100 Answers in 100 Days

More questions answered on this blog:

Sharing answers to the various questions of faith I have faced, and which others have been challenged with also.

Thursday, March 31, 2011

#90: Is forgiveness always right?

One of the Christian virtues which I think people struggle with the most is forgiveness. Forgiving others is a command we are to obey; it is our duty to do it. When someone sins against us, and though we are hurt, we ought to forgive them. Let's first consider what this actually means. What does it mean to forgive someone?

What happens when someone sins against us is that the relationship between us and them is damaged. We no longer feel close to them. In fact, we usually feel like distancing ourselves from them. What forgiveness is really all about is restoring the broken relationship. We always want relationships restored because love, the essential nature of God, necessarily puts us in relationship with one another rather than separating us. To have the nature of God; that is, to truly be a loving person, we will not desire to be enemies with anybody. All people are equally worthy of being in relationship with. Forgiveness restores the relationship damaged by an offense. To forgive someone is to willingly suffer the "full force" of the offense, expecting no reparation from the offending party. We, in effect, provide the "reparation" ourselves. Whenever we're offended by someone, we always have this sense that there ought to be something done to make it up to us. When the restaurant gets our order wrong, we might expect free drinks, or when the neighbourhood kid breaks our window with a careless pitch, we expect his parents will help pay for it, or perhaps send their son over to do some gardening for us. When we forgive, that requirement for reparation doesn't actually go away. Rather, we suffer it ourselves.

What is "owed" for an offense depends on the magnitude of the offense. When someone murders a member of our family, we want the death penalty for them; and perhaps we feel even that isn't enough. But if someone drops a dinner plate of ours and it smashes, the recompense we expect is so small we are barely aware that there is a recompense that even ought to be paid for such an offense. But there is; we just find it so incredibly easy to absorb ourselves that when we forgive, it doesn't even feel like forgiveness has taken place. But we were able to forgive because absorbing that offense was very easy to do. It's when the penalty for an offense is beyond what we care to absorb that we have trouble forgiving.

There is, in any broken relationship, the offended and the offender. Forgiveness has to do with the offended party suffering the "full force" of the offense for the sake of the relationship. But even having done that, it takes two to mend a relationship. Offending someone else alienates me from the relationship as well as the person I offended. I may not be able to look that person in the eye again, knowing what I've done to them. Or worse, I might be pleased with what I've done to them. In other words I can either be repentant, or unrepentant. In both cases, the offended person can forgive. However, for the relationship to be restored, the offending party must also desire the forgiveness and the restoration of the relationship, being sorry for what they've done. When asking the question "Is forgiveness always right?" we might have it in mind that perhaps it is not right, or is not to be granted, to those who are unrepentant and don't want it. But I just want to help us to recognize, here, that forgiveness can be granted to those who don't want it. What they do with your forgiveness will either be good (they receive it) or bad (they reject it), but that is their choice.

Now if we consider God as the model for forgiveness, we see how God's forgiveness involved God, the offended party, suffering the full force of our offense Himself. Where breaking a plate requires little recompense, but murdering requires more than we can really pay; the recompense required for our offenses against God are infinitely beyond our ability to repay. Unless God, who is infinite, forgives us by suffering the reparation required Himself, there is no possibility for restoring the relationship between God and man. But suffer the full force of the offense is precisely what Christ did on the cross. Nevertheless, as we have seen, it takes two to mend a relationship, and this is why Christ calls us to repentance. Having been forgiven, we must still desire that relationship with God. This necessarily means repenting of our offense against Him, because unless we do, we essentially desire to perpetuate the brokenness of the relationship.

Understanding the degree to which Christ has forgiven us, and knowing that we ought to be imitators of Christ, we surely have an answer to the question "Is forgiveness always right?" It is always right, whether or not the offending party deserves it or wants it. Jesus told the following parable:

Then Peter came up and said to him, "Lord, how often will my brother sin against me, and I forgive him? As many as seven times?" Jesus said to him, "I do not say to you seven times, but seventy times seven. Therefore the kingdom of heaven may be compared to a king who wished to settle accounts with his servants. When he began to settle, one was brought to him who owed him ten thousand talents. And since he could not pay, his master ordered him to be sold, with his wife and children and all that he had, and payment to be made. So the servant fell on his knees, imploring him, 'Have patience with me, and I will pay you everything.' And out of pity for him, the master of that servant released him and forgave him the debt. But when that same servant went out, he found one of his fellow servants who owed him a hundred denarii, and seizing him, he began to choke him, saying, 'Pay what you owe.' So his fellow servant fell down and pleaded with him, 'Have patience with me, and I will pay you.' He refused and went and put him in prison until he should pay the debt. When his fellow servants saw what had taken place, they were greatly distressed, and they went and reported to their master all that had taken place. Then his master summoned him and said to him, 'You wicked servant! I forgave you all that debt because you pleaded with me. And should not you have had mercy on your fellow servant, as I had mercy on you?' And in anger his master delivered him to the jailers, until he should pay all his debt. So also my heavenly Father will do to every one of you, if you do not forgive your brother from your heart." (Matthew 18:21-35)

This parable helps to put into perspective how wrong it is when we choose not to forgive even the greatest offenses against us. In this parable the man owed ten thousand talents. It's worth noting that this amount is equivalent to several billion dollars. 100 denarii, on the other hand, which was the amount owed to the servant, is something like $1000. This is not a trivial amount; it does represent one of those offenses which we would find difficult to forgive. But even this amount, compared to the "billions" that Christ has forgiven us, ought to be forgiven. Unforgiveness is one of the most anti-Christian states of the heart one can have, because forgiveness is the chief purpose of Christ's work on the cross and the quintessential way in which He demonstrates His love.

Until tomorrow...

And whenever you stand praying, forgive, if you have anything against anyone, so that your Father also who is in heaven may forgive you your trespasses." (Mark 11:25)

Wednesday, March 30, 2011

#89: Is abortion always wrong?

In our society abortion is a legal option for a woman; the termination of a pregnancy by killing the fetus inside of her. Women have all kinds of reasons for wanting an abortion, and whilst some of those reasons are just plain selfish, we can often be faced with reasons that appear perfectly justifiable. In asking today's question, I want to make the assumption that abortion is, indeed, wrong. What I'm asking is whether it is always wrong. But it seems to me that for many people, we need to first straighten out that initial assumption. Why is abortion wrong at all?

When we ask ourselves why an embryo has as much right to life as a “born” human, we run into all kinds of questions to do with what makes any person worthy of life at all. There is a common apologetic, for example, which reads something like this:

A woman is pregnant. She suffers from tuberculosis, her husband from syphilis. One of their children is blind, one is deaf, and one suffers from syphilis. Another is dead in his childhood. What should she do? Abortion? Great, you've killed Beethoven.

This is a very well known citation you may have seen before. But besides the fact that most of this information about Beethoven's family is false, it's really making a terrible argument in the first place. It seems to be saying that Beethoven's life was worth keeping because of the musical genius that he was. This is not how we ought to think at all. All human life is valuable in God's eyes, whether that person contributes to society or not. A baby, when it comes out of the womb, cannot contribute anything to society but is entirely dependent upon its parents. Yet we would not murder that child. The reason we like abortion is because we don't see a human figure being killed. We can tell ourselves that it is not the same thing. But I’ve seen the heartache of enough women who have suffered miscarriages to know that those women saw that embryo for the child it was. Of course, these women wanted a child. It’s when a woman doesn’t want the child that she begins to reason that it was “just a clump of cells”. This is precisely what justifies any murder; the dehumanising of people, seeing them as inferior or not even human at all. On the other hand, some women get an abortion out of what they see as necessity; perhaps they can’t afford to raise a child. These women do tend to suffer emotionally over the loss of the child because they know it was a human life.

Leviticus 18 is a chapter to do with sexual sins; what people ought not to do sexually. It includes forbidding incest and adultery. But in the midst of all this, there is a verse which might seem out of place...

You shall not give any of your children to offer them to Molech, and so profane the name of your God: I am the LORD. (Leviticus 18:21)

In the midst of all of these sexual prohibitions, we read about a sin of idolatry; the offering of children to the idol Molech. How does this fit the context? The way that children were offered to Molech was to place them in the arms of the bronze idol and then burn a fire underneath the statue until the child was incinerated. The reason this relates to the passage is that through sexual immorality, many unwanted pregnancies would occur. The people could see this “offering to Molech” any way they wanted, but the plain truth of the matter is that it would be the murder of children born as a result of their sexual promiscuity. It was their form of abortion. In that pagan religion, making an offering to this idol would have been a noble and justifiable thing to do. But frankly it was murder. And thankfully, to this day few people aren't shocked by it.

But what about some of these hard cases? What if carrying the child to term will probably kill the mother? Well, there are difficult moral dilemmas like this one, and we need to carefully think through such things. This short blog post isn’t going to address every scenario. For me, this is one case where I don’t think the abortion would be considered murder, because it’s not out of hatred or a devaluing of the child’s life that we would abort. Rather, we’re trying to save a life. But it's not a simple matter to judge.

Hard cases are only hard because they cause a conflict between two values that a person holds. I recall a passage in Richard Dawkin's book “The God Delusion” which reads, “Even resisting rape could be represented as murdering a potential baby (and, by the way, there are plenty of 'pro-life' campaigners who would deny abortion even to women who have been brutally raped).” Now, Dawkins' just assumes his readers will be appalled by the idea that rape victims aren't justified in having an abortion. He doesn’t even seem to view it as a hard case. But let's think; if my mother was raped, is that my fault? Should I suffer for the evil of some other man? This justification seems to be based more on the fact that the woman’s right to choose when and with whom she will become pregnant has been violated. So this may be seen as a hard case because it causes a conflict between two values; the preservation of life and the right to choose whether to become pregnant. Well, the choice to become pregnant is every couple’s right; but it doesn’t outweigh the moral obligation to respect and preserve a life that now exists. Rape is an evil, and we ought to resist evil. But denying the possibility of conception by resisting rape is nothing like terminating an existing life. Likewise, a couple has every right to choose whether or not to have a child, but that’s different from exercising that choice at the expense of killing an unwanted child after conception. Even a child borne of rape should be wanted because it is a human being made in the image of God. A right set of basic values will often resolve these “hard cases”. People cannot justify terminating an unwanted child because no child should ever be unwanted.

