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Christian Marriage Plain and Simple

Happy-MarriageRead: Eph. 4:31–32

Introduction

You might find strange that the biblical text doesn’t seem to relate specifically about marriage at all. Paul is giving the church general instructions, but he doesn’t say anything specifically at this point about the family or marriage, which is what I’m preaching about. So, what does this passage have to do with marriage?

I was led to think down this path by something Don Broesamle said during our ordination installation a few weeks ago. He pointed out that the requirements for the deacons (1 Tim. 3:8–13) are requirements for every Christian — they aren’t some super-requirements for the diaconal elite that other Christians can dismiss. The deacons must be dignified, not devious, not greedy, and so on, but the Bible doesn’t teach that these requirements just apply to deacons. Why did the Holy Spirit list these then? Because he wanted to highlight these requirements as ones especially relevant for deacons.

But this fact led me think down other paths. What about the requirements in marriage? Are there unusual, unique requirements that don’t apply to our other relationships? As I got to thinking about that, it occurred to me that, with rare exception, the requirements for marriage are the requirements for Christians in general. For example, the husband is called to lay down his life for his wife, and Jesus laid down his life for the church (Eph. 5:25). What an ultimate sacrifice. But the fact is, John tells us that we ought to be willing to lay down our lives for our brothers and sisters in the faith, not just husbands for their wives (1 Jn. 3:16). So, the call for the husband to sacrifice his life for his wife isn’t unique to marriage. And the same is true of most of the other biblical requirements in marriage. Of course, marriage may seem to be unique relationship like no other, but Paul says that even the union of marriage is like the union of Christ and his church (Eph. 5:31–32).

Where am I going with this? I want to say that being a good spouse in marriage is nothing more or less than being a good Christian. There are no superhuman requirements. There are no obscure “keys.” We sometimes hear sermons or Christian books with topics like, “Secrets to a Happy Marriage.” But there are no “secrets.” Godly marriages aren’t just for some initiated elite. Every marriage here today can be a happy, godly marriage, and it can be happy and godly because to be a good spouse just requires that you be a good Christian, a faithful follower of Jesus. Ans everybody can do that.

This is why I say that Christian marriage is plain and simple. I didn’t say “easy,” but I did say “plain” and “simple.” Godly, successful marriages are available to every Christian marriage.

Requirements for All Christians

I’ve chosen Ephesians 4:31–32 to start with because the Christian virtues mentioned in these verses — that is, virtues all Christians should manifest — create not just a successful Christian but also a successful Christian marriage.

Kindness

We’re required as Christians to be kind to one another. The word translated kind means “mild, pleasant (as opposed to harsh, hard, sharp, bitter).” We know what it means to be harsh, hard, sharp, bitter, don’t we? We all have the capacity to use our words to hurt the ones we’re closest to, and we do this because we know they care the most. That is, we abuse their love for us.

Gordon Livingston once said that a relationship is always under the control of the one who cares the least. Think hard about that. The one who cares the least (in a marriage, for example) can get his or her way because he knows that the other person cares so much for the least caring one that he greatly wants to please him and her. That’s why the Bible demands we prefer others before ourselves (Rom. 12:10): Our goal should be pleasing one another, not ourselves, including — especially — in our marriages.

Therefore, as Christians, we’re required not be harsh, hard, sharp, and bitter. Don’t say, “That’s my personality.” It’s not our personality; it’s sin. God didn’t make us naturally to be harsh and hard and bitter. We had to learn to be that way via our sinful nature.

Remember that being kind is required of all Christians in how we treat one another. And if it’s true of all Christians, it’s certainly true in a marriage. It’s truly remarkable — and reprehensible — how kindly we can treat other people while simultaneously being unkind to our wife or husband. Let’s say you’re in the middle of saying unkind, harsh words to your spouse and somebody comes to the door, and you immediately change your demeanor and treat them with kindness.

All of us have done this, but there is nonetheless something fundamentally twisted about this inconsistency. If we can be treat a neighbor or a friend more kindly than we treat our husband or wife, we have missed (at that point) what it means to be a Christian.

Our words are powerful. “Death and life are in the power of the tongue” (Pr. 18:21).

To treat your spouse kindly means speaking with mildness and restraint and concern. When situations get hard — and I assure you they will get hard — it means working hardest to be mild and caring. In fact, the harder situations become, the harder we should work to be kind to our wife or husband.

Would you like to know why kindness cultivates and protects a marriage? Because when we have the person closest to us in the world constantly — not intermittently but constantly — treating us with tenderness and mildness, they’re saying by their actions that we have great worth and value. Now, the Bible assures us that we’re created in God’s image, but we need that fact reinforced to us in flesh, blood and bones right in front of us. When the one we live with, the one we’ve made a lifelong covenant with, treat us with kindness, he or she is saying, “You’re made in God’s image, and you’re of great value and worth to me, and I care about how you feel and about your happiness and joy and security.”

