On Sin as a Corruption of Language

On Sin as a Corruption of Language

A Twilight Musing

By Elton Higgs

 

 

          From the beginning of creation, God manifested Himself as a user of language, One Who spoke things into being and then named them.  Each act of creation was a result of His Word: “And God said, ‘Let there be light,’ and there was light” (Gen. 1:3).  His next act was to separate the light from the darkness, and to name them, Night and Day (1:4-5).  God continued this process for the next five days of creation, speaking into existence the Heavens, the Earth, and the Seas and giving them their generic names.  In the process of creating plant and animal life, God designed each species to reproduce “according to their kind,” thus giving each of them unique characteristics that enabled them to be identified by name.  Finally, on the sixth day of creation, God had a conversation with Himself (i.e., between Father, Son, and Holy Spirit): “Let us make man in our image, after our likeness” (Gen. 1:26).  Thereby, the pinnacle of creation, human beings, were to be sentient, aware of themselves and of God, and, unlike the beasts of the field, capable of speech.

          The first man, Adam, was given mastery over all the rest of God’s creation, and a part of that responsibility was to name the various animals (Gen. 2:19-20).  In doing so, he manifested a key characteristic of his bearing the image of God; that is, he used language to define what had already been created, as God did for the Earth and the Seas and the Heavens.  It was also by verbal commands that God informed Adam of his responsibilities and warned him against eating of the Tree of the Knowledge of Good and Evil (Gen. 2:16-17).  In the unfallen state of the original creation, language was an emanation of the nature of God, with a direct, unambiguous, perfect relationship between speech and the referents of speech.  There was no need for symbol or metaphor.  God spoke and material things came forth exactly as He spoke them.  Adam named the animals and that was their distinctive nomination.  God gave His commands to Adam and Eve, and His words were fully comprehended and happily followed.  Truth reigned in creation and gave perfect balance and coherence to the new world that God had pronounced good (Gen. 1:31).

          All was well until by Satan’s power a lying serpent was introduced into the Garden of Eden.  With his deceptive speech, he tempted Eve.  “He said to the woman, ’Did God actually say, “You shall not eat of any tree in the Garden”?’” (Gen. 3:1b).  When the woman replied that God forbade only eating from the Tree of the Knowledge of Good and Evil, the Serpent made a direct assault on the veracity of the Word of God, so that the woman accepted the Serpent’s word rather than God’s Word.  Satan used corrupted, lying speech to sow doubt about God’s perfectly truthful speech.  After she had eaten the forbidden fruit, Eve in turn persuaded Adam to partake of the fruit as well.  As Eve was condemned for listening to the Serpent rather than to God, so was Adam condemned for listening to his wife rather than to God (Gen. 3:17).  As a result, humankind’s communion with God was broken because they accepted the perverted language of their evil Adversary rather than God’s truth.

          It is significant that from then on, sin was compounded by the failing of humans to listen to, believe, and obey the Word of God, and by the continued corruption of language through lying.  Cain ended up slaying his brother Abel because he would not listen to God’s warning against being angry with him (Gen. 4:6-7).  Cain “spoke to his brother Abel (Gen. 4:8) and lured him into the isolation of the field so that he could kill him there.  Mankind became increasingly evil afterward, leading to God’s sending a flood to drown all the sentient life He had created except for Noah, his family, and selected animals.  Several generations after Noah, mankind pridefully used their unity of language to raise an idolatrous tower to “make a name for ourselves” (Gen. 11:4).  In response, God went down and confused their language, “so that they may not understand one another’s speech” (11:7).

          What follows in the Old Testament is the sordid account of God’s Word being rejected, even when He issued it in great detail in the form of the Law issued to Moses on Mt. Sinai.  It is significant that two of the Ten Commandments explicitly address sins of the tongue (taking the Lord’s name in vain and bearing false witness); in addition, implicit in honoring one’s parents is the obligation to listen respectfully to their words and not to speak ill of them (see Mark 7:10). Throughout the O. T. books of poetry and the Prophets, false speech is at the root of people’s rebellion against God.

A good number of the Proverbs inveigh against sins of the tongue, such as “crooked speech,” and “devious talk” (Prov. 4:23-24).  Another proverb points out that

“Death and life are in the power of the tongue, and those who love it will eat its fruits” (Prov. 18:19-21).  The prophets also regularly detail sins of speech among the wicked acts of the people.  Isaiah excoriates those who tell such blatant lies that it’s like turning things on their head and despising the Word of God.

 

Woe to those who call evil good and good evil, who put darkness for light and light for darkness, who put bitter for sweet and sweet for bitter!  Woe to those who are wise in their own eyes, and shrewd in their own sight! . . .  Therefore, as the tongue of fire devours the stubble, and as dry grass sinks down in the flame, so their root will be as rottenness, and their blossom go up like dust; for they have rejected the law of the Lord of hosts, and have despised the word of the Holy One of Israel.  (Isaiah 5:20-24)

 

          Jesus warned in his teaching that sinful speech is at the root of alienation from God and is subject to His judgment.          

You brood of vipers! How can you speak good, when you are evil? For out of the abundance of the heart the mouth speaks. The good person out of his good treasure brings forth good, and the evil person out of his evil treasure brings forth evil. I tell you, on the day of judgment people will give account for every careless word they speak, for by your words you will be justified, and by your words you will be condemned.   (Matt. 12:34-37)

The epistle of James makes even more graphic the peril of the tongue as an untamable source of evil:

6 And the tongue is a fire, a world of unrighteousness. The tongue is set among our members, staining the whole body, setting on fire the entire course of life, and set on fire by hell.  7 For every kind of beast and bird, of reptile and sea creature, can be tamed and has been tamed by mankind, 8 but no human being can tame the tongue. It is a restless evil, full of deadly poison. 9 With it we bless our Lord and Father, and with it we curse people who are made in the likeness of God. 10 From the same mouth come blessing and cursing. My brothers, these things ought not to be so.

 

When God finally sent the remedy for all of this sinful disease into the world, His Son Jesus Christ, He was described as the Word.

In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God. He was in the beginning with God. All things were made through him, and without him was not anything made that was made. In him was life, and the life was the light of men. The light shines in the darkness, and the darkness has not overcome it. . . .  And the Word became flesh and dwelt among us, and we have seen his glory, glory as of the only Son from the Father, full of grace and truth.  

(Jn. 1:1-4, 14)

 

“The Word became flesh.”  The Word that created the world in the first place--the essential and pure language of God if you will—brought light and salvation to the fallen creation that was corrupted by humans listening to the wrong word.  Only by this supreme and ultimate sacrifice could the consequences of thousands of years of corrupted hearing and perverted speech be eradicated.

          The book of Revelation presents a picture of perfectly restored language in the Kingdom of God.  The book begins with messages from God the Spirit to seven churches (chapters 2 and 3); each message is introduced by the phrase “the words of” and ends with “hear what the Spirit says to the churches.”  Chapters 4 and 5 depict the words and songs of praises to “him who is seated on the throne” (4:9) and to “the Lamb who was slain” (5:12).  After a cascade of catastrophes to be brought by God on a wicked earth (chapters 6-18), we are ushered into the concluding chapters of Revelation in which God’s original purposes for the world He created are finally brought to fruition.  Chapter 19 begins with more words of praise to God and preparation for the great wedding feast between the Lamb and His bride, the Church, those have been faithful to their redemption by the blood of the Lamb.  But the Lamb of God is also a conqueror, and He is depicted in Rev. 19:11ff as the righteous Judge who makes war.  We know this is the Son of God who lived, died, and conquered death, because His unique name is “the Word of God” (19:13).

          We do well to remember the power of words for good and ill, and to realize that the gift of language we take for granted is God’s tool for communicating His will and our tool for spreading His Word about that will.  We even have the power to share in God’s creative power of words by shaping language into beautiful poetry or narratives of history or imaginative fiction.  In a practical way, we use language to share our understanding of God and the world He created.  But like all gifts from God, language can be used responsibly only when sanctified by His Spirit.  Like Isaiah when he saw God and heard His command to speak to the people (Is. 6:1-7), we are “of unclean lips” and are in need of an application of God’s purifying fire to our lips so that we may speak not merely our words, but His.  Our enablement is incomplete now, but we have the hope of being eternally in the presence of the Very Word Himself.

 


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Dr. Elton Higgs was a faculty member in the English department of the University of Michigan-Dearborn from 1965-2001. Having retired from UM-D as Prof. of English in 2001, he now lives with his wife and adult daughter in Jackson, MI.. He has published scholarly articles on Chaucer, Langland, the Pearl Poet, Shakespeare, and Milton. His self-published Collected Poems is online at Lulu.com. He also published a couple dozen short articles in religious journals. (Ed.: Dr. Higgs was the most important mentor during undergrad for the creator of this website, and his influence was inestimable; it's thrilling to welcome this dear friend onboard.)

         

Comment

Elton Higgs

Dr. Elton Higgs was a faculty member in the English department of the University of Michigan-Dearborn from 1965-2001. Having retired from UM-D as Prof. of English in 2001, he now lives with his wife and adult daughter in Jackson, MI.. He has published scholarly articles on Chaucer, Langland, the Pearl Poet, Shakespeare, and Milton. His self-published Collected Poems is online at Lulu.com. He also published a couple dozen short articles in religious journals. (Ed.: Dr. Higgs was the most important mentor during undergrad for the creator of this website, and his influence was inestimable; it's thrilling to welcome this dear friend onboard.)

Holy Fear

Joshua passing the River Jordan with the Ark of the Covenant  by  Benjamin West , 1800

Joshua passing the River Jordan with the Ark of the Covenant by Benjamin West, 1800

In Christian Bible classes we sometimes hear people discuss the meaning of the biblical admonition, predominantly found in the Old Testament, to “fear God.”  Does not the New Testament present God as our loving Father, whom we are privileged to address familiarly as “Papa”?  But the Old Testament clearly sees fearing God in a different light.  The “Preacher” of Ecclesiastes, for example, sums up his treatise by asserting that we are to “fear God and keep his commandments, for this is the whole duty of man.  For God will bring every deed into judgment, with every secret thing, whether good or evil” (Eccl. 12:13-14 [ESV]).  But in the New Testament, disciples are frequently told not to fear, and in I John 4:18 we have a radical negation of fear: “There is no fear in love, but perfect love casts out fear. For fear has to do with punishment, and whoever fears has not been perfected in love.”  How do we get from the O.T. fear based on God’s judgment to the N.T. saying that Christians (the new Israel) should have no fear of judgment?  The fear of God still has its place in the N.T., but it is a fear embedded in the fact that Jesus Christ has bridged the gap for us between the austere fear of God and the joyful trembling that comes from being in the Presence of an awesome, loving, and gentle Father who accepts us as brothers and sisters of Christ Jesus.

Those under the Old Covenant were acutely aware that to be in God’s Presence was dangerous because of His perfect holiness and His fearsome judgment on human sin.  Three passages from chapters 6 and 8 of Isaiah and chapter 33 of Exodus illustrate this reaction, even in men who were being called by God.  In Isaiah’s vision of God “high and lifted up” in all His glory and holiness; the prophet’s immediate reaction is fear that he is going to die because he has “seen the King, the Lord of Hosts” (Is. 6:5).  Even though he is a prophet of God, he is terrifyingly aware of his sinfulness, and in order for his life to be preserved and for the conversation with God to continue, Isaiah has to be purified (depicted figuratively by the application of a burning coal from the Temple altar to his lips), so that his “guilt is taken away, and [his] sin atoned for” (v.7).  Moses has a similar experience (Ex. 33:18-23) when he asks God, “Show me your glory” (v. 18); whereupon God allows him only a glimpse of His back, and even that could be granted only with God’s protective hand covering Moses, for “man shall not see me and live.”  Human beings do well to fear the Presence of God, for the fiery holiness of that Presence will consume them unless God Himself offers protection.

          The transition between the O.T. fear of God’s judgment and the N.T. casting out of fear by Love is provided by the visitation upon the sinless Lamb of God of all the wrath of the Father deserved by rebellious mankind.  With God’s judgment satisfied, we can be empowered to serve and obey Him without the fear engendered by our sinfulness.   As Paul expresses it, when we accepted the liberating blood of Christ, we “did not receive the spirit of slavery to fall back into fear, but . . . received the Spirit of adoption as sons, by whom we cry, "Abba! Father!"  Thereby we have the liberty to “work out [our] own salvation with fear and trembling, for it is God who works in [us], both to will and to work for his good pleasure” (Phil. 2:12-13).  As Paul points out in Gal. 3, the final deliverance of mankind from sin was not to be accomplished through obedience to the Law, as necessary as that obedience was.  As he concludes in that chapter, “the law was our guardian until Christ came, in order that we might be justified by faith.  But now that faith has come, we are no longer under a guardian, for in Christ Jesus you are all sons of God, through faith” (Gal. 3:24-26).  God’s love, fully manifested toward humankind by the sacrifice of His Son, is the instrument for transmuting human fear into effective fear of God. 

And so we come back to the statement in I John that “perfect love casts out fear. For fear has to do with punishment, and whoever fears has not been perfected in love” (I Jn. 4:18).  What a glorious privilege is granted to us who live under the New Covenant, that we may glory in standing before God without fear of punishment for our sins.  Although we no longer tremble in physical terror as Moses and the people did when they encountered the fiery Presence of God at Mt. Sinai, we are nevertheless admonished to approach Him in Mt. Zion, the Heavenly Jerusalem, “with holy fear and awe, for our God is a consuming fire” (Heb.12:28-29, NLT).  We still need the protective covering of the blood of Jesus to keep from being consumed by the Fire of God’s judgment.  Thus we are able under the New Covenant to fear God perfectly and joyfully.


Elton_Higgs (1).jpg

Dr. Elton Higgs was a faculty member in the English department of the University of Michigan-Dearborn from 1965-2001. Having retired from UM-D as Prof. of English in 2001, he now lives with his wife and adult daughter in Jackson, MI.. He has published scholarly articles on Chaucer, Langland, the Pearl Poet, Shakespeare, and Milton. His self-published Collected Poems is online at Lulu.com. He also published a couple dozen short articles in religious journals. (Ed.: Dr. Higgs was the most important mentor during undergrad for the creator of this website, and his influence was inestimable; it's thrilling to welcome this dear friend onboard.)

         

 

Comment

Elton Higgs

Dr. Elton Higgs was a faculty member in the English department of the University of Michigan-Dearborn from 1965-2001. Having retired from UM-D as Prof. of English in 2001, he now lives with his wife and adult daughter in Jackson, MI.. He has published scholarly articles on Chaucer, Langland, the Pearl Poet, Shakespeare, and Milton. His self-published Collected Poems is online at Lulu.com. He also published a couple dozen short articles in religious journals. (Ed.: Dr. Higgs was the most important mentor during undergrad for the creator of this website, and his influence was inestimable; it's thrilling to welcome this dear friend onboard.)

Book Review: What is Marriage? Man and Woman: A Defense

Introduction

In this review I summarize and engage What is Marriage? Man and Woman: A Defense (hereafter, WIM) by Sherif Girgis, Ryan T. Anderson, and Robert P. George.[1] Here are a few general comments before I present a more focused discussion below. First, I found the book immensely helpful as a logical argument in service of an apologetic for the traditional view of marriage (hereafter, TVM), even though it was tough reading at times simply because of the design of the work as a legal brief. The challenge was not that the book is unnavigable due to a lack of clarity or poor writing quality, but that I had to stretch my mind to think in the closely argued and sometimes tedious manner of legal parlance, though I did find the stretch quite enjoyable once I adjusted my expectations. Further, I had to remind myself (and a classmate!) that this book was not intended to provide a biblical or theological argument in favor of TVM, at least not explicitly, though the authors certainly provide implicit arguments for the value of general revelation and natural theology, which are both part of the Christian message. So, the apologetic benefit was primarily the role it serves in bolstering the traditional view of marriage through philosophical argumentation without appeals to special revelation. The book is nothing short of impressive simply as an example of the giftedness of the authors, especially Girgis, whose work on the book and in other contexts related to the TVM discussion reminds me that apologists come from varied backgrounds and sometimes appear in cultural and intellectual contexts that some in the church are tempted to conclude are territories long ago lost to the enemy. I have in mind here Girgis’ academic circumstances at Yale and Princeton, neither one a bastion of Christian orthodoxy or cultural conservatism, and yet, there he is defending the TVM.