But what if the mother falls pregnant and cannot afford the child? Of course, if she had any control over it, she ought not to have fallen pregnant knowing she could not afford to raise a child. Perhaps she has brought this upon herself? But sometimes even contraception fails. We often find ourselves burdened by the needs of others. Many of us will some day face the financial burden of caring for our elderly parents. But of course, we would not kill them to alleviate the problem. Rather, as the Bible says, we should “bear one another’s burdens.” I know of a girl who became pregnant at the age of 17. She was urged to keep the child by her mother, and when the baby was born she was overwhelmed by the love and kindness of family, friends and the Church. This was both a witness to her of the truth of Christian love, and prevented her from doing something which she now says would have been the greatest regret of her life.

Finally the other most common, seemingly justifiable reason for abortion, is when the child will be mentally or physically impaired. Again, we need to be careful that we're not more worried about the inconvenience of this to the parents. The inconvenience you suffer should have no bearing on the matter; just as I cannot kill my annoying neighbour for continually borrowing and never returning, regardless of how "inconvenient" I find that to be. But we might genuinely say that our concern is for the life of the child. We think that because we could not tolerate the quality of life they'll have that they should rather be dead. But I wonder if such parents have ever spoken to a mentally or physically impaired person before and asked them whether they'd rather be dead? They don't, typically. And in any case, don't suicidal tendencies run even amongst the healthy and wealthy? I don't think disability is really the ultimate reason behind wanting to die. All life is valuable to God, and God has entrusted to us all a solemn responsibility as parents to take care of our children and bring them up to be men and women of faith.

Behold, children are a heritage from the LORD, the fruit of the womb a reward. (Psalms 127:3)

Tuesday, March 29, 2011

#88: Do I need to tithe to be a Christian?

A “tithe” is a portion of our income which is offered to God. It is offered to God in the sense that it is given to the local Church in order to finance the work of the Church. It is commonly regarded as 10% of a person's income. So many questions arise from this; Where do we get the figure of 10%? Is it 10% of our gross our net income? Does all 10% need to go to my local Church, or can I split it between my Church and some other ministry? And of course, the “big” question; Is it compulsory?

All of these questions can tend to have a common motive... we're really asking “How little of my hard earned cash do I have to lose?” Even when we ask “Does all 10% need to go to the Church?” we might really be more concerned that supporting another ministry will cost us over and above the 10% set aside to the Church. Well, as you can probably guess, all of these motivations are not very pure. Our obsession with the finer details of how much we give to the Church are really to do with our attachment to money.

Tithing is a part of the Old Testament Mosaic Law...

To the Levites I [God] have given every tithe in Israel for an inheritance, in return for their service that they do, their service in the tent of meeting (Leviticus 18:21)

The Levites were the priests. Israel were divided into 12 tribes, and when Israel came into the land of Canaan, each tribe inherited a parcel of land to live in. But the Levites (the tribe of Levi) did not inherit land; they lived amongst the other tribes, and were supported by them. Since the Levites' job was to be priests, they weren't going to be making a living by farming or doing any other kind of work. And so the rest of Israel supported them with their tithes. The tithe was 10%, and was compulsory for all Israel. But this is what the Law is like in all its commands; it was compulsory for people to follow those commands whether they did so from the heart or not. But now, after Christ has come, we are to understand that the Law was really about showing us what we ought to do “from the heart”. Even an Israelite ought not to have said grudgingly “Here, take my 10% you greedy Levites!” Rather, from the heart he should have given gladly, knowing that his contribution was supporting those priests in their God-given role. The New Testament doesn't command a compulsory tithe, but as Christians we know what we ought to want to give to our pastors which have no other form of income, and to the Church which does good in its ministry and needs our financial support. In the New Testament age, we borrow the term “tithe” from the Old Testament, and we give a general recommendation of 10%; but really, I prefer the term offering, since there is no “legal requirement” as the term “tithe” suggests. We ought to give as much as we can afford and are still gladly willing to give. I know that my own pastor struggles from time to time, and that if it weren't for the income he receives through the congregation's offerings, he might not even eat. A Christian ought to be more concerned about that than whether they “have to” make an offering or not at all.

A Christian ought to give generously to all kinds of needs, not forgetting the Church, or charities for the poor, or those we know personally who are in need. When we give it ought always to be out of a genuine care to meet those needs. That means that when you give to your local Church, you do genuinely care that your pastor has enough to live on, and that the needs of the Church's ministry are met. It is absolutely right, then, for you to have some knowledge of whether your pastor actually is in need, and to have a knowledge of the kind of ministry your Church performs. Do you, in fact, support the ministry that they do? If you don't actually agree with what they do for some reason, then you might need to have a think about more than just whether to support them with your finances. Our Church has various ways in which we can keep up to date with what they're doing, and they also publish openly in each week's bulletin how much money has been received in Church offerings, and what their target is. We can look and see whether that target is being met, and if we are so inclined, we can offer more or less money to the Church.

It's not in opposition to faith when we are careful to know where our money is going and whether it's being used wisely. However, there's another aspect to giving that we must consider. Often we want to give our money to those who “deserve it”. We see an alcoholic who is cold and hungry because they've spent all their money on booze, and yet we think “I won't give anything to him, he'll just spend it on more booze. He's cold and hungry, but he did that to himself; he doesn't deserve it!” Well, I don't know if we might think it in exactly those words, but sometimes in our hearts that's how we feel. Yet if we consider all that God has given us, and we ask ourselves whether we “deserved it”, it ought to make us think twice. And when God gave us His only Son to die for us, was it not to save us from that which we'd done to ourselves? We want to help people, and you can seek God's wisdom for how to do that. But no one ought to be excluded based on your own judgements of “desert”. Sometimes the act of giving is more about letting someone know that they're loved and cared for by a Godly person, than what that little bit of cash might achieve for them materially. Sometimes the greater amounts of money we give sort of count for less because they simply meet some physical need and leave the spiritual needs of the person unmet. We ought not to be in the business of making people feel comfortable on their way to hell. The best use of our time and money will be to care for their spiritual need for Christ, not neglecting by any means their physical needs, for through our care for their physical needs Christ is revealed and glorified.

Until tomorrow...

Each one must give as he has made up his mind, not reluctantly or under compulsion, for God loves a cheerful giver. (Corinthians 9:7)

Monday, March 28, 2011

#87: Will God take away my addiction?

Addictions are, almost by definition, something which takes more than a person’s own will power to get rid of. There are all kinds of addictions, but I suppose you could put them all into one of two categories... there are addictions to some kind of substance which creates a physiological dependency in a person, such as with cigarettes or over-eating. And there are addictions which are more sort of “psychological”, such as becoming addicted to computer games or pornography. Now, experts might tell me that even the latter kind create a physiological dependency, I don’t know? But that's not important, because neither of these kinds of addictions are necessarily “easier” to give up. Addictions are a form of bondage. In fact, dictionary.com uses the word “enslaved”; an addiction is “the state of being enslaved to a habit”. The Bible uses this same word to describe people’s relationship to sin...

Do you not know that if you present yourselves to anyone as obedient slaves, you are slaves of the one whom you obey, either of sin, which leads to death, or of obedience, which leads to righteousness? But thanks be to God, that you who were once slaves of sin have become obedient from the heart to the standard of teaching to which you were committed, and, having been set free from sin, have become slaves of righteousness. (Romans 6:16-18)

In a sense, sin is every person’s “addiction”; and we know that when we come to Christ, He takes away that sin which enslaves us so that we are able to be “obedient from the heart” to God's Word. He gives us His Spirit, which enables us to do this. Addictions are most certainly the result of the fallen state of mankind. They may not be strictly sinful, but they are also not the way we are supposed to be. They can be things which take priority in life over God, and so become sinful in that sense; but addictions need not do that. And we can see that addictions can cause sinful behaviour; even something like an addiction to food can cause irritability in a person who hasn't had their “sugar fix” for the day. Nobody ever wants to be addicted to something; people who are hate the state they're in. I know a chronic smoker who says he's tried every method there is for giving up. I happened to be speaking to an alcoholic last week who said, “My greatest regret in life is that I started drinking at the age of 18.” These people want to be free from their addictions but they don't have the necessary power to overcome them. Such power, of course, is given to us through Christ. The same Spirit which enables us to “kick the sin habit” enables us to take control over our addictions, whether or not we want to argue over the idea that all addictions are themselves, by definition, sinful. In describing the characteristics of the Holy Spirit which abides in us, Paul writes:

But the fruit of the Spirit is love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness, self-control; against such things there is no law. (Galatians 5:22-23)

This is what mankind is supposed to be like as they imitate the character of God, and we see in this list “self-control”. The Holy Spirit gives us that ability to take control over our desires; even our addictions. When Christ saves a person, He begins to transform us into the person God created us to be, having these characteristics we ought to be able to exercise... love, joy, peace... faithfulness, gentleness, self-control. Addictive behaviours cause us to act contrary to these things, and so the effect of Christ in our lives will naturally be to give us control over our addictions. I personally know of a former alcoholic (not the aforementioned) who will testify that it was the work of Christ in his life that he is no longer drinking, and hasn't touched one drop for more than twenty years. I've mentioned in a much earlier post how, since the day I became a Christian, I haven't once looked at pornography. (Though it's probably fair to say that I was never actually addicted to it, I see it as the same principle at work).

