Walking with the Nazarene in the Wilderness: The Second Temptation of Christ

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Of all three temptations, it is the Second Temptation of Christ that presents us with the greatest interpretive puzzle.

It is quite unlike the First Temptation. In the First Temptation we can readily see ourselves in the light of Christ’s experience. The sight of the starved Nazarene being tempted to eat by the devil is quite analogous to our personal experience of having strong desires for things that do not glorify God. Under the pressure of this testing, the fortitude of Christ is clearly revealed to us precisely because it is earthy, and therefore corresponds to the reality in which we live. We know the weakness and limits of our own frame and we know how hard self-denial can be.

Later, the Third Temptation is even more straightforward. The spiritual immensity of being tempted with “all the kingdoms of the earth” is easily understandable because in so many instances we ourselves fail when tempted by the merest sliver of a kingdom – perhaps a promotion, or acquisition of property. The news greets us regularly with stories of people who have sold their souls for a fraction of a kingdom: politicians who seek power at the expense of their fellow man; dictators who climb to the top of their nations over a hecatomb of corpses; doctors who bully and bribe to become presidents of the local board of physicians.

The incredible weakness of mankind when offered power is a stain that cannot be washed out of the race, generation to generation, no matter how many times the bitterness of oppression is experienced. Thus, in the Third Temptation when we see Christ being assailed not by the merest part of a kingdom but by all the kingdoms of the earth in their fullness, we recognise an intensity of temptation that we ourselves would be unable to bear.

In this manner the First and Third are readily intelligible. But the Second Temptation? The Second Temptation is the outlier.

How can we relate to this? What experiences does it parallel? What aspect of the human condition does it speak to? The Second Temptation does not seem to apply to any of life’s common experiences; in fact, we can look upon the Second Temptation with jaded eyes and think, “How is this even a temptation? It certainly would not tempt me!” Thus, we can simply conclude that while something certainly takes place in the Second Temptation, it lies within a veil we cannot penetrate and at a depth we cannot plumb. It must lie under the perpetual shadow of a question mark.

Yet this is very far from the case. Although the Second Temptation may be mysterious, it is certainly not shrouded in darkness and offers serious lessons to the believer that are instrumental in an age of recurrent spiritual tremors like ours. Nevertheless, (let the reader beware), the lessons taught here are not necessarily pleasant. The passage punctures religious pride; confronts misplaced religious zeal; and overturns cherished religious convictions.

This may explain why the passage so often gathers dust in the library of God’s word for if there is one thing that unstable Christians are opposed to, it is self-examination and spiritual sobriety. If there is one thing overly-emotive Christians dislike, it is being brought down to earth. And if there is one thing that drives away theatrical Christians, it is anything that brings down the curtain on religious showmanship in favour of the humble, considered and the quiet.

A SITUATIONAL TEMPTATION

The first thing to notice about the Second Temptation is that it was situational.

The devil transported the Lord out of the desert and all the way to Jerusalem. Even more surprising, the Lord was carried to the Temple of God itself.

Then the devil took Him to the holy city and set Him on the pinnacle of the temple.

Scholars suggest that Jesus was taken to the south-east corner of the temple where a roof and portico overlooked the massive retaining wall that dropped about 135 metres (450 feet) straight down into the Kidron Valley. That is a significant height. It is the same height as the Xerox Tower in New York or the Fisher Building in Detroit.

xerox tower

From this we learn two things.

First, the devil was not afraid to visit the Temple. Unlike his portrayal in many worldly movies, the devil did not sizzle when he approached the consecrated mountain or the sacred precincts of the temple. Neither did the Temple location suddenly render the devil inert and harmless. To the contrary. He was quite able to engage in his evil work around the temple; and in fact, the text would have us understand that he purposefully used this religious location as a living stage for the test he had devised.

Many think that burying themselves into religion will grant them immunity from the devil’s influence, and that if they are not drinking and murdering, then they are unable to be attacked. But the devil is far more subtle than many – perhaps even most – give him credit for. The devil can use religion (even true religion) for his purposes. He can do this either by lulling people to spiritual sleep in churches, or by twisting holy doctrines and carefully inserting them into a religious environment.

One need only look to some of the “liberal” mainstream churches to see this very process in action. Blasphemies that lead to eternal death are preached from beautiful pulpits in splendid settings once built to glorify God. In many of these old cathedrals and churches, God’s holy words are sometimes carved into the surfaces themselves while the unwary are enticed to ignore them. A man in such a place can be lured into sin even while he sits in a temple once built by the faithful.

The second key thing we learn from the passage is that Lord was positioned at a great height. His precise location is not really materially important – whether it was at the south-east corner or at the north-west of the temple, for example. What matters is that Christ was elevated to a latitude that was potentially truly dangerous.

Having lifted him to this height, at this point the devil essentially invites Jesus to attempt to commit suicide.

“If You are the Son of God,” he said, “throw Yourself down. For it is written:

‘He will command His angels concerning You,
and they will lift You up in their hands,
so that You will not strike Your foot
against a stone.’”

That is, try to commit suicide with a religious gloss.

The temptation here revolves around the concept of religious authenticity and testing God with false parameters. The devil was arguing that if Jesus really was the Son of God (authenticity) and really believed the scriptures, then he would recklessly place himself in harm’s way because God would be honour bound to rescue him (false parameter).

Of course, we know the devil was not sincere in his citation of scripture. Rather this was an act of twisted cunning, and it must have seemed to the devil a guaranteed win-win-win-win situation.

For if Jesus refused to throw himself over the edge, he could be accused of a lack of faith in the scriptures. Win. After all, if Jesus really believed the word of God, would he not gladly demonstrate his radical, divine faith by going to the extreme? Failure to do so could only be the result of a lack of real faith.

On the other hand, if Jesus did throw himself over the edge, he would hurtle to his death. Win again. In this instance, the devil would have triumphed. He would have defeated the Perfect Man not by destroying him on the rocks of sin, but by tempting him with holy virtues! If even a virtuous man could be defeated by appealing to virtue, who then could be saved? The human race would be utterly doomed.

But, if the Father did step in as Jesus was plummeting to the ground and saved his Son from death, the devil would be able to accuse the Father of violating the true meaning and spirit of his own word. Win. How could any man be saved if the meaning of God’s word was in flux, and changed according to the individual and situation? If it meant one thing when it was given through the prophet but now another thing altogether?

And if that were not enough winning, if Jesus were rescued, the devil would forever be able to point mankind to this event and urge people toward religious fanaticism in service of their own reckless pretensions. Win. Go for broke, the devil could say, for had not the Perfect Man thrown himself from a great height and been saved?

Thus the nature of the Second Temptation – as shown in Jesus own rebuttal – is about putting God to the test. It is about launching into the waters of religious delusion and expecting God to confer his blessing and protection upon us because we claim to have “faith” or “trust” in things he never promised. Indeed, it stands as a serious warning about the danger of spiritual fanaticism where men attempt to do things that are not taught in God’s word. They attempt to do such things anyway in the prideful or ignorant conviction that they are.

Such spiritual delusions often arise when men and women begin to think of themselves more highly than they ought – and this is a common affliction in an age of prideful independence and the celebration of individualism.

A woman contacted me once in great sorrow regarding her husband. He had embraced some extremist doctrines that he became convinced were taught in the scripture. His church disagreed with him, and so this man in turn become convinced that his church was in error. Other churches in the area also disagreed with him, and those churches also fell by the wayside as he declared them all “false”. He thus refused to attend any church or listen to any pastor, and became a hindrance to his wife who was faithful to true Christianity. His wife wanted to continue attending her church, but her husband made life so difficult for her that she told me sadly she had very nearly given up because the fight was so exhausting.

I attempted to dialogue with this man. I did not, alas, come regard him as especially insightful, although I am quite sure he fancied himself quite intelligent. I found him arrogant, stubborn, unkind, and alienating. In the final chapter of this saga, the man had elected to study the Bible at home with one of his buddies, since the two alone had the proper doctrine. Thus, an odd little cult of two was born.

This is sadly far from an isolated case. Many examples can be found. The man in the pew who fancies himself a preacher; the woman who thinks she should lead her sisters due to her spiritual insight; the ambitious elder who craves an opportunity to teach others in a long-winded monotone – such people are many. Legion are the men and women who have come to believe they are “special” or “spiritually gifted” and then confused their own desires and ambitions for those of God.

Here in the Second Temptation, then, is a vivid, technicolored example of how it is possible to take scripture, manipulate it for our own ends, and then imagine that God will bless and preserve us because he must be subject to our corrupt interpretation of his word. It is a textbook example of how we may arrogantly pretend that if God does not serve us (as if he were a servant and we the master!) according to our delusions and pretensions, then somehow he has failed or his word has failed. God forbid.

Religious pretension of this sort is on the increase. The charismatic movement produces many such men and women who claim to be prophets and prophetesses but are not. Then there are a rash of preachers who urge their congregants toward a “radical faith” as if only by going to the extremes is one living out the great commission. As if it were not good enough to serve God in quiet and lowly manner. As if being a humble farmer like Manoah – whom scripture documents only serving in the role of father – was somehow less faithful and less God-glorifying than the calling of Samuel or St. Paul.

The pressure to be a “radical Christian” – emanating unfortunately from otherwise orthodox pulpits – often convinces people that God will bless them as they “throw themselves over” into a life of missionary work or grand evangelism, even when they are neither equipped for it nor called to it. Even when it is not wisdom for them to do this. The results of such spiritual recklessness are often disastrous.

There has been a stark example of this as recently as 2018 – the case of John Allen Chau – who died when he was killed by the natives living on the protected North Sentinel Island. This story, better than most, serves as a vivid reminder of the susceptibility of otherwise faithful Christians to the lure of “God blessed religious radicalism”, especially if it comes attired in the guise of evangelism or other causes dear to the heart of a true Christian. After all, all true Christians long for the building of Christ’s kingdom. But even such a noble desire like this can be exploited by the devil, which is why we must be on guard against the devil’s schemes.

John Allen Chau was a young man in his late twenties. Last year he attempted to convert the isolated people of North Sentinel Island, who live a primitive life, having been completely cut off from the rest of the world. The people on North Sentinel Island have made no technical progress above the level of the stone age; they are aliens to modernity.

John Allen Chau’s diary reveals a young man who was frightened of these people (and justly so for they were notorious for their inhospitable disposition). Yet so fervently did he believe that he was on a divine mission and was acting in the cause of Christ’s kingdom, that he became immune to the plainest wisdom of scripture and good sense. Indeed, his diary reveals an impetuous, death-or-glory self-belief that his preaching mission was a divine adventure. It was a belief wholly unsupported by anything but self-conviction. It was a belief that was attached to thin air.