Summary and Engagement

The authors begin by stating that, “What we have come to call the gay marriage debate is not directly about homosexuality, but about marriage. It is not about whom to let marry, but about what marriage is.”[2] Given the timing of the book’s release (pre-2015 and the legalization of same-sex marriage in the United States), I find something poignant about these words, especially since most of my experience as a pastor regarding the TVM debate has centered more on homosexuality and less on marriage. Only now have I and other Christian leaders realized we may have had our guns trained on the wrong target, missing the opportunity to focus on marriage and make a positive apologetic argument about it because it was too easy to pick-off the low-hanging fruit of homosexuality through a negative apologetic engagement with the more extreme advocates of same-sex relationships. It appears the enemy’s diversion was somewhat successful, especially as the Christian army now scrambles to reorient itself to the new realities it faces amid its waning influence on Western culture. Not that I have lost hope, but the task before us is daunting and fraught with difficulty, which makes WIM’s insight about the need to focus on the nature of marriage all the more pertinent.

            Thus, to help focus the discussion on marriage, the authors distinguish between two views of marriage: the conjugal view and the revisionist view. The conjugal view “is a vision of marriage as a bodily as well as an emotional and spiritual bond, distinguished thus by its comprehensiveness, which is, like all love, effusive: flowing out into the wide sharing of family life and ahead to lifelong fidelity.”[3] The revisionist view offers “a vision of marriage as, in essence, a loving emotional bond, one distinguished by its intensity—a bond that needn’t point beyond the partners, in which fidelity is ultimately subject to one’s own desires. In marriage, so understood, partners seek emotional fulfillment, and remain as long as they find it.”[4]

            There are at least two striking differences between these views. First, the revisionist approach to marriage—though sharing with the conjugal view an emphasis on the place of a loving bond within marriage—reduces to something that is ultimately subjective and impermanent, based on an emotional fulfillment that is sometimes ephemeral and at least given to wax and wane according to the challenges faced by the couple. Second, whereas the conjugal view implicitly entails a heterosexual understanding of marriage based on its emphasis on bodily union and family sharing, the revisionist view does not require any specific expression of human sexuality since the focus of the marriage becomes emotional fulfillment and nothing specifically procreative.

            These differences in understanding what marriage is provide the opening that advocates of same-sex relationships took advantage of in making their case for gay marriage by reducing the discussion to something that is both real and helpful for a relationship, i.e., the emotional bond, and around which a rallying cry was easy to develop: Who are you to tell me who I can and cannot love? The approach worked and an entire cultural norm has been changed, making sexuality and gender fluid constructs of little consequence in the rush to defend the value of emotional bonds as the locus of the marriage definition. As the authors of WIM labor to make clear, the problem is that the revisionist view introduces an intractable instability into its new definition of marriage. When emotional fulfillment becomes the determiner of permanence there is nothing permanent about marriage—feelings change, and relationships begin and end accordingly.

            The outcome, and one that becomes more obvious as the societal implications of the revisionist view work their way into everyday life, is that “any remaining restrictions on marriage [become] arbitrary” and “genuine marital union” is lost along with the culture dependent upon it.[5] At this intersection of culture and the revisionist view of marriage there are a number of pernicious implications, and this is where I find what I think is one of the most compelling aspects of WIM’s argument. The authors identify several outcomes from the revisionist view of marriage: spousal well-being declines; child well-being declines; the possibility diminishes for substantive friendships between those of the same gender; religious liberty is infringed for those holding the conjugal view of marriage; and the state’s role expands to intrusive levels.[6]

            There is a sense of clarity and foreboding that build as the authors make their case across the seven chapters of WIM: clarity regarding exactly what marriage is and what the revisionist view entails, and foreboding regarding the seeds of destruction sown by the revisionist redefinition of marriage adopted by the Supreme Court in the years following the publication of WIM. The authors make a penetrating and prescient statement in their concluding chapter, explaining that “there is no neutral marriage policy.”[7] Nor is there anything neutral about the conjugal and revisionist views of marriage, and this is the point of WIM—marriage is not some inconsequential ad hoc societal construct that one may take or leave based on preferences. “Almost every culture in every time and place has had some institution that resembles what we know as marriage…. Marriage understood as the conjugal union of husband and wife really serves the good of children, the good of spouses, and the common good of society.”[8]

Relevance for Apologetics

At this point I would like to highlight that the Christian apologist can learn a few valuable lessons about apologetics from WIM’s approach. First, regarding apologetic methodology, what WIM’s authors provide is a cumulative case approach to the discussion of same-sex marriage. Notice how their case builds based on clear definitions, well-thought out implications, and appeals derived from the positive and negative conclusions warranted by the discussion. Rather than a merely deductive approach, there is a certain appeal in the abductive build-out of the argument for the conjugal view of marriage; a certain let-this-sink-in-for-a-moment momentum that has a potentially powerful epistemic effect on all sides of the discussion. Christians concerned about this topic would do well to follow this pattern, especially in our increasingly affect-driven, truth-claim-suspicious culture.

            Second, by delineating the negative effects resulting from the revisionist view, the authors of WIM heed the biblical command to “answer a fool according to his folly” (Prov. 26:5) as they expose the unavoidable outcome of redefining marriage according to emotional fulfillment.[9] This aspect of the argument pairs nicely with WIM’s positive articulation of the conjugal view and its definition of marriage as “a comprehensive union of persons.”[10] In this regard the authors of WIM also obey the Bible’s command “do not answer a fool according to his folly” (Prov. 26:4), as they make their strong case for the conjugal view. Thus, there is a certain apologetic flow to the presentation in WIM, moving from challenging the revisionist view by articulating the conjugal view, and then teasing out the implication of the revisionist view for individuals and culture.

             Third, and this is more of an ecclesial and less apologetic observation, as Girgis explains in a presentation to church leaders about the topic of same-sex marriage, the church has the answer that the revisionist definition seeks to address.[11] The church is the community in which meaningful emotional bonds can and should be formed, and the church has a special calling to those who think they can only find this type of relationship in same-sex marriage. It is the church that gives special significance to the ultimate and mystical meaning of marriage as an eternal bond between Christ and his bride, and it is within the context of the church that all other relationships have a place that is also ultimate and mystical, though marriage need not be redefined for these relationships to be enjoyed.

Conclusion

Sadly, since the publication of WIM, the revisionist view of marriage has won the day in the United States and the implications are staggering. Ironically, the very ones most concerned to see their welfare affirmed and their relationship freedoms enshrined will only continue to find that they are attempting to fetch water from a dried-up well. Thus, the views of the authors of WIM are as important now as ever, and the conjugal view of marriage can and should be explained, defended, and sought to be restored to the culture so dependent upon it. God, help us.


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T. J. shares a passion for the moral argument(s) and brings much to his new post. He is, in his own words, a “mere Christian with genuine fascination and awe for the breadth and depth of God’s gracious kingdom.” He became a Christian in 1978, and began pastoral ministry in 1984. He has worked as a youth pastor, senior pastor, church planter, church-based seminary professor, a chaplain assistant in the Army, and a chaplain in the Army National Guard. A southern Illinois native, T. J. is a graduate of Southern Illinois University-Carbondale with a BA in Political Science; Liberty University with an MAR in Church Ministries, an MDiv in Chaplaincy, and a ThM in Theology; Luther Rice College and Seminary with an MA in Apologetics; and Piedmont International University with a DMin in Pastoral Counseling. He is currently writing his dissertation on crisis leadership in the epistle of Jude for the PhD in Leadership at Piedmont, as well as pursuing a PhD in Theology and Apologetics at Liberty, hoping to write his dissertation on some aspect of the intersection of moral apologetics and the pastorate. He is the author of several books, including God Help Us: Encouragement for Evangelism, and Thinking of Worship: A Liturgical Miscellany, as well as journal articles on liturgics, pastoral counseling, homiletics, and apologetics. He and his wife have five children. T. J.’s preaching may be heard at www.sermonaudio.com/fellowshipinchrist.


Notes


[1] Sherif Girgis, Ryan T. Anderson, and Robert P. George, What is Marriage? Man and Woman: A Defense (New York, NY: Encounter Books, 2012), Kindle.

[2] Girgis, Anderson, and George, Kindle location 70.

[3] Ibid.

[4] Girgis, Anderson, and George, Kindle location 78.

[5] Girgis, Anderson, and George, Kindle location 162-169.

[6] Ibid., Kindle location 162-193.

[7] Ibid., Kindle location 1369.

[8] Girgis, Anderson, and George, Kindle location 1411-1419.

[9] Unless otherwise noted, all biblical quotations are taken from The Holy Bible: New King James Version (Nashville, TN: Thomas Nelson, 1982).

[10] Girgis, Anderson, and George, Kindle location 371.

[11] Sherif Girgis, “Better together: Marriage and the Common Good,” Ethics and Religious Liberty Commission, podcast audio, August 23, 2016, https://erlc.com/resource-library/erlc-podcast-episodes/better-together-marriage-and-the-common-good.

Cardio-Circumcision

          We are used to seeing various kinds of body piercings and skin adornments displayed in public, but have you ever seen anyone with circumcised lips?  Or circumcised ears?  Probably not, since we have trouble even visualizing what such physical alterations would look like.  The source of this terminology comes from Scripture (Ex. 6:12; Jer. 6:10), but it is obviously intended to be interpreted metaphorically, along with the often-repeated references to circumcision of the heart (e.g., Deut. 5:16).   This turning of circumcision into metaphor is bold, even a bit shocking, but it is a revealing instance of using physical reality as a bridge to spiritual truth. 

Like any metaphor, figurative circumcision is rooted in physical circumcision.  Although the practice of excising the male foreskin, particularly for newborn infants, is now a common medical procedure, its religious significance has its origin in God’s Covenant with the Jewish people, first instituted by God as a sign of His Covenant with Abraham (Gen. 17:9-14) and later reinforced under Mosaic Law (Josh. 5:2-6). Since the ritual inherently applies only to males, the question arises as to how it signifies God’s Covenant with all His people, male and female.  I would suggest that seating this procedure in the male reproductive organ carries significance in two ways.  First, in the patriarchal society of ancient Jews, men bore the primary responsibility for seeing that the meaning of the Covenant was passed on to the next generation; the circumcision of their male sons at eight days old was a commitment to teach those sons what it means to serve God.  Second, circumcision of the foreskin betokens a dedicated channeling of male libido under the Lord’s discipline.  The man is not free merely to pursue his own lust, but is to dedicate this intimate part of himself to honoring God, through marital fidelity and self-control, thus assuring the perpetuation of a pure line of God’s Chosen People.  So we see that the rite of circumcision betokened much more than the physical marking that took place in infancy.

Scripture actually places more emphasis on circumcision of the heart than on physical circumcision.  Even in the Old Testament, where physical circumcision is required, there are more references to inner circumcision than to physical circumcision.  Circumcision of the heart, as presented to the children of Abraham, involves above all submission to God’s will and obedience to His commandments.  “Circumcise therefore the foreskin of your heart, and be no longer stubborn,” Moses tells the Israelites in Deut. 10:16.  He also tells them that “God will circumcise your heart and the heart of your offspring, so that you will love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul, that you may live” (Deut. 30:6).  What begins as a command for outward obedience to God’s law ends up as a challenge to go beyond the outward process of being physically marked for the Covenant to being spiritually marked by the Covenant.

Under the New Covenant instituted by Jesus’ death and resurrection, the requirement of circumcision was laid aside, along with the rest of the ritual laws about animal sacrifice and Temple worship.  Nevertheless, some Jewish Christians from among the Pharisees insisted that circumcision was still necessary for those accepting Christ and the New Covenant.  This issue came to a head in the Jerusalem Conference of all the Apostles and leaders of the church (see Acts 15:1 ff.), at which it was determined not only that circumcision was not required of uncircumcised Gentiles who became Christians, but that the core of the New Covenant was salvation by grace, not by meritorious works of law-keeping.  Peter testified how God had shown him that the Good News was as much for the Gentiles as for the Jews, and God “made no distinction between us and them, having cleansed their hearts by faith.  Now, therefore, why are you putting God to the test by placing a yoke on the neck of the disciples that neither our fathers nor we have been able to bear?  But we believe that we will be saved through the grace of the Lord Jesus, just as they will" (Acts 15: 9-11).

Thus, under the New Covenant of salvation by grace, not only was circumcision not required, but it actually became a stumbling block to new Christians, for it came to represent a dangerous emphasis on salvation by works.  Paul thundered against this heresy in his writings, as in Gal. 5:1-6:

For freedom Christ has set us free; stand firm therefore, and do not submit again to a yoke of slavery.  Look: I, Paul, say to you that if you accept circumcision, Christ will be of no advantage to you.  I testify again to every man who accepts circumcision that he is obligated to keep the whole law.  You are severed from Christ, you who would be justified by the law; you have fallen away from grace.  For through the Spirit, by faith, we ourselves eagerly wait for the hope of righteousness.  For in Christ Jesus neither circumcision nor uncircumcision counts for anything, but only faith working through love. 

Nevertheless, the figurative, deeper meaning of circumcision is still very much in evidence in the New Testament, as in Col. 2:11-15:

In him also you were circumcised with a circumcision made without hands, by putting off the body of the flesh, by the circumcision of Christ, having been buried with him in baptism, in which you were also raised with him through faith in the powerful working of God, who raised him from the dead. And you, who were dead in your trespasses and the uncircumcision of your flesh, God made alive together with him, having forgiven us all our trespasses, by canceling the record of debt that stood against us with its legal demands. This he set aside, nailing it to the cross.

 

In this passage, baptism, like circumcision under the Old Covenant, marks one as a participant in the New Covenant; and though it is a physical act, it signifies and expects an inner change that equates to “circumcision of the heart.”

          We conclude, then, that even a God-ordered ritual has no spiritual value within itself; it becomes significant only when it represents, and results in, an ongoing ordering of the mind and heart toward God.  The Lord wants to make His mark not just in our bodies, but in our souls.  The command to “circumcise the foreskin of your heart” is still relevant.

 


Elton_Higgs (1).jpg

Dr. Elton Higgs was a faculty member in the English department of the University of Michigan-Dearborn from 1965-2001. Having retired from UM-D as Prof. of English in 2001, he now lives with his wife and adult daughter in Jackson, MI.. He has published scholarly articles on Chaucer, Langland, the Pearl Poet, Shakespeare, and Milton. His self-published Collected Poems is online at Lulu.com. He also published a couple dozen short articles in religious journals. (Ed.: Dr. Higgs was the most important mentor during undergrad for the creator of this website, and his influence was inestimable; it's thrilling to welcome this dear friend onboard.)

 

           

 

Comment

Elton Higgs

Dr. Elton Higgs was a faculty member in the English department of the University of Michigan-Dearborn from 1965-2001. Having retired from UM-D as Prof. of English in 2001, he now lives with his wife and adult daughter in Jackson, MI.. He has published scholarly articles on Chaucer, Langland, the Pearl Poet, Shakespeare, and Milton. His self-published Collected Poems is online at Lulu.com. He also published a couple dozen short articles in religious journals. (Ed.: Dr. Higgs was the most important mentor during undergrad for the creator of this website, and his influence was inestimable; it's thrilling to welcome this dear friend onboard.)

Take Heart, Be of Good Courage

Take Heart, Be of Good Courage

A Twilight Musing

 

          A while back a friend who spends part of each year in France responded to some great difficulties I was having with the French word of encouragement, “Courage” (pronounced “koorage,” as in “garage,” accent on the last syllable).  Recently I found that a similar sentiment (“take heart,” or “be of good courage”) is prominent in the Bible, and I would like to consider the theological significance of the idea behind those phrases.

          In the Old Testament we find exhortations to the people to “Be strong and courageous” (Deut. 31:6, Josh. 1:8) and to “take courage” (II Chron. 15:7-8) in going about what God has told them to do.  In the New Testament, Jesus Himself several times encouraged those to whom He was ministering to “take heart” because He was going to meet their need for healing or for the forgiveness of sins (or both).  In the case of the man let down through the roof by his friends (Matt. 9:2-3; see also Mk. 2 & Lk. 5), Jesus said, “Take heart, my son; your sins are forgiven.”  When blind Bartimaeus cried out for help to the Master and Jesus responded, the blind man was told by the disciples to “take heart.  Get up; He is calling you” (Mark 10:49).  To the woman who timidly touched His garment in order to be healed, He said, “Take heart, daughter; your faith has made you well” (Matt. 9:22).  The point of a parable told by Jesus about a persistent widow asking a judge for justice is that his disciples “ought always to pray and not lose heart” (Luke 18:1).

