Painting a Clear Picture of God: Lessons from the Protestant Reformation

Modern man does not like to think of God in terms of wrath, anger and judgment. He likes to make God according to his own ideas and give God the characteristics he wants Him to possess. Man tries to remake God to conform to his own wishful thinking, so that he can make himself comfortable in his sins.
Billy Graham

Key point: Fearing God is a first step toward being made right with Him.

The Protestant Reformation, which we have discussed in recent posts, has countless lessons for believers today. In this article, I’d like to hone in on five, all of which are related.

With a retelling of Martin Luther’s conversion story as a backdrop, we’ll make some fresh observations. You can access a brief account of Luther’s spiritual journey here.

Against the historical historical and biographical backdrop of Martin Luther’s journey to peace with God, I’d like to highlight five principles that ring true down through the centuries to our day.

A Diligent Search and a Priceless Discovery

First, Martin Luther’s salvation experience is a testimony to the principle we see so clearly in Jeremiah 29:13. God declared to his people, You “will seek Me and find Me, when you search for Me with all your heart.”


And you will seek Me and find Me, when you search for Me with all your heart.
—the Lord to His people in Jeremiah 29:13—


Jeremiah on the ruins of Jerusalem by Horace Vernet, 1844

We should understand that this verse is part of a message God sent through Jeremiah to “the remainder of the elders who were carried away captive—to the priests, the prophets, and all the people whom Nebuchadnezzar had carried away captive from Jerusalem to Babylon” (Jer. 29:1). Even so, it is not an unreasonable stretch to see in verse 13 an application with regard to salvation and forgiveness of sins. Similarly, Isaiah 55:6-7 states,

6 Seek the Lord while He may be found,
Call upon Him while He is near.
Let the wicked forsake his way,
And the unrighteous man his thoughts;
Let him return to the Lord,
And He will have mercy on him;
And to our God,
For He will abundantly pardon.

Fearing God Is a Key Step to Finding Him

Saint Paul, by Bartolomeo Montagna, 1481

Second—and we must not miss this point—Martin Luther sought peace with God because he was afraid of Him. He knew he was a sinner destined for hell and was compelled to search desperately for divine forgiveness and peace. Luther’s good and noble works didn’t resolve his situation one bit; but all the confessions, prayers, acts of penitence, occasions of fasting, and other disciplines indicated just how earnest he was. Honoring Luther’s search, God, in His grace and mercy, brought Martin to a clear understanding of the liberating truth about salvation. No one can earn it. Rather, it is a free gift received by relying on Christ and the sufficiency of His substitutionary death to pay the penalty for one’s sins. The key verse for Luther in this revelation, as we have seen, was Romans 1:17. In this verse, Paul quoted from Habakkuk 2:4: “The just shall live by his faith.”

Third, the American evangelical church today, as we indicated in items 6, 7, and 86 of our 95 Theses for the Protestant Evangelical Church in the 21st Century, tends to present a lopsided view of God.

  • The church has emphasized God’s love to the point of effectively neglecting his holiness and wrath.
  • The church says very little about hell, yet hell is very real.
  • The church, through a variety of actions and inactions, promotes the idea that God can be approached in a thoroughly casual fashion. Note that this failure is not tied exclusively to music styles or lyrics.

In using the word casual in this last point, I am not at all arguing against the principle that sinners must come as they are to God, with all of their sin, and rely fully on Jesus’ death and the regenerating power of the Holy Spirit for cleansing. I am saying we must never take God’s grace for granted (see Isa. 1:18; John 3:5-8; 1 Tim. 2:5; Rom. 2:4; 1 Pet. 3:18).

Many people say, “God is a God of love who never would send anyone to hell.” Where have they gotten this idea? Ultimately, it is a lie from Satan, but regardless of the avenues through which Satan propagates this distortion, the church seems to make little or no effort to correct it, even among its own people. Yes, God is a God of love, but He also is a holy and just God who must punish sin (go here and here).

Bad News; Good News

Scene from The Last Judgment by Michelangelo

Believers, both individually and corporately, need to present the truth about God’s love and holiness. Yet—and this is our fourth point—we seem to have failed to understand that the good news of the gospel can be seen for how wonderful it is only against the backdrop of its bad news about sin, accountability to a holy God, and certain judgment. Again, God is holy and perfect, and He must judge sin. As we say in our presentation of how to become a Christian, “While we might not think of our violations as being all that extreme, even the smallest infraction in our eyes is enough to make us guilty before God. The penalty for sin is death—and not just physical death, but spiritual death, eternal separation from God forever (see Matt. 7:23; 25:41,46; see these verses in context here; also see Rom. 6:23).”

Oh, we don’t like this! Christian apologist Greg Koukl explains,

It is hard to imagine anything in religion more repugnant to people than the wrath of God, and it is easy to see why.…

[For one thing, t]he notion of a “vengeful” God strikes us as inconsistent with a God of love. This seems right at first, but the complaint is based on a misunderstanding. God’s love is not a thing in itself, so to speak, but is tied, like all of his attributes, to his goodness, the very goodness we are inclined to question when evil runs rampant. “Why doesn’t God do something?” we wonder. Yet we cry foul when we learn God will do something decisive about evil and we are the evildoers.”1

Later in his book, Koukl shows how God’s love, God’s wrath, and Jesus’ death are intertwined.

Jesus came to earth to save sinners. The statement is so common to our ears, it is easy to miss its significance. Save means to “rescue from imminent danger.” Jesus came to rescue us because we were in danger. What was the danger? What was Jesus rescuing from? Here is the answer. Jesus did not come to rescue us from our ignorance or our poverty or our oppressors or even from ourselves. Jesus came to rescue us from the Father.2

Remember, the King is angry. He is the one who is offended. He is the one who is owed. He is the Sovereign we have rebelled against, the father we have disobeyed, the friend we have betrayed. And that is a dangerous place for us to be. Jesus said, “Do not fear those who kill the body, but are unable to kill the soul, but rather fear him who is able to destroy both soul and body in hell.” Later in the Story we learn, “It is a terrifying thing to fall into the hands of the living God.”3

But we’d much rather talk about God’s love—and that’s what we do! While the Church in the 16th century made the mistake of emphasizing God’s wrath over His love (and didn’t really talk about His wrath in full accordance with biblical teaching), the church today is making the opposite mistake. We do need to talk about God’s love, but in the context of a proper emphasis on His justice and wrath.

Let’s learn a lesson from history. Despite all the distortions of biblical truths about God for which the Church in Martin Luther’s day was responsible, Luther was right to fear Him. In the end, he benefited from this fear because God used it to help him discover the truth that ultimately set him free.

Lightstock

Advocating a Healthy Fear of God

Let me be clear. I am not advocating or affirming the view of God that prevailed in 16th-century Europe. I am saying the church needs to rediscover a healthy fear of God. This is our fifth point.

“But God’s kindness leads us to repentance!” someone might say, citing Romans 2:4—and he or she would be right. Even so, the context for this verse conveys in unambiguous terms that God is holy and divine judgment is certain.

That isn’t all. Read these verses carefully.

  • The fear of the LORD is the beginning of wisdom. A good understanding have all those who do His commandments.His praise endures forever” (Psalm 111:10).
  • The fear of the LORD isthe beginning of knowledge,
    But fools despise wisdom and instruction (Prov. 1:7).
  • The fear of the LORD isthe beginning of wisdom,
    And the knowledge of the Holy One is understanding (Prov. 9:10).

In each of these verses, the same Hebrew word is used for the English word fear.

May the church rediscover, preach, and proclaim a healthy fear of Almighty God!

 

A quick review:

  1. Martin Luther’s salvation experience is a testimony to the principle we see so clearly in Jeremiah 29:13. God declared to his people, You “will seek Me and find Me, when you search for Me with all your heart.”
  2. Martin Luther sought peace with God because he was afraid of Him.
  3. The American evangelical church today tends to present a lopsided view of God. Its emphasis on God’s love overshadows any affirmation of His holiness and wrath.
  4. The church apparently has failed to understand that the good news of the gospel can be seen for how wonderful it is only against the backdrop of its bad news about sin, accountability to a holy God, and certain judgment.
  5. The church the church needs to rediscover and preach a healthy fear of God.

 

Copyright © 2017 by B. Nathaniel Sullivan. All rights reserved.

Unless otherwise indicated, Scripture has been taken from the New King James Version®. Copyright © 1982 by Thomas Nelson, Inc. Used by permission. All rights reserved.

Scriptures marked NASB are taken from the NEW AMERICAN STANDARD BIBLE®, Copyright © 1960,1962,1963,1968,1971,1972,1973,1975,1977,1995 by The Lockman Foundation. Used by permission.

Notes:

1Gregory Koukl, The Story of Reality: How the World Began, How It Ends, and Everything Important that Happens in Between, (Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 2017), 97.

2At this point, Koukl provides this clarification in a footnote: “Jesus saves us from the Father, but His intention is not at odds with the Father since it was the Father who out of love, sent Jesus to rescue the world in the first place.”

