Category Archives: Christian living

Are All Sins Equal?

At the moment, we are in the throes of a debate about marriage here in Australia.  I’ve been through that debate already once in Canada and I’ve observed it take place in the United States as well.  So this feels like my third time around.  Each time I’ve noticed that Christians sometimes soft pedal the Bible’s teaching about homosexuality by arguing that all sins are the same.  In other words, my extra-marital heterosexual lust is no less a sin than the gay person’s homosexual lust.  Sin is sin and it is all equally wicked.

In a sense this is true.  It’s true in the sense of every sin being equally deserving of God’s wrath.  What to us is a small trifling sin is in the eyes of God a tremendous offense.  This is directly related to the holy majesty of the one sinned against.  If you sin even slightly against infinitely holy majesty, you incur an infinite debt.  But this line of discussion can’t go very far since, in the nature of the case, we’re not just slight sinners — see Romans 3:10-18.

As true as it is that every sin equally deserves God’s wrath, it is equally true that Scripture teaches that some sins are worse than others in God’s sight.  This is immediately evident from the Old Testament law.  Some sins, like blasphemy, were punishable with death, whereas others received lighter penalties.  In Ezekiel 8:6, God points out to Ezekiel the great idolatrous abominations in Jerusalem.  Then he says, “But you will see still greater abominations.”  There are great abominations, and then there are greater abominations.

The Westminster Shorter Catechism captures the biblical teaching on this in QA 83:

Q.  Are all transgressions of the law equally heinous?

A.  Some sins in themselves, and by reason of several aggravations, are more heinous in the sight of God than others.

The Westminster Larger Catechism in QA 151 expands on this and explains what the aggravations are.  They fall under four broad categories:  from the persons offending, from the parties offended, from the nature and quality of the offence, and from circumstances of time and place.  So, if you’re an older Christian who should know better or an office bearer, your sin carries more weight.  If your sin was against a weaker brother, your sin is worse.  If you broke several commandments in one go, that’s to be regarded as more heinous.  If your sin was committed publicly, that’s worse than if it was committed privately.

As a quick aside, you might be wondering whether this is touched on in the Heidelberg Catechism.  Well, it is, but just not directly.  Some sins being worse than others is implied in Lord’s Day 36 on the third commandment.  We confess that “no sin is greater or provokes God’s wrath more than the blaspheming of his name.  That is why he commanded it to be punished with death.”  So, blasphemy is worse than, say, adultery or false witness.  Some sins are worse than others.

There is no doubt that Scripture describes homosexual lusts and behaviour as abominable (Lev. 20:13).  The Bible uses strong language about these sins to impress upon us how God regards these things as completely contrary to his design for the human race.  While heterosexual extra- and non-marital lusts and behaviours are sinful, they retain something of what is natural in that they involve the opposite sex.  Homosexual lusts and behaviour are worse because they bring in the additional element of overturning what the Creator God designed to be natural.  This is what the Bible is saying in Romans 1:26-27 — it speaks of trading in natural relations for unnatural.

However, when we speak about sins in terms of their heinousness, we ought always to remember that there is, in Scripture, a sin that is even worse than a homosexual lifestyle.  As Greg Bahnsen once described it, “there is a sin worse than sodomy” in the Bible.  It’s found in Matthew 10.  Jesus sent out his apostles to preach and teach amongst “the lost sheep of the house of Israel” — God’s covenant people.  While they did that, the possibility was there that they would meet with unbelief.  In such a case, they were to shake the dust off their feet as they left that town — signifying that these people are unclean.  Then Jesus adds in verse 15, “Truly, I say to you, it will be more bearable on the day of judgment for the land of Sodom and Gomorrah than for that town.”  Sodom and Gomorrah were notorious for their sexual immorality and “unnatural desire” (Jude 7).  Christ was saying that there is something far worse than what Sodom and Gomorrah did:  to be a child of the covenant and to reject the Saviour.  To have God call you his own, for him to send you the Saviour with the glad tidings of the gospel, and for you to reject him — that is something God calls worse than homosexuality.  It’s a warning to people in the church today.

Realize this:  we all have sins great and small sinking us into the depths.  Yet, no matter what our sins are, there is a Saviour whose atoning work is sufficient to wipe it all out.  The saving work of Jesus is there for all who feel the weight of their sin and long for that burden to be lifted.  Even as we speak about some sins which are more heinous than others, let’s also always speak about the grace which is super-abounding in Jesus Christ.