Religious radicalism can become its own feedback loop. The more radical and audacious the act; the more dangerous and improbable its success, the more it can seem to be God’s will in line with the stories of the great saints of the past. This was certainly at work in the case of John Allen Chau. After reading his diary, it is hard to escape the conclusion that the extreme nature of what he was doing of its own accord seemed to convince him that he must be doing God’s will. “It is radical and therefore it is God’s will”, seemed to be his thinking. Yet the tragedy and failure of his missionary endeavour teach us the lesson of the Second Temptation. For this young man threw himself over the wall.

He would doubtless have been stopped had he approached his missionary endeavour under the authority or oversight of a church, bishop, elder, or experienced mission director. This he apparently did not have. He seems to have submitted his plans to no qualified Christian – certainly to none of the local churches in the area – and nobody seems to have assessed his suitability for this work.

This fact alone reminds us of the warnings in scripture regarding individualistic freelancers who seek to act independently of God’s appointed leaders of his one chosen agency on earth, the Church. This is contrary to the spirit of true Christianity.

St. Peter explicitly warns young men: “In the same way, you younger men must accept the authority of the elders.” In keeping with this theme, St. Paul strongly impresses upon us that not everyone is gifted in the same way and able to perform the same work, precisely because the Church is a body. Not everyone is an eye, or a mouth. Some believers have other gifts that are just as vital. But importantly, no part of the body acts independently; it is all subject to the head, and the head of the Church is Christ.

Likewise, in his Epistle to the Romans, St. Paul gives us the same principle of submission, albeit in relation to secular authorities but this is not a greater requirement than the obligation of Christians to be subject to the appointed godly men of Church leadership:

“Let every person be subject to the governing authorities. For there is no authority except from God, and those that exist have been instituted by God. Therefore whoever resists the authorities resists what God has appointed, and those who resist will incur judgment.”

During his missionary effort, John Chau paid men to break the law and deliver him to the island. These men were later arrested. (It is inconceivable to imagine St. Paul – the greatest missionary in Church history – paying men to breach laws on his behalf.)

While on the island, the islanders became hostile and shot an arrow at him. John Chau attempted to preach to them but unsurprisingly failed because he did not know a word of their native language. Elementary wisdom – not to mention St. Paul’s sober warnings about tongues – powerfully impresses upon us that preaching must be understood by its hearers or it has no value at all. We have the classic example of the Roman Catholic Church’s centuries of holding services in Latin to show us how effective language barriers can be in shutting up the gospel.

Despite the hostility and ineffectual nature of his first attempt, and despite his injuries, and despite his diary revealing a man gripped not by the “peace that passes all understanding” but by terror and fear, John Allen Chau returned to the island in a second effort to preach. Only this time he was murdered. Thus he withheld from the Church all of the energy he might have expended in quieter and less flashy ways, but in ways that would have been more effective and kingdom-strengthening.

His efforts succeeded only in making the people of the North Sentinel Island more isolated than they were before, with renewed efforts to shut up the island and keep them in an unfortunate condition of a severed relationship to the rest of the human race. In liberal and progressive jargon, they have “the right to be left alone” which means keeping them in a state of cultural suspended animation.

But markedly, we see demonstrated in this missionary effort, the danger of expecting God to preserve and safeguard us in reckless religious endeavours. Extreme commitment to the service to God is appropriate only when it is truly consistent with his word; when it is subject to godly authority; is truly in line with his desires and purposes; and only when we do not put God to the test of expecting him to save us from evident foolishness. The Second Temptation serves as an inoculation against a runaway religious imagination and against putting God to the test on the basis of parameters we have devised.

God is under no obligation to our misuse of scripture to justify our religious adventures or pretences. He does not need to prove his fidelity by rescuing us from folly and fantasy. Blessed indeed are those who are slow to assume they are special, and quick to assume they have a lowly calling. Who seek God’s will first, whether it be ordinary or extraordinary. Who are diligent in separating their personal desires from God’s will, and killing off unwarranted ambitions when they are not part of God’s calling. If Jesus shows us anything in the Second Temptation, it is to be wise in “not putting God to the test” by expecting him to save us from foolishness, fantasy, recklessness, pride, and extremism.

Walking With the Nazarene in the Wilderness: The First Temptation of Christ

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Early in Matthew’s gospel Jesus is led out to the desert, where, alone, in the wilderness, there is a terrible collision of spiritual forces. It is a gripping moment in the gospel, for the devil comes face-to-face with God in human form for a moral battle. It is a unique experience for both the contestants. It is the first (and only) occasion in spiritual time where the devil sees his Maker at a disadvantage, weakened, starving, and as vulnerable as a human being can be rendered. Here indeed we see that Christ “made himself nothing by taking the very nature of a servant” (Phil 2:7).

St. Matthew informs us that the Lord is in the desert for forty days. It is a highly symbolic number because Israel had spent forty years in the wilderness. Behold! Here is the true Israel, St. Matthew is saying, the promised Messiah whose life an entire nation has been unconsciously dramatising for thousands of years.

Nonetheless, during the forty days the Lord is hidden from our sight, as scripture draws a veil over this desert experience. We can therefore only imagine the baking heat and the chilly nights; the search for shade at noon; and the avoidance of snakes and scorpions by day. We can picture the sweat; the shimmering air; the emptiness; the stillness. But in accordance with his own good purpose, God does not see fit to grant us firm information.

All we are told is that he went without food, and by the end of the time he was “starved”, “famished”, a “hungred”. His desert experience, in other words, was marked by gnawing hunger and weakness. He was plunged into the weakness of humanity.

And then, right on schedule, the devil showed up.

The tempter came to him and said, “If you are the Son of God, tell these stones to become bread.”

We may note that the devil begins his vile work by targeting an obvious vulnerability of the Lord’s humanity. To a desperately hungry man – like Esau coming in from the fields – the prospect of food is nearly irresistible. Survivors of the Soviet gulag often testified that during their imprisonment they thought of nothing but food. They dreamed of it; talked about it with other prisoners; they meditated on it when they were alone, planning the dishes and meals they would prepare when they were free.

We learn here the important lesson that the devil does not fight the spiritual warfare honourably. He never assaults a man where is he most fortified, for what advantage is there in that? Rather he targets our greatest vulnerabilities. Whatever weakness of mind, heart, or body we possess, we can be sure that it will be precisely here that the devil will be most active and his spiritual artillery will focus its barrage.

Thus a man who struggles with avarice will be tempted with money. A woman who struggles with pride will be tempted with self-righteousness and vanity. A man who falls victim to lust will be tempted with sexual impurity. No wonder scripture so often advises us to engage in the self-cleansing work of repentance (Isaiah 1:16; Luke 11:39) and St. Paul urges us to put on the full armour of God that we may stand against the devil. When we “wash our hands and purify our hearts” (James 4:8) we are forced to think about our weaknesses and failures. We are made to see where our battle lines are thin and the enemy broke through and we sinned. We can strengthen those points and guard against the schemes of the devil.

Jesus+in+the+desert

The First Temptation is a bit of a puzzle. Other than targeting the Lord’s terrible hunger, it does not appear to be an obvious incitement to sin by breaking any of the Ten Commandments.

We may ask, is it a sin to eat? No, of course not. God made us experience hunger so that we would eat. Did the Father command the Lord not to eat during his wilderness experience? Certainly, there is no evidence in scripture that this is so.

Well, then, was the sin inherent in the miracle itself? Would it have been a sin for the Lord to turn stones into bread? Some have argued that since stones by their nature cannot feed people, to use divine power turn them into bread would be a “sinful miracle”. But this is surely a weak conclusion because at the marriage at Cana, the Lord changed water into wine.

Something deeper is afoot than merely eating bread by miracle power. Charles Ellicott in his commentary (1878) put it this way:

The nature of the temptation, so far as we can gauge its mysterious depth, was probably complex.

The clue to understanding the “complex” nature of the First Temptation lies in the Lord’s answer to the devil. As in each reply, Jesus cites from Deuteronomy, which one may note were the very scriptures that were given during Israel’s wilderness years.

In this case, Jesus quotes Deuteronomy 8:3:

Jesus answered, “It is written: ‘Man shall not live on bread alone, but on every word that comes from the mouth of God.’”

The original context for these words are greatly instructive:

Remember how the Lord your God led you all the way in the wilderness these forty years, to humble and test you in order to know what was in your heart, whether or not you would keep his commands. 

He humbled you, causing you to hunger and then feeding you with manna, which neither you nor your ancestors had known, to teach you that man does not live on bread alone but on every word that comes from the mouth of the Lord.

This thought is continued later in the same chapter:

He led you through the vast and dreadful wilderness, that thirsty and waterless land, with its venomous snakes and scorpions. He brought you water out of hard rock. He gave you manna to eat in the wilderness, something your ancestors had never known, to humble and test you so that in the end it might go well with you. 

You may say to yourself, “My power and the strength of my hands have produced this wealth for me.” But remember the Lord your God, for it is he who gives you the ability to produce wealth, and so confirms his covenant, which he swore to your ancestors, as it is today.

Clearly there is a forceful overlap between Old Testament Israel’s hunger in the wilderness, and Jesus’ experience of extreme privation and hunger in the desert.

But what do these texts teach us about the nature of the temptation?

The constant temptation for Old Testament Israel – a term that has a broader meaning than “illicit desire” as it is often used today – was always to forsake God or grumble against his prophet when privation or hardship came. Israel grumbled about food; they complained about water to the point where Moses was fearful he would be murdered; and they praised Egypt as a slavery better than the freedom of being the chosen people of the ever-living God.

Here the devil was effectively attempting to duplicate that temptation: “You’re God’s Son? And he’s left you starving in the wilderness to the point of death? You are nearly dead! Feed yourself! End your pointless suffering.

Jesus’ answer acknowledges that a man surely lives on bread – the body must be fed or it dies – but the quote also underscores the truth that man never lives on bread alone. Life is more complex than a materialistic matter of eating and drinking. Indeed, Jesus taught in a later sermon, “Life is more than food and the body is more than clothes” (Luke 12:23). A proper understanding of life sees it as more than just a search for the fuel needed to support it. A proper understanding recognises that all the processes of life continue only at the command and behest of God.

It is God who causes the sun to rise and the rain to come so that crops can grow and man can eat. It is God who strengthens the farmer for his work and allows man to develop agricultural technologies. It is God who draws the seedling from the earth. It is God who makes the ground fertile. It is God who gives us each day our daily bread; sets the span of our days; and sends the manna in the desert. By God’s command and instruction, man lives. And when God wills for man to die, then he surely dies.

As St. James writes:

Now listen, you who say, “Today or tomorrow we will go to this or that city, spend a year there, carry on business and make money.” Why, you do not even know what will happen tomorrow.

What is your life? You are a mist that appears for a little while and then vanishes. Instead, you ought to say, “If it is the Lord’s will, we will live and do this or that.” As it is, you boast in your arrogant schemes. All such boasting is evil.

In Moses solemn prayer in Psalm 90, he also acknowledges this great truth. Man truly lives and dies by the command of God not by his own intelligence or scheming:

You turn people back to dust, saying, “Return to dust, you mortals.”

