Saturday, August 27, 2016

What of Science and Religion?

I always feel so unworthy of criticizing science; my background is in English, Biblical Studies, and I do not feel very scientific. In thinking about skipping this question, and moving on, I came to realize that precisely because I am not a scientist, I need to share my point-of-view. I am quite comfortable with my viewpoint, but it is a viewpoint without the strength of a scientific background. Today we are taught that people need to stick to their specialties, but most of the people who would read a column like this would come from a similar view—that of a non-scientist, and therefore might be looking for something that would make sense without all the specifics of science.

Not to say I do not enjoy reading scientific articles, especially those that seem to go against the given flow. For instance, I enjoy reading Dr. Roy Spencer, but I candidly admit his science theories often go beyond what this English major brain is ready to receive. I realize therefore that these men have better judgment than I, and so long as they present their case rationally, it is something for me to seriously consider.

The very soul of science was born in the crux of Christianity. Many historians throughout history, especially those with an agenda, have told otherwise. I say it again, without Christianity man would not be nearly so far in understanding his world. Science was built on the shoulders of Christians, and according to Rodney Stark1, oftentimes Catholics. Stark looks at the famous scientists of the time, and notes that many of them not only were devout, but might also be themselves priests, monks, or even cardinals. When Isaac Newton made his famous statement about standing on the shoulders of giants, he was not exaggerating; much of what Newton was able to do was because scientists (who happened to be devoutly religious) had accomplished so much in uncovering the rational universe we live in. Alone, of all the major religions, Christianity believed in a rational God, and came, bit by bit, to understand the world he made rationally.2 Nancy Pearcey agrees about the strong Christian influence of science: “The earlier scientist was very likely to be a believer who did not think scientific inquiry and religious devotion incompatible. On the contrary, his motivation for studying the wonders of nature was a religious impulse to glorify the God who had created them.”3

Even today there is a great (un)truth taught in our society—that science and religion are mutually exclusive. The great irony is now that scientists are unpacking the Big Bang Theory; they are being forced back to some of the same premises that they started with over a hundred years ago. How did it all start? Lurking in the premises of how it all started is the concept of intelligent design, which is much of what we started with.

Many arguments offered hundreds of years ago have renewed their validity as we look at them again. One of these is the cosmological argument: “Don’t be put off by the technical-sounding name: “cosmological” comes from the Greek word cosmos, which means “world” or “universe.” That is, the Cosmological Argument is the argument from the beginning of the universe. If the universe had a beginning, then the universe had a cause. In logical form, the argument goes like this: 1. Everything that had a beginning had a cause. 2. The universe had a beginning. 3. Therefore the universe had a cause.”4

No other religion allowed for these assumptions. The early science was born in the monasteries that began to be named as universities, and it was only in the Western World that we see men uncovering the secrets of the universe, as they assumed that a rational God had made a rational universe. “The order of the reasoning here is important. The early scientists did not argue that the world was lawfully ordered, and therefore there must be a rational God. Instead, they argued that there was a rational God, and therefore the world must be lawfully ordered. They had greater confidence in the existence and character of God than in the lawfulness of nature.”5

The Western World long assumed that Rome was civilization at its best; The Rise and Fall of the Roman Empire was one of the “must” books that my generation read. But today historians are uncovering a very different history. “Rather than a great tragedy, the fall of Rome was the single most beneficial event in the rise of Western civilization.”6 We now know that the Roman Empire strangled civilization and growth. It was not until it finally fell that the Western World went into what has long been termed the dark ages, but the ages were anything but dark. Man began to seek improvements and had the freedom to innovate and discover truths about his world. They were important stepping stones to the Renaissance.

Today is not so different from yesterday; there are still men who proclaim the end of Christianity with great confidence. Voltaire thought that Christianity would altogether disappear in about 75 years. Was he ever wrong! There are scientists today who are doing that same thing. But it is important that we understand the premises that people start with dictate the ends that they come to. Somehow when it comes to science we tend to forget that. In programming computers there is a saying, garbage in, garbage out. Computer-ese people shortened it to an abbreviation: GIGO. If a beginning programmer messes up in his programming, his whole program will come crashing down. It is the same with any argument—if we build on faulty premises the results will always be corrupt.

It is only in science that our society tends not to question premises. An atheist can don a white lab coat and is instantly transformed into someone we tend to want to listen to. But we still have an atheist! His premise that there is no God fills his thoughts—any evidences that he finds that prove his premise are every built on that foundation, and will reflect his bias.

