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Does personal virtue matter for those who hold public political office?

Does personal virtue matter for those who hold public political office?

I ask this question specifically to evangelical Christians, in part because I am one, and in part because there is evidence that between 2011 and 2016 we have taken a U-turn on our answer. Note this quote from the linked article:

In 2011, 30 percent of white evangelicals said that “an elected official who commits an immoral act in their personal life can still behave ethically and fulfill their duties in their public and professional life.” Now, 72 percent say so — a far bigger swing than other religious groups the poll studied.

Is that U-turn justified (were we wrong in 2011) or have we lost some sense of our moral bearing and stand in need of correction?

I will answer that question in 3 parts. First, what is the connection between personal virtue and public justice in the general citizenry? Second, does that principle also apply to leaders and those who hold public office? Third, does this hold up from what we know from Scripture?

What is the connection between personal virtue and public justice?

J. Brian Benestad[1], in his chapter in Five Views on Church and Politics, argues that personal virtue is critical for political justice. His argument is focused on the relationship between the church and the political world and so he is primarily concerned with the personal virtue of believers who are engaging the political process.

Benestad’s argument also applies to the general citizenry of a nation. He bases his argument on Augustine, who taught that “the attainment of justice in a political community depends on the presence of justice in the souls of individuals” (186).

Just laws, of course, are critical to justice, but even just laws cannot restrain evil people from doing wrong. Or, to put it as Benestad does: “People with disorder in their souls will not be inclined to give others their due” (186). Disordered souls lead to disordered society. Benestad goes on to explain the interrelationship between personal vice and public injustice by quoting Aquinas:

“But the principle of morals are so interrelated to one another that the failure of one would entail the failure in others. For example, if one were weak on the principle that concupiscence [lust] is not to be followed, which pertains to desire, then sometimes in pursuing concupiscence, he would do injury and violate justice.”

By contrast, a society where virtue is practiced (a “rightly ordered soul”) will still have just laws but would also not have much need of their enforcement so those who practice virtue will naturally practice public justice.

In evangelical circles, this argument is simply taken for granted. It is used by many to argue against more stringent gun laws. The problem, it is said, is in people’s hearts and laws cannot change hearts. Therefore, gun laws will be ineffective. If guns cannot be used, another weapon can be found. There’s a merit to this argument, even though it oversimplifies the problem and downplays the interplay between public justice and personal virtue. Indeed, Benestad also expounds on the way in which just laws both restrain evil and contribute to the virtue of the citizenry. The relationship between laws and virtue is not merely one-directional. A just society should have both just people and, given that we live in a fallen world, just laws, which can restrain evil even when personal virtue is absent.

My main point here is merely to say that there is a close connection between personal virtue and public justice.

Do these principles also apply to elected officials?

Yes.

First, in a Democracy, political leaders are also citizens, also under the rule of law, and therefore also under the principles described by Augustine and Aquinas above.

Second, political leaders are the ones primarily responsible with creating and applying laws. They will have a disproportionate influence on whether those laws are just or unjust and whether those laws will be applied fairly or not.

Third, political leaders are an example – for better or worse – to the general citizenry. Leaders who demonstrate pride, falsehood, petulance, greed, etc. will see those same characteristics mimicked by those they lead.

Does this hold up with what we see in Scripture?

Yes.

First, we see this in the patterns of the kings of Israel. Weak or wicked kings led to weakness and wickedness in Israel and Judah. Good kings were able to lead the people in reform – even if short-lived.

Second, the oft cited example of David as the exception to this is not quite as strong as it may seem. David’s personal transgressions with Bathsheba and Uriah led to disasters for Judah, not just in his lifetime, but for generations to come. When David was at his best he exemplified contrition, justice, and communion with God, but at his worst I don’t think he’s a terribly good example of who we should elect to public office.

Third, this seems to fit with the rest of Scripture including warnings in Proverbs against foolish kings, the example of John the Baptist’s experience with Herod, and the descriptions of rulers and authorities in Revelation who come against the people of God.

Finally, is this a veiled attack on Donald Trump?

I don’t want this to be a sort of passive aggressive attack on our President, implying things, but not just coming out and saying what I think. For clarity and fairness I will be explicit in what I am and am not saying here.

First, most importantly I want us to see the principle, and then apply it fairly, including to those who are “on our team” politically. It applies to President Trump, and to other political leaders, liberal and conservative.