3Koukl, 117. Scripture quotations are from Matthew 10:28 and Hebrews 10:31, respectively, New American Standard Bible.

image credit: top image: www.lightstock.com

Upholding Clarity in an Age of Confusion: The Nashville Statement, Part 7

Male and Female Differences Are Blessings from God

Why didn’t God make us all a combination of male and female, so we wouldn’t be so dependent on one another? Why not make us each complete in ourselves? For one thing, we wouldn’t have been as happy if we were complete in ourselves. God made us so that we would have a need for him, and this need would impel us to grow to be like him. He also made us so that we would need one another, and thus would grow together toward unity. By design, all of God’s creation is constructed to avoid self-sufficiency. Everything about our earth and its inhabitants is designed to promote harmony, interdependence, and unselfishness.
—W. Peter Blitchington1

 

You can view summaries of all the articles in this series here.

Key point: Not only Article 4 of the Nashville Statement affirm the truth of Scripture; human experience does as well.

 

For the past several weeks, we have been considering various articles of the Nashville Statement on Biblical Sexuality. This week we will briefly consider Article 4, which states,

WE AFFIRM that divinely ordained differences between male and female reflect God’s original creation design and are meant for human good and human flourishing.

WE DENY that such differences are a result of the Fall or are a tragedy to be overcome.

Thomas Cole, Expulsion from the Garden of Eden

How do we know these things? Let’s consider the affirmation portion first.

First, we know that male-female differences have existed as long as there has been at least one man and one woman on earth, because God created the first man and the first woman with complementary traits, qualities that differed in order to make them an effective team (see Gen. 2:18,21-24). The differences remain in men and women today, and so does the complementarity. This doesn’t mean that any man and any woman are compatible in the sense we would consider an individual couple’s compatibility. It means that generally speaking, when a man and a woman come together in marriage, before anything else is taken into account, innate male-female differences set the stage for the two of them to fit together, work together, and “do life” together effectively. Out of their diversity, a oneness, a unity, arises—if the husband and wife accept and cooperate with the differences between them.

Second, after numerous creative actions on God’s part, God saw the things He had made, and they were good, but He went on to declare it was “not good” for man to be alone. Then, significantly,  after creating both the man and the woman—and everything else—God saw everything He had made and proclaimed it to be “very good.” This included His design of the man and the woman as different in complementary ways.

Third, we know that male-female differences “are meant for human good and human flourishing” because right after creating the man and the woman, God gave them special instructions. Genesis 1:27-28 reports,

27 So God created man in His own image; in the image of God He created him; male and female He created them. 28 Then God blessed them, and God said to them, “Be fruitful and multiply; fill the earth and subdue it; have dominion over the fish of the sea, over the birds of the air, and over every living thing that moves on the earth.”

While a variety of factors are involved in the situation described in verse 28, the differences between the man and the woman are an inseparable part of this mix.

Now let’s consider the denial portion. How do we know that male and female differences did not result from the Fall and are not a tragedy to be overcome?

In this, our fourth point, let’s reiterate our first: Male-female differences were a part of God’s original design.

Fifth, God created men and women alike in that both are human, yet different from each other in both obvious and subtle ways. At the same time, He also made both men and women in His image. A man reflects God’s image in ways that a woman cannot, and a woman reflects it in ways a man cannot. All of this was and is God’s original design. While the Fall of humanity into sin marred God’s image in both men and women, it did not eliminate it. We see evidence of this in Scripture following the Flood.


Sin distorted but did not eliminate God’s image in members of the human race.


Daniel Maclise, Noah’s Sacrifice

In Genesis 9:6-7, God declared to Noah,

6  “Whoever sheds man’s blood,
By man his blood shall be shed;
For in the image of God
He made man.
And as for you, be fruitful and multiply;
Bring forth abundantly in the earth
And multiply in it.”

Had the Fall obliterated God’s image from people, killing someone wouldn’t matter. But it does matter! Moreover, it is male-female differences that make it possible for humanity to “be fruitful and multiply.”

Sixth, even though the consequences of the Fall for men and women were gender-specific, they weren’t the source of male and female differences. No longer would the marriage relationship, childbearing, or work be free of frustration. Rather, they would at times produce tension and strife. Figuratively speaking, sin threw obstacles onto the path of the marriage relationship!

Ironically—and this is our seventh point—we see evidence that God’s image has been marred and distorted by sin, not in the innate differences between men and women, but in the efforts of some to treat men and women as identical. This is what is creating confusion, difficulty, tragedy, and all sorts of problems (also go here).

By contrast, consider the words of Peter Biltchington at the top of this post. When a husband and wife understand that each one needs the other, each is poised not only to receive encouragement and help from his or her spouse, but also to offer these. We grow when we give of ourselves, and many people benefit, not just us! As Dr. Blitchington affirms, God’s design discourages an unhealthy independence, and it promotes, in his words, “harmony, interdependence, and unselfishness.”2 If we are honest, we are compelled to admit that our observations and experiences validate this truth. God’s design is very good, just as Scripture affirms.

The effect of sin still is evident, but so is the image of God in people everywhere—an image that includes male and female differences.

Next week, we will take a break from our series on the Nashville Statement and recognize the 500th birthday of the Protestant Reformation. On October 31, 1517, Martin Luther nailed his 95 Theses to the door of the Church in Wittenberg, Germany. This document challenged the corruption of the church and urged reform and renewal. Thankfully, Luther’s action set the stage for many of the reforms Luther sought. We are beneficiaries of it even today.

 

Copyright © 2017 by B. Nathaniel Sullivan. All rights reserved.

Unless otherwise indicated, Scripture has been taken from the New King James Version®. Copyright © 1982 by Thomas Nelson, Inc. Used by permission. All rights reserved.

1,2W. Peter Blitchington, Sex Roles and the Christian Family, (Wheaton, IL: Tyndale, 1981), 51.

Twelve Qualities that Should Characterize the Church’s Case for Natural Marriage


These qualities originally were named in parts 4, 5, and 6 of the series titled “Upholding God-Ordained Marriage Is One of the Greatest Ways to Advance the Gospel.” We highlight all twelve in this single post to make it easier for users to read and share.

Key point: Because marriage is about the gospel, the church must contend for marriage in the same ways it contends for the gospel.


Marriage is, and always has been, about more than individual adults alone. It’s also about children, the larger community, and the future of society. Recognizing this, Sean McDowell and John Stonestreet declare, “Marriage must be both taught and portrayed as an institution that is bigger than our desires, whims, feelings, and affections.”1


Marriage is about the gospel.


As Christians, we know as well that God-ordained marriage reflects Christ’s relationship with the church, and consequently, the gospel. Non-Christians cannot understand this aspect of marriage in a way they can explain. Even so, from, in, by, and through marriage, even unbelievers can grasp gospel-related truths, although they may do so unconsciously.

Recognizing all of this, the church must uphold and defend marriage as God designed it. We can call His design “natural marriage” because nature echoes what the Bible says about this foundational institution.

Never before has the church, society, and culture needed a clearer and more accurate message about marriage. In a BreakPoint commentary dated March 31, 2017 and titled “The Silent Suffering of Gay Men,” John  Stonestreet astutely observed that for a variety of reasons “the debate over gay ‘marriage’ and homosexuality has largely fizzled out…[a]nd that’s a shame, because so-called ‘progress’ isn’t bringing about the rosy picture we were promised.”

The church must reignite this debate! It is in a unique and strategic position to help society get out of the mess that has resulted from redefining marriage—and I don’t just mean redefining marriage through Obergefell. The meaning of marriage has been under assault for decades!


God’s people must teach the next generation of Christians why and how God’s Word is right about marriage.


To begin with, God’s people must teach the next generation of Christians why and how God’s Word is right about marriage. This includes explaining how natural marriage represents the gospel. In a previous post, we’ve already discussed two specific ways marriage does this. Explaining these connections, though, is only the beginning. What qualities must characterize the church’s case for natural marriage? Here are twelve.

What the Church Must Do

First, believers must contend for marriage with greater sincerity. All too often Christians and the church have ignored the marriage issue as too controversial. It will turn people away! People will misunderstand! Yet marriage really is about the gospel, and upholding God’s design can indeed help non-Christians see and understand God’s good news about His Son, Jesus Christ.

Second, we must uphold marriage with greater authenticity. We need to work on our own marriages and, with God’s help, bring them to a clearer representation of Christ’s relationship with His church. Churches must step up to the plate to teach and equip men and women to be better husbands and wives—and to teach young people to become men and women of God who will be better husbands and wives when they’re married.

Remember, though, that as important as good marriages are, we have a responsibility not just to have good marriages, but to uphold marriage.


As important as good marriages are, defending marriage isn’t just about improving marriages, but about upholding marriage.


Be Aware, Speak Up Often, and Never Misrepresent God’s Truth

Third, God’s people, both individually and corporately, must speak with greater awareness. This includes an awareness of

  • the hurt and pain associated with homosexuality (go here, here, and here),
  • the longings of children to have both a mother and a father, and
  • the benefits of natural marriage on individual and societal levels (go here and here).

With an awareness of these things, we become gravely concerned for our homosexual neighbors, family members, coworkers, and friends—and we become more determined than ever to expose the lie that limiting marriage to one man and one woman robs them of fulfillment and happiness.

There’s more. A primary reason we as believers defend marriage is because of its underlying meaning in the gospel of Jesus Christ. If we aren’t ashamed of the gospel, then how can we be ashamed of marriage as God designed it, for in it we see the gospel? This doesn’t mean we pick fights with those who disagree with us, but it does mean we are willing to engage with people on this important issue.

