

    It is very common in evangelical circles to talk about having "a personal relationship with Jesus." This is often meant to counter such notions that religion is largely a matter of dry dogma and empty ritual. True Christianity brings you into a real relationship with a living Person, the risen Christ.
    But Jesus lived here 2,000 years ago and is no longer here on earth. How, then, is it possible to have a "personal relationship" with Him? Interestingly Jesus Himself had a long discussion on this very topic. In chapters 13 through 16 of his gospel the apostle John recounts a long discussion Jesus had with His disciples shortly before His death. John introduces the "Upper Room Discourse," as it has come to be known, by saying that Jesus, "having loved His own who were in the world, He loved them to the end" (John 13:1; NKJV). Jesus was keenly aware that His departure was at hand, and that He would leave His disciples in a radically altered set of circumstances. How would they manage in His absence? In short, how is it possible to have a personal relationship with Someone Who is no longer physically present?
    A major part of the answer is that after His ascension into heaven Jesus would send the Holy Spirit to take His place, as it were, on earth. "And I will pray the Father, and He will give you another Helper, that He may abide with you forever . . ." The Greek word translated "Helper" ("parakletos," or "Paraclete") carries the basic meaning of someone who is called to someone else's aid. By extension it has a variety of meanings including "advocate," "helper," and "comforter." In this passage Jesus refers to the Holy Spirit as "another Helper," suggesting that the Holy Spirit would fill the same role that Jesus Himself had filled while He was here on earth.
Van Gogh: Man Reading the Bible
What exactly then does the Holy Spirit do? First of all, He fills Jesus' role as a teacher. "The Spirit will teach you all things, and bring to your remembrance all things that I said to you" (14:26). He "will guide you into all truth" and "will tell you things to come" (16:13). Some of this may have been directed to Jesus' immediate disciples. We cannot claim special revelation today. But we have the New Testament, the written testimony of Jesus' life and ministry, and the Holy Spirit helps us today to understand and internalize the message. In this sense Jesus still communicates with us through His Spirit.

    The Holy Spirit will also assist in the church's work of spreading the gospel. He is said to convict the world of sin, of righteousness and of judgment (16:8-11). Without this vital work of the Spirit the mission of the church cannot succeed.
    Prayer obviously plays an important an important role in a personal relationship with Jesus. "And whatever you ask in My name, that I will do, that the Father may be glorified in the Son. If you ask anything in My name, I will do it" (14:13,14). Thus Jesus communicates to us through His Word, and we communicate to Him in prayer.
    It is important to emphasize, however, that a "personal" relationship, a relationship between two personal beings, is not static by dynamic. It fluctuates in intensity over time. This means that it must be nurtured. Our relationship with Jesus is no different. And so He tells us "Abide in Me, and I in you. As the branch cannot bear fruit of itself, unless it abides in the vine, neither can you, unless you abide in Me" (15:4). But how do we "abide in Christ"? "If you keep My commandments, you will abide in My love . . ." (15:10). "He who has My commandments and keeps them, it is he who loves Me. And he who loves Me will be loved by My Father, and I will love him and manifest Myself to him" (14:21). The question is this: do we truly love Christ? Are we obeying Him?
    There is a sobering aspect to all of this, however. A personal relationship with Jesus will cost us something. It will cost us the friendship of the world. It must be remembered that this whole discussion in the Upper Room took place just as Jesus was about to be arrested, condemned and crucified. It is the supreme irony of human history that God would send His own Son into the world, and the world would reject Him. One might well ask how such a thing could possibly happen. On an earlier occasion Jesus had explained why: "The world . . . hates Me because I testify of it that its works are evil" (John 7:7). It was His message that the world found so offensive – the implication that its deeds were evil. And so now Jesus tells His disciples that "If the world hates you, you know that it hated Me before it hated you" (John 15:18). He then went on to state a basic fact about the church and its relationship with the world: "If you were of the world, the world would love its own. Yet because you are not of the world, but I chose you out of the world, therefore the world hates you" (v. 19). Before we were saved we were very much a part of the world – we readily absorbed its values, its mores, its lifestyle. But now that God has saved us things are different. We cannot simply go back and live the way we used to. And to the extent that this implies a rejection of the world's values, the world is bound to resent us. Our way of life is a tacit rebuke to theirs, and for this reason they cannot tolerate us. If anyone would be a follower of Jesus, he must first deny himself, take up his cross, and follow Him (Matt. 16:24).
    How many people today are really willing to pursue a personal relationship with Jesus?