It is the same with the Christian who claims to know God. His premise is that there is a God, and everything he builds upon is built from that premise. His bias we tend to see to sharply while we want to ignore the bias of the scientist, but premises are premises—and if faulty will always produce faulty conclusions. Everyone has premises—it is doubtful to me that anyone can leave those premises behind, and thus the idea of the “unbiased scientist” is probably nothing more than a myth. It is extremely difficult for most of us to lay aside our preconceived notions, even for a moment.

If we study the history of Darwinism in that light it becomes remarkably simple to confute it. Darwin himself was an atheist, the son of an avowed atheist. An atheist studies biology, and finds that life possibly did not come from God. Is that surprising? Should it be? Darwin built his whole science on the premise that there was no God—and he found exactly what he was looking for. It is very interesting to me to know that he famously debated all over England with the captain of the Beagle, who was a Christian, and seeing the same things that Darwin saw, came to very different conclusions.

Today many scientists are appreciating the sudden complexity of life in the fossil records in a new light. No longer does the idea of evolution seem to be reasonable; there is a complexity to the simplest cell that would make it almost impossible to assemble in a random way. If the least little part of the simplest cell is not perfectly arranged the whole cell will not come to be. Many who study this are figuring out that the building blocks of life do presume design, not accident, or chaos, or random mutation, as evolution would have us believe.

It is not my job here to refute science, merely to point to the fact that some of its premises are faulty, and will inevitably produce faulty conclusions. I find it ironic that many scientists are being forced to question their conclusions once more. If one accepts the Big Bang theory there still remains the problem of who started the bang? In other words, we are still forced to reckon with the idea of a Creator. Intelligent Design is the skeleton in the closet so to speak; most thinking scientists (especially those with the wrong premises) do not want to bring it out of the closet.

And apart from evolution most of science is quite compatible with the Christian. We live in a rational universe created by a rational God and we can discover many of his rules by paying attention to the world about us. I cannot think of a more exciting time to live! Daniel wondered about the future, and asked of God what would happen in the far distant future. He was told, “But thou, O Daniel, shut up the words, and seal the book, even to the time of the end: many shall run to and fro, and knowledge shall be increased.” Notice that many shall run to and from seems to be able to describe many of our past histories. It is the next part that I find intriguing, that knowledge shall be increased. If one characteristic, one sentence were used to describe our modern day, would it not be that knowledge has suddenly increased?

The Christian should have no fear of this increase of knowledge—it has made for a time of prosperity that the world has never known, and without it, would not be able at all to sustain such populations. We owe a lot to the Christian giants who helped us along the road to science!

1. Stark, R. (n.d.). Bearing false witness: Debunking centuries of anti-Catholic history.
This is an especially delightful book for those of us who have grown up believing many of the Catholic myths. Highly recommended.
2. Only Westerners thought that science was possible, that the universe functioned according to rational rules that could be discovered. We owe this belief partly to the ancient Greeks and partly to the unique Judeo-Christian conception of God as a rational creator.
Stark, Rodney. How the West Won: The Neglected Story of the Triumph of Modernity (Kindle Locations 130-132). Intercollegiate Studies Institute. Kindle Edition.
3. Nancy Pearcey. The Soul of Science: Christian Faith and Natural Philosophy (Turning Point Christian Worldview Series) (Kindle Locations 115-117). Kindle Edition.
4. Geisler, Norman L.; Turek, Frank. I Don't Have Enough Faith to Be an Atheist (Foreword by David Limbaugh) (Kindle Locations 1291-1296). Crossway. Kindle Edition.
5. Nancy Pearcey. The Soul of Science: Christian Faith and Natural Philosophy (Turning Point Christian Worldview Series) (Kindle Locations 221-223). Kindle Edition.
6. Stark, Rodney. How the West Won: The Neglected Story of the Triumph of Modernity (Kindle Locations 72-73). Intercollegiate Studies Institute. Kindle Edition.

Monday, August 08, 2016

Since God is sovereign, how responsible am I?

The argument is posed thus: since God is sovereign over all, does that not mean that he always gets his way, and is never confounded? And since he is never confounded, what does it matter whether I am obedient, or even if I neglect to proclaim to the lost?

It is a great argument, logically speaking, and it has been my misfortune to actually encounter people who have some derivative of it. I have entered churches who espouse the doctrine that if God wants you saved, he will do the saving, and therefore limit their invitations exclusively to Sunday morning services. Their reasoning? If God wants you saved, he can bring you into our church. Most Christians, when they encounter such doctrine, should immediately sense that something is not right.

