Confidence In God By Faith

One chapter of the Bible that had real meaning for me as a teenager was the 91st Psalm. Other passages that were more doctrinal in nature took hold of my soul and directed my steps in a more definite manner a few years later, but this wonderful Psalm helped lay a foundation for a young person’s confidence in God and His sovereign goodness and faithfulness. I’m certain it has done so for countless others.

He that dwelleth in the secret place of the most High shall abide under the shadow of the Almighty. I will say of the Lord, He is my refuge and my fortress: my God; in him will I trust. Surely he shall deliver thee from the snare of the fowler, and from the noisome pestilence. He shall cover thee with his feathers, and under his wings shalt thou trust: his truth shall be thy shield and buckler. Thou shalt not be afraid for the terror by night; nor for the arrow that flieth by day; Nor for the pestilence that walketh in darkness; nor for the destruction that wasteth at noonday. A thousand shall fall at thy side, and ten thousand at thy right hand; but it shall not come nigh thee . . . Because thou hast made the Lord, which is my refuge, even the most High, thy habitation; There shall no evil befall thee, neither shall any plague come nigh thy dwelling. For he shall give his angels charge over thee, to keep thee in all thy ways . . . Because he hath set his love upon me, therefore will I deliver him: I will set him on high, because he hath known my name. He shall call upon me, and I will answer him: I will be with him in trouble; I will deliver him, and honour him . . .

Now it is true that Psalm 91 applies most directly to the Messiah as the perfect, dependent Man. But we who know God in this age can learn from this portion what true confidence is, by faith in Him who has fully revealed His name to us as Father, by His Son Jesus, our Savior and Deliverer. J. N. Darby gave these insightful comments on it: “Faith thus, in its confession of His name, makes [that name] its refuge and strong tower, and moreover trusts in it: a great thing, for no power of evil, no cause of distress can be anything to upset the mind, if the Lord be looked to and trusted in. [Faith] has here the promise of ever watchful and protecting care. This is true whatever outward evil may come. As we see in Luke 21:16-18, the Lord says some of them should be put to death, but not a hair of their head should perish — they were all counted. Providential power is all at God’s disposal.”

It is likely that the three Hebrew children who stood before King Nebuchadnezzar had in their souls the enjoyment of this psalm. What was their answer to the king of Babylon when given the ultimatum of bowing to the golden image or else suffering the furnace of fire? “O Nebuchadnezzar, we have no need to answer thee in this matter. If it be so, our God whom we serve is able to deliver us from the burning fiery furnace, and He will deliver us out of thy hand, O king. But if not, be it known unto thee, O king, that we will not serve thy gods, nor worship the golden image that thou hast set up” (Daniel 3:16-18). Their confidence in Jehovah’s ability to preserve and deliver them had not wavered once on those occasions where we see them in connection with Daniel, nor did they falter here when he was absent. Whether or not they would avoid or survive the fire, the confidence of these outstanding young men was in the One who would most certainly bring them through to a “better resurrection”. That final outcome is what so many others have looked forward to by faith, some of whom are referenced in that magnificent eleventh chapter of Hebrews, where we have recorded for the encouragement of our faith the triumphs and rewards of full confidence in God.

The disciples of the Lord Jesus (in contrast to those faithful ones “of whom the world was not worthy”) occupied a place at a point in time that could only be considered as privileged far above anything experienced by men up until that time in history. Even Adam in the garden did not have the Son of God walking with him in bodily form, communing with him, and personally seeing to his every need, like the twelve friends of Jesus had.1 But on more than one occasion, the disciples forgot just who was with them in the boat when the storm arose and the sea threatened. In Mark 4:37-41, their trust in their Master reached such a low ebb that they began to doubt His care of them. “Carest Thou not that we perish?” was their cry to Jesus who, taking his rest on a pillow, had always perfect confidence in the One who had already answered that confidence in the psalm referenced above: “Because he hath set his love upon me, therefore will I deliver him.” They feared and doubted; He trusted God absolutely.

How did the Lord Jesus answer His worried disciples? He who always met every occasion and every difficulty with perfect evenness in Himself and wisdom toward others responded to them in a manner that may sound almost harsh to our ears, for we are prone to make allowances for fear and doubt in our own minds. “Why are ye so fearful? how is it that ye have no faith?” To their credit, if we may say so, the disciples did not resort to defensiveness, nor even to embarrassment or shame. Rather, their doubtful fear of perishing was quickly replaced with a godly fear of wonder and admiration at the almighty power and faithful care of this One whom even the winds and seas obeyed.2

How forgetful at times are those with the highest privileges and the closest ties to the Lord Jesus! As Christians who live now while He is in the glory, we have benefits and blessings that the disciples did not, including “another Comforter” (the Holy Spirit) to assume the place for us that Jesus had among the twelve. We have life and incorruptibility brought to light by the gospel, and we are saved in hope of eternal life, “which God, who cannot lie, promised before time began.”3 In light of all this and more, we ought to view each trial and every danger we face as an opportunity to reflect upon our Lord’s abiding care and love for us, and to place our entire confidence in God our Savior and in Christ Jesus, our hope.

His love, in time past, forbids me to think
He’ll leave me at last in trouble to sink:
Each sweet Ebenezer I have in review
Confirms His good pleasure to help me quite through.

John Newton, 1779

1 Luke 22:35; Mark 8:14-21

2 Compare Matthew 8:27, Mark 4:41, and Luke 8:25.

3 II Timothy 1:10; Romans 8:24; Titus 1:2; I Timothy 1:1

Getting a New Heart

You might ask why a “new heart” would be worth getting, or what is even meant by such an unusual expression. Heart transplants are not uncommon in this era of advanced medical procedures, but I suppose you understand that what I mean in raising the subject of getting a new heart has nothing to do with our physical selves. Rather, it is a moral or spiritual change that is in view here.

Men have always been responsible to their Creator God, responsible to obey Him without question or reservation for self. But from the very first temptation of the woman in the Garden of Eden, because of which both the woman and the man transgressed, all mankind has been shown to incline toward self-interest and away from their entirely good, faithful, and wise God. Adam and Eve distrusted God, and turned away after what tasted good as food, looked good to the eyes, and promised to be good for the mind. So began the long slide of the human race into departure from and rebellion against the God and Father of all.1

Jehovah gave Israel the Law by Moses in order to test what was in man’s heart, what were his affections and desires, and they who were placed (willingly) under the Law promptly broke it, and continued to do so. When God sent prophets to bring them back to Himself by means of warnings and pleadings, it mostly fell on deaf ears, and on hearts that were hard as stone. We might observe that Ezekiel in particular gets to the very heart of the matter of Israel’s departure and rebellion at the very end of Judah’s history under the kings. He puts on them, by the word of the Lord, the responsibility for making themselves “a new heart and a new spirit”, while casting away their transgressions, so that they would be kept from a moral death under His righteous judgment (Ezekiel 18:30-32).

Did the house of Israel (Judah in particular) heed Jehovah’s pleadings at that late hour? No, they did not, and so they were destroyed as a nation, who once were meant to be head of the nations, and punished for many years before God in mercy brought a small remnant back to Immanuel’s land.2 Then, when Immanuel (Jesus the Christ) arrived there centuries later, He was rejected by those who occupied that place, the Jewish people and their leaders.

“He came unto His own, and His own received Him not”, is the testimony of St. John at the very beginning of his gospel (John 1:11). When given every advantage, to the point even of having their Messiah among them in the character of “God with us”, they failed to hear Jehovah’s long-standing appeal to make themselves a new heart. Such a new heart would have received His Servant Jesus from the beginning of His manifestation to Israel by John the Baptist (John 1:31). Therefore, all was lost to them on the ground of their responsibility, and their hearts remained “deceitful above all things, and incurable.”3

We have established, I trust, that all men under responsibility to God have not only sinned against, departed from, and rebelled against their Maker, but they have also rejected or despised the One whom He sent to be their Savior. That One, Jesus, after it is testified that He knew what was in the heart of man, plainly tells Nicodemus that a radical change had to occur in the hearts of His people before they could enter, or even see by faith, the kingdom of God that He represented.4 No doubt Nicodemus should have understood the Lord’s reference (by allusion) to the prophet Ezekiel’s figure of the stony heart5 and its incurable character, which must be replaced by a living and reponsive heart of flesh that is completely new! But Nicodemus and others who were teachers in Israel had apparently lost this understanding long ago. Meanwhile, their hard and unbelieving hearts looked for signs, but refused in any case to believe, when miracles were so plentiful and obvious during Jesus’ ministry of mercy and grace.

