Tuesday, May 29, 2007

God's Lavish Grace

Weeks ago, for the last chapel of the semester, I spoke from the first few chapters of the book of Ephesians. This past Sunday, the pastor at my home church, Dr. Don Shoemaker of Grace Community Church Seal Beach, started what promises to be an excellent series on the book of Ephesians. What both I and Pastor Shoemaker emphasized was God’s grace and election. Many people wrestle with the doctrine of election. They don’t like the idea that God chooses to save some but does not choose to save everyone. Pastor Shoemaker pointed out that we believe parents are doing something good and moral when they adopt an orphan. But we do not claim that the same adopting parents are being immoral by refusing to adopt all orphans. Human beings are all in rebellion against God. Our state from birth is one of hatred and antipathy toward God. God chooses to rescue some of us from this by changing our hearts and minds through the work of His Holy Spirit to bring us to a saving knowledge of Jesus Christ and His work on the cross. When we are drawn to Christ, we put faith in His saving work believing in who He is and what He did—that is, that He is both fully God and fully man and that He made a complete sacrifice for our sins once and for all on the cross, paying for all of our sins and also attributing to us His perfectly lived righteous life. It is in this way that we are saved by grace through faith in Jesus Christ. But it is God’s work of election to bring us to this salvation and there is no room for us to boast or brag. We have not done anything praiseworthy or laudable in order to be saved. Instead, everything has been done by God in and through Jesus Christ: “In Him we were also chosen, having been predestined according to the plan of Him who works out everything in conformity with the purpose of His will, in order that we, who were the first to hope in Christ, might be for the praise of His glory. And you also were included in Christ when you heard the word of truth, the gospel of your salvation. Having believed you were marked in Him with a seal, the promised Holy Spirit, who is a deposit guaranteeing our inheritance until the redemption of those who are God’s possession—to the praise of His glory.” Ephesians 1:11-14. As this passage indicates, God provides evidence of His work in us by sealing us with the Holy Spirit. It is the deposit guaranteeing our inheritance of salvation. The presence of the Holy Spirit in our lives should and does work a slow transformation in us through which we become better people than we used to be. But it is not this process of sanctification (“setting ourselves aside from sin for God”) that is the cause of our salvation. We are saved because Christ’s righteousness is attributed to us and because Christ’s sacrifice paid for our sins, not because we do good things to merit or earn our salvation.

These doctrines are very difficult for some people. Many people are quite disturbed by the idea that God makes choices for reasons apparently having nothing to do with our own merit or worthiness or will. By contrast, I find this quite comforting. If my salvation depended on me, I would be in a most definite and permanent anxious state, terrified of my inability to please God. But, thankfully, my salvation doesn’t depend upon me. I am thankful for God’s lavish and generous grace that salvation has come to me based on Christ’s merit rather than my own. I am thankful that my salvation depends on the sovereign and unstoppable divine being who created and sustains the universe rather than upon my corrupt and finite abilities. How generous and kind God is to the elect in choosing us when we have done nothing to merit His selection. Truly, He is the generous and kind God.

Some people are still worried about those who they believe are not elected. Of course only God can know whether someone is actually of the elect or not. We can see evidences of their earthly statements and professions, but we cannot know what is in their hearts or in the mind of God. If we are concerned about the salvation of another person, it makes sense for us to do two things; to communicate the gospel to them and to pray that they will be among the elect. Neither of these things is unreasonable. If God does not decide who to elect based upon merit, there is no reason to believe that He does not decide based at least in part upon the prayers of those who are among the elect. And certainly no one who is not among the elect will truly seek God and seek to be saved through prayer. So if you are worried about whether or not you are elect, asking God to elect you and save you is obviously a prayer to which God would say yes. Much more, we should pray for others who concern us. In addition, we should preach the gospel to people so that from an earthly perspective, they have the opportunity to believe and put faith in Christ. While the Bible clearly teaches election in Ephesians and elsewhere, it also clearly teaches that we have an obligation to preach the gospel. From an earthly perspective people do indeed need to choose to put their faith in Christ and His work on the cross. From an earthly perspective, the more they know about it, the more likely it is that they will believe it. The choice to save is God’s. He clearly uses us in the process through which He works.