The first premise of the argument is totally correct: God is sovereign and his will will be done. But part of that sovereignty has been to make creatures that also reflect himself in their power of choice. It pleased God, first to make Lucifer, the Shining One, who was made with the capability of choosing wrong. It pleased God, second to make man in his image, and also made with the capability of choosing wrong.

Both man and Lucifer chose wrong, and became confirmed in it. Milton, in Paradise Lost, actually has Satan, now and forever renamed, exclaim “Better to reign in Hell than be a servant in Heaven.” But I am not sure Milton has the straight of it. First, he seems to have Satan reigning in Hell, and there is no Biblical verse which would suggest this is accurate. Second, Milton seems to be off in his timing, for in the Bible judgment of the angels is yet future, and Paul reminds us that one day we will be judges of those very angels. Milton’s tale is wondrous to read, but it does not seem to fit the Biblical picture well.

The Bible does seem to present Lucifer becoming enamored of himself until iniquity was found in him, and much of the creation of man seems to have been made to expose the iniquity, the lostness, of Satan to the whole heavenly host. It may indeed be the fortune of man to be but a tiny cog in the reckoning of the heavenly host, but nonetheless, the key cog to showing both the justice and mercy of God.

Similarly, man made in the image of God, fell from unrealized heights to the common rebellious being that most often expresses himself to God by asking God to leave him alone. God, full of mercy, would have man to be rescued from his certain peril, but in the end, if the man will continue to insist, God will leave him to his own devices.

Thus both some men and some angels seem bound inexorably toward that Hell that Milton writes about. It is the responsibility of both men and angels to find a redemptive path toward God. But angels apparently never find it, for we have no record of any angel ever turning around from the evil, and according to the Bible as many as a third of all the angels are headed toward judgment. From Paul in Romans, we know that man can never redeem himself, being dependent on God to even realize his lostness. Yet, we have Christians by the millions called to share the gospel even as did Christ, and as Christ did, many suffer badly for their witness.

It is impossible that man should find his way to God. He is blind, and lost in sin. Yet, the Spirit of God convicts, and some respond. Some don’t. But all are responsible. I think of the parable of the talents, which may be applicable here, though I think its proper interpretation is with Israel. Remember the man with two talents? Instead of investing his talents and making a profit, he dug a hole and hid his talents. So, likewise, many Christians spend their lives never using the gifts that God has given them. Though we are not to lose our salvation, changing us from the interpretation of the parable of the talents, yet we are all to appear at the Bema seat of judgment, where our Groom, our Christ, will reward us for our acts of faith. What reward will those have who have buried the gifts of God?

It is an unexplained mystery of God, and is absolutely unknowable to us, how the salvation of man is wrought. I am not saying we do not know many of the mechanics—we do. We know that the Spirit convicts, and brings people to Christ. But the method of bringing people to Christ is through you and I. We need to be faithful to our calling, walking circumspectly, and being filled with the Holy Spirit, that the word of God should get out.
If you are thinking this through, perhaps you are already there. You may well ask the question, what happens if we, the church, are not faithful in presenting the message? I cannot answer that, nor, I think, can anyone else. We just do not know. If we are supposed to proclaim, and yet we do it not, how shall the plan of God work?

The difficulty is us—we are a long way from being what we ought to be, and many of us do not ever seem to appreciate what walking in the Spirit is all about. Remember how I started? With the assumption that God is sovereign over all. This the Bible clearly teaches, and it is an unequivocal truth. So we have a God who is always right, and always powerful, but we are a people who are paralyzed by our ineptness, and though we have victory offered to us in the Spirit, yet we still are not what we ought to be.

So, we have an all-powerful God, but a sinful people. It has pleased God to present his very perfect plan of salvation through imperfect people—you and I. How does that work? I cannot possible answer, yet I know it is true. How does God spread his perfect message through the imperfect? I am well-aware that we are made perfect through the power of the Spirit, but I also know my own heart, and it tells me that I have a long, long way to go.

Our confusion comes in when we see the sovereignty of God, and we see that we have choices, some of which will be wrong. How can God be totally in control with such a rube as me? Yet, Paul tells us again and again that we are responsible to perform the ministry of reconciliation to the world, that we might reach them with the gospel of freedom.