 


In Their Sights

Pastor Campbell Markham

Last week I was watching a documentary where a fairly well-known British actor visited Lebanon.  As he walked down a city street dividing armed Sunni and Shia factions, he intimated to us (the viewers) that at that very moment he and his crew may very well have been in the sights of a sniper from one side or the other.  It must be terrifying to consider that you might very well catch a piece of lead from a sniper’s rifle.

Here in Australia, Christians are in the sights of the enemy.  We see more and more evidence of deliberate targeting of believers.  Last week, The Australian broke the story of two Christian preachers from Hobart, in the south of Tasmania.  Campbell Markham is the pastor of the Cornerstone Church, a congregation affiliated with the Presbyterian Church of Australia.  David Gee is a member of the same church and he periodically does street preaching in Hobart.  Markham and Gee have been named in a complaint to Tasmania’s Anti-Discrimination Tribunal.  Markham is alleged to have offended homosexuals with some things he wrote on his blog in 2011.  The complaint against Gee cites statements he made while preaching at a speaker’s corner in the Central Business District of Hobart.  These statements offended atheists and homosexuals, prompting the complaint.  It is not clear whether both complaints originate from the same individual, though it appears that way.

It’s important to note something here.  The Cornerstone Church is not the infamous Westboro Baptist Church with hatred as its creed.  Rev. Markham is not a foaming-at-the-mouth fundamentalist, and neither is David Gee.  These are simply men who believe what the Bible says about marriage and God’s design for the human race.  As a Christian blogger and pastor, it could have been me in the sights of this complainant.  In fact, for all I know, perhaps I am already in the sights of this activist.

That’s the first thing to take away from this.  No faithful Christian pastor is immune.  If you’re faithful, you will open your mouth and preach what the Bible proclaims without apology.  That makes you a target.  They’ll turn their sights on you eventually.  Even if you’re not a pastor, all it takes is a little question from a boss, co-worker, teacher, or fellow-student.  As soon as you mouth the words, “The Bible says,” the cross-hairs are on your cranium.

The second thing is: we must not let these snipers win.  A sniper makes people take cover.   Under threat of a sniper, no one wants to be out in the open.  Snipers make the fearful hide.  However, we cannot let fear dictate our ministries.  We need the proper perspective to gain courage.  We are at war, but not with human beings who disagree with us and want us silenced.  We’re at war with principalities and powers in rebellion against God.  This war was already decided at the cross.  These skirmishes are like the Allies sweeping through the Netherlands long after D-Day.  The Second World War was decided on June 6, 1944.  But it wasn’t until 1945 that victory was fully realized.  That’s our situation.  We’re on the winning side — the gospel will move forward.  We ought not to be afraid, nor should leaders in this battle run for cover.  We need to remind ourselves:  there may be a sniper’s sight on me, but my Commander has my back and victory is in his grasp.


Pastoral Q & A: Early Infant Loss and Salvation

One of my congregation members submitted this question:

What happens to miscarried babies/stillborns or little children that die too young to profess their faith?

