Monday, November 7, 2011

The Nature of the Fallen Human Heart on Display

As a native of central Pennsylvania, I grew up an avid fan of Penn State football.  In my office I have two Coke bottles, each depicting national championship teams in 1982 and 1986.  On my bookshelves are two volumes on Coach Joe Paterno and a Wheaties box that features him on the front. 

When we moved to Canada as missionaries in 1982, our location placed us in a situation where getting network TV programming was impossible.  So Sharon and I rented a motel room in the nearest town just so we could watch Penn State play for the national title (and defeat Georgia in the process).  I still recall the Nittany Lion marching band victoriously playing The Night the Lights Went Out in Georgia.  That was the only time we ever rented a room but did not bother to stay for the night!

I remain an avid follower of Penn State to this day.  So it was with great pain that we, along with the rest of the “Nittany Nation,” received the news that retired, long-time defensive coordinator Jerry Sandusky has been indicted on multiple counts of sexual abuse of minors.  While one is innocent until proven guilty, the mountain of alleged evidence is greatly troubling at this time, to say the least.

Penn State has prided itself on running a “clean” athletic program, epitomized by the philanthropic work of Coach Paterno and his wife, Sue.  Paterno has always been about much more than athletic accomplishments, setting him apart from many of his peers.

So the shock of these recent revelations about Sandusky is intensely difficult to bear.  Before he retired from Penn State, Jerry was widely considered a likely candidate to eventually replace Coach Paterno.  He had built a strong reputation for defensive excellence, earning Penn State the nickname “Linebacker U” and producing such defensive standouts as All-Pro Shane Conlon and Hall-of-Famer, Jack Ham. 

How could a man with such accomplishments and long-term record of excellence fall into the gross sins of which he is accused?  The answer is found in the inherent nature of the sinful human heart.  Jeremiah wrote these words, “The heart is deceitful above all things, and desperately wicked; who an know it?”  We each are born with a heart capable of the alleged crimes of Jerry Sandusky, and worse.  That is why we need a savior.

The proper response to the devastating news out of State College this weekend is to grieve over these alleged violations of the law of God and to remind ourselves of our own need of repentance and cleansing by the blood of Jesus Christ.  Rather than taking a “holier than thou” approach to such crimes, we must acknowledge that “there but for the grace of God go I.” 

Let us give thanks once again for the gospel of Christ that proclaims that the power of God will change our wicked, hard hearts and make us willing and able to follow Him in faithfulness and truth.  And let us pray for Jerry Sandusky and all those caught up in this horrible scandal.  May the truth prevail and justice be done.  And justice will be done on that final Day of Judgment that awaits every man.

Monday, July 25, 2011

Top Flag

On my travels in and around Pigeon Cove I occasionally drive by a church with a flagpole proudly displaying the American and Christian flags.  According to proper protocol, when flown together, the American flag must be displayed on top, with the Christian, or any other flag, below it on the same or different poles.  When displayed inside, the American flag must be on the speaker’s right, if presented on a raised platform.  When on the congregation’s level, it must be placed on the right side of the audience.  Regardless of the situation, the U.S. flag must be in the place of highest honor.

Now, in most contexts, this protocol is perfectly acceptable.  The flag of the various states, civic organizations, or other countries should indeed be flown in a position inferior to the Stars and Stripes.  But when the Christian flag is involved, the situation changes dramatically.

For the follower of Jesus Christ, no allegiance, not even American citizenship, can be permitted to take precedence over his devotion to the Lord.  To do otherwise is to violate the 1st Commandment by relegating God to an inferior position.

How then should the church handle the display of the American and Christian flags?  The only answer, without violating either U.S. or biblical guidelines, is to simply not display either flag.  We removed both flags from our church for this very reason.

As Christians and Americans, we are required to render appropriate honor to whom honor is due.  But in the matter of displaying flags, it is an impossible situation, the practice of many churches notwithstanding.