When we are “harsh, hard, sharp, and bitter,” on the other hand, we’re saying, “Your feelings and happiness are not valuable enough for me to care about. I don’t care enough to work hard to guarantee that you know by my words and actions that I know you’re made in God’s image and deserve to be treated with kindness.”

If there’s anywhere that we should treat our fellow Christians kindly, it’s in our marriage.

Tenderheartedness

Then Paul goes on to exhort the church that they should be tenderhearted toward one another. Tenderhearted means “having strong bowels; compassionate.” “Strong bowels”? That sounds disgusting. But we need to understand that to the Jews, the bowels were considered the deepest expression of our emotions. John talks about the “bowels of compassion” (1 Jn. 3:17). The Jews didn’t believe that emotions were superficial. They believed that they grew out of the inmost part of our being. They believed that our emotions were a part of us that governed our entire life.

And the chief emotion in the “bowels” is compassion. Compassion is an emotion of great sympathy with someone who is suffering or who is enduring great trial. You may have heard that a song by Joni Erickson Tada, the famous Christian quadriplegic, was nominated for an Academy Award (before the Academy disqualified it). She was paralyzed as a very young woman, and she’s devoted her life to serving other people with the Gospel of Jesus Christ. We think of her disability and we have deep compassion.

But that compassion that we should have for all Christians who are suffering should be especially manifest toward our spouse. That one we’re closest to, whom we’ve committed ourselves to, “til death do us part.” That person you live with needs your compassion more than anyone.

Now our culture’s attitude is often, “Life’s hard. Suck it up.”  I don’t happen to find that attitude in the Bible, at least not as a way we’re supposed to respond to our brothers and sisters, and certainly not our spouse. No, the biblical way is compassion. That means sympathizing, putting yourself in the place of your spouse. This means a husband’s tenderheartedness for his wife’s pains of childbirth. It means a wife’s compassion for her husband’s hectic, pressure-cooker day at work. It means sympathy for our spouse when he or she has failed, or is ailing, or just can’t seem to go, or is emotionally depleted.

You’ve heard perhaps the old adage, “Don’t criticize somebody else until you’ve walked a mile in his moccasins.” Well, you get compassion by mentally putting yourself in your spouse’s shoes. This is a trait that we have to cultivate; it doesn’t generally come naturally. We naturally care about ourselves and our comfort rather than anybody else (Eph. 5:29). But when we husbands develop the habit of thinking about how it feels when our wife can’t seem to go on emotionally and physically, it’s easy to be compassionate and comfort her. When you wives look beyond the manly exterior of your husband and realize that we often feel exhausted and insecure and unsuccessful and pressured, then you’ll be able easily to know and show compassion. That’s not just being a good spouse. That’s being a good Christian.

Forgiveness

Finally, Paul requires the church to forgive one another. This assumes that we’re going to say and do things that hurt each other. Paul is a realist. He knows that we’re sinners. He knows that we’ll all say and do things in the church that injure one another. Therefore, he knows that we’ll have to spend a lot of time forgiving one another. And if this is true in the church with our brothers and sisters, imagine how true it is with the brother or sister we live with, with whom we made a lifelong covenant, with whom we’ve produced children. Certainly, the need to forgive is greater in marriage than anywhere.

And Paul ties this need to forgive right with the Gospel. “forgiv[e] one another, as God in Christ forgave you” (v. 32c). That makes it easy to forgive. If God in Jesus could forgive us our mountain of sins, we can find it in ourselves to forgiver much small molehills of sins committed by our spouse. To be a Christian means to forgive one another in the church — and in our marriages — just as God forgave us for Jesus’ sake.

Refusing to forgive is a tragic sin. What makes it so bad isn’t just the ingratitude — God forgave us but we refuse to forgive others (Lk. 7:36–50). It’s more than that. If we allow that unforgiving spirit to fester, if we don’t repent and turn away from it, it turns putrefying, and its stench afflicts our entire lives. Everything we do is blighted by it. You know what I’m talking about. You’ve met people whose entire lives slowly turn bitter because they refuse to forgive a parent or an employer or a friend or a pastor — or a spouse. Our refusing to forgive when someone repents and asks for our forgiveness[1] gradually changes us into bitter, resentful people. When that happens, we can’t be good Christians. What that happens, we no longer are in touch with the Gospel, which is about forgiveness.

So, in our marriages, let’s be quick to forgive. Be quick to offer forgiveness. Be quick to think about how God so freely forgave all of sins, and it’ll be easy to forgive the comparatively smaller sins our spouses commit against us.

Conclusion

Note what I’ve said today: being a good spouse really is simply being a good Christian in a marriage. It’s following Jesus in the life of the person to whom we’re married. This isn’t some special, secret virtue reserved for the spiritual elite. It means (for example) being kind, compassionate and forgiving.

If we live a faithful Christian life with our wife or husband, if both spouses do this, there’s no way we’ll experience anything else than a strong Christian marriage.

 


[1] The Bible requires confession and repentance if one is to be forgiven. See A. B. Caneday, Must Christans Always Forgive? (Mount Hermon, California: Center for Cultural Leadership, 2011).