Other blog posts you may find interesting:
Religion or Christ?
What is the Church Supposed to be Like? 
The Promise of Prayer 

Saturday, June 8, 2013

Misunderstanding the New Birth

    One of the great tragedies of modern Evangelicalism is that one of its cardinal doctrines, regeneration, is so poorly understood today. As a result there are very likely many church members sitting in our pews who think that they are "born again" when they show very little evidence of regeneration, and in all likelihood are unconverted. One might well ask how such a deplorable state of affairs ever came about.
    At the beginning of the 19th Century most Evangelicals did understand the doctrine of the new birth, and during the "Second Great Awakening" in America (ca. 1795-1835) it was not just a cherished belief but a living experience. Thousands were dramatically converted in the revivals that swept through America. It was a time when heaven truly visited earth.
    It was also a time, however, of intense theological discussion and debate, and one of the key issues under discussion was the age-old question of predestination v. free will. Unitarianism was on the rise; Calvinists were on the defensive. Beginning in the 1820's a prominent theologian at Yale named Nathaniel W. Taylor attempted to reformulate Calvinism. He argued that if human beings have a moral duty to believe, then they must have the natural ability to do so. Moral responsibility implies free will. It was not a new argument; it had been advanced in ancient times by a British monk named Pelagius, and for this reason is sometimes referred to as "Pelagianism" or "Semi-Pelagianism." But Taylor's ideas were picked up by the well-known evangelist Charles G. Finney and became widespread through his influence.
Charles G. Finney
  Finney was both brilliant and bold. A converted lawyer turned preacher, he did not hesitate to discard doctrines he did not think made sense. An ordained Presbyterian minister, he attacked Presbyterian theology. He specifically attacked the notion that human nature was depraved. "We deny that the human constitution is morally depraved, because it is impossible that sin should be a quality of the substance of soul or body. It is, and must be, a quality of choice or intention, and not of substance" (Systematic Theology, Chapter 20). What, then, is the new birth? Finney replies: "It is not a change in the substance of soul or body . . . No such change is needed, as the sinner has all the faculties and natural attributes requisite to render perfect obedience to God. All he needs is to be induced to use these powers and attributes as he ought" (Ibid., Chapter 23, IV). He then goes on to say that regeneration is essentially a change of mind: ". . . regeneration consists in the sinner changing his ultimate choice, intention, preference" (Ibid., VII.2). The Holy Spirit persuades the sinner to change his mind, but does not change anything in him to enable him to do so. According to Finney, the sinner already has the ability.

    This new way of thinking has had a devastating impact on American Evangelicalism, because it radically changed the way we go about doing ministry. Previously, churches prayed for revival. Today we organize a committee. We rely on natural means to achieve spiritual ends. Our prayer meetings are deserted, and genuine, lasting conversions are few. A five year old "asks Jesus into his heart," and at twenty five walks away from the faith. Hardly anyone, even in churches, has a sense of the presence of God as a living reality.
John Wesley
 Finney's viewpoint has often been attacked as "Arminianism," but it really is not. The old-time Methodists, who wore their Arminianism proudly on their sleeves, didn't hesitate to describe the new birth as a radical change produced by the Holy Spirit. John Wesley, who had seen real revival as a result of his own ministry, put it like this: the new birth is "that great change which God works in the soul, when he brings it into life; when he raises it from the death of sin to the life of righteousness. It is the change wrought in the whole soul by the almighty Spirit of God, when it is 'created anew in Christ Jesus' . . ." (Sermons on Several Occasions, Sermon XLV: "The New Birth," II.5). Or, as John Wesley's brother Charles described it so beautifully in a hymn written shortly after his own conversion in 1738:

                "Long my imprisoned spirit lay
                    Fast bound in sin and nature's night;
                 Thine eye diffused a quick'ning ray,
                    I woke, the dungeon flamed with light;
                 My chains fell off, my heart was free,
                    I rose, went forth, and followed Thee."
    Today many deplore the current trends in our culture, and rightly so. The foundations of Western Civilization are eroding away. But this is not likely to change until the church recovers the spiritual power it once had; and in order for this to happen we need to be reminded of how dependent we are upon the work of the Holy Spirit to achieve results in the ministry. Above all else, we need to pray. "But you do not have because you do not ask" (Jas. 4:2; NKJV).

Tuesday, June 4, 2013

The Higher Law



William H. Seward Monument
Auburn, NY
     William H. Seward was a prominent American politician in the 19th Century, a founder of the Republican Party, and Secretary of State under President Lincoln during the Civil War. His home in Auburn, NY is in the background of the pictures to the left.
     The inscription on the monument is from a famous (and controversial) speech he delivered on the floor of the U.S. Senate on March 11, 1850, opposing what eventually became known as the Compromise of 1850 – a last ditch effort to save the nation from disunion. The quotation contains a reference to the Preamble of the U.S. Constitution, which reads: "We the people of the United States, in order to form a more perfect union, establish justice, insure domestic tranquility, provide for the common defense, promote the general welfare, and secure the blessings of liberty to ourselves and our posterity, do ordain and establish this Constitution for the United States of America." But Seward also referred to "a higher law than the Constitution, which regulates our authority over the domain . . ."
     The speech touched off a firestorm of criticism. Southerners called it "monstrous and diabolical." Henry Clay, who first proposed the Compromise, called Seward's speech "wild, reckless, and abominable." President Zachary Taylor commented "This is a nice mess Governor Seward has got us into . . ." (Seward had previously been governor of New York State).
     But was Seward right? What is "the higher law"?