Christians are Intolerant?

81RnYpfYldL

I’m working on a full review of this great book by Greg Koukl, Tactics.  Today I want to give another sample of his approach.  This is again in view of the current discussions regarding same-sex marriage here in Australia, but believers elsewhere can benefit from this too.  Koukl writes:

I have a friend who is a deeply committed Christian woman and whose boss is a lesbian.  That in itself isn’t the problem.  My friend has the maturity to know that you can’t expect non-Christians to live like Christians.  The difficulty is that her boss wanted to know what my friend thought about homosexuality.

When someone asks for your personal views about a controversial issue, preface your remarks with a question that sets the stage — in your favor — for your response.  Say, “You know, this is actually a very personal question you’re asking.  I don’t mind answering, but before I do, I want to know if it’s safe to offer my views.  So let me ask you a question:  Do you consider yourself a tolerant person or an intolerant person on issues like this?  Is it safe to give my opinion, or are you going to judge me for my point of view?  Do you respect diverse points of view, or do you condemn others for convictions that differ from your own?”  Now when you give your point of view, it’s going to be very difficult for anyone to call you intolerant or judgmental without looking guilty, too.

This line of questioning trades on an important bit of knowledge:  there is no neutral ground when it comes to the tolerance question.  Everybody has a point of view she thinks is right, and everybody passes judgment at some point or another.  The Christian gets pigeon-holed as the judgmental one, but everyone else is judging too, even people who consider themselves relativists.  (Tactics, 77-78).

Koukl’s approach exposes the truth:  calling Christians who have biblical convictions about homosexuality judgmental or intolerant (aside from the question of how they might express those convictions) is actually a form of personal attack — also known as ad hominem.  The approach described above helps to defuse that fallacy and make room for a Christian to humbly, yet boldly, speak the truth.


You Twist the Bible!

81RnYpfYldL

Each year I teach young people in my pre-confession class how to defend their faith.  I’ve long been convinced that they need to know not only what they believe, but why.  They should be able to give good reasons for their faith — in line with 1 Peter 3:15.  So I teach a unit on apologetics.  Ever since starting, I’ve used Richard Pratt’s Every Thought Captive (ETC) as the textbook.  There are a lot of things I like about ETC, but especially the last few chapters are weak in some respects.  I’ve been on the lookout for something to replace it.

I’m just about finished Tactics by Gregory Koukl and I think I’ve finally found something better than ETC.  I was a bit skeptical at first about whether it would be compatible with a Reformed approach to apologetics, but I’ve been pleasantly surprised.  It’s more focused on the practical side of engaging unbelievers and their arguments, and so far I’ve found little to quibble with.

Here in Australia, things are heating up for a plebiscite later this year regarding same-sex marriage and there are those wishing to silence the voice of Bible-believing Christians.  Koukl has something to offer believers as they face hostility from “progressives.”  Australian Christians may face the kind of scenario described here and Koukl shows a good way to respond.   This extended quote comes from chapter 6:

Once in a dorm lounge at Ohio State University, a student asked me about the Bible and homosexuality.  When I cited some texts, he quickly dismissed them.  “People twist the Bible all the time to make it say whatever they want,” he sniffed.

I don’t recall my specific response to him that evening.  I do remember, though, that I was not satisfied with my answer.  On the drive back to my hotel, I gave the conversation a little more thought.  I realized it made little sense to argue with his comment as it stood.  It was uncontroversial.  People do twist Bible verses all the time.  It is one of my own chief complaints.  Something else was going on though, and I couldn’t put my finger on it at first.

Suddenly it dawned on me.  The student’s point wasn’t really that some people twist the Bible.  His point was that I was twisting the Bible.  Yet he hadn’t demonstrated this.  He had not shown where I’d gotten off track.  Rather, he didn’t like point, so he dismissed it with a some-people-twist-the-Bible dodge.

I quickly wrote out a short dialogue using questions intended to surface that problem.  I also tried to anticipate his responses and how I would use them to advance my point.

Here is what I came up with:

“People twist the Bible all the time to make it say whatever they want.”