Fourth, we must uphold marriage with greater frequency. When was the last time you attended a Bible study, or heard a sermon, not on improving your marriage, but on God’s design for marriage and the importance of revering it and upholding it as an institution? Pastors, where are you?


Pastors, where are you?


Here is an article with links to Bible studies that will help Christians uphold marriage. These can be used as Bible studies or easily adapted as sermons.

Fifth, we must speak with greater clarity. The Bible is unambiguous about the fact that homosexuality is a sin (also go here). We cannot afford to be confused about this basic point; nor can we afford to present an unclear message about it.

In addition, a number of symbols God established to have specific meanings are being grossly and horrifically distorted. If the church does not seek to clarify this misinformation, who will? The need for clarity was the theme of one of my earliest posts at Word Foundations.

The Situation Is Desperate

Sixth, we must uphold marriage with greater urgency. A new poll conducted by the Pew Research Center “found that two years after Obergefell, the Supreme Court decision that required states to recognized [sic] same-sex marriages nationwide, support for allowing gays and lesbians to marry legally is at its highest point in more than 20 years.” The survey also found that while white Protestants in the evangelical tradition oppose same-sex marriage 59 to 35 percent,

younger white evangelicals have grown more supportive: 47 percent of white evangelical Millennials and Gen Xers—age cohorts born after 1964—favor same-sex marriage, up from 29 percent in March 2016.

Additionally, while African-Americans have generally been less supportive than whites of redefining marriage, since 2015 support among blacks has increased 12 points—from 39 percent to a majority—51 percent.

Overall, 62 versus 32 percent of Americans favor same-sex marriage. Contrast that to findings in 2010, when Americans opposed the idea 48 to 42 percent.

Without question, the pro-LGBT media have had an impact on societal opinion. Even so, another survey found that the number one factor compelling people to open their minds to idea that same-sex rights are needed “is knowing somebody who is gay.” I’m sure this is true in the church as well, especially among younger believers.

Why would knowing a homosexual cause a Christian warm to the idea of allowing same-sex couples to “marry”? Having a gay or lesbian friend or family member understandably personalizes this issue for us—but in the debate over the meaning of marriage, we must use our heads, not simply follow our hearts. This is not unloving, because authentic love never ignores the truth!


In the debate over the meaning of marriage, we as Christians must use our heads, not simply follow our hearts. Authentic love never ignores the truth!


Bible-believing Christians recognize all sexual activity outside of natural marriage as sinful and wrong, whether it is illegal or not. This includes homosexuality. So we must ask, Does knowing a drug addict compel us to support that person’s “right” to abuse drugs? What about knowing an alcoholic, or a thief? Do we support his or her “right” to keep behaving the way he or she is behaving just because knowing that person puts a face on this issue for us? Of course not!

Homosexual activists have succeeded in making homosexuality an identity in people’s minds, but in reality it is linked inseparably to behavior, and destructive behavior, at that! (Also go here). If we really care about someone, we will not shy away from telling him or her the truth, even though telling and hearing the truth might be difficult at first.

What About the Children?

Moreover, we must remember that children adopted by same-sex parents are being denied a mother or a father by virtue of the design of the “marriages” of their parents. These parents may be loving and may do a great job meeting many of their children’s needs. The children may appear to be happy, and all may seem to be well. None of this changes the reality the parents’ “marriage” is denying their children an extremely critical need—that of a mom or a dad. Children need both, argues social researcher Glenn Stanton in this short but excellent piece. He is absolutely right! (Also go here.) These children are real people—every bit as real as their adopted parents. Can we please acknowledge their existence and their needs? Let’s let these children, whether we know them by name or not, personalize this issue for us!


Read “Why Children Need a Male and Female Parent” by Glenn Stanton


Stand with Understanding

Seventh, Christians, both individually and corporately, must uphold God-ordained marriage with greater understanding and depth. Among other things, this means never using trite clichés like these.2

  • God created Adam and Eve, not Adam and Steve! Never say this! It trivializes not only God’s creation of human beings as male and female, but also the challenges many young people face as they grapple with sexual feelings, cultural messages about gender identity, and what it means in practical terms to be male or female.
  • I love the sinner, but I hate the sin! Typically, a gay individual cannot separate his identity from his behavior. The same can be said of a lesbian.
  • Homosexuality is a choice. Certainly choices are involved in being homosexual, but homosexuality is complicated. Typically, people do not choose to experience same-sex attraction (see page 9 of this publication from the Family Research Council).

The church has a need to demonstrate a deeper understanding of the nature of homosexuality from a theological perspective as well. It is misleading to say things like, Homosexuality is no worse than any other sin if we don’t sufficiently clarify what this means. While even a sin that seems minor in our eyes is an affront to God and makes a person deserving of hell, on other levels, all sins are not equal. Furthermore, among sexual sins, homosexuality is unique in that it defies what nature teaches about human sexuality. Note the phrases “natural use” and “against nature” in Romans 1:26-27.

Furthermore, Paul wrote that God gave up those who refuse to acknowledge Him “to uncleanness, in the lusts of their hearts, to dishonor their bodies among themselves.” Then he added, “God gave them up to vile passions” (vv. 24, 26). James Montgomery Boice notes that God’s giving people up in this way isn’t like His releasing a porcelain pitcher in outer space where it would float harmlessly away. Instead, His action is like releasing the pitcher on earth, where gravity takes over and pulls it fast to the ground!

Stand Wisely

These realities, along with Christians’ love for their homosexual friends and neighbors, compel believers to speak out. As it does, the church must exercise  greater wisdom. This is the eighth item on our list.

As we make the effort to learn what we need to know to become effective defenders of marriage, we also need to pray God will give us the right insights and the right words.

We know that our message is difficult to deliver and difficult to hear. Jesus didn’t sugarcoat the task, either. He told His disciples in Matthew 10:16, “Behold, I send you out as sheep in the midst of wolves. Therefore be wise as serpents and harmless as doves.” This eighth item emphasizes the first portion of Jesus’ admonition—that we be “wise as serpents.”

Let us not forget that ultimately, we have good news for our country and for the individuals in it. Words the prophet Isaiah wrote centuries ago still have application today (see Isa. 55:6-7; 1:18). God forgives if we come to Him on His conditions!

Stand with Humility

Thankfully, God really does stand ready and willing to forgive. We need Him to, because we are in need of His grace just as desperately as is everyone else. As we are “wise as serpents,” therefore, we also must be as “harmless as doves.” This includes having the ninth item on our list—greater humility!

We are not better than anyone else, but because of God’s grace, we are better off! God gets the credit for that—not us, even though we had to receive his offer of grace by exercising repentance and faith (active trust in Jesus Christ).


As Christians, we’re not better than anyone else. Rather, we’re better off because of God’s grace, something He freely makes available to all who are willing to come to Him in repentance and faith.


Stand with the Right Perspective

Tenth, we must make our case with greater reverence and awe. The inspired writer of Hebrews declared, “Marriage should be honored by all, and the marriage bed kept pure, for God will judge the adulterer and all the sexually immoral” (NIV). What a privilege we have to be guardians of marriage as God designed it, and consequently the gospel!

Eleventh, we must make our case for marriage with greater resolve. Closely connected with this is making it with greater authority. We always must be gracious, but we need not be on the defensive on this issue! We know we are right, not because our wisdom is superior to anyone else’s, but because of what we have learned as observers of nature and students of Scripture.

Against this backdrop, we never should be thrown off by statements like “Jesus didn’t say anything about homosexuality” or “Scripture condemns homosexual acts only in certain contexts.” The Bible is consistent in all that it teaches about human sexuality, marriage, and human relationships.

Jesus attended a wedding at Cana and thus celebrated marriage (see John 2:1-11).
painting by Maerten de Vos, c. 1596

Having greater resolve and speaking lovingly, yet with authority, we acknowledge a twelfth and final quality that must characterize the church’s case for natural marriage. We must speak with confidence. Let’s learn from the advocates of same-sex marriage. They now have what they sought for so long—government recognition of same-sex unions as marriage—because for decades they contended for this recognition without shame and with great confidence. They didn’t care what people thought of them. Why are we ashamed? Why are we hesitant? History and the truth are on our side!


Homosexual activists didn’t care what people thought of them when they relentlessly and repeatedly contended for same-sex marriage. Why should we be ashamed? History and the truth are on our side!


Speak Now!

As we have said, the situation is urgent. With marriage having been redefined by our government, our nation is changing in profound and ominous ways. With marriage under attack and the gospel threatened, religious liberty also is in peril! Even before the Obergefell ruling, Princeton Professor Dr. Robert George predicted how redefining marriage would affect religious liberty in America.

The church must speak now, lest it be forced to forever hold its peace.


The church must speak now, lest it be forced to forever hold its peace.


Are you willing to speak up? I know of no more worthy causes than marriage and the gospel!

To recap:

The Church Must Defend Marriage with Greater

1. sincerity
2. authenticity
3. awareness
4. frequency
5. clarity
6. urgency
7. understanding and depth
8. wisdom
9. humility
10. reverence and awe
11. resolve and authority
12. confidence

 

Copyright © 2017 by B. Nathaniel Sullivan. All rights reserved.

Unless otherwise indicated, Scripture has been taken from the New King James Version®. Copyright © 1982 by Thomas Nelson, Inc. Used by permission. All rights reserved.

The passage marked NIV was taken from The Holy Bible, New International Version®, NIV® Copyright © 1973, 1978, 1984, 2011 by Biblica, Inc.® Used by permission. All rights reserved worldwide.