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Baptism: Salvation by Judgment

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Read: 1 Pet. 3:18–22

I want to draw attention to Peter’s unique — striking, in fact — teaching on baptism. I’ve preached many, many times at our church about baptism, but somehow I think this is first time I’ve addressed this passage, which is a very important one.

Peter has been addressing the topic of suffering in the Christian life and he offers our Lord as an example (vv. 17–18). He talks about how we need to answer respectfully those who persecute us (v. 15), and how in all things we maintain a pure conscience. It’s quite interesting how Peter, like Paul (Ac. 23:1; 24:16; 2 Tim. 1:3), was so concerned with a good conscience (vv. 16, 21). This is a topic we hear almost nothing about today, and it occupied a lot more of the thoughts of the biblical writers than it does ours.

Noah’s floodwaters

But I want us to look at the odd statement Peter makes in v. 21. He’s just been talking about Jesus’ atoning death and bodily resurrection (v. 18). He makes a fascinating point in vv. 19–20, that Jesus in the spirit preached to the sinners in Noah’s day. This passage has been sometimes misunderstood to be saying that Jesus did the preaching when (or just before) he was resurrected. But that’s not the point at all. Peter is saying that the sinners from Noah’s time who are now in prison (he means waiting the Final Judgment) are the same ones Jesus preached to in Noah’s day. He means that God’s Son was at work in Noah’s preaching (Gen. 6:3; 2 Pet. 2:4–5). Jesus was at work in Noah preaching to the wicked antediluvians, and God was very patient with them, but finally he unleashed his fury (v. 20).

And then he makes a remarkable statement — “baptism corresponds to this [event].” Literally he says baptism is an antitype — it’s the fulfillment of the type that God was laying out in the OT. In other words, the floodwaters of Noah’s day were the type to which baptism would one day correspond.

Of all the OT uses of water (there are many), why did Peter select this one? The reason is that this example of water teaches something vital about baptism.

It’s simply this. Noah’s floodwaters that judged the world saved the righteous. This is quite how Peter expresses it. Noah’s family was “brought safely through water” (v. 20), like the water of baptism that now saves us. These are the same floodwaters that drowned the wicked.

Peter’s point is that the waters of baptism are both judgmental and salvatory. Or, baptism both judges and saves. The same water. How is this?

Baptism Judges

We often don’t think about the fact that baptism is an act of judgment on the world. How is this? In several ways, but I’ll mention just one. Baptism a mark of covenant exclusion, not just inclusion, but exclusion. Only those to whom the Gospel promises apply may be baptized.

If a mother phones me and asks if we can baptize her daughter, even though she herself isn’t a Christian and doesn’t want to be, we’ll politely refuse. Baptism is for Christians.

Years ago the perverse rock star Madonna had her daughter baptized. Somebody asked her how she could do this since she wasn’t a faithful Catholic. She replied that she didn’t have to believe the doctrines of the church in order to appreciate its rituals.

But baptism isn’t chiefly a ritual, although it can degenerate into that. Baptism is the visible act of God’s taking a person out of the sinful world and placing him into Jesus’ body (1 Cor. 12:13). Baptism is the visible act that corresponds to the invisible work of God in the heart of a man, woman or child.

When that happens, baptism visibly excludes everybody who isn’t baptized — everybody who stands outside Jesus Christ — they stand, as it were, in the floodwaters of God’s judgment.

Of course, God alone knows who is invisibly excluded; only he sees the human heart. But baptism isn’t about seeing the human heart. It’s about seeing the human body with God’s mark of ownership on it. And it’s about recognizing that anybody that’s not baptized stands outside God’s saving covenant dealings — that is, they stand under judgment.

The same floodwaters of Noah that were carrying the ark away from judgment were drowning sinners in judgment.

Baptism Saves

Peter says that baptism saves us (v. 21). If somebody says, “Baptism doesn’t save,” he is contradicting the inspired Word of God. But we have to ask, “In what sense does baptism save?” Peter right away says, “[N]ot as a removal of dirt from the body.” We know that water does this — that’s why we bathe in water. But Peter is saying, “Baptism doesn’t wash away our sins, like water washes our body, though it might picture that fact.” No, baptism saves us by allowing us to stand in good conscience before God because of what Jesus has done for us on the Cross (v. 18). We can be bold, our sins don’t accuse us any more, we stand with an open face (good conscience) before God, because we are righteous in his sight.  We are justified. Jesus has taken away our sin.

This is critical, for it shows us that baptism is a judicial act. This is why there’s no baptismal regeneration, but there is baptismal declaration. Baptism declares publicly who belongs to God.

That’s why v. 18 says, “Christ also suffered once for sins, the righteous for the unrighteous, that he might bring us to God.” We can’t be brought into God’s presence as sinful people. God is holy. But God leveled his judgment on his Son, who bore our sins, “the righteous for the unrighteous.” By his suffering on the cross, he made us holy so that we can stand with a good conscience, judicially, before God.