“Well, you’re right about that.  It bugs me, too.  But your comment confuses me a little.  What does it have to do with the point I just made about homosexuality?”

“Well, you’re doing the same thing.”

“Oh, so you think I’m twisting the Bible right now.”

“That’s right.”

“Okay, now I understand what you’re getting at, but I’m still confused.”

“Why?”

“Because it seems to me you can’t know that I’m twisting the Bible just by pointing out that other people have twisted it, can you?”

“What do you mean?”

“I mean that in this conversation you’re going to have to do more than simply point out that other people twist the Bible.  What do you think that might be?”

“I don’t know.  What?”

“You need to show that I’m actually twisting the verses?  Have you ever studied the passages I referred to?”

“No.”

“Then how do you know I’m twisting them?”  (Tactics, 94-95)

Koukl’s approach here is helpful in exposing ignorance.  A lot of people have been told that “fundamentalist Christians” twist the Bible to support their views on homosexuality, and because a professor, teacher, media figure, or some other authority said it, it is automatically accepted as true.  Many people have never studied the matter for themselves and we should call them on coming to the table with that basic failure.

However, it may happen that you will meet someone who claims to have studied the passages in question.  In this post from 2014, I describe my experience as a university student in the 90s.  These days, more than ever, you do need to be prepared to face people who claim to be Christians, but have no qualms about homosexuality and the entire LBTQ enterprise.  You will meet liberal revisionists who believe that they can be Christians and affirm sexual perversity.  They’re often familiar with the passages and they think they know how to square a circle.  To prepare for answering them, read (and then bookmark) this helpful essay by Dr. Greg Bahnsen.   Bahnsen will give you what you need to answer back, “Who’s really twisting Scripture here?”


Personal Responsibility

klaasschilder

Does calling for personal responsibility make one into an Arminian?  Some Reformed people have real trouble with holding people accountable for the spiritual choices they make.  Some get uncomfortable when Reformed preachers make a distinct call to faith and repentance.  They feel that this somehow undermines God’s sovereignty.  After all, if God wants to save someone, he will do so in his own time and in his own way.  Calling for people to respond with repentance and faith seems to say that human beings may be trying to do something contrary to God’s purposes.  In fact, once I was even told by a Reformed church member that the Heidelberg Catechism is Arminian when it says that justification is mine, “if only I accept this gift with a believing heart” (QA 60).  Apparently, the Catechism is also Arminian when it says that forgiveness belongs to believers, “as often as they by true faith accept the promise of the gospel” (QA 84).  Some folks really stumble over that word “accept.”  How can that be Reformed?

Leaving aside any popular misunderstandings of what constitutes Arminianism, can we speak about the need for all of us to personally accept God’s gospel promises?  Does an acknowledgement of human responsibility add up to a denial of divine sovereignty?  Or, to put it another way, does divine sovereignty mean that we are mere puppets on a string or perhaps pre-programmed robots who can only follow the Programmer’s wishes?  These are important questions and they’ve been wrestled with many times throughout church history.

One path we might take in exploring these questions could take us back to Klaas Schilder (see here for a short bio).  Personal responsibility in the covenant of grace was one of Schilder’s emphases.  Against the background of others who placed everything under the umbrella of divine sovereignty, Schilder sought to drive home the reality of the covenant as a relationship between God and his people, a relationship where human beings are treated as completely responsible for how they respond to divine overtures.

A good summary of Schilder’s approach can be found in the essay of S.A. Strauss in the book Always Obedient: Essays on the Teachings of Dr. Klaas Schilder (yes, as noted before, an infelicitous title).  Strauss noted that Schilder was contending with the covenant views of two theologians in particular:  Abraham Kuyper and Karl Barth.  Writes Strauss:

Schilder observed the same weakness in both schools of thought, even though this weakness arose from different motives.  With regard to the doctrine of the covenant, both reasoned so strongly from the perspective of the eternal decrees of God that man’s responsibility in the covenant was underemphasized.  In contrast, this responsibility was a basic motive in Schilder’s theology: in the covenant God treats man as a responsible being and confronts him with the choice of “all or nothing,” for God or against him!  Schilder therefore did everything in his power always to define the covenant in such a way that justice was done to man’s responsibility. (Always Obedient, 21)

Schilder’s point of departure in this approach was not God’s inscrutable eternal decrees, but his dealings with humanity in history.  God’s decrees are certainly behind all he does, but what is accessible to us and what we experience are his dealings here and now.