Note:

1Sean McDowell and John Stonestreet, Same-Sex Marriage: A Thoughtful Approach to God’s Design for Marriage, (Grand Rapids: Baker Books, 2014), 95.

2Alan Shlemon of Stand to Reason (STR) cited these three clichés and discouraged their use at STR’s ReTHINK conference in Birmingham, Alabama on April 21-22, 2017.

Digging Deeper: Learning More About Divine Wrath—Four Helpful Insights

 Contending for the Recognition of Absolutes, Part 15

God’s wrath in the Bible is never the capricious, self-indulgent, irritable, morally ignoble thing that human anger so often is. It is, instead, a right and necessary reaction to objective moral evil.
J. I. Packer

It is amazing that we hesitate to talk about the wrath of God, for fear of making sinners feel fearful. The fear they feel this side of the grave will be nothing compared to the fear they feel when they stand before Almighty God.
Ray Comfort

Put to death, therefore, whatever belongs to your earthly nature: sexual immorality, impurity, lust, evil desires and greed, which is idolatry. Because of these, the wrath of God is coming.
—The Apostle Paul to the Colossian Christians in Colossians 3:5-6 (NIV)—

You can access summaries of all the articles in this series here.

Last week we highlighted Romans 1:18, which tells us “the wrath of God is revealed from heaven against all ungodliness and unrighteousness of men, who suppress the truth in unrighteousness” (see the larger context of this verse here). The Greek word translated wrath reflects not only God’s judgment and punishment for wrongdoing, but also the divine anger on from which the judgment and punishment arise. This term is of special interest to us because of the implications it has, especially for those “who suppress the truth by their wickedness.”

We should be aware that this word can refer to human ire, as it does in several places, including Ephesians 4:31 and Colossians 3:8. In both these verses it is translated anger. Here we will examine four Bible passages that use the term to refer to divine indignation and offer insights about each one. Even though our study will be far from exhaustive, looking at the “big picture” of God’s wrath will give us a helpful glimpse of His wrath to come. Moreover, we also will gain a sense of urgency about where all people, including you and me, stand before the Lord. In places where the word translated wrath in Romans 1:18 appears, we will show the English word representing it in bold text.

Passage # 1: Matthew 3:7-8

Matthew 3:7-8 says this about John the Baptist,

7 But when he saw man of the Pharisees and Sadducees coming to his baptism, he said to them, “Brood of vipers! Who warned you to flee from the wrath to come? 8 Therefore bear fruits worthy of repentance.”

Clearly John was referring to divine wrath that would be exercised at a later time. Matthew 3:1-12 provides the larger context for these verses.

Insight # 1: Repentance is essential to avoiding God’s wrath. Be forewarned, however! One cannot merely “go through the motions” of repentance and expect God to overlook his or her sin; a person must turn from sin to God and “bear fruits worthy of repentance” (Matt. 3:8).

Passage # 2: John 3:36

In John 3:36 we again see the words of John the Baptist. He declared,

St. John the Baptist Preaching, by Mattia Preti

“He who believes in the Son has everlasting life; and he who does not believe the Son shall not see life, but the wrath of God abides on him.”

The context for this statement is John 3:25-36.

Insight # 2: If an individual isn’t actively trusting in Jesus for salvation and eternal life, that person does not possess it at all (see 1 John 5:11-12); rather, he or she is the object of God’s wrath, even now. God’s mercy often mitigates His wrath in the present (see Lam. 3:22), but divine wrath still is a reality, and it will not be restrained forever. Only one way of escape exists. When a person relies on Christ for salvation, he or she is permanently shielded from God’s wrath, because Christ bore God’s fury and punishment for sin for that individual (see Rom. 5:9; 1 Thess. 1:10; 5:9).

Taken together, Matthew 3:7-8 and John 3:36 show the connections between sincere repentance, active faith in Christ for salvation, possession of eternal life, and a life transformed by Jesus Christ (see 2 Cor. 5:17).

Passage # 3: Revelation 6:15-17

In Revelation 6:15-17, the apostle John wrote,

15 And the kings of the earth, the great men, the rich men, the commanders, the mighty men, every slave and every free man, hid themselves in the caves and in the rocks of the mountains, 16 and said to the mountains and rocks, “Fall on us and hide us from the face of Him who sits on the throne and from the wrath of the Lamb! 17 For the great day of His wrath has come, and who is able to stand?”

The larger context for these verses is Revelation 6:12-17.

Pastor Jerry Cosper writes,

The Day of the Lord [uppercase letters] is a period of time in which God will deal with wicked men directly and dramatically in judgment. Today a man may be a blasphemer of God, an atheist, can denounce God and teach bad doctrine. And it seems like God does nothing about it.

But the day designated in Scripture as “the day of the Lord” [lowercase letters] is coming when God will punish human sin, and He will deal in wrath and in judgment with a Christ-rejecting world. One thing we are sure of, that God in His own way will bring every soul into judgment.

Now remember this is a picture of what will be happening right before the Day of the Lord comes. It hasn’t come yet. This is just the breaking of the seals of God’s Book of Destiny. The worst judgments are yet to come.

Insight # 3: While the Book of Revelation calls us to engage in in-depth study, many of its teachings are crystal clear at the outset. We readily see in this passage that the wrath of God is unspeakably terrible for those who experience it. Remember that among those who will experience God’s wrath, and even are experiencing it already, are those who, through their sinful actions, deny the realities arising from God and His rule. Recall Romans 1:18: “the wrath of God is revealed from heaven against all ungodliness and unrighteousness of men, who suppress the truth in unrighteousness.”

God’s wrath then will be manifested differently than it is now, but the fact that we’re speaking of divine wrath both then and now should command our attention, instill fear in our hearts, and incite us to concern, prayer, and action.

Note in Revelation 6:16 that this is the “wrath of the Lamb”—the Son of God, Jesus Christ. This is the theme of our next passage.

Passage # 4: Revelation 19:15-16

 Revelation 19:15-16 describes Jesus, God’s Son, as the Supreme Conqueror and Judge:

15 Now out of His mouth goes a sharp sword, that with it He should strike the nations. And He Himself will rule them with a rod of iron. He Himself treads the winepress of the fierceness and wrath of Almighty God. 16 And He has on His robe and on His thigh a name written:

KING OF KINGS AND
LORD OF LORDS.”

The larger context for these verses is Revelation 19:11-21.

Insight # 4: Jesus, who is Savior to all who rely on Him for eternal life, will return to earth and act as Supreme Judge over all (see 2 Tim. 4:1-2). He will rule over the nations “with a rod of iron. He Himself treads the winepress of the fierceness and wrath of Almighty God” (Rev. 19:15-16). Even though Jesus shields His followers from the Father’s wrath against sin,1 we cannot separate the Son of God from His authority and prerogative to exercise divine wrath (see John 5:26-29).

Landscape with Noah’s Thank Offering by Joseph Anton Koch

Consider the worldwide flood of Noah. The water buoyed the ark, which kept its occupants safe, but at the same time this same water destroyed all who were outside. The apostle Peter alluded to these realities in 1 Peter 3:18-22 and 2 Peter 2:4-10. So also, when divine judgment comes at the end of the age, those who are in Christ will be protected from His wrath, yet everyone outside Him will face “condemnation” (see John 5:29).

Conclusion

Divine wrath is a reality everyone must face, so a person ignores it to his or her own peril. It stands regardless of all human feelings and opinions, and in spite of every claim to the contrary. Come to terms with God’s wrath now, admit you deserve it in its full force, and take advantage of the protection Christ offers in Himself, since He experienced God’s fury fully on the cross on your behalf. If you don’t, then one day and forever you will experience it at a level of unmitigated horror and devastation (see Matt. 25:44-46; Romans 3:23; 6:23; Rev. 25:44-46).


Divine wrath is a reality everyone must face, so a person ignores it to his or her own peril. It stands regardless of all human feelings and opinions, and in spite of every claim to the contrary.


No one can blame God, either. He has done all He can do to shield you from divine punishment, even sacrificing His own Son in the process.

We have seen a snapshot of God’s wrath to come, but what about His wrath that “is being revealed from heaven against all the godlessness and wickedness of people, who suppress the truth by their wickedness”? (Rom. 1:18, NIV). We will explore this aspect of absolute truth soon in an upcoming post.


Note:

1In his excellent book, The Story of Reality ([Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 2017], 117), Gregory Koukl explains,

Jesus came to earth to save sinners. The statement is so common to our ears, it is easy to miss its significance. Save means to “rescue from imminent danger.” Jesus came to rescue us because we were in danger. What was that danger? What was Jesus rescuing us from? Here is the answer. Jesus did not come to rescue us from our ignorance or our poverty or our oppressors or even from ourselves. Jesus came to rescue us from the Father.”

Then, in a footnote appearing on page 190, Koukl adds this for clarification: “Jesus saves us from the Father, but His intention is not at odds with the Father since it was the Father who, out of love, sent Jesus to rescue the world in the first place.”


Copyright © 2017 by B. Nathaniel Sullivan. All Rights Reserved.

top image: The Preaching of St. John the Baptist by Pieter Bruegel the Elder; photo taken by Yelkrokoyade, 20/07/2013; more info available here

Unless otherwise indicated, Scripture has been taken from the New King James Version®. Copyright © 1982 by Thomas Nelson, Inc. Used by permission. All rights reserved.