Now you've probably been aching to say “But why do Christians still struggle with addictions?” I do affirm that Christians certainly can struggle with addictions. And the reason for this, in my mind, is probably the same reason that Christians still struggle with any sin. Whilst we remain in this corrupt body, we are still affected by our former sinful tendencies. I think that, generally speaking, God wants us to be able to identify with unbelievers and to be able to help them. It's not really through our lingering sinfulness that we are able to do this; Christ was sinless and yet identifies with us. Rather, it is by remaining on this Earth that we can be of help to unbelievers, leading them to Christ. But the “effect” of remaining here is that we are still influenced by our old natures. Our bodies are still subject to chemical addictions because of the way that they work. Our minds, likewise, are still subject to psychological addictions because of the way they work. But why are some addictions taken away whilst others remain? The reason is going to be different for each person. Let's consider the testimony of Nate Larkin. Nate is a Christian who was addicted to pornography for some 20 years or more. This question of ours bothered him for all that time as well; “Why won't God take away this wretched addiction!?” Eventually he found what he feels is the answer. For 20 years he'd been asking God for “a private solution to his private problem.” But it wasn't until he brought his problem before other Christians that God began to take away his addiction. The reason God had not taken away Nate's addiction seemed to be in order to teach Nate a lesson which, for Nate, is so profound it forms the foundation of his present day ministry... that God's desire is for the people of God to work together. The Christian life is not a private one! God considered this lesson so important for Nate to learn that he allowed Nate to suffer his addiction, and even the consequences it brought as it tore his family apart. Through this experience, Nate not only understands the importance of the Body of Christ, but shares this with others in a phenomenal fellowship-building ministry.

Should we say that those Christians whose addictions are taken away simply don't have any lessons to be learned? No; we all have much to learn, but God has an infinite number of means at His disposal. But whether addictions or physical ailments or whatever, God has His reasons for allowing us to suffer them. We can think of Paul's “thorn in the flesh” in which Paul prayed that God would take it away, but God didn't. And then Paul recognized that through this affliction, whatever it was, Paul learned humility and dependence upon God's grace. Whatever we're going through now...

He has made everything beautiful in its time. Also, he has put eternity into man's heart, yet so that he cannot find out what God has done from the beginning to the end. (Ecclesiastes 3:11)

Sunday, March 27, 2011

#86: Why doesn't God perform miracles now?

Perhaps we wish that God would perform a miracle for us that the whole world could witness on live television, or something? And this would clear up all doubt as to whether God exists. But He doesn't seem to do that. Rather, God performs miracles quite sparingly throughout history. There is a tendency to presume that miracles are an Old Testament thing, since we have the miracles of the Exodus, from the burning bush to the parting of the Red Sea and countless others in that whole story of Moses. And we have the great miracles of Elijah and Elisha, raising the dead and calling down fire from heaven. But miracles weren't actually very common in the Old Testament either. When the Israelites heard about Moses seeing a burning bush which did not burn up in the fire, they would have been as intrigued as we are. Is there some reason why God chooses to perform miracles at a certain time, and not at others?

The primary purpose of miracles appears to be God's way of authenticating a particular man as having authority given to him by God. Consider Moses, for example...

Then Moses answered, “But behold, they will not believe me or listen to my voice, for they will say, ‘The LORD did not appear to you.’” The LORD said to him, “What is that in your hand?” He said, “A staff.” And he said, “Throw it on the ground.” So he threw it on the ground, and it became a serpent, and Moses ran from it. But the LORD said to Moses, “Put out your hand and catch it by the tail” - so he put out his hand and caught it, and it became a staff in his hand - “that they may believe that the LORD, the God of their fathers, the God of Abraham, the God of Isaac, and the God of Jacob, has appeared to you.” (Exodus 4:1-5)

The purpose of the miracle, and various others that Moses later performs in front of Israel and Pharaoh, is to authenticate Moses as the prophet of God and deliverer of Israel. Or we can think of other examples; Gideon asks God to perform a miracle concerning a fleece, so that “I shall know that you will save Israel by my hand” (Judges 6:37). When Elijah raised the woman's son she said, “Now I know that you are a man of God, and that the word of the Lord in your mouth is truth.” (1 Kings 17:24). When Elisha parts the river, the onlookers acknowledged that he had been given the same Spirit as Elijah. (2 Kings 2:15). Finally, we see that many of Jesus' miracles aimed to demonstrate that Jesus was a genuine prophet of God. In John it says 'When the people saw the sign that he had done, they said, “This is indeed the Prophet who is to come into the world!”' (John 6:14)

But when people saw Jesus' miracles, did they all believe that He was who He said He was; the Son of God? Many did not. Even miracles won't convince many people. If you want to know what I think it would be like if God performed a miracle on live television in this day and age, I think it would be something like when that alien autopsy film came out in the mid 1990's. It wasn't until 2006 that the film maker fully admitted that the film was actually of a fake model. But the point is that for all those years, most of the world remained unconvinced anyway. Not that they could prove it was a fake; but that even in the midst of what appears to be undeniable evidence of something extraordinary, people refuse to believe.

Whilst miracles are used by God to authenticate a prophet at a particular “landmark” in time, Jesus warns us to be wary of miracle workers...

For false christs and false prophets will arise and perform great signs and wonders, so as to lead astray, if possible, even the elect. (Matthew 24:24)

People who perform miracles are not necessarily genuine prophets of God, since there is real power in things like witchcraft. But miracle-workers can even think that they're doing these things as believers in Christ, yet be mistaken. Jesus said:

On that day many will say to me, ‘Lord, Lord, did we not prophesy in your name, and cast out demons in your name, and do many mighty works in your name?’ And then will I declare to them, ‘I never knew you; depart from me, you workers of lawlessness.’ (Matthew 7:22-23)

What God wants is for us to believe in Him with a genuine faith. And as the Bible says, “We walk by faith, not by sight.” (2 Corinthians 5:7). This is the nature of faith; that it is trusting in God despite appearances. Now, many see this as believing in a God when there is no evidence. But that's not what I'm saying. We see abundant evidence for God, both in general revelation (the witness of creation all around us); the truth of God's Word, the Bible; and also in our personal experience of God. But Jesus said “An evil and adulterous generation seeks for a sign” (Matthew 16:4). Why? Because there is already sufficient evidence everywhere. When God said “You shall not put the Lord your God to the test”, this is not something we should find difficult to understand. It means that God will not submit to the will or commands of men. He’s already given us sufficient to believe in Him; and we know this is true because many millions of Christians do believe in Him.

In a sense, God is performing miracles all the time. God's sovereign hand guides all things. He “upholds the universe by the word of His power” (Hebrews 1:3). I often think that if it never rained, for example, then the first rain would be a miracle. Is it less of a miracle because it happens all the time, just as we wish miracles would? Oh, we can explain the causes of rain, but the whole water cycle is itself a miracle. God has created a world of order. A world in which miracles happened all the time, (in the sense of events which defy the natural order), then our idea of “the normal order of things” would be something quite different such that we’d be looking for something else as a sign; maybe for something with predictability? Really, we should see all of creation is a miracle, brought into being by the Word of God.

Blessed are those who have not seen and yet have believed. (John 20:29)

Saturday, March 26, 2011

#85: How do we reconcile the wrathful God of the Old Testament with the loving God of the New?

Jesus Christ is God, who became a man and walked among us and taught us many things. When we consider the kinds of things that Jesus said and did, it's not uncommon for people to view God as having had a “change of heart”. People generally know Christ for His love and compassion as He healed the sick and commanded us to love even our enemies. Conversely, people generally characterize the God of the Old Testament as wrathful, destroying mankind with a flood, slaying the firstborn sons of Egypt, and commanding the death sentence for violations of His Law. Now, the wrathful nature of God may be a concern for some us, personally; but a change in God's character should really be a concern for all of us! If God were to change character from the Old Testament to the New, I think we could rightly say that the New Testament writers were inventing a new God. But what we find, of course, is that God does not change. In every book of the Old Testament He is characterized both by His wrath which is an expression of His justice, and His mercy which is an expression of His love. And in every book of the New Testament, including the gospels describing Jesus' life, we find Christ also to be characterized both by His love and by God's perfect justice.

God's justice and wrath are not in conflict with His love. In the Old Testament we see God's love for Israel in leading them out of Egypt. At the same time we saw a demonstration of God's wrath on Egypt because of their idolatry. Throughout the remainder of the Old Testament there are continual reminders of God's love in this act of delivering Israel from their slavery in Egypt. Typically we are reminded of this whenever a prophet is about to issue a stern warning to the people of the consequences of their sin. It is a reminder of the love of God in order to draw them back to God, for when we truly understand the love God has for us, we naturally respond with love in return, which manifests itself in repentance and obedience. But it is also a reminder of the wrath of God on those who are rebellious against Him. When Israel was brought out of Egypt they were to eventually make war with the Canaanites. Why was this? In Deuteronomy 18:12 we're told it is because of the sins of the Canaanites. But as Israel wandered through the wilderness, we find that time and again when Israel rebelled against Him with idolatry and other offenses, God judged them in much the same way as Egypt and Canaan were judged. During this early period between the exodus from Egypt and the conquest of Canaan, the intensity of God's wrath seems so much greater than in later Biblical history, up until we get to the Assyrian and Babylonian captivities. Why is this? It is because God is establishing the nation; they need to know about the just character of God as well as knowing about His love. Such strictness was not really seen again until the Assyrian and Babylonian captivities, even though the nation fell into far worse sin and idolatry than during those 40 years in the wilderness, even sacrificing their children to idols. So while God's wrath is a dominant theme in the Old Testament, it's actually a testimony to God's love and mercy that we don't see more of it.

Now in the New Testament, we do see God's love manifested to a far greater degree than we had before, because in the New Testament we see God Himself become a man to die for all of us sinners. But even when we think of Jesus' good deeds in feeding the poor and healing the sick, He rebukes the religious leaders of the time because they had failed to practice the Law of the Old Testament; for if they had, they would be doing such good works themselves. The Old Testament is full of the wrath of God because the people of God brought it upon themselves. But this is no different to the New Testament. Jesus says to the religious leaders, the Pharisees, “Thus you witness against yourselves that you are sons of those who murdered the prophets. Fill up, then, the measure of your fathers. You serpents, you brood of vipers, how are you to escape being sentenced to hell?” (Matthew 23:31-33) The wrath of God has not diminished in the New Testament. In fact, we might say it, too, is being revealed to a greater degree than before.