Now think about Noah’s floodwaters again. The very same waters that judged the world carried Noah and his family to safety. Think with me: the very judgment on Jesus that was God’s flood of wrath on him carried us to safety. It was the same judgment. Baptism signifies God’s judgment on the world, including when Jesus perished with the world on the Cross.

In the Bible, God’s judgment and salvation almost always go together, and never more than at the Cross. God judged Jesus on the Cross, and that judgment brought us salvation — just like the floodwaters that judged Noah’s contemporaries carried Noah and his family away from God’s judgment in the ark. The same water that drowns can also support. The same water that kills can also rescue. Because Jesus perished in the flood of God’s judgment, we are carried by those waters to safety.

There’s no magic in the water of baptism. But that water signs and seals our salvation (Rom. 4:11).

In baptism, we are witnessing judgment and salvation. Both. We are witnessing God’s judgment on the world, his exclusion of all those who haven’t placed their faith in Jesus Christ — all those outside the ark of safety; and we’re witnessing the external act of God’s wiping away of our sin by the judgment he leveled on Jesus — we are witnessing an act of covenant inclusion — in the case of children, the little lambs being placed in the ark.

This is why we can rejoice with these lambs today — God’s chosen ones, that he places in his ark of safety.

 

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John M. Frame’s Sola Scriptura Systematics

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Ever since John M. Frame’s systematic theology was released last November, I intended to promote and explain it for a wider audience, and Tom Chantry’s recent critique has furnished me a suitable opportunity. Did I say “critique”? It’s more like a bludgeoning: “[I]t is my firm opinion that John Frame is one of the most dangerous characters in the broadly Reformed world today,” and, “Frame’s response [to queries about his views on worship] could only be characterized as spectacularly ignorant or intentionally deceptive, and no one ever accused Frame of ignorance.” In other words, Chantry calls Frame a liar. At the very outset, therefore, we might be cautioned, since it’s difficult to write objectively about another Christian’s systematic theology when one’s already committed to such a dire verdict.

My own intent in this short post is not to offer a point-by-point refutation of Chantry’s critique. Rather, I’ll highlight those aspects of Frame’s systematics that have become particularly controversial but, in my view, reflect the genius of his approach. That genius centers entirely on Frame’s view of the Bible.

First, sola scriptura really has teeth in Frame’s systematics. All orthodox Protestants are formally committed to sola scriptura, but, unlike many of theirs, Frame’s theological method marinates in it. One’s source/s for theology is/are the first and most critical aspect of theological method. Your theological source will shape the systematics that comes out the other side. Theology based in reason (Enlightenment), intuition (Romanticism), contemporary culture (liberalism), church history or historical theology (Roman Catholicism and Eastern Orthodoxy) looks very different from theology based on the Bible alone. Frame’s uncompromising devotion to the Bible alone as the source of his theology puts him at loggerheads with many in his own tradition [!] (Reformed). When Frame wrote his systematics, he wasn’t intentionally trying to write a confessional Reformed theology. He was trying to write a biblical theology, but his conclusions turned out to be Reformed (that, and that alone, is why Frame’s Reformed). By contrast, Prof. R. Scott Clark, who was not happy with Frame’s theology, wants a theology based on the Bible but shaped by the Reformed confessions. Clark is formally committed to sola scriptura, but he is not committed to sola scripture in his theological method. Neither is Chantry.

This leads to the second point. Chantry criticizes Frame for affectionately adopting theological revolutionaries in church history. Chantry sees a hint of Hegel here. That’s the uncharitable reading. The charitable reading would be that Frame is interested in a theology and theologians who help us to understand the Bible better than we have. To put it another way: Frame does not privilege tradition in writing theology. Frame isn’t interested in revolutionary theology as such. He is simply interested in understanding the Bible better. Reading Chantry’s critique, one gets the impression that he’s not particularly fond of theological sanctification. The Bible teaches that God sanctifies Christians over time and in every aspect of their being (1 Thes. 5:13). It teaches the same thing about ecclesiastical sanctification (Eph. 5:27). The church is being sanctified over time, and that sanctification includes theological sanctification. This isn’t just a biblical fact. It’s an empirical fact. The patristic church developed Christology and Trinitarianism. The Reformation church developed the application of redemption. The Bible is unchanged and unchanging, but theology develops. Indeed, because the Bible doesn’t change, we must. This truth should shape theological method. It does shape Frame’s.

Finally, we encounter what is in my view Frame’s unique (dare I say revolutionary?) contribution to writing theology. For Frame, meaning is application. As it relates to theology, this construction suggests that the task of systematic theology is at once more modest and more Herculean that is usually supposed. Systematic theology in the medieval world was generally based on the sort of scholasticism we find in Aristotle. You see this quite impressively in Aquinas. After the Scientific Revolution, however, the arrangement of systematic theology often moved in a different direction. The Bible was treated as a scientist would treat the data of the physical world, and the theologian was its “scientist.” The goal of a good scientist is to take all of the comparatively un-systematized data in nature and put it into a nice, neat, conceptual arrangement. In this way, science became even more useful than the nature it systematized. In theology, the Bible was analogously recognized as a collection of teachings that could be properly arranged to set forth a system of truth perhaps even more useful than the original biblical data.

