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Chameleons in the Pulpit

I am not a biologist by training, but I am amazed at the ability of a chameleon to mimic the colors of its surroundings, creating a form of natural camouflage. I’m sure that someone who specializes in the biology of lizards could give an answer as to how the animal does that, but I am content to marvel not only at the remarkable little creature but also at the God who would design and create this creature to do such a wonderful thing…mutations and random chance my foot.

There is another kind of chameleon, though, that is far less marvelous and needs almost no scientific explanation. This kind of chameleon is the person who essentially tells people whatever they want to hear and who takes no firm positions on anything that matters. This is sometimes done to win supporters and “friends” and sometimes it is done to avoid conflict. Nevertheless, it is a form of camouflage that many people practice in our society.

I suppose that we most commonly associate this behavior with politicians. This is not an insult against all politicians, I have known a number of them over the years who have had a great deal of integrity and who will stand against popular opinion if it is the right thing to do. At the same time, there is often a reason behind the development of a stereotype. My son and I have been watching the various presidential debates over this past year and sadly it seems that these folks largely fit the stereotype to a tee. It is sad to me that politics in America has more to do with rhetoric and campaign finances than with real ideas about real issues. Our nation is poorer because of it.

Yet, though I grieve over the death of politics in America, what grieves me even more deeply is the death of the pulpit in our nation (and beyond!). If there is someone who is not called to be a chameleon, it is the preacher. His calling is to pronounce absolute right from absolute wrong to the people, reproving them in their sins, and teaching them the way they should go. My grandfather, who was a Methodist minister, used to say, “If you aren’t stepping on toes, you aren’t preaching the Gospel of Jesus Christ.” Sadly, preachers in our country rarely step on toes and have sought to be liked rather than to be respected as a man set apart to proclaim the truth.

I am no Wesleyan in my theology, but I do heartily concur with his statement that we are to be men “of one book.” That does not mean we do not read widely and study well; we are to be pastor-scholars as both Calvin and Wesley would have agreed. We are called, though to lift one book high above all of the others. It is the source of all truth and is the absolute guide for our lives. Telling stories may be interesting and telling the occasional joke may endear a congregation to their pastor, but the Bible convicts. And preaching is to be about convicting the heart, not entertaining it.

But, as politicians who do not wish to ruffle the feathers of their political base, so too, pastors often seek not to ruffle the feathers of their churches as well — and in fearing offense or seeking to avoid conflict, they fail to do what they have been called to do. Let the entertainer entertain, but let the man of God proclaim. He who is called to preach must do so even at the expense of offending those closest to him for Truth compromises for no one and God will hold those called to teach it doubly accountable. 

Be warned, ye chameleons who stand in pulpits, you are nothing to marvel at.

That Everything God Reveals in His Word is True

“The fullness of your word is truth; everlasting is the judgment of your righteousness.”

(Psalm 119:160)

“But he answered, saying, ‘It is written that man shall not live by bread alone, but from every word that comes out of the mouth of God.’”

(Matthew 4:4 — citing Deuteronomy 8:3)

When the Heidelberg Catechism asks the question, “What is True Faith?” (Question 21), the answer begins with the statement that true faith is “the confident knowledge that everything that God reveals in his Word is true.” Every time we recite a creed in church or for another event, we begin with the words, “I believe,” again, implying that there is a body of knowledge that goes along with true, saving faith. But what is the basis for that knowledge? It is the Bible and a commitment to the notion that it is the very word of God and that it is true.

Now, it is easy to critique the liberal church today, which largely seeks to ignore, trivialize, and strip the Word of God of any divine power. And it is even easier to critique the more broadly evangelical churches for picking and choosing what they wish to follow and consider authoritative — paying lip-service to the idea that Scripture is the inspired Word of God, but flatly ignoring things that shake their theological paradigms. It is also easy to critique those churches that are heavily committed to ecumenicism, for they all-too-quickly set the Word aside in favor of fellowship. But fellowship on what basis?