In the Old Testament we saw how Israel, themselves, were judged in the wilderness and incurred God's wrath upon them. And I commented how this revelation of God's wrath was more intense at that time in order to establish the nature of God for the new nation. For us in the New Testament, these lessons still apply. Jude says “Now I want to remind you, although you once fully knew it, that Jesus, who saved a people out of the land of Egypt, afterward destroyed those who did not believe.” (Jude 1:5) Since we have the revelation of the Old Testament, such an intense demonstration of God's justice and wrath is not as necessary. Still, while the Church was in its infancy, we read about how, in Acts 5, Ananias and Sapphira were put to death directly by God for their deception; a sobering reminder of how seriously God takes sin. Or how God put many people to death because, according to 1 Corinthians 11, they were participating in the Lord's Supper “unworthily”. God is no less just and wrathful in the New Testament, but He reveals it to us because He loves us. It's so that we will understand just how loving and merciful He is toward us. I mean, I wonder how often I should have died after taking the Lord's Supper?

Jesus is eternally loving and eternally just, from the beginning to the end...

The one who conquers will have this heritage, and I will be his God and he will be my son. But as for the cowardly, the faithless, the detestable, as for murderers, the sexually immoral, sorcerers, idolaters, and all liars, their portion will be in the lake that burns with fire and sulfur, which is the second death. (Revelation 21:7-8)

Friday, March 25, 2011

#84: Is Christianity a form of child abuse?

When I was first confronted by a man who expressed his distaste for Christianity by calling it “child abuse”, I was completely dumb founded. I couldn't possibly see how Christianity could be seen this way. However, after watching Richard Dawkins' TV program “Root of all Evil”, in which he interviews a woman by the name of Jill Mytton, I can certainly understand how this allegation arises. Jill was raised in a “strict Christian sect”. She describes the “abuse” she felt in terms of an emotional abuse because of the fear of eternal damnation. When Dawkins asked Ms. Mytton what hell was like, she choked up for a moment; and then, overcoming the emotion of it, said “after all this time, it still has the power to affect me...” Since the doctrine of hell is, in fact, an all important teaching of Christianity, is it child abuse to teach our children about it?

I really do feel for this poor woman, Jill Mytton. To be emotionally manipulated by fear is a terrible thing that nobody should be subjected to. Of course, many people think that's what the doctrine of hell is all about... “Be good or you'll go to hell!” Many have said to me that the Bible, or the whole of the Christian religion, was invented by men as a way of controlling people through fear. But to say “Be good or you'll go to hell” is to only tell part of the story. If this is all we say to people, or to our children, we're not actually teaching them the gospel or what Christianity is about at all. To only hear this part of the story is a horrible and frightening thing! To say “Be good or you'll go to hell” as a way of frightening people into being good is actually a very anti-Christian thing to do and teach. How good do I have to be? What if I can't be good enough? If this were the only message we heard, we might become exceedingly distressed as we realize that we are not and cannot be good enough! But the Christian message is that because you can't be good enough to escape hell, Christ, who is perfectly holy and righteous, has died in your place. When we acknowledge this, we find salvation from sin and hell in Christ. What Jill Mytton needs to know is that there is no condemnation to those who are in Christ Jesus!

In the Bible, Jesus tells this story...

Two men went up into the temple to pray, one a Pharisee and the other a tax collector. The Pharisee, standing by himself, prayed thus: “God, I thank you that I am not like other men, extortioners, unjust, adulterers, or even like this tax collector. I fast twice a week; I give tithes of all that I get.” But the tax collector, standing far off, would not even lift up his eyes to heaven, but beat his breast, saying, “God, be merciful to me, a sinner!” I tell you, this man went down to his house justified, rather than the other. For everyone who exalts himself will be humbled, but the one who humbles himself will be exalted. (Luke 18:9-14)

This is the Christian message that we ought to teach our children; that the only escape from sin and hell is not to be more righteous, but to acknowledge our sin and put our faith in God's mercy and forgiveness. Now, counter-intuitively to some, this will actually lead to righteousness. How? Surely if you take away the threat of hell you give license to sin? But when you understand who Christ is and what He did on the cross for you, this will naturally lead to love for Christ. Love for Christ will naturally lead to a genuine desire to please Christ. And we know what pleases Christ...

If you love me, you will keep my commandments. (John 14:15)

If we teach only about hell, we inevitably fail to teach that salvation is only through Christ. Yet we cannot fail to teach about hell because how will anyone understand salvation unless they are taught what it is that they're saved from? It is possible for parents to teach, (or even torment) their children with Biblical themes and not be teaching Christianity at all. And this can indeed be detrimental to a child. But that doesn't mean that the “real thing” is anything like child abuse. In the preface to “The God Delusion”, Richard Dawkins responds to the allegation that he's only focusing on the worst of religion and ignoring the good. His response is essentially this; that the “quantity” of good is insignificant compared to the damage that religion causes. But to look at the evil of false religions (since there is one true God and one true religion), or to look at the evil corruption of Christianity (since wicked men can claim that their deeds are in the name of Christ when they are not) doesn't mean that there is not a genuinely true and good body of believers who do live righteously and teach righteousness and love. One isn’t justified to stamp out the whole thing, but rather to nourish that minority in the hopes that it might become the majority. Such true teaching and values ought to be passed down to our children. Christianity “taught right” is a positively good thing.

Jill Mytton's parents possibly didn't teach her the truth of the gospel and true Christianity, (though we can't know that for certain.) But how does a parent teach their children true Christianity? If we teach them all that the Bible says but don't, ourselves, do what the Bible says, then we are not teaching them Christianity at all! True Christianity is doing what God desires of us. It is living by faith. This is the central message of every sermon preached in a truly Christian church. If we teach our children every doctrine of the Bible but do not demonstrate the reality of God in our own lives, then we actually are not teaching them what it means to be a Christian. Hypocrisy will destroy the Christian message to whoever we teach it to. We must be genuine ourselves. This will mean that our children will learn from us love and compassion for others. They will learn humility and honesty. And they will learn to put away selfishness and envy. Even Dawkins', based on his own preface, agrees that this would be a wonderful thing. And I agree also.

Jesus said:

Therefore whoever relaxes one of the least of these commandments and teaches others to do the same will be called least in the kingdom of heaven, but whoever does them and teaches them will be called great in the kingdom of heaven. (Matthew 5:19)

Thursday, March 24, 2011

#83: Why did a God of love command the death penalty?

In the United States, as per a survey in 2010, the majority still favours the death penalty for murder. This means that the majority of people who read this post, at least those from the United States, should agree that the death penalty itself is appropriate for certain crimes. So it's not so much the fact that God commanded the death penalty that people sometimes get upset about, but rather it's the choice of crimes which are punishable by death that people disagree with according to modern moral standards. In the Bible God gave laws to the nation of Israel, through Moses. For many who haven't read the Bible, their knowledge of the content and nature of these laws is often misinformed, and some people seem to think that any and every infraction was subject to the death penalty. But this is not so. Of the various offences which were punishable by death, first degree murder was one of them; and as we've seen, the majority of Americans approve of this one. Most others fall into one of two broad categories; religious sins and sexual sins. You could be put to death for worshipping one of the pagan gods, such as Baal or Molech, or for corrupting the true religion through false prophecy. Also for various sexual sins like adultery, incest or prostitution. Essentially all of the capital crimes are crimes which affect relationships between people or the relationship between us and God. This reflects God’s values. Imparting these values to mankind is what a loving God desires to do. Things like theft or vandalism, which primarily affect things rather than relationships, are not worthy of the death penalty. If you Google a comprehensive list of the capital crimes according to Moses, like this one, you’ll see that each of them falls into one of these two major categories.

When we disapprove of the death penalty for something like adultery, which in today's society is no crime at all, we are judging this ancient society by our own moral reasoning. Or typically less than that; we often haven't done any reasoning, but because such a penalty is unthinkable in our society, we simply deem it inappropriate for the ancient Israelites as well without giving it any thought at all. But if we think for a moment what our attitude might be like if we were an ancient Israelite, and someone said to us that “at some point in the distant future, adulterers won't get so much as a fine,” we would be aghast! “But in such a society as that, every second person you meet would probably be an adulterer!” Well, after a Google search on “adultery statistics”, I discovered that this is a fairly accurate guess; roughly 50% of married men cheat on their wife. So at least half of my readers know, or will know, the pain of what that's like; and probably all of us will at least know someone who has suffered because of infidelity. And it doesn't just affect the husband or the wife, but also the children very deeply. Why don't we consider it to be a greater offence than we seem to? Well, maybe some are nodding their head a little, but will then say, “Sure, adultery isn't right, but I still don't wish my cheating husband or wife were dead!” Why does God command so harsh a penalty for adultery? All of these capital crimes tell us about what God values as important. When we don’t see marriage, for example, as important enough to protect with so strong a deterrent as the death penalty, we need to realise that this is a problem with our view of the world, not with God’s.