Second, there are maybe three categories of ways in which people respond to President Trump. Based on my Facebook and Twitter feeds some see him as a genuinely virtuous person, a righteous warrior of sorts. They believe that he is unfairly maligned by the media and liberals. While I think that there have been many instances where his political enemies have been unfair to him, in my estimation, he is clearly his own worst enemy. His Twitter feed – that he himself writes­ – is enough to show serious issues of character and “disorder in the soul.” I would challenge those who want to paint Trump as virtuous to spend time listening to what he says and writes: Out of the mouth (or the Twitter feed) we can know what is in someone’s heart.

There are also those who are appalled at what Trump says and does but feel they are painted into a corner because there is a greater threat on the other side. This post isn’t about those who feel this way. There’s another discussion to be had about that, but it’s not this post.

Finally, though, I am concerned about the sizeable group of evangelicals who in 2011 saw a close connection between personal virtue and public justice and then changed their mind in 2016. Based on the poll cited above, this is not a small number. I am concerned that in an effort to “win” politically, we have “lost” some sense of our moral bearing. Indeed, I have seen many evangelicals downplay sin and its effects, and even take up the same brash and vulgar language of President Trump, mimicking both his attitude and speech patterns. Frankly, this causes me to grieve for the state of the American evangelical church. I even feel a certain sense of abandonment and loneliness in this regard, a sense of being left behind, of desertion.

I continue to have hope for the evangelical church in America because I believe that where God’s people are gathered in Jesus’s name, the Spirit is present. That Spirit will continue to sanctify us. We should, of course, be most concerned about our own personal virtue. As God’s people, may we set the example of sanctification and love, of holiness and justice to our neighbors.

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The Wilderness and the “Crisis of decision”

“And so John the Baptist appeared in the wilderness preaching a baptism of repentance for the forgiveness of sins.” Mark 1:4

The gospel’s inclusion of the setting of the Baptist’s ministry in the wilderness is not merely a historical nugget but carries deep meaning in its connection to Israel’s prophetic history. No doubt John the Baptist performed his ministry in the wilderness, at least in part, to remind the Israelites of their past and bring them to a crisis of decision in the present.

The wilderness was a place of God’s provision

After God led Israel out of slavery in Egypt he led them into the wilderness. The wilderness served not only as an obstacle that Israel needed to traverse to get to the Promised Land, but as a place where Israel could learn about God’s special provision in a dangerous and unhospitable land. In the wilderness he provided food and water. He ensured that their garments would not wear out. He gave them physical security through military victories over Egypt and the Amalekites.

After Israel had rebelled against God and were facing Babylonian exile God recalls their wilderness experience: “I remember the devotion of your youth, how as a bride you loved me and followed me through the wilderness, through a land not sown” (Jeremiah 2:2). Then he accuses them of forgetting God’s provision: “They did not ask, ‘Where is the LORD’ who brought us up out of Egypt and led us through the barren wilderness, through a land of ravines, a land of deserts and ravines, a land of drought and utter darkness, a land where no one travels and no one lives” (Jeremiah 2:6).

In the wilderness Israel was like a young child, just birthed through God’s act of deliverance from slavery from Egypt, an event which culminated in the Passover and the crossing of the Red Sea. In the wilderness the Israelites found themselves in a place of childlike dependence upon God’s miraculous provision.

The wilderness was a place of God’s renewal

Yet Israel did not remain in the wilderness. God brought them out of a land of scarcity and into a land of abundance. Moses predicted that there they would grow complacent and prideful and that they would turn away from God. His prediction proved true and God brought judgement on their rebellion in the form of the destruction of their land (so that their once fertile land became an inhospitable and dangerous place like the wilderness) and the ultimate expulsion from the land in exile.

The prophets called on God’s people to remember and return. And, in doing so, they would find that God would be faithful to his promise and restore his people. Here again we see the wilderness come into effect. Isaiah vividly describes how God will bring hope to even the most hopeless situations:

The desert and the parched land will be glad;
    the wilderness will rejoice and blossom.
Like the crocus, it will burst into bloom;
    it will rejoice greatly and shout for joy.
The glory of Lebanon will be given to it,
    the splendor of Carmel and Sharon;
they will see the glory of the Lord,
    the splendor of our God.