Frame will have nothing of this. You can’t improve on the Bible, not even in the way it is arranged, so you shouldn’t even try. This means that Frame has a very different view of systematic theology than most conservative systematic theologians. The job of the theologian is not to create a beautiful system, but simply to help people to understand and obey the Bible. In this sense, the theologian’s task is a lot more modest than many suppose. On the other hand, the task is more Herculean, since we need to apply the Bible to everything, not create a pretty theological system that impresses other seminary faculty. Since the Bible alone is authoritative, creating a system of the Bible’s teaching (and we can and should do this in many different ways, depending on the circumstance) is simply pedagogical and ministerial: we are helping people understand God’s written truth.

This is a doggedly uncompromising sola scriptura systematics, and theologians and theological students who are more interested in defending theological tradition and confessions of faith and grand theological systems than in simply believing, championing, obeying, and teaching and preaching the word of God are likely to find Frame’s theology off-putting.

Even dangerous and deceptive.

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God’s Blessing of Common Grace

Read Acts 4:11–17

Introduction

I’m preaching unusual messages both this week and next. You don’t often hear sermons these days on the topics I’m addressing, but the topics are important, and they’re biblical. One reason Christians don’t know about these topics is that their pastors don’t preach on them. Their pastors rob them of biblical teaching. That’s a serious pastoral sin. I try not to commit it.

Common Grace

One of those topics not often preached on is common grace. What is common grace? The expression “common grace” isn’t in the Bible, just like the word Trinity isn’t in the Bible, but the idea is certainly there.  First I’ll define common grace, and then I’ll tell you what the Bible teaches about it and how to apply this truth to our lives.

Common grace defined

Common grace is God’s goodness and kindness that he sheds on all people and all creation, irrespective of whether they’re Christian. Common grace is different from redemptive grace. We should know what redemptive grace is. Redemptive grace is God’s grace he pours out on sinners who call out to Jesus Christ for salvation. Sometimes people call this “special” grace. The Bible teaches both common grace and special, or redemptive grace. Common grace simply means that God is kind to people who are not Christians. That’s why it’s called common grace; it’s common to everyone.

Impoverished view of creation

One reason that people don’t know much about common grace is because they have a high view of redemption but a low view of creation. Evangelicals, in particular, have this problem. We are are Gospel people. We should be Gospel people, but there’s more in the Bible than Gospel. Creation precedes the Gospel. In fact, if there is no creation, there can be no Gospel. The Gospel is around because Satan spoiled God’s creation (though not permanently). Creation is the foundation for what God did in the Gospel. We see God’s common grace at work first in creation, and if we have a low view of creation, we will likely also have a low view of common grace.

Common Grace in the Bible

But the Bible is clear about common grace. Paul was preaching at Lystra and said about the pagans, “In past generations [God] allowed all the nations to walk in their own ways. Yet he did not leave himself without witness, for he did good by giving you rains from heaven and fruitful seasons, satisfying your hearts with food and gladness.”

And Jesus taught (Mt. 5:45), “For [God] makes his sun rise on the evil and on the good, and sends rain on the just and on the unjust.” Jesus was teaching his disciples not to hate their enemies, and he’s saying, you’d better not hate them because God loves them and is kind to them.

We read in Psalm 145:8–9:

The Lord is gracious and merciful, slow to anger and abounding in steadfast love. The Lord is good to all, and his mercy is over all that he has made.

Did you notice? God’s merciful and kind to all that he’s made, not just Christians.

Common grace and gladness

God grants all people a bevy of blessings. He gives us good food. In the West we eat fresh meat and vegetables — most of us daily. Even in the Third World, where poverty sometimes abounds, most people aren’t literally starving to death. Day by day God provides them food. He satisfies humans’ hearts “with food and gladness.” In other words, God wants humans to be glad. Think of that. They may be his enemies (Rom. 5:10), but he still loves them and gives them tasty food (filet), clean water (right out of the tap), enjoyable drink (merlot or bourbon), just so they can be glad.

Common grace and restraint on sin

God manifests his common grace in another way. He restrains man’s depravity. Man is totally depraved (Rom. 3:9–20), but God doesn’t allow man’s depravity to fully exhibit itself. In Romans 1 we read that God sometimes gives unrepentant, rebellious over to a reprobate mind. This means that most of the time he doesn’t do this. Likewise, in Genesis 20, God tells the pagan king Abimelech, who had seized Abraham’s wife Sarah for himself, thinking that she was Abraham’s sister, “I … kept you from sinning against me.” God keeps the wicked from fully venting their depravity.

And we’d better be thankful. Can you imagine what the world would look like if God fully removed his restraining hand? Likely that’s what hell will look like. All sin, all the time. We get examples of that kind of nearly unimpeded depravity in wartime: pillaging, rape, torture, cannibalism, butchery, debauchery — some of what the Syrians are suffering right now. Yet God keeps these times as rare exceptions.