Is this difficult and mysterious? Of course. This is one of the reasons why Christianity is so incredibly sensible. Christianity is unlike the many religions invented by human beings and designed to please human needs and desires. Christianity (as Carnel wrote) is internally consistent, fits the facts and is reasonable. Christianity is also something so complicated yet simple, ingenious yet unfathomable, seemingly paradoxical yet utterly sensible. Christianity is the sort of system that no human being could have designed or would have designed. No sensible human would have designed a religion that included the doctrine of the trinity or the tension between the preaching of the gospel and divine election. No human being would have at the same time made salvation totally dependent upon God and not upon our good works, and yet also asked that human beings abide by the moral law even though their salvation was not dependent upon the moral law because they were saved by grace through faith in Christ. No human being would have God become man and yet remain fully divine for fear of either elevating the human or compromising the divine in the minds of confused followers. And no human being would have made their designed religion completely contingent upon the resurrection of Christ from the dead since no human being could pull off a genuine resurrection and since so few people believe even in the real one that was witnessed by many people who gave their lives in confirmation of their testimony. But the real God is a lavish, gracious and kind God. The God of the Bible has expressed to us His amazing ways which are both fully rational and enigmatic, completely sensible and inexplicable, completely systematic and fully surprising, just and yet lavishly gracious. The more we say yes to God and enter into a deeper and deeper relationship with Him and knowledge of His ways, the more amazed we are by all that we learn.

Wednesday, May 16, 2007

Rev. Falwell

Rev. Jerry Falwell, founder of Liberty University and Baptist pastor died yesterday. While, like all of us human beings, Falwell was not always tactful and did make mistakes, he was a major religious leader of our times and succeeded in convincing many separatist leaning fundamentalists to engage the world and become involved in the issues facing their communities. For this, he deserves thanks, even if the process was less than perfect.

But in part, Falwell was the victim of the media as well as a major public figure. Secularists, radical political liberals, and even less evangelical Christians have trouble understanding or accepting that a Christian can be honest about sin while loving sinners. For them love requires acceptance of behavior and culture, rather than (as ethicist Louis Smeeds would have said) “wishing the other well and acting consistently and logically upon that wish.” But I do not doubt that for all his apparent bombast, Falwell was a loving man. Mathew Reynolds, producer for the Northern Radio Alliance, and a Liberty student who had met Falwell, said this on the blog “Captains Quarters:”
“But thing that most stood out was his great conviction and belief in his Lord Jesus Christ and his love for everyone, especially those he disagreed with. Dr Falwell spoke weekly with Larry Flynt for years as a result of the lawsuit. He had Sen Ted Kennedy come speak at Liberty University in what has been called one of the top 10 speeches of the 1990s. And while many find this hard to believe, it was this love that allowed him to bring back Mel White to speak at his church and work on reconciliation with the homosexual community and the evangelical church.
Many people have confused his Christian beliefs with hate-speech. This was not the case. While Dr Falwell may have disagreed with their lifestyle, he really cared about each person he met on an individual level.”
As someone who shares belief in the Christian “fundamentals,” but does not accept all of fundamentalist culture, I occasionally disagreed with Falwell about aspects of the law, history, aesthetics, style, the fine points of the unessentials of theology, and more. But I recognize that he accomplished a lot in the context in which God placed him. In many ways our country would have been worse off without him. He reached and discipled for Christ a large number of people who would not have been easily reached by others and who could have been much worse served. And as I said above, he opened many separatist fundamentalists to political and cultural involvement after decades of retreat into cultural insignificance. What is tragic is that the political parties have mostly ignored and squandered the political consensus on moral issues that Falwell helped achieve.

Friday, May 11, 2007

Is Socialism Christian?

A web site from England has a quotation that equates Christianity with Socialism. Thursdays LA times had an article giving sympathetic treatment to the liberation theologians in Brazil and elsewhere who are being pressured by the Pope. Is socialism Christian?

Biblical Christianity does place a strong emphasis on caring for the poor, working for justice, and helping the powerless and oppressed. Early Christians gave their worldly goods to help the poor and share with their brothers and sisters in Christ. In the Old Testament there were laws designed to provide for the poor. But Israel was very unique among ancient nations in not having a centrally planned economy with wage and price controls or a feudal land-for-military-service system.

The Bible does not prescribe a particular governmental or economic system for modern nations. In that sense, neither capitalism nor socialism can claim the label “Christian.” There are different costs and benefits for all economic/government systems or approaches. In many ways the real question is which system is wisest, works best, and achieves what a particular society wants within acceptable costs.

Capitalism, with the rule of law and a relatively moral government, results in a better overall material quantity of goods and services, and greater freedom of choices among immaterial goods than socialism. It has the cost of greater apparent inequalities between individual financial outcomes and the cost of consuming fads that are in bad taste, morally suspect, or ill conceived (I do not think the market is always right even though it is right more often than the government). Capitalism hurts the foolish, the lazy, the poor, the sick, and the ungifted. Capitalism rewards hard work, creativity, service, and (not so good) cunning.