The reason for the death penalty for any crime is typically a deterrent. Another crime punishable by death in the Bible is what we might call “contempt of court”. That is, if you disobey the decision of the legal system. Again, contrary to the belief of some, there was a legal system; you couldn't just kill your neighbour and then tell everybody “Uh... I caught him worshipping Baal.” Deuteronomy 17 makes it clear that it must be proven beyond doubt that the offense of idolatry was committed, and says “On the evidence of two witnesses or of three witnesses the one who is to die shall be put to death; a person shall not be put to death on the evidence of one witness. The hand of the witnesses shall be first against him to put him to death, and afterward the hand of all the people. So you shall purge the evil from your midst.” (Deuteronomy 17:6-7). And in the case of contempt of court, when a person is put to death, it says “And all the people shall hear and fear and not act presumptuously again.” (Deuteronomy 17:13). So the various crimes punishable by death are those which God particularly wants to deter. Idolatry we can understand from that perspective; the great division of mankind is whether we worship the one true God or not. All of the “religious crimes” punishable by death are serious because of how serious it is to worship the wrong god. And since God uses marriage as an illustration of man's relationship to God where God is the “husband”, we are the “wife”, and idols are those we “fornicate” with; so adultery and other forms of fornication are similar offences to idolatry. But perhaps we should be wondering why God is picking some sins over others as “more serious” at all, because all sin is serious in God's eyes and worthy of death; even of eternity in hell. Well, this is right; it is in fact a demonstration of God's grace and mercy that not all offences were punishable by death. But God has placed this sort of emphasis on crimes which affect interpersonal relationships, and our relationship with God. As Jesus also emphasised explicitly when He said:

And he said to him, “You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your mind. This is the great and first commandment. And a second is like it: You shall love your neighbor as yourself. On these two commandments depend all the Law and the Prophets.” (Matthew 22:37-40)

Wednesday, March 23, 2011

#82: How can God be jealous?

In the 10 commandments, God said:

You shall not bow down to them [idols] or serve them, for I the LORD your God am a jealous God, visiting the iniquity of the fathers on the children to the third and the fourth generation of those who hate me (Exodus 20:5)

Jealousy has such a negative connotation that people wonder why God would call Himself jealous. When we think of jealousy, we think of someone who resents another person for their success, or for what they have. The one who is jealous typically has no right to be. However, we can understand a kind of righteous jealousy in someone who has every right to be jealous. Consider the husband of a woman who is flirting with another man. That feeling that we have is completely right and justified, and that wife might be upset if her husband weren’t jealous. People delude themselves when they try to pretend that such flirting harmless. A man ought to be jealous over his wife or girlfriend. “Jealousy is love protecting it's own,” as I've once heard it described. This is how the Bible speaks of God’s attitude over His people and their worship of idols. God is the “husband”, and when His people worship idols they are like an adulterous wife. God is jealous precisely because He loves His people; like a husband loves his wife.

What we see in the passage above is that, because God is jealous, He “visits the iniquity of the fathers on the children...” When an idolatrous parent teaches their children to worship idols, so that idolatry begins to enter the culture, God will put a stop to it before it goes too far. God will not allow idolatry to take over so that nobody remembers God anymore. He is jealous for His people. This is like a husband who takes vengeance on the adulterous relationship between his wife and some other man. When idolatry becomes a problem in society, that false religion is eventually dealt with by God. In the case of God bringing His people back to Himself, as He did when He sent Israel into captivity, it meant the destruction of their false religion of idols, and therefore of those who practiced those false religions. Those who went into captivity were, in fact, the remnant which God would keep faithful. What we see is a sort of “cleansing” of God's people.

Thus says the LORD, the God of Israel: “Like these good figs, so I will regard as good the exiles from Judah ... I will give them a heart to know that I am the LORD, and they shall be my people and I will be their God, for they shall return to me with their whole heart.” But thus says the LORD: “Like the bad figs that are so bad they cannot be eaten, so will I treat Zedekiah the king of Judah, his officials, the remnant of Jerusalem who remain in this land ... I will send sword, famine, and pestilence upon them, until they shall be utterly destroyed from the land that I gave to them and their fathers.” (Jeremiah 24:5-10)

This passages summarizes the purpose of this great, pivotal event of the Bible. It was to take the righteous remnant out of the way so that the idolatrous Israelites could be dealt with. Those who went into captivity were in fact the ones shown mercy by God. Not only were they spared from the sword and from famine, but they were brought back to God; and history bears this out as we read about the post-exilic community of Israel in the books of Ezra and Nehemiah, for example.

In the book of Hosea we read “My people are destroyed for lack of knowledge; because you have rejected knowledge, I reject you from being a priest to me. And since you have forgotten the law of your God, I also will forget your children.” (Hosea 4:6) This reminds us of the Exodus passage above; the “forgetting their children” relates to “visiting the iniquity of the fathers on the children”. God must put an end to sin because of His love for His people. People often ask, “If God can put an end to sin, why doesn't He?” But if God put an end to it right now, what would that mean for all of the sinners in this world which must be “ended”? Rather, God gives us time to repent. Later in the book of Hosea we read the words:

“Return, O Israel, to the LORD your God, for you have stumbled because of your iniquity. … O Ephraim, what have I to do with idols? It is I who answer and look after you. I am like an evergreen cypress; from me comes your fruit. Whoever is wise, let him understand these things; whoever is discerning, let him know them; for the ways of the LORD are right, and the upright walk in them, but transgressors stumble in them.” (Hosea 14:1,8-9)

God is jealous for His people, desiring for us to turn from our sins, back to Him. Even at this time in Israel’s history, God tells them to repent.

Justice and mercy go hand in hand. Wars are fought against nations and thousands die for the liberation of an oppressed people. Likewise, it is God's perfect justice and loving mercy to ultimately destroy evil and purify His people. In the New Testament, John the Baptist describes this work of Jesus in the following way...

His winnowing fork is in his hand, and he will clear his threshing floor and gather his wheat into the barn, but the chaff he will burn with unquenchable fire. (Matthew 3:12)

Tuesday, March 22, 2011

#81: Where do Christians get their morals?

In my last post we saw that the Theory of Evolution cannot explain universal morals. In fact, whenever I speak to Evolutionists about morality, they invariably share the same conclusion; that our motivation for doing good is ultimately the selfish motive of survival. Okay then, why do we do evil? Once again, it is ultimately for our survival; we war against our own kind in order to protect our own resources. Same motivation. So is nothing evil to the Evolutionist? To an Evolutionist, we need behaviours like aggression for survival and population control. But Christianity says that we don't need aggression, we don't need selfishness. These things are genuinely evil.

I was having a conversation with a group of people once about homosexuality, and the Biblical view of it. At least half of the group, probably more, were themselves gay. Now, not to get side-tracked, but my central message to them was that there is no excuse for sin; whether that sin is gay lust for another of the same sex, or whether it is my own lust for a woman who is not my wife. All sin must be judged by Christ, and unless we put our faith in His salvation, no-one will escape hell. But during the conversation one of them said to me, “Why don't you Google the 'Letter to Dr Laura'? I have never,” she said, “met a Christian who was able to intelligently and Biblically answer that letter.” So I went and read this letter for the first time, and I thought that it was quite sad that no Christian could answer such a letter as this. The letter is too long to cite here, and I'm not going to answer the letter in meticulous detail here either. But the letter consists of various "questions" like this one... “Most of my male friends get their hair trimmed, including the hair around their temples, even though this is expressly forbidden by Lev 19:27. How should they die?” I choose this one to comment on because the point of this “Letter to Dr Laura” is to demonstrate how inapplicable the Mosaic Law is to us. But this law on hair trimming has to do with the worship practices of pagan religions. Let's read it in context:

You shall not eat any flesh with the blood in it. You shall not interpret omens or tell fortunes. You shall not round off the hair on your temples or mar the edges of your beard. You shall not make any cuts on your body for the dead or tattoo yourselves: I am the LORD. (Leviticus 19:26-28)

These all have to do with rituals performed in the worship of pagan gods. It has nothing to do with getting a hair cut because I want to look fashionable, as one might assume when reading the letter to Dr Laura.

The point really being made by the letter, however, is that there are Laws in the Old Testament which not even Christians abide by today. It seems interesting to me that the author of this “Letter to Dr Laura” was unable to try to make their point honestly. But of course, it is true to some degree. We don't stone people for breaking the Sabbath. In fact, Christians don't tend to observe the Sabbath at all! And if for whatever reason we no longer observe the Sabbath, why do we then insist on observing the laws regarding homosexuality? If we don't appear to get our morals from the Bible, where do we get our morals from? On what basis do we pick and choose which laws of the Bible we should and shouldn't observe?

The laws of the Old Testament each have a purpose, and that purpose is not always moral guidance. There are a great many laws which have to do with the manner in which Israel was to worship God; from sacrifices to national celebrations and feasts, to the Sabbath itself which, according to the New Testament, is “a shadow of the things to come, but the substance belongs to Christ.” (Colossians 2:16-17). We no longer observe the Sabbath because the purpose of the Sabbath that there was a “rest” from our own works coming. We find that rest in Christ, and we no longer need this sort of “object lesson”.

It would be a wonderful and fruitful exercise to go through every law in the Old Testament which we no longer observe, and to give a reason why we no longer do. Well, this is something I always consider as I read through those Mosaic-Law books. As we read the Mosaic Laws, we learn moral principles, rather than simply a list of do's and don'ts. Jesus said:

“You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your mind. This is the great and first commandment. And a second is like it: You shall love your neighbor as yourself. On these two commandments depend all the Law and the Prophets.” (Matthew 22:37-40)

So what's right and wrong is really determined by answering the question “Is this action motivated by love for God and love for others?” All of the Mosaic Laws are really examples, or cases, of such love being fulfilled. Let's take just one example. In Deuteronomy 22:8 we read “When you build a new house, you shall make a parapet for your roof, that you may not bring the guilt of blood upon your house, if anyone should fall from it.” We don't observe this law today because in modern society nobody uses their roof as a living area; whereas in ancient times people used to use their roof as a living area, and would often sleep up there. So they made a little fence, or parapet, on their roof to prevent people from falling off. Well, we still have laws today to build fences around dangerous areas of our home, such as swimming pools. The principle behind this Mosaic Law is still applicable today.

Now if the basis for deciding which laws are relevant today, (or rather, how we should apply Mosaic Laws today), is to consider the motivation of love, we may appear to have a problem. The homosexual will say “I love this man, therefore my homosexuality is right.” But love for God and man was always the basis for the Mosaic Laws, and even an Israelite at the time of Moses could have said that. The kind of love that God speaks of is not subjective feelings but is the reality of God's character (for “God is love”; 1 John 4:8). We don't perfectly know how to love God or how to love one another. Being made in God's image, we do have this knowledge and understanding of love, but being a fallen race, our knowledge and understanding of love is imperfect. So God shows us throughout the whole of Scripture what God's love is like, and what His character is like. Christ so loved the world that He gave His life for us. Christians most certainly do get their morality from the Bible, but not in following the letter of the Law; a list of do's and don'ts. Rather, it is by learning about God's love and becoming imitators of Christ. A passage like 1 Corinthians 13, the famous “love passage”, will have as much to do with a Christian's morals as the books of Moses.