God keeps his leash on the wicked. He keeps the world from rushing headlong into utter depravity. God holds sin in check. This is his common grace.

Common grace and its benefits from unbelievers

Common grace doesn’t only keep things from being as bad as they could be. It positively makes things very good many times. In Genesis we we read of Cain’s descendants. Except for Enoch, most of them were apparently not godly.[1] Yet the Bible tells that they created musical instruments and forged tools of bronze and iron. In other words, early musical instruments and technology were inventions from Cain’s (likely) unbelieving line.

God showers on humans of all spiritual conditions his amazing gifts. Music and art and science and technology and entertainment and medicine — think of them in our modern world. We talk about “smart phones”; actually, you are carrying around a computer in your hand. Have you thought about the staggering medical advances? How about antibiotics and anesthetic and pain medication? Have you ever marveled at the music of Beethoven or Paul McCartney? Neither was a Christian. And neither was Steve Jobs or Bill Gates. Yet every day we benefit from their contribution to human civilization. Philip Seymour Hoffman just died with a heroin syringe in his arm, but he was likely the greatest character actor of all time. Many of the early modern scientists like Michael Faraday (pioneer in electromagnetism) were Christians or influenced by Christianity, but a number were not. Perhaps the greatest scientist of all time, Albert Einstein, was not a Christian. He was a theist, but not a Christian. And yet his theoretical discoveries about space and time have revolutionized modern science.

And this is equally true of less well-known people who benefit society. Many of the people who surround us and benefit us are not Christians: the people who plant and harvest our corn, repair our refrigerators and automobiles, extinguish our forest fires, deliver everything from tennis shoes to power tools to market, keep our streets safe from gangs and thugs, and create and deliver life-saving medicine. We need these people, even if they’re not believers. In fact, God teaches a fascinating truth about this in the Old Testament. God told Israel that he wouldn’t expel the evil nations of Canaan swiftly:

I will not drive them out from before you in one year, lest the land become desolate and the wild beasts multiply against you. (Ex. 23:29)

We sometimes hear Christians say or imply that they’d like God to rid the world of all unbelievers. If they think about that, but know how utterly stupid that idea is. Our world couldn’t go on without these gifted people. Common grace assures that there is continuity in history. These unbelievers are a great benefit to God’s world, including to us Christians, and we couldn’t operate our world without them. God uses them in our lives to help us — and we help them, too, even apart from preaching the gospel, which, of course, is primary.

Common grace and ingratitude

Now think of how utterly incomprehensible is the ingratitude of unbelievers. God usually gives them delightful food and comfortable shelter and impressive transportation and business opportunities and expendable income and sound health, and what they do? They mock God. They turn their back on him. They act as though these blessings are result of their own ingenuity or hard work. They deplore God’s law. They poke fun at godly Christians. At best, they live their life without reference to God. There is no greater ingratitude in the universe than ingratitude toward God and his kindness.

Yet even here, despite their ingratitude, God drenches unbelievers with his common grace. He gives them abundant time to repent. Got seems at times almost infinitely patient and long-suffering. Peter tells us that in the days of Noah, the days when God seemed to remove his hand of restraint, God still gave the wicked 120 years in which to repent (1 Pet. 3:20). God is full of grace and kindness and mercy to the wicked.

Conclusion

I conclude with one supreme lesson for us Christians: the Bible is bigger even than the Gospel. God’s grace is bigger than the Gospel. God’s grace overwhelms the universe. It saturates creation. It rains down unbelievers. For this reason, God is worthy of worship and praise. Don is fond of saying, “If it’s not worship, it’s idolatry.” And God is worthy of worship not just for his redemption, but also for his creation. In the beginning today we read from Psalm 104. Just now I want you to listen to verse 33.

I will sing to the LORD as long as I live; I will sing praise to my God while I have being. (Ps. 104:33)

We encounter God’s grace everywhere in the world: either his redemptive grace (Christians), or his common grace (everybody). And he is worthy of worship and praise for that grace, wherever we see it.

For Further Reading

John M. Frame, Systematic Theology (P & R Publishing: Phillipsburg, New Jersey, 2013), 246–248.

John Murray, “Common Grace,” Collected Writings of John Murray (Edinburgh, Scotland: Banner of Truth, 1977), 2:93–129.


[1] We read that Cain’s younger brother Seth’s descendants did call on the Lord’s name, apparently in contrast to Cain’s descendants (see Gen. 4:23–26).

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A Tale of Two Inequalities

unequal_soup_business_deskIf one sentence summarized Pres. Barack Obama’s theme in his 2014 State of the Union address, it is “Inequality has deepened.” He stated:

Today, after four years of economic growth, corporate profits and stock prices have rarely been higher, and those at the top have never done better.  But average wages have barely budged.

But if you think Pres. Obama is against inequality, think again. There’s one kind of inequality the president is positively giddy about. Because this inequality is a staple of the liberal vision, we often hear little about it. Certainly, liberals don’t trumpet this vision of inequality, at least not by name. (What liberal wants to chant, “We need more inequality!”)