Strengthen the feeble hands,
    steady the knees that give way;
say to those with fearful hearts,
    “Be strong, do not fear;
your God will come,
    he will come with vengeance;
with divine retribution
    he will come to save you.”

Then will the eyes of the blind be opened
    and the ears of the deaf unstopped.
Then will the lame leap like a deer,
    and the mute tongue shout for joy.
Water will gush forth in the wilderness
    and streams in the desert. 
(Isaiah 35:1-6)

Later, the voice of one who declares the good news of God’s restoration is a voice in the wilderness. The gospel writers apply this directly to John the Baptist:

A voice of one calling:

“In the wilderness prepare
    the way for the Lord
make straight in the desert
    a highway for our God. (Isaiah 40:3)

Out of the natural danger of the wilderness God brings both creation and recreation. In the first case, God uses the wilderness to form his people. In the second, he transforms the wilderness itself.

The wilderness brings about a crisis of decision

Yet the wilderness is not a place of guaranteed restoration. It is not a pleasant place, and its unpleasantness can either bring reliance or rebellion. Israel rebelled in the wilderness as often as it trusted. They complained that there was no food and water. They built a golden calf when Moses was on Mount Sinai. They rebelled when God instructed them to go into the Promised Land. The wilderness brought Israel to a crisis of decision. They could either trust God, or they could turn away.

The wilderness in John the Baptist’s ministry

When John the Baptist appeared in the wilderness he called people to repent, to turn away from their sin and return to God. His call for a turning of the heart was mirrored by a call to return to the wilderness, the place where God’s relationship with his people began and could begin again.

John called the people to reenact Israel’s birth as a nation. In baptism they reenacted the Red Sea experience. In the wilderness, they reenacted a radical trust in the God who provides. In confession and repentance they forsook their old ways in Egypt.

In doing so John called the people to a crisis of decision. They could either rebel like their ancestors or trust God and find renewal. But John didn’t simply call them to work harder. He pointed them to Jesus. The way that they would express their trust in God would be to trust in the One who He sent, the one more powerful than John.

The wilderness and the start of Jesus’s ministry

Finally, it’s worth it to show how the gospel writers use the wilderness motif in Jesus’s ministry. Jesus himself is baptized, identifying himself with Israel specifically, and with humanity in general. He, too, has a Red Sea experience in which God the Father publicly calls him out as chosen for a purpose. Immediately afterwards he is led into the wilderness where he experiences intense temptation from Satan himself. Here he must face his own crisis of decision. Does he trust God or does he go the way of Israel and humanity and rebel?

His answers are given in Matthew: “Man shall not live by bread alone, but by every word that comes from the mouth of God” (4:4), “Do not put the Lord your God to the test” (4:7), and “Worship the Lord God, and serve him only” (4:10). At the precises place where Israel and humanity was faithless, Jesus proved faithful.

Our wilderness experience?

John the Baptist called people to a crisis of decision and, in reading the gospel story, the evangelists draw us to that same decision. We encounter in Jesus the chance to repent, find renewal, and restart our lives afresh. This isn’t just a call to “try harder”, or “do better.” It’s a call to receive a transformed heart. John baptized with water, an outward sign of new birth. But, Jesus promised a baptism by the Holy Spirit. That transformative power is enough to bring streams in the desert, to make the deaf hear, the blind see, and the lame walk, and to turn the rocky soil of our hearts into a field where life can flourish.

Why is it a sin if it doesn’t hurt anyone?

Why is it a sin if it doesn’t hurt anyone?

I just came across this question on a blog ranting against Christians. But, if I’m honest, I’ve asked this question many times myself, sometimes honestly, sometimes as an attempt to justify myself. The “it” in question could be any number of things which the Bible teaches against, from our perspective, don’t seem to harm anyone. Why does God still call these things “sin”?

First, a quick observation: Even from a secular perspective, the notion that we tend to judge our actions or thoughts as right or wrong based solely on whether they cause harm to someone else is a notion peculiar to our culture. Jonathan Haidt, in The Righteous Mind, shows that the human brain has several different “moral taste buds”, or moral intuitions. One of those has to do with causing harm to others (compassion), but in other cases it’s less obvious (the remainder are fairness, loyalty, authority, sanctity, and liberty). These moral taste buds span cultures, but different cultures have different “preferences” between them. We in the 21st century West place the biggest emphasis on harm to the exclusion of the others. Now, our culture could be right in doing so, but in deciding that we are, we should at least note that our perspective is largely driven by our own cultural bias.