One passage was taken from The Holy Bible, New International Version®, NIV® Copyright © 1973, 1978, 1984, 2011 by Biblica, Inc.® Used by permission. All rights reserved worldwide.

 

 

Christians Must Stand with Barronelle Stutzman—for the Very Same Reason the Left Is Obsessed with Crushing Her

If I profess with the loudest voice and clearest exposition every portion of the truth of God except precisely that little point which the world and the devil are at that moment attacking, I am not confessing Christ, however boldly I may be professing Christ.  Where the battle rages, there the loyalty of the soldier is proved, and to be steady on all the battlefield besides, is mere flight and disgrace if he flinches at that point.
attributed to Reformation leader Martin Luther

 

A condensed version of this article is available here.

Luke 14:25 says of Jesus, “Now great multitudes went with Him.” Apparently, at this point in His ministry, Jesus had quite a following. Probably not all of these individuals were committed to Him, but they at least were curious—and their numbers were plentiful. Why, then, would Jesus do what He did next? Beginning in verse 25, the passage goes on to say,

And He turned and said to them, 26 “If anyone comes to Me and does not hate his father and mother, wife and children, brothers and sisters, yes, and his own life also, he cannot be My disciple. 27 And whoever does not bear his cross and come after Me cannot be My disciple. 28 For which of you, intending to build a tower, does not sit down first and count the cost, whether he has enough to finish it— 29 lest, after he has laid the foundation, and is not able to finish, all who see it begin to mock him, 30 saying, ‘This man began to build and was not able to finish’? 31 Or what king, going to make war against another king, does not sit down first and consider whether he is able with ten thousand to meet him who comes against him with twenty thousand? 32 Or else, while the other is still a great way off, he sends a delegation and asks conditions of peace. 33 So likewise, whoever of you does not forsake all that he has cannot be My disciple. 34 “Salt is good; but if the salt has lost its flavor, how shall it be seasoned? 35 It is neither fit for the land nor for the dunghill, but men throw it out. He who has ears to hear, let him hear!”

Again, why would Jesus challenge the people in this way? Weren’t things going well enough? Surely His presentation would cause some, and probably many, to turn away. Why would He want to ruin a good thing? You’d think He’d at least wait until later to deliver this kind of message! We see that He offered a similar challenge to the man we often call the rich young ruler.

Hardship Foretold

Twenty-first century American Christianity tends to resist saying or doing anything that would bring down its numbers, but we need to understand that Jesus simply was being honest. If you think following Jesus will be easy, think again. Elsewhere, Jesus told His disciples,

18 “If the world hates you, you know that it hated Me before it hated you. 19 If you were of the world, the world would love its own. Yet because you are not of the world, but I chose you out of the world, therefore the world hates you.20 Remember the word that I said to you, ‘A servant is not greater than his master.’ If they persecuted Me, they will also persecute you. If they kept My word, they will keep yours also.”

One individual who understands the meaning of these words experientially is Barronelle Stutzman, the Richland, Washington florist who is being sued for everything she owns because she politely turned down the opportunity to use her talent at the same-sex wedding of a longtime friend. We have highlighted her case in several Word Foundations posts (for examples, go here and here). This past Thursday, February 16, the Supreme Court of Washington issued a unanimous, nine to nothing ruling against Barronelle. Never mind that the left has exercised its right to refuse to perform services because of the political and moral convictions it espouses (you can read about examples here, here, and here). The left simply cannot allow anyone to disagree with its own beliefs about sexuality and marriage—or about anything else it deems important, for that matter—and get away with it. We should note, of course, that not everyone in the LGBT community holds this perspective (also go here), but militant activists and the prevailing culture do.

The Appalling Silence of the Church

On the very same day the ruling was issued, Barronelle appeared with her attorney, Kristen Waggoner, on Line of Fire, the radio program of Dr. Michael Brown. You can download the entire program here. Also, you can listen to the portion of the show where Brown interviewed Stutzman and Waggoner here. Dr. Brown wrote an article about the ruling on February 16 as well. He declared,

There is only one thing more appalling than the Washington Supreme Court’s 9-0 ruling against religious liberty today. It is the silence of Christian leaders across America, leaders who choose convenience over confrontation, leaders who would rather be popular than prophetic, leaders who prefer the favor of people over the favor of the God. Shame on these silent leaders. Today is a day to stand.…

Friends, what [we are] witnessing today is a breathtaking abuse of power, an extreme overreach by the government, a shocking example of LGBT activism out of control, yet over the next 7 days, church services will come and go without a word being spoken, and over the next 48 hours, the Christian blogosphere will remain relatively quiet. How can this be?

Dr. Brown asks a very important question. Why would church leaders and other Christians avoid talking about this issue? Perhaps the answer is tied to the reason we would wonder why in the world Jesus would tell His inquirers just how difficult it would be to become and remain one of His committed followers.

The reasons for the silence among churches and Christians include fear of intimidation, the desire to avoid controversy, a fear of losing people because of having offended them, and a desire to “stick to preaching the gospel.” In this post I want to address some of these issues and thereby challenge Christian leaders and laymen to stand publicly with Barronelle Stutzman.

Let’s examine four realities.

Costly Discipleship

First, Jesus wanted everyone following Him to know that for true disciples, a cost was involved. As a simple example, consider repentance, which Jesus indicated is essential for salvation. Also look back and read the passage of Scripture we cited when we started. Are we unwilling to challenge people with the full truth of the gospel? Perhaps more to the point, are we unwilling to bear any cost ourselves?


Are we unwilling to bear any of the costs associated with being a disciple of Christ?


We certainly can do nothing to earn salvation, but I’m not talking about doing anything to be saved. I’m talking about what we do because we have been saved. If we claim to be Christians, then according to our own professions, we are willing to identify with Jesus Christ. Barronelle Stutzman determined she had to draw the line at the point of marriage, because of what marriage is. It is not at all farfetched to say that Barronelle’s unwillingness to arrange flowers for a same-sex “wedding” represents a resolve to stand with Christ and identify with Him and with the God of the Bible. Marriage, the lifetime union of one man and one woman, was designed by the Creator to promote order, companionship, nurture of the next generation, and individual and societal cohesiveness and stability. In addition, if all of that weren’t enough, it’s also a picture of Christ and the church. Again, Barronelle is taking a stand at the point of marriage. Are we now going to cop out at this same point? For the professing Christian, this makes absolutely no sense.


Husbands, love your wives, just as Christ also loved the church and gave Himself for her, that He might sanctify and cleanse her with the washing of water by the word, that He might present her to Himself a glorious church, not having spot or wrinkle or any such thing, but that she should be holy and without blemish.
—Ephesians 5:25-27—


Consider the following declarations, presented in the probable order in which Jesus gave them.1 You can go here to see all of them printed on one page.

Matthew 7:21,24-27; Luke 6:46-49
Matthew 10:37-39
Matthew 16:24-27; Mark 8:34-38; Luke 9:23-26
Matthew 8:18-22; Luke 9:57-62

Note especially Mark 8:38: “For whoever is ashamed of Me and My words in this adulterous and sinful generation, of him the Son of Man also will be ashamed when He comes in the glory of His Father with the holy angels.” About marriage, Jesus spoke very explicitly (see Matthew 19:1-6 and Mark 10:1-9). Thus, of these words about marriage we are warned by Jesus Himself not to be ashamed.

Misplaced Priorities

Second, a church leader or a Christian layperson might remain silent because his or her priorities are out of whack—and here I’m being very serious. In a previous post subtitled “Eight Menacing Trends in the American Evangelical Church,” we elaborated on the following misplaced priorities. We mentioned this post in a recent article but didn’t quote from it. There’s much more to the article than the list, but here we will quote the points on the list without elaboration. Please read the original article for more information.

  1. The church has focused on attracting people and keeping people, and it has failed to challenge them.
  2. The church has equated loving people with not offending them.
  3. The church has emphasized God’s love to the point of effectively neglecting His holiness and wrath.
  4. The church has endeavored to win converts and failed to make disciples.
  5. The church has upheld the benefits of salvation and avoided talking about its demands.
  6. The church has presented Christianity in terms of its implications for individuals alone and overlooked its benefits for the culture.
  7. While recognizing that Jesus was compassionate, loving, and kind, the church has largely ignored the fact that He was controversial.
  8. The church has failed to understand and acknowledge that the followers of Christ are at war with the forces of evil.

Let me be clear. I absolutely am sympathetic with church leaders who are concerned that if the church is not careful, it can come across as hateful and mean to unchurched people, including gays, lesbians, and other members of the LGBT community. Christians always are without excuse for being insensitive, unkind, or hateful to anyone, period. My point here, however, is that even when the church is careful, it still will be perceived by some as being insensitive, unkind, and hateful. Why? Because the gospel itself is offensive: “It is inherently offensive because it exposes sinners as guilty before a holy God.” There’s no way around this, and looking for ways around it constitutes an attempt, however unintentional, to water down the truth of the gospel. Failing to present the truth about God’s holiness and wrath helps no one, and in fact, it is quite harmful.

Marriage and the Gospel

Third, Barronelle Stutzman’s case underscores the truth that in the battle over natural marriage, the gospel is at stake. Here I am not saying that the gospel can be changed or manipulated by those who oppose it or by anyone else. No, the gospel is what it is because it has been divinely written and orchestrated, and because it is divinely offered to humanity. Nothing can or ever will change this.