The question has to do with Christians and early infant loss.  This something many of us (including my wife and I) have experienced.  Many of us have lost covenant children before they ever took a breath outside the womb.  Some of us have lost covenant children after they were born, too.  All these losses are painful.  When you have a child in the womb, or a newborn in the crib, you have hopes and dreams for him or her.  An early infant loss is often difficult, both for mothers and fathers.
        What happens to the souls of these babies?  What will happen to them at the resurrection when Christ returns?  Christians ought to remember that God has a covenant of grace with them — this covenant includes our children.  The Holy Spirit says in 1 Cor. 7:14 that the child of even just one believing spouse is holy.  That is covenantal language (cf. Deut. 7:6).  When such children are taken out of this world in their infancy, Christian parents need not doubt their final destiny.  We ought not to doubt their election and salvation.  In fact, we can and should be confident like David in 2 Samuel 12.  When the little child died who had been conceived in that adulterous relationship with Bathsheba, David expressed his confidence that this child went to be with God.  He said in 2 Samuel 12:23, “I shall go to him, but he will not return to me.”  David was sure that when he died, he would be reunited with his son.  That solid confidence comes from the covenant of grace that God makes with believers and their children.
          The Canons of Dort speak to the issue as well.  This is what Reformed churches confess from the Scriptures:
We must judge concerning the will of God from his Word, which declares that the children of believers are holy, not by nature but in virtue of the covenant of grace, in which they are included with their parents.  Therefore, God-fearing parents ought not to doubt the election and salvation of their children whom God calls out of this life in their infancy. (Canons of Dort 1.17)
To be clear, we do not teach that salvation is an automatic thing for all the children of believers.  Under normal circumstances, a covenant child grows up and reaches an age of accountability (which varies from child to child).  They then become responsible for believing God’s gospel promises for themselves and, if they do not, they will face God’s covenant judgment.  Canons 1.17 is speaking about the (for us) exceptional circumstance where a child does not grow up and is never faced with the personal responsibility to repent and believe.  In that circumstance, because of God’s covenant mercies, we believe that the faith of the parents covers for the child.
          What a comfort that gives us when we face the tragedy of early infant loss!  Our children belong to God and if they are called out of this life in their infancy, in his grace he takes them home to himself.  That little child you lost is now in the presence of God, praising him with his angels and waiting for the day of the resurrection.  When Christ returns, that child will be raised perfect and glorified, to spend eternity in the new heavens and new earth.  God took your child directly to himself, sparing him or her from having to bear the brokenness of this world under the curse.  It was a loss to you and it hurts.  Death is an enemy and it does not belong in this world.  Yet here too we can say that Christ has conquered death and removed its sting.  We can and will grieve, but we ought not to grieve as those who have no hope.  Our hope is in God and in his gospel promises for us and our children.
        Recommended readingLittle One Lost: Living with Early Infant Loss, Glenda Mathes, Grandville: Reformed Fellowship Inc., 2012.

Pastoral Q & A — Labour Unions

I’m starting a new feature here where I’m answering questions from members of my church about various issues.  Since many of these questions are of general interest, I figured I would share the answers here.

Today’s question is about a Christian perspective on labour unions.  How should we regard them?  Can a Christian be a member of a labour union?

I’ve tackled this question before from within the Canadian context (see here).  Having done some research, I’ve noticed that Australia has some significant differences.  My answer in this post is based on the Australian context.

Historically, many Reformed people have objected to union membership on several grounds.  One of the main grounds was the unconditional oath of allegiance that labour unions required.  It used to be that if you were a member of a union you were required to promise that you would put the union above everything else, including God and your biblical convictions.  Moreover, many workplaces were “closed shops,” which meant that if you worked there you were compelled to join the union and pay the associated dues.  This is no longer the case in Australia.  Union membership is voluntary, and no one can be compelled to anything.  For example, if you don’t join a particular union associated with a workplace, neither the union nor the employer can make your life difficult (at least not legally).  If the union starts an industrial action or strike, even if you are a union member, you cannot be forced to participate.  More details can be found here.  So the situation has changed on that front.

Nevertheless, the existence of labour unions is owing to an adversarial model of industrial relations.  It’s an unbiblical notion of necessary conflict between labour and management.  Depending on their leadership and policies, some labour unions might be more militant than others.  In other scenarios, workers in a given situation might be facing an exploitative employer and a labour union could justly and fairly promote their interests.  When faced with the question, a Christian needs to look at the history of a particular union’s dealings with management and any relevant legislation as well.  It’s also worth asking whether that union would stand behind you as a Christian if you got into trouble in the workplace because of your beliefs.  The answer to that question would give you a clear indication of whether you have a place in such an organization.

Finally, a Christian also has to research the particular causes that union supports.  Here in Australia, I can think of at least one union that is openly affiliated with the Labor Party and supports its policies (including on abortion, same-sex marriage, euthanasia, etc.).  Since their historic foundational principles are based on socialist/Marxist ideology, unions do tend to lean to the left politically speaking.  Christians should therefore be aware of whether or not their union dues are going to be supporting causes that are ethically problematic.

So can a Christian be a member of a labour union?  It depends on the union.  In some instances, a Christian will conclude that it’s possible, in others that it’s impossible.  You need to do your research and find out who you’re dealing with.  At the end of the day we can be thankful that we live in a country where we’re never compelled to make a choice contrary to our conscience.