 Jesus established the principle that “taking heart” is an attitude of trust that God is willing and able to strengthen us and to meet our needs.  Such encouragement (you see “courage” embedded in that word?) urges boldness to replace reticence and assurance to replace doubt.  When Paul is threatened with assassination, God assures him that he will be protected: “Take courage, for as you have testified to the facts about me in Jerusalem, so you must testify also in Rome" (Acts 23:11).  

Paul, in turn, assures the Corinthians that we can be buoyed up even when we are experiencing bodily suffering.  His own suffering is mitigated by the assurance that “he who raised the Lord Jesus will raise us also with Jesus and bring us with you into his presence” (II Cor. 4:14).  Consequently, “We do not lose heart.  Though our outer nature is wasting away, our inner nature is being renewed day by day” (4:16).  Moreover, God has “given us the Spirit as a guarantee.  So we are always of good courage. . . , for we walk by faith, not by sight” (II Cor. 5:5-7).

We may wonder when we suffer hardship if we are loved by God, but the writer of Hebrews tells us (quoting from Proverbs), “Do not make light of the Lord’s discipline, and do not lose heart when he rebukes you,  because the Lord disciplines those he loves, and he punishes everyone he accepts as a son.  Endure hardship as discipline; God is treating you as sons” (Heb. 12:5-7).   

          We can draw some helpful conclusions from all of this for our daily living. 

1.    God knows and empathizes with our struggles, and He wants to encourage us not to give up, but to persevere and be strengthened by the experience.

 

2.    God has not engineered us for failure, but for success in spiritual growth.  He calls us to Himself to experience healing and forgiveness.

 

3.    Taking heart and being of good courage consists of consciously choosing the way of faith—complete trust in the goodness of God and confidence in the future if we leave it in His hands.

 

So when we are under stress and feeling discouraged (again, that embedded word), we can remember that God admonished the fearful Israelites to be bold in going in to conquer the promised land: “Be strong and courageous. Do not be frightened, and do not be dismayed, for the Lord your God is with you wherever you go" (Josh. 1:9).  And we can recall that Jesus tenderly raised a man paralyzed by his sins by saying, “Take heart, my son; your sins are forgiven” (Matt. 9:2).  Strength and healing come from the courage God gives us when we need it most.

           


Elton_Higgs (1).jpg

Dr. Elton Higgs was a faculty member in the English department of the University of Michigan-Dearborn from 1965-2001. Having retired from UM-D as Prof. of English in 2001, he now lives with his wife and adult daughter in Jackson, MI.. He has published scholarly articles on Chaucer, Langland, the Pearl Poet, Shakespeare, and Milton. His self-published Collected Poems is online at Lulu.com. He also published a couple dozen short articles in religious journals. (Ed.: Dr. Higgs was the most important mentor during undergrad for the creator of this website, and his influence was inestimable; it's thrilling to welcome this dear friend onboard.)

Comment

Elton Higgs

Dr. Elton Higgs was a faculty member in the English department of the University of Michigan-Dearborn from 1965-2001. Having retired from UM-D as Prof. of English in 2001, he now lives with his wife and adult daughter in Jackson, MI.. He has published scholarly articles on Chaucer, Langland, the Pearl Poet, Shakespeare, and Milton. His self-published Collected Poems is online at Lulu.com. He also published a couple dozen short articles in religious journals. (Ed.: Dr. Higgs was the most important mentor during undergrad for the creator of this website, and his influence was inestimable; it's thrilling to welcome this dear friend onboard.)

God Created Evil

God Created Evil

Isaiah 45:7

Editor’s note: This piece comes from an upcoming book by Gary Yates and David Croteau, Urban Legends of the Old Testament, a sequel to Urban Legends of the New Testament.

The Legendary Teaching on Isaiah 45:7

Isaiah 45:7 teaches that God is the cause of moral evil in our world. The KJV of Isaiah 45:7 reads: “I form light and create darkness, I make well-being and create evil, I am the Lord who does all these things.” On his blog “Daylight Atheism,” Adam Lee refers to Isaiah 45:7 as one of “the most shocking” passages in the Bible because it reminds us that, “Evil exists because God created it.”[1] Theologians attempting to resolve the dilemma of how and why evil exists in a world under the control of an all-loving, omnipotent, and omniscient deity “can pack it in and go home now,” because this text (and others like it) inform us that evil comes directly from God.[2] Christians mistakenly believe that God is pure and holy when their own Scriptures teach the opposite.

 

Introduction and Countering the Legend

A rather simple matter of translation corrects the mistaken idea that Isaiah 45:7 views God as the source and creator of evil in the world. The majority of modern translations do not follow the KJV in translating the Hebrew word ra`ah in verse 7 as “evil” but instead offer the translation “calamity” (ESV, NAS, NET, NKJV) or “disaster” (CSB, NIV). The point of the passage then is that God brings or causes “disaster” when he acts in judgment. The blog mentioned above accuses the modern translations of attempting to soften the actual teaching of Isaiah 45:7, but the fact that the Hebrew word ra`ah can refer both to moral “evil” and “disaster/calamity” is recognized in all Hebrew lexicons and easily demonstrated from the biblical text.[3] John Oswalt notes that the range of meaning for the Hebrew word ra`ah  is similar to that of the English word “bad” in that it can refer to moral evil, misfortune, or that which does not conform to a real or imagined standard.[4]      

The Old Testament prophets often made word plays based on the semantic range of ra`ah. On more than one occasion, the Lord commands the people through the prophet Jeremiah to turn from their “evil” (ra`ah) way so that he might relent from bringing upon them the “disaster” (ra`ah) he had planned for them (cf. Jer 26:3; 36:3, 7). The word play effectively communicated how the Lord’s punishments would fit their crimes and justly correspond to the people’s actions. The same idea is found in Jonah 3:10, which states that when God saw that the Ninevites had turned from their “evil” (ra`ah) ways, he did not bring upon them the “disaster” (ra`ah) he had threatened to bring against their city.

              The translation of ra`ah as “calamity” or “disaster” in Isaiah 45:7 also makes sense in light of the message of the entire oracle found in 45:1–7. In verses 1–4, the Lord promises to raise up the pagan ruler Cyrus, the future king of Persia, and to enable him to subdue nations as a means of gaining Israel’s release from exile in Babylon. The Lord would remove every obstacle that stood in the way of Cyrus and would give to him the treasures of the peoples he conquered. Cyrus conquered Babylon in 539 B.C. and issued a decree allowing the Jews to return to their homeland in 538 B.C. The Lord would accomplish his purposes through Cyrus because he is the one true God over all of history (v. 5). Yahweh’s ability to announce his plans in advance and then to carry them out would demonstrate his sovereignty and incomparability to all peoples (vv. 6-7). Verse 7 concludes the oracle with a powerful assertion of the Lord’s control over both nature and history. He is the one who created the light and darkness, and as the creator, he is also the one who uses both “success” (shalom) and “disaster” (ra`ah) in the working out of his plans within history.

The fact that ra`ah carries the meaning of “disaster” or “calamity” is further reflected by how it is contrasted here to shalom, which means “peace, health, or well-being.” As Ben Witherington explains, the text is not saying that God created good and evil, but rather that “he brings both blessing and curse, even on his own people.” [5] The Lord had brought “disaster” on his people in the judgment of exile, but he would also bring the shalom of restoration and return. Israel’s shalom would also mean “disaster” for Babylon. This understanding of Isaiah 45:7 also accords with the clear teaching of James 1:13–17 that God is not the author of evil.

Rather than attributing the origin of moral evil to God, Isaiah 45:7 instead offers a strong affirmation of God’s sovereignty. Gary Smith comments, “Everything that happens in the world is connected to God’s activity, whether it appears to be good or bad. It all works together to fulfill God’s purposes, even if people do not understand or accept these things as the work of God.”[6] God is sovereign over all things but not in a mechanistic way that removes human ethical choices and responsibility. Even when the Lord “raises” or “stirs up” kings and armies to carry out his divine judgments (cf. Isa 9:11; Jer 51:1), these entities acted because of their own evil desires rather than divine compulsion and were fully culpable for their crimes (cf. Isa 10:5–14; Jer 50:29; 51:7, 33–39). In Zechariah 1:15, the Lord states that he is “fiercely angry” at the nations who had gone too far in executing punishment on his own people with whom he was only “a little angry.” The fact that God holds these nations responsible for their actions reflects that they acted on their own accord and that they exceeded God’s intentions. Terence Fretheim comments, “The exercise of divine wrath against their excessiveness shows that the nations were not puppets in the hand of God. They retained their power to make decisions and execute policies that flew in the face of the will of God.”[7]

 

By David A. Croteau, Gary Yates

Proverbs 16:4: Has God Created Wicked People to Destroy Them?

              The fact that the Hebrew word ra`ah can be translated both as “evil” and “disaster” is not only the key to a proper understanding of Isaiah 45:7, but also helps to clarify the meaning of Proverbs 16:4, another passage dealing with God’s sovereignty over humans and the world he has created. The verse reads, “The Lord has prepared everything for his purpose—even the wicked for the day of ‘disaster’ (ra`ah).” The verse does not mean that God causes wicked people to do evil things, and it is not teaching that God creates the wicked to accomplish his purposes or that he predestines them to do evil so that he might glorify himself by their destruction, as some have claimed.[8] The verse does not explain why God creates wicked people but rather states that God governs his world by making sure that deeds and consequences correspond.[9] The verb “to do” (pa`al) means “to work out, bring about, accomplish,” and most English translations reflect the idea of God working out everything “for its purpose” or “for his purpose.” The word “purpose” (ma`aneh) actually means “answer” (cf. “answer [ma`aneh] of the tongue” in v. 1), and “for its answer” actually refers to how God causes every action to the appropriate consequence as its “answer” or counterpart. God operates his world so that the wicked will ultimately experience their “day of disaster” as punishment for their deeds.[10] Even when judgment is delayed, this ultimate time or reckoning is inevitable and unavoidable. No one is exempt from judgment or accountability to God.             

              This interpretation of Proverbs 16:4 fits with the larger message of Proverbs that the path of wisdom and righteousness leads to life and blessing, while the path of folly and wickedness leads to cursing and death. This understanding also fits with the contextual focus in Proverbs 16:1–7 on how God administers justice to the righteous and the wicked. The Lord “weighs motives” to determine a person’s true nature (16:2), he will not allow the arrogant to go unpunished (16:5), and he causes others to be at peace with a righteous man (16:7).

 

Application

God’s people can trust that even when evil appears to be winning the day, the Lord remains in control and directs the course of history. If God used the Assyrians, Babylonians, and Persians to accomplish his purposes in the ancient world, we can rest assured that God remains sovereign over the chaotic world that we live in today. Injustice, violence, terrorism, and even the threat of nuclear war will not prevent God from bringing history to its desired end when he rules over all in the new heavens and new earth. God’s sovereignty is such that he uses even the evil plans and actions of sinful humans to accomplish his purposes without in any way being the cause or source of that evil. God is not only all-powerful; he is also perfectly good and holy with no taint of evil in his character. Believers can trust that the one in charge of human history is “too pure” to even look at evil (Hab 1:13).

 

Bibliography

 

Commentaries

Oswalt, John N., The Book of Isaiah, Chapters 40-66. NICOT. Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1998. Scholarly evangelical commentary with clear explanation of meaning of Isaiah 45:7 and why this verse does not teach that God is the creator of moral evil.

 

Websites

Witherington, Ben. “Mistranslated and Misquoted Verses-Isaiah 45:7.” February 20, 2016. http://www.patheos.com/blogs/bibleandculture/2016/02/20/mistranslated-and-misquoted-verses-isaiah-45-7/. Accessed December 20, 2016. Evangelical NT scholar provides brief explanation refuting idea that Isaiah 45:7 presents God as the creator of evil.

 

 

 


[1] Adam Lee, “Little-Bible Verses V: God Creates Evil,” January 21, 2007. Accessed December 20, 2016. http://www.patheos.com/blogs/daylightatheism/2007/01/little-known-bible-verses-v-god-creates-evil/

 

[2] Ibid.

[3] See the entries on ra`ah in BDB, 949 (categories 2 and 3); and HALOT Study Edition, 2:1262–64 (categories 4 and 5).

 

[4] John Oswalt, The Book of Isaiah, Chapters 40–66, NICOT (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1998), 204–5.

[5] Ben Witherington, “Mistranslated and Misquoted Verses—Isaiah 45:7,” February 20, 2016. http://www.patheos.com/blogs/bibleandculture/2016/02/20/mistranslated-and-misquoted-verses-isaiah-45-7/.. Accessed December 20, 2016.

 

[6] Gary V. Smith, Isaiah 40–66, NAC 15B (Nashville: B&H Academic, 2009), 258.

 

[7] Terence E. Fretheim, “’I Was Only a Little Angry’: Divine Violence in the Prophets,” in What Kind of God? Collected Essays of Terence E. Fretheim, Siphrut 14, ed. M. J. Chan and B. A. Strawn (Winona Lake, Ind: Eisenbrauns, 2015), 173–74.

 

[8] John Calvin (Calvin’s New Testament Commentaries: The Epistles of Paul the Apostle to the Romans and the Thessalonians, trans. Ross Mackenzie [Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1960, 1995], 207–8] writes on this verse: “Solomon also teaches us that not only was the destruction of the ungodly foreknown, but the ungodly themselves have been created for the specific purpose of perishing.”

 

[9] Allen P. Ross, “Proverbs,” in The Expositor’s Bible Commentary, vol. 6, rev. ed., ed. T. Longman and D. E. Garland (Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 2008), 144.

 

[10] Ibid.

9 Evidences for the Resurrection of Jesus

Resurrection_Pilon_Louvre_RF2292_MR1592_MR1593.jpg

Christianity begins with Easter. Without the resurrection, there is no Easter. According to the apostle Paul, “If Christ has not been raised, then our preaching is in vain and our faith is in vain,” meaning that if the resurrection of Jesus never happened, then Christianity as a whole crumbles (1 Cor. 15:14).

How can we know that the resurrection of Jesus actually happened? Is our faith in Christ firmly placed and supported by evidence, or is our faith misplaced and in vain? In an effort to demonstrate that our faith is well-placed in Christ, I will share nine brief evidences for the resurrection of Jesus, each of which begins with the letter “E.”

 

1)     Early accounts. The majority of scholars believe that the crucifixion of Jesus took place in 30 A.D. The four Gospels were written within just a few decades of the death of Jesus (70-95 A.D. according to critical scholars). Most of Paul’s letters were written prior to 60 A.D. Additionally, Paul records an ancient creed in 1 Corinthians 15:3-8, which notes the appearances of Jesus to individuals and groups; this creed can be traced all the way back to within a few years of the resurrection itself (this creed dates to 30-35 A.D.).[1]

 

The sources for Jesus are remarkably early, especially in comparison to sources for other ancient historical figures. For example, consider Alexander the Great, one of the greatest leaders and military minds in ancient history. The earliest sources for Alexander are nearly 300 years after his life; the best sources (Arrian and Plutarch) are even later (400+ years after his life), yet they are still considered trustworthy. With Jesus, we have sources within 10 years of his life, and a number of other sources within 20-70 years.

 

2)     Eyewitness accounts. According to 1 Corinthians 15:3-8, over 500 people saw Jesus alive, in addition to Peter, James, Paul, and the rest of the disciples. At the time Paul reported these events around 55 A.D., many of the individuals Jesus appeared to were still alive and could be interviewed (this was roughly 25 years after Jesus’ death and resurrection).

 

In addition to the people who saw Jesus alive after his crucifixion, eyewitness testimony is foundational for the New Testament as a whole, with every book either being written by an eyewitness or by someone under the direction of an eyewitness. One of the greatest examples of this is 2 Peter 1:16, which reads, “For we did not follow cleverly devised myths when we made known to you the power and coming of our Lord Jesus Christ, but we were eyewitnesses of his majesty.”[2] In other words, Peter wasn’t just reporting news that he heard, but rather something he saw with his own eyes.

 

3)     Extra-biblical accounts. The events surrounding the resurrection of Jesus are mentioned by numerous individuals (Christians and non-Christians) from outside the New Testament. For example, the crucifixion of Jesus is referenced by more than ten ancient sources (Tacitus, Josephus, Mara-Bar-Serapion, Lucian, Talmud, Clement of Rome, Ignatius, Polycarp, Barnabas, Justin Martyr, etc.). The disciples’ experiences with the risen Jesus are reported by several extra-biblical sources as well (Josephus, Ignatius, Justin Martyr, etc.).