Socialist centrally planned governments tend to be inefficient, dependent on continued population growth, and restrictive of legitimate freedoms. They also make bad planning decisions that affect everyone because the whole scheme is run by the government. The advantage of socialism is that people feel outcomes are more equal even though they may all be worse off. Socialism rewards the lazy, protects the sick and ungifted, and cheats the productive producers. It also gives greater power to individuals who seek power over others. Some people like socialism because they do not think the public makes good choices and they want to choose for everyone else. But all humans are fallen, and so on the whole, the choices of the few are as bad, or worse, than the choices of the many. Perhaps choosing a system with these values and results is not so moral as it seems to those who value equality of outcomes above all else?

There are also usually other moral problems with socialism in practice. First, in theory socialism can be put into effect voluntarily. Perhaps in places like Sweden it is mostly voluntary. But in practice, socialism is usually put in place by force and steals property in order to redistribute property “more equally.” Theft backed by violence is not really moral. It is sometimes supported by arguing that the rich acquired their wealth immorally. This is sometimes true, but certainly not always or universally. Often the immorality involved, if any, may have occurred generations ago. Second, socialism decreases the individual’s opportunity to make virtuous moral choices. It takes moral responsibility from individuals and places it on the government. In the end, people become less moral because they expect the state to help those in need. Aristotle pointed out this second problem over two thousand years ago.

A Christian solution to human need and suffering is for individuals, families, and associations to give to help those in need. A socialist solution is to take property from individuals, families and associations to help those in need. It is sad that Christians have been so ineffective at giving and helping others that socialism seems attractive to people. But I think it is also the case that because human desires and needs expand to fit the supply, people in a fallen world will never be completely happy with any distribution, system, or circumstance. Though we should give, no amount of giving will ever be enough. But there are real and serious needs that cry out for more giving, and we should give more than we do even though Americans are already the most giving people (as individual) in the world. I hope though that we never give away our freedom in order to try to satisfy the hunger for equal economic outcomes.

Thursday, May 10, 2007

Archbishop of Canterbury on Morality and the State

I must admit I have not often found myself in agreement with Rowan Williams, the current Archbishop of Canterbury. The Archbishop has an interesting article in The Times Online entitled “Down with Godless Government.” I still do not endorse the Archbishop’s prescription of an established church, church peers in government, or church authority as solutions to the problem of morality and government, but the Archbishop does say a few interesting things:

“Wilberforce and his circle believed that if a sinful system existed and its sinfulness implicated them as well as others, they were under an obligation to end it. There is no simple gulf between personal and public morality; and Christian morality is not about “keeping yourself unspotted from the world” in any sense that implies withdrawing or ignoring public wrongs.”
“But if the state enacts or perpetuates in the corporate life of the nation what is directly contrary to the Christian understanding of God’s purpose, then Christian activism in respect of changing the law is justified, primarily when the state is responsible for — so to speak — compromising the morality of all its citizens.”
. . .
“Without a notional standard of human excellence and human flourishing, the definition of what is good for people is always going to be vulnerable to what happens to suit a dominant interest group.”
. . .
“I believe that it is possible for a state to have a moral basis without thereby becoming confessional or theocratic. It involves a state being ready to recognize its own history; to say that its horizons and assumptions are indeed grounded in a set of particular beliefs, and to embody in its political practice ways of allowing those foundational commitments to be heard in public debate.”

Hat tip to Cranmer

Wednesday, May 02, 2007

Justice and Morality

(Re-posted here in the main blog after a response to a comment)

You cannot separate justice and morality. The two are inseparable. Justice involves giving to and requiring from everyone that which is appropriate. Rights are uniform predispositions of justice. Being unjust is a sort of immorality. Moral principles, rules, and rights statements explain and define specific relationships - often stating what is owed or appropriate, either in positive or negative form.

You should not steal because that is taking what belongs to another. Stealing is violating your neighbor's right to property. Stealing is an act of injustice. Justice requires the thief to restore what has been taken, plus an appropriate penalty as retribution, example, and deterrent for the harm done to the order and harmony of relationships between humans and between God and humans.

Humans are obligated to be moral and just and respect the rights of others because they were created by God in His image, belong to God, and flourish in the order designed by God. Without God and His order humans are just bundles of chemicals. Why would they be entitled to dignity or privilege if that were all they were?