Here’s what I am saying. When we as Christians living in the early 21st century in the United States of America share the gospel (something, by the way, that Christ has commanded us to do), we share it not only (1) with sinners in need of a Savior, but also (2) in a particular cultural and political context. If the political and cultural climate does not recognize our right to follow our deeply held convictions about marriage today (convictions that align with thousands of years of practice in countries worldwide), can it really be long before sharing the gospel itself is outlawed? This is not a farfetched idea.

Relentless efforts to silence voices like Barronelle’s move us ever closer to this point. Let’s understand that leftists and secularists already have gotten what they said they wanted; marriage has been redefined in the United States. Take note: Barronelle’s polite refusal to supply and arrange flowers for a same-sex wedding didn’t keep the wedding from occurring. Let’s put it another way. If this were about only the definition of marriage, then why are leftists threatening to take away everything Barronelle Stutzman owns? The Supreme Court already has ruled that nationwide, two men can “marry” each other, and two women also can enter into a relationship the state will recognize as a “marriage.”

Yet, even though homosexual activists now have what they’ve said was their ultimate goal, they’re not stopping. Barronelle and others in similar situations must acquiesce. They must comply and align with the left on this issue. To the activists, the supreme prize wasn’t really redefining marriage. It’s what’s behind natural marriage that raises ire and incites panic on their part.

The Real Rub

Just what is behind natural marriage and the case to restore it and to preserve it? Many things, but here I’ll name three:

Rebellious sinners, including you and me in the natural inclinations of our hearts, absolutely cannot abide anything that points directly to human accountability to and guilt before a holy God. Marriage as an exclusive union between one man and one woman, however subtly, does just that! Why? Because it also points to the salvation that Jesus made possible for His bride, the church.

In a previous post we said something similar about the Ark Encounter, a theme park in Northern Kentucky that includes a life-sized Noah’s ark. Answers in Genesis (AiG) is the parent ministry of the Ark Encounter. Opposition to the building of the ark and the opening of the park was vicious and even involved a crucial legal battle.

As a religious entity, Answers in Genesis had to fight for the right to hire only those whose beliefs aligned with its theological and moral convictions. It also had to fight for the right to participate in a state sponsored incentives program designed to make it easier for venues to attract visitors to Kentucky. Why would people who didn’t believe the Genesis account be so vehemently opposed to the Ark Encounter? Why would a gay or lesbian even want to work for AiG in the first place? Here’s what we said.

Reading between the lines, one gets the distinct impression that the problem these people are having isn’t primarily what they see as taxpayer-funded discrimination, but the fact that AiG and other Christian entities, including many churches, believe what the Bible teaches about sexuality, marriage, God, creation, and sin in the first place.

It runs even deeper than that. The ark of Noah, like the cross of Christ, offers strong reminders of humanity’s guilt before a righteous God. It is just as AiG states in its Ark Project Vision Statement: The ark is “a sign to the world that God’s Word is true and its message of salvation must be heeded (Romans 3:4, 5:12). Just as the Ark in Noah’s day was a sign of salvation, as well as judgment, an Ark rebuilt today can be a sign to point to Jesus Christ, the Ark of our salvation, and to coming judgment (2 Peter 3:5-13; John 10:9).”

In the cultural and political context in which we currently live, natural, man-woman marriage is like the ark of Noah. Consider these words from a well-known Bible passage, John 3:16-21.

16 For God so loved the world that He gave His only begotten Son, that whoever believes in Him should not perish but have everlasting life. 17 For God did not send His Son into the world to condemn the world, but that the world through Him might be saved.

18 “He who believes in Him is not condemned; but he who does not believe is condemned already, because he has not believed in the name of the only begotten Son of God. 19 And this is the condemnation, that the light has come into the world, and men loved darkness rather than light, because their deeds were evil.20 For everyone practicing evil hates the light and does not come to the light, lest his deeds should be exposed. 21 But he who does the truth comes to the light, that his deeds may be clearly seen, that they have been done in God.”

We can express this even more explicitly by repeating something we’ve already said. Marriage is a picture of Christ and the church. In other words, it’s a picture of the gospel. This is why I say in the title of this post that “Christians Must Stand with Barronelle Stutzman—for the Very Same Reason the Left Is Obsessed with Crushing Her.” This case really is about the gospel!

“For Christ also suffered once for sins, the just for the unjust, that He might bring us to God” (1 Pet. 3:18).

In recent years, a resurgence of reformed theology has taken place in the American evangelical church. Participants in this movement have encouraged the church to rediscover and reemphasize Reformation theology, and, accordingly, have offered a renewed emphasis on the gospel of Jesus Christ. In a variety of ways, this has been beneficial for the church and for society at large. Yet respectfully, I am compelled to make this sobering observation. Barronelle Stutzman and others who are laying everything on the line to uphold God-ordained marriage are doing a lot more than affirming marriage. They are championing the gospel! If members of the New Reformed movement respond by looking the other way and refusing to publicly support people like Barronelle, then are they not offering empty words when they say they are affirming the gospel?

Hold it! Church leaders and Christians who don’t consider themselves a part of the New Reformed movement aren’t off the hook, either. Not by a long shot! It’s your job to uphold the gospel by defending marriage as well. Anyone professing the name of Christ is obligated by virtue of his or her allegiance to Christ to defend natural marriage. The inspired writer of Hebrews made this crystal clear when he wrote, “Marriage should be honored by all, and the marriage bed kept pure, for God will judge the adulterer and all the sexually immoral” (Heb. 13:4, NIV).

The Risk of Being Misunderstood

“But wait!” someone might say. “I don’t want to be misunderstood.” This is our fourth consideration. I appreciate this desire, of course. No one wants to be misunderstood. Yet if we fail to uphold marriage, there’s no doubt we’ll be misunderstood. Granted, if we do uphold it, we run the risk of being misunderstood on some levels—but at least we will be misunderstood for the right reason instead of because we were ashamed of Jesus’ words about the first institution God established at the dawn of time!

A history lesson will help us at this point. The early Christians were accused of many things, including cannibalism, atheism, and a lack of patriotism—and that’s just three of the items on a ten-item list. If any people ever were misunderstood, the early Christians were! Yet, according to Pastor Greg Laurie, “they came to be known as those who turned their world upside down.” He must have been thinking of Acts 17:6.

Clarity Desperately Needed

In April, 2015, a little more than two months before the Obergefell marriage decision was released by the United States Supreme Court, I wrote about how divinely crafted symbols were being distorted in society, and how they weren’t even being clearly presented in the church. I said this:

We can be assured that God is keenly aware of divine signs and images that are being misrepresented today. Thousands of years ago, God placed the first rainbow in the sky as a reminder of His faithfulness after the flood of Noah (see Gen. 9:8-17), but in 2015 many people see rainbow colors and celebrate evil in the name of the politically correct principles of “diversity” and “inclusiveness.” Then there’s marriage—a sacred institution ordained and instituted by God (see Gen. 2:18-25) as well as a picture of Christ’s relationship with His church (see Eph. 5:22-32). Needless to say, that picture is being muddied and distorted everywhere people look. If marriage is redefined in America, how can it possibly continue to represent in society anything close to the relationship God ordained it to represent? If we lose marriage, we lose an image that helps people understand why Christ died. While we cannot expect non-Christians to act as Christians, neither can we ignore the fact that America was founded on Judeo-Christian principles and for many years upheld those ideals. Yet in recent decades in this country, we have, as a nation, kicked God out of public life. Given all the opportunities we as Americans have had to hear and respond to God’s truth, we must understand that God will hold us accountable.

How You Can Help

Here are some ways you can support Barronelle Stutzman in her fight for religious liberty.

  • Pray for her and for others who are refusing to follow the state rather than their consciences and their God.
  • Give financially. Through Alliance Defending Freedom (ADF), you can contribute to help finance Baronelle’s own case, which now is headed to the Supreme Court. The ACLU recently received $24 million from its supporters to litigate against people like Barronelle. ADF is attempting to counter this force with resources from freedom-loving and liberty-loving Americans who understand the importance of religious liberty. Learn more about this from David and Jason Benham in this video. Donate here. Be aware also that Samaritan’s Purse, which is headed by Franklin Graham, will accept funds given to help persecuted Christians in the United States. You can give by calling this organization at 1-800-528-1980.

Help Barronelle Stutzman by contributing financially to Alliance Defending Freedom, the organization offering her legal assistance. You can donate to help offset the legal expenses here.


  • Encourage President Trump to sign an executive order that would provide at least a measure of protection for religious freedom. This wouldn’t resolve the entire problem, but it would be a positive step.

  • Spread the word about the threat to religious liberty in this country and the importance of protecting it and preserving it. Don’t be intimidated! Speak up!

I close with an acknowledgement that I know what I’m encouraging you to do isn’t easy. It’s hard—especially in a culture that misunderstands the gospel and hates Christians. Against this backdrop, we do well to remember that in upholding marriage, we must never neglect our other responsibilities as believers, including loving, caring, helping, and serving—being Jesus’ hands and feet in the world. As we exercise love and uphold truth, we can be assured that God will use us to attract non-Christians to the Savior.

Just as He used the first Christians during the days of the early church.

 

Copyright © 2017 by B. Nathaniel Sullivan. All rights reserved.