 

4)     Embarrassing details. When dealing with historical events, one piece of evidence that lends credibility to an account’s authenticity is the inclusion of embarrassing details. All four Gospels mention that several women were the first to find the tomb empty, which makes them the primary eyewitnesses (Mt. 28:1-8; Mk. 16:1-8; Lk. 24:1-10; Jn. 20:1-2). This is significant because in first century Jewish and Roman cultures, women were looked down upon by men and their testimony was frequently regarded as untrustworthy. If the writers of the Gospels were making up a story that they wanted people to believe, they would have stated that men were the first to find the tomb empty. Why didn’t they do that? Because they wanted to tell the truth (women were really the first to find the tomb empty).

 

5)     Enemy attestation. Even Jesus’ enemies didn’t deny that the tomb was empty. They had an alternative explanation for how the tomb became empty (the disciples stole Jesus’ body; Mt. 28:11-15), but they acknowledged that the tomb was empty nonetheless.[3]

 

Enemy attestation is a powerful form of testimony that involves an enemy stating something in favor of the opposing view. Enemies have nothing to gain when they do this. In the case of Jesus, the enemies of Jesus certainly didn’t have anything to gain by reporting that the tomb was empty – but they did so anyway.

 

6)     Empty tomb. There are a number of reasons to believe that the tomb was empty,[4] one of which involves its location in Jerusalem. The Romans, Jews, and Christians knew where Jesus was buried; the location of his tomb was no secret. When Christians began spreading the news (in Jerusalem) that Jesus had risen from the dead, the Romans and/or Jews could have simply removed the body of Jesus from the tomb and displayed it in order to shatter the “hoax.” However, Jesus’ body was never produced; if it was we would have certainly heard about it from the critics of Christianity, particularly the second century skeptic, Celsus, who wrote against the resurrection.

 

7)     Emergence of the church. No historian would deny that thousands of people began following the life and teachings of Jesus in the first century shortly after his “alleged resurrection” (Acts 2:41). This number continued to grow rapidly throughout the remainder of the first century (Acts 2:47). There are several extra-biblical accounts to verify the emergence of the early church (Tacitus, Pliny the Younger, Trajan, Suetonius, etc.). How can the sudden emergence of Christianity be explained apart from the resurrection of Jesus?

 

8)     Entirely changed lives. Prior to Jesus’ death, and for three days while he was in the grave, the disciples were skeptical and afraid (Lk. 24:21; Jn. 20:19).[5] However, after Jesus’ resurrection, the lives of the disciples were entirely different; all of them were persecuted and many were martyred as a result of their belief in the risen Christ. James (the brother of Jesus) and the apostle Paul experienced radical conversions as well. Like the disciples, James and Paul also subjected themselves to persecution and martyrdom because they were convinced that Jesus had risen from the dead.[6]

 

Skeptics may comment that the transformation of these individuals (the disciples, James, and Paul) is insignificant, since it is normal for people to convert from one set of beliefs to another. However, the cause of these conversions is different. People usually convert to a particular religion because they hear the message of that religion from a secondary source and believe the message. The reason for the transformations of the disciples, James, and Paul is quite different; they are the result of what they actually saw with their own eyes: the risen Jesus.

 

9)     Expected event. On numerous occasions throughout his ministry, Jesus predicted that he would die and rise again (Mt. 12:39-40; 16:21; Mk. 8:31; Lk. 9:22; Jn. 2:18-22; 10:17-18). In fact, Jesus predicted these events so frequently that his predictions actually became common knowledge (Mt. 27:62-64; 28:6). It’s one thing to make a prediction; it’s another thing to predict something that actually happens. Jesus’ predictions regarding his own death and resurrection suggest that he really is the Son of God and risen Lord.

 

Despite the amount of evidence provided above, let’s remember that the resurrection is more than a fact to be proven; it’s the culminating event in God’s redemptive plan on behalf of mankind – and it has incredible implications for our lives today. The shed blood of Jesus and his resurrection from the dead are not distant events in history, they are present realities that make it possible for us to be forgiven of our sins (Heb. 9:22), experience and enjoy an intimate relationship with God (1 Pet. 3:18), undergo radical transformation (Gal. 1:23), and carry out all that God has called us to do in our lives (Mt. 28:20). The resurrection of Jesus also gives us hope for the future – since death was not the end for Christ, we have hope that it won’t be the end for us either (1 Cor. 15:22, 35-58).

 

Happy Easter! Enjoy celebrating the risen Jesus this weekend, knowing that your faith in him is well-placed and supported by a vast amount of evidence.

“He is not here, for he has risen, as he said” (Matthew 28:6).

 

 

 

Stephen S. Jordan currently serves as a high school Bible teacher at Liberty Christian Academy in Lynchburg, Virginia. He is also a Bible teacher, curriculum developer, and curriculum editor at Liberty University Online Academy, as well as a PhD student at Liberty University. Prior to his current positions, Stephen served as youth pastor at Pleasant Ridge Baptist Church in State Road, North Carolina. He and his wife, along with their two children and German shepherd, reside in Goode, Virginia.


 *Note: This article was a community effort; it would not appear as it currently does without the thoughtful help of several of my apologetics students at Liberty Christian Academy, including: Kaadia Preston, Drew Thomas, Olivia Jerominek, Gillian Howell, Savannah Summers, Keana Starbird, Sarah Nelson, Jackson Downey, and Hunter Krycinski.


Notes:

[1] A New Testament creed is a statement of faith that was often recited verbally by groups of early Christians, most likely when they gathered for worship in house churches. Here are a couple of modern day examples of “creeds” or statements that we are well aware of due to the number of times we have heard and repeated them ourselves: (1) secular “creed” – “Humpty Dumpty sat on a wall… (Can you finish the rest of this statement?); and (2) Christian “creed” – “Amazing grace, how sweet the sound…” (Can you finish the rest of this statement?). In 1 Corinthians 15:3-8, Paul records a creed like this – it was one that was very familiar to early Christians due to the number of times they heard and repeated it themselves. What is interesting about this creed is that it predates, or comes before, Paul recording it in 1 Corinthians in 55 A.D. Scholars actually trace this creed to 30-35 A.D.

[2] Also consider these verses, which further support the claim that eyewitness testimony is foundational to the New Testament as a whole: Luke 1:1-4; 24:44-49; John 1:6-7; 21:24-25; Acts 1:6-8; 2:23-24, 32; 3:15; 4:20, 33; 10:39-42; 1 Corinthians 15:3-8; 1 Peter 5:1; 1 John 1:1-3.

[3] This is also referenced by the second century Christian apologist, Justin Martyr.

[4] Here are a few additional reasons to believe the tomb was empty: (1) several women found the tomb empty and told others about it – this is an embarrassing detail (see evidence 4); (2) the enemies of Jesus verified the tomb was empty and spread the news that the disciples stole his body in order to explain its emptiness (see evidence 5); (3) if the tomb wasn’t empty, then no one would have believed the disciples when they claimed the tomb was empty (see evidence 7); and (4) if the tomb wasn’t empty, the lives of the disciples wouldn’t have been transformed (see evidence 8).

[5] This is another embarrassing detail. The fact that the disciples doubted and denied Jesus is a detail that doesn’t paint the disciples in a positive light. Embarrassing details usually increase the perceived credibility of a historical source.

[6] The transformation of the disciples is referenced in several extra-biblical sources, including: Tacitus, Suetonius, Josephus, Clement of Rome, and Pliny the Younger.

Help is Come!

Rembrandt van Rijn -  Christ and St Mary Magdalen at the Tomb

Rembrandt van Rijn - Christ and St Mary Magdalen at the Tomb

Reliable rumors circulate a dark lord has arisen.  He is seeking to strengthen his power.  He is annexing peaceful lands; building large armies; and manufacturing weapons at breakneck speed.  His ultimate prize is the last gold ring.  With the last gold ring his dominion will be complete.

By torturing a captive, the dark lord Sauron learns of the ring’s whereabouts.  It’s in the possession of a hobbit, Bilbo Baggins.  A hobbit is a hafling – a little person of small stature and large feet.  Hobbit Bilbo Baggins dwells in a rural Shire in Middle Earth.  The dark lord Sauron dispatches wraith-riders to the Shire to seize the ring.  Oblivious to it all, the rural dwellers of Hobbiton throw a great birthday party for Bilbo.  Meanwhile, dark wraiths are riding to the Shire.

Before their arrival, a wizard galumphs down the road into Hobbiton.   In a donkey-drawn cart the wizard Gandalf comes wearing a dull, pointy, felt hat, a long grey beard and grey tunic.  He has come to help Frodo Baggins receive the ring and take it to safety.  The grey wizard comes with one motive:  to save the land from tyrannical evil. 

This story imitates the greater, true story.  We live in perilous times.   It certainly was then.  Judea was ruled by a foreign, world-empire, Rome.  There was no independence for the locals.   Disease was rampant.  ‘Doctors’ only made the ill worse.  Demonic activity was present but unrecognized.  Sin ruled personal and social relationships.  Sin wasn’t acknowledged but accepted as the way things are.  People lived in guilt.  There was little means of obtaining forgiveness.  Houses of worship were led by religious leaders interested more in themselves than God’s glory.  Death could strike at any time, even among the young. 

Though disease is moderated, the same dynamics are still present today.  Empire- building tyrants like Hitler, Stalin, Mao Tse-Tung, and Muslim terrorists threaten us.  Once Christian Europe and America have lethal elements working within to expunge God from public life.  Sin is destroying the personal and social fabric of society.  Many today – even the churched – don’t recognize sin as sin.   Everyone reading this sees its effects in your lives.  Philosopher Etienne Gilson observed, ‘A world which has lost the Christian God cannot but resemble a world which had not yet found him.’  Someone please help us!  Help!! Help!!

Help has come!  A Rescuer is at hand!  A Deliverer is here!  Like the grey wizard Gandalf showing up in the village - but ten times better - ‘Christ Jesus came into the world to save sinners’ (1 Timothy 1: 15).   Indeed, ‘the true light, the light that enlightens all, was coming into the world’ (John 1: 9) and ‘I have come as a light into the world’ Jesus says (John 12: 46).   Perk up your ears!  Hear the joyful news! Celebrate it!  Help has come!  Help is here!  ‘Ye blind behold your Savior come, and leap you lame for joy!’

Is it too good to be true?  What are the motives?  Who offers help without expecting something in return?  What’s the catch?  Is it for personal gain?  No. Jesus’ estate was a cloak for which soldiers gambled.  Was it for power?  Does the God of the universe need power?  Jesus had no institutional power.  The church hierarchy excluded him. Rome crucified him.  Was it for reputation?  For glory?  Called an illegitimate son, a false prophet and a fraud, Jesus died a criminal.  Even followers forsook him.  Don’t think so.

What’s His motive?  Love.  ‘For God so loved the world that he gave his only begotten son…’ and ‘to Him who loves us’ writes John.  When Jesus saw the crowds, he pitied them.  Our Helper has a heart to shepherd us lost souls through this dark world.  “I have come as a light into the world so that everyone who believes in me should not remain in darkness’ (John 12: 46).   More, Jesus wants to overcome death with life.  ‘I came that they may have life…’ (John 10:10).  He does not want me a sinner to die in my sin alienated from God.  ‘Christ Jesus came into the world to save sinners’.

Jesus helped us by accomplishing salvation through His death on the cross.  His death removed my sin the offense standing between God and me. His death removed my offense and fulfilled my sentence.  The novel I Am David takes place seven years after World War II.  The Communists take a little boy David from his mother.  David is put into a Stalinist labor camp in Bulgaria.  An older man Johannes befriends and mentors David.  Johannes prepares David to escape from prison.  He wants him to be reunited with his mother.

One day when David is twelve, the guards force the prisoners into a line-up.  Someone had stolen a soap bar.  The authorities will flush out the offender and shoot him.  The commander began to go down the line.  Little David had stolen the soap bar.  He held it in his hands behind his back.  He didn’t know what to do.  The guard brandished a pistol ready to shoot whoever held the soap.  His mentor Johannes, standing next to David, saw David had the soap.  Johannes slipped his hand secretly over David’s and took the soap from him.  No sooner had Johannes done so then the guard discovered Johannes held the soap.  Quickly pointing his pistol he shot Johannes dead.  David was spared.  Johannes covered David’s theft.  He made David’s wrong his own and took the judgment.  But having learned from Johannes, David escaped.  David lived and was reunited with his mother.  Jesus said, ‘The Son of Man came to give his life a ransom for many.’

You are in great danger.  You’re holding the gold ring.  The soap bar is in your hands.  Jesus has come to rescue you.  Picture Him as in Holman Hunt’s oil painting, ‘The Light of the World’.  See the figure of Jesus standing at night at your cottage door.  Holding a lantern in one hand, with the other Jesus knocks at your door.  His lamp illumines the vines growing up by your door.  Hard times have come to you.  Night is upon you.  But here Jesus is… at your door: the Light of the world, your Rescuer, your Savior, the Son of God, at your door!  The door has no handle on the outside.  Only you can open it from the inside.

“He came to his own home, but his own did not allow him to enter’.  Do not be like the passengers Seaman Leslie Morton saw in 1915 on the deck of the sinking Lusitania.  The Lusitania, the twin of the Titanic, fifteen minutes earlier was struck off the coast of Ireland by a Nazi U-boat torpedo.  The sea was filling the ship at a steady pace.  Seaman Leslie Morton lowered a lifeboat to some passengers.  Strangely, they were afraid to let go of the sinking ship.  They held tightly to the ship’s ropes and deck rails.  They more trusted the big sinking ship than the lifeboat that would save them.

Be persons who receive.  Even if you received Jesus twenty years ago, reaffirm you receive Him still.  To all who receive him, who believe in his name, he gives the right to be His children.  See Jesus before you…at your door… your Savior come… ready to help you…able to save you.  Let go rebellion.  Let go of yourself.  Throw yourself onto Him.  Help is come!  


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  Tom was most recently pastor of the Bellevue Charge in Forest, Virginia until retiring in July.  Studying John Wesley’s theology, he received his M.A. and Ph.D. degrees from the University of Bristol, Bristol, England. While a student, he and his wife Pam lived in John Wesley’s Chapel “The New Room”, Bristol, England, the first established Methodist preaching house.  Tom was a faculty member of Asbury Theological Seminary from 1998-2003. He has contributed articles to Methodist History and the Wesleyan Theological Journal. He and his wife Pam have two children, Karissa, who is an Associate Attorney at McCandlish Holton Morris in Richmond, and, John, who is a junior communications major/business minor at Regent University.  Tom enjoys being outdoors in his parkland woods and sitting by a cheery fire with a good book on a cool evening.

 

 

Comment

Tom Thomas

Tom was most recently pastor of the Bellevue Charge in Forest, Virginia until retiring in July.  Studying John Wesley’s theology, he received his M.A. and Ph.D. degrees from the University of Bristol, Bristol, England. While a student, he and his wife Pam lived in John Wesley’s Chapel “The New Room”, Bristol, England, the first established Methodist preaching house.  Tom was a faculty member of Asbury Theological Seminary from 1998-2003. He has contributed articles to Methodist History and the Wesleyan Theological Journal. He and his wife Pam have two children, Karissa, who is an Associate Attorney at McCandlish Holton Morris in Richmond, and, John, who is a junior communications major/business minor at Regent University.  Tom enjoys being outdoors in his parkland woods and sitting by a cheery fire with a good book on a cool evening.

Risen from the Dead? A Sample Sermon Manuscript for Apologetic Preaching

            Here is a sermon manuscript (albeit another brief one!) based on the STEPS model for apologetic preaching, as applied to positive apologetics, i.e., where the apologist focuses on reasons why someone might believe, rather than focusing on what is wrong some particular belief or religion. To help understand the “flow” of the message, the manuscript is in five parts based on the STEPS acrostic.

Specify the Apologetic Topic

            What reasons are there to believe that Jesus rose from the dead? That question may surprise some of you, since you already believe Jesus rose, and you have never felt the need to develop a list of reasons for your belief. If that describes you, then I invite you to simply listen and consider why you believe what you believe. Remember, faith involves evidence and certainty, so what you hear today can be a help in growing your faith. Plus, you never know when the Lord is going to give you the opportunity to talk with someone who is not as sure as you about Jesus’ resurrection, and you will be able to help them along after hearing this message.

            Maybe, though, you are new to the Christian faith and hunger to know more about your faith, or possibly someone has recently posed a question or objection about the resurrection that you would like to be able to answer with confidence. In either case, this message is for you, too. It’s also offered with the seeker in mind, the one who is looking for answers and thinks Christianity may be where to find them. Whoever you are and whatever your situation, let’s make a journey together and discover reasons to believe that Jesus rose from the dead.