But, let us turn our attention a bit closer to home. We who claim to hold to the inerrancy and infallibility of Scripture, do we really believe that everything written in his word is Truth? If we genuinely believe that, why are we so often so quiet when people around us treat God’s word as if it is a lie? 

Think about it this way, if someone was doing a math problem around us, and was doing the math incorrectly, would we not say something to correct them? If someone around us is using a word wrong, would we not say something like, “I don’t think that word means what you think it means”? If someone mentions that they have been eating chicken, lightly toasted, but still largely uncooked, we would insist with them that they cook the meat to prevent an infection. 

So, if we will insist on true principles when it comes to earthly things, why not with eternal? If we really believe that one of the marks of true faith is a belief that everything in God’s word is true, we should insist on it and stand for it not only in our own circles, but in the world around us. And, we should insist upon it with ourselves. In other words, if we know the Bible says we should do this or that, we should do this or that — whatever it is that God commands. Whatever.

Does Your Location Affect Your Religion?

Recently, I heard a challenge to Christianity that was worded like this:  “The only reason you identify yourself as Christian is because you were born in America; if you had been born in Iraq, you would be Muslim and if you had been born in northern India, you would be Hindu—religion is nothing more than a cultural expression of morality.”  The person making the challenge was Richard Dawkins, a popular atheist in our culture today.  Though I had not heard that objection worded in the same basic way, I have heard this objection of Christianity before, and thought that I would like to pose a response from two perspectives.

The first perspective is purely a practical one, for I know that there are many nominal Christian parents that are essentially banking on this principle, hoping that their children will remain Christian (at least in name), while never truly training their children up in the faith.  They think that of course, America is a Christian nation, so of course, my children will remain Christians all of their life.  This not only exposes a faulty understanding of Christianity (as I will mention below), but it is a dangerous assumption, for America is becoming more and more of a secular, atheistic nation, and not a Christian one.  Thus, some are estimating that as many as 80% of teenagers leave the church when they hit their college years, often without returning.  Don’t get me wrong, many of them still think of themselves as Christian, but their Christianity has no bearing on the way they live their lives and for all practical purposes, they are secular humanists in practice and thought.

Furthermore, many of these children will openly reject Christianity because they see how self-serving, jaded, lazy, and corrupt so many churches have become.  Many embrace the atheism of their college professors, but others are embracing false religions like Islam because they are attracted to the self-discipline and rigid lifestyle that such religions offer.  We should not need to be reminded that one of the reasons that the Byzantine empire fell so easily to the Muslim expansion was due to the corruption and self-seeking nature of the church—people saw its weaknesses and rejected it as diseased and dying.  Such an observation has been made of much of the church in America.  Thus, it is not enough that we are actively pursuing the Christian faith, it is essential for us to recognize that our children must be actively pursuing the Christian faith as well.

That is the purely practical perspective, now for the theological one…  While many religions may very well be simply cultural expressions of morality, Christianity, by definition, is different.  For in Christ, we are called “new creations” (2 Corinthians 5:17)—in other words, we are changed from the outside in.  Christianity is not a mere self-help program, it is a total change of lifestyle that can only be accomplished if one is supernaturally changed by God—we refer to this as being “born again” (John 3:3).  This change is impossible to do for oneself, but God must effectively draw us to Christ as well (John 6:44).  God draws us from the world, God gives us new life, and God makes us a new creation.  This is more than mere morality, it is transformation.  And, it is a transformation that takes place all over the world, even in countries where you can be put to death for claiming Christ as Lord and Savior.

The sad thing is that too many Christians simply treat Christianity as a self-help program, and when that happens, they do not live like new creations and Christianity becomes nothing more than a social norm—a norm that is quickly being redefined in America.

What is Truth?

“Sanctify them in the Truth; Your Word is Truth.”

(John 17:17)

“Pilate said to him, ‘What is truth?’  And saying this, he again went outside to the Jews and said to them, ‘I do not find any ground for a complaint with him.’”