There is one passage that I wish to close with. Paul is speaking to the Corinthians, but particularly to those married couples who may find themselves living with an unmarried mate. To those he writes, “ For the unbelieving husband is sanctified by the wife, and the unbelieving wife is sanctified by the husband: else were your children unclean; but now are they holy. But if the unbelieving depart, let him depart. A brother or a sister is not under bondage in such cases: but God hath called us to peace. For what knowest thou, O wife, whether thou shalt save thy husband? or how knowest thou, O man, whether thou shalt save thy wife?” (I Corinthians 7:14-16)

Paul here is recommending that we persevere in our marriages because we simply do not know whether God will use us as a vehicle to carry the message of salvation to our mates. That is a tremendous responsibility, and one that we should not walk away from. I personally know of one lady who stayed married 35 years to the same unregenerate man, until that man was wonderfully and gloriously saved. God, in his sovereignty, in all of his might and power, deigns to use weak vessels like me—like you. We are responsible to walk carefully, but in that walk, to know always that God is sovereign.

If you notice that I did not really explain it, you are correct. But we are to be responsible in our walk, to walk in the Spirit, as he gives guidance. And still, we take comfort in knowing that our God is sovereign. One of my favorite Psalms is Psalm 2, where it tells us that the kings of the earth will plot against God, and will seek to cast away all of his power. But the Psalm ends with the thought, he that sits in the heavens shall laugh, the Lord will have them in derision. We can know fully that God’s plans will come to fruition, but we should also know that he has made us responsible.

Sunday, August 07, 2016

Do Christians need to ask God for forgiveness of their sins?

If we confess our sins, he is faithful and just to forgive us our sins, and to cleanse us from all unrighteousness.
1 John 1:9

This morning I heard a lovely hymn on the television. My mother-in-law frequently spends her Saturdays listening to hymns and the one she was listening to was very pretty, but I had some problem with the lyrics. Now, I am not going to name the hymn, since I am definitely not meaning to attack the songwriter. What I am pointing to is the fact that the lyrics do not properly fit with Christian doctrine. Over and over in the refrain the words kept appearing “please forgive us of our sins”. Why did that strike me as so wrong?

When we first become Christians, part of the awareness of stepping into the family of God is becoming aware of the sacrifice already made for our sins. It is altogether fitting and proper to ask for forgiveness upon believing, for part of the belief in what God hath wrought is in the cross, and the Savior which died for the sins of the world. But upon faith, or trust in what Christ has done, the Christian moves into grace, and should become aware that forgiveness is given—it is, after all, what the cross was all about.

Part of the almost unbelievable kindness of God extended through Christ is our adoption as sons. “But as many as received him, to them gave he the power to become the sons of God, even to them that believe on his name” (Jn. 1:12). Here in these words, God offers something to us totally unexpected—not just mercy, of which we might hope, neither just eternal life, of which we might dream, but far beyond that, he offers to adopt us into his own family, to take on part of the divine nature, indeed, to be given the Spirit of God himself to live within us and help us in living the impossible calling that he has given.

And make no second guess about it, it is an impossible calling. I could point to specific New Testament commands that make it so obviously difficult, but perhaps it might be more easily seen if we take a step back and see if we can guess at the purpose of God. He has imparted his own Divine Nature into us, making us to be, if you will, little Christs. We are put now in a lost world where we are expected to act like Christ, to our brothers and sisters in Christ, a challenging enough calling, but also to a lost world that hated the first Christ so badly that they put him on a cross. What will they do to us? History is replete with examples of the way wicked men have poured out their hatred on Christians, and such a calling is quite plainly above what you and I are able to do. (See John 17:14-23, below)1

I am not saying that we should not, more or less constantly, be expressing and even singing thankfulness to God for the forgiveness of sin, but as we grow in Christ we should become more aware of what he has already done on the cross. Many pastors, at this point, will offer the observation, that when we accepted Christ, or believed, Christ had already died for the sins of the world. In other words, Christ had died for you long before you were born, and for every one of your sins. Our growth in Christ ought to bring us to the realization that Christ did indeed take the punishment for our sins upon that cross so long ago, and that, if even one of my sins is not covered by his sacrifice, I am utterly and completely without hope. But, as the apostle says, thanks be to God for Jesus Christ our Lord!

If you are mature in Christ at all, you probably realize that you sin somewhat often. Walking in the Spirit is not easy, as we are tempted by our fleshly lusts, and the Bible does warn us of the one who is going about seeking whom he may devour. Paul tells us to take on the full armor of God, to walk after Christ, and to run the race, setting aside the weights which do so easily beset us. To such a high calling it is our lifelong goal to pursue, since we look to a hope that is beyond this world, and we have the very nature of God in us to make such living possible.