Inequality of processes is critical to the liberal program. Conservatives, on the other hand, are willing to tolerate inequality of results, as long as there is equality of processes. It’s important to understand the difference.

Conservatives believe that in the rules for society, there should be a level playing field. This was a foundational truth of Western culture, which was shaped by Christian truth. We read in the Bible:

There shall be one law for the native and for the stranger who sojourns among you.” (Ex. 12:49)

 

You shall not pervert justice. You shall not show partiality, and you shall not accept a bribe, for a bribe blinds the eyes of the wise and subverts the cause of the righteous. (Dt. 16:19)

In this social vision, you don’t get better justice just because you’re rich (or poor).  You don’t get three years in prison for stealing a car if you’re black, and two years if you’re white. (This is why the civil rights legislation of the 1960s in the United States was so vital.) There may be no different laws for Jews and Muslims than there are for Christians and Hindus. We must all be treated equally under the law. This isn’t merely a Western idea. This is a biblical idea.

The New Equality (and Inequality)

Over the last 200 years or so, however, a new vision of equality has emerged. It was discovered that under the Christian vision, results were far from equal. If everyone is treated equally under the law, some people come out better than other people. For example, some people might get better jobs and make more money. Some children might be able to attend better schools. Some people might be able to afford better health care. Equality under the law didn’t mean equal results for everybody.

This fact leads to an important insight: When the law treats everyone identically, but the results are unequal, this inequality must result from something other than law. The explanation for that discrepancy is simple. It is the differences between humans themselves. Different people have different abilities. They have different work habits. They have different spending and saving habits. They have different virtues and vices. Whether these differences are innate or acquired is beside the point. The point is that people are different from one another, and if the law treats them all the same, those differences will show up in what they can get (or not get) in a society. If the law treats everyone equally, this can only mean that equality before the law leads to unequal results.

Over time, therefore, liberals came to believe that equality of processes (equality under the law) isn’t what they really wanted it at all. What they really wanted was equality of results. They didn’t want everyone to be treated the same. They wanted everyone to have the same amount of things.

What Must Be Changed to Get Equal Results for Everybody

But this desire posed a big problem. How can you guarantee that everybody gets the same amount of things if everyone is treated equally under the law? The answer is that you can’t. As a result, it was necessary for liberals to destroy the equality of processes to guarantee equality of results. Liberals had to rig the law in order to guarantee that some people got as much as other people.

The most blatant example of Pres. Obama’s commitment to this inequality is his so-called Affordable Care Act (“Obamacare”). If everyone is treated equally before the law, some people will be able to afford better medical insurance than others, and a comparatively few people might not be able to afford it at all. This is an inequality of results that liberals simply cannot abide. Therefore, they must introduce inequality of processes to guarantee that everyone has medical insurance. This means forcing young, healthy Americans to pay the medical costs of older, less healthy Americans. (In other contexts, this arrangement might be called stealing, but it seems impolite to refer to government theft as stealing.)

It’s important to recognize that the equality of processes and equality of results are mutually exclusive. Or, at least, the more that one increases, the more the other must decrease. The more you demand that results are equal, the more you must make laws unequal. And the more you demand that laws treat everyone equally, the more you will get unequal results.

Winners and Losers

Liberals believe that although people are very different from one another, they’re often entitled to the same things. In order to get those same things, liberals must rig the law to harm some people and benefit others. This is why in the Affordable Care Act, we heard about winners and losers. The winners are people that get subsidized insurance by getting other people’s money. The losers are people who lose money by having to subsidize other people’s insurance.

Of course, conservatives believe in winners and losers too. If everybody is treated the same before the law (equality of processes), some people get more, perhaps a lot more, than others. But this isn’t because the law is unequal. It’s because people are unequal. There are winners and losers because people are winners and losers, not because the law picks winners and losers.

In short, conservatives are willing to recognize the obvious inequalities among humans. They abhor the practice of social elites rigging the law in order to accomplish an equality that makes the elites feel smug, superior and self-satisfied.

It’s not that conservatives relish inequality of results. Most conservatives I know wish that everybody could afford quality health insurance. But we are simply not willing to rig the law in order to get what we wish. Equality before the law is more important than our desires for equality of results.

So when Pres. Obama says, “Inequality has deepened,” conservatives are no less disturbed than he is.

But we are disturbed at a very different kind of inequality.

All equalities (and inequalities) are not created equal.

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Red-Letter Ethics (or, With Evangelicals Like These, Who Needs Marcion?)

red-letter-christians-31Daniel Kirk, NT prof at Fuller Seminary-Menlo Park and prototypical young evangelical scholar (translation: we young-uns can’t abide biblical evangelicalism), wants a Christocentric view of biblical authority. What evangelical doesn’t? But Professor Kirk lets us in on what his Christ-centered bibliology might look like in this comment:

There are hundreds of ways in which the OT would summon us to walk that I think are either not required or even antithetical to our Christian calling. Jesus, and the story of his saving work, becomes the hermeneutical guide for me.