(John 18:38)

“Your righteousness is righteous forever!

And your law is truth.”

(Psalm 119:142)

“The fullness of your word is truth;

everlasting is the judgment of your righteousness.”

(Psalm 119:160)

“And the woman said to Elijah, ‘And now this I know, that you are a man of God and the Word of Yahweh in your mouth is Truth.’”

(1 Kings 17:24)

As we reflect on the nature of God’s word being truth, it is worthwhile for us to ask the question that Pilate rhetorically asked, that is, “what is truth?”  Indeed, this is a question that many have asked through history and many are yet asking today in our own culture.  So, what is truth?  The English word for truth comes from the Germanic word, “true,” which essentially refers to something that is in accordance with reality.

This raises an interesting question, because the post-modern thinker will argue that truth is relative to context.  In contrast, older thinkers have asserted that there is such a thing as absolute truth—something that is true no matter who or where you are.  What is very interesting about this is the implication for reality.  In other words, what defines reality—the individual or reality itself?  If, as the postmodern suggests, truth is relative to one’s context, and truth is what is in accordance with reality, then the post modern is suggesting that reality is defined by the individual, her perceptions, and perhaps even his context.  Yet, gravity affects everyone on earth in the same basic way; fire will burn you if you put your hand in it regardless of what you might prefer, and gasoline will ignite if you drop a burning match into it no matter what your perception might be.  So, if scientific truth can be considered absolute, then why not moral truth also?

For truth to be universal, it must appeal to an outside absolute force.  Even what we refer to as the laws of nature must appeal to an outside force as these “laws” are simply descriptive of already exists—in other words, the book will still fall to the ground if the shelf breaks regardless of whether we have defined and articulated the law of gravity.  The law simply describes what takes place.  In terms of the appeal, one seems to have two basic choices.  If one is a naturalist (one who rejects the supernatural, holding that all things are part of the natural order), one must appeal to the structure of nature as a whole.  Such a person would hold that the laws of nature “are” simply because of the structure of the whole of Nature.  The obvious problem with this view is that it assumes an undersigned natural system, which is remarkably improbable and statistically impossible if one would calculate the likelihood of an entire natural system developing “by unguided forces” into the highly structured and predictable universe that we currently observe.  Interestingly enough, science is predicated on the assumption that we live in a predictable universe, yet the only way to reasonably have a predictable universe is through a supernatural design.

The naturalist might argue that the complexity of nature is due to a very simple, overarching rule that then orders the development of all things, thus creating what appears to be a statistically impossible complexity from a very simple rule that is much more probable.  Of course, were this the case, one would expect to be able to find a Grand Unified Theory of science that can explain all things—something that does not exist and has frustrated the brightest minds for many years.  In addition, the complexity of such models is self-defeating, because for the statistics to work in the naturalists favor, the model must be extremely simple and basic, but with the ability to bring forth tremendous complexity.  Yet again, were such a simple principle to have the capacity to bring forth the unimaginable complexity of our universe that we see, it seems that such would again be evidence of design.

With that being said, if one is a naturalist, rejecting anything that is outside of the natural order, one must reject any notion of an absolute morality—all is determined by one’s cultural context.  Yet, if one adapts this view, how is it that anyone can condemn the Nazis’ treatment of the Jews during WWII, the American treatment of slaves in the 19th century, and the Communist Chinese abuses of power when it comes to human rights?  According to consistent naturalism, each of these should be judged not on absolute standards, but according to their own context—a context in each case that allowed for such abuses (and in the case of China, still allows such abuses).  David Hume, the naturalistic philosopher of the 18th century, correctly argued that “is” cannot give rise to “ought”—this is referred to as “Hume’s Guillotine.”  In other words, what Hume was arguing was that there are some things in nature that can be objectively demonstrated to be true (gravity for example).  Yet, ought is not a brute fact, but is a moral argument and one is not able to derive a moral argument from what is observed in nature. Hume recognized that we use the word, “ought,” he argued that this word was simply a convention of habit that contained no real meaning. Yet, while the naturalist’s arguments undermine his ability to make “ought” arguments, they will be quick to tell us that we “ought” to save the whales, that we “ought” to conserve energy an reduce our carbon footprint, and that we “ought” to not chop down trees in the rainforests.  As an atheist once said to me, “thank God for inconsistent naturalists…”  Such is true, because were it not for inconsistent naturalists, this world would be a dangerous place with everyone determining their own morality given their own context and preferences.  Indeed, there would no longer be a king in the land and every man would do what was right in their own eyes.

