Category Archives: Christian living

SSM Not the Real Issue

If you’re just tuning in, Australia is in the midst of an enormous national discussion on marriage.  Today ballots are being sent to all eligible Australian voters asking whether marriage should be redefined to include same-sex couples.  Voters are to tick the “Yes” or “No” box and then mail it back to the Australian Bureau of Statistics, who will announce a result on November 15.  The debate about this matter has been robust but also, sadly, at times uncivil.

Christians need to realize something important about this debate.  The real issue is not marriage.  The abandonment of the traditional view of marriage is just a symptom of a far deeper problem in Australian society (and Western society as a whole).  What we are witnessing is a clash of worldviews.  There is a worldview informed by the Bible, and then there are a host of unbelieving worldviews lined up against that worldview.  It’s not just about one issue — dig a little deeper and you’ll find that there is disagreement about many more things.  In fact, there’s disagreement on almost every fundamental thing.

So what is a worldview?  It’s simply the way one views the world.  It’s a complete package of beliefs about all kinds of important things.  For example, a worldview includes how you perceive history:  does it have a beginning and an end?  Is there someone in control of it?  A worldview includes how you think about ethics or morality:  are there absolute moral standards?  How does one define them?  A worldview includes how you think about God:  is there a personal God, a Creator distinct from his creation yet involved with it?  It involves how you regard humanity:  are we distinct from animals or to be included with them as simply more evolved animals?  It involves all those things, and far more.

The foundation for a Christian worldview is in Proverbs 3:6, “In all your ways acknowledge him, and he will make straight your paths.”  The Christian’s worldview starts with wisely acknowledging God and what he says in his Word as public, objective truth.  All unbelieving worldviews start with the human being as an autonomous agent — you’re a law unto yourself.  It’s the Satanic lie told to Eve in the Garden of Eden:  you don’t need God.  You make up your own mind as to what is true and good.  These completely different foundations mean that these worldviews typically go in completely different, usually antithetical, directions.

The Christian believes that there is a personal Triune God and he is not silent.  He has revealed himself in the inspired, infallible, and inerrant Scriptures of the Old and New Testament.  Unbelieving worldviews are at best skeptical about such a God and the possibility of trustworthy revelation from him.  Christians believe that morality is directly connected to the character of this Triune God.  What is right and wrong is defined by his very nature as revealed in the Bible.  Unbelieving worldviews can be dogmatic about right and wrong too, but ultimately morality is defined either by the whim of the individual or of society — there is no firm foundation for absolute right and wrong.  Christians believe that human beings are creatures.  We were created by God in his image, and therefore all human beings ought to be treated with dignity and respect.  Unbelieving worldviews simply regard human beings as another species in the animal kingdom.  Yes, more highly evolved, but not essentially as of more worth than any of the other animals.  Ironically, despite that view, unbelievers can be quite insistent on human rights, but that kind of talk is just writing cheques that their worldview can’t cash.  Christians also believe that human beings today are fallen creatures, rebels against the Creator who notices rebellion and will punish it.  People need the redemption, healing, and forgiveness available in Jesus Christ.  Unbelieving worldviews maintain that we are all essentially good and getting better.  There’s definitely no need for divine intervention or rescue, because there is no ultimate justice.

When it comes to marriage, Christians come at this from within this total worldview package.  Marriage is included in our total way of looking at the world, a worldview based on God’s revelation in the Bible.  We believe in creation — that God created the first man and the first woman and brought them together in marriage.  He instituted marriage as a lifelong commitment between one man and one woman.  We believe that some things are right and other things are wrong — and it’s not determined by how we feel or what society thinks.  There is an absolute standard for morality that’s been given to humanity in the Bible.  You see, it’s not just a different view of who should be allowed to get married.  We inhabit totally different ways of looking at the world.  If there’s to be a way forward, we have to find a way to identify and discuss those different worldviews.

But how?  Let me make a couple of brief suggestions.

One is that believers be up front about why they stand where they do.  We need to make it clear that we think as we do because we’re Christians and because we have a worldview based on what the Bible teaches.  If unbelievers dig deeper, they’ll find that we have all kinds of disagreeable beliefs about God, humanity, history, biology, ethics — and they’re all part of who we are as Christians.  For us to deny any one part of that package is to deny the whole.  It’s the whole package which gives us a coherent and consistent worldview.

Another suggestion is that we ought to learn the art of asking the types of questions that expose unbelieving worldviews as bankrupt.  For example, when we hear someone talk about “marriage equality” as a human right, then let’s talk about human rights.  Let’s ask where human rights come from, whether they’re absolute, who defines them, why it should be regarded as evil if someone violates them, etc.  We need to ask the questions in such a way that the unbeliever, with his or her answers, is brought to the inevitable conclusion.  For help in learning how to do this effectively, I highly recommend Tactics, by Gregory Koukl (see my review here).

Our ultimate goal is not to win a debate about same-sex “marriage.”  Ultimately, our goal is to persuade people to the Christian faith, to be God’s instruments to lead them to Christ.  We want the unbelievers in our lives to see that their worldview is a vain fantasy that can’t account for the way the world really is.  We want them to flee their destructive fantasies and get into the real world where there is a real God who really reveals himself in the Bible, and who really sent his Son to redeem us from our foolishness.