A thousand years in your sight are like a day that has just gone by, or like a watch in the night.

Yet you sweep people away in the sleep of death— they are like the new grass of the morning: In the morning it springs up new,but by evening it is dry and withered.

So, in the First Temptation the Lord proves himself to be the true Israel. Unlike Old Testament Israel, the true Israel succeeds and passes the test. He trusts the Father with his life, without grumbling. He hungers quietly and patiently in the desert, but never doubts that the Father will sustain him.

As the Second Person of the Holy Trinity, Jesus is not tempted to use his deity against the deity of the First Person, the Father. He does not distrust the Father. Unlike Old Testament Israel, he does not plot treason against the Father by taking matters into his own hands. Rather he stands secure in the splendid simplicity of faith: he knows he will live because the Father commands and wills that he should live.

St. Matthew thus teaches us something about the nature of true faith and what it means to really trust God even in the midst of temptation and trial. No matter how painful the trial may be for the moment, and no matter how tempting it might be to find an early or easy exit from our sufferings – whether it is the burning of persecution or the burning of unfulfilled sexual desire; whether sufferings great or small – the true sons of the kingdom will aim to follow the footsteps of Jesus and answer the devil in similar terms.

I live and exist because of the daily words spoken by God.

I live because in his divine government he wants me to live.

My circumstances are willed by God for his purposes. And I can have the firm confidence that he will never leave me to suffer needlessly neither does he watches me without compassion. I can have faith that my God is good and he will be with me.

In his time – whether now or in eternity – I will see the reward of my suffering and will be truly satisfied.

From the Mailbag: Enemies of the Cross of Christ

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Dear Agnes,

Thank you for your message and for taking the time to express your feelings about Rick Genest. I want to respond to your message with both respect and depth. So I have chosen to break your post down into its major points and to include my response to each.

Hopefully this will help you to understand my perspective a bit better.

You wrote: 

Hi. Rick Genest touched with his smile much more lives for the better than these words will ever.

Perhaps you are being hyperbolic here for effect, but history shows us that words tend to outlive smiles.

With gentleness and respect, I must point out that the above statement is emotional but not very logical. You are really only stating that you held Rick Genest in high regard and have a corresponding disregard for my article.

But likes and dislikes are irrelevant to theological truth. I notice that you never point out errors of fact or logic in the article. That is because there were no such errors. I research my topics carefully. Rather, your basic complaint is that you did not like the article. You did not enjoy the way the article made you feel. 

But Christianity tells us things about ourselves (and others) that we do not always enjoy hearing. It offers tough truths about the human condition. That is why genuine Christianity is unpopular and that is why most people have no interest in a daily commitment to following Jesus. People never want their idols dethroned.

In the light of Christianity, it does not really matter whether a person “touched lives” with their smile. It does not matter whether a person is nice to others sometimes. Remember, the greatest villains in history have had a kindly side. Hitler was very fond of children and played games with them. Stalin is reported to have once stopped his chauffeured car and offered people a ride home. Stalin’s smiling visage could be seen everywhere in the Soviet Union.

Smiles and personalities mean a lot to mankind but very little to God. What really matters to God is the inner life. “The LORD does not look at the things people look at. People look at the outward appearance, but the LORD looks at the heart” (1 Samuel 16:7).

What is important is a person’s true standing before a holy God. This is revealed in the honest answer to the question: is Jesus the Lord of my whole person?

You say that Genest “touched with his smile more lives for the better”. I find myself puzzling about what this means. How did he “touch lives”? What does it mean to “touch a life”? It’s a common phrase but one that is seldom explained. And what make Genest’s smiles more special than anyone else’s?

He was a pure and beautiful soul. Please look one of his interviews not just his pictures.

This is the very opposite to how God sees mankind.

If the Bible teaches us one thing about the human condition, it teaches us that mankind is sinful. This is such a prevalent teaching in scripture that you really only need to read a few pages to encounter it. It is underlined. Highlighted. Over and over again. And nobody is exempt. The Bible says that the sinful nature is transmitted to every single human being through their parents. Consequently, the entire human race consists of sinners. Exclusively. Not one person is pure. Not one person is righteous.

This does not mean that all human beings are as bad as possible neither does it mean that all human beings are sinful in the same way. Some people are more tempted to steal. Others are more tempted toward sexual sins. No matter where our weakness is found, the scriptures teach that sin has affected every part of our being to one degree or another. Our mind, affections, will, relationships, and even our bodies are corrupted on some level.

The message of the Christian gospel is that only one human being had a “pure and beautiful” soul. His name was Jesus Christ and he is mankind’s Redeemer and King.

The universal sinfulness of mankind is an essential component for a Christian worldview. In other words, if a person rejects this truth, he cannot really be a Christian. For scripture says:

“If we say we have no sin, we deceive ourselves, and the truth is not in us… If we say we have not sinned, we make him a liar, and his word is not in us.” (1 John 1:8-10)

And in another place:

“There is no one righteous, not even one,
there is no one who understands;
there is no one who seeks God.
All have turned away,
they have together become worthless;
there is no one who does good,
not even one.” (Romans 3:10-12)

Jesus teaches that the human heart is the source of evils and miseries:

Jesus said, “What comes out of a person is what defiles them. For it is from within, out of a person’s heart, that evil thoughts come—sexual immorality, theft, murder, adultery, greed, malice, deceit, lewdness, envy, slander, arrogance and folly. All these evils come from inside and defile a person.”

And Eliphaz rhetorically asks:

What is man, that he can be pure? Or he who is born of a woman, that he can be righteous?

No Christian could accept your verdict that Genest was a “pure and beautiful soul”. Not because he was especially evil. But because inwardly, all human beings are ugly and wild, and that is why everyone needs the purity and beauty of Jesus.

Yes, he was not a Christian, he might have lost the track but we never judge where somebody goes.

To the best of my knowledge Rick Genest was never a Christian. He did not attempt to live out Christian teachings. He did not promote Christ’s kingdom. Never once in his life did he ever profess Christian beliefs. In fact, his interviews and life suggests that he rejected everything about Christianity down to brass tacks.

Now the Christian gospel is very clear about what happens to people who do not believe in Christ. It says that unbelievers are forever lost.

Yet here you seem to leave open the possibility that an unrepentant unbeliever will be found worthy of everlasting life. The problem is that your viewpoint is a direct contradiction of the entire Christian religion and what Christ himself teaches.

We do not need to judge where unbelievers go after death because God has judged this matter already and has rendered his verdict. Hell is real. Repentance is urgent. Faith in Jesus is the desperate priority of life. Because when a man dies without a Saviour, he is separated forever from God. What’s more, hell has no exits.

This is why evangelism is so vital. There is only one hope for mankind and it is the cross of Christ. 

St. John tells us:

Whoever believes in him is not condemned, but whoever does not believe stands condemned already because they have not believed in the name of God’s one and only Son. This is the verdict: Light has come into the world, but people loved darkness instead of light because their deeds were evil. 

Everyone who does evil hates the light, and will not come into the light for fear that their deeds will be exposed. But whoever lives by the truth comes into the light, so that it may be seen plainly that what they have done has been done in the sight of God. 

Let’s use the words of St. John here to evaluate Rick Genest’s situation.

Did Rick Genest believe in Christ?

No.

Did Rick Genest live by the truth of God’s word?

No.

Did Rick Genest come into the “light” and publicly display his Christianity?

No.

Is a person matching this description under the condemnation of God?

Yes.

I am a christian, I believe in Jesus and I say that I hope the best for Rick.

I hope you would agree that being a Christian is not merely a matter of self-identity.

I grew lemon trees once. Their flowers had a citrus fragrance. When it was time for fruiting, they grew lemons. I could have stuck a label onto them that said “oranges”. I could have scotch-taped flowers to them and called them “roses”. But the labels would not have changed the truth. It was still a lemon tree.

Likewise, with religion. It is quite easy for people to take a name to themselves. A person can call themselves a Muslim, for example. But if he does not read the Qur’an, eats pork, never go to mosque, does not live up to the Five Pillars, has no idea about the Hadith, and no interest in Muhammad, is he really a Muslim?

Of course not. Nobody would accept that as valid. Religious identity is more than a label.

The same goes for Christianity.

One of the most important criteria for being a Christian is fidelity to the words of Jesus. The Lord said, “Anyone who does not love me will not obey my teaching” (John 14:24). Part of that teaching is that people who reject God’s salvation in Christ are damned.

Thus, when you say that you “hope for the best for Rick” what you are really doing is disagreeing with God. When you suggest that a person can go to heaven without any faith in Jesus, without love for Christ, without repentance, and without any humble submission to God, you are really denying the core teachings of Jesus.

Bottom line: if you do not like the words of Jesus and refuse to live by them, then you need to be honest and admit that deep down you just don’t like Him.

He touched my life with his genuinity and death and I think that this article could have been written with love and not hate.

Your message demonstrates the frightening tendency of the 21st century millennial to describe any contrary opinion, viewpoint, or idea as a form of “hatred”. I encourage you to think more deeply about that term and how it is used. To simply claim that a particular view is “hate” without any knowledge of the motivation is dangerous and even bigoted.

What you regard as hatred is an opinion that is directly shaped and formed by the Christianity you claim to espouse. No Bible-believing Christian would find anything especially controversial in my article. Yet you see it as a form of hatred because for you Christianity has nothing whatsoever to do with Christ, or the Bible, or living out a life in humble obedience to God’s word that is very different to the culture around us.

I am quite sure the day will come when the New Testament and the words of Jesus will be described as “hate speech”. Should that day arrive in the near future, I am equally sure you will forsake your Christianity with little pain, since it seems not to be the bedrock of your worldview or moral compass.

Those who were on the edge of suicide because of pain are never judgemental. We can not judge somebody else’s struggles. I have been there, I know what am I speaking about.

Of course we can judge other people’s struggles! To claim otherwise is a raw demonstration of the silly moralising that has now become the vogue in the West.

Exactly the opposite is true.

With a bit of common sense and a level head, we can often judge other people’s struggles with a fair degree of insight. For example, picture a person who repeatedly takes drugs, commits crimes, and is imprisoned multiple times. With very little effort we can judge that such a person would be better off not taking drugs and that their drug-taking is the source of misery for themselves and for everyone around them.

We may even be able to judge the reason they chose a self-destructive course. Maybe they had bad friends. Maybe they ignored their parents’ counsel. We can analyse their situation, judge the rightness or wrongness of their choices, and see where things went wrong. We can do this because we are not doomed to solipsism, and because God has given us the ability to observe, to learn, and to evaluate the evidence before us.  

Judgement can even be professionalised. There are a range of occupations which involve making a judgement about other people’s struggles – determining whether they are genuine, what sort of help is required, or whether the struggles are merely excuses for bad behaviour.