Notice that Jesus does not tell Nicodemus nor the Jews to cause themselves to be born again, nor to make themselves a new heart. He does not put on them that responsibility, for by then it had become manifest that this would just not happen on that ground, on the principle of responsibility. A teacher in Israel should have understood by Ezekiel’s prophetic writings (in chapters 11 and 36), that Jehovah would replace their stony hearts with a new heart of flesh, wholly by means of and on the principle of sovereign grace. God will surely fulfill His promise and bring about this change unilaterally in a coming day when He gathers His earthly people out of all countries, and brings them into their own land. Jesus in John 3:1-15 simply laid out the necessary condition upon which any soul, at any time in history, would be able to look by faith upon Him lifted up on the cross, receiving the testimony of God; He does not address the responsibility nor the initiative for the change of heart that results in such a faith.

All must be on the ground of pure grace, for man under responsibility has so utterly failed. God can only work with and in a new heart, a heart that is alive and responsive, to bring about conformity to His Son. “Another heart”, like the one King Saul acquired,6 is a temporary change, and of a different order entirely than the heart-change to which Ezekiel testifies. Saul perished an ungodly man on the mountains of Gilboa, though early in his life he seemed to exhibit the very best of man put under responsibility. But it was not enough, could never be enough, to reach the standard of the glory of God (Romans 3:23).

It is that glory — Christ’s glory — that will be manifested in us and to us in that coming day when He will be glorified in all them that believe.7 And all the glory redounding to Christ in that day will not have been because we met some standard of responsibility to do or become anything, for it can only be because of His amazing grace.

1 Genesis 3, 4, 6, 11, & 13:13, etc.; Romans 1:18-32; Acts 17:24-31; Ephesians 4:6

2 Isaiah 8:8; Matthew 1:23

3 Jeremiah 17:9 (JND New Translation)

4 John 2:23 – 3:15

5 Ezekiel 11:19 & 36:26

6 I Samuel 10:9

7 John 17:22; Romans 8:18-21; II Thessalonians 1:10; I Peter 1:6-11

A New Normal for Worship?

There is an element in Western society that is moving to bring about lasting changes to the way humans interact, ostensibly for the peace of mind and protection of the public. The coronavirus epidemic that has affected much of the world seems to be acting as a catalyst for the desired transition to a “new normal” for social interaction, travel, and public gatherings.

Here is an example of the thinking that has lately been expressed in the public domain by those in a position to bring about, or at least to significantly influence, such societal changes:

The question now is, how are we going to reinvent ourselves as a human species? “We will not go back to what life was like before January of this year,” Canada’s chief public health officer, Theresa Tam, said this week in releasing updated COVID-19 prognostications. Federal Health Minister Patty Hajdu also summoned our post-pandemic future in a briefing, saying testing is just one layer of the health safety net needed to “arrive at the new normal.”

(National Post, May 2, 2020)

And for a more recent example of this new order thinking:

“We don’t believe there’s a green light that says go back to the way things were.”

California Governor Gavin Newsom, August, 2020

We wouldn’t want to spend much time speculating about what some would like to see in a “new normal” in the broader society, but here are a few possibilities, all of which have either been proposed or are being practiced somewhere: using elbow bumps rather than handshakes when greeting others, working and holding meetings virtually rather than in person, expanding the use of plexiglass barriers, perpetuating government mandates for wearing face coverings inside and even outside, developing a robust surveillance regime made possible by technological advances, requiring health documentation for travel or employment, and expecting citizens to report neighbors for not conforming to the requirements of these completely new societal norms. Many people may already be resigned to these new ideas being implemented and continued on into the indefinite future, to the extent they believe them to be instrumental in maintaining safety and avoiding risk. I would suggest that there is an attractive moralistic component to much of this desire for change, and that it originates in a humanistic world view.

Perhaps some of you have been considering and praying about how this impetus for change to a permanent new normal in the broader society might affect Christian gatherings and worship, or whether it should have an effect. I suppose that most of us understand and accept that the specter of a worldwide contagion, along with the way the governments and the media of the world responded to it, legitimately gave pause to church-goers who wanted to be kept safe from a potentially deadly viral infection. Consequently, all over the world changes were made quickly to the order and manner of worship services and church meetings, either on the advice or at the demand of authorities.

Christianity in its belief and practice places high value on openness and brotherly intimacy, or closeness, perhaps more so than most other belief systems in the world. God did not intend that the church should exist on earth without this ethic of closeness and interpersonal vulnerability. Some measure of risk to ourselves is unavoidable in everyday life, and it is inherent in any effort made by faith to gather and interact as Christians for the glory of God.

Let’s look at some of the practices of the early church, long before there was a concept of health risk being attached to the normal behaviors of saints. They met together indoors in close quarters, often in their homes, perhaps in groups of 50 to 100.1 They ate together at what they called “love-feasts”.2 Christians who were in fellowship with each other passed the broken bread and the cup of wine during the Lord’s supper, for that symbolized the communion of the body and blood of Christ.3 They greeted each other warmly with embraces or kisses of love.4 They extended their right hands to each other, or laid hands on others, at times as a sign of fellowship, and other times in healing the sick.5 It required close physical proximity to baptize those who made confessions of faith, individually or as households, and when the occasion called for it, elders anointed the sick with oil in the name of the Lord.6 It was customary to wash the feet of other saints after walking a distance for a visit.7 “Social distancing” is a new paradigm by which we might be expected to modify these long-practiced brotherly behaviors, so we ought to very carefully examine the validity of the reasoning behind it in the light of God’s word.

There are other scriptural practices common among Christians that have seen changes or restrictions during this trying period. Singing heartily to the Lord and for the encouragement of each other8 has been the blessed pattern among believers for thousands of years, long predating the Christian era, but a concern about a viral spread during singing has brought with it inhibitions or prohibitions against the practice. Gathering for worship with open faces was no doubt the accepted practice among spiritually cleansed worshipers,9 in keeping with the encouragement to come boldly into the heavenly sanctuary, but worshiping with face coverings is now encouraged or mandated in some places. And although the apostles and other saints in even the earliest days of the church traveled from one locale to another for the work of the Lord, and to have fellowship with other gatherings of believers,10 a new travel restriction paradigm has been introduced that may be used again in the future to limit the movement of Christians for fellowship or service.

All of this is not to discount the need for Christians to use wisdom and discretion during times of crisis or pestilence, given the cumulative knowledge base applying to the matter at hand. We ought to be “wise as serpents, and harmless as doves” (Matthew 10:16) in all of our interactions, and may the Lord Jesus give us the grace to carry on in the manner in which He enjoined His disciples when He charged them with traveling the land with the gospel of the kingdom.

But I am convinced that we err if we entertain the proposition that scientific advances and modern medical knowledge might render obsolete any of the practices of the early church, so that health risks might be avoided. We ought to expect that these scriptural practices be resumed according to what was the normal pattern in the past, as soon as faith and confidence in our all-sufficient, sovereign God allows for it. Indeed, meeting as Christians ought always to be a matter of faith, rather than merely a tradition or a habit or a calculation of risk versus reward. Christian brethren, let us not submit to the idea of a “new normal” for worship and fellowship. It is Christ’s body that we are members of, and His claims with respect to our gatherings and our interaction as that “one body” ought to take preeminence. Should we not then consciously begin with His pattern in view and impressed upon our consciences, even when obliged to consider the matter of risk to ourselves and to our fellowmen?

It is needful that we encourage each other to trust in the God who by His Spirit formed the church almost 2,000 years ago, giving to those early saints by means of the apostles many practices and instructions that established a timeless “normal”. If first-century Jewish hygiene, based on the Law of Moses, was compatible with the close social interaction that these practices assumed and even depended upon, who are we to question the wisdom of the Spirit of God who directed the apostles in the establishment of these practices? Knowing a little of the faithfulness of our God, I am very doubtful that an early church practice will be found at last to be unhealthful among Christians who seek to carry them on by faith, in the absence of manifestly symptomatic disease.11 But I am confident that the Lord Jesus Christ will honor believers who give His claims, and the apostles’ teaching on worship and fellowship, their rightful place by faith, while being guided by wisdom from above.