For though we walk in the flesh, we are not waging war according to the flesh.  For the weapons of our warfare are not of the flesh but have divine power to destroy strongholds.  We destroy arguments and every lofty opinion raised against the knowledge of God, and take every thought captive to obey Christ…”  — 2 Corinthians 10:3-5

 


Klaas Schilder’s Christ and Culture — Some Notes

Way back in the day (I mean way back — even before university), I got it into my head to take a Dutch course.  The greatest part of my motivation was the desire to read famous Dutch theologians like Klaas Schilder in the original.  So off I went, me and a good buddy, to study Dutch at an evening course offered by the adult education department of Edmonton Public Schools.  After finishing the course, I got my hands on some books by old KS.  One of them was a slim little volume entitled Christus en cultuur.  Unfortunately, my Dutch skills were not up to snuff.  I could make little sense of it.  I gave up soon after beginning.

A few years later, I managed to get my own copy of an English translation of this book.  Translated by Rev. G. VanRongen and Dr. W. Helder, it was published by Premier in 1976.  I got more out of the English translation than I did from the Dutch, but there were large swathes that remained impenetrable.  After reading some other stuff from Schilder, I reached the conclusion that either he was the most brilliantly flawed communicator in the world or I was one of the densest readers.  He could have moments of profound insight, but it was like wading through thick brambles to access that beautiful little trout stream.

I recently discovered a new edition of Christ and Culture.  It was published in 2016 by Lucerna, the publishing arm of the Canadian Reformed Theological Seminary.  It is a new and much-improved translation by William Helder (who was involved with the first English translation) and Albert H. Oosterhoff.  It also includes helpful explanatory notes, both from the translators and from a recent Dutch edition by Jochem Douma.  As a result, many of the literary brambles have been cleared away and the insights of Schilder are more accessible.

Having read through this new edition, let me make a few notes, both of appreciation and criticism.

It is well-known that Schilder was an outspoken critic of Abraham Kuyper.  Christ and Culture allows English readers access to some of his criticisms and their rationale.  For example, in chapter 4, he critiques Kuyper’s concept of sphere sovereignty:

…Kuyper himself was not able to explain clearly what exactly those “sovereigns” in all those “spheres” might be.  One single Sovereign — that is something we can accept and understand.  But as soon as one begins to speak about “sovereigns” in the plural, each of them in his own sphere, things become vague.  (16)

Chapters 18 and 26 feature Schilder’s critique of Kuyper’s teaching on common grace.  When “the gifts of creation blossom and expand,” Schilder argues that it is not a matter of grace, but of nature.  Cultural activity in itself does not involve grace, but godly cultural activity does.  He agrees that there is a restraining of sin, but there is also a restraining of grace.  Schilder’s critique is worth considering.

In the last number of years, Schilder’s name has been bandied about in connection with the Federal Vision controversy.  In relation to that, it’s worth noting that chapter 14 finds Schilder affirming the active obedience of Christ.  In chapter 16, some might be surprised to find KS appear to be speaking of a pre-fall covenant as something distinct from the covenant of grace.  He even uses the common expression “covenant of works,” but places quotation marks around it — a device which indicates his discomfort with the “works” part of that expression.  Unfortunately, the annotation of Douma gives the impression here that Schilder regarded the “covenant of works” as something essentially distinct from the later covenant of grace.  In reality, Schilder elsewhere clearly regarded the covenant of grace as a continuation of the “covenant of works,” or another phase in the history of the one covenant (see here, for example).  While I wish Douma’s note was the whole story, we do have to honestly acknowledge the facts.

While generally appreciative, there are a number of places where I’ve placed question marks in this book.  In chapter 26, against Kuyper, KS argues that Calvinism should develop its own unique artistic style.  That we don’t do this is a sign of weakness, he insists.  What he means is that Dutch Calvinists should develop their own artistic style.  He has no conception of what it might look like for an African-American Calvinist to develop his own artistic style, or an Australian aboriginal, or a Calvinist from whatever other culture in the world.  This entire book, in fact, is quite insular — it was written for Dutch Reformed readers living in the 1950s who had no to little multicultural exposure.   The book is a product of its time and thus the author can’t be held too culpable for this.  When we think about Christ and culture today, however, we do need to reckon with a multicultural world.

Schilder appears to believe that the only worthwhile cultural endeavours result in educational outcomes.  So, for example, he is rather critical of movies (he’s writing in the 1950s!) because though they exhibit technical excellence, they do not educate people.  Hence, they are breaking down, rather than building up (page 119).  But why is a pedagogical purpose the defining feature of what builds up?  Why can’t a cleverly told story (whether on the screen or in a book) that’s written to delight not also be a worthwhile cultural endeavour?  Is there no place for simple delight and enjoyment in a Christian conception of culture, or must everything have an educational purpose? I’m not convinced by Schilder here.

Though easier than before, this book is still not accessible reading for average church-goers.  Sometimes I write about books and I get people asking me, “Should we buy this for our church library?”  Umm….no, sorry.  Even with all the helpful annotations, this remains rather thick theology.  As such it’s best-suited for pastors, theologians, and academics.  They’ll be challenged and enriched by its contents.  I’m glad that we have this new improved edition and I commend CRTS for getting behind it.


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.