Category: Mark’s Blog

Our Time (part 2)

In part one of “Our Time,” I shared with you some information concerning the Reformation theologian David Wells and his multivolume critique of American Evangelicalism. I also shared some quotations from Wells’ book No Place for Truth, Or, Whatever Happened to Evangelical Theology? (Eerdmans, 1993). The following excerpts are also from No Place for Truth and page numbers are in parenthesis.

That Our Time is characterized by (and has become a distinct period because of) mass wars, mass consumption, mass education, and mass knowledge is hardly debatable. The question is what all of this means (76).

And discrimination against minorities is hardly uniquely American; it is known in probably every other country in the world. What is new is that the vision of forging a center strong enough to support this cultural diversity is now being challenged. Only time will tell whether the American character, with its unique blend of individualism and conformity, will be able to hold, whether it will be able to hold within itself these new social impulses with their strident ethnicity (140).

In a secularized age, with its low cognitive ceilings and lost moorings, we have turned in on ourselves. We now seek our access to reality only through the self, having decided that neither God nor his revelation is any longer pertinent. This is to say that when we emptied our world of God and of the absolutes that had directed human life, we did not thereby open up large holes in the architecture of our inner life; rather, we rearranged things to accommodate for these losses. We compensated for all we lost by turning within ourselves (154).

The quest for the self is now undoing both private and public life, and this undoing is evident even in our schools, one of the purposes of which has always been to induct children into this external culture. Our schools now decline to educate students regarding matters of right and wrong, preferring instead to preserve and explore human relations. As Gerald Grant has observed, a teacher is less likely to insist that cheating is wrong than to ask why a cheater cheats. Moral questions thus disappear into psychological speculation, and, in the process, consideration of one’s responsibility to others gives way to concern for one’s responsibility to oneself. Returning to the example of the cheater, the assumption seems to be that the problem can be resolved if the individual is detached from responsibility to the community—but that is precisely the opposite of what the moral wisdom of the West has known to be true for centuries. What has happened, of course, is that all the external demands have collapsed, leaving only the self, and then, in a surprising and painful turn of events, the self has proceeded to disintegrate. Perhaps, writes Richard Weaver, “the most painful experience of modern consciousness is the loss of center; yet, this is the inevitable result of centuries of insistence that society yield its form” (168).

What do you think? More to come.

Our Time (part 1)

One theologian that has influenced my thinking is David Wells. Wells resides solidly in the Reformation stream of thinking, so there some (many) things that I do not agree with him about. Having noted that, I have learned much from Wells. His writings were what clued me into the importance of holiness in the Bible (which convicted me enough to write a doctrinal dissertation concerning holiness). Beginning in 1993, Wells wrote a series of six books critiquing American Evangelicalism. The first book that he wrote, No Place for Truth, Or, Whatever Happened to Evangelical Theology? (Eerdmans, 1993), takes the reader on a journey through the cultural changes in this country, diagnosing the problems biblical faith deals with.

The following excerpts are from No Place for Truth, page numbers are in parenthesis. Even though they are almost thirty years old, I think they are timely.

That “Our Time” is characterized by (and has become a distinct period because of) mass wars, mass consumption, mass education, and mass knowledge is hardly debatable. The question is what all of this means (76).

In the past, Western society was held together by three sinews: tradition, authority, and power. To change the image, these were the garments that covered Western society, and without them it has become indecent. Of these three, tradition might have been the first to go, although it went hand in hand with authority. Tradition is the process whereby one generation inducts its successor into its accumulated wisdom, lore, and values. The family once served as the chief conduit for this transmission, but the family is now collapsing, not merely because of divorce but as a result of affluence and the innovations of a technological age. . . . So it is that in the new civilization that is emerging, children are lifted away from the older values like anchorless boats on a rising tide (84).

Tradition and authority have been severed; only power remains. It is power alone that must direct our corporate life, power severed from a moral order that might contain and correct it and from the values of the past that might inform it. In a strange testimony to this inner vacuum, the profession of law has risen to such prominence in America that 70 percent of all the lawyers in the world practice here. In the absence of moral obligation and a sense of what is right, disputes are extraordinarily difficult to resolve, and so the set of rules that has emerged under the law must take on duties that were once shouldered by a variety of other institutions—the family, the schools, the church. Now we are left with only the lawyers. It is a terrible thing, Solzhenitsyn said, to live in a society (such as that in the former Soviet Union) where there is no law; it is also a terrible thing to live in a society (such as that in America) where there are only lawyers (85).

What do you think? More to come.