1 Acts 2;46; 20:7-11; Philemon 2; Mark 6:40

2 Jude 12

3 Luke 22:14-20; I Corinthians 10:16-17; 11:20-26

4 Acts 20:36-37; I Peter 5:14

5 Galatians 2:9; I Timothy 4:14; 5:22; Acts 28:8

6 Acts 8:38; James 5:14

7 I Timothy 5:10; Luke 7:44

8 Ephesians 5:19; Colossians 3:16

9 II Corinthians 3:18; Hebrews 10:19-22

10 Acts 18:18 – 19:1

11 See Leviticus 13:38-46; Leviticus 15

Have You Been With Jesus?

Christians have the blessed hope of being “with Christ”, should the worst come upon us that man can think of: death.  Paul wrote that phrase in Philippians 1:23, while contemplating the possibility of his death, and what a comfort those few verses are to saints!  Death opens the door for us to be “with Christ, which is far better”.

In using the title “Christ”, as in the phrase “with Christ”, we are put in mind of our relationship with the Lord Jesus Christ as our Redeemer and our glorified Head in the heavens. We can be certain that death, should we experience it, will beyond any shadow of doubt bring His redeemed ones to Himself. 

And then there is this phrase: “with the Lord”.  Paul writes this in I Thessalonians 4, as he gives that revelation of the rapture of living believers, along with the resurrection of the saints who have died. “Then we which are alive and remain shall be caught up together with [the dead in Christ] in the clouds, to meet the Lord in the air: and so shall we ever be with the Lord.”

When we speak of being “with the Lord”, the title given there — “Lord” — is in view of Him being “Lord of all” in a coming day of His power. He will soon return for His own, to take us to the Father’s house, and then He will return with us to reign over the earth as “King of kings and Lord of lords”.¹   The thought of being “forever with the Lord” implies and looks forward to the truth of our coming back to reign with Him.  Paul assured the Thessalonians, and by extension all believers, of that blessed truth of the Lord Jesus Christ being glorified over all in heaven and earth, and we glorified with Him.

But there is another meaningful phrase that’s found a few times in the New Testament, and it is: “with Jesus”. In this expression, we have the idea of Jesus walking among men, and of His disciples following Him, for they were known by others to have been “with Jesus”. When we consider Him as “Jesus” in His walk through this world, we remember that He called disciples to walk with Him by enjoining them in this way: “Follow Me!” And now that Jesus is gone from the earth and seated in the heavens, we have that wonderful word in Hebrews 12, exhorting us to “run with endurance the race that lies before us, looking stedfastly on Jesus the leader and completer of faith”. That man Jesus, who completed perfectly the path of faith in this scene, is eminently worthy of being followed by us as we pass through this life.

In Matthew 26:51, while Jesus was being arrested, we read that “one of them that were with Jesus stretched out his hand, and drew his sword, and struck a servant of the high priest’s, and smote off his ear.” We know from John’s gospel that this was Simon Peter. He was in a favored place, being there with Jesus. Peter had been with Jesus for more than three years, and had heard His teaching on turning the other cheek, and on how it was the will of the Father that the Son would lay down His life for His own for the glory of God. But being under the sound of Jesus’ teaching doesn’t necessarily make a difference in our lives and in our actions, until the Spirit of God makes it good to our hearts and consciences. Perhaps Peter had a real emotional desire to defend his Master. But the Lord Jesus had to rebuke Peter for that activity of the flesh. We need rebuke for acting in the flesh sometimes as well, for letting emotion rather than faith direct our action.

Then a little later in verse 69, while Jesus was on trial before the high priest, we find Peter in the courtyard warming himself by the fire. He has been observed being “with Jesus” by one of several individuals there, and this one was a young girl. Maybe she had seen him out in the streets with Jesus at an earlier time, and it had made an impression on her. But Peter wasn’t very close to Jesus at this time, and it is only in being close to the Lord that we can be kept from denying or disobeying Him.  Being with Jesus at an earlier time in our lives will not guarantee that we will be faithful to Him when trials come. Peter learned that the hard way after the third denial, and he went out and wept bitterly. Peter was the Lord’s, and Jesus had Peter in His hand so that he couldn’t utterly fall away.  But we need to be near to Him, companying with Him on the path of faith daily, in order to live for His glory.

But then, when we go from the gospel accounts of Jesus’ arrest and trial, His death, and His resurrection, and read on to Acts chapter 4, we see a remarkable change of scene. On the day of Pentecost, the foretold coming of the Spirit of God baptizes and fills the apostles with power, and they begin with boldness to preach Jesus as the exalted Christ. Thousands are added to the newly-formed assembly of God, and signs and wonders are done by Peter and the other apostles as a testimony to the power of God, and to the gospel.  One miracle in particular, the healing of the lame man at the Beautiful Gate of the temple, gives occasion for Peter and John to preach Jesus to a multitude on Solomon’s porch. The envious rulers of the Jews laid hands on them and put them in jail overnight, but only after another 5,000 believed.

The next day, Peter and John were called to account for their message of the resurrection of this Jesus whom they were preaching. When asked by what power, and under the authority of what name, they were preaching to the people, Peter took the lead and gave an eloquent and powerful answer that confounded the rulers. Luke records what those rulers thought of the two apostles, who were by no means learned men. “Now when they saw the boldness of Peter and John, and perceived that they were unlearned and ignorant men, they marvelled; and they took knowledge of them, that they had been with Jesus.”  This was the same Peter of whom it had been remarked during his earlier failures that he was “with Jesus”, now testifying with power in the face of the same opposition to his Lord, the opposition of the power of darkness.2 And what a testimony! such that it prompted their enemies and detractors admit that there was an intelligence and a power in them that could not be explained by their education or pedigree, but that was the result of having been with the very Man whom those Jewish leaders had delivered up to be crucified!

Those rulers recognized in the apostles the result of being with Jesus. The Holy Spirit recalled to the apostles’ minds the words of Jesus which they had heard from Him during His ministry, and they spoke with godly confidence and plainness in the power of the Spirit that which Jesus had taught them from the holy scriptures.

Dear Christian brothers and sisters, is it plain to others that we have been with Jesus?  Are we exercised in our minds and committed in our hearts to continue in the path of faith with Jesus on a daily basis, by the Spirit, so that not only our words, but also our ways, give abundant evidence that we are in communion with Him, following His steps?3  How prone we are to wander, but it ought to be our hearts’ desire to continue to learn from His gracious words and ways. May our Lord Jesus Christ be glorified in us, and may it be clear that our spirits have been “with Jesus”.

1   Acts 10:36; Romans 14:6-11; Revelation 19:16

2 Luke 22:53

3 I Peter 2:21

Faith and Civil Obedience

There is little disagreement among those who esteem the Bible as the very word of God that it teaches the responsibility of Christians to be in subjection to civil authorities that are instituted by God for the benefit of men in a fallen world.  It is a far-reaching injunction, affecting many aspects of our lives, particularly under more authoritarian (and therefore less libertarian) governments. But there is a limit to the obedience that a man or woman of faith is bound to render to earthly authorities, and the concept of some such theoretical limitation is also almost universally agreed upon by serious Christians.