It always astonishes me when I hear this moral assumption being confidently asserted. Oh, we cannot judge someone else! What astonishes me is just how irrational it is. It is impossible to consistently apply such a philosophy. For instance, in your short post you certainly judged me. According to you I am writing from the vantage point of “hate”. Why are you not pleading that my struggles be taken into account as justifications of my writing? 

The reality is, when people disclaim judgement, they are judging. Human beings cannot function without making judgement about other people, their words, actions, and values. So it is a form of radical hypocrisy to demand that other people suspend their opinions – to “stop judging” – because we happen to not like what those opinions are and want instead our own judgement to prevail.

Nor life, nor death can apart us from the love of God, though I know that we should never give up. God bless You !

St. Paul did not say this. He said that nothing can separate us from the love of God which is in Christ Jesus our Lord (Romans 8:39). The context and terminology tells us that the apostle was speaking to professed Christians about the special redeeming love that God has for his chosen people – for the people who have bowed the knee to Christ Jesus their Lord.

Although God loves all of his creation he does not love everybody in the same way. He has a general love for all people and he shows this by sending the rain and the sun, and giving blessings to all. On the other hand, he loves his own people – his Church – with an everlasting and saving love. Although his Church are unworthy sinners like everyone else, God predestined them and saved them through his Son.

This verse should never be used to falsely offer hope in the cases of people who have died in an unrepentant and sinful condition. It is a sobering and serious reality that those who die without faith in Christ are lost for all eternity. It is for this reason that a serious Christian will regularly meditate on the “Four Last Things”: death, judgement, heaven and hell so that having received from God the promise of everlasting life, he will not be found to have fallen short of it (Hebrews 4:1).

St. Paul warned the Church about “enemies of the cross of Christ”:

For, as I have often told you before and now tell you again even with tears, many live as enemies of the cross of Christ… Their mind is set on earthly things. (Philippians 3:18-19)

What does it mean to live as an enemy of the cross of Christ? There are different views among orthodox theologians and commentators, but all would agree that in essence it involves a denial of the necessity and power of the cross. An enemy of the cross does not need to be a fanatic wielding a Kalashnikov or someone burning churches with their hands dripping with blood.

An enemy of the cross can be quite mild mannered and civilised. They can be softly-spoken and even ostensibly gentle. All one needs to do is advance the possibility that the cross of Christ is an optional extra, and they have set themselves up in opposition to it. To suggest that a person can go to heaven without Christ is to deny the Lord, invalidate the gospel, nullify the Faith, and blaspheme the cross.

Given the impossibility of escape from judgement without a firm anchoring in Christ and the forgiveness of sins that comes only through his cross, it behooves us all in this generation to take more seriously – in humility – both our staggering need and God’s great gift of mercy in the Most High Jesus Christ and his cross.

The Baptism Controversy (Part I): Strange Bedfellows

baptism

(This is the first of a four part series on baptism. Part I. is a survey of the baptismal conflict, and an expose on the curious agreement between the Reformed and Roman Catholics in their defence of paedobaptism. This article finishes with a taxonomy of the methods used to defend unbiblical traditions.

Part II. of this series is a response to Samuel Watterson’s “review” of the debate between John MacArthur and R. C. Sproul. Part III. looks at the defects in the arguments for paedobaptism advanced by the Reformers, specifically John Calvin. Part IV. considers the arguments of the historical Anabaptists and Baptists of the 16th and 17 centuries, and the strong biblical support for credobaptism.)

The Battle Wreckage: A Survey of the Baptismal Conflict

Long ago on a mountaintop somewhere in the Province of Judea, the Lord Jesus Christ – indisputably risen from the dead and soon to return to the highest reaches of heaven – issued a great commission to his disciples:

Therefore go and make disciples of all nations, baptising them in the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit, and teaching them to obey all that I have commanded you. (Matthew 28:19-20)

As the Lord ascended back to heaven into the blinding sun, and the clouds hid him from view, the disciples obediently rolled up their sleeves and began the tremendous work of building the Lord’s church.

As they carried the gospel throughout the long stretches of the Roman Empire, preaching, teaching, and engaging in disputation with opponents, it probably never entered their minds that one day baptism would become so controversial that Christians would be put to death by other “Christians” for the sake of this sacrament.

It would never have occurred to them that baptism would excite hostility and division among future generations of Christians, to the extent that it would cleave the Christian community apart into vast disconnected camps. Neither would the Apostles have imagined that traditions would emerge from a complex fusion of politics, circumstance, and state policy that would harden into inflexibility like dry wood.

All of this would have been inconceivable in those early decades of the Church. None of the Apostles could have foreseen the religious conditions of 2018, in which millions of people have been baptised (“christened”) but grow up without any shred of Christian faith, while others accept the Christian faith but are not baptised.

Whatever baptism was intended to be by the Lord Jesus, even a cursory glance at the current situation must lead any thoughtful Christian to realise that baptism (and how it is understood) has suffered some terrible breakdown in the corridors of history. One of the most vivid illustrations of this breakdown is found in the sheer number of competing ideas about baptism, not shared merely by one or two off-the-ranch groups, but by large swathes of Christendom. These ideas range from an outright denial of the role of baptism altogether, to claims that baptism itself regenerates a person.

Let us survey the landscape for a moment and behold the wreckage of the centuries.

Unquestionably, the majority position is paedobaptism (the baptism of infants). Under this view, baptism is regarded as a continuation of Old Testament circumcision. It is seen as “the sign of the covenant” by which a person enters the “covenant of grace”, or alternatively, as the means by which a person is initiated into the Christian community. Paedobaptism has a long history of being enforced as a matter of state policy by governments, councils and kings, since there was a strong overlap between baptism (“christening”) and being a citizen within the civic order. Penalties for failing to baptise one’s infant could result in dispossession, exile, or even death.

The sizeable minority position among Christians is credobaptism (sometimes called believer’s baptism). The Latin word credo means “I believe”.  Thus, credobaptism is a baptism contingent on faith. Credobaptists teach that baptism can only rightly be administered to people who openly confess their faith in Christ, declare their repentance from sin, and profess a commitment to follow Christ. It is still seen as an initiation into the Christian church but it is regarded as an initiation that reflects a conscious and willing faith. Conversely, credobaptists teach the uselessness and invalidity of administering baptism to infants, citing an infant’s lack of faith, the absence of scriptural support for the practice, and the resultant numbers of people baptised as babies who never go on to a serious faith later in life. Historically, credobaptists have been brutally persecuted by holders of paedobaptist understandings, because their repudiation of infant baptism and their practice of re-baptising people who were baptised as infants, was regarded as a threat to the civic and political order of the age.

Other groups simply do not baptise at all. This position that could be termed nullbaptism. The Salvation Army for example has a long-standing policy of neither observing baptism nor holy communion. They argue that the sacraments are too divisive, too external, too lacking in scriptural support, and that these sacraments tend to obscure the need for people to have a personal relationship with Jesus. They lead people to rely on an external rite instead of inward conviction. This is a position that has been held by a wide range of smaller groups, such as Quakers and Hyperdispensationalist groups.

Interestingly, even as nullbaptists, Salvationists still recognise a need for an initiation of some kind. They essentially replace baptism with a “swearing in ceremony” involving a public confession under the banner of the church’s flag. This initiates a new “soldier” into the Salvation Army. Salvationists cite the Quakers as an example of the possibility of living a holy life without baptism or holy communion.

In addition to the above positions, some hold to baptismal regeneration. They teach the very act of baptism accomplishes spiritual renewal – it gives new birth and new spiritual life to the person who is baptised. When administered to infants, regeneration is said to occur, although this is often followed with the caveat that the promise contained in baptism is conditional on future faith and repentance. Various understandings of baptismal regeneration can be found in Roman Catholicism, Anglicanism, Eastern Orthodoxy and among the Reformed. Mormons and the Churches of Christ also believe in a form of baptismal regeneration.

Then there are other novel ideas about this sacrament such as the baptism of the dead, practiced by Mormons on behalf of dead people so that they can be given posthumous chances to believe in Mormonism and reach some level of heaven. Baptism of the dead is also practised by the Old Apostolic Church and the New Apostolic Church where a living person essentially serves as a proxy for someone deceased.

Roman Catholic theology also advances the theory of the baptism of desire whereby a person who has never believed in Jesus Christ for a single moment of his life, can still be saved merely by mere virtue of wanting to be a good person.

The baptism of the Holy Spirit is another major concept within some circles, but one that is perhaps the most difficult to nail downMyriad are the ways this concept is understood and taught, from the charismatic view of the Pentecostals whereby baptism of the Holy Spirit produces the ecstatic speaking in tongues, to the view found within the Holiness Movement that such a baptism produces a deep and abiding personal sanctification – an extraordinary level of virtue and Christ-likeness – in the life of the believer.

There are also fierce disagreements between Christian groups about the mode of baptism. Some argue that baptism must always involve full immersion under the water as the only method that secures a proper baptism and the method that best follows the example set of Jesus himself. This is the characteristic position of those who hold to believers’ baptism. Other Christian groups – generally paedobaptists – usually practice sprinkling small quantities of water on the head of an infant. Other groups may apply baptism through affusion, which involves the pouring of water on the head. Some churches, like the Roman Catholic Church, practice all three modes of baptism.

A Christendom That Lost It’s Mission

Evidence abounds (see: here, here, and here for a sample) that Christendom has lost its mission in the West. Far from evangelising the nations and making disciples of all people, the “old” mainstream churches spend their time with symbolic and self-indulgent proclamations about the environment, internecine conflict over sexual ethics about which the Bible clearly judges, and ecumenical meetings in which the guests are attired in the colourful garb of other religions. So deep into the puddle of heresy has so much “Christian” religious activity has fallen, that nearly 20% of the clergy of some churches do not even have an identifiable faith in God.

Churches no longer project a united, determined, and simple message, but present themselves more like failing businesses desperate to generate revenue. They have become so desirous for new buttocks to sit in their pews that their attitude toward doctrine is one of near-indifference. You could sit for centuries worth of man hours in the modern Church of England or even most Methodist and Presbyterian churches before you heard a fire-and-brimstone sermon, thundering from the pew like the voice of God, commanding the congregation to repent and believe the Most High Jesus Christ as the one and only way to heaven.

How could Christendom have collapsed so spectacularly? How could John Wesley’s Methodism, (to choose just one example among many), which once performed such a great missionary work in the American colonies and among the Welsh working poor, descend into rank liberalism? How could the Church of England, which once sent missionaries to China, India and Nigeria, become a nut house whose clergy seem more concerned with Palestinian rights and discrimination than the necessity of salvation through Christ?

Although the entire answer does not lie in the sacrament of baptism – as if by fine-tuning a rite we can manufacture faith – yet, certainly part of the answer does. The church is in urgent need of completing the Reformation. It needs to purge out the last remaining medievalisms and return to the sparkling fountains of the source, and thereby recover a true, Christ-centred sacramental theology. A theology of baptism in which repentance and faith, and a true inward communion with an authentic, risen Christ is so paramount, that Christians would be able to say with St. Peter, “and this water symbolises baptism that now saves you also — not the removal of dirt from the body but the pledge of a clear conscience toward God“.