Every time I drive by the church mentioned above I cringe inside.  If I were to interview members of that congregation, doubtless all would claim to follow the Bible.  In this case, perhaps ignorantly, they are guilty of idolizing the American flag.  Honoring the name of God demands that He always be given the preeminence.

Friday, April 22, 2011

Theological Termites

The current issue of Time magazine, published during the most holy week of the Christian calendar, features a startling cover that asks the piercing question: “What if there’s no hell?”  The cover story outlines the controversy over the new book by mega-pastor Rob Bell, Love Wins.

Bell suggests that Christ’s redemptive work will eventually see the salvation of all men, hence the implication of the title that the love of God will overcome His wrath against sin.  This is a humanly appealing thesis that appears every so often throughout history.  Bell has written a new book, but in reality he has simply repackaged the age-old heresy of universalism for 21st century readers.

I write this brief essay on Good Friday afternoon, the annual commemoration of Jesus’ suffering on the cross.  Among the difficulties with Bell’s thesis is that his words undermine the reliability and consistency of the Christian faith. Like so many spiritual termites, his ideas destroy the integrity of an orthodox understanding of Scripture so that it eventually crashes under its own weight into a heap of insignificance.

How can there be any eternal merit in the death of one that proclaimed blatant falsehoods—even if they were uttered for an admirable purpose?  For Jesus Himself repeatedly spoke of a place for the unrepentant “where their worm does not die and the fire is not quenched” (Mark 9:42-48).

It was Jesus who spoke of the Final Judgment when all men will be divided into two groups, those who will enjoy the blessings of eternal life and those who will “go away into everlasting punishment” (Matthew 25:46).

No, one cannot properly call himself a Christian when he denies these plain words of Christ Himself.  It is intensely difficult to contemplate the reality of a sentence of unending torment and suffering.  But Scripture unambiguously proclaims this frightening reality.  No amount of wishful thinking can change the plain sense of the inspired text.

To subscribe to the reality postulated by Pastor Bell is to confess that there is no such thing as Scriptural authority.  Instead, our faith – and our God – become whatever we choose to make them.  Bell is thus guilty of proclaiming a gospel, not the gospel of Christ but the gospel of post-modern relativism.  Whatever seems right to each person becomes the truth for him.

May God enable us to defend the deposit of truth that has been entrusted to us by the Apostles (2 Timothy 1:13).  The proliferation of repackaged heresies requires a renewed effort at exterminating the termites of theological compromise.

Wednesday, March 9, 2011

The Growing Mountain

One of the great theological divides separating those who profess to believe the Bible is their view of the future.   Some maintain an optimistic eschatology, with respect to the growth of God’s kingdom in the present era; others expect a growing apostasy that will only worsen as time progresses.  Both camps purport to find biblical justification for their position.

What did Jesus teach?  In Matthew 13 Jesus presented a series of parables designed to shed light upon the nature and progress of the kingdom of God.  Two of them specifically address the matter of its growth.  In the Parable of the Mustard Seed, Jesus’ point was that the kingdom would experience almost unbelievable growth.    The tiny mustard seed germinates and eventually becomes a “tree.”  So the kingdom will grow beyond all expectations.  In the Parable of the Leaven Jesus teaches that just as leaven will fully permeate a batch of dough, so the kingdom will eventually saturate the entire world.

This concept of massive kingdom growth is not foreign to the Old Testament.  King Nebuchadnezzar has a dream that is subsequently interpreted by Daniel.  Among the features of the dream is the appearance of a stone that smashes the image depicting four human kingdoms.  This stone then grows to become a gigantic mountain that eventually fills the whole earth.  Daniel explains that the four-part image represents four, major human kingdoms that will be destroyed by the kingdom of God, which shall stand forever.  Once again, we see a picture of extraordinary, worldwide, expansion of the kingdom, growth that steadily increases from a tiny beginning to earth-filling proportions.  It is this dimension that Jesus taught in the two parables cited above.