It is this tension of the sometimes-conflicting responsibilities of being subject to civil authorities on the one hand, and to obey and fear God on the other, that takes real exercise of faith before the Lord, and patience and understanding among believers. As always, in matters of Christian faith and practice, it is best to begin with the scriptures, and then to ask God for wisdom from above to apply them to the situations He brings into our path through this world.  Listed here are most of the pertinent New Testament texts:

Be in subjection therefore to every human institution for the Lord’s sake; whether to the king as supreme, or to rulers as sent by him, for vengeance on evildoers, and praise to them that do well. Because so is the will of God, that by well-doing ye put to silence the ignorance of senseless men; as free, and not as having liberty as a cloak of malice, but as God’s bondmen. Shew honour to all, love the brotherhood, fear God, honour the king. (I Peter 2:13-17)

Let every soul be subject to the authorities that are above him. For there is no authority except from God; and those that exist are set up by God. So that he that sets himself in opposition to the authority resists the ordinance of God; and they who thus resist shall bring sentence of guilt on themselves. For rulers are not a terror to a good work, but to an evil one. Dost thou desire then not to be afraid of the authority? practise what is good, and thou shalt have praise from it; for it is God’s minister to thee for good. But if thou practisest evil, fear; for it bears not the sword in vain; for it is God’s minister, an avenger for wrath to him that does evil. Wherefore it is necessary to be subject, not only on account of wrath, but also on account of conscience. For on this account ye pay tribute also; for they are God’s officers, attending continually on this very thing. Render to all their dues: to whom tribute is due, tribute; to whom custom, custom; to whom fear, fear; to whom honour, honour. (Romans 13:1-7)

Put them in mind to be subject to rulers, to authorities, to be obedient to rule, to be ready to do every good work.  (Titus 3:1)

And having called them, they charged them not to speak at all nor teach in the name of Jesus. But Peter and John answering said to them, If it be righteous before God to listen to you rather than to God, judge ye; for as for us we cannot refrain from speaking of the things which we have seen and heard. But they, having further threatened them, let them go, finding no way how they might punish them, on account of the people, because all glorified God for what had taken place.  (Acts 4:18-21)

And when they had brought them, they set them before the council: and the high priest asked them, Saying, Did not we straitly command you that ye should not teach in this name? and, behold, ye have filled Jerusalem with your doctrine, and intend to bring this man’s blood upon us. Then Peter and the other apostles answered and said, We ought to obey God rather than men. (Acts 5:27-29)

Is it lawful for us to give tribute to Caesar, or not? . . . And [Jesus] said to them, Pay therefore what is Caesar’s to Caesar, and what is God’s to God. (Luke 20:22-25)

(All quotations above are from J. N. Darby’s New Translation of the Bible.)

We sometimes hear this conflict of competing responsibilities solved abstractly in this way: “Christians must obey civil authorities unless doing so would cause you to sin.”  But I do not believe this brief statement sufficiently captures either the essence of the conflict or all that issues from the attempt to frame it that simply. This is especially true if we are thinking of the verb “to sin” in the way people normally think of it — as committing an act of disobedience or rebellion against God.  But even with the definition of sinning broadened to include acts of omission or failure to obey a command of God, I believe it is still possible to miss the spirit of what it means to give “what is God’s to God.”

Let us consider a couple of examples.  Very often in the history of the church of God, Christians have been forbidden to meet together for worship, teaching, and prayer. Now, few among us would consider it a sin for a believer, if forbidden by government fiat from meeting with other Christians, to stay at home and worship God the Father and the Son in the safety of his private room.  But at the same time, many of us would appreciate the faith that would risk arrest and punishment so that Christ might be honored in having saints gathered around Himself, unto His name (Matthew 18:20).  Our consciences, when instructed in the claims of God upon us, discern instinctively that this is doing nothing other than rendering to God what is God’s, for Christ must in all things have preeminence. God never intended that His church should meet, break bread, sing, or be taught, at the dispensation or pleasure of a king or governor, although as individual believers we are to be subject.  However, “being subject” does not imply unqualified obedience;¹ rather, it refers to the conscious attitude of ranking or placing oneself under another in a God-given authority structure.

What would faith do when singing praises to God is forbidden?  Surely it is not a sin to cease singing for a time.  The godly once refrained from singing the songs demanded of them by their tormentors while consciously under the judgment of God in a strange land (Psalm 137).  But we enjoy beautiful English hymnody with lines like this:  “He justly claims a song from thee”, and “the Savior’s love demands our song”, and again, “Should we refuse our songs to raise, the stones might tell our shame abroad.”  Paul and Silas sang praises at midnight when it was perhaps annoying to others and risky for themselves in that Philippian jail (Acts 16:25), for they enjoyed in their souls the same spirit of praise that moved these hymn writers. It is recorded that Anabaptist martyrs of the 16th century lost their tongues before they lost their lives at the burning stake for their boldness in singing during the hour of their deepest distress.

Let these examples of faith temper our understanding of what it means to “obey God rather than men”. Peter and John answered thus when commanded not to be teaching in the name of Jesus, after also having given this testimony as our example:  “We cannot refrain from speaking of the things which we have seen and heard.”  Later it was Paul who exhorted the saints to continue “speaking to yourselves in psalms and hymns and spiritual songs, singing and chanting with your heart to the Lord”, and to be “teaching and admonishing one another, in psalms, hymns, spiritual songs, singing with grace in your hearts to God” (Ephesians 5:19; Colossians 3:16).

The examples we have looked at should not be seen as exactly transferable to the present circumstances. But what then should be the response of faith in a day when civil authorities proscribe certain activities long valued by saints, and which are patterned by the holy scriptures as the normal corporate answer of the body of Christ to His claims? I suggest that it is not so simple as asking whether a certain rule or regulation would cause you to sin.  This is the time and place where the exercise of faith is needed in a special way among Christians in the West.  There is no legal answer that will suffice to satisfy the situation here, or to solve the dilemma. Some may by faith and in good conscience do as Daniel did in Medo-Persia long ago, who, knowing full well the prohibition on worshiping the God of heaven, “kneeled on his knees three times a day, and prayed and gave thanks before his God, as he did aforetime” (Daniel 6:10).

Others may seek wisdom from God to direct their steps and have their faith exercised in a more cautious or incremental manner.  We find differing exercises of faith and courage among the faithful in the Bible, and even among Paul’s compatriots. Saints have differing levels of natural boldness or timidity as well, but each of us answers to one Lord. “Each of us shall give an account concerning himself to God” (Romans 14:12).  We ought to have expanded hearts toward each other as members of the body of Christ, and especially during times of difficulty and distress, rather than using a narrow or legal framework to evaluate the moves or motives of others (II Corinthians 6:11-13).

I want to consider yet how faith might act in a foreseeable future, if the Lord Jesus does not come soon to take His own out of this increasingly evil world. Have you thought about how you might respond by faith under a creeping authoritarianism?  I realize that some Christians do not see current restrictions and possible future epidemic mitigation tactics as anything but a reasonable response to a dire situation. I hope they are correct that things will soon return to “normal” and remain that way until the Lord comes.

What if Satan, with thousands of years of experience and a desperation due to the shortness of his time (Revelation 12:12) — what if he might be slowly but steadily getting Western Christians used to giving up their liberty to worship God (collectively, for now), under the guise of legitimate public health concerns? What if liberties are further encroached upon when a vaccine is produced and all are ordered to receive it under pain of house arrest or something akin to it? We might submit to such mandates simply to avoid the government’s “wrath”², with conscience unaffected.  But how should we respond if political will or bureaucratic momentum catch up to the existing technology for imposing tracking devices or chips in order to keep citizens “safe” from disease, or perhaps at some point from psychological harm (read: Bible teaching)? What if you become responsible by law for reporting your neighbor’s “antisocial” activities? What if your child is denied a Christian education in a private school or homeschool because of political maneuvering in the context of fear, and your faith prompts you to reject the state’s agenda of indoctrination? A year ago, it would have seemed strange to most Christians in North America to be asking these questions, but now they can be found in news reports as that which society will be facing in the future.  There is nothing but God’s restraining goodness that can slow the insidious progression of an authoritarian technocracy that could, in our lifetimes, serve to put to the test the faith of every true saint of God.

At some point along the short or long slide into authoritarian rule (in which evil will increasingly be called good and good, evil), people of faith will find it necessary to decline to comply with the mandates or restrictions that impinge upon the practice of their faith, as have millions of Christians throughout history outside of our narrow frame of reference that is 19th and 20th century Western civil society. And our outlook must not be limited by present experience; we must look ahead and prepare our minds by faith for what may come, and be determined in our hearts to practice what would be due to Christ, should we face incrementally more restrictive circumstances.

Dear Christian brother and sister, I wish not to appear lawless, divisive, or dramatic, but rather, I hope to encourage faith and faithfulness in view of difficult times to come. Whatever our individual perception of how quickly things will develop toward the turmoil and panic and despotism we know must come to pass at some point (for it is plainly foretold in the book of the Revelation), let us each be stirred up to have Christ Jesus our Hope before us as the Morning Star rising in our hearts.³  At the same time, let us begin to consider these words of the Lord to His little flock: “Watch ye therefore, and pray always, that ye may be accounted worthy to escape all these things that shall come to pass, and to stand before the Son of man” (Luke 21:36).