Second, the Christian perspective: Christians view sin, first and foremost, as being against God. This is why David can confess “against you, you only, have I sinned and done what is evil in your sight; so you are right in your verdict and justified when you judge.” (Psalm 51:4) David’s sin, in fact, harmed Bathsheba and Uriah and David’s entire family, but he recognized that sin at its core is rebellion against God. When we sin against others, we always sin against God. But it seems possible to sin against God, without necessarily sinning against others.

Third, our question sometimes comes from a lack of understanding. Sin is fundamentally destructive to God’s creation, even if we can’t see it. Something may not be harmful from our perspective, but here we simply suffer from our limited perception of reality. Here are a few observations on what we might call “private” or “harmless” sins:

(1)    Sin is self-degrading: Even if a sin caused no measurable harm to someone else it still causes harm to the one who sins. In turning away from God, we turn away from the one who can heal our souls. Since we as humans made in God’s image are the most precious thing in God’s creation, it is a sin to do damage to our souls.

(2)    The private self is intrinsically tied with the social self. We inevitably act and speak out of our nature. “Every good tree bears good fruit, but a bad tree bears bad fruit.” (Matthew 7:17) The social consequences of a sin aren’t always obvious, but if given the chance, they always come.

(3)    Sin grows: James describes it well when he says, “after desire has conceived, it gives birth to sin; and sin, when it is full-grown, gives birth to death.” (James 1:15) We sometimes think that we have the power over the small sins, that we have control. This is a deception. Sin, unchecked, gains power over the one who indulges it.

Fourth, thank goodness for grace. God has the power to reverse sins’ trajectory, to heal what is broken and to restore whatever was taken away. God gave us the law to limit the negative impact of sin, but it is ultimately the Spirit of God that brings life, and it is the Spirit of God, through Jesus, that we all need the most.

What does it mean to “Pray in the Spirit”?

“And pray in the Spirit on all occasions with all kinds of prayers and requests. With this in mind, be alert and always keep on praying for all the Lord’s people.” Ephesians 6:18

What does Paul mean when he says that we should pray “in the Spirit”?

First, we should not be surprised to see prayer connected with the work of the Spirit. The Spirit makes spiritual conversation possible and effective. The Spirit empowered the prophets to speak God’s words. He speaks through the Bible. He testifies to us about Jesus’ identity as God’s Son (John 15:26). The Spirit empowered the disciples to preach the gospel at Pentecost. So, if prayer is conversation with God, then it makes sense for the Holy Spirit to be involved.

Yet, it’s still unclear what it means to pray in the Spirit. After all, God speaks to us through the Spirit, but if we think of prayer primarily as us speaking to God (which Paul seems to do in the rest of the context of Eph 6:18) then what role does the Spirit play?

The most extensive teaching on the connection between prayer and the Spirit is found in Romans 8:26-27.

26 In the same way, the Spirit helps us in our weakness. We do not know what we ought to pray for, but the Spirit himself intercedes for us through wordless groans.27 And he who searches our hearts knows the mind of the Spirit, because the Spirit intercedes for God’s people in accordance with the will of God.

The entire chapter of Romans 8 is about the work of the Spirit. We have been set free because of the “law of the Spirit” (8:1). Those who are set free live, not according to the flesh, but according to the Spirit (8:4). They “have their minds set on what the Spirit desires” (8:5). They are therefore “in the realm of the Spirit” and the Spirit lives in them, just as they belong to Christ (8:9).

This inner spiritual reality creates in us an obligation, to “put to death the misdeeds of the body” (8:12).

The Spirit also brings about our adoption as children of God (8:14-15). The Spirit communicates this reality directly to our own spirit (8:16) so that by the Spirit we can come to God as our “Abba, Father” (8:15).

This glorious reality – our freedom, our adoption, our inner transformation – is set aside present suffering, and not only our own suffering, but the groaning of all of creation. Yet, since we know that we are God’s children, and therefore heirs of the promised glory, then we can continue to live with hope (8:18-25).

This is the context for the “weakness” Paul refers to in 8:26. In the midst of our present suffering, we do not even know what to pray for. Along with the rest of creation (8:22), we can only groan inwardly. Things aren’t right, and we’re stuck in the tension between suffering and hope. It’s here the Spirit steps in and enables our communication with God. We may not know what to say, but the Spirit is able to search our hearts and minds and intercede on our behalf (8:26-27).