A DEFINITION OF GRACE

When a person receives a fair day’s pay for his or her time, that is a “wage.”

When a person competes with an opponent and receives a trophy for his or her performance, that is a “prize.”

When a person receives appropriate recognition for his or her long service or high achievements, that is an “award.”

But when a person is not capable of earning a wage, can win no prize, and deserves no award (yet receives such a gift anyway), that is a good picture of God’s unmerited favor.

The inspired apostle Paul wrote: But God, being rich in mercy, because of the great love with which he loved us, even when we were dead in our trespasses, made us alive together with Christ by grace you have been saved and raised us up with him and seated us with him in the heavenly places in Christ Jesus so that in the coming ages he might show the immeasurable riches of his grace in kindness toward us in Christ Jesus. For by grace you have been saved through faith. And this is not your own doing; it is the gift of God, not a result of works, so that no one may boast. For we are his workmanship, created in Christ Jesus for good works, which God prepared beforehand, that we should walk in them (Ephesians 2:4-10).

God’s grace is something we do not deserve (merit) and we do not win by performance (achievement). Do we ever fall into Satan’s trap and start thinking that I am deserving of God’s grace but that poor slob over there is not? No one deserves God’s grace!  Receiving God’s grace is given to change us and transform us. The recipients of God’s grace are not left in the shabby old condition that they were found in. The grace of God is not simply a saving agent, but it is also an empowering agent.  One of my very favorite Bible verses is 1 Corinthians 15:10, “But by the grace of God I am what I am, and His grace toward me did not prove vain; but I labored even more than all of them, yet not I, but the grace of God with me.” The grace of God did not leave Paul alone. If we are not changed by God’s grace, then God’s grace “proves vain.”

What is the grace of God doing in your life?

TRIVIALIZING GOD

According to Donald McCullough, the trivialization of God may be the most significant sin people (including the church) are committing at this stage of history.  People tend to reduce the utterly awesome God of the Bible to manageable proportions so that we can be comfortable with God. The result is a trivial God who is insignificant and irrelevant. A trivial God is a God who is of little importance. A trivial God is a God who is ordinary and commonplace. A trivial God is not the God of the Bible. A trivial God leaves us with souls as parched as a desert.

We need to abandon the comfortable god of our creation and embrace the God of the Bible. Let’s get rid of that crinkled, worn-out picture of God. God is far more powerful, exciting, loving, and unfathomable than any image of God we can invent.  When the prophet Isaiah encountered God, he saw God as king and heard about the holiness of God (Isa. 6:1-5). The awesome holiness of God ought to produce a sense of terrifying fascination. His glory should attract us like a magnet pulls iron filings to it. The true God, as revealed in the Bible, is so majestic that we might be tempted to stay away from drawing close to Him. The inspired author of Hebrews understood who the God of heaven is and wrote, “Therefore, since we receive a kingdom which cannot be shaken, let us show gratitude, by which we may offer to God an acceptable service with reverence and awe; for our God is a consuming fire” (Hebrews 12:28-29). The same author also encouraged his readers that it is possible to draw close to the awesome God because of the sacrifice of Jesus (Heb. 2:14-18; 4:14-16; 7:25).

People are to do more than draw near to God. God desires that people reflect His character. Humanity is created in the image of God (Gen. 1:26). Then calamity took place with the result that “the image of God was distorted, disgraced, warped, bent, but not totally effaced or erased. Salvation history could be described as the story of the attempt to restore human beings so that they once again properly reflect the image of God” (Ben Witherington). The goal of God is for the human heart to be reshaped into a holy heart that mirrors the heart of God. This goal of a holy heart was answered by Jesus and is to be answered by those who follow Jesus. Honoring God is another way of describing the answer to the holy heart cry of God. Our society has moved from being a society of honor to a culture of law, so honoring God does not come easily for us.

Stretching Your Soul

A man went to a blacksmith shop one morning to pick up a horseshoe that had been mended.  When he started to pay for the work, he was told there would be no charge for the job.  Insistently, he tried to force the money into the blacksmith’s hand.  The blacksmith’s reply is worth remembering.  Again refusing payment, he said, Ed, can’t you let a man do something now and then – just to stretch his soul?  What a provocative thought!  Does a man need to stretch his soul?  But how is it done?

Communion with God stretches the soul. 

Paul spoke of some whose souls were diseased and shriveled because their worship was defective (1 Cor. 11:30).   A proper sense of reverence and awe in the presence of God expands our spiritual perception. Large souls are developed through long hours of prayer, praise, worship, and devotion.  Our souls need to thirst for God (Ps. 42:1-2; Matt. 5:6).