If I give away all I have, and if I deliver up my body to be burned, but have not love, I gain nothing. (1 Corinthians 13:3)

Monday, March 21, 2011

#80: Can we have morality without God?

Evolutionists have a theory of the origin of morality; that it evolved for the sake of survival. If I do my neighbour a kindness, then they will be kind in turn. This mutual kindness pays dividends; friends will get you through life rather than destroy your life. This fits the “all for survival” demand of natural selection. Of course, this theory is not an adequate explanation. It assumes, for no good reason, that kindness will be repaid with kindness. And it sees morality as entirely self-serving. Yet we know that good morals often involve self-sacrifice expecting nothing in return, even when no great benefit can come of it; like when a man gives up his ambitions to care for his wife who has become paraplegic. Morality ought not to be self serving, as one atheist friend of mine adamantly expressed when he spoke of his disgust for Christianity, because in his view Christians only do good out of self-interest - the reward of getting into heaven. But I had to point out that salvation is not of works, but of grace! Getting into heaven is not a result of my works. It is a Christian’s works which are truly motivated by nothing more than genuine love, whilst the Evolutionist explains most acts of morality as acts which benefit one’s self in the "survival of the fittest".

Evolutionists also posit that some behaviours are merely blind instinct. That is, we have this instinct to be altruistic, and the instinct is obeyed whether it’s rational or not. The man who gives up his ambitions for his sick wife is acting, according to the theory of natural selection, irrationally. Or there’s the example in Richard Dawkin’s book “The God Delusion” of a bird which, by instinct, feeds the open mouths in its nest, even when the mouths don’t belong to its own offspring. So this is what’s at the heart of Evolution, then; that regardless of the compassion you feel for someone, you’re really just like a computer doing what you’ve been programmed to do.

What follows from this Evolutionary explanation of morality is that, given the intelligence we’ve evolved, we should be able to identify the “simplicity of the program” and rectify these “mis-firings of instinct”. We end up with the idea that we ought to improve humanity by actively redefining what it right and wrong. The question is, who gets to decide what is right and wrong? Various people have said that Christianity is positively evil and ought to be one of those things that mankind should “evolve beyond”, and they take an active role in trying to remove this human behaviour called “religion.” Yet the same arguments that evolutionists use to decide what is good could be applied to religion. Evolutionists could say that religion evolved in order to give people hope, rather than the emptiness of a life that will lead to absolutely nothing. They should see religion as a good thing, just in so far as the theory of natural selection has positively selected for it! (After all, we see it in every culture on the planet). But they deem it as evil, making themselves judges of what is good and what is bad for the human race. This kind of thing happens in biology as well, as a result of Evolution Theory. Consider the practice of Eugenics where people decide who should or shouldn't be allowed to have children based on what they consider to be desirable physical traits. The result of Eugenics is disastrous. Eugenics, in fact, was partly the rationale for the holocaust. Mankind simply does not have the wisdom to become the judge of what is beneficial or detrimental to humanity. Consider our present culture, how in this day and age we've decided that sex out of wedlock with many partners is perfectly acceptable and normal. Yet I heard a statistic today that 45% of all Americans have some form of sexually transmitted disease.

Now, nobody denies that what Hitler did was evil, and all should agree that a war against Nazi Germany was good and just to bring an end to his wickedness. But an Evolutionist has no right to say that what Hitler did was wrong, nor that we should have fought against the evil of his actions. Hitler, after all, was following Evolutionist reasoning in his extermination of the Jews; he saw himself as an “agent of natural selection", helping mankind evolve beyond certain evolutionary errors. Well, a certain Evolutionist by the name of Shane Killian seems to reject this idea, saying “If Hitler had really been a Darwinist, he would have done absolutely nothing.” This is an interesting response. By his own admission an Evolutionist has no right, if they are to be consistent with their world view, to fight against Hitler, or against any other evil in this world. Why? Because no matter what you do, whether good or bad, it's all going to come out in the wash; natural selection will either "select it" or "reject it". If Hitler ought to have done nothing in the face of what he considered evil, it follows that no true Evolutionist should have done anything to fight what they perceived as Hitler's evil. Essentially this is determinism, and there is no such thing as right or wrong since the process of natural selection is amoral and will select for this or that, even if it means the human race will destroy itself to make way for a new species of giant mushroom or some such thing.

So there appear to be two different philosophies within Evolutionism, where some say they ought not fight evil but leave natural selection to do its thing; and on the other, they say that morality should be a product of reason and philosophy, and that we should now start defying the “program” that natural selection has written for us. Well, the most prevalent philosophy of ethics today is “Utilitarianism”. It is summarized this way: “The greatest good for the greatest number.” And by this rule men have justified the murder of millions! Men like Hitler or Stalin have reasoned that the sacrifice of many will be for the “greater good.” Man’s philosophy fails again. But I suppose that when a follower of secular ethics does evil, people might say “Condemn the man, but don’t condemn the philosophy.” In other words, the man may have misapplied a perfectly good ethical philosophy. I would likewise want to say that for all the evils done in the name of Christianity; condemn the men, but don’t condemn the religion. Yet there is a distinction here. When a man claiming to be a Christian does evil, it is evident that he has not conformed to the commands of the Bible. But when a Utilitarian or an Evolutionist does evil, it’s not the case that he has strayed from the philosophy or misapplied it. He’s actually followed it through to it’s logical conclusion. Simply, the foundation upon which he built was itself corrupt.

Until tomorrow...
And everyone who hears these words of mine and does not do them will be like a foolish man who built his house on the sand. And the rain fell, and the floods came, and the winds blew and beat against that house, and it fell, and great was the fall of it. (Matthew 7:26-27)

Sunday, March 20, 2011

#79: Is morality relative?

As we consider the moral convictions of other cultures, where certain things that we consider to be unacceptable behaviour are acceptable, it causes us to wonder why it is that we are different; why do we approve of the things we do, and disapprove of things “they” don't? Could it be that “right and wrong” are simply what the society you presently live in considers to be right and wrong? I have spoken to people who take this view very seriously; that right and wrong are simply what I can and can't get away with in the culture I live in; or what I would either be proud or ashamed to admit to others. On the other hand, the Christian view is that God determines what is right and what is wrong, and that God has created us with a sense of right from wrong; though our sense of morality is dulled by our fallen, sinful state so that we can tend to approve of what is wrong in God's eyes, and even disapprove of what is right in God's eyes.

The problem with the idea that morality is relative to our culture is that we can always disagree with the moral standards of our culture, and have a personal preference for some other law. Effectively, morality is one’s own, personal set of values. In fact, if moral relativity is true, then the law is really just the imposition of someone else’s moral preferences on you. But we need laws to govern us. If we all have different values conflicting with each other, society cannot function; it is nigh unto anarchy. Further, we really cannot judge anyone else as being right or wrong. Because right and wrong can change over time and from place to place, then all we can really say is that something is right or wrong for me, personally, at this moment in time. If someone steals your possessions or murders your dog, you can’t say that they did anything wrong, because they can say “It’s right in my eyes...” Just as you wish to say that this or that is “right in your own eyes”, irrespective of whether it’s seen as moral or immoral to someone else.

I remember hearing about a court case in which a pedophile was on trial. In his own defense he argued that in ancient cultures it was not considered wrong to have sexual relations with children. In other words, the act of pedophilia isn't objectively wrong since it was right in that culture. But unless we’re desperately trying defend moral relativism, we would all agree that pedophilia was wrong, even for that ancient culture. A thing is objectively true when it remains true regardless of whether anyone believes it or not. His personal view that pedophilia was right would not make it right; and neither is it right when an entire ancient culture approves of it. Our indignation against this man would not simply be over a difference of opinion.

Moral relativism tries to permit everything I want to do by demanding that those who have different moral preferences not impose those preferences upon me. But this is, itself, a moral imposition. It’s saying that it is wrong for you to impose your morality onto me. This is saying that there is an absolute, objective moral law that everyone must obey. Not to impose morality on others is assumed to be right, whether people agree with it or not.

A common practice in Roman culture during the first century, when Christianity was spreading, was to simply leave unwanted children to die in the cold. Yet Christians at that time would save those children and adopt them. They saw the practice of their culture as evil, just as we do. If morality is defined by what the majority of people do, then it would, by definition, be moral; and nobody could ever stand up and say that this was wrong. Likewise in Nazi Germany there were good men who opposed what was going on, and the truth about the atrocities going on were kept secret from the public, which suggests that even those doing them knew that they were evil. In our own culture there are certain practices which are common and legal, such as pornography or gambling or drunkenness; but these things are immoral and destroy lives. Many will read this and disagree, but on what basis? Should we never fight to make certain things illegal? And if we do, is it an arbitrary decision to “end a trend”? No, morality is far more complicated than what simply happens to be the norm.

Now, God made man to know right from wrong. But because our sense of right and wrong is corrupt, He also set the Law in stone for us to guide us back to the truth. All of the Law is summed up in the ten commandments, and even further again in the commands “You shall love the Lord your God” and “You shall love your neighbour”. The difference between right and wrong isn't always black and white, even when we have the Bible in our hands. There is “a time to love and a time to hate, a time for war and a time for peace” (Ecclesiastes 3:8) It takes wisdom to know how to love my neighbour. But that I ought to love my neighbour is objectively true. If a person doesn’t think so, we can rightly say that they are wrong.

Let God be true though every one were a liar, as it is written, “That you may be justified in your words, and prevail when you are judged.” (Romans 3:4)

Saturday, March 19, 2011

#78: Is faith unreasonable?