 

¹    Different words are used to give the respective senses of “to be subject” (hupotasso) and “to obey” (hupakouo), even as the subjection of the wife to her husband differs from the obedience called for by a child to his parents, or of Christ’s obedience.

²    Romans 13:5

³    I Timothy 1:1; II Peter 1:19

Social Justice, Collective Guilt, and the Christian

There is a moral cancer that is feeding itself on the apostasy of Western society. It has been called “social justice ideology”, and it manifests itself as a sort of amalgamation of various narrower ideologies, such as Marxism, feminism, intersectionality theory, critical race theory, and post-modern thinking.  This insidious movement, warned against by many godly Christian teachers, is not at all on the order of the justice prescribed by the word of God in passages like Micah 6:8: “He hath shewed thee, O man, what is good; and what doth the Lord require of thee, but to do justly, and to love mercy, and to walk humbly with thy God?”  For the Christian, this ideology or model ought to be recognized for what it is: one of many manifestations in history of “the spirit of the world”¹ that we have not received from God.

Others have written and spoken on the subject from a biblical perspective much more ably than I could hope to, and I would refer my readers to the work of Voddie Baucham,² Samuel Sey, and John MacArthur, to name a few.  My burden is not to spend much time defining terms or breaking down theories, but to address a few specific ways in which this spirit of the world is making inroads among young people who have been raised in Christian homes, and who may have been exposed for years to sound teaching and “the true grace of God”.

Believers in Christ are exhorted very definitely as to their behavior towards their fellowman in various New Testament texts, including this one: “As we have therefore opportunity, let us do good unto all men, especially unto them who are of the household of faith” (Galatians 6:10; I Thess. 5:15). Doing good to all, showing kindness and mercy, has always been the proper attitude and spirit for saints to operate under. But notice the distinction made here between “all” and the “household of faith”, and the emphasis that is placed on doing good to other members of the body of Christ, who are in the family of God.  This emphasis would run against the grain of the social justice model, for in its quest to identify and remediate the supposed disadvantages of a multitude of groups segmented by skin color, gender, and sexual preference, it has become a de facto denial of the scriptures that clearly tell us that in Christianity “there is neither Greek nor Jew, circumcision nor uncircumcision, Barbarian, Scythian, bond nor free: but Christ is all, and in all” (Colossians 3:11; Galatians 3:28).

The Christian mandate for doing good to all, and for taking advantage of opportunities to practically express “judgment (justice) and mercy and faith” (Matt. 23:23), has not just recently come to light. Godly saints have been practising this for many centuries. Of course, we need frequent exhortation and correction in these things, but it is to the wisdom in the word of God that we must turn for guidance in our “doing good”, rather than to human wisdom, which is “the wisdom of this world”¹.  James 3:15-17 defines further the character of that wisdom from God, which operates on an entirely different plane than human wisdom: “The wisdom that is from above is first pure, then peaceable, gentle, and easy to be intreated, full of mercy and good fruits, without partiality, and without hypocrisy.” If the ideology or model you are hearing promoted as the way to do the most good in society has not these characteristics of purity and peaceableness, in that order, then you can be quite certain it is merely “earthly, natural, and devilish” wisdom, and you ought to reject it.  I believe the social justice we see promoted and acted on in our day is neither pure nor peaceable, when carefully examined in the light of God’s word.

I am concerned over the attractiveness (especially to younger Christians) of one of the major principles of social justice (and a logical conclusion of critical race theory), that responsibility and guilt for the real or supposed oppression of certain groups can be attributed corporately or collectively.  In light of this, these questions suggest themselves: Is “collective guilt” a real issue, and if so, how should it be addressed? Is it in the same category as what we might call “guilt by association”?  Do the scriptures have anything to say on these matters?

The idea of collective guilt or corporate evil might seem particularly compelling at this moment in time, and many people who have been categorized as part of the oppressor group have been seen confessing and genuflecting with regret and humility before those whom they believe they have collectively oppressed.  Now, if you have ever lived a day of your life acting as though (for example) black lives do not matter, or as though the life of anyone made in the image of God is meaningless, then you ought to repent of that individual sin, and make restitution (if applicable) to the persons you wronged in whatever manner. But let us look at a few portions of scripture for spiritual and moral principles.

We might begin with Ezekiel’s prophecy in chapter 18 of his writings: “The soul that sinneth, it shall die. The son shall not bear the iniquity of the father, neither shall the father bear the iniquity of the son . . .”  Jehovah establishes here the primacy of individual accountability for one’s sin and guilt. This could hardly be plainer. But then we also see collective, national responsibility for departure from Jehovah, as evidenced by this confession of Daniel, a man of God without recorded failure:  “I set my face unto the Lord God, to seek by prayer and supplications, with fasting, and sackcloth, and ashes: And I prayed unto the Lord my God, and made my confession, and said, O Lord, the great and dreadful God . . . We have sinned, and have committed iniquity, and have done wickedly, and have rebelled, even by departing from thy precepts and from thy judgments” (Daniel 9:1-19).  You might ask: If Daniel felt this burden and repented on account of collective guilt or national failure, would this not be the appropriate posture for a Christian who grieves over the past or present mistreatment of people groups by his countrymen? Before we directly address that question, let us go to the New Testament.

The ministry of John the Baptist was to preach repentance and to baptize the repentant in preparation for the manifestation of Jesus Christ to Israel (Matthew 3:1-17). That baptism was the sign of moral separation from the Jewish nation that claimed Abraham as their father, but which had borne little more than bad fruit. Going forward to Pentecost, we see that the repentance and Christian baptism called for there also had the promise and the effect of separating new Jewish believers morally from the generation that crucified their Messiah, forgiving them for that terrible sin (Acts 2:38).  Even later, Saul of Tarsus submits to baptism in order to have his “sins washed away” (Acts 22:15-16). In other words, he could not be useful as a witness to the risen Christ while yet fully identified with the guilty nation who had called for Jesus’ crucifixion, who had in hateful prejudice delivered up the Man whom Jehovah had sent to be their Savior. Saul (later called Paul) received by baptism an administrative forgiveness from the corporate sin of the Jewish people, and from his own participation in their sin. He could later say with a pure conscience: “I am clean from the blood of all [men]” (Acts 20:26).

Then we find the Roman centurian Cornelius, a God-fearing Gentile, who believed the message of the gospel of the grace of God, and was baptized with his household (Acts 10 & 11). His baptism was not to separate him from the Jewish nation, of which he obviously was never a part, but it was nevertheless a symbol of his death to sin in the flesh, as well as his death to the principle of the world, in identification with Christ (Romans 6:1-7; Colossians 2:10-20).  Now, if ever a modern Christian social justice warrior might have reason to make a case for collective guilt being attached to a believer in Christ, it should be in this case. Cornelius was part of the Roman military machine, and connected in that way with many oppressive and violent acts, yet upon believing and being baptized, neither God nor the assembly of God held him any longer responsible for violence committed by the Roman army. He would have been individually responsible, as one who feared God, to “do violence to no man, neither accuse any falsely,” complying with the standard set by John the Baptist for soldiers in Luke 3:14. God had long patience with His saints during this transitionary time, as the full dignity of their separated, heavenly position in this world was still in development, to be fully revealed through the Lord’s chosen vessel, the apostle Paul.

Much more could be said on the matter of individual responsibility as it relates to collective guilt or corporate evil. In Christianity, we do find the need for local assemblies in the character of “God’s house” to maintain the truth collectively (I Timothy 3:15), to put out “the leaven of malice and wickedness” (I Corinthians 5), and to go through a process of collective mourning and repentance in order to clear themselves of evil that dishonors the Lord Jesus Christ, whose house we are (II Corinthians 7:8-12).   But to press the need for repentance and confession for having a certain skin color or ethnic origin or income level is a gross misrepresentation of how God sees accountability for evil and oppression in the world today.  The social justice ideology that makes such demands is antithetical to the truth of the transforming and healing power of the gospel of the grace of God.