Tell the Topic’s Significance

            Before considering the biblical and rational basis for believing the resurrection occurred, consider a few of the theological and practical reasons the topic is significant. From a theological perspective the resurrection is an essential part of the gospel message. As Paul explains in 1 Cor. 15:3-4, “I delivered to you first of all that which I also received: that Christ died for our sins according to the Scriptures, and that He was buried, and that He rose again the third day according to the Scriptures.” In this passage we learn that the gospel is about Christ’s death, burial, and resurrection—all three are fundamentals of the good news, but especially the resurrection. This is why Paul goes on in 15:14 and 17 to declare that “if Christ is not risen, then our preaching is empty, and your faith is also empty…. And if Christ is not risen, your faith is futile; you are still in your sins!” Clearly, the Christian faith depends upon the resurrection.

            Likewise, the resurrection is a practical help when considering our own mortality and the death of our loved one who are Christians. Jesus’ victory over death holds a promise of future things for all who believe, since every Christian, too, will one day rise from the dead if they die before Jesus returns. Paul’s words in 1 Cor. 15:20, 52 and 54 are especially helpful in this regard: “But now Christ is risen from the dead and has become the first fruits of those who have fallen asleep…. For the trumpet will sound, and the dead will be raised incorruptible…. So when this corruptible has put on incorruption, and this mortal put on immortality, then shall be brought to pass the saying that is written: ‘Death is swallowed up in victory.’” What is the basis of this hope? The resurrection of Jesus from the dead! Death is not the final word. Resurrection is. Eternal joy is coming because Jesus rose from the dead.

Explain the Biblical and Rational Basis Concerning the Apologetic Topic

            The biblical evidence for the resurrection of Jesus is plentiful. Paul’s testifies what Jesus “rose again the third day according to the Scriptures, and that He was seen by Cephas, then by the twelve. After that he was seen by over five hundred brethren at once…. After that He was seen by James, then by all the apostles. Then last of all He was seen by me also” (1 Cor. 15:4-7). Concerning the five hundred brethren Paul describes, he explains that “the greater part remain to the present, but some have fallen asleep” (1 Cor. 15:6). Why is this significant? Only because Paul was making a public claim that many who saw Jesus after his resurrection were still alive at the time the letter to the Corinthians was written. Paul was appealing to eyewitness testimony writ large. Further, Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John all give accounts of the resurrection in their gospel narratives, each providing specific details about when the empty tomb was discovered, who was there, as well as accounts of the encounters they and others had with Jesus after he arose. These examples indicate there is strong biblical evidence to support Jesus’ resurrection from the dead.

            What about other reasons to believe the resurrection account? Consider the historical testimony of leaders in the early church after the time of the apostles. Men like Origen, Polycarp, and Justin Martyr—sometimes referred to as Church Fathers—all testify to the resurrection of Jesus as both historical fact and having pastoral significance. Consider also the personal changes in the apostles after the resurrection, how Peter went from denying Jesus to boldly proclaiming him as the risen Lord, and how Paul went from persecutor of Christians to missionary for Jesus and defender of the resurrection. Finally, if the resurrection did not happen, they why didn’t the Jewish authorities simply produce the body of Jesus and end the early church’s growth and influence? They didn’t do so because the body of Jesus was not in the tomb. He rose from the dead, just as he promised. This isn’t all the biblical and rational evidence for the resurrection, but there is certainly much that is worthwhile in what we have considered. The evidence is in, and there is good reason to believe that Jesus rose from the dead.

Practically Apply the Apologetic Topic for the Hearers

            Amid all this talk of biblical and rational evidence there are also particular practical benefits to the resurrection for each of your lives. Perhaps you are struggling with a sinful habit and you seem to always make one step forward but two steps back. As a Christian you can gain the victory because of the resurrection of Jesus. That’s right! According to Rom. 8:10-11, “if Christ is in you, the body is dead because of sin, but the Spirit is life because of righteousness. But if the Spirit of Him who raised Jesus from the dead dwell in you, He who raised Jesus from the dead will also give life to your mortal bodies through His Spirit who dwells in you.” Without the resurrection you are powerless, but with the resurrection comes power through the Spirit. You can overcome sin in your life because Jesus rose from the dead.

            Another benefit to believing the resurrection relates to the brokenness in our world. Do you ever find yourself thinking that the news is always bad, that things just seem to get worse and worse? You are not alone, and the world is a dark place in many ways. However, because of the resurrection of Jesus there is hope that one day the world will be put to right. Concerning this hope, Paul’s words in 1 Cor. 15:22-25 are comforting: “For as in Adam all die, even so in Christ all shall be made alive. But each one in his own order: Christ the  first fruits, afterward those who are Christ’s at His coming. Then comes the end, when He delivers the kingdom to God the Father, when He puts an end to all rule and all authority and power. For He must reign till He has put all enemies under His feet. The last enemy that will be destroyed is death.” These verses remind us that the resurrection of Jesus is more than a doctrine, more than a historical fact, it is the final hope for an end to suffering and the beginning of a better world.

Summarize and Transition to a Related Invitation

            We started by asking about the reasons to believe that Jesus rose from the dead. We have considered this question in several ways, including its theological and practical importance, the biblical and rational case for believing the resurrection, and how the resurrection matters in particular circumstances of our lives. I trust that you feel the weight of the evidence concerning Jesus’ resurrection, and that your faith is strengthened. If you are seeking answers, I pray you give sincere consideration to those offered here.

            As we conclude I would like to give this simple invitation. Christian, the resurrection is central to your faith. Perhaps it is time to give yourself to serious study of its reliability, asking God to give you opportunities to share the evidence for the resurrection with others. Will you do that today? Someone in your life needs to hear about the resurrection, and you are the one to tell them. What about you, the seeker who came today looking for answers? As I just stated, I pray you give sincere consideration to those offered here. Jesus died for you, and was buried and rose again, all for you. He offers to give you new life, resurrection life. Will you accept his offer today?


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T. J. shares a passion for the moral argument(s) and brings much to his new post. He is, in his own words, a “mere Christian with genuine fascination and awe for the breadth and depth of God’s gracious kingdom.” He became a Christian in 1978, and began pastoral ministry in 1984. He has worked as a youth pastor, senior pastor, church planter, church-based seminary professor, a chaplain assistant in the Army, and a chaplain in the Army National Guard. A southern Illinois native, T. J. is a graduate of Southern Illinois University-Carbondale with a BA in Political Science; Liberty University with an MAR in Church Ministries, an MDiv in Chaplaincy, and a ThM in Theology; Luther Rice College and Seminary with an MA in Apologetics; and Piedmont International University with a DMin in Pastoral Counseling. He is currently writing his dissertation on crisis leadership in the epistle of Jude for the PhD in Leadership at Piedmont, as well as pursuing a PhD in Theology and Apologetics at Liberty, hoping to write his dissertation on some aspect of the intersection of moral apologetics and the pastorate. He is the author of several books, including God Help Us: Encouragement for Evangelism, and Thinking of Worship: A Liturgical Miscellany, as well as journal articles on liturgics, pastoral counseling, homiletics, and apologetics. He and his wife have five children. T. J.’s preaching may be heard at www.sermonaudio.com/fellowshipinchrist.

If God, Why Evil?: A Sample Sermon Manuscript for Apologetic Preaching

            Here is a sermon manuscript (albeit a brief one!) based on the STEPS model for apologetic preaching, as applied to negative apologetics, i.e., where the apologist is playing defense…seeking to remove obstacles to belief. To help understand the “flow” of the message, the manuscript is in five parts based on the STEPS acrostic.

Specify the Apologetic Challenge

            If God exists, why is there so much evil in the world? A tsunami destroys several coastal villages, sweeping entire families into the sea. A military dictator decides a neighboring people are a threat and orders his troops to kill them all in a merciless genocidal purge. A car spins out of control on a patch of black ice, crashing into a ravine and leaving a mother and her infant son dead. These are real examples of evil in the world around us, and each one brings heartache and brokenness in its wake. Such instances leave many unsure how to reconcile the existence of God and the existence of evil, and some even conclude that in a world of such pain God cannot exist.

            Maybe you agree with them and sit here today not believing in God, or at least you are not sure if God exists. You have experienced evil, and know of others who have, too, and now the idea of God seems more of a fairy tale than a reality. Surveys of religious beliefs, and specifically about whether God exists, show that you are not alone in your conclusion and questioning. Not everyone believes in God, and often the reason is related to so much evil in the world. Let’s think about this together. Does evil in the world prove that God does not exist?

Tell the Critic’s Best Argument

            Before I present what I think are good reasons to believe in the existence of God in spite of the evil in the world, I want to talk a bit more about what many atheists have argued in defense of the conclusion that evil rules out God’s existence. The atheist begins by acknowledging the presence of evil in the world. Consider, for example, what I discussed earlier. The tsunami that kills thousands; a tyrant who commits genocide by killing an entire neighboring people; the mother and child who die in a car crash—these are examples of evil in world. The tsunami and car crash represent what may be called natural evil, and the genocide is an example of moral evil.

            If God exists, the atheist continues, then surely he would be powerful enough to stop evil, both natural and moral. God is all-powerful, right? Further, if God exists, then surely he would want to stop evil. God is all-good, right? Yet, evil still exists, both in natural disasters and in the wicked choices people make. So, the atheist concludes that God is either not powerful enough to stop evil, or he is not really good, since he does not stop evil. Therefore, since evil exists, God must not exist, at least not an all-powerful and all-good God. This is especially challenging for the Christian conception of God, which considers God’s power and goodness as essential to his existence. Thus, if the atheist is right, and evil proves God is not all-power or all-good, then what of the Christian God?

Expose the Weakness of the Critic’s Argument

            But wait a minute. Before we conclude that the presence of evil in the world is proof that God does not exist, and if he does then he is weak, wicked, or both, I think there are some problems with the atheist’s argument. Let’s consider these as questions. What if God is all-powerful and all-good, but he refuses to override human free will? While we can certainly imagine a world without moral evil—without genocidal military dictators, without child molesters, without rapists—such a world would also be somehow less than human if free will were taken away and the only reason for no moral evil was because there was no human freedom. True freedom implies choices, the freedom to choose good or to choose evil.

            Further, if God does not exist, then where does the atheist get the ideas of good and evil, of right and wrong? If the atheist responds that each person must decide what is right and wrong, then possibly what the rapist does is actually right in his own way of thinking. Even if the atheist refuses to go along with such relativism, insisting that there are actual moral facts, a real and objective right and wrong, they have no ultimate standard from which to make this conclusion. Moral laws require a moral lawgiver, but the atheist does not think one exists. There are other questions to ask the atheist who believes evil and God cannot coexist, but these represent what I think are the ones especially important for now.

Present the Answer to the Apologetic Challenge

            What does the Christian faith teach about God’s existence, especially considering the presence natural and moral evil in the world? For starters, the Bible explains that God made the world and everything and everyone in it, and that when he did this he made humans as his special representatives. Genesis 1:1 declares that, “In the beginning God created the heavens and the earth,” and in 1:27 that, “God created man in His own image; in the image of God He created him; male and female He created them.” However, as the Bible goes on to reveal, the first humans chose to disobey God in the very area we are discussing—in the area of good and evil. Genesis 2:15-17 describes how “the LORD God took the man and put in in the garden of Eden to tend and keep it. And the LORD God commanded the man, saying, ‘Of every tree of the garden you may freely eat; but of the tree of the knowledge of good and evil you shall not eat, for in the day that you eat of it you shall surely die.”

            Perhaps you have heard how this all turned out, how the man and woman chose to disobey God and eat of the tree of the knowledge of good and evil, and how that resulted in several far-reaching consequences. These include a breakdown in human relationships and, eventually, the first murder. Likewise, the natural world became a difficult place for the man to work and live. What are we to make of this? It seems reasonable to me that the misuse of human freedom goes a long way in explaining the presence of evil in the world that God created. The account doesn’t stop here, though. No, far from abandoning the world to evil, God began redeeming it, promising one day that he “will wipe away every tear…there shall be no more death, no sorrow, nor crying. There shall be no more pain” (Rev. 21:4). Thus, it also seems reasonable to me that God will one day bring an end to all evil and, though I am not immune from its effects, that God’s existence is a key to understanding evil in the world.

Summarize and Transition to a Related Invitation

            I don’t pretend that this brief message answers every question related to the presence of evil in the world and whether God exists. There are other aspects of the topic to discuss, and you may have even deeper, more personal questions. However, what we have heard does offer a possible solution to the dilemma created by evil. Yes, evil exists. There have been and will likely be more terrible natural disasters, more evil regimes, and more fatal crashes. Natural and moral evil are part of the world we live in, and they touch all of our lives. Does the Christian faith offer a solution? Absolutely, though it is not a simple, quick fix. The Christian faith not only explains the presence of evil related to human freedom and the promise that evil will one day be fully dealt with; the Christian message is also one that includes God’s own struggle with evil. Jesus Christ was the victim of moral evil. He was murdered in a most ruthless, painful manner, even though he had done no wrong. Jesus took evil personally, dying a criminal’s death on a Roman cross, centuries ago. The Christian faith does not teach that it ended on the cross, though. Rather, as an example of how God will eventually overcome evil, Jesus rose from the dead and will return to earth someday.

            What does all this mean to you as you struggle with evil and God’s existence? Maybe it means that you have begun to consider that evil is not all there is, that God really does exist. If that is you, I hope you will continue to wrestle with these matters and let the evidence build. Talk with the person who invited you here today or talk with me after the service. There is more to know about evil and God and the hope of the Christian message. Maybe you are that person here who has decided it is time to stop doubting and start believing. The evidence makes sense. You’ve heard this message and others like it, maybe even read books and talked with others, and now you are ready to follow the evidence where it leads. It leads to Jesus, and in just a moment we will offer you an opportunity to talk with someone about taking the next step in your journey of faith.

(Next week’s article will give another sample apologetic sermon outline, one that focuses on positive apologetics.)


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T. J. shares a passion for the moral argument(s) and brings much to his new post. He is, in his own words, a “mere Christian with genuine fascination and awe for the breadth and depth of God’s gracious kingdom.” He became a Christian in 1978, and began pastoral ministry in 1984. He has worked as a youth pastor, senior pastor, church planter, church-based seminary professor, a chaplain assistant in the Army, and a chaplain in the Army National Guard. A southern Illinois native, T. J. is a graduate of Southern Illinois University-Carbondale with a BA in Political Science; Liberty University with an MAR in Church Ministries, an MDiv in Chaplaincy, and a ThM in Theology; Luther Rice College and Seminary with an MA in Apologetics; and Piedmont International University with a DMin in Pastoral Counseling. He is currently writing his dissertation on crisis leadership in the epistle of Jude for the PhD in Leadership at Piedmont, as well as pursuing a PhD in Theology and Apologetics at Liberty, hoping to write his dissertation on some aspect of the intersection of moral apologetics and the pastorate. He is the author of several books, including God Help Us: Encouragement for Evangelism, and Thinking of Worship: A Liturgical Miscellany, as well as journal articles on liturgics, pastoral counseling, homiletics, and apologetics. He and his wife have five children. T. J.’s preaching may be heard at www.sermonaudio.com/fellowshipinchrist.

Mailbag: The Best Progressive Arguments for the Acceptance of Homosexuality and a Traditionalist Response

Editor’s Note: Earlier this month, we shared an article, “African Methodism will not bow the knee to US progressivism”, on social media. Charlie commented the following:

So, I would consider myself for this topic to be part of the aforementioned US Progressives. However, this article, while being very pointed, seems to a good job representing the African Church. 

I do have a request though, would it be possible for you guys to release an article on the, honestly, strongest argument presented the conference for the One Church Plan? I feel like they're missing the component of the opposing argument and I would really appropriate the honest response to the US Progressive camp from an evangelical perspective as opposed to an article very caught up in the political side (money, power, etc)

We asked our resident Methodist scholar, Dr. Tom Thomas, to give a reply.

Thank you very much for asking for the best arguments for the acceptance of homosexual practice, marriage and leadership in the church and an evangelical response.  That you are interested in thinking through this difficult issue by examining both the ‘pros’ and ‘cons’ encourages me.  Too often today both sides of an issue are not given fair opportunity for rational interaction.  Permit me to make this proviso: our subject is way too long for a piece this short.  Nonetheless, your request is a worthy exercise.  Let us try to drill down to main arguments.  May this piece spur your study of fuller treatments.   