This issue is a pivotal one and cannot be tossed aside like junk in the attic. The best reason to handle baptism thoughtfully and with care is the plain fact that baptism was commanded by Jesus, and it thus forms a core part of the Church’s mission – the mission that was defined by none other than Christ himself. Therefore, errors regarding baptism threaten the very integrity of the Church’s divinely mandated task on earth. Given this, we may even go so far as to assume that any Christian revival – (should the Lord in his mercy allow fresh sap to flow through the withering vine of the remnants of the organised church that grows in the West) – will also feature a wholesale renewal in the practice of true biblical baptism.

One may even argue with some force – as John MacArthur and others do – that the visible, organised church has experienced a catastrophic collapse in the West precisely because biblical baptism has been forsaken and there is no longer a clear, public means of identifying who is a true Christian. In most paedobaptist communions today, it is assumed that a regular churchgoer who was christened as a baby must be an authentic Christian. The gateway to the pulpit and the sacraments are swung open freely, and this has allowed generations of unbelievers to rise to the top. Once ensconced in a position of authority, they soon beckon upward other heterodox believers like themselves, and thereby attempt to reshape their denomination in their own image.

Filling a church up with unbelievers merely by dint of an infant sprinkling is particularly disastrous to the integrity of the faith in our age – a period in which believers can no longer rely upon the state to uphold Christian morality or enforce Christian doctrines.

Until recently, a church full of non-Christians could limp along without shattering into heresy because cooperative governments provided a framework of support. The organised church grew like a climbing plant. Providing it had the trellis of the State to entwine itself around, it could operate its schools, hospitals, and it could even proclaim a reasonably whole gospel in a mechanical fashion with a half-baked clergy. The organised church trundled along as a conservative cultural and social institution. Even if it manufactured hypocrites and pharisees by the truckload, and though it did not catapult many people into glory, at least it did not publicly damage the Christian witness.

Since the Second World War, Western governments have secularised. They no longer give any priority to Christianity, even on a basic cultural level. Thus, the trellis has been kicked away, and the organised, visible church is left to grow unsupported. Since it is full of non-Christians – and has been for a long time – who are not instinctively obedient to the word of God, it has no means to prune and regulate itself. It has lapsed into a chaotic mess. One need only look at the Anglican Church to see this writ large.

Yet Christ came to establish a pure Church of people with a deep and personal communion with his love. He brought into existence a spotless bride; harmless and gentle; a broken and contrite people; a people who would have mercy and not sacrifice; and a people who would constitute a faithful spouse. Confessional baptism is instrumental to this objective because it calls people to public witness and to public repentance. It is a demand for faith and obedience. It is an admission into the mystery of being united with Christ in his death, burial and resurrection.

Until credobaptism becomes the norm in Christendom again, the visible church will continue to look like a vine disconnected from its lattice; a mess of contortions and broken limbs; disunited; its fruit crushed; its frame sickly.

The Taxonomy of Defending a Tradition

Unbiblical traditions – like paedobaptism or other baptism theories – can only ever be defended with an inconsistent approach to the Bible and to history. The arguments are never rooted in scripture as a first recourse. They are instead sculptures of assumptions, drawn from history and from vague, indirect passages of the Bible.

Indeed, the arguments of a traditionalist may not even follow logically from other key principles held by them. But that is not regarded as a problem. A consistency of argumentation is never a priority when a person is already devoted and committed to a particular doctrine. Instead, the objective is to circle the wagons around a particular belief. One sees this over and over again with paedobaptist arguments.

This approach to apologetics is analogous to hacking one’s way through a corn field in the firm assurance that any shortcut that gets you to the mill must be legal, safe, and legitimate. So long as you can “prove” the theological point to the degree that would be accepted by an uncritical audience, what does it matter how you get there?

Do you have a trail of logical wreckage left by broken arguments and silly analogies? Not a problem. What about contradictions and non-sequiturs? That’s okay! Is there an absence of any references to didactic teachings in the scriptures? Again, no problem at all. Just as long as you get there in the end, the means are unimportant.

In the matter of baptism, Reformed Christians (and other Protestant paedobaptists) and Roman Catholics speak with one voice. Upon nearly all other theological matters they are opponents, excommunicating and anathamatising each other. But on this issue they become allies, standing shoulder-to-shoulder on the barricades. This is unsurprising since the Reformed understanding of baptism is borrowed, with very little alteration, from Roman Catholicism. Both affirm paedobaptism; both have some notion that baptism is a continuation of circumcision, and both affirm the sufficiency of the sprinkling mode.

Because the tradition is the same, the manner in which both Reformed and Roman Catholics defend paedobaptism is the same. Let us consider some of the features of their apologetic.

Firstly, they tend to appeal to church history as if it were an authoritative yardstick of practice. They argue that infant baptism is hallowed by a long usage and therefore ought to be accepted by Christians so that they can be in “communion with the true church throughout the ages”. This approach essentially enscripturates history and turns it into a authoritative source of revelation.

In fairness, it must be pointed out that Roman Catholics are being consistent with their theology when they make such an appeal because they also reject the principle of sola scriptura and appeal to tradition defined by their church’s magesterium. But these sorts of historical arguments are profoundly inconsistent when made by the Reformers like John Calvin who purport to settle all their theology on sola scriptura. If sola scriptura really is the foundation for one’s doctrines, then one’s first resort in an apologetic defence would never be to church history and tradition. Yet this is often the first port of call for both Roman Catholics and the Reformed.

Secondly, both the Reformed and Roman Catholics tend to appeal repeatedly to silences in scripture and history as if this was a logical proof of their position. They interpret these silences as affirmations of their position, which is always easy to do. There are many silences in the historical and biblical record, into which a determined dogmatist can insert whatever teaching they like. They can then insist that neither history nor scripture says anything contrary to their position.

To such an extent does an appeal to silence mark their arguments that I have seldom come across a paedobaptist presentation that does not include somewhere, statements to the effect of: “the scriptures say nothing about…” or “church history never shows…“, or “show me one place where the Bible says this is incompatible…“.

Naturally, being eager to argue from silence corresponds to an equal and opposite eagerness to dismiss the hard, positive evidence that would confirm credobaptism. It seems historical and scriptural silence is worth more to the traditionalist’s apologetic than positive statements from the historical and scriptural record. Dismissing the positive evidence to the contrary is always necessary when one wishes to establish a doctrine that is unbiblical.

They do this by the simple means of arbitrarily lifting the goalposts for those scriptural passages, thereby insisting that credobaptism must carry a heavier burden and reach a higher standard than any of their own proofs. The standards are elevated only for evidences in support of credobaptism, of course. The goalposts are always shortened for easy kicks when it comes to their own position.

For example, R. C. Sproul conceded in the baptism debate with John MacArthur that the New Testament shows only adult baptisms. He further conceded that the usual New Testament texts trotted out by paedobaptists in support of their position – such as children being blessed by Jesus – are unconvincing on a scholarly level and are plain silly. This he openly acknowledged.

Yet, in a remarkable about-face on his own principle of sola scriptura, he then insisted that the scriptural examples are irrelevant since they only show baptism of first generation believers. R. C. Sproul went on to appeal to silence (as is always to be expected of the traditionalist) that the New Testament does not show any second generation believers being baptised. Thus, Sproul concluded, in order for the credobaptist texts to carry the weight of authoritative teaching they would have to show Christians in the second generation also being baptised upon confessing Christ. The lack of such baptisms in the Bible, Sproul insisted, suggests that they were baptising their babies.

To say that this is a weak argument is an understatement. It is a preposterous argument. Anybody can play the game of devising loopholes around positive scriptural texts. Anyone can win a debate – “win”, at least in their own minds – if they simply announce that all the evidence opposing their position is inadmissible. Atheists like Richard Dawkins do the same thing when they claim that there is no historical proof of the resurrection. This approach was the subject of a hilarious satire by the Youtube channel Lutheran Satire which pointed out that if you dismiss and wave away all of the proofs of the resurrection found in the gospels, in early church writings, and even in non-Christian historical source then it is certainly true that there is “no historical proof” of the resurrection. In other words, this is a dodge.

Moreover, it is relatively easy to devise some objective to a positive fact of history and then raise the goalposts denying your opponents the right to appeal to that fact. It’s a form of intellectual ring-barking of a healthy, valid fact.

For example, one could adopt R. C. Sproul’s methodology and argue that paedobaptism is invalid because the first adherents of the practice lived in a time of impure water. They thus resorted to sprinkling their children rather than immersing them as adults in order to minimise the risk of disease. Over time, this simple family health measure was elevated to the level of doctrine. Thus, to prove paedobaptism, and to show that it was not just a temporary precautionary measure, it must be shown the early historical record that paedobaptism was practised by Christians with purified water.

This example is purposefully ridiculous, yet it illustrates how arbitrary theology and history can become when unproven assumptions are simply applied to scripture (or even to history) from gaping silence. This is what inevitably happens whenever a traditionalist deviates from the simple reading of the normal sense of the Bible.

Thirdly, the defence of any unbiblical tradition very often requires a misuse of the Old Testament. The Old Testament is a goldmine for proof texts and handy-dandy theological analogies. This is because the Letter to the Hebrews in the New Testament teaches that the Old Testament provided “types and shadows” of what was to come.

For the traditionalist, this is taken as a license to deduce all kinds of things from the Old Testament that were never dreamed of by the original writers. They turn poetic flourishes into law; hyperbolic remarks into normative standards; minor technical details are turned into didactic teaching, and narrative passages become a fertile dig site for analogies. These analogies, of course, would never occur to anyone reading the scriptures in a simple and direct fashion. To “discover” the analogy, a person must first be exposed to the very doctrine that the traditionalist claims the analogy supports.

At other times Old Testament “evidence” is sought by the traditionalist by word-searching or theme-searching for anything that is vaguely connected to the doctrine.

A good example of these tactics is the effort by at least one Roman Catholic apologist who was defending papal authority. He was particularly determined to prove that the papal claim to bear the “keys of the kingdom” was prophesied in the Old Testament which foresaw the Roman Catholic Church. To find his evidence, he appealed to 1 Chronicles 9:26-27 which speaks of the Levites being responsible for opening the House of God with a key each morning. The Roman Catholic writer triumphantly pointed to this passage as clear evidence that in the Old Testament the priesthood carried the keys to the temple, and so in the New Testament the pope – the highest priest of Romanism – also bears the keys of authority to the kingdom of God.

The logic is clearly invalid. For here the starting point is the doctrinal concept of “the keys”. The Old Testament is then sifted to find anything remotely analogous, but the analogy is clearly not intended by the writer, and the connection would never naturally occur to a reader. You need to begin with the doctrine first – as it was devised by men – and then go and find its proof in the Bible later. This is always the essence of an unbiblical teaching and an unbiblical line of reasoning.

Similarly, when Roman Catholics – like Gerry Matatics – defend the Marian dogmas (such as the intercession of Mary), they sometimes reference Bathsheba as the queen mother. Bathsheba was a “type of Mary” they claim, since she interceded for Adonijah by carrying his requests to King Solomon (2 Kings 2). This is immediately taken as an analogy of the motherly intervention of Mary on behalf of her supplicants. Just like Bathsheba, she receives their prayers and conveys these to her kingly Son. Thus, the Old Testament person of Bathsheba is a prefigure of what Mary would be in the New Testament (according to Roman Catholics).

Yet when it is pointed out that Solomon denied Adonijah’s request which was made through the intermediary of Bathsheba, and that Bathsheba’s intervention directly led to his execution, this is dismissed by the Roman Catholic apologist. “All Old Testament types break down at some point; that is why they are just types“, is the standard response. This is, of course, highly convenient for any defender of tradition.

While it is true that Old Testament types are never exact simulacrums of New Testament doctrines, we are surely entitled to point out that Old Testament types must at least contain the same concepts as the New Testament doctrines that point back to them, or otherwise they cannot be types.

Fourthly, the Old Testament can be subject to having passages removed by the traditionalist completely from their context, and having a new meaning applied to those passages retroactively.

For example, some of the Reformed, unable to evade the clear priority given to personal faith in the New Testament, thus conclude that infants must be capable of faith. It is their infant faith – even if they are just a few days or weeks old – that makes their baptism valid. In essence, these Reformed (and those who follow them) attempt to argue that infant baptism is actually a form of credobaptism. This helps them to resolve the difficulty of having grace supposedly flow into an infant in the absence of any faith whatsoever in Christ.

Credobaptists reject this suggestion as not only unscriptural but as an outrage to plain reason and common sense (traditions often violate plain reason and demand assent to something that is effectively magical).

Credobaptists point out that an infant which cannot so much as speak its own name is hardly going to be able to conceive of Christ as Lord. Neither can an infant hear the word of God which is the Holy Spirit’s ordained means of creating faith. The credobaptist also stands first and foremost on the source of truth – the Bible. They point out that the scriptures always speak of faith as a virtue that works in tandem with a person’s reason and knowledge of the gospel. Faith is not a property that can exist independently of knowledge and conscious awareness of either self or Christ. There is no such thing as unconscious faith. There is no such thing as gospel-less faith.

A person must be conscious of what they believe in order to have faith. Otherwise we could say that a baptised dog or horse is capable of faith, even if they are unaware of Christ and cannot understand the words of Jesus.

The Reformed theologian who makes such a claim – that babies can believe – is obligated to “find” evidence. So he dutifully digs into the Old Testament to conjure up texts that he claims will prove that babies can be believers. Note that when traditionalists use the Old Testament in service of their doctrines, the texts they prefer almost always have a poetic or hyperbolic dimension to them. Or, at the very least, passages that have broad terms. This allows new meanings to be anachronistically applied to them.

The Psalms are especially useful for the purpose of supplying such proofs for traditions because they are written with plenty of metaphors and vivid imagery. This makes them malleable and plastic, easily shaped to a pre-determined interpretive purpose. Context is ignored under such circumstances.

In the case of “proving” infant faith, the Reformed appeal to Psalm 22:9: “Yet you brought me out of the womb; you made me trust in you, even at my mother’s breast. From birth I was cast on you; from my mother’s womb you have been my God.

They anachronistically supply an artificial context – that of infant baptism – while ignoring the surrounding passage entirely. “Is it not clear,” they ask, “that the psalmist was referring to receiving saving faith as an infant? Does this not prove that infants can have true faith in God and therefore receive baptism as believers?

In the process of constructing such an argument, they ignore the fact that this is a messianic psalm with many mysteries and metaphors not literally fulfilled in the life of David (who wrote it!). For example, David writes about having pierced hands and feet. He says his heart has melted like wax within him. He writes about being mocked by everyone who passes by, and finishes by declaring that all the families of the earth will worship God.

Clearly, much of the psalm is not to be taken as if it finds literal fulfillment in the life of David. To the contrary, it is the poetic outpouring of a man experiencing deep suffering and depression. Not only does David – the sufferer – feel alone and forsaken, he is left to trust in a God who seems to be far from him at that moment.

As a messianic psalm, it finds its deepest and most complete fulfillment in Christ. From the vantage point of the New Testament we can clearly see how beautifully it expresses Christ’s passion, the loneliness of being mankind’s sin bearer, and the hope contained in his ultimate vindication. The psalm points to his miraculous birth, his crucifixion at the hands of gentiles, his resurrection, and even the new creation that he will inaugurate on the earth.

The context of the psalm tells us that in its primary sense David is reminding God of his providence. Despite the oppressive weight of rejection and pain in David’s existence, it was God, ultimately, who brought him into the world. It was God who had caused him to believe from an early age – so early, it might as well have been at his mother’s breast! Thus, the psalm is simply a testimony that all his life he had believed and trusted in the Living God. Yet even if the text did teach that David had received faith as an infant – even if such a reading is contrary to reason and textually ridiculous – it does not allow us to infer that this is so for all infants.

Naturally the passage says nothing about baptism. The defenders of tradition seldom find in the Old Testament anything explicitly addressing their doctrinal innovations. In this case, the passage does not even didactically and unequivocally teach anything about the implausible idea that infants have faith.

Moreover, a wider look at scripture provides many demonstrations that references to the womb and reports of God’s mercy during infancy are common hyperbolic Hebraisms. This kind of poetry is only intended to speak of God’s providential leading and working from the very beginning of life, not to assert that the infants themselves received those properties and gifts at that very stage of their lives.

We can see this in the language used by St. Paul when gave his testimony to the Galatians: “But when God, who set me apart from my mother’s womb and called me by his grace, was pleased to reveal his Son in me so that I might preach him among the Gentiles, my immediate response was not to consult any human being” (Galatians 1:15-16).

St. Paul says that he was separated by God from his mother’s womb. He cannot be talking about either faith or baptism in this passage, since prior to his conversion his faith was in a false Judaism (and a God he did not know). And when St. Paul had been born, there was not yet any Christianity into which he could possibly be baptised. He is simply employing a Hebraism to speak of God’s lifelong providential care and supervision, right from the moment that God brought him into the world from his mother’s womb.

Thus the Reformed use of this Old Testament text to “prove” the possibility of infant faith not only offends reason, but stretches the proof text far beyond the container of its context. It is quite common for traditionalists to magnify poetic statements and adapt them to the least natural interpretations and reading of the text. This they do in service to a concept far removed from the text, its genre, its purpose, and overall message.

Moreover, it must be remembered that this is the sort evidence being used to lay just a single plank in the outbuildings of a doctrinal edifice that has not even been shown to be scriptural in a direct and primary sense.

Traditionalists commonly use the Old Testament to find these textual tidbits. These are used to confirm the secondary details of their doctrine. Often this forms the body of their argument, as if by establishing proof texts for enough of their doctrine’s secondary details they will somehow give the main premise of their doctrine a scriptural foundation. It is like a builder pouring his efforts into gardens, retaining walls, landscaping, and driveways in the hope that by erecting all of these, somehow a new dwelling will suddenly materialise as well.

Ultimately, Reformed Christians end up using the same arguments against credobaptists that Roman Catholics used (and continue to use) against the Protestant Reformation! It is truly noteworthy with what unity the Reformed and Roman Catholics speak when they denounce credobaptists. The Reformed sometimes appear to be blissfully unaware that their key debating points could have been directly lifted from the counter-Reformation. And this fact alone should be a flashing red light as a sign of a deficient argument. For if you repeat arguments against your opponent’s position which could be validly used against your own theology, you can know with certainty that the wheels have come flying off the bus and logic has broken down somewhere.

Any time an argument is made that bears this kind of logical architecture, one can be sure they are dealing with an extra-biblical tradition. It is the mere teaching of men and bears the imprint of men. Thus its reasoning is slippery and ill-founded, for it is not founded on the Rock of the word of God.

Our True Theology is Revealed in How We Handle Money

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What shall I do? I shall pull down my barns and build greater. (Luke 12:18)

  1. Our true theology is revealed by our approach to finances
  2. Jesus presents the radical view
  3. Covetousness is the weakness of man
  4. St. Augustine describes the two motives of covetousness

1. There are very few things that reveal our true theology as precisely as our approach to finances. A person may profess to be deeply faithful to Christ. He may radiate piety, smiling humbly and making references to God all the time. Or she may regularly attend church, never absent from the pew. An external performance of Christianity is as old as the faith itself. And yet, our Lord takes pains to teach us that if our theology has not reached the wallet and chequebook – if the way we view finances are no different from the shrewd unbeliever – then our faith is, at best, questionable.

Our relationship to money – and indeed, to goods more broadly – tells us a lot about where we are in our relationship to God and the extent to which we trust God to be our provider. It shows to us the extent to which we are truly content with God. When we are content with godliness, this will manifest in both satisfaction and gratitude for the things we possess in the sure knowledge that all that we have (and no more) has been given to us by the express design of our Father for our own good.

Our attitude toward money is a great revealer of the quality of our conversion. Whether we are fretful about losing our property; worried about the markets; or whether we agonise over the future tells us much about the authenticity and depth of our faith. And, of course, how joyfully we give to others – “for God loves a cheerful giver“. Giving generously is particularly demonstrative of true conversion, for mankind in his dead nature is never tempted to divest himself of his money. He does not struggle with the inborn impulse to hand money over to others.

Quite the opposite. The prevailing sin of mankind is to be covetous, avaricious, greedy and grasping, which is why St. Paul could describe money as the “root of many evils”. On one hand, man ceaselessly wants more than he has. On the other hand, he holds jealously to what he has gained already, like the proverbial dragon guarding his store of gold.

The Lord addresses these impulses in the human heart many times during his ministry. Always, Christ directs us to a new view of life that must become the “new norm” for a true Christian. It is a view of life in which our relationship to things and money is radically altered. Where the bare frame of our human outlook is coloured in with divine realities, eternal priorities, and with a preoccupation with God and his kingdom.

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2. The view of life that Jesus teaches is neither comfortable (for it demands living by faith and not by sight), nor is it congenital to our inborn nature (because it makes eternal, invisible things the priority of life). Moreover, what Jesus teaches is starkly realistic and people have never liked stark realism in any generation. “Life is short and uncertain,” Jesus says, “and you could die tonight. So stop living in the fantasy world that everybody else lives in. Stop worrying about money and goods. Start labouring for the treasure that does not fade or spoil, a treasure in heaven that lasts forever“.  Jesus tells us that a man’s life – his true security and happiness – does not consist in the abundance of what he has.

This point is established by Christ in the Parable of the Rich Fool.

Of all his parables, this represents one of the Lord’s most stinging rebukes during his ministry. It deals directly with man’s natural covetous desires, although it is only part of a much longer discourse on money and worry. Nonetheless, even without the rest of the context, it still clearly reflects Christ’s low tolerance for greediness, and equally clearly sets out the new view of life that Christians are to have. Yet it has often been ignored within the church because its message is unwelcome and difficult, especially as times have become more prosperous and every individual has more to lose.

One theologian observes:

The world, Christian as well as pagan, in each succeeding age, with a remarkable agreement, utterly declines to recognise the great Teacher’s view of life here.

3. Jesus begins by warning his audience to: “Watch out! Be on your guard against all kinds of covetousness” (Luke 12:14).

The fact the Lord urges his hearers to be energetically on guard suggests that covetousness is subtle and common. If a Christian is not on his guard, Jesus implies, and does not learn to think with kingdom mindedness, he will surely be overpowered by a view of life that is acid to Christianity. Like the seed that fell among the thorns, he will soon find the gospel choked in his life by the love of riches.

Note that the Lord refers to all kinds of covetousness. Covetousness is not simply the desire for more than we have. It is not even breaking the laws of God and man for the sake of gain like Judas Iscariot, although this is certainly the result of covetousness. Rather, covetousness also includes holding onto that which we already have and the attendant belief that life is not worth living if we lose our possessions, comforts, and little luxuries.

Jesus describes an industrious farmer who gets a bumper harvest. He is giddy with delight, for now he can pull down his barns – actually, enormous underground granaries – and build bigger ones, and retire. He can spend the rest of his life taking his ease, eating and drinking, and having parties.

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It is a significant example of covetousness for our Lord to have chosen.

Jesus often turns our concept of vices on its head, attacks our safe definitions, and drills down to the attitudes beneath them. Note how the rich man in this parable does not provide a typical illustration of what people generally think covetousness looks like.

The rich farmer does not seem like he is desperate for more. Quite the opposite. Here is a man who has finally reached a point where he judges that he “has enough”. Enough for what? Enough for a long retirement in which he can wallow in his wealth, living a life of ceaseless pleasure. It is a testament to the ever-current nature of the gospel that if we fast forward to the 21st century, we discover exactly the same widespread disposition among millions who make it a serious goal of their lives to reach easy retirement, so that they might hit a golf ball around a green or spending hours relaxing in local cafes.

God’s answer to such a disposition: “You fool!“. The fact that God speaks directly in this parable – which is uncommon in Christ’s parables – strongly suggests that this is not merely an illustrative story but a cautionary biography of a real person. A biography enhanced with Christ’s heavenly knowledge.

In any case, God refers to him sternly as a “fool”. A biblical fool is an insensible man who thinks himself clever when he is not. In his stubborn pride he refuses to hear or repent, and thus places himself beyond all correction or redemption. If this farmer was an actual historical person, then he had evidently not listened very obediently to the message of Ecclesiastes in which the preacher describes the very phenomenon Christ illustrates. Ecclesiastes observes that men who labour all their lives and store up wealth frequently do not enjoy their earnings, but die and leave it to others to enjoy.

Why is the man a fool? Because, having finally set everything up for a pleasure-filled existence, his life was going to end that very night. The earthly paradise he longed for would not materialise because the stopwatch of his life’s span had run down to zero. He had held on to things that he could only keep temporarily. And since everything that falls into our hands is ours only for a fraction of time, and since we are eternal souls, wealth and goods can never be the source of our happiness and joy. To live for them is madness.

The parable underscores the serious reality of life which ought to underpin our handling of finances. The reality is this: even if we gained the whole world, the day will soon arrive when our soul will be demanded of us and we must give an account before the Judge of all the earth.

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4. St. Augustine addressed the issue of covetousness in his sermon (Sermon 36) on the text of Matthew 19:21: “Go sell all that you have and give to the poor“. In this sermon, St. Augustine presents the two major motives behind covetousness or avarice. He also goes on to argue that for a Christian – when he is renewed by the Holy Spirit in both mind and soul – the same motives remain, but are now purified and changed in focus and orientation. Instead of drawing the soul downward, those motives are set free to draw him upward.

This concept of corruption is a central feature of St. Augustine’s theology, and it makes a vivid reappearance in the 20th century through C. S. Lewis’ writings, especially the extended application of this principle in his book The Screwtape Letters.

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St. Augustine explains that all human desires are, at their root, desires for God. Whether it be food, sex, drugs, money or music, behind every human yearning is a keenly felt emptiness, as if the soul had fallen into twilight and were vainly seeking to ignite the lamps with sodden paper. Man is a fallen creature, writes St. Augustine, and therefore does not realise his soul’s true need and does not seek for God. His soul cries out for communion with his Holy Creator but wretched man that he is! He tries to slake his thirst for an eternal God by indulging his sensual appetites. He engages in a relentless search for more – more money and more pleasure – as if the sheer volume of an unsatisfactory delight will eventually fill his need. So it is that “man is always restless until he finds his rest in God.

It is a striking theology that C. S. Lewis expands upon. “It is not that our desires are too strong,” writes Lewis, “but that they are too weak.” If we really desired abundant happiness we would seek it in Christ, the “Joy that man has always secretly desired”. Instead, man’s mind is so numbed and blunted by his fallenness that he thinks a bit of money or a new car will satisfy him. Lewis uses the illustrations of children stubbornly making mud pies in a puddle in the backyard because they cannot imagine what it would be like to go for a holiday to the beach.

This twisting of man’s desires and motives is a recurrent feature in St. Augustine’s writings. As in many of his pastoral writings and sermons, St. Augustine personifies virtues and vices. Of covetousness he writes:

What says avarice? “Keep for yourself, keep for your children. If you should be in want, no one will give to you. Live not for the time present only; consult for the future…” Thus avarice did enjoin one thing: “Keep for yourself, consult for the future”. 

Covetousness (or avarice), says St. Augustine, is motivated by the two impulses of keeping for oneself and laying up for the future.

“Keep for yourself,” says avarice. Suppose you are willing to obey her, ask her where you shall keep your gains? Some well-defended place she will show you, a walled chamber, perhaps, or iron chest. Very well, now you apply every precaution. Even so, perhaps some thief in the house will burst open the secret places; and while you are taking precautions for your money, you will be in fear of your life.

Or, it may be while you are keeping your store, he whose mind is set to plunder has it even in his thoughts to kill you. Lastly, even though by various precautions you should defend your treasure and your clothes against thieves; defend them still against the rust and moth. What can you do then? Here is no enemy without to take away your goods, but one within consuming them.

St. Augustine echoes Christ’s teaching here that our goods and money are simply never secure, regardless of our best efforts. Certainly, we can keep try to keep our money and property safe, but there are numerous cases of burglaries that have gone terribly wrong and someone has been left dead. Or banking errors that have seen people’s money leeched away. Or inflation or volatile markets that sees the value of every dollar erode away until it is worthless. Or, our goods become worn and damaged by mould, rust, or other forms of decay.

When covetousness demands that we “keep for ourselves”, it is a fictional demand. For even with our best efforts nothing that we have, from books to furniture to money, can be kept. Everything will pass from our grasp in time, one way or another.

No good counsel then has avarice given. See she has enjoined you to keep, yet has not found any safe place where you may keep.

Let’s consider her next advice, “Consult for the future”. But for what future? Only for a few and uncertain days.

She says, “Consult for the future,” to a man who may not live even until tomorrow. But suppose him to live as long as avarice thinks he will… [suppose] that he grow old and come to his end: when he is bent double with old age and leaning on his stick for support, even then he still hears avarice saying still, “Consult for the future.”

(The number of elderly retirees who have been caught in investment scandals in recent years have skyrocketed. Much of this has come to light in the current banking commission exposing poor industry practices. In some cases, people well advanced in years have taken out loans for properties that they would not live long enough to pay back. Others made more and more exorbitant investments into the millions. It is a technicolored confirmation of St. Augustine’s observation that even old people can continue to live in the delusions of covetousness.)

For what future? When he is even at his last breath she still speaks. She says, “for your children’s sake”. If only we could find that old men who had no children were not avaricious! Yet to even to childless elders, who cannot even excuse their sinful greed by pretending to have family affections, she still ceases not to say, “Consult for the future.”

…so let us look to those who have children. Can they be certain that their children will possess what they shall leave? Let them observe the children of other men. Some lose what they had by the unjust violence of others. Other children lose what they had by their own wickedness, consuming everything they possessed. So it is that the children of rich men can remain poor.

…But a man will say, “My children will possess this.” It is uncertain. I am not saying that this is a false claim, but at best, it is uncertain.

But now suppose that their inheritance of your estate is certain. What do you wish to leave them? What you have gotten for yourself. But everything that you have gotten was not left to you. Yet you have it. If you have been able to get possessions that were not left to you, then they will also be able to get what you have not left to them.

St. Augustine then shows how these motives can be more properly directed in a heavenly direction:

Thus have the counsels of avarice been refuted… Now let righteousness speak. The words will be the same, but they will not have the same the meaning.

“Keep for yourself,” says the Lord, “consult for the future”.

Now ask Him, “Where shall I keep?”

You shall have treasure in heaven, where no thief approaches, nor moth corrupts. Against an enduring future you will be able to keep it! Come, blessed of My Father, receive the kingdom prepared for you from the foundation of the world.

How many days this kingdom will last for is shown by the end of the passage. After He had said to those on his left hand, “these shall go away into everlasting burning”, to those on his right hand He says, “but the righteous into life eternal.”

This is consulting for the future. A future which has no future beyond it. Those days without an end…  neither preceded by a yesterday nor succeeded by a tomorrow. So then let us consult for this future. The words which avarice spoke to you are not different from this, yet by them is avarice overthrown.

But what am I to do about my children?”

Hear on this point also the counsel of your Lord… I would be bold to speak through His mercy; I would be bold to say something, not of my own imagining, but of His pity.

Keep then for your children, but hear me. Suppose any one should lose one of his children… This is man’s condition. It is not that I wish to see it, but sadly we see cases of it. Some Christian child has been lost. Perhaps you have lost a Christian child.

But you have not indeed lost him. Rather you have sent him before you. For he is not gone away, but only gone before. Ask your own faith: surely you too will go there too? The same place where your child has gone.

Does your son live? Ask your faith… Consider with Whom he is. If any son were serving at the Court and became the Emperor’s friend, and were to say to you, “Sell my portion, which is there, and send it to me; would you find what to answer him?”

Well, your son is now with the Emperor of all emperors, with the King of all kings, with the Lord of all lords…

Easter Sermons: Banal, Saccharine, and Boring

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When St. Paul preached on this hill in Athens nearly 2,000 years ago, his “Easter sermon” turned the city upside down and became one of the most influential in the history of the world. Not much danger of that happening with the trite, cliched efforts of modern pastors, clerics, and theologians.

At Easter it has become customary to hear straining-to-be-meaningful sermons that aim either to emotionally energise a congregation, or otherwise attempt to apply the resurrection of Christ to contemporary political and social issues. Some preachers are unwitting comedians, as they offer hilarious examples of what happens when orthodoxy is derailed and an ersatz Christianity is transposed over the top. The result veers between contemptible and ridiculous.

This year did not disappoint. Dutifully, newspapers reported the sermons of a motley cast of popes, bishops, princes, pastors and priests whose pronouncements from pulpits around the world, when taken together, constitute a powerful emetic.

A small sample is sufficient to give a flavour of Easter in 2018:

Pope Francis used his Easter sermon to talk about refugees, immigrants and Syrians. Last year, he used his Easter Sunday sermon to talk about tragedy, misery, and disaster in the world with very little mention of the themes that the Apostolic writers were wont to associate with Christ’s death, burial and resurrection: themes like sin, repentance, forgiveness, and spiritual regeneration.

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Pope Francis offers to the crowd the glad tidings of Easter, with sermons featuring strong messages about geopolitics, including immigrants, Syrians and refugees.

To be fair to Prince Charles, he is not a preacher by vocation but if he is ever crowned king, he will receive the appellation “Defender of the Faith” and will become the head of the Church of England, which implies the need for a minimal theological awareness.

It is with great relief to all that Prince Charles demonstrated that he would not be out of place among the muddle-headed prelates of the Church of England as he delivered a patented woolly message on Good Friday reminding everyone about the great similarities between Islam and Christianity. So great are these similarities, that it is a matter of extreme befuddlement to the Prince as to why there is no peace between them.

The Prince reminded everyone that Mary is a shared figure in both Islam and Christianity, and having thus established this striking, cosy closeness between the faiths, appealed for everyone in the middle east to lay down their shoulder-held missile launchers, and to live at peace as friends. The Prince’s message is bound to make a big difference to the geopolitical situation, with many thousands of people heeding his words. For what militant in Syria does not hang, bat-like, from every word that proceeds from the His Highness’s mouth? Just like bishops of the Church of England, the Prince has acquired the habit of public hand-wringing, virtue-signalling, vacuous lamentation, and “calls” to masses of humanity to immediately cease their evil ways because their evil ways are simply not very nice.

This year, the Archbishop of Canterbury Justin Welby gave his sermon in the presence of an art installation made from hundreds of dangling articles of refugees’ clothing, transforming Canterbury Cathedral into something resembling a Mad Hatter’s laundry room. The Archbishop did make a heroic effort to sound like an Anglican clergyman who actually believes things in the New Testament, although his Easter sermon was richly interspersed with references to bombs and terrorism in Egypt, giving the impression that any mention of the resurrection was a somewhat irritating excursion from his real topic of interest, that being geopolitics in the Near East.

In Australia, the Anglican Archbishop Kay Goldsworthy was reported to have given a sermon imploring Anglicans “not to run away from challenges”. Following this sermon of dazzling substance, she was so swept up in the awe of the resurrection that she immediately addressed the major sporting scandal running the rounds in Australia, involving high profile cricket cheats. The Archbishop was most concerned that the cricketers should forgive themselves, which she opined was going to be one of their foremost challenges – the forgiveness of God not even rating a mention.

Perhaps one of the most preposterous articles was written by Robyn Whitaker, a theologian whose interests include “gender, sexuality and ethics”. One online profile states that she has expertise in feminism and gender equality.  Whitaker’s article asked readers to focus on the race of Jesus of Nazareth and to think about his skin colour.

Other clerics and would-be religious leaders decided that it was best to boil the texts of the scripture dry, and get down to the residue of a few basic principles. “Hope” is always a popular one, or sometimes “renewal“. Vague concepts like these are quite plastic. Even a borderline-competent public speaker can use a theme like that as a launching pad for a peppy talk to boost the morale of their listeners. The resultant sermon typically sounds like it could have been lifted from a life coaching manual.

Finally, there are those sermons that bear titles which imply that the meaning of Easter is opaque and dark. It is no longer clear in a world of modernity, colour and excitement. Titles like “Why Easter still matters” or “What should the resurrection mean to you?” arrogantly suggests that the resurrection of Christ is an impenetrable historical story, remote and alien to the listener.

This is just a small sample, mind you, of Easter sermons. The banality is endless, and it comes as a considerable relief to turn from these “clouds without water”, as St. Jude would describe them, to the fountains of living water from the scriptures. For in contrast to modern clerics, the New Testament begins from a very basic supposition.

The New Testament takes for granted that this supposition is clear to anyone.

It is quite simply this: something of tremendous consequence was accomplished when Jesus died on a crucifix outside of Jerusalem. This has shifted the invisible order of things, and this alteration of the spiritual reality in which humankind lives reached its apogee three days later when Christ rose from the dead, the true King of all the Earth.

Not one of the apostolic witnesses asks the question, “Why does the resurrection matter?“. Not one of them attempts to make the resurrection applicable to their hearer’s context. Not one tries to blend the resurrection story into a morality fable about slavery or the machinations of the Roman senate and their greedy imperial taxation schemes. Not one tries to boil it down to a string of saccharine, safe buzzwords – “it’s all about love, folks!”.

No, the inverse. The apostolic assumption is the resurrection, if truly believed by the reader, is significant in a way that will be obvious to anyone. It is quite clearly a testimony that requires no interpreter because the very fact that a man has risen from the dead is sufficient of itself to establish his primacy in the constellation of ideas and opinions. It justifies his claims; it underscores their merit; it overturns all competition; it empowers his gospel. A person who reads of the resurrection, who believes it, and who earnestly, deeply seeks for Christ in the silence and stillness, will find him.

The best kind of sermon in our times, therefore, is one that follows the apostolic example. It is the sort of sermon that invites people to believe and seek for Jesus himself. Not to seek for “hope” that Aunt Sally will get better, not to seek for “renewal” of our finances in 2018, neither to seek to mine the text for forgettable sentiments to spray upon contemporary political issues. But, rather to be made aware of the heaviness of our peril. Of our imminent approach to judgement and ruin. To be broken and contrite in our reflections upon ourselves.

And thus to seek for Jesus himself: the Lord of Life who welcomes properly penitent souls. The One who can transform a person’s inward life and give him a deep sense of the beauty of holiness; the ugliness of sin; a thirst for godliness; a hunger for God; and the unspeakable joy of tangible, deep communion with our Creator, Friend, and Redeemer.

How different Easter would be if clerics took their cues from St. Paul and preached the resurrection as the Apostle did. No mealy-mouthed sugary sweetness here. Rather St. Paul preaches the resurrection as a divine command to the human race; an urgent and non-negotiable summons to repent and believe. And he does so with the unstudied impetuosity of a man who knows of that which he speaks, is unswerving confident, and knows that he is conveying the authorised message of God to the world:

For as I walked around and looked carefully at your objects of worship, I even found an altar with this inscription: TO AN UNKNOWN GOD. So you are ignorant of the very thing you worship—and this is what I am going to proclaim to you…

In the past God overlooked such ignorance, but now he commands all people everywhere to repent. For he has set a day when he will judge the world with justice by the man he has appointed. He has given proof of this to everyone by raising him from the dead.

Aspiring to Servanthood: The Transforming Power of Humility (Part I.)

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PRIDE AND HUMILITY

It was a job so terrible only a Christian would do it“.

So it was said of the midwives who served in the East End of London during the early 20th century. Midwives laboured up to their neck in squalor, disease, and mortality. All tragic byproducts of poverty, alcohol, and violence. Who would wish to work with such people under such circumstances?

Only a Christian.

In hellholes around the world, you find “only Christians”. They do jobs no one else will do. They are found in the places too dangerous; doing work too revolting; caring for people too broken for any one else.

It is Christianity alone that creates servants. Not Buddhism with its serene meditative calm. None of the thousand Hindu deities inspire missionary love. Not Islam with its fiery dogmatism. Certainly not animist religions with their efforts to squeeze power from nature. Only Christianity. Because only Christianity has at its centre a living King who became the Servant of all mankind.

Humble servanthood is so much the product of the Holy Spirit that Christ taught it is not possible to be one of his people without also becoming a servant. Aspiring to servanthood is a mandatory marker of true Christianity. Such profound self-lowering attends all authentic conversion:

 “You know that the rulers of the Gentiles lord it over them, and their high officials exercise authority over them. Not so with you. Instead, whoever wants to become great among you must be your servantand whoever wants to be first must be your slave just as the Son of Man did not come to be served, but to serve, and to give his life as a ransom for many.”

Being a servant has never been popular. Despite the language of service still hanging limply from the lexicon – “serving on the counter“; “serving my country” – the true subordination of oneself for the sake of another is a dead practice in our culture. We need only look at politicians to see the nakedly self-serving character of their craft, notwithstanding the pretence to “public service“.

Humility has always been the leper among virtues. It is a virtue despised by the thinkers and movers in this world.

The German philosopher Nietzsche, to select one example, claimed that humility was nothing more than the subversion of the strong by the weak. Humility, Nietzsche claimed, was just a fiction created by people with “slave morality”.

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Later, the influential psychologist Abraham Maslow claimed that the highest level of human fulfilment would be a stage he termed “self-transcendence”.

Maslow argued that if a person’s needs were fulfilled, their personality would expand into a star-burst of wonderful self-sufficiency, creativity and competence. They would reach their full potential and crack out of their cocoon as amazing enlightened beings. No wonder Maslow was popular among the Human Potential Movement of the 1960’s.

Outside of Christianity, one must search hard to find any philosophy or scheme that is founded on humility. Rather, the human story seethes with pride. From kings and queens swanning around in diamond encrusted robes while their people went hungry, to popes assuming divine titles and having their fingers kissed by the men and women they claimed to serve. Even in our own time we see ample news coverage of people grasping for power, privilege, wealth, fame, control, and the fulfilment of appetites at the expense of others. Few hands reach for the scrubbing brush of servanthood, and nearly all of those are Christians.

In fact, humility is frequently diagnosed as a disease of the mind or defect of character. Talk to people about taking the lowest place, putting yourself last; letting others go first; and being content to be unnoticed by any but God, and it will not be long before adjectives like “doormat” or “spineless” or “weak” will come at you like stones. Humility is seen as psychological defect needing correction. More self-esteem is the fix! It is considered a flaw that is detrimental to your health. To be humble is to be weak. Ignoble. Contemptible. Unworthy of respect. A human punching bag.

Christ speaks to this cultural delusion with sparkling and uncompromising clarity:

“Truly I tell you, unless you are converted and become as little children, you will never enter the kingdom of heaven.”

The struggle of the convert is largely the fight to forsake the tentacles of pride that wrap themselves around the soul like a hungry octopus. Human nature is proud. By birthright we are selfish and conceited. Fierce in absurd self-admiration. Constant in self-idolatry. Desirous of elevation and applause.

C. S. Lewis wrote that the essence of pride is comparison. Pride, Lewis observed, always wants to be