Now let’s return briefly to Daniel.  There is very little analogy between Daniel’s burden for his nation’s evil on the one hand, and a corporate responsibility for the evil done by people of a particular skin color or gender. God’s way in this dispensation of grace is not to deal with a nation, for that dispensation of a chosen nation under law ended in failure, and in the end the godly were constrained to separate morally from it by repentance and baptism. It is now God’s way to transform the heart of the individual believer in Christ, and to bring him or her onto Christian ground by baptism, and by faith into an entirely new kind of corporate entity that surpasses all others as to its claims and its associations:  that is, the body of Christ.

If you are a baptized saint of God, you have taken the position of being separated from the world’s politics and its social and racial struggle. Now you ought to act consistently with that position. Christian, if you identify yourself with a particular denomination in Christendom, or if you identify yourself with a particular political party, or even take pride in your racial or ethnic characteristics, do not be surprised if such voluntary identification or pride leads social justice advocates to call for your repentance from, or confession of, the evils those parties or groups have committed in the past. And this is morally as it should be. Be very careful of any name or cause with whom you voluntarily identify, and be careful as well of proudly owning any earthly citizenship that may legitimately connect you with oppression or evil.³  You are called to be separated to God by Christ (in heart, in name, and in moral position) from that which would dishonor Him, including oppression or violence toward those He made in His own image.

 

¹   I Corinthians 2

²   Recommended viewing: “Defining Social Justice”, address by Voddie Baucham, 2019

³   See II Corinthians 6:14-18; I Timothy 5:22; II Timothy 2:19:22; Revelation 18:4-5

 

The Mystery of Iniquity Is Already At Work

The apostle Paul warned his beloved Thessalonian brethren against being “soon shaken in mind”¹ by a counterfeit letter that had evidently made its rounds and had served to trouble them and to eclipse their hope in Christ. That letter may have been the catalyst for their distress, but Paul warned against giving heed to any deceiving “spirit” or spoken “word” as well, for the enemy of their souls and ours uses any and all means to lead those who have confessed Christ away from the hope of the gospel (Colossians 1:23). He then instructs the assembly in Thessalonica what must take place in order for the development of evil to the point of an irreversible “critical mass”, which will bring the wrath of God upon this world. What is only briefly mentioned here is the restraining power of the Spirit of God in the church of God, who will be taken “out of the way” at the rapture of the church to heaven.

Let not any one deceive you in any manner, because it will not be unless the apostasy have first come, and the man of sin have been revealed, the son of perdition; who opposes and exalts himself on high against all called God, or object of veneration; so that he himself sits down in the temple of God, shewing himself that he is God . . . And now ye know that which restrains, that he should be revealed in his own time. For the mystery of lawlessness already works; only there is he who restrains now until he be gone, and then the lawless one shall be revealed, whom the Lord Jesus shall consume with the breath of his mouth, and shall annul by the appearing of his coming; whose coming is according to the working of Satan in all power and signs and wonders of falsehood, and in all deceit of unrighteousness to them that perish, because they have not received the love of the truth that they might be saved.  (II Thessalonians 2:3-10, Darby translation)

The Thessalonians had allowed their hope in Christ and coming glory with Him to be dimmed to a degree because of the coordinated work of the devil. We have the same tendencies to be affected by outside influences and forces, whether material or spiritual, which can be manipulated by our spiritual enemy to dim our hope, or perhaps more particularly, to dim our enjoyment of “Christ Jesus our hope” (I Timothy 1:1, Darby translation).

Now, if the mystery of iniquity (lawlessness) was active in the days of the apostles, we may conclude that it is surely at work at the present time as well. What are the signs or the evidences of that mystery working in our day? Are they only that which our sensitivities may find to be explicitly immoral or repulsive? Does Paul mean by declaring the mystery of lawlessness to be already at work that there are and will be many individuals who commit sinful acts?  This could hardly be the full force of the Spirit’s meaning here, and the context seems to suggest more than that.  I believe the scripture here is referring to a coordinated effort by demonic agents who work through men, often in crowds and through conspiracies, to achieve their destructive ends.  They succeed in their diabolical efforts only to the extent that God allows it at this time, for His restraining power (by His Spirit in the church) is able to blunt or defuse the effectiveness of their work.

Let us think for a moment on the kinds of activity that Paul noticed in the span of his ministry that were of the character of the mystery of lawlessness. In Acts 12, we find Herod killing James the brother of John and imprisoning Peter because the mass of the Jews had continued on for years already in their hatred for Christ and His messengers. But that chapter ends with Herod’s terrible death as a judgment from the Lord, because he gladly received deifying adulation from the frenzied crowd of Tyrians and Sidonians. No doubt it was demonic influence that brought forth the idolatrous shout: “It is the voice of a God, and not a man!”

In Acts 14, Paul and Barnabas preached the gospel and healed a crippled man before the heathen in the town of Lystra, and were immediately treated as gods by the gathering crowd, who wanted to offer sacrifices to them. This brings to mind Paul’s word much later to the Corinthians: “The things which the Gentiles sacrifice, they sacrifice to devils (demons), and not to God” (I Corinthians 10:20).  The herd mentality that worked among these heathen was of a demonic character, instigated by Satan in order to blunt or render ineffective (if he could) the testimony of God’s grace toward the ignorant, lawless natives.

The Ephesian mob that assaulted Paul and his companions in Acts 19 was of the same demonic nature, but it manifested quite differently, being first covetous and then murderous in its unfolding. The end goal of Satan’s activity will always be to destroy God’s work, if it were possible, and saints must be exercised to discern the ways the enemy moves, not only in individuals, but in crowds, whether physically gathered or virtually connected.

The Jewish mob at the temple in Acts 21, who would have rid themselves of Paul, and the conspiracy of the 40 would-be killers of Paul who bound themselves in vain by an oath in chapter 23, are further evidence of what Paul already called the “mystery of lawlessness” in one of his earliest epistles.

Should we think it strange that the great deceiver would use the natural human instincts of pride and self-preservation, along with man’s inclination to worship (which usually results in deification of the creature), for his devious and destructive purposes? Or that he would exploit man’s fleshly tendencies, manipulating the populace with partial truths spread across the modern world at lightning speed, in order to bring about signal change in the psyche of earth-dwellers,² preparing them to accept even greater error and bondage in time to come?

We have noticed in this article a couple of things that can spread quickly through groups of people, large or small. Fear or panicked frenzy in a crowd or a mob is the result of a self-preserving instinct not checked by faith and “hope in a living God, who is preserver of all men, specially of those that believe” (I Timothy 4:10).  The worship or deification of men by the masses may not yet be acceptable in Western civilization, but undue and unchecked adoration of the powerful and wise and famous is a precursor of that idolatry, until such a time that all restraint of evil is removed. Then “the man of sin” will be revealed, and all the world will worship him.

“Ye have not received a spirit of bondage again for fear” (Romans 8:15), and “Children, keep yourselves from idols” (I John 5:21),  were written as exhortations to Christians at a time when the activity of Satan was perhaps more apparent to believers than it is in our day. But let us be “wise as serpents, and harmless as doves”, and put to practice now more than ever this exhortation:³ “Be vigilant; stand fast in the faith; quit yourselves like men; be strong.”

 

¹   II Thessalonians 2:2;  Darby translation note:  shaken “from a steady and soberly judging mind”

²   Revelation 3:10, etc.

³   Matthew 10:16; I Corinthians 16:13

The Present Distress: A Word to American Christians

It is my hope that this will be the last time I feel a burden to write on the subject that has occupied a significant amount of our thoughts and prayers in recent weeks. I am certain that most of us desire to soon leave behind the present distress¹ brought about by this novel coronavirus, though it really is a “light affliction” for most Christians in the Western world. No doubt each of us will look at life a little differently after this unusual experience, and may God give us the grace to have eternal matters impressed upon our souls to a greater extent, from now until the Lord Jesus comes for us.

There are a few things that weigh on my mind and heart with respect to how my fellow Christians and I are responding to the difficulties and fears we may be facing, and my desire is to share these concerns, especially with my North American brothers and sisters in Christ. This passage in Hebrews 12 is a word to my conscience, and may it encourage us all while it rebukes us as needed:

And ye have forgotten the exhortation which speaketh unto you as unto children, My son, despise not thou the chastening of the Lord, nor faint when thou art rebuked of him. For whom the Lord loveth he chasteneth, and scourgeth every son whom he receiveth . . . Now no chastening for the present seemeth to be joyous, but grievous: nevertheless afterward it yieldeth the peaceable fruit of righteousness unto them which are exercised thereby.