The determinative factor of both the progressives (those advocating acceptance of homosexual practice) and traditionalists (those advocating sexual relations only between one man and one woman in marriage) viewpoints is their take on the shared text:  Holy Scripture.  One’s assumption here is the basis of a continental divide between whether Scriptural commitments on homosexuality run east, or west!  Progressives reassure traditionalists ‘we love the Bible’ and ‘believe in its authority’.  ‘Good’, says the traditionalist, ‘but cannot one also love the United States Constitution and believe in its authority’?  Is not the paramount question whether the Holy Scripture is the God-breathed Word to human authors who unfailingly express what God desires written; or, whether it is a record of humanly, gifted people’s reflections of their experiences of God?  The traditionalist sees Scripture as God’s revelation to his people; the progressive as human revelation of God-experiences.  For the traditionalist the issue is not Scriptures’ authority but its supreme authority.  Is or is not the Bible God’s inspired, infallible word preeminent over every authority? While progressives privilege ‘the totality of human experience’ and subject all texts to it, the traditionalist submits every authority to Scriptural authority.

In assuming this, therefore, the progressives can say the debate over homosexuality is not about words in the Bible but about what the words ‘mean for us today’.    The GC 2019 Delegate newsletter of the pro-acceptance United Methodist group ‘Mainstream UMC’ says the meaning of the Bible’s words change over time.  Much of the Bible is ‘descriptive truth’ which means what was ‘true’ in former times and cultures is not ‘true’ today.   The traditionalist responds the authors’ words mean today just what they meant then, in South Korea or Kansas.  The meanings’ ‘significance’ may vary and continuing research enlightens the contexts, but what God meant to say then God means to say today.

You can see this play out in specific biblical texts (called ‘clobber texts’ because they are overwhelmingly negative regarding homosexuality) invariably at the center of the debate.    Leviticus 18: 22 (also, 20:13) states, ‘You shall not lie with a male as with a woman; it is an abomination.’  Receiving accolades for his recent theological argument for same sex covenantal partnerships, Durham University Professor Robert Song acknowledges with traditionalists that it is difficult to see any other reference here than to homosexual anal intercourse.   However, Professor Song and other progressives typically discount the force of the prohibition.  They are seen privileging contemporary experience over Scriptural authority when they argue such a law as the above was part of an Old Testament Jewish ritual, purity code fulfilled in Christ.  Like ritual, dietary laws (eating pork), they are no longer binding on Christians today.  Traditionalists in a long tradition beginning in the New Testament distinguish between Jewish purity practices which are obsolete for Christians and Old Testament moral prescriptions such as homosexuality which are not.   The New Testament renews and reinforces these moral prescriptions (not ‘descriptions’) in the manner of Jesus who said he did not come to abolish the law but to fulfill it.

 A second major passage in the homosexual debate is Romans 1: 18-32. Herein the apostle Paul describes how rather than honoring God as God, persons rebelled against Him and exchanged the worship of the Creator for the creation.  This idolatry subverted the creative order God established in Genesis 1.  God constituted the nature of ‘Adam’ (Man, humankind) in His image and likeness, gender-differentiated, opposite-sex pairings, male and female.  Human revolt against God results in a dishonorable disordering of creation plainly demonstrated in males having sexual intercourse with males and females with females. Professor Robert Song basically agrees.  However, Professor Song says, the reason same-sex sex is a sin for Paul is only because it is non-procreative sex.  Procreative sex producing children is the only reason for gender differentiation.  Paul rejects homosexuality on the grounds it prevents offspring.  Professor Song declares Paul’s concern for procreative sex of two opposite genders is now superseded.  Christ’s resurrection has brought in a new, eschatological order, a new age, which reorients male-female procreative sex.  Jesus, speaking of this new age says, ‘Those who belong to this age marry and are given in marriage; but those who are considered worthy of a place in that age and in the resurrection from the dead neither marry nor are given in marriage’(Luke 20: 34f).  A new vision of resurrected life makes the old age heterosexual marriage with its procreative sex obsolescent.  Resurrection life envisages a trajectory of life beyond marriage and procreative sex.  Song comments that same-sex covenantal partnerships might have been impossible for Paul and the New Testament.  Are they not now possible for us?

A traditionalist’s response is threefold.  First, the complementarity of gender differentiation of male-female pairing is not limited, as Song says, to the difference in male-female genitalia (responsible for children).  They run as deep as every cell’s sex chromosome pairings, whether xx (female) or xy (male).  The implications of gender differences of anatomy and physiology extend well beyond the necessity of procreation.  Second, Robert Gagnon, acclaimed New Testament scholar who has written exhaustively on homosexuality, notes Paul, in contrast to others of his day, recommended sexual intercourse in marriage not just for procreation but for mutual satisfaction of desire that might otherwise result in promiscuity (1 Corinthians 7: 2-5). Third, when Jesus speaks of those who ‘neither marry nor are given in marriage’, he is speaking not of the ‘in between times’ in which we Christians now live but the end of time when mortal death is no more and ‘a new heaven and a new earth’ have come.  The new creation has not transcended heterosexual, procreative sex!

Progressives submit the possibility of accepting same-sex covenantal partnerships on account of the church changing its mind over the years on such social issues as slavery, women’s issues, and divorce.  Logically speaking, this argument digresses from the moral issue at hand, homosexuality.  Further, every one of these subjects is a distinct issue which must be discussed in its own right.  The Church may be, and has been, at variance and back and forth on certain positions but God’s Word is constant in its meaning.  However, as Robert Gagnon states, where churches have moderated positions you can usually find a New Testament trajectory that has opened a countervailing possibility. Nevertheless, for instance, in regards to slavery, the New Testament never affirms slavery is a good institution.  New Testament scholar Ben Witherington shows Paul takes God’s people where they are but like Philemon, moves them to realize the Gospel’s implications and treat Onesimus as a free brother in Christ.  The early church worked to emancipate slaves but some churches in the nineteenth century did not.

Be that as it may, the Church and its theologians with roots in Old Testament teaching have never wavered, until very recent times, and always regarded the practice of homosexuality a sin. 

Progressives claim Jesus never spoke of homosexuality and the word is not even in the Bible.  They say the issue is not important to the New Testament.  Traditionalists respond Jesus reinstituted the natural, created order of marriage of Genesis as a biological, spiritual and interpersonal union of the complementary pairing of one man and one woman.  Jesus’ statement on marriage excludes the legitimacy of homosexual behavior, or, for that matter, any extra marital sex.  Indeed Jesus condemns porneia (fornication) in Matthew 15: 19 denouncing any sexual intercourse outside of the marriage covenant.  True, the actual word ‘homosexual’ is not used in the Bible (neither is the word ‘trinity’) but a rose by any other name is still a rose.  In another critical passage, 1 Corinthians 6: 9-10 Paul says ‘male prostitutes (malokos), sodomites (arsenokoitai)…none of these will inherit the kingdom of God.’   Progressives assert Paul is not here condemning loving, same-sex partnerships but only homosexual prostitution.  This follows what they deem is the problem in Genesis 19 - homosexual, gang rape and not consensual, homosexual acts when the men in the town seek to have sex with the visitors in Sodom and Gomorrah.  Their contention Paul is condemning unloving, brutal homosexual acts centers on Paul’s use of two debated Greek words, malokos and arsenokoitai.  Malokos means ‘soft’ or ‘effeminate’ and is likely a young male posing effeminately as a woman as the passive partner to attract another male (often for prostitution).  The second word arsenokoitai is literally translated ‘men who take males to bed’ and means active, consensual partners in homosexual intercourse. When one considers Paul’s Jewish, religious culture’s aversion to homosexuality, traditionalists affirm with New Testament scholars and Robert Gagnon these two terms together comprehend every conceivable passive and active type of same-sex intercourse which Scripture altogether condemns. To summarize, Paul in 1 Corinthians 6: 9 and elsewhere with Jesus condemns all forms of sexual intercourse outside the marriage of a man and a woman.

A prominent, persistent narrative of progressive and homosexual proponents is that homosexuals are ‘born that way’.  I have no doubt homosexuals feel this way.  Professor of Medicine Emerita of the University of Kansas Dr. Barbara Lukert states ‘there is consensus among human sexuality researchers and therapists that homosexuality is unchosen and in most cases unchangeable.’  National proponent for homosexual inclusion in the United Methodist Church, the Rev. Tom Berlin states, ‘We believe sexual orientation is a way a person is created by God rather than a sin they commit against God.’  Believing that this is an immutable, human quality like skin color, progressives assert the church is discriminating against and excluding, oppressing, and hurting homosexuals as it has other minorities.  As a traditionalist, I feel their passion about this; yet, I know of no traditionalist pastor who either desires or acts to exclude any member of the LGBTQIA community.  Pastors want any body and every body to be in worship on Sunday!  In fact, most traditionalist pastors have homosexuals in their church.

Nevertheless, truth and falsity are not emotional categories.  Though progressives are highly motivated to land this argument, truth and falsehood deal with what is and is not, regardless of how one feels.  In the 1990’s William Byne and Bruce Parsons of Columbia University reviewed the entire literature on the biology of homosexuality.  Their conclusion: there is no biological or genetic theory for homosexuality which has scientific consensus.  The New Atlantis journal reported in 2016, ‘Some of the most widely held views about sexual orientation, such as the “born that way” hypothesis, simply are not supported by science.’  The American Psychological Association states: there is no scientific consensus on the cause of homosexuality.  Objectively speaking, we cannot claim homosexuality is inherent.  Even if there were some biological connection, as is suggested in alcoholism, the Bible speaks not of one’s proclivity or orientation, but of one’s behavior. The progressive lament that traditionalists by their rejection of homosexual behavior are oppressing and discriminating against homosexuals whom God has created this way is neither scientific nor biblical but emotionally manipulative.

Nevertheless, progressives contend those who disallow homosexual behavior are ‘judging’, condemning and rejecting homosexuals as unacceptable and to be excluded.   Indeed, all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God but Jesus welcomed and accepted all sinners.  Jesus said, ‘Let anyone among you who is without sin be the first to throw a stone...‘do not judge in order you may not be judged’ he said.  Traditionalists agree with progressives Jesus sought out and radically loved marginal persons (including sexual sinners).  Traditionalists are heard to be condemning the practice when they say ‘no’ to homosexual behavior.  Often they are in a position of having to condemn the practice before they are able to show they accept the person.  Our heart is to accept the person though not the practice.  Is not this Jesus’ emphasis?  Like the woman who interrupted his dinner, she had been a notorious sinner, guilty.  She left a cleansed sinner forgiven. Jesus said to her, ‘Go and sin no more’.  At this point progressives and traditionalists part company.  For the reasons recited above, when they say Jesus loves and accepts homosexuals, they mean ‘lock stock and barrel’ – person and behavior.  We love the sinner - but hate the sin.

Indeed, Jesus says in Matthew 7:1, ‘Judge not’.  That is, do not be a judgmental person putting dark constructions on ambiguous situations.  Do not pronounce eternal condemnation on anyone.  Nonetheless, Jesus says in Matthew 18: 15 ‘rebuke’ those who sin.  Bring their sin to light.  Point it out so that it may be forgiven.  ‘Open rebuke is better than hidden love’ says Proverbs.  Identifying same-sex sex as sin is not judging.  It is trying to bring to bear grace and mercy. 

Our differences range over Scriptures’ absolute authority, textual interpretations, theology, and even science.  At the end of the day, through such interchanges as this, the clarity of truth will shine like gold in a stream and the fullness of grace will come.

 

 


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Tom was most recently pastor of the Bellevue Charge in Forest, Virginia until retiring in July.  Studying John Wesley’s theology, he received his M.A. and Ph.D. degrees from the University of Bristol, Bristol, England. While a student, he and his wife Pam lived in John Wesley’s Chapel “The New Room”, Bristol, England, the first established Methodist preaching house.  Tom was a faculty member of Asbury Theological Seminary from 1998-2003. He has contributed articles to Methodist History and the Wesleyan Theological Journal. He and his wife Pam have two children, Karissa, who is an Associate Attorney at McCandlish Holton Morris in Richmond, and, John, who is a junior communications major/business minor at Regent University.  Tom enjoys being outdoors in his parkland woods and sitting by a cheery fire with a good book on a cool evening.


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Tom Thomas

Tom was most recently pastor of the Bellevue Charge in Forest, Virginia until retiring in July.  Studying John Wesley’s theology, he received his M.A. and Ph.D. degrees from the University of Bristol, Bristol, England. While a student, he and his wife Pam lived in John Wesley’s Chapel “The New Room”, Bristol, England, the first established Methodist preaching house.  Tom was a faculty member of Asbury Theological Seminary from 1998-2003. He has contributed articles to Methodist History and the Wesleyan Theological Journal. He and his wife Pam have two children, Karissa, who is an Associate Attorney at McCandlish Holton Morris in Richmond, and, John, who is a junior communications major/business minor at Regent University.  Tom enjoys being outdoors in his parkland woods and sitting by a cheery fire with a good book on a cool evening.

Mailbag: Why Would God Harden Pharaoh's Heart?

Question: Can you offer any insight into God’s hardening of Pharaoh’s heart? If God is good, why would he do that?

Answer: Eleonore Stump, in her magisterial Wandering in Darkness: Narrative and the Problem of Suffering (and an older article on sanctification, freedom, and the hardening of Pharaoh’s heart), offers some very useful insights that may shed some light on this topic. In a nutshell, we’re as human beings all of us, to one degree or another, internally fragmented, double minded, and in a real sense our deepest freedom is compromised when there’s a fundamental disconnect between our (1st order) desires and our (2nd order) desires about our desires. So if I have an overwhelming desire to gamble but a desire not to have that desire, I’m in that sort of dissonant state and my deepest agency is somewhat compromised.

Suppose I ask God for help and to take away my desire to gamble, and in an act of miraculous deliverance he does. He’s not thereby vitiated my freedom by this gift of sanctification; to the contrary, he’s enhanced it, by enabling my first order and second order desires to move into alignment and for me to live more effectively as the person I want to be.

An inverted example is a case like Joseph Goebbels, Hitler’s Nazi propagandist, who wanted his own heart to harden so he wouldn’t feel compassion for the suffering Poles when he saw a graphic account of the hideous atrocities they were suffering at the hands of German soldiers. “Be hard, my heart, be hard,” he told himself. On reflection his choice was to be that kind of uncompassionate person. His first order desire, at least fleetingly, was one of compassion, but his second order desire, which more accurately reflected who he wanted and deliberatively chose to be, was not to have those compassionate desires.

If God, suppose, were to intervene and harden Goebbels’ heart, taking away some of that compassion, he would be bringing Goebbels’ lower and higher order desires into alignment, making him a more internally integrated person. Rather than detracting from his free will, in a real sense he would be enhancing it a bit. He certainly wouldn’t be making Goebbels less free. God would be giving Goebbels what he really wanted down deep, what he chose when, presumably he could and should have done otherwise. (For all we know, God doing this might help Goebbels see the horror of his choices and choose to repent and change course.)

So when Pharaoh hardened his own heart and God hardened it even more, God was actually honoring Pharaoh’s choice, not detracting from his freedom. God loves us, and desires that none would perish; love isn’t just what God does, it’s who he is. But God will also honor our choices if we decide to hold on to sin tighter than we hold on to him; if we renounce the only ultimate source of Joy there is, we may just get what we want.

That’s the basic idea, and I think it’s a helpful analysis to get our minds, at least a little, around what’s going on in the Pharaoh passage that, for many, poses quite the bête noire of OT stories. Of course the clearest picture we have of the immeasurable love of God is the cross; the Pharaoh passage is one of those challenging ones we have to think about a bit more to understand—in light of the cross.


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With his co-author, Jerry Walls, Dr. Baggett authored Good God: The Theistic Foundations of Morality. The book won Christianity Today’s 2012 apologetics book of the year of the award. He is working on a sequel with Walls that critiques naturalistic ethics, a book to be called God and Cosmos: Moral Truth and Human Meaning. They are under contract with Oxford University Press for a third book in the series, a book that will chronicle the history of moral arguments for God’s existence. Dr. Baggett has also co-edited a collection of essays exploring the philosophy of C.S. Lewis, and edited the third debate between Gary Habermas and Antony Flew on the resurrection of Jesus. Dr. Baggett currently is a professor at the Liberty Baptist Theological Seminary in Lynchburg, VA.  