There are consequences that follow from this and one of the most marked is going to be found in preaching.  Reformed preaching which acknowledges this reality is not going to allow for or encourage passivity amongst God’s people.  Covenant preaching of this sort will not countenance fatalism.  Strauss elaborates:

…it is Schilder’s view that true “covenant preaching presents the strongest appeal to human responsibility.  This is why such preaching is also so tremendously serious, and revealing…comforting, but destroying all excuses for idleness [maar het stuksnijding van alle duivels-oorkussens].”  Such covenant preaching is a prohibition against imagining going to hell while being on the way to heaven, and it is a prevention against imagining going to heaven while being on the way to hell. (Always Obedient, 25)

Taking Schilder’s approach means that a Reformed preacher is not going to be soft on human responsibility.  In fact, you should expect a preacher who has learned covenant theology from Schilder to emphasize this rather strongly.

What about baptism?  Where does that fit in here?  Strauss explains that Schilder taught that all who are baptized receive a concrete address from God, “a message that God proclaims to everyone who is baptized, personally:  if you believe, you will be saved.” (28-29).  However, if a baptized covenant member rejects God’s overtures in unbelief, such a person will come under God’s covenant wrath and curses.  Greater blessings and promises imply greater responsibility and accountability.  Strauss concludes about what Schilder wanted to emphasize most strongly:

…that the covenant should never be allowed to lead to a false sense of security.  People of the covenant may never think that salvation is already theirs because they have received the promise.  The promises of the covenant are not predictions; they imply demands…

This is, then, the great and lasting signifance of what Schilder taught us about the covenant.  When God establishes his covenant with human persons, he treats them as responsible beings.  As Schilder characteristically put it, the covenant stands or falls by its rule “all or nothing.”  (Always Obedient, 30-31)

The fact of the matter is that no one, least of all covenant members, can use God’s sovereignty to evade their personal responsibility to repent and believe the gospel.  In fact, to do so would be to give in to a Satanic way of thinking.  Satan wants people to stand idly by and be passive before God — because passivity before God always means plenty of activity that pleases the evil one.

So is it Arminian to insist on human responsibility?  If it is, then not only am I guilty, but so is Klaas Schilder.  Of course, the Protestant Reformed allege exactly that.  Followers of Herman Hoeksema, most notably David Engelsma, have insisted that we are essentially Arminians because we hold to the view that there are conditions in the covenant of grace.  This is not the time to enter into a full rebuttal of that view.  Only let me say that their position is the result of viewing everything, and especially the covenant, through the lens of election.  Everything has to fit in a neat system that we humans can comprehend.  Against that, I acknowledge God’s full and complete sovereignty in our salvation in line with everything in the Canons of Dort, but at the same time I stress the human responsibility to repent and believe found in the Heidelberg Catechism and elsewhere.  That is a responsibility far more weighty for those who have been included by God in the covenant of grace.  In the covenant, God treats us as responsible creatures and, as such, calls each one of us to repent from sins and accept the gospel promises in true faith.


Byl on VanBruggen’s Blind Man

Some time ago an English magazine published in the Netherlands included an article by Dr. J. Van Bruggen entitled, “The Blind Man Sat Down by the Road and Cried…”  The magazine, Lux Mundi, is an official publication of the Reformed Churches in the Netherlands, specifically from their Committee for Contact with Foreign Churches (BBK).  In this article, Dr. Van Bruggen discussed the conflict between what some scientists are concluding and what Scripture says.  Dr. John Byl has penned a helpful response which you can find here.


Sometimes I Still Don’t Get It

2701805-article

I blew it the other day.  I had an amazing opportunity to share the gospel with people who might not otherwise hear and I messed it up.  Almost a week later and I’m still kicking myself for a bush league mistake.  Before I confess the nature of my goof-up, let me give some back story here.