The paragraphs that follow may seem somewhat disjointed, but I submit them for your consideration and introspection.

There is in each of us a self-preservation instinct, and if allowed to dominate our thoughts, it can lead to fearfulness or even panic.  Those of us who know the Lord Jesus Christ have the greatest reason not to fear death for ourselves, for our Savior has risen from among the dead, and that is our future portion as well. May that bring peace to our hearts and minds.  A high official in a large state, who confesses Christ as his Savior and is 70 years old, recently made some comments with regard to his frame of mind in the matter of the risks of contracting the dreaded virus, and here is one of them: “There are more important things than living.” While his thoughts may have been running more along the line of being willing to sacrifice his health for the benefit of a younger generation on this earth, it is encouraging to know the reason why he would be willing to take that risk for the good of others: that is, his faith in Christ.

Fear left unchecked tends to make men suspicious and even resentful toward others, and that can be seen around us in some who have gone to the extent of reporting their neighbors for violating quickly-changing regulations. The book of Proverbs speaks unfavorably of talebearers, for they separate close friends and cause strife.²  A certain class of transgressions by our neighbors ought to be left unreported, according to other verses in Proverbs, and I have no doubt that the spirit of self-righteous legalism that would cause trouble for an unwary neighbor is not becoming to a Christian, and would be destructive to fellowship among brethren. Trusting our brothers and sisters in Christ with our health and safety is the flip side of laying down our lives for them.

There is a tendency in all of us to frame our discussions with our emotions, especially when lives, livelihoods, and our families are at issue. However, emotional argumentation and discussion tend to obscure the broader scope of issues and the actions that flow in response to those issues.  What can happen among believers is that discussions which unduly emphasize the emotional aspects of a crisis may cause us to miss the bigger picture of the claims of God on our activity and our work, and may dim our eyes to facts and historical perspective.  If someone should say, “People who act in such and such a manner seem to have no concern about whether an older person dies because of it”, then he or she really ought to step back a little and take the time to see where that kind of emotional reasoning can lead.  A reasoned and factual appeal based on love for God and love for others, with emotional rhetoric kept in check, can accomplish much among friends.

I am concerned that Christians may become contented with staying home from church meetings, resorting to an even greater extent to technology to meet their need for Christian encouragement and camaraderie. It is to be commended when believers give evidence of desiring to meet together in the name of the Lord Jesus during this time of widespread apprehension as well as restrictions on gatherings, while being careful to avoid becoming scofflaws for the sake of the testimony of the Lord, and while taking into account good hygiene and the sensitivities of others.  Perhaps God has brought this upon American Christians in part as a test of the bonds of love and fellowship between them, and so that we might discern in our own hearts how much we miss the physical presence of our brethren, so highly valued and encouraged in the scriptures.  Any isolationist tendencies that we might naturally have are clearly not from the new man or of the Spirit within us, and we can find testimony to that throughout the New Testament.

Another concern that arises in my mind is how quickly many governments have restricted meetings of Christians almost to the point of suppression, while allowing establishments such as liquor stores and abortion clinics to remain open without similar draconian restrictions on the number of employees and clients are under one roof in those places.  Many Christians accept this simply as from the Lord, at least for now under potentially risky circumstances, but I sense a real need for us to be vigilant in this regard.  The “prince of this world” seizes on any opportunity, even on the circumstances of a contagion introduced by God in judgment or for testing His own, to move in the minds of the powerful to bring about situations for the purpose of distracting believers from discerning his destructive ends, including the further fragmentation of the Christian testimony. Some prohibitions against or restrictions on gathering in other places over the last century began seemingly innocently enough, because of some real or manufactured crisis, or for the greater good of society, and then were found to be simply another way for Satan to oppress the saints of God. How important to pray for “for kings, and for all that are in authority; that we may lead a quiet and peaceable life in all godliness and honesty” (I Timothy 2:1-2).

Perhaps on the other side of the portentous anomaly of an authoritarian limitation of church meetings is the danger of involving oneself too much in the matter of the response of secular authorities to this crisis. To a great extent, we ought to be content to leave the responses of the authorities and policy makers with the Lord, although there is no reason why appeal to them for understanding or relief would be wrong. Now, having a concern about the welfare of our fellowmen throughout the world, even beyond the relative few who will suffer from this illness, is right and good.  But there is peril in emphasizing too much the physical or material well-being of mankind, for that has the potential of leading one down the road of giving up the truth of the gospel of God’s grace for a defective “social gospel.”

I must remember that “the most High ruleth in the kingdom of men” (Daniel 4), and that God our Father is allowing this minor difficulty for many of us, and sorrow and economic suffering for so many more, for His own glory, difficult as that may be for us to understand now. So while we may justifiably watch with interest the statistics or the politics or the policy moves that unfold before our eyes almost in real time, it is needful that we who are believers keep the Lord Jesus before our eyes by faith, as we wait for Him to come for us at any moment.

“Occupy till I come”.³  “Surely, I come quickly!”

 

¹   I Corinthians 7:26

²   Proverbs 16:28; 26:20

³   Luke 19:13; Revelation 22:20

Romans 13 and the Closing of Churches

It is likely that most Christians in North America, and in many other countries throughout the world, are quite aware of the limitations that many governments have recently placed on most types of gatherings, including gatherings for worship, during the current coronavirus pandemic.  It is probably also true that most of us are sympathetic to the reasoning behind this ban on gatherings, in some places limited to nine or ten individuals, or even two, who are not of the same household. It is reported that this contagion is much more deadly than influenza, although it is a virus of the same family as the common cold. Looking at this pandemic from heaven’s perspective, it might appear that God the Judge of all the earth is seeking to get sinful mankind’s attention and give space for repentance yet one more time before more cataclysmic judgments fall.¹

What has stunned some observers, however, is the ease with which churches were effectively forbidden to meet together as before, with rarely a concern raised as to the broader implications of these draconian limitations, or to the principles upon which Christians meet in the first place. This passage in Romans 13 is often cited as authorizing the state to place these restrictions on Christian gathering.

Let every soul be subject unto the higher powers. For there is no power but of God: the powers that be are ordained of God. Whosoever therefore resisteth the power, resisteth the ordinance of God: and they that resist shall receive to themselves damnation. For rulers are not a terror to good works, but to the evil. Wilt thou then not be afraid of the power? do that which is good, and thou shalt have praise of the same: For he is the minister of God to thee for good. But if thou do that which is evil, be afraid; for he beareth not the sword in vain: for he is the minister of God, a revenger to execute wrath upon him that doeth evil. Wherefore ye must needs be subject, not only for wrath, but also for conscience sake. (Romans 13:1-5)

While seeking to be careful to give due respect to those powers that be, and to Christians who believe that God in this passage gives authorities the right or responsibility to regulate Christian gatherings, I would submit that we ought to think more deeply on this reasoning before accepting it as the final word on the matter. This text in its context, in view of the end of chapter 12, is an exhortation to individual Christians to honor the government’s right and responsibility to execute judgment on evil doers, and enforce laws for our good and the good of society. If the government sets traffic laws, or regulations to prevent fires in buildings, even church buildings, it is the Christian’s duty to comply. If the state says you may not sell your product because of the danger it poses to consumers, compliance is certainly the only godly path.

However, many godly believers would understand that this passage does not apply to the way we discipline our children, for instance. Corporal discipline by parents is outlawed in some places, but godly parents can in good conscience follow the scriptural pattern with care, realizing there may be consequences to their actions of faith. Other parents would take understandable issue with having to get their minor children vaccinated against sexually transmitted diseases, for the underlying reasoning behind the mandate is rejected by their moral convictions. There may be other situations a believer might face in which Romans 13:1–5 would not apply. No faithful Christian would argue that it is wrong for a believer under an oppressive regime to keep or distribute Bibles, yet that is outlawed in many countries.