A Model for Apologetic Preaching

            Most preachers I talk to about apologetics and preaching agree that the two can and should go together, but few have a workable model for developing apologetic sermons. Thus, I developed an approach to preparing apologetic messages that utilizes the acrostic STEPS. Before I share the details of the STEPS model, a word about two types of apologetics: negative and positive. Nash’s definition of the two is helpful:

In negative apologetics, the major objective is producing answers to challenges to religious faith. The proper task of negative apologetics is removing obstacles to belief…. In negative apologetics, the apologist is playing defense. In positive apologetics, the apologist begins to play offense. It is one thing to show (or attempt to show) that assorted arguments against religious faith are weak or unsound; it is a rather different task to offer people reasons why they should believe. The latter is the task of positive apologetics.

Given the difference between negative and positive apologetics, I adapted the STEPS model to address each approach. Here is how STEPS works for negative apologetics.

Specify the Apologetic Challenge

            Given the concern in negative apologetics to defend the faith against attacks, the starting point in developing an apologetic sermon outline for negative apologetics is to specify the apologetic challenge the sermon intends to address. The preacher’s goal at this point is to initiate a connection with the audience based on the topic under consideration. While there is not necessarily one “right” way to do this, it may prove useful to quote an opponent of the Christian faith, followed by a question.

Tell the Critic’s Best Argument

            Having identified the apologetic challenge, the negative apologetic sermon now includes the best example of an argument in favor of the position stated in the challenge. At this point the preacher must take the time to learn and accurately represent the views of those he is engaging. God is not honored nor are the saints helped when strawmen are built and attacked. Always present the opposing view’s best argument.

Present the Answer to the Apologetic Challenge

            At this point the preacher will present what the Bible and other sources say about the apologetic challenge. The focus of the preacher turns from answering the critic to offering reasons to believe the Christian faith despite the apologetic challenge being discussed. When sharing the answer to the apologetic challenge the preacher is helping the hearer understand that the Christian faith is both reasonable and based in divine revelation.

Summarize and Transition to a Related Invitation

            It is possible to present the first four parts of the STEPS model within a sermon that is broader than just the apologetics (e.g., a message about foolishness could include a discussion of the fool’s denial of God’s existence). However, if the message is wholly apologetic, then the preacher’s last responsibility is to summarize and offer a gospel invitation relevant to the audience (i.e., if evangelism, then the gospel portion is an invitation to believe and repent, but if discipleship, then the gospel portion is an invitation to trust God more deeply; if both, then both).

 

And here is how STEPS works for positive apologetics.

Specify the Apologetic Topic

            In a positive apologetic message, where the goal is to present a positive case for belief, the preacher begins by specifying the apologetic topic. This approach sets the expectation with the hearer that the sermon will provide reasons to believe. It will help the preacher connect with his audience if, when introducing the apologetic topic, he avoids the language of doubt (though such language may prove helpful with negative apologetics), focusing instead on inviting the hearer into a deeper consideration of the positive case for believing.

Tell the Topic’s Significance

            After specifying the topic, the preacher gives the hearers a few key reasons why the topic is important. It will help the preacher to think in terms of doctrine and practice at this point. Help the listener understand the doctrinal significance of the topic, how it relates to overall Christian theology. Likewise, discuss how the topic generally relates to living the Christian life, to the practice of faith.

Explain the Biblical and Rational Basis Concerning the Apologetic Topic

            The topic has been presented and its significance considered, so the preacher turns to a presentation of the biblical and rational basis for believing whatever is under consideration. This is the central apologetic content of the message, where the argument in favor of the belief is put forth in clear and compelling terms. While the preacher’s goal is not to harangue his hearers and browbeat them concerning the topic, he should make an impassioned case for “the hope that is in [him]” (1 Pet. 3:15).

Practically Apply the Apologetic Topic for the Hearers

            This is where the preacher transitions from apologetic case-making to practical application. How does the apologetic topic relate to the hearers? The emphasis at this point in making apologetic realities fit real life needs.

Summarize and Transition to a Related Invitation

            As with the STEPS model applied to negative apologetics, so it is possible for the positive model to be a part of a message dealing with something not exclusively apologetic. If so, there is not necessarily a transition to a related invitation. However, if the positive apologetic message is stand-alone, then the preacher will conclude by summarizing and making a transition appropriate to the topic and audience—unbeliever, believer, or both.

Conclusion

            I realize it is probably easier to understand STEPS in an actual sermon. At this point, however, what is most important is the basic structure. In the next two weekly installments I will present actual sermon manuscripts, one for negative apologetics and one for positive apologetics.


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T. J. shares a passion for the moral argument(s) and brings much to his new post. He is, in his own words, a “mere Christian with genuine fascination and awe for the breadth and depth of God’s gracious kingdom.” He became a Christian in 1978, and began pastoral ministry in 1984. He has worked as a youth pastor, senior pastor, church planter, church-based seminary professor, a chaplain assistant in the Army, and a chaplain in the Army National Guard. A southern Illinois native, T. J. is a graduate of Southern Illinois University-Carbondale with a BA in Political Science; Liberty University with an MAR in Church Ministries, an MDiv in Chaplaincy, and a ThM in Theology; Luther Rice College and Seminary with an MA in Apologetics; and Piedmont International University with a DMin in Pastoral Counseling. He is currently writing his dissertation on crisis leadership in the epistle of Jude for the PhD in Leadership at Piedmont, as well as pursuing a PhD in Theology and Apologetics at Liberty, hoping to write his dissertation on some aspect of the intersection of moral apologetics and the pastorate. He is the author of several books, including God Help Us: Encouragement for Evangelism, and Thinking of Worship: A Liturgical Miscellany, as well as journal articles on liturgics, pastoral counseling, homiletics, and apologetics. He and his wife have five children. T. J.’s preaching may be heard at www.sermonaudio.com/fellowshipinchrist.

A Twilight Musing: The Education of Jonah

 

                  Jonah is well known for running away to Tarshish to keep from having to preach to the people of Nineveh.  We tend to assume that Jonah’s flight from God’s command is a spontaneous reaction.  But actually, the author reveals at the end of the book that Jonah’s refusal to go where God sent him was based on deep reservations about God’s mercy: “for I knew that you are a gracious God and merciful, slow to anger and abounding in steadfast love, and relenting from disaster” (Jonah 4:2, ESV).  Essentially Jonah is saying to God, “I knew you were setting me up to look ridiculous: I go in there full of fire and brimstone, and then you go soft and don’t zap them after all.”  So it’s obvious that Jonah needs an education, and God sends him to school through the journey to Nineveh.

          Jonah’s conscience is quite bothersome as he boards the ship to Tarshish, for he is fleeing “the presence of the Lord” (Jonah 1:3).  God responds by saying, in effect, “You want to hide?  I can do you one better than the hold of a ship.  How about the belly of a big fish?”  From that place Jonah cries out to be restored to the Lord’s presence, and he is cast up on shore by the fish, ready to hear again the Lord tell him to go preach to Nineveh.  He’s now turned around to do God’s bidding, and he dutifully walks the three days’ journey through the town warning the citizens of their impending doom.  But he evidently does not have the heart of his merciful God in delivering his message, and, perversely, he is even chagrined at his success in turning the Ninevites from their wickedness!

          We then see the last unit of Jonah’s course acted out in the last chapter of the book.  First, we see the compassion of God contrasted with the vindictiveness of Jonah as God “relented of the disaster he had said he would do to them” (Jonah 3:10), and Jonah was angry at God’s mercy.  God asks him, “Do you do well to be angry?” (Jonah 4:4), and Jonah’s lack of an answer is an implicit “Yes.”

          The next step is for God to show Jonah how sinful is his sense of values.  When Jonah builds a little arbor for shade as he self-righteously waits to see “what would become of the city” (Jonah 4:5), apparently without much charity in his heart for the inhabitants of Nineveh, God makes His final point with Jonah by supplementing the prophet’s shade with a vine, for which Jonah is glad.  But as quickly as it came, God caused it to wither, once again making Jonah angry enough to want to die.  God asks a second time, “Do you do well to be angry” over the loss of such an insignificant thing?  God drives home the absurdity of Jonah’s feeling more for the loss of a trivial comfort than for “a great city, in which there are more than 120,000 persons who do not know their right hand from their left, and also much cattle?” (Jonah 4:11).

          We are not told whether Jonah took God’s lessons to heart and changed his attitude toward those he preached to, but we would do well to heed God’s lesson to His prophet: don’t be more wrathful toward sinful people than God is.


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 Dr. Elton Higgs was a faculty member in the English department of the University of Michigan-Dearborn from 1965-2001. Having retired from UM-D as Prof. of English in 2001, he now lives with his wife and adult daughter in Jackson, MI.. He has published scholarly articles on Chaucer, Langland, the Pearl Poet, Shakespeare, and Milton. His self-published Collected Poems is online at Lulu.com. He also published a couple dozen short articles in religious journals. (Ed.: Dr. Higgs was the most important mentor during undergrad for the creator of this website, and his influence was inestimable; it's thrilling to welcome this dear friend onboard.)

 

         

         

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Elton Higgs

Dr. Elton Higgs was a faculty member in the English department of the University of Michigan-Dearborn from 1965-2001. Having retired from UM-D as Prof. of English in 2001, he now lives with his wife and adult daughter in Jackson, MI.. He has published scholarly articles on Chaucer, Langland, the Pearl Poet, Shakespeare, and Milton. His self-published Collected Poems is online at Lulu.com. He also published a couple dozen short articles in religious journals. (Ed.: Dr. Higgs was the most important mentor during undergrad for the creator of this website, and his influence was inestimable; it's thrilling to welcome this dear friend onboard.)

Making the Case: Apologetic Preaching and Abductive Argumentation

            Doing apologetics requires some level of logical argumentation. Groothuis explains that “apologetics means philosophical engagement, and philosophy trades in logic.” Though logic and argumentation may be difficult for some Christians, apologetics without arguments quickly reduces to assertions and becomes a denial of Peter’s command to “be ready to give a defense” (1 Pet. 3:15). Is there, though, a preferred style of argumentation for apologetics, especially apologetic preaching? While I think that all forms of valid argumentation could have a place in apologetics at some point, it is in abductive argumentation that apologetic preaching may find its greatest ally.

What is Abductive Argumentation?

            Simply stated, abductive argumentation hopes to arrive at an inference to the best explanation without claiming a standard of certainty usually associated with other types of logical arguments (e.g., deduction or induction). This is not to deny any Christian’s testimony and the certainty they possess based on the coming together of reason and faith in their minds and heart. Rather, abduction seeks to point toward certainty without “demanding it” based on the outcome of a particular logical construct. Admittedly, discussions of argumentation can quickly get to a pretty heady level, and that is certainly not the goal of using abduction in apologetic preaching. However, preachers will make some type of argument, so the matter is really how they will argue, not if they will. Here’s an example of how abduction might be stated in the form of premises and conclusion related to a moral argument for God’s existence.

            P1: Most of us recognize that some things are morally good, and some are bad.

            P2: We applaud the child on the playground who stands up to the bully. We boo the bully    for picking on others.

            P3: If the bully changes his ways, we praise him for becoming a better boy. If the bully         reverts to his bullying, we consider him to have started acting badly again.

            P4: Why do we conclude that standing up to the bully is good, or that bullying another is       bad? We do so because we have a standard of what is good and bad by which to assess what    we and others do.

            P5: The Christian claims that this standard is based on who God is, and that our sense of good and evil relates to our being made in God’s image.

            C: Thus, Christianity provides a reasonable explanation—possibly the best explanation—for     the human experience of good and evil.

The goal of making an abductive case like this is to let it build in a cumulative manner that moves intentionally toward the goal of offering—not necessarily demanding—that the Christian conclusion is reasonable and may be the best answer. In preaching particularly this type of abductive approach provides a couple of important benefits.

A Couple of Reasons Abduction Helps in Apologetic Preaching

            First, because it claims to come to an inference to the best explanation, abduction offers a manner of apologetic reasoning in preaching that avoids being overly dogmatic. As Baggett and Baggett explain, “the procedure of abduction goes like this: we come across something that needs to be explained, then we identify a range of possible explanations, and then we narrow the list down to the best one.” Some apologists might chafe at this approach, claiming that the apologetic enterprise should insist on certainty, and that apologetic preaching, especially, should prefer more than an inference to the best explanation as an outcome. However, there is a sense in which claims to absolute certainty may lack explanatory power when it comes to how faith forms around what is “hoped for...[and] unseen” (Heb. 11:1-2). Is the Christian worldview compelling? Absolutely. Is there evidence worthy of consideration? Of course. However, the ideas of certainty associated with argumentation are not something found in the pages of the Bible, but in the later developments of modern thought, which has a decided bias against the idea of biblical faith. Abduction is a way to keep the apologist in check against the temptation to overconfidence in the power of his arguments, and to help him remember that there is more involved in coming to faith than syllogisms and rationality.

            Second, abduction can help preachers avoid oversimplification. This is an error that apologists fall into when they think a simple syllogism is all that is needed to make the case for some aspect of Christian truth. Rather than accepting that one cannot with absolute epistemic certainty prove the existence of God and the truth of Christianity, apologists may assume that their personal convictions are equivalent to philosophical standards of truth and certainty. They assume that belief is simply a matter of following the premises to the logical conclusion and expect that their hearers only need to follow the logic of an argument to come to belief in God or some other Christian claim. Yet, conversion is ordinarily a process that takes time and possibly numerous conversations, and it is only the exception that finds a person coming to Christ after hearing only one argument. Like Paul in Athens sharing the gospel on Mars Hill (Acts 17:22-34), the abductive argument in the hands of the apologetic preacher offers a reasonable explanation of the audience’s circumstances while presenting the Christian worldview. Some may scoff, some may decide to hear more, and some may believe—whatever the outcome may be, the cumulative abductive case for faith has been made.

Conclusion

There is certainly much more that could be said about abduction in apologetic preaching, but I trust its conduciveness to humility and avoiding oversimplification are somewhat clear. In the next installment I will present a model for developing apologetic messages.


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T. J. shares a passion for the moral argument(s) and brings much to his new post. He is, in his own words, a “mere Christian with genuine fascination and awe for the breadth and depth of God’s gracious kingdom.” He became a Christian in 1978, and began pastoral ministry in 1984. He has worked as a youth pastor, senior pastor, church planter, church-based seminary professor, a chaplain assistant in the Army, and a chaplain in the Army National Guard. A southern Illinois native, T. J. is a graduate of Southern Illinois University-Carbondale with a BA in Political Science; Liberty University with an MAR in Church Ministries, an MDiv in Chaplaincy, and a ThM in Theology; Luther Rice College and Seminary with an MA in Apologetics; and Piedmont International University with a DMin in Pastoral Counseling. He is currently writing his dissertation on crisis leadership in the epistle of Jude for the PhD in Leadership at Piedmont, as well as pursuing a PhD in Theology and Apologetics at Liberty, hoping to write his dissertation on some aspect of the intersection of moral apologetics and the pastorate. He is the author of several books, including God Help Us: Encouragement for Evangelism, and Thinking of Worship: A Liturgical Miscellany, as well as journal articles on liturgics, pastoral counseling, homiletics, and apologetics. He and his wife have five children. T. J.’s preaching may be heard at www.sermonaudio.com/fellowshipinchrist.

Equipping the Saints: Apologetic Preaching as Discipleship

              I’ve been preaching for over thirty years. I’ve preached a lot of sermons in that time, and most were directed to believers. I consider preaching to be my primary means of equipping disciples. It’s not that I don’t engage in other activities to aid the flock—I also counsel and mentor and provide general pastoral care. However, preaching is my main disciple-making practice. Apologetics has a role in this, but I confess that I have not always appreciated its importance nor have I (until recently) carefully considered why apologetic preaching as discipleship is fundamental to my calling as a preacher. Yet, in God’s kindness He has broadened my vision for preaching, and here are few of the things I am learning about the rationale for apologetic preaching as discipleship.

Apologetic Preaching as Discipleship Helps Remove Obstacles to Christian Growth

              Growing, active Christians will inevitably experience doubts about the content of their faith or the surety of their relationship with the Lord as they grow and are tested. To paraphrase Luther, the Christian cannot keep all doubts away any more than a man can control the birds that fly around the trees in his yard. Also, if Christians are engaging their culture and sharing their faith, they will eventually encounter someone who is hostile to the faith and armed with one or more substantive arguments.