Bible Study stretches the soul.

The study of the Bible is a broadening experience. We need to be like those Bereans who searched the Scriptures daily (Acts 17:11) and the Psalmist who treasured God’s word in his heart and meditated upon God’s word (read Psalm 119, yes all of it!).

Forgiveness stretches the soul.

Spiritual health is conditioned upon our willingness to forgive. Jesus said, “pardon and you will be pardoned” (Luke 6:37), and Paul wrote,forgiving each other, whoever has a complaint against anyone; just as the Lord forgave you, so also should you” (Col. 3:13).  Resentment, hatred, and grudge-bearing are constricting bands that pinch and squeeze the soul. The miniaturization of the soul takes place when one refuses to forgive.

Service stretches the soul.

Service is the crux of Christianity. Jesus came not to be served but to serve (Matt. 20:28).  Jesus told his disciples that “whoever will be chief among you, let him be your servant” (Matt. 20:27). The extent of our service is the measure of our soul.

May we strain to enlarge our souls to the maximum capacity so that we may be stretched to the dimensions of God!

THE INFLUENCE OF GODLY WOMEN

Never underestimate the influence of godly women!

Godly women influence people toward God in relationships. Name the relationship that has a godly woman involved in it, and that relationship is being moved toward that which is good and right. It could be a marital relationship. It could be a parent-child relationship. It could be co-workers, friends, neighbors, etc. Think of the godly women that influenced your life, are you not thankful for their influence? We would not be the same without them! There is power here. Not hierarchical, delegated authority type of power. It is the grander power of influence through caring, protecting, nurturing, and loving.

Godly women influence people in the demonstration of godliness. The kindness and gentleness of godly women change us. Godly women demonstrate a desire for God and His word, which helps to create that same desire in the rest of us. When we have received the loving discipline of godly women, we were made better. When we witness the pursuit of godly priorities by godly women (even when it is difficult), a lesson is taught to all of us.

The influence of godly women extends outward. Jesus was financially supported by godly women (Luke 8:2-3). Paul was greatly blessed and encouraged by women. There was the unselfish Priscilla (Acts 18:2) and Lois and Eunice, the grandmother and mother of Timothy (2 Tim. 1:5). Rufus’ mother was like a mother to Paul (Rom. 16:13). There was Lydia (Acts 16:14-15), Pheobe (Rom. 16:1), and so many others whose love and sincere service Paul experienced. When women reach out and encourage, mentor, and care for others around them, their influence for good is multiplied.

The influence of godly women models for us the proper way to handle trials and suffering in life. They put God and others above themselves and provide compelling examples for us. Women are smart, talented, and capable. They are CEOs, doctors, lawyers, judges, politicians, statespersons, and teachers. But the most potent influence of godly women is found in loving relationships (not accomplishments and positions).  Praise be to God for His wisdom in the creation of woman and the significant influence of women who have a heart for God and powerfully influence the rest of us for good.

Seeking God’s Presence

God is a rewarder of those who seek Him (Hebrews 11:6). God desires to support those who are seeking Him actively; therefore, “the “eyes of the LORD” scourer the earth for people whose hearts are wholly devoted to Him (2 Chronicles 16:9). When God’s “eyes” look at you and me, does He find someone to “strongly support”? Does God “see” someone who yearns for the presence of God?

Psalm 27 is labeled as a psalm of David. In the psalm, David states that there is “one thing” that he seeks (Psalm 27:4). David hungered for the presence of God (Psalm 27:4).  David was single-minded in his pursuit of God’s presence. David that he worships because he finds God there. Worship is not about entertainment, what one can get out of it, having better families, about being a better person, or even what God can do for us. Many of those items are by-products of being a true worshipper of God, but none of them form the primary reason for worship. One is to worship because he or she is seeking God’s presence.

The “greatest command” of loving God with all of heart, soul, and mind (Matthew 22:36-38) is about pursuing God. Seeking God’s presence is not just one among many things that one does. Seeking God’s presence is not another item to check off of the “things to do today list.” Genuinely seeking God’s presence is a passion. It burns in the heart. People who seek God’s presence find the time to seek Him. They fill up their spare moments with God. People who seek God’s presence dig deep into God’s revelation (the Bible). Seeking God means being taught and conformed to God’s ways (Psalm 27:11).

Being in God’s presence now is a foretaste of eternity. The faith of those who seek God’s presence does not get “bent out of shape” when things go wrong. No, when life is not going so well, they just seek God more earnestly (Psalm 27:5-13). In the day of trouble, God’s seekers wait and take courage (Psalm 27:14).