When Richard Dawkins wrote his book “The God Delusion”, one of the main points of the book was that faith is opposed to reason. Well, I know what he means; by some people's understanding of what faith is, it is unreasonable. For some people, faith is believing in something despite any evidence. There is a fountain of water where the virgin Mary supposedly appeared once, and many believe that they will be healed if they drink from that fountain. Yet there is very little evidence of any miraculous healings. Still, people go with “blind faith”. However, true faith is not unreasonable. After all, when I look at the world around me I reason that such complexity must be attributed to a being whose wisdom and power is great, rather than to dust blowing in the wind (which is somewhat descriptive of the origin of life according to Evolution).

A book like “The God Delusion” makes some very valid points, even from a Christian perspective, because the truth is that millions of religious people all over the world are deluded, believing that their false god is the true God of Creation, or that their false god will save them from their troubles. And is religion dangerous, as Richard Dawkins suggests? Yes, false religion, (even if it is called Christianity but is not Christianity in truth), is dangerous and destructive. The Bible itself spends an enormous amount of time, (just about every book in the Bible in fact) trying to sort out true religion from false religion. God does not want religion for religion's sake, or for people to have some kind of faith which simply makes them feel good; God wants us to believe in Him and to serve Him. So, for example, Paul spoke with the Jews of his time who already believed in God, but didn't accept that Jesus Christ is God. It says in Acts...

And he entered the synagogue and for three months spoke boldly, reasoning and persuading them about the kingdom of God. (Acts 19:8)

How did Paul reason with them on matters of faith? We aren't told in this context what his arguments were, but we do see enough of Paul's reasoning in his epistles, or in the book of Acts itself. To the Jews he showed how Jesus was the fulfilment of Old Testament prophecy. In regards to logical reasoning, I have heard that the book of Romans builds up such an elegant and logical case that it is even studied in law schools.

Now, I had a discussion with an Islamic fellow just recently. He put forward a very logical argument... "How can God become a man, since God is infinite but man is finite? For God to become a man, he ceases to be God by definition." There is nothing illogical or unreasonable by what he said. His own faith is logical and reasonable. However, I answered him in return with logic and reason... "Because as a Christian I believe in a “Triune God” - God is one, and yet three persons. Therefore, Christ the Son (being God) can voluntarily cease to exercise His divine attributes without the universe collapsing altogether – the Father and the Holy Spirit upholding it. In fact, according to reason, only a Triune God can be the true God, since God (by definition) is eternal and has the attribute of love. But love can only exist between persons, therefore there must be an eternal plurality of persons which are God." Yet people will ask me “what's reasonable about the Trinity?” Here we bring up another important point...

This Muslim friend of mine admits in his own argument that man is limited in every way, including knowledge and his ability to reason. We don't know what is beyond the realm of our five senses, and this makes it all the more difficult to reason about it. We don't know what spiritual realities make it possible for God to become a man. People like Dawkins, on the other hand, seem to presume that our five senses are sufficient to know everything there is to know about the universe. Believing in Evolution, do they not consider that in the great timeline of "evolutionary progress", we might still be like fish in a pond; whose memory lasts but three seconds, and whose vision is blurred beyond a few centimeters; yet claiming that nothing exists which we cannot perceive with our senses? That fish couldn’t possibly ever imagine the world we live in, with streets and cars and skyscrapers. But God has come down to our level in order to reveal to us, to the degree to which we can apprehend it, what the reality beyond our senses is like. By reason (the eternal love argument I gave, for example), I believe in a Triune God, as revealed to us by God.

I often spend my time reading through discussions on forums and YouTube between Evolutionists and Christians. It is interesting to observe how people will often and frequently shout “Read a book!” or “Go and Google this...” The assumption is clear – “if you don't believe in Evolution, it has to be that you haven't read the stuff I have.” I find it interesting because I have read such things, and I have read Richard Dawkins' "God Delusion". But I reason with those arguments; I try their logic and I acknowledge when they have validity, but I am also able to find error with them. And I do the same within the realm of theology itself. I was listening to a sermon recently in which the speaker was explaining a certain doctrine which I don't agree with. I can see his logic and I can affirm certain things are valid, yet I can identify his error because it doesn't stand up to reason in light of various passages of Scripture. If I can only speak for myself, I am certain that my faith is not blind – it's very important for me to think critically about what I'm told. And having done that, I stand firm in my faith. Richard Dawkins will make out that all Christians have merely believed what they are told without having thought about it and reasoned with it for themselves. There is some validity to that. When you've spent as much time as I have in Bible studies, you notice those who are just regurgitating the material of their favourite evangelist. It winds me up; I wish they would think for themselves, because if anyone should challenge them on that material they simply won't have an answer. But when you've spent as much time as I have speaking to atheists, you also begin to notice when they are simply regurgitating Richard Dawkins' material! They're no different. We must all think for ourselves because we are all personally accountable to God for what we believe. Yet I say again, from one who does think critically about his faith... I remain steadfast in my faith.

Until tomorrow:
The fool says in his heart, “There is no God”. (Psalms 14:1)

Friday, March 18, 2011

#77: Is Evolution science or faith?

It would almost seem these days as though all of religion is an ancient concept. That all of the world's religions began many thousands of years ago before people got “scientific”. But of course, this isn't true. Scientology, for example, was officially declared a new religion in 1993. But I would say that just about any religion has some story to explain the origin of life. In a sense, religion is indeed a way for man to explain the world around him and its origin. As a Christian, I naturally believe that many other religions are nothing more than this... myths about the origin of the universe. But is Evolution any different to these other religions? Evolution interprets scientific data, and these interpretations are often little more than elaborate stories which people trust are “probably how it happened”.

Contrary to popular belief, thoughtful Christians do not simply put their fingers in their ears and shout “La la la la!” when some scientific claim upsets their world view. There is, for example, the claim that the world is billions of years old. But since the Bible gives us a genealogy from Adam to Jesus Christ, we can roughly estimate that creation, (the time of Adam), was only around 6000 years ago. (Now, if some Christians try to say that there were not six literal days of creation, and that there were billions of years of Evolution leading up to Adam, then they have this problem: that the Bible must therefore pinpoint the very moment that some non-human ape became human. But that's not going to fit any reckoning of Evolution I know of, since Adam's immediate father would have been indistinguishable from human.) But if the world is billions of years old, as Evolutionists claim, yet Christians believe it to be 6000 years old, what do Christians do about this? Do they block their ears to the evidence for an old Earth? No, they critically review the scientific evidence, and they examine some scientific research of their own. Since we're talking science, I'll cite some actual scientific work on this matter. Here's a description of some research which supports a young Earth...

The decay in the human genome due to multiple slightly deleterious mutations each generation is consistent with an origin several thousand years ago. Sanford, J., Genetic entropy and the mystery of the genome, Ivan Press, 2005; ... This has been confirmed by realistic modelling of population genetics, which shows that genomes are young, in the order of thousands of years. See Sanford, J., Baumgardner, J., Brewer, W., Gibson, P. and Remine, W.,  Mendel’s Accountant: A biologically realistic forward-time population genetics program, SCPE 8(2):147–165, 2007.
Copied from http://creation.com/age-of-the-earth

Christians are not against science, by any means. In fact, when I was growing up, studying science in school is probably one of the things that kept my mind contemplating the wonder of God; to hear about the complexity of microscopic cells, and how all of our body is finely coordinated... I just marvel at the handy-work of God! But science is about making observations and then interpreting the data. When anybody interprets anything, it is impossible to be completely objective. We all have presuppositions and an expectation about the world around us. If we're already sold on Evolution, then we'll interpret data as fitting into our model of “survival of the fittest”, or whatever. Now, recently I spoke with a man who was defending Evolution. He basically said that “There is nothing more than survival of the species. All things can be explained in terms of survival.” I asked him, “What about mankind's appreciation of art, or music, or literature?” Well, he stuck to his guns at first, but it actually wasn't long before he'd changed his tune a little and was saying “Not everything is about survival, you know!” You see, there's no objective science going on here at all. I was challenging this man's world view, and he was simply trying to make everything compatible with his world view. When he couldn't, he was forced to modify his view a little bit. All of his reading from scientific authors like Richard Dawkins and such simply went out the window.

Now, I’d have liked to share an example of a YouTube video I once saw. Unfortunately, the video has been removed due to copyright infringement. It was an interview between Richard Dawkins and Richard Leakey. In it, Dawkins asked “What do you think made the brain get so big in such a short time?” (Referring to the brains of our ape-ancestors.) Leakey replies with a story. He explained that our ancestors ventured out into harsher territory where they found that the ability to make sharp tools for cutting meat was beneficial. Not that this answers the question, but in any case; what is the scientific evidence to back up this story? This is just a story, invented by this man as a “plausible explanation”. The video does go on to show what is supposed to be evidence of this. They found some skulls near some sharp rocks, and supposed that the apes had been fashioning these rocks into sharp tools for cutting. But this is just an interpretation of something observed to fit the Evolutionist world view. For all we know, humans fashioned those rocks and the skulls are the prey of those people. It is based on the assumption that people did not exist at the time these rocks were cut. Presumably Carbon dating was used to date the skulls, but Carbon dating is unreliable.

What Leakey is doing is actually no different to any of the old religions. Much like an Australian Aboriginal Dream-Time Story, for example, in which the great rock Uluru is explained as being where “Tatji, the small Red Lizard … threw his kali, a curved throwing stick, and it became embedded in the surface.” [www.crystalinks.com/ayersrock.html]. It's a story which explains what has been observed by fitting it into the world view of the culture. They see the rock and they explain it in terms of their Dream-Time framework. This is what Richard Leakey is doing. It's completely speculative. But this is what I've seen throughout all of Evolution Theory and Natural Selection. A quote from one Dr Philip Skell voices my own experiences quite well: "Natural selection makes humans self-centered and aggressive—except when it makes them altruistic and peaceable. Or natural selection produces virile men who eagerly spread their seed—except when it prefers men who are faithful protectors and providers." Whatever an Evolutionist wants to explain, they simply create a sort of "Creation Myth" story in which Natural Selection is the "Creator". It's not science, any more than the Dream-Time stories are.