              When Christians experience these challenges, apologetic preaching for discipleship can help address the doubts and provide answers to challenges to the faith. Sometimes, as Habermas explains, doubt is intellectual, sometimes it is emotional, and sometimes is it a matter of refusing to believe out of rebellion. Regardless of its source, apologetics through preaching can help the Christian move past doubt to faith and obedience. Apologetics is like a coin with two-sides: one side focuses on those who are not yet Christians, and the other side focuses on those who already believe. Both are legitimate roles for apologetics, and when a pastor knows this and takes seriously his responsibility to preach sermons that include apologetics, he helps his congregation grow in spiritual maturity.

Apologetic Preaching as Discipleship Aids in Teaching the “How” of Apologetics

              Like it or not, a preacher’s congregation will learn how to do certain things by the way the preacher does them. For instance, how a preacher regularly explains the gospel at the time of invitation will have a pedagogical effect on the congregation over time, and they will likely explain the gospel in terms similar to their preacher. This is not necessarily a problem if the preacher is careful of his method and cognizant that he is teaching by doing, especially in the pulpit. The upside to this phenomenon is that when it comes to apologetic preaching as discipleship, a preacher can both equip the saints with apologetic content and with apologetic presentation skills.

              While the congregation may not acquire the precision and polish of their pastor, they can learn the basics from his delivery method. This is, in part, how Augustine taught his mentees to preach and teach during his years of ministry as pastor and bishop in North Africa. Smither explains that, “the daily disciplines of prayer, scriptural study, and reading, as well as regular interaction with Augustine’s teaching, prepared many monks for a possible future in church ministry.” Smither also reports that much of Augustine’s apologetic material (e.g., against the Donatists, against Pelagius, against the Manicheans) was developed and presented in the context of training his mentees. Thus, Augustine provides an excellent example of how what is said in a sermon or teaching conveys both content and method to the hearers. Apologetic preaching for discipleship is one of the means to convey such content and methods to the people of God.

Apologetic Preaching as Discipleship Serves as a Means to Guarding the Flock

              When pastors commit to apologetic preaching as discipleship, whether for a specific series of messages or as an ongoing practice in all messages, they are helping maintain the right and left limits of orthodoxy within the congregation. This aspect of apologetic preaching is sometimes easily overlooked, yet faithful and regular apologetics in the pulpit sets a certain tone in the congregation, making clear that false teaching and attacks on the faith will be addressed, and biblical orthodoxy will be maintained in the spirit of speaking the truth in love for the sake of edifying and protecting the body. Though this practice cannot guarantee false teaching will never find a place among the brethren, it is true that through regular preaching that explains and defends the Christian message, a congregation can and will gravitate toward consistent orthodoxy. Taylor offers historical support for this in his exploration of the role of apologetics in the first three centuries of the church, explaining that through the use of apologetics the early church stood firm against encroaching heresy by offering “justification for belief in and commendation of Christianity.” When faced with attempts by heretics to alter “one or more aspects of the deity, death, and resurrection reports as they related to Jesus,” these early apologists helped “establish the credibility of Christianity.”  Likewise, when pastors commit to apologetic preaching today they help believers live within a hostile culture without sacrificing their distinctive beliefs. Perhaps one of the greatest though underutilized weapons in the preacher’s arsenal when it comes to doctrinal purity is the practice of regular apologetic preaching for discipleship.

Conclusion

              Apologetic preaching as discipleship has much to commend itself to preachers, as does apologetic preaching as evangelism. What about the type of arguments used in apologetic preaching? In the next installment in this series we will consider why abductive argumentation is well-suited to apologetic preaching.


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T. J. shares a passion for the moral argument(s) and brings much to his new post. He is, in his own words, a “mere Christian with genuine fascination and awe for the breadth and depth of God’s gracious kingdom.” He became a Christian in 1978, and began pastoral ministry in 1984. He has worked as a youth pastor, senior pastor, church planter, church-based seminary professor, a chaplain assistant in the Army, and a chaplain in the Army National Guard. A southern Illinois native, T. J. is a graduate of Southern Illinois University-Carbondale with a BA in Political Science; Liberty University with an MAR in Church Ministries, an MDiv in Chaplaincy, and a ThM in Theology; Luther Rice College and Seminary with an MA in Apologetics; and Piedmont International University with a DMin in Pastoral Counseling. He is currently writing his dissertation on crisis leadership in the epistle of Jude for the PhD in Leadership at Piedmont, as well as pursuing a PhD in Theology and Apologetics at Liberty, hoping to write his dissertation on some aspect of the intersection of moral apologetics and the pastorate. He is the author of several books, including God Help Us: Encouragement for Evangelism, and Thinking of Worship: A Liturgical Miscellany, as well as journal articles on liturgics, pastoral counseling, homiletics, and apologetics. He and his wife have five children. T. J.’s preaching may be heard at www.sermonaudio.com/fellowshipinchrist.

Love ~ A Five Letter Word

Love is a five letter word.  Did you think four letters enough?  Five letters are needful for this particular love, agape.  Five-letter agape is the love encompassing the other loves.  Agape makes best sense in reference to God in Jesus Christ.  Put aside for now agape as the love of God with his own.  This piece focuses on agape as God’s love shared between his own. Since the apostle Paul urges us to ‘let all that you do be done in agape’, celebrate with me three of agape’s winning features:  agape love comprehends (1) mutual subjection, (2) mercy/kindness, and (3) loyal commitment to death.

First, five-letter agape love entails mutual subjection. ‘To be subject’ to another person is to render oneself dependent on; to place oneself under or in a lower position to someone; or to put oneself at the service of another.  The thought of being ‘subject’ to another carries a negative connotation in our society.  It smacks of being deprived of freedom or in bondage to another.  Early Americans were ‘subjects’ of Great Britain’s King George.  As his ‘subjects’ we rebelled against King George’s goal of ‘absolute tyranny over these states.’

There is a much talked-about tussle of dominance and subjection between men and women. G. K. Chesterton was skeptical of Women’s Rights talk that ‘men are the rulers and masters and women the menials.’  Jokes abound parodying the opposite, ‘When she wants his opinion, she gives it to him.’  Subjection carries a negative connotation.

What if husbands in the above relational equation decide to be subject to their wives?  What if, further, wives determine to place themselves under their husbands?  This is exactly what five-letter love agape envisions: mutual subjection!  ‘Be subject to one another in reverence of Christ’ says the apostle Paul (Ephesians 5: 21).

Eighteenth century writer and pastor Jonathon Swift thought this an extraordinary oxymoron.  How can two equal persons both be subject to one another?  Being subject to another is only due from inferiors to those above them:  a subject to a prince.  Nevertheless, there it is!  For the believing Christian community, mutual subjection is the rule.  Be subject to one another!  Regardless of gender, rank, power, or prominence, put yourself in the service and at the disposal of others: husbands to wives and wives to husbands!  Let Jesus Christ be your model.  Jesus said to his disciples, ‘You call me Lord and Master…for so I am.  If I then, your Lord and Master, wash your feet, how much more ought you to wash one another’s feet?’  Living at the disposal of others in mutual submission is a win-win aspect of five-letter love.

Consider a second aspect of five-letter agape love.  ‘Agape is kind.’  The word ‘kind’ in the original New Testament language is ‘chrestos.’  ‘Chrestos’ is bearing good will to someone undeserving. It is being suffused with a gracious, generous spirit toward the unworthy.  Jesus Christ is kindness.  He was dining at a Jewish leader’s table.  A woman crashed the party.  She positioned herself at Jesus’ feet.  Bursting out in tears she anointed his feet with ointment from her alabaster jar.  The Pharisee leader was horrorstruck.  ‘If this man were a prophet, he would have known who and what kind of woman this is who is touching him,’ he said under his breath.  Jesus answered the Pharisee, ‘I tell you, her sins, which were many, have been forgiven.’  Turning to the woman he said to her, ‘Your sins are forgiven…your faith has saved you; go in peace.’ (Luke 7: 37ff).  Jesus treated this public sinner with ‘chrestos’ – a spirit of generous mercy.  The Pharisee rightly reckoned her behavior wrong.  Though Jesus agreed, he met her repentant heart with sweet benevolence.  Jesus became so identified with ‘chrestos’, heathens called him ‘Chrest’ rather than Christ and Christians ‘Chrestians.’  Imagine persons, even yourself, at every level and in every walk of life – politicians, citizens, teachers, students, doctors, patients, executives, merchants, husbands, and wives - carrying on with chrestos!

Jane Austen’s heroine in Pride and Prejudice, Elizabeth ‘Lizzie’ Bennett, is pretty, smart, and self-possessed.    She dared turn down the marriage proposal of the area’s most eligible bachelor, the noble, handsome, and wealthy Mr. Fitzwilliam Darcy.  In the meantime, Lizzie’s sister Lydia had an affair with a ne’er-do-well rake, Wickham.  Lydia and Wickham’s improper relationship disgraced Lizzie and her family.  Lizzie felt her and her sisters’ eligibility for marriage was gone.

Unbeknownst to Lizzie, Mr. Darcy secretly intervenes.  Looking past Lizzie’s snub and Lydia’s scandalous behavior, Mr. Darcy has compassionate mercy on the Bennett family.  He uses his influence and wealth to insure Wickham marries Lydia.  The disgrace hanging over the Bennett family is removed.  Later, when he has the opportunity to reaffirm his love for Lizzie, she wholeheartedly accepts his renewed offer of marriage.  Would marital relationships be less fragile and brittle if ‘chrestos’ prevailed in spouses’ hearts?

Five-letter agape love is mutual subjection, kindness, and, lastly, loyal, committed love.  I call it to-the-death love.  I felt badly for actress Bo Derek.  Bo, having starred in the iconic movie ‘Ten’, was with her husband John Derek when he was asked by an interviewer the following question, ‘If Bo was in an automobile accident and her face was horribly scarred, would you still love her?’  I felt for Bo because John did not answer with a resounding ‘Yes’!  Five- letter love is loyal, committed love that goes to the death for your lover.  Agape is ‘for better, for worse; for richer, for poorer; in sickness and in health...till death do us part’ love.  Agape love does not jump ship…does not bail….does not walk away.  It says, ‘Where you go, I will go; where you lodge, I will lodge; where you die, I will die.’  Period.  Psychiatrist F. Scott Peck said, ‘Commitment is the bedrock of any genuinely loving relationship.’  His long psychiatric practice taught him that where commitment is absent, psychiatric disorders are present.  Look around.  Would you not like to be loved with loyal love?

To-the-death love is best revealed in Jesus Christ.  The God of the universe ‘proves his love for us in that while we still were sinners Christ died for us.’  Five-letter love is defined by Jesus’ willingness to remain steadfast and go to the death for those loved.  One can hardly find a better contemporary example of to-the-death love than Robertson McQuilken’s.  He was a university president.  In his fifties, he had finally attained his life-long dream of running a university.  His wife Muriel was skilled in tutoring college students and graciously hosting the president’s social events. Then Muriel developed Alzheimer’s disease.  Robertson faced a dilemma: care for the university, or care for Muriel.  Foregoing his presidency, he tendered his resignation to the university to take care of Muriel.  He cared for her until her death.  McQuilken knew his Master Jesus Christ loved the church by sacrificing his life for her.  McQuilken felt it his privilege to love his wife Muriel ‘till death do us part.’ Five-letter love is to-the-death love, kindness, and mutual subjection.  Love is more than a four letter word.  Are you ready for it?


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Tom was most recently pastor of the Bellevue Charge in Forest, Virginia until retiring in July.  Studying John Wesley’s theology, he received his M.A. and Ph.D. degrees from the University of Bristol, Bristol, England. While a student, he and his wife Pam lived in John Wesley’s Chapel “The New Room”, Bristol, England, the first established Methodist preaching house.  Tom was a faculty member of Asbury Theological Seminary from 1998-2003. He has contributed articles to Methodist History and the Wesleyan Theological Journal. He and his wife Pam have two children, Karissa, who is an Associate Attorney at McCandlish Holton Morris in Richmond, and, John, who is a junior communications major/business minor at Regent University.  Tom enjoys being outdoors in his parkland woods and sitting by a cheery fire with a good book on a cool evening.

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Tom Thomas

Tom was most recently pastor of the Bellevue Charge in Forest, Virginia until retiring in July.  Studying John Wesley’s theology, he received his M.A. and Ph.D. degrees from the University of Bristol, Bristol, England. While a student, he and his wife Pam lived in John Wesley’s Chapel “The New Room”, Bristol, England, the first established Methodist preaching house.  Tom was a faculty member of Asbury Theological Seminary from 1998-2003. He has contributed articles to Methodist History and the Wesleyan Theological Journal. He and his wife Pam have two children, Karissa, who is an Associate Attorney at McCandlish Holton Morris in Richmond, and, John, who is a junior communications major/business minor at Regent University.  Tom enjoys being outdoors in his parkland woods and sitting by a cheery fire with a good book on a cool evening.

Finding God in the Darkness: What I Learned in the Hospital

A Twilight Musing

          I recently went through nine days in the hospital being treated for severe pneumonia. It was the longest hospital stay of my life, and it was extremely stressful, both physically and spiritually. But it was revealing as well. I learned that Satan will take advantage of us when we are most vulnerable, and that God can and will cause us to grow spiritually when we are subjected to unavoidable interruptions to our comfort.

          The onset of my crisis was quite sudden. Although I had already had a visit with my primary care physician and received an antibiotic to combat my infection, a return visit quickly turned into a fast trip to the emergency ward and immediate application of measures to keep me from lapsing into a life-threatening condition. I was subjected to an intense regimen determined by the medical professionals, and I was merely carried along on its tide. Needles were inserted, and IVs attached. I was pumped with fluids and antibiotics, subjected to prescheduled vital sign checks, and perpetually tethered to a bunch of tubes that had to be hauled along whenever I got out of bed. Had I been knocked out, I would have not known what was going on, but I was awake most of the time and had to grab naps when I wasn’t being waked or poked or prodded by nurses and their aides.

          The first two nights after being admitted were the most trying. Because of the medications being administered, I was hypersensitive to physical and psychological stimuli, so that during those two nights I felt a palpable presence of Evil, and I had to battle fear by calling out to God to deliver me from it. During the initial nights I had a frightening sense that I was being subjected to the equivalent of an endless loop of bizarre dreams, like clips from a horror movie. Something was messing with my mind. But God answered my prayers and gave me the strength to regain some spiritual equilibrium after a couple of days. During that first part of my stay, I felt myself enveloped in a kind of heart of darkness (a la Joseph Conrad). I didn’t feel God’s Presence, but I kept hanging on to my intellectual conviction, reinforced by long experience, that God was present and that His Love was working on my behalf. In that situation, I could exercise choice only in how I reacted to the medical regimen I was being subjected to.

          Strategically, I had to be content with short naps, rather than extended periods of sleep. Once I accepted that process, I found peace in not expecting more. One of the nurses talked to me in the middle of the night, after I had complained about being unable to sleep because of all the sounds and activities around me. She explained how my (and other patients’) expectations in a hospital stay need to be brought into line with hospital objectives and practices. “Most people come to a stay in the hospital expecting to rest, whereas the purpose of a hospital stay is to be cured of your illness. Once that is accomplished, we send you home to rest.” That would seem to be analogous spiritually to the instruction of Jesus (see Matt. 6:25-34) not to worry, to trust God for sufficiency in all that we need, and to experience the peace that that trust brings.

My encounter with Darkness during these nine days in the hospital was unique in my experience, and I want never to repeat it. Nevertheless, it gave me a new perspective on the Christian’s struggle with Evil. Darkness can be a very effective teacher, but its lessons require a radical sacrifice of our comfort.


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 Dr. Elton Higgs was a faculty member in the English department of the University of Michigan-Dearborn from 1965-2001. Having retired from UM-D as Prof. of English in 2001, he now lives with his wife and adult daughter in Jackson, MI.. He has published scholarly articles on Chaucer, Langland, the Pearl Poet, Shakespeare, and Milton. His self-published Collected Poems is online at Lulu.com. He also published a couple dozen short articles in religious journals. (Ed.: Dr. Higgs was the most important mentor during undergrad for the creator of this website, and his influence was inestimable; it's thrilling to welcome this dear friend onboard.)

 

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Elton Higgs

Dr. Elton Higgs was a faculty member in the English department of the University of Michigan-Dearborn from 1965-2001. Having retired from UM-D as Prof. of English in 2001, he now lives with his wife and adult daughter in Jackson, MI.. He has published scholarly articles on Chaucer, Langland, the Pearl Poet, Shakespeare, and Milton. His self-published Collected Poems is online at Lulu.com. He also published a couple dozen short articles in religious journals. (Ed.: Dr. Higgs was the most important mentor during undergrad for the creator of this website, and his influence was inestimable; it's thrilling to welcome this dear friend onboard.)