Honour the Emperor

Social media is both a blessing and a curse, and oftentimes I’m tempted to think it may be more of the latter.  One of those double-edged things about social media is that you get to see what people are really thinking.  It’s sort of like getting everybody drunk without the alcohol.  All their inhibitions are gone, they become impulsive, and start baring what’s really in their hearts.  That can be a blessing — when you see thoughts and words that clearly are fruit of the Holy Spirit.  It can also be a blessing for pastors and other church leaders as you get to understand the areas of growth that are still needed in the lives of those entrusted to our care.  But it can also be a curse when you get frustrated with seeing blatantly unbiblical behaviour amongst God’s people online.

Right now I’m thinking about especially about the way that Christians will sometimes speak about those set over them in positions of authority.  It’s one thing to disagree with the policies, principles or actions of our political leaders.  I disagree with a lot of those too.  But it is quite another thing to disrespect those leaders.  It’s another thing to mock them.  It’s another thing to call them names.  Sometimes it seems as if professing Christians regard politicians as not even being human beings created in the image of God.  It’s as if lawfully elected men and women suddenly lose their humanity and it’s open season on them.  Christians are free to attack them.

This is problematic on two levels.  The first level has to do with the Sixth Commandment, “You shall not kill.”  Reformed believers understand that this commandment is not just about the physical act of killing someone.  It also goes to our attitudes and the roots of murder.  In the words of the Heidelberg Catechism, “I am not to dishonour, hate, injure, or kill my neighbour by thoughts, words or gestures, and much less by deeds, whether personally or through another” (QA 105).  Positively speaking, we are “to love our neighbour as ourselves, to show patience, peace, gentleness, mercy, and friendliness toward him…” (QA 107).  Is the Prime Minister your neighbour?  How about the Minister of National Defence?  Even if you don’t appreciate their policies or their actions, at the bare minimum they are still human beings created in the image of God.  They are still our neighbours and therefore the Sixth Commandment applies.  Does mocking your neighbour honour him?  Does calling your neighbour names show “patience, peace, gentleness, mercy and friendliness toward him”?

The second level on which this is problematic is more specific.  The Fifth Commandment has to do with how we interact with authority.  It’s not just about honouring our father and mother, but also about honouring government.  We are to show “honour, love, and faithfulness” to all those in authority.  We’re also to be patient “with their weaknesses and shortcomings, since it is God’s will to govern us by their hand.” (HC QA 104).  God calls us in the Fifth Commandment to honour and love our government officials, even if they are difficult to love.

This receives further attention in the New Testament.  The era in which the New Testament was written saw many people living under a tyrannical foreign ruler — the Roman Emperor.  The Roman Emperors were corrupt and wicked in many ways.  They were oppressive and they persecuted Christians.  If one were to compare today’s Prime Minister (in Canada or Australia) with, say, Nero, the PM would come off looking relatively alright.  Has your PM burned down the capital and then blamed it on the Christians?  Has he used Christians as living torches for a garden party?  No, I didn’t think so.  That places the statements about the emperor in the New Testament in context.  Statements like what we find in 1 Peter 2:17, “Honour everyone.  Love the brotherhood.  Fear God.  Honour the emperor.”  Yes, that emperor.  Lest we miss the point, the Holy Spirit speaks along the same lines in Romans 13 and 1 Timothy 2.  Even if the Emperor is a wicked man with ungodly values, the Holy Spirit told believers to honour him and pray for him.  The Holy Spirit even went so far as to say that such a man is a “minister of God” (Rom. 13:6)!

I have the impression that many people underestimate the workload of our elected leaders.  Many of them work long hours in civic service.  Many of them put in these long hours out of a sense of commitment to their communities.  Even if they’re not Christians, they do want to make our communities better.  They want to serve.  Whatever their motives may be or how pure they are, we can be thankful that there are men and women willing to do this hard work.  Yes, we need more Christians to step up to the plate as well.  But, for all of us, the Scriptures are clear that those carrying the name of Christ are to respect those in this field.  The world mocks and dehumanizes politicians.  The world glories when they fall and say or do foolish things.  The world dishonours our leaders and treats them with contempt.  Do we see that Christians are called to be counter-cultural here?  Let’s find ways of disagreeing with our leaders, while at the same time loving them, respecting them, honouring them and their service, and praying for them.