A different apostle, John, tells us that when we sin we have an advocate with God the Father, and that advocate will always intercede for us—it is the very reason that Christ came into the world. If we say we have not sinned, says John, we call God a liar and his truth is not in us. Which brings us to the uncomfortable place: what are we to do when we sin? Fortunately, John also taught us that, listed in the opening verse at the top of this piece. Confess, says John, and God will faithfully and justly forgive us our sins, and cleanse us, that we might get back to that spiritual walk, or armor, or race, as the case may be.

Now confession should not be confused with forgiveness—the latter was done on the cross as a one-time event, waiting for our one-time understanding. The former, confession, means to agree. When we become conscious of our sin, we are to agree with God that it is sin, and thus we are cleansed and able to begin walking in the Spirit again.

Begging his forgiveness all over again must be an insult to the one who loves you and gave himself for you, and if you do not believe that God has totally forgiven you, on what basis can you possibly be saved? If you follow the logic, it is relentless. Either of two alternatives is possible, if you do not believe in God’s total forgiveness. In the first alternative, you believe that God needs “a little help”, and so you believe that your works will somehow cover any deficit. Yet, the Bible declares “not by works of righteousness which we have done, but according to his mercy he has saved us.” Your insisting on adding your works is denigrating to the work on the cross which the Son of God has already done for you. You are in effect saying, “Jesus, what you did was not enough. Here let me add a bit and help you out.” When we reduce the first outcome to its basics, we realize that it is utter nonsense. If any of our salvation, beyond belief, depends on us, then rest assured, we are on our way to Hell, and nothing can be done to help us. If it all depends upon his grace, and nothing of ourselves, then the work is complete, and nothing can be added to it.

The other logical outcome is that you believe that you are too much of a sinner to qualify for forgiveness. I am reading a novel whose main character believes exactly that—his past is too awful for him to even countenance the forgiveness of God. In effect, he is saying that God may have died for regular sinners, but he could not have died for me—I am a special case. We might do well here to think of Saul of Tarsus, who assented and helped in the murder of many Christians before being gloriously saved, and changed into Paul the apostle. Paul, reflecting on his past, calls himself the chief of sinners, yet he fully knew the grace of God to be more than adequate for his sins. At the root, following this logical outcome is denying the grace of God with unbelief, and thus rejecting what Christ has done on the cross. Remembering that all God asks is that we simply believe in what he has done in sending his son, disbelief will disqualify us from salvation. With the heart confession is made unto salvation.

I recently heard of a poor soul in my church who came to a point of decision, but was worried over his tattoos. Look what I have done to my body, he seemed to be saying, there is no way God can forgive that. He realized his sin, but his problem was that he did not realize the grace of God. I am reminded of another hymn that famously sings “grace greater than all our sin”. But it exactly in realizing that just for those sins the Christ did indeed die, and all he asks of us is that we believe in the work which he has done.

I found a sweet tract to share with my four-year-old grandson who is learning to read. It simply says, “Know God, Know peace”, and then underneath, “No God, No peace”. He is just learning to read, and I thought he might be able to understand the simple message. It was a fairly big deal to teach the four-year-old his first homonym, and I had to work with him lots, reviewing the meaning of “no” and “know”, until at last he came to an understanding. How like my grandson’s understanding is the pattern for the church! When we at last know God through the forgiveness in Jesus, do we not come to know peace? And, as Paul reminds us, there is nothing that can separate us from that peace. It is ours forever, a gift of God.

1. John 17:14-23
14 I have given them thy word; and the world hath hated them, because they are not of the world, even as I am not of the world.
15 I pray not that thou shouldest take them out of the world, but that thou shouldest keep them from the evil.
16 They are not of the world, even as I am not of the world.
17 Sanctify them through thy truth: thy word is truth.
18 As thou hast sent me into the world, even so have I also sent them into the world.
19 And for their sakes I sanctify myself, that they also might be sanctified through the truth.
20 Neither pray I for these alone, but for them also which shall believe on me through their word;
21 That they all may be one; as thou, Father, art in me, and I in thee, that they also may be one in us: that the world may believe that thou hast sent me.
22 And the glory which thou gavest me I have given them; that they may be one, even as we are one:
23 I in them, and thou in me, that they may be made perfect in one; and that the world may know that thou hast sent me, and hast loved them, as thou hast loved me.