I do not believe that this text applies to gatherings of Christians to worship God, when gathered as such. It might indeed apply to funerals, weddings, and gatherings for youth activities. But in what I have picked up over the years on the subject of church history, I am at a loss to think of a Bible teacher or theologian unsympathetic to nationalized religion who would have accepted as scriptural principle that Romans 13 should apply to or allow for the regulation of Christian gatherings “in assembly”.²

Now, before you stop reading in consternation at what you have just read, and level at me the criticism that I must not understand the magnitude of the health crisis that the world is currently in, let me hasten to add that I believe there is a portion of Romans 13 that does apply to meetings of saints during this time of general fearfulness and distress.

Owe no man any thing, but to love one another: for he that loveth another hath fulfilled the law. For this, Thou shalt not commit adultery, Thou shalt not kill, Thou shalt not steal, Thou shalt not bear false witness, Thou shalt not covet; and if there be any other commandment, it is briefly comprehended in this saying, namely, Thou shalt love thy neighbour as thyself. Love worketh no ill to his neighbour: therefore love is the fulfilling of the law. (Romans 13:8-10)

Faith and wisdom are vital in this matter of meeting together at this time, and love for others ought to temper our actions as the church of God. But it is love for Christ, and seeking to give Him the due honor that he so valued in the woman who broke the alabaster box of precious ointment over Him, that He first of all desires in us. It was with respect to her that Jesus spoke this word to those who professed care for the misery of others, but apparently allowed that care to eclipse His claims on their devotion:

For ye have the poor with you always, and whensoever ye will ye may do them good: but me ye have not always. (Mark 14:7)

Given that devotion to Christ ought to be presupposed as the motive for Christians in all of life, it is commendable also to possess the godly attitude of giving up one’s rights for a time for the benefit of others, out of love for them. The apostle Paul was an example of this when he spoke of giving up his rights to be married and to live of the gospel in I Corinthians 9, but that portion serves to establish those rights nonetheless. The assembly of God has scriptural authority and right to meet to worship Him, and while leaders in an assembly might be exercised in the matter of setting aside that right for a time to serve others, yet it remains a God-ordained right still, and one that I do not believe can be scripturally limited by authoritarian fiat.

What does this mean practically for Christians who would desire to come together to break bread in remembrance of the Lord, to partake of the Lord’s supper? It may mean temporarily dividing up into smaller groups to avoid giving offense or spreading a contagion, or it may mean gathering out of the public eye during times when gatherings are strictly regulated. We ought not be ashamed of the testimony of the Lord, but at the same time we must be careful not to besmirch that testimony through carelessness or a cavalier spirit.

Romans 13:8-10 (love owed to others) should be accepted as a regulative principle for Christians meeting together “in assembly”, in the name of the Lord Jesus, but Romans 13:1-5 really cannot be. Two thousand years of church history agree with that principle. More difficult days may be coming, and already there are signals from certain political quarters that increased control and regulation would be preferable because it would enable society to function more smoothly and safely. Godly wisdom would have us confess and act on right principles now, so that we are not caught by surprise should these governmental controls return under another guise.

 

¹   Romans 1:18; I Thessalonians 1:10, 5:2-3

²   See I Corinthians 11:18 and 14:18–35, Darby translation, for the teaching of being together “in assembly”.

If the Son Shall Make You Free

I met her while walking along the levee and under a bridge over the Santa Cruz River outside Tucson, Arizona. She was riding a bike, coming toward me, and yelling at someone. After a few moments, I realized she was yelling at me. I knew I had done nothing wrong, that I was on public property, getting fresh air, and communing with God on a very pleasant desert morning.

It soon became clear that this poor woman was not in full possession of her senses. She was hurling hateful invectives at me for no apparent reason, and it quite stunned me.  Was she suffering from mental illness?  That seemed to be a likely contributor to her state, but I questioned whether that alone could explain the extreme vitriol she expressed in her curses and vile speech.

Was she under the influence of mind-altering drugs? This was possible as well, and although I have very little experience communicating with substance abusers, I’m certain it is a terrible bondage to be under.

Was she overreacting in panic to the current Coronavirus pandemic?  Or did she feel threatened by the difference in our skin color?  Between her curses, I could make out accusations of white supremacy as well as allusions to the current state of things in the world, and that blame for it was to be allocated to certain groups of people that probably didn’t include herself.

But what especially troubled my spirit in that moment was the pathetic condition of a person under bondage to sin, for I observed her dreadful reaction when I spoke to her of the Lord Jesus Christ and mentioned kindly that I was praying for her even during that short time. Was her heightened vitriol at my words an evidence of demonic influence or possession?

It is not common or popular in modern Western society to speak of demonic possession. We tend to relegate a diagnosis of that nature to a short period of time in the first century, when the Lord Jesus and His apostles were on the scene to bring deliverance to Satan’s captives unable to deliver themselves.  And perhaps we allow for it in third world societies where modern medicine and psychology hasn’t trained men’s thoughts to avoid spiritual diagnoses or cures, and to look primarily for medical and scientific ones.

I pondered that poor woman’s words and actions for days, and I hoped for the opportunity to meet her again and speak a word to her of the kindness of God on subsequent morning walks along the river. I was not afforded that opportunity, but that did not prevent my prayers for her.

When the Lord Jesus cast out demons and released their pitiful victims from Satan’s bondage, I do not think we ever read that He did so at the request of the man, woman, or child who was possessed and enslaved by them. Either parents or others brought the demon-possessed to Jesus, or then they appeared before Him powerless to speak for themselves because the demons very evidently had full control of their tongues, so that with their mouths they spoke only the words of the terrified yet highly intelligent and powerful evil spirits (Luke 4:33-34, 41; 8:27-30).

What might this inability on the part of the enslaved individuals have to teach us?  In various other cases in which Jesus did miracles to display the almighty power of God triumphing over the effects of sin, the afflicted ones clearly expressed their desire for healing at His hand. Those physical afflictions healed by the Lord have their spiritual meanings, no doubt, and the power of the Spirit of God to make a blind man see can be used in the preaching of the gospel of God’s grace, for His grace and power can make the spiritually blind man see by faith.  But falling a willing prey to slavery under Satan’s power, as pictured in demon possession, renders a soul entirely unable to recover himself from that bondage, and further, there is no desire to be released from it.  Most certainly, those who had been delivered from demon possession were forever grateful for that deliverance, and we can see that in “Mary Magdalene, out of whom went seven devils” (Luke 8:2, 38).  But we can suppose that even she, like all of the others we are given account of, had either to be brought by others, or had to be chosen out for deliverance by the Lord Himself.

It is not a freedom of the will that causes people under the bondage of sin to cry out to God for mercy, and these have no inclination within themselves to bow the heart in humble faith to Christ. Paul writes in II Timothy 2:25-26 of the repentance that God must grant to a man in order that he might be released from the snare of the devil.  Such is the grip of the devil upon the souls of men, that it requires the almighty power of God to work a radical change in the soul while releasing it from its bondage.

The Lord Jesus spoke to the Jews in the eighth chapter of John’s gospel of their slavery to sin, which they denied indignantly. “Everyone that practices sin is the bondman of sin” (John 8:34, Darby trans.) is one of those fixed spiritual principles that so many either ignore or deny.  A man gets himself into the position of a slave by sinning according to his own will, and then is neither willing nor able to deliver himself from that bondage. In fact, in his natural state, he doesn’t even realize that he is a slave.

Jesus goes on to tell the Jews that “the bondman abides not in the house forever: the son abides forever”.  There is no dignity, no joy, and no permanence or security in being a slave, not only naturally speaking, but in the spiritual sense as well.  When the devil and his demons have had their way with their slaves, those poor souls are left ruined, helpless, and hopeless, bound for an eternity of misery.  It is only a son in a household that enjoys all the dignity and security and blessing that the father and master of the house can give, and it is this position of sonship that the Lord Jesus presents as a stark contrast to slavery in verse 35.

The Son of God then sums up the teaching on true freedom and the son’s place with these wonderful words:  “If therefore the Son shall set you free, ye shall be really free” (John 8:36).  His sovereign grace and power alone can set a sinner free from his bondage to sin, whether that bondage is evident as it was in the poor woman I encountered on the banks of the Santa Cruz River, or whether it is a socially less disturbing form of slavery to pride and self-will.  Neither the slave to sin, nor the dead in sin,¹ are inclined to improve their condition, but by the mighty word of the Son of God a soul is given eternal life and the true freedom to enjoy that life by faith.

¹   John 5:25-26;  Ephesians 2:1-5