Do you seek God’s presence? Is God’s presence a passion in your life, or is it a component of your life? Let us be like the psalmist and single-mindedly determine to seek the beauty of the Lord’s presence (Psalm 27:4).

TOO MANY OPINIONS AND NOT ENOUGH TRUTH

The title is a shameless adaptation of a line from the old Guess Who song “Undun.” The line from the song is “too many churches and not enough truth.” That line was correct in the late 1960s, and it is still true today. Forty years ago, Micheal Weed wrote, “ Christian theology is reflection on God and the implications of Christian faith for life” and “ to varying degrees and in different fashions it is the task of all Christians called to love God with their whole being (Restoration Quarterly, 23, 1980, 18). It is those “varying degrees and different fashions” that result in too many opinions and not enough truth.

It is not only the world of theology that experiences “too many opinions and not enough truth.” Have you noticed that everyone seems to be experts in scientific study and health care? There are “experts” saying and writing all sorts of things about COVID 19. People (including myself) then filter the information we gather and promote the one we have concluded is right. Who you trust to inform you about the current situation probably reveals more about you than it does the truth. I know people who claimed that a particular source was the reliable one a month ago, only to change who the reliable source now is (because the old “reliable source” no longer fits the narrative that is believed).

I am not a scientist or the son of a scientist, but I am confident that we do not have enough data to be totally accurate about what is going on. There has not been enough testing, reporting of data seems to be unreliable (there are numerous claims of the overreporting and underreporting of COVID cases), the virus mutates, and we are always behind it, and the list could go on.

I am a better student of ancient history than modern history, but I wish everyone would take some time to read up on the Spanish flu before we move too quickly to lifting constraints. Just because this is the first time in our lives that something like this is happening does not mean that something similar has not occurred before our lifetime. I just read an article by a “scientist” who claims that physical distancing does not work, and we do have enough data to show that it does. He seems to be painfully unaware that we have historical data from other pandemics that it does work. There is a saying that “those who do not know history are doomed to repeat it.”

Another old saying is, “you do not know what you do not know.” This saying is so true for this current situation, for religion, and is one of the main reasons for “too many opinions and not enough truth.”

Neil de Grasse Tyson stated that it is often the case that people “have enough information on a subject to think you are right but not enough information to know that you are wrong.” That is a spot-on comment concerning “everyone is a health care expert,” “everyone is an economic expert,” “everyone is a scientist,” and “everyone is a theologian.” Too many opinions and not enough truth is the truth. This is my true opinion.

Remember the words of the sage,The one who states his case first seems right, until the other comes and examines him” (Proverbs 18:17).

LIFE APART CREATES A YEARNING FOR LIFE TOGETHER

How are we to think biblically about our present physical isolation? (I prefer “physical distancing” to “social distancing”).  How might our time apart sharpen our understanding of the church?

Our physical isolation should cause us to think anew about the church. This isolation, due to the pandemic, maybe a unique situation in our lifetimes; it is not the first time Christians have been inhibited from gathering together. Historically, these times apart have proven fertile ground for theological reflection on the nature of the Christian community, fellowship, and what it means to be together. The Roman poet Sextus is credited with the earliest version of the phrase “absence makes the heart grow fonder.”

While we are blessed to be able to connect in so many ways through technology, that distance can produce a greater yearning to be together. Within the last few weeks, one of my sons called me. Something had happened, and he needed to talk to me. I am thankful that we could speak on the telephone, but I yearned to be with him.

It is a privilege for believers to live among other Christians. Dietrich Bonhoeffer emphasized the goodness and the gift of corporeal (physical) presence in his book Life Together. God created human beings with bodies. The Word became incarnate in a human body and was raised in a glorified body. Dwelling together in those bodies is a great privilege as Bonhoeffer wrote, “The physical presence of other Christians is a source of incomparable joy and strength to the believer.”

Christ’s church remains His church, whether it be gathered or scattered. It is a community already realized by the work of Christ and the Spirit. It is a divine and eschatological reality, created by God, and it remains so.

Even in our isolation, we live as members of a divine reality, a community made real by God through Christ and by the Spirit. Yet as we yearn for physical presence, we are grateful that we have several ways of being connected and that we have not lost the divine reality that makes the church the church.

Our physical distance from each other is an occasion for critical reflection. Do we miss the Christian community or something else? Some are concerned that people will not return once the physical distancing restrictions are lifted. My conviction is that those who have a heart for God and His people are thankful we have a means of connecting now but desire the when we will be physically together again. Maybe this time of being physically apart will make the times of being physically together become more valuable to us.

Mark Johnson