If, though, we admit design and the reality of a supernatural designer, then we have not only an explanation for the complexity of creation, but we also have a basis for a universal morality, so long as the nature of this designer is such that he would impose a sense of morality upon his creatures.  The Deists, for example, have a god that is hands-off and is considered so far removed from the created order that he would impose nothing upon it.  One might suggest that there is still a possibility of an absolute morality with this kind of God (on the basis of his perfect character), but who can know this kind of God and how can we know his character if he will not condescend to us to reveal himself?  It is only when you come to the Judeo-Christian God that you have a God who condescends to humanity to reveal himself in a trustworthy way, recognizing that while the god of the Muslims is said to condescend to his people, he veils himself from even from his own and is known to deceive others only to suit his own purposes.  Similarly, while the God of the Jews is the same God that the Christians have, because Jesus is the fullness of the revelation of the invisible God, the Jews do not have the complete revelation of the transcendent, creator God.  Thus, as Christians, we do claim that morality is absolute, moreover, we would argue that the absolute nature God’s morality is seen even in the moral codes of various pagan cultures.

So we are back to our original question, what is truth?  If there is clearly such a thing as objective truth when it comes to morality, it follows that there is objective truth to other areas so long as we appeal to the same authoritative source (God).  And how has God revealed himself to us?  He revealed himself in the Bible, in the 66 inspired books covering Genesis through Revelation.  This, of course, is the consistent testimony of scripture—that whatever God speaks is truth.  The question we must ask is twofold.  First, if God’s word is the source of objective and absolute truth, why is it that we tend to spend so little time reading and studying it?  Shouldn’t we pursue Truth with all of our strength?  How sad it is that so many professing Christians wander around wondering what truth is when they have been given the truth in God’s word.  How sad it is that so many professing Christians are so timid when the truth is challenged by unbelievers—because we have the truth, we should be confident that what we stand upon will not shake, yet that which the unbeliever stands upon is made on a foundation of sand and will fall.

The second question that we are left with is what are the ramifications of believing or rejecting this truth that God offers.  The Apostle John records some strong words in answer to this question.  Jesus, we are told, speaks the word of God (the words of absolute Truth), and the one who believes (or places his trust in) Jesus (the source of Truth) is given eternal life.  In turn, when one rejects Christ, one rejects the Truth and in turn has sealed his fate, condemning himself to eternal perdition.  The wrath of God will remain upon his head.  Beloved, there is a stark contrast between these two states, which side of the matter will you be on?  Will you accept or reject the absolute Truth of scripture?  This does not permit you to pick some and reject other aspects, you must accept the word of God in toto!  Truth works that way—it either is or it is not, there is no middle ground.  Which will you choose?  And will you seek to live like it—applying the Truth of God to every aspect of your life.

“The one who comes from above is above everything.  The one that is from the earth is from the earth and speaks from the earth; but the one who comes from heaven is above everything.  The one who has seen and who has heard testifies to these things, but no one received his testimony.  The one who receives his testimony acknowledges that God is true.  For he who God sent speaks the words of God; indeed, he gives the Spirit without measure.  The Father loves the Son and he has given everything into his hand.  The one who believes in the Son has eternal life; but the one who disobeys the Son will not see life and the wrath of God remains over him.”

(John 3:31-36)