Fast-forwarding to the 21st century, many Christians in the West are overwhelmed with the growing degeneracy of society and the departure from the Judeo-Christian foundation of our past.  We see European cathedrals becoming museums; we observe the increased hostility to anything distinctly Christian, and clouds of despair overwhelm our thinking.  Surely the end must be near; surely Christ will return soon to usher in a time gospel victory.

But the Scriptural vision is one of steady growth in this era during which the kingdom will triumph and fill the earth.  How can we reconcile this vision with the present reality?  The solution begins with enlarging our perspective.  Yes, we in America and the West are currently experiencing a decline.  But considering the entire earth, the picture is radically different.

The International Bulletin of Missionary Research recently released some telling statistics.  The present world population consists of 468 million Buddhists, 951 million Hindus, 1.6 billion Muslims, and 2.3 billion Christians--with about 1.5 billion attending church regularly.  So, no, contrary to popular opinion, the Muslims are not set to rule the world.

In 1911 there were an estimated 400,000 congregations of believes around the world.  A century later there are now 5 million.  In 1900 it is estimated there were about 9 million Christians in Africa; today that number has exploded to 475 million.  Sounds a lot like Daniel chapter 2.

Believers must be careful about forming their theological expectations from today’s headlines.  But properly understand, the present reality is further evidence that Jesus did not give the Great Commission as an exercise in futility but because He fully expected that, in time and space, during His absence, it would be fulfilled by the church.

Let us seek the face of God for the restoration of our nation and rejoice in what God is doing elsewhere around the world.  The mountain is growing. 

Wednesday, February 9, 2011

Final Words

What do you say to a faithful Christian, who is near death, on the occasion of your final opportunity to communicate in this life?  I was faced with that scenario recently as my wife and I traveled to visit a godly widow whom we have known for thirty-four years.  Her husband was an elder in the first church that I pastored; we have been good friends ever since.  As we all experience, friendships typically weaken over time.  But our relationship with Charlotte has been a rare constant in our lives for decades.  

Contemplating appropriate words on such an occasion forces one to cut through the usual light-hearted banter and inconsequential verbiage that comprises much of our social interaction.  When brought face-to-face with imminent death in the life of a treasured friend, several strong sentiments rose to the surface of my troubled mind.

First is a visceral revulsion to the inevitable consequences of sin.  Charlotte has maintained, by all outward standards, an exemplary Christian testimony well into her eighth decade of life.  As long as we have known her she has exhibited a heart to minister to others in a gracious spirit that honored the name of God.  Yet Charlotte, like all of us, is infected with the curse of sin.  It will take its inevitable and final toll on her frail body very soon.  But it can do no more than that because Christ has defeated the power of sin and death.  The curse may win the first round, but it will go down in a spectacular display of resurrection power in the end.

Second is an irrepressible sense of joy that a state of being awaits Charlotte, and all the faithful, that will so radically transform her existence as to render the present sufferings but a distant memory, to be recalled only as a means of rejoicing in the sin-obliterating grace of God.   Of that land that is “fairer than day,” the old hymn proclaims, “by faith we can see it afar.”  Charlotte, in the providence of God, is about to experience what we who remain behind can only yet dream of.

Third, not a single act of kindness done in the name of Christ will have been in vain.  The infinite Lord of the universe, in His omniscience and omnipresence, sees and remembers every moment of every life.  While we fondly recall many of the benevolences that Charlotte showered upon us, we have also forgotten countless others.  And we are but one of a myriad other recipients of her Spirit-driven charity.  But God has recorded them all in His book; not one is forgotten.

We sought to convey these brief sentiments to a godly saint whose appetite for this world and its ravages has waned.  Selfishly, we want to hold on to such relationships just a little longer.  But a loving spirit desires what is best for another; we therefore entrust Charlotte to the wise hand of the Lord who has decreed when her earthly pilgrimage should end. She is ready to meet her Maker, not because of what she has done but because of what He did.  We look forward to the grand reunion on the other side.