Hundreds of ways? Antithetical to our Christian calling? All evangelicals hold to the progressiveness of biblical revelation (following Hebrews and the new covenant, we no longer offer animal sacrifices; following Peter and Paul, we no longer follow the temporarily exclusionary old covenant dietary laws).

But Professor Kirk wants red-letter ethics: ethics limited to the words of Jesus. He assumes that in hundreds of ways OT ethics are antithetical to following Jesus, not merely superseded in the new covenant era.  What “summons”? The summons that prohibits hating our brother (Lev. 19:17)? The summons to treat one another justly (Dt. 16:19)? The summons not to charge our poor brothers and sisters interest on loans (Ex. 22:25)? Just what hundreds of anti-Christian OT “summons” is Kirk referring to?

And if we really want to follow Jesus, pray tell, shall we follow our Lord’s summons encapsulated here:

“Do not think that I have come to abolish the Law or the Prophets; I have not come to abolish them but to fulfill them…” (Mt. 5:17)

By all means, let’s be Christocentric in our view of the Bible, but if we do this, we certainly can’t follow Kirk’s canon within a canon.

In fact, this tack was common among theological liberals 100 years ago, who wanted to reduce biblical authority to the “ethics of Jesus.” In time, even this reductionist credo proved too onerous, for it was discovered that Jesus’ teaching conflicted with cherished liberal dogma, such as Jesus’ heated teaching on hell, than whom no one in the Bible uttered more. So, in the end, even Jesus couldn’t save the Bible from liberalism.

In the patristic church, the teacher Marcion posited a new Christianity shorn of the OT, which posited (he asserted) a different God, a different ethics, a different religion from the faith of Jesus and the NT. The church rightly labeled Marcion a heretic.

Will today’s evangelicals tolerate teachings procedurally (if not theoretically) similar to Marcion’s?

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On Cuddly Debates in Postmodernity

Bill-Nye-vs.-Ken-Ham-Debate_f_improf_645x254

Tonight’s debate between Ken Ham (creationist) and Bill Nye (evolutionist) impelled Christianity Today to inquire, “Do Celebrity Debates Help Christian Persuasion?”

The answer is “Not really, but they should.”

Some “expert” respondents to the question highlighted (and decried) the “celebrity” angle, but, while evangelicalism is awash in celebrity problems, that’s not the chief problem here.  The chief problem here is the epistemology of postmodernity, and our entire culture is certainly awash in that.

Postmodernity, in reaction to Enlightenment’s enthronement of human reason and back of that, Christianity’s logos epistemology, according to which God places in every human the capacity for objective reason and logic, shifted attention to emotion and feelings as the driving forces in human thought and action. Related to this shift was the adoption of relativism: truth and facts and morals are not absolute but are always culturally and situationally dependent.

A Staple of the West

Friedrich Nietzsche was one of the first to elaborate on these themes, but they’ve become a staple of the West, particularly since the 60’s. At their most beneficial, these views remind us that we are not an exclusively reason-driven species (the Bible never taught that anyway), and at worst suggest that reason is simply a tool of deep (and sometimes malignant) emotions and that we can never arrive at objective truth to boot. The upshot is that reason and truth are in the dock, constantly having to defend themselves, while emotions and feelings and relativism get an unlimited supply of reloadable get-out-of-jail-free cards.

The Value of debates in Postmodernity

For this reason, the value of debates in our postmodern condition can be overemphasized. Debates — the right kind of debates — are all about reason: supplying evidence, arguing logically for a viewpoint, arriving at objectively justifiable conclusions. But if reason is suspect, and truth is relative, much of the audience will be persuaded more by emotion — the warmth (or coldness) of a debater’s tone, the feeling of empathy they have for him personally or for his viewpoint, his clothing “ensemble,” even anger at how he might employ reason to “beat up on” his less rationally skilled but more emotionally cogent opponent. Or they may simply opine of the debaters: “They disagreed on every single point, but they’re probably both right on all points — from their own perspective.” The debate’s “winner” won’t be determined by amassing “debating points” (the traditional way of deciding who won), but by the degree of cuddly emotion engendered in the audience.

Of course, emotion is part of the human condition, and a vital part, so emotion has a role to play in debates; and truth is always expressed from a particular perspective. But the value of debates centers in objective persuasion based on verifiable evidence (and revelational evidence no less than empirical evidence, mind you). In the end, it doesn’t matter if you feel emotionally unplugged after a debate, as long as you can tell which debater presented the best case. Debates aren’t meant to be cuddly affairs — unless you find reason and logic and objectivity cuddly.

Amid the radical subjectivity of secular postmodernity these days, debates aren’t especially useful. Our course of action, however, shouldn’t be to scrap debates but, rather, to work to revive the appreciation for reason and logic and truth, which are critical features of humans created in God’s image — and of debates based on that image.

Reason, after all, is no more or less depraved — or essential — than emotion.

And if truth and facts and morals are always situationally dependent, postmodernity itself will end up, to use G. Chesterton’s language, undermining its own mines.

Now that’s a great topic for debate.

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