Note:

1According to Steven L. Cox and Kendell H. Easley, eds., Harmony of the Gospels, (Nashville: Holman, 2007). This harmony is based on the text of the Holman Christian Standard Bible, even though I have cited the New King James Version in this article. Moreover, Cox and Easley drew from the work of John A. Broadus and A. T. Robertson, who worked together to publish A Harmony of the Gospels (1893). Robertson continued this work and in 1922 published a revision titled A Harmony of the Gospels for Students of the Life of Christed Based on the Broadus Harmony in the Revised Version.

 

Unless otherwise indicated, Scripture has been taken from the New King James Version®. Copyright © 1982 by Thomas Nelson, Inc. Used by permission. All rights reserved.

One Bible quotation in this article is designated NIV. It is from the New International Version. THE HOLY BIBLE, NEW INTERNATIONAL VERSION®, NIV® Copyright © 1973, 1978, 1984, 2011 by Biblica, Inc.® Used by permission. All rights reserved worldwide.

 

Contending for the Recognition of Absolutes, Part 1

Relativism’s Enticement

Everyone is entitled to his own opinion, but not his own facts.
Daniel Patrick Moynihan

Two-and-a-half years ago I wrote a series of very brief articles for use as one-minute radio spots. Some of them offered observations about current events that now seem out-of-date; but many, like this one, remain timeless.

If It Sounds Good—Beware!

The sexual revolution of the 1960s didn’t just change people’s thinking about sexuality; it brought about a shift in perspectives on right and wrong. People today don’t see truth, right, and wrong as things to be discovered; they believe each person can create his or her own truth.1 This is relativism, which says all opinions are equally valid. This sounds good, but it is fatally flawed.

Christians believe in absolute standards of right and wrong, standards determined by the character of a holy God. Believing in absolutes necessarily means believing all opinions are not equally valid. Relativists reject this perspective outright, so they don’t really see all opinions as equal, either—but they pretend to anyway, using “tolerance” as a mantra. So, modern “tolerance” leaves no room for a belief in absolutes.

In this and several future posts, I’d like to explore these ideas. This week, let’s examine elements behind the phrase “This sounds good,” which is located near the bottom of the first paragraph. Unfortunately, relativism is very enticing—so much so that even many Christians have bought into the idea that truth is relative. In our post for December 9, 2016, we cited these statistics:

  • More than 25 years ago, 51 percent of evangelical Christians rejected a belief in absolutes.
  • In 1994, the percentage rose to 62 percent, and
  • in 1999, to 78 percent.
  • In 2011 the percentage of evangelical Christians not believing in absolute truth reached a staggering 91 percent!

The article for December 9 went on to lament that the results of ballot initiatives in 2016 offered no encouragement at all that the trend had reversed since 2011.

People in the general population readily can be carried along by the cultural tide, and Christians can too if they haven’t been properly grounded at church. Sadly, the church has failed in its duty to declare the truth and to ground believers in it. In a previous post titled “Eight Menacing Trends,” we explored the church’s failure in this regard. Please, carve out a few minutes to read or review this important article!

Against this backdrop, let’s explore why the philosophy of relativism is so widely attractive. We need to understand this if we are going to be effective in persuading people to recognize the existence of absolutes. Consider the following realities.

First, relativism appeals to people’s emotions. The notion that everyone can be right in what he or she believes sounds good and noble.

Second, relativism appeals to people’s imaginations. As a philosophy, it offers people the opportunity to create their own world of “reality.” One is reminded of what Walt Disney said of Fantasyland at the opening of Disneyland on July 17, 1955: “Here is a land of imagination, hopes and dreams. In this timeless land of enchantment the age of chivalry, magic and make-believe are reborn and fairy tales come true. Fantasyland is dedicated to the young and the young at heart, to those who believe that when you wish upon a star your dreams do come true.” Visiting Fantasyland is one thing, but relativism invites people to live there. This portends disaster, because fantasies can’t survive in the real world.


Visiting Fantasyland is one thing, but relativism invites people to live there.



Castle Neuschwanstein of Bavaria, one of the structures that inspired the Cinderella’s Castles located at the Disney theme parks

Third, social pressure to espouse relativism is extremely intense. This factor has at least two aspects. First, to reject relativism is to reject a belief held by “everyone else.” Who wants to be different from the crowd?

Fourth, add to the loneliness of being in the minority the difficulty of taking an unpopular stand. This is the second aspect to the social pressure surrounding a belief in relativism, and it has both positive and negative forces. On the one hand, believing truth to be relative positions a person to be seen as affirming and “tolerant” of others. Who among us doesn’t want to be viewed as magnanimous? On the other, a person who says absolute truth exists has taken a position that makes him or her a target of vicious criticism. Of course, no one wants to be condemned as judgmental or to be accused of hate—but do you see the irony here? Those who condemn people for being hateful and judgmental actually are being hateful and judgmental themselves!

Fifth, believing in absolutes not only puts a person at risk for vitriol and strong criticism; it also requires a person to think through his or her position and to defend it intellectually, at least in his or her own mind. Put another way, believing truth to be relative is the “PLR”—the “path of least resistance.”

Sixth, relativism appeals to human pride.

I want to spend just a few minutes exploring this last item, for it probably is the primary reason relativism is so attractive. Scripture proves just how relevant it is even in its opening pages, because even there it reveals pride as a core reason for the mess in which humanity finds itself.

In Genesis 1 and 2 we see that at the dawn of creation God created a perfect world with a perfect garden, and He put Adam and Eve, the first man and woman, in it and given them constructive work to do. He placed only one prohibition on them; they were not to eat from the fruit from one tree, the tree of the knowledge of good and evil (see Gen. 1:26-31; 2:15-25). Perfection disappeared in Genesis 3. Satan, in the form of the serpent, enticed Eve to disobey God. Here is how it happened.

1 Now the serpent was more cunning than any beast of the field which the Lord God had made. And he said to the woman, “Has God indeed said, ‘You shall not eat of every tree of the garden’?”

2 And the woman said to the serpent, “We may eat the fruit of the trees of the garden; 3 but of the fruit of the tree which is in the midst of the garden, God has said, ‘You shall not eat it, nor shall you touch it, lest you die.’”

4 Then the serpent said to the woman, “You will not surely die. 5 For God knows that in the day you eat of it your eyes will be opened, and you will be like God, knowing good and evil.”

6 So when the woman saw that the tree was good for food, that it was pleasant to the eyes, and a tree desirable to make one wise, she took of its fruit and ate. She also gave to her husband with her, and he ate (Gen. 3:1-6, emphasis added).

We see here that Satan not only enticed Eve with good-looking fruit and with lies that confused her about God’s intentions for her and for Adam, he also enticed her with the temptation to play god! This temptation appeals to pride as does nothing else! Note also the connections between pride, playing God, and relativism. Essentially Satan said, “Eve, you can make up your own reality! You can make up your own truth! You can become like God!”

Instead, when they sinned, Adam and Eve died spiritually and began to die physically as well. God also expelled them from the perfect environment where He originally had placed them. The top image is a detailed section of Italian painter Masaccio’s 1425 fresco titled “The Expulsion from the Garden of Eden.” The artist didn’t get everything right in his painting; God clothed Adam and Eve with animal skins before expelling them. His depictions Adam’s and Eve’s expressions of horror and shame, however, are quite fitting and appropriate.

The late Dr. Mark Corts pastored Calvary Baptist Church in Winston-Salem, North Carolina, for nearly 40 years. A powerful and insightful preacher, Dr. Corts offered many keen observations from the pulpit during his ministry. Here is one of them: The essence of sin is always trying to be like God without God.


The essence of sin is always trying to be like God without God.
—Dr. Mark Corts—


After we—the members of the human race—fell into sin, God implemented a plan to make us like Himself, but that plan requires us to surrender to Him and follow His way, not our own.

We said earlier in the radio commentary that “Christians believe in absolute standards of right and wrong, standards determined by the character of a holy God.” We’ll explore this statement in a future post, but for now, don’t miss these important points.

  1. God determines reality; people don’t.
  2. As people created by God, we must live in the real world, the world God also has created.
  3. When a person buys into the lie of relativism and attempts to come up with his or her own reality and live according to it, that person is playing god.
  4. Pride always is at the heart of the temptation to play god.

In a classic and entertaining lecture called “God’s Way or My Way,” speaker and bestselling author Frank Peretti examines the disastrous results of trying to live one’s own way rather than God’s. Peretti’s speech recently was made available on Dr. James Dobson’s Family Talk radio program. I commend these broadcasts to you as a wonderful introduction to the battle for the recognition of absolute truth.

Next week, we’ll continue our discussion of this critical battle. Be sure to return.

Part 2 is available here.
View summaries of all the articles in this series here.

Copyright © 2017 by B. Nathaniel Sullivan. All rights reserved.

Note:

1Josh McDowell discussed the nature of truth on the Focus on the Family radio broadcast, May 22-23, 2007

Unless otherwise indicated, Scripture has been taken from the New King James Version®. Copyright © 1982 by Thomas Nelson, Inc. Used by permission. All rights reserved.

 

 

Reflections on Repentance

There is a way that seems right to a man,
But its end is the way of death.
—Proverbs 14:12; 16:25—

us_22_u_turns

Repentance means taking a U-turn.

Repentance is a tough sell. For one thing, all people need to hear and heed the call to repent, but only a handful actually do. For another, the message of repentance is difficult to deliver. In fact, more than one of God’s spokesmen in the Bible resisted a divine assignment to preach it.

God told Moses to go to Pharaoh and essentially tell him to repent of holding the Hebrew people in bondage. Moses came up with one excuse after another and obeyed God only after trying His patience and running completely out of “reasons” to turn Him down.

Jonah is the classic example of a reluctant preacher. Did he become that example, at least in part, because God called him to preach repentance? Yet, in the end, even the Ninevites, notoriously wicked though they were, received Jonah’s warning and humbled themselves before the Lord. God spared them, but unfortunately, Jonah didn’t even allow himself to rejoice with God over his hearers’ response. As a result, He had some serious repenting to do himself.

It should not surprise us that repentance is highlighted frequently in the Bible, because no one can be made right with God without it. We see it in both the Old and New Testaments, and with varying degrees of receptivity. In addition to Moses’ and Jonah’s preaching, here are a few examples.

  • Noah had 120 years to build the ark that sheltered him, his family, and two of every species of animal from God’s judgment in the form of widespread deadly floodwaters. During that time, other people also would have been saved had they acknowledged God and His coming judgment—but no one did. Surely Noah urged them to come to safety, for he was a “preacher of righteousness” (2 Pet. 2:5). Acknowledging God in a way that would have compelled a person to step on the ark also would have compelled that person to repent of his or her sins.
  • After King David had committed adultery and murder, Nathan confronted him about his sins. David confessed and repented. God forgave him, but some of the damage could not be reversed, and David reaped bitter fruit in his family relationships thereafter (2 Sam. 12:1-14; Ps. 51).
  • In Jeremiah 7:16-27, the Lord warned Jeremiah that his hearers would not listen but would remain stubborn and unrepentant.
  • Significantly, the message given to John the Baptist, the one who would prepare the way for the Messiah, was a message of repentance (Matt. 3:1-10; Acts13:24-25). Why did he not first call on people to celebrate or to praise God? Repentance was paramount.
  • Jesus declared that repentance is essential to salvation (see Luke 13:1-5) and that few people would be saved (see Matt.7:13-14).
  • At Pentecost, Peter preached a bold sermon urging people to repent and continued preaching repentance for the rest of his ministry (Acts 2:38-41; 3:19-21; 5:29-31; 8:18-23; 11:1-18; 2 Pet. 3:9).
  • Paul preached repentance during his entire ministry as well (see Acts 17:30 20:21; 26:19-20; Rom. 2:4; 2 Cor. 7:9-10; 12:21; 2 Tim. 2:24-26).

Why is repentance so widely avoided? As Scripture declares, Satan has blinded people to the truth (see 2 Cor. 4:3-4). Perhaps one way he does this is by promoting a short-term perspective.

Imagine you are a grain of sand in the top portion of an hourglass. In this imaginary scenario you are not accompanied by other grains of sand but are by yourself. You enjoy plenty of space and lots of latitude; you call the shots. Traveling downward through the narrow neck of the hourglass is, for the purposes of our illustration, representative of repentance. All you can see as you look down that path is restriction of your freedom, loss of independence, and an end to any and all enjoyment in life. Will you go that way? “Never!” You tell yourself.

Yet in reality, what lies beyond the narrow neck? A new, wide world of opportunity! A world of freedom, though here we clearly are talking about a different kind of freedom than the one you now know. Yes, the new world involves guidelines for holy living, but it also involves a new outlook that chances your desires.

A person certainly can repent and enter the new arena without prior knowledge of the new kind of freedom that will be his on the other side. Indeed, he can’t know a great deal about it (see 1 Cor. 2:14). He must first understand how hopeless his situation is without Christ because of the requirements of God’s law (see Gal. 3:24). Still, in addition to this, if more sinners caught glimpses of the other side, they might more readily turn to God. Only God can convict them and convince them of such truths, so we need to pray He would do so. Here are some declarations and observations that capture aspects of the new arena—and that describe the old one. Let’s look at some Scripture passages first, then some quotations from various Christian leaders.

Scripture Places the Two Arenas in Stark Contrast

  • Jesus said, “You shall know the truth, and the truth shall make you free” (John 8:32). He also said, “If anyone desires to come after Me, let him deny himself, and take up his cross, and follow me. Whoever desires to save his life will lose it, but whoever loses his life for My sake will find it” (Matt. 16:24-25).
  • Jesus also declared, “Enter by the narrow gate; for wide is the gate and broad is the way that leads to destruction, and there are many who go in by it. Because narrow is the gate and difficult is the way which leads to life, and there are few who find it” (Matt. 7:13-14).
  • These statements of Jesus also are especially pertinent to our discussion: “The thief does not come except to steal, and to kill, and to destroy. I have come that they may have life, and that they may have it more abundantly” (John 10:10). “Come to Me, all you who labor and are heavy laden, and I will give you rest. Take my yoke upon you and learn from Me, for I am gentle and lowly in heart, and you will find rest for your souls. For my yoke is easy and by burden is light” (Matt. 11:28-30).
  • In Romans 7:15-24, Paul wrote of being enslaved to his fleshly nature (note that this passage climaxes with a cry of desperation from the apostle): “For what I am doing, I do not understand. For what I will to do, that I do not practice; but what I hate, that I do. If, then, I do what I will not to do, I agree with the law that it is good. But now, it is no longer I who do it, but sin that dwells in me. For I know that in me (that is, in my flesh) nothing good dwells; for to will is present with me, but how to perform what is good I do not find. For the good that I will to do, I do not do; but the evil I will not to do, that I practice. Now if I do what I will not to do, it is no longer I who do it, but sin that dwells in me. I find then a law, that evil is present with me, the one who wills to do good. For I delight in the law of God according to the inward man. But I see another law in my members, warring against the law of my mind, and bringing me into captivity to the law of sin which is in my members. O wretched man that I am! Who will deliver me from this body of death?” Then, in 7:25–8:2, Paul wrote with obvious joy, “I thank God—through Jesus Christ our Lord! So then, with the mind I myself serve the law of God, but with the flesh the law of sin. There is therefore now no condemnation to those who are in Christ Jesus, who do not walk according to the flesh, but according to the Spirit. For the law of the Spirit of life in Christ Jesus has made me free from the law of sin and death.” Freedom on the other side of repentance? Yes! Jesus makes this a reality for those who trust Him and rely on Him for strength for daily living!

Christian Leaders Give Insights Regarding the Two Arenas

  • Ravi Zacharias said, “Jesus Christ did not come into this world to make bad people good. He came to make dead people live” ([Lee Strobel, The Case for Faith, (Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 2000], 219). Thus, the top half of the hourglass represents death, and the bottom half (the world after repentance), life.
  • Josh McDowell has said that many people think of freedom as being able to go out and do whatever they want to do, but that isn’t freedom at all. True freedom is having the power to do what you ought to do. The top portion of the hourglass, then, is a world of restrictions that seem like freedom, and the bottom is an arena of freedom that seems overly restrictive to the many who aren’t there.
  • In a Christmas sermon, Dr. Francis Schaeffer declared (note especially the statement we have italicized): “When we perceive the simplicity and yet the grandeur of what is involved, we are overwhelmed. The second person of the Trinity lies in the manger for a reason. Because He loves the world, He has come not just to eliminate the peripheral results of man’s fall (though these will be totally removed at His second coming); He is here to cut the nerve of man’s real dilemma, to solve the problem from which all other problems flow. The ‘condition of man’ is not what modern man thinks it is. Man is a sinner who needs an overwhelming love. Jesus has come to save His people from their sins. This is not to say that He has no interest in…other things now, but we must not get the matters reversed—the central thing is central” (Francis Schaeffer, “What Difference Has Looking Made? (A Christmas Study)” No Little People, in The Complete Works of Francis A. Schaeffer, Vol. 3: A Christian View of Spirituality, [Westchester, IL: Crossway Books, 1982] 123-124). While with God’s help, the sinner repents—he or she turns away from sin to God—God brings about a transformation in that person’s life on the basis of Christ’s redemptive work on the cross. This is why Jesus came into the world. Among other things, therefore, repentance involves a recognition of the true condition of the human heart.
  • Note the words to the second stanza of the hymn “Praise to the Lord, the Almighty, the King of Creation” by German theologian Joachim Neander (1650-1680). Especially notice the italicized words.

Praise to the Lord, who o’er all things so wondrously reigneth,
Shelters thee under his wings, yea, so gently sustaineth!
Hast thou not seen
How thy desires e’er have been
Granted in what he ordaineth?

In the days, weeks, and months ahead, repentance will remain important, but I believe it will even take on an unprecedented urgency for our nation. As believers, we affirm that no one can get to the new world of life, freedom, and opportunity without repenting of his or her sins and trusting Christ as Savior. We affirm as well that America, as a nation, is at a crossroads. She will not survive as a free country if her people do not experience a spiritual awakening that involves repentance. Let us boldly declare the message of repentance in the context of the gospel given to us by our Lord, and let us remain confident concerning its message.

Restrictive though it may seem, genuine repentance leads to authentic freedom.

 

Copyright © 2015 by B. Nathaniel Sullivan. All Rights Reserved.

Unless otherwise indicated, Scripture has been taken from the New King James Version®. Copyright © 1982 by Thomas Nelson, Inc. Used by permission. All rights reserved.