When I was a university student many moons ago, we had an evangelistic effort at the University of Alberta called the Areopagus Project (named after the place Paul addressed the Athenians in Acts 17).  Part of the Areopagus Project involved a literature table in a high-traffic location on campus.  One day a week, we had students taking turns at manning this table.  We handed out Bibles, but also tracts and other Christian literature.  Being an aspiring writer, I decided to have a run at writing a couple of tracts myself.

Around the same time, the Internet was this brand new thing, and on the Internet there was this Reformed e-mail discussion list called “Ref-net.”  I was one of the early contributors.  It started off as a thing amongst CanRC university students, but eventually morphed to include all sorts of other people.  The Ref-net was a good place to throw ideas out there and get some feedback.  I took the tracts I had written and posted them to the Ref-net and asked for input.  I’ll always be grateful for something Angelina wrote.  She said that we have to be careful with our Christian jargon.  There are a lot of terms that we use as Christians and we take for granted the meaning of these terms.   We expect that an unbeliever is going to right away understand all our biblical and theological vocabulary.  Angelina gave me some concrete suggestions for improving these tracts in that regard — terms that I needed to explain if I was going to use them or, better yet, use words that an average unbeliever will immediately grasp.  I took the lesson to heart.

I also tried to take the lesson to the mission field.  When I became a missionary in 2000, I kept Angelina’s advice in mind.  Whenever I taught and preached, I always tried to remember that I was speaking to people who were not only limited in their English comprehension (as speakers of English as a second language), but also rather biblically illiterate.  I always had to be conscientious of my audience and try to keep things as simple as possible.  Even today as a pastor in a regular church, I don’t expect that every one is going to always immediately remember the meaning of words like justification, sanctification, or propitiation.  Explain, explain, explain.  Try not to take anything for granted.  You could have someone in the pews who’s listening, really listening, for the first time.  It could be a visitor, but it could also be a young member who’s finally starting to listen, or maybe even an older member who otherwise daydreams.  Lay it out for them.

So there I was last week at a funeral facing a large audience made up mostly of folks who rarely, if ever, walk through the doors of a church.  I was asked to preach on Psalm 23.  This psalm presents incredible evangelistic potential and I tried to work with that.  It’s not hard to preach Christ from Psalm 23.  As I was preaching, I had a well-placed source in the audience who couldn’t help but pay attention to some of the reactions around her.  I spoke repeatedly about how David was saying this and saying that.  Audience members were heard to say to one another, “Why is he talking about David?  It’s Bryan’s funeral.  He keeps saying the wrong name!”  Face palm.  That’s my face.  My palm.  My bad.  I failed to say anything about the author of the Psalm as background — I just assumed that everyone knew that King David from the Old Testament wrote Psalm 23.  It wasn’t in the program with the Bible reading either.  That name “David” just dropped out of the sky and it confused and distracted listeners.  I over-estimated the biblical literacy of my audience and it presented somewhat of an obstacle to my presentation of the gospel message.

Normally I try to keep these things in mind, but this time around I dropped the ball.  Now you might say that it’s not a big deal, that the Holy Spirit can still work through a jar of clay even with a less-than-perfect message.  Yes, I believe that too and it does give me comfort.  And have I ever preached anything else besides a less-than-perfect message?  No, even my best sermons are stained with sin and plagued by weakness.  Yet I still want to be as effective a gospel communicator as I can.  After all, souls are in the balance.  I feel the weight of eternity on me every time I preach.  As I looked at all the faces in front of me last week, I remembered that they are all either going to heaven or hell — forever.  It’s ultimately in God’s hands, but I want to be his instrument so that they can know Christ and eternal life in him.  Because he is worthy, I want to honour him with a full-on effort where no one can walk away and say that they didn’t get it.  They might not believe, but they should still be able to know exactly what they’re rejecting.  Responding to the message is their responsibility.  Giving a clear message to which they have to respond is mine.  Should God give me another chance, I’m going to try and remember Angelina’s advice.

 


Follow

Get every new post delivered to your Inbox.

Join 359 other followers