Until tomorrow...

For the time is coming when people will not endure sound teaching, but having itching ears they will accumulate for themselves teachers to suit their own passions, and will turn away from listening to the truth and wander off into myths. (2 Timothy 4:3-4)

Thursday, March 17, 2011

#76: What does true Christianity look like?

When we think about what true Christianity looks like, we cannot merely consider the way in which people who profess to be Christians behave. There are criticisms that are often made of things done by the Church which are absolutely valid. Perhaps one of the most common criticisms is of the various Inquisitions, for example. But in many cases, things done in the name of Christianity were not done by true Christians at all, but wicked people who used religion as a means to an end. And yet even some un-Christian things have been done by genuine Christians who have been misguided, or allowed sin and pride to get the better of them. So when we ask “What does true Christianity look like?”, we're not trying to create some perfect litmus test with which we can determine whether a person is truly saved or not. Rather, we're trying to give a general idea of what the Christian life ought to be like, according to the way God desires us to behave. Jesus said, “You therefore must be perfect, as your heavenly Father is perfect.” (Matthew 5:48). Well, we all fall short of that! The very reason Jesus said this was for us to realize that we cannot be perfect, and that we need a Saviour.

Having said that, Jesus did say of false Christians that we shall “know them by their fruits.” That is to say, a person's behaviour will naturally express what their heart is made of. Just as every lie is eventually uncovered, a person cannot fake love and kindness indefinitely without their true nature eventually showing through. Non-Christians certainly are kind and loving, and genuinely so, because we are all made in the image of God. However, the source of a Christian's love is a conscious awareness of this fact; that God has made us all, even our enemies, and that He loves and values us all. The love of a Christian ought to be more far-reaching than the "common love" of men, as God's is. And it should be consistently genuine as it is a part of our new nature, given to us by Christ.

The epistle of 1st John was written to a Church in order to speak about some false Christians who had been members of the congregation, and it talks a lot about the difference between a true Christian and a false one. But it begins in the latter part of the first chapter by saying this:

If we say we have no sin, we deceive ourselves, and the truth is not in us. If we confess our sins, he is faithful and just to forgive us our sins and to cleanse us from all unrighteousness. If we say we have not sinned, we make him a liar, and his word is not in us. (1 John 1:8-10)

This is the first distinction between believers and unbelievers. Nobody is without sin. But the way we deal with our sin and our guilt is very different when we're a Christian. The unbeliever will tend to justify themselves when they do wrong, or they may even blame and hate themselves. But a Christian will confess their sin to God in repentance, owning their sin and yet finding forgiveness to move forward.

In chapter 2, John begins to talk about another key distinction between true and false Christianity:

And by this we know that we have come to know him, if we keep his commandments. (1 John 2:3)

Now, John has just said that we are all sinners, and yet a true Christian keeps Christ's commandments. He means that it is our constant desire to obey them, though we fail to do so perfectly. That desire affects our behaviour so that we do actually go about our lives in obedience to Christ's commandments. All people do genuinely do good because of the moral sense God has given to all mankind, but an unbeliever doesn't generally understand this, and so they fail to give God the glory in the works that they do. But a Christian is consciously desiring to do the will of God in everything they do.

The major Biblical distinctive for Christians is love. Jesus said “By this all people will know that you are my disciples, if you have love for one another.” (John 13:35). John makes this a strong point in his epistle, too:

For this is the message that you have heard from the beginning, that we should love one another. … But if anyone has the world's goods and sees his brother in need, yet closes his heart against him, how does God's love abide in him?” (1 John 3:11,17)

The love that a Christian has for others comes from God. We love others because God is expressing His love for them through us. This is why it is impossible for a Christian not to love others. “We ought to love others in the same way that a fish ought to swim,” as I heard a  preacher say once. John says in chapter 2 “Whoever says he is in the light and hates his brother is still in darkness.” (1 John 2:9). Now because we are all made in the image of God, we all do experience love for others. But it is easy to love those who love us, or if it won't cost us anything. To even love one's enemies, or to sacrifice much for the sake of another; that is the love of God in us. The Christian life is characterized by this kind of love.

The final point which I'd like to highlight from 1 John is this... “Whoever confesses that Jesus is the Son of God, God abides in him, and he in God.” (1 John 4:15). Believing that Jesus Christ is the Son of God, and the Saviour of mankind, is absolutely essential to being a genuine Christian. In fact, all that we've said so far illustrate a life where Christ is central; where He is the motivation for all that we do, and the very source of our love and our desires. Unless you have that, all of your love for others and your moral lifestyle are not sufficient to save you. John reminds us of this...

Whoever has the Son has life; whoever does not have the Son of God does not have life. (1 John 5:12)

Wednesday, March 16, 2011

#75: If I forsake everything for Christ, what reward shall I receive?

“And behold, a man came up to him, saying, “Teacher, what good deed must I do to have eternal life?” … Jesus said to him, “If you would be perfect, go, sell what you possess and give to the poor, and you will have treasure in heaven; and come, follow me.” (Matthew 19:16,21).

Now, to be saved one does not have to sell all they have and give it to the poor. That's not how we're saved. According to the gospel we're saved by grace through faith, apart from our works. So why did Jesus tell the rich man to do this? There are a few ways in which people try to figure this out. According to one theological “system of thought”, people prior to the resurrection of Christ were saved by the good deeds that they did. However, I cannot agree with this in any way; the Bible makes it clear that it is impossible for a man to be saved by his works, which will never be good enough. We are saved through faith and mankind always has been saved through faith. Of those living in the Old Testament period under Moses, but who rebelled against God, the Book of Hebrews says “For good news came to us just as to them, but the message they heard did not benefit them, because they were not united by faith with those who listened.” (Hebrews 4:2) Faith has always been necessary for salvation. Alternatively, then, there are those who say that our good deeds, whilst they don't save us, will earn us “rewards” in heaven. And these people will point to verse 21 of Matthew 19, cited above... “go, sell... and you will have treasure in heaven...” Now, I was involved in a fellowship that took this particular view.

Peter, upon hearing this, remarked “See, we have left everything and followed you. What then will we have?” Jesus replies, “Truly, I say to you, in the new world, when the Son of Man will sit on his glorious throne, you who have followed me will also sit on twelve thrones, judging the twelve tribes of Israel. And everyone who has left houses or brothers or sisters or father or mother or children or lands, for my name's sake, will receive a hundredfold and will inherit eternal life.” The way I see it, the man had asked about how he could obtain eternal life, and the answer was that he should give to the poor and follow Christ to inherit eternal life. And Jesus is saying to Peter, who thinks that there might be some special reward for their sacrifice, that anyone who forsakes anything for Christ will receive “a hundredfold” and inherit eternal life. What my friends at that fellowship seemed to do was divide Christians into two groups – those that are going to inherit eternal life, and those who, for their great sacrifices to Christ, would inherit eternal life “and then some...” But this passage, if it refers to anything over and above eternal life itself at all, seems to apply it all to a single group of people. If you're saved you will forsake the various things of this world which prevent you from serving Christ. Why did Jesus tell this man to sell all that he had if he wanted eternal life? The point was not that we are saved by some good deed such as this, but rather that this was Jesus Christ Himself asking this man to do something, but he would not. The passage says that the man “went away sorrowful, for he had great possessions.” Jesus was showing the man that to be saved one must follow Christ as their Lord. Jesus told him this quite clearly; in verse 21 He said, “come, follow me.” In another passage of Scripture, Jesus said “If anyone would come after me, let him deny himself and take up his cross and follow me. For whoever would save his life will lose it, but whoever loses his life for my sake will find it.” (Matthew 16:24). In another place He said, “No one can serve two masters, for either he will hate the one and love the other, or he will be devoted to the one and despise the other. You cannot serve God and money.” (Matthew 6:24). All who will inherit eternal life itself will necessarily have forsaken whatever idols stand in the place of God.

As though this isn't clear enough, Jesus continues to answer Peter with a parable. I'll summarize the parable quickly, from Matthew 20:1-16. A master hires some men one morning to work for him. Later in the day he hires some more men, and later still he hires some more. But at the end of the day he pays all of the men the same amount. Those who were hired in the morning complain saying, “But we worked longer than the others!” But the master says, “Friend, I am doing you no wrong. … Am I not allowed to do what I choose with what belongs to me? Or do you begrudge my generosity?” (Matthew 20:13,15). Pay given to one who works is earned; it is not an act of generosity to give it to him. So the employer, here, is referring to what is over and above the few hours that these men worked. It is a gift. But, it is clear that it was not earned; it was given to the ones who did less work. The more we understand that our performance doesn’t earn us anything, the more, in fact, that we will be rewarded.

The Christian life is likened to servanthood throughout the Bible. Every Christian is a servant of God. If the idea of being a servant makes you sorrowful, then you are in the place of the man who came to Jesus asking how he might have eternal life. There is, perhaps, something you're not willing to give up. But what we really need to do is trust God that our lives are better off without something, or that we’re better off doing something He desires of us. One thing I have found is that I am never happier than when I am doing the will of God. If I know I ought to be doing something but I don't want to do it, then before long I find myself depressed and wondering why I'm feeling so down. And then I remember, and I begin to do what I know I ought to be doing, and my joy and happiness are restored! But what is my motivation? Not some reward in heaven, nor trying to earn God's favour by doing good, but simply that Christ is worthy of all that I have. For the Apostle Paul, simply to be doing the work of God was his reward. (Philippians 3:14). My own joy and happiness in doing God’s will are my reward. And when I have given all that I have, I am still just a servant after all...

Will any one of you who has a servant plowing or keeping sheep say to him when he has come in from the field, “Come at once and recline at table?” Will he not rather say to him, “Prepare supper for me, and dress properly, and serve me while I eat and drink, and afterward you will eat and drink?” Does he thank the servant because he did what was commanded? So you also, when you have done all that you were commanded, say, “We are unworthy servants; we have only done what was our duty.” (Luke 17:7-10)