This context of struggle and suffering in Romans 8 is not too far from the context of Ephesians 6. In Ephesians 6:10-17 Paul instructs his readers to prepare for spiritual battle in advance of a “day of evil” by putting on God’s armor. In Ephesians 6:19-20 he specifically asks the readers to pray for him in his own spiritual battle, that he will remain fearless even though he is in chains for the gospel.

And, when he asks them to pray, he asks them to pray “in the Spirit.” In light of Romans 8, what does he mean?

1.       Pray with a recognition of the indwelling Spirit. Seeing that the personal presence of God is with you as you pray should change your outlook, from simply reciting a list of requests to communing with the living God.

2.       Pray that the Spirit will search your heart and mind. You may not know what to pray. Ask God to bring the right things to mind and, when you can’t even do that, ask the Spirit to intercede on your behalf.

3.       Pray, confessing your sins and asking for a renewed Spirit. By the Spirit we put to death our sin and we do that through confession. One evidence of praying in the Spirit, then, is a recognition and hatred of our sin.

4.       Pray to your Abba. Through the Spirit we are adopted as God’s children. We approach our Abba with the same confidence and trust a young child approaches a good and generous parent.

5.       Pray with hope. Are you in a time of present suffering? Are you in the midst of a spiritual battle? The Spirit helps you know that your suffering is incomparable to your future glory, that your temporary defeat will be swallowed up in Christ’s ultimate victory.

Vision Sunday

Vision Sunday

This post is a summary of Sunday’s message at Wyoming Park Bible Fellowship, given as we look forward to our next year of ministry.

In today’s parlance, when we speak of a “vision”, especially of an organization, we mean, specifically, a vision for the future. In this post, however, I’m not only concerned with imagining our future, but with understanding our past and present as well. Our task as a church depends first and foremost on what God has done for in the past and what he will do for us in the future. Between these two poles – our justification already won through the gospel and our glorification promised by the gospel – lies our work in the present, our response to the gospel, Christ working in us.

In the Old Testament God often encouraged Israel by reminding them of His past deeds, His future promise, and His present commands. He rescued Israel from slavery in Egypt. He promised to bring them into the Promised Land. Their present response to His past work and their future hope? Be strong and courageous and obey His word.

In the New Testament we see something similar. God has saved us through Jesus’ death and resurrection (past). He promises us eternal life with Him (future) – and in the shorter term that he will transform us more into the people he desires us to be. Our proper response? Be strong and courageous and obey His word.

The first two elements of this formula – past and future – are the gospel, that Jesus died for our sins, that He rose again, and that He will return to make all things new. The third – the present – is our response to the gospel.

The call to our church is to receive the gospel and respond to the gospel.

Receive

The gospel is first something which we must receive.

We were once far from God, but we have been “brought near by the blood of Christ” (Eph 2:13). His sacrificial death on the cross destroyed the wall of hostility built up by our sin (Eph 2:14-15). In demolishing that wall he has formed those who believed into one body, the church, and has reconciled that one body to Himself (Eph 2:15-16). We as a church stand now as a people who have access to the Creator and Preserver of the universe, the Father, through the Spirit (Eph 2:18).

We receive this gospel through faith. We do not bring ourselves near. We do not reconcile ourselves to God. We do not barge into his presence. We are brought in by God Himself. We are saved by grace.

Respond

Having received this gospel, we respond.

This response is what it means to be a follower – a disciple – of Jesus. To the extent that our response as a church – what we value, how we think, what we do – is faithful to God, we will be “successful” as a church. By “successful” we mean “found faithful in his sight.” So what is a faithful response to the gospel?

This list is not definitive, but we believe it encompasses the major aspects of discipleship: we respond in worship, in fellowship, in growing knowledge (cognitive and applied) of His Word, and in mission.

Worship: Like the leper who returned to Jesus after he had been healed to bow down and worship him, we, having been healed from a disease worse than leprosy, lay down our lives to him. Worship is a whole life posture. But it is experienced and given in the act of praise – singing and declaring out loud the goodness of God. This is why we gather on Sunday mornings not, first of all, for our benefit, but to declare the praises of Him who saved us.

Fellowship: There is a spiritual unity within the body of Christ that exists whether we participate in it our not. Yet Paul sees this spiritual unity as calling us to a practical unity. The body is built up only insofar as “each part does its work.” Achieving spiritual maturity is something we do alongside our brothers and sisters in Christ. To respond to the gospel is to love the family of believers. To love the family of believers is to know and respond to their needs – physical, spiritual, emotional.

Knowing God’s Word: We need more than mere knowledge. Knowledge without love puffs up. It gives us a dangerous self-confidence. But we do need to be transformed by the renewing of our mind and that renewing of the mind comes through consistent meditation on the Word of God. By the Spirit of God, the word planted in us grows and bears fruit. That fruit is virtue informed by the likeness of Christ: his love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness, and self-control.

Mission: Our mission is to make disciples and we do that by “letting our light shine” before the world in the hopes that the world will see it and glorify God. In the context of Jesus’ teaching that light is our good deeds; our acts of service and love. But, when Jesus sent out his disciples he sent them out not only with good deeds, but with a message: “Repent, for the kingdom of God is at hand.” We bear that same mission – acts of love combined with the proclamation of God’s love. His kingdom is near and accessible by faith through the works of Jesus.

If we do these things well, we will be well on our way toward a faithful response to the gospel:

If in our worship we become continually aware of the presence of God, if in our fellowship we encourage and build each other up,
if in our application of the Word we grow into the image of Christ, if in our works of service we demonstrate Christ’s love to our neighbors, then we cannot help but become the light of the world and fulfill our purpose as a church

Having these broad principles in mind, how do we, Wyoming Park Bible Fellowship, properly respond to the gospel? How do we do these things at 2260 Porter St in the year 2018?

Below are a few specific goals for the next year:

Worship: Increase worship attendance. We could do this with a poor motive, to make ourselves look great, but it is nevertheless a good end to seek. Why? Because God is worthy of our worship. This increased attendance can come from two sources: (1) those who attend already, attend more regularly or (2) new attenders. Studies have shown that frequency of church attendance has dropped steadily in recent years and this is impacting church attendance numbers. This is a problem because other studies have shown that frequency of church attendance correlates to other measures of spiritual maturity.

What you can do: Come. Invite friends and family. Help make Sunday morning awesome, especially for newcomers.

Fellowship: Potlucks. You know what’s hard for new people to join? Small groups. Small groups are key to spiritual development, but they’re also awkward for a lot of people. It turns out that mid-sized groups can be a lot more conducive to socialization. Hence: potlucks. On the first Sunday of each month we’ll be holding potlucks after church along with BFG classes specifically for new attenders. The idea is to remove the awkwardness of the small groups for new people, while still providing them to take a “next step” in getting to know our church. (And eventual incorporation into Bible Fellowship Groups is still the ultimate goal). And, if there are no visitors, we still get the bonus of good food and fellowship around the table.

What you can do: Bring delicious food. Sit with someone new. Invite friends, specifically on the first week of the month.

Growing in knowledge: Helping people in individual and coordinated studies. One of the key “inputs” for spiritual growth is regular Bible reading. Yet, this remains one of those things which people struggle with the most. Our goal is to find ways to encourage and equip people to grow in that discipline.

What you can do: Recommend devotional material or practices that you find helpful.

Mission: Evaluate and (maybe) launch Safe Families for Children at WPBF. Safe Families for Children is a para-church ministry associated with Bethany Christian Services that places children in homes when there is an urgent and temporary family need. It is designed to head off the need for foster care, which is often extremely disruptive to children. We are evaluating to what extent we as a church should be involved. The extent we’re involved depends a lot on whether God is calling individuals and families in our church to participate – and whether those called are willing to respond.

What you can do: Pray about possible participation in Safe Families for Children. Let leaders know if you’re interested in helping out in some way.

Hope in the Lord

Our aim is to be faithful to God. We don’t know the end result of that faithfulness. The fruit of our labors, and the timing of that fruit, is up to God. Still, we can and should pray to see the fruit of the gospel and, even, to dream about what it might look like.

Here is what I am envisioning: Sunday morning we have a sanctuary filled with people, from every age group, from all kinds of backgrounds, some new believers, some seasoned, all worshipping God in Spirit and in truth. Our songs bring glory to God and our sermons faithfully expound the word of God and equip his people for life throughout the week.

During our BFG hour small – but expanding – groups encourage one another, pray for one another, and actively invite new people in. On potluck Sundays new attenders learn about church and stay to enjoy food and fellowship.

Throughout the week individuals put into practice the fruit of the Spirit, encouraged by regular time in the word and prayer. They function as the salt of the earth in their homes, in their leisure time, in their studies, and in their jobs. They are filled with peace and joy and love. In the times when they are alone, they act with integrity. All consider ways they can serve others, though each will have their own way of doing this. As a church, we have a team of people practicing true religion – caring for children in need – either through Safe Families, Attic After School, or by simply and organically caring for the needs we become aware of around us.

These acts of service and this palpable love shown by our congregation – combined with a willingness to share the good news of the gospel – invites others to receive and respond to the gospel, then to join us at the table, then to grow in maturity, and then to reach out in love.

Sermon Summary: Stand

Note: As part of my sermon  preparation, I’m going to be condensing the main points of the sermon into a 500 or less word blog post. This is my first attempt.

Text: Ephesians 6:10-13

“Put on the full armor of God.”

In the Christian life we find security and rest. God has saved us by grace through faith apart from works. We rest in that reality. But the Christian life is also a battle. We fight, not for the grace of God, but from the grace of God. Jesus has already won the war, but as we wait for his return we must fight individual skirmishes. How do we win them?

In their fight believers are prone to three errors: We ignore the battle and grow complacent. We misidentify the enemy. We fight out of our own strength. If we’re going to win, we must recognize the battle, identify the enemy and his tactics, and fight from God’s strength.

Let’s first examine the battle. Our enemy is “not against flesh and blood.” Our enemy is the devil and evil spiritual forces. The Bible has plenty of examples of human enemies. Paul himself could have pointed to the Romans, Jewish religious leaders, pagan cult leaders, and even false teachers within the church. Yet, we must recognize the spiritual enemy behind the human enemy.

Jesus calls us to love our human enemies and pray for those who persecute us. Our battle is not, ultimately, against them, but against the spiritual powers standing behind their actions. The devil himself wants us to direct our hatred against other humans. In doing so, we step off the path on which Jesus leads us.

How does the enemy attack? God calls us to stand against his “schemes” and to raise our shield of faith against his “fiery arrows”. His primary weapon is deception. He lies. His influence can lead to persecution and the temptation to deny the faith, or pressure which by which he leads us to compromise our faith. He brings fear and discouragement to stop us from acting out of faith. And finally, his most common attack, is to tempt us into sin.

Each of these situations presents us with a battle. We can decide to follow God or give in to the devil’s schemes. God calls us to stand, to be firm and undefeated, to have a godly resolve, to resist, and to prevail. We prevail when we hold true to the faith in the face of persecution or pressure, when we persevere through fear and discouragement, and when we resist temptation by submitting to God.

We put ourselves in a position to win when we first surrender ourselves to God. We gain life by losing it. We’re strong when we recognize our own weakness and trust only in God for our strength. “Submit yourselves, resist the devil and he will flee from you.”

Is God’s judgment passive or active?

One of the questions that plagued me in my early Christian life was whether God’s acts of judgment were just. I was thinking particularly of Israel’s conquest of Canaan and, of course, hell. If I’m honest, I’ll admit that these still bother me, though to a different degree and in a different way.

One common way that apologists handle the question of God’s just judgment is by emphasizing its passive nature. That is, they emphasize that in God’s judgments He is simply giving us over to our own desires. For example, C.S. Lewis says the following:

“There are only two kinds of people – those who say, “Thy will be done” to God or those to whom God in the end says, “Thy will be done.” All that are in Hell choose it. Without that self-choice it wouldn’t be Hell. No soul that seriously and constantly desires joy will ever miss it.”

Is the passive description of God’s judgment biblical?

This idea of God’s passive judgment certainly seems to get God off the hook. He doesn’t so much “send” people to hell as He lets them go there. It’s hard to find fault with such a God. The question, then, is whether this conception of his judgment is biblical.

Let’s begin with Proverbs 26:27 as an example: “Whoever digs a pit will fall into it; if someone rolls a stone, it will roll back on them.” The person is digging a pit as an act of evil. They are setting a snare; a trap designed to bring harm. The irony is that the very way in which they intend to do harm comes back to harm them. God’s judgment here – this is not mere Karma – is indirect. We see something similar in Proverbs 29:6: “evildoers are snared by their own sin.”

Next, we can turn to Romans. In chapter 1 Paul declares “The wrath of God is being revealed from heaven against all the godlessness and wickedness of the people, who suppress the truth by their wickedness” (1:18). But part of this wrath that is being displayed is God simply allowing sin to progress to its natural end: “Therefore, God gave them over in their sinful desires of their hearts to sexual impurity for the degrading of their bodies with one another” (1:24). And then again, “God gave them over to shameful lusts” (1:25). In other words, God’s judgment in this case is primarily seen as him allowing sin to take its natural course – rejection of God which leads to disobedience which leads to a more corrupt self, and ultimately to death.

Aside from proof texts, this idea that judgment is God’s “giving over” of people to their rejection of him matches a systematic way of looking at the Bible: God is the source of life. Sin separates us from God. Therefore, sin separates us from the Source of life. The natural course of sin is death. Extrapolate that out eternally, and you have Hell: Eternal death as eternal separation from God.

I think, then, that this view of God’s judgment is a helpful way of looking at the “natural” consequences of sin. Sin, by its nature, is destructive. And, for the person who holds onto it, it is eternally­ self-destructive.

But, I think this view of judgment is also incomplete.

God’s active judgment

God’s judgment is also described in more active terms. God is seen not only as giving people or nations over to their rebellion, but as punishing those people and nations.

God judged Adam and Eve through the curse. He sent the flood. He sent plagues on Egypt. He directed Israel to take over the land of Canaan. He summoned the Babylonians and Assyrians as agents of his judgment against Israel. He is often described as a warrior, fighting against the wicked and the oppressors. These images cannot be viewed simply through the lens of “giving over.” I’m not sure fire coming down from heaven – a common description of God’s judgment (i.e., 2 Kings 1:14) is ever a “natural” result of sin.

The same thing is true when it comes to the words of judgment in the New Testament. A number of Jesus’ parables end in a description of judgment. Matthew 25:28-30 is illustrative: The master replies, “take the bag of gold from him and give it to the one who has ten bags… And throw that worthless servant outside, into the darkness, where there will be weeping and gnashing of teeth.” Or Jude says, referring to God’s active judgment against Sodom and Gomorrah as an example, “They serve as an example of those who suffer the punishment of eternal fire” (Jude 7).

God’s judgment as active punishment against wrongdoers also matches a systematic way of reading the Bible: God is holy and just. Our sin is an offense to his holiness and justice. God is obligated by his justice to punish wrongdoing. Extrapolate this out eternally and you have hell.

So which way of looking at God’s judgment is correct? Should we view it as passive or active? Well, I don’t think the two are mutually exclusive. The Bible supports both. They are two sides to the same coin. The one shows us the self-destructive nature, the insanity, of sin. The other shows us that sin is worthy of just punishment.

So, what about the justice of God’s judgment?

The idea of God’s judgment as a “giving over” of humanity to its rebellion would answer my objection, but only if it were a comprehensive picture of God’s judgment. It’s not. The Christian still needs an answer for God’s active judgment.

It’s hard to find fault with God’s justice in general. It’s clear that justice includes punishment for wrongdoing. But what makes God’s judgment seem unfair to so many is that it doesn’t seem to be proportional to the crime. How could anybody really deserve the sort of torments described by Jesus?

I think we get hung up on this for two reasons. We downplay the holiness of God and we downplay the seriousness of sin. We forget that God is infinitely holy – so a sin against Him is of infinite offense – and we think of sin as a small matter – as a weakness or a mistake – when in reality it is a conscious rebellion against the One who gives us life and breath. I think that if I had a clearer understanding of those realities, I would be less scandalized by God’s judgment.

Trusting in the goodness and love of God

As I wrestled with these doctrines I continued to ask God for wisdom. He led me to some of the answers above, but the intellectual answers could only get me so far. I came to a place where I could understand it, but I was yet to the place where I could accept it. For that I needed to lean on God.

I came to the following conclusion: I do not understand (at a deeper level) the judgment of God. But I do understand (at the level of trust) that God is good and loving. He will not, in the end, do anything that violates perfect justice. I can trust Him that He will act justly, even if I cannot fully comprehend that justice. He is good and loving, He is patient and kind, He is gracious and merciful. I know that through the cross. And, because I can know those things through the cross, I can also trust that He will continue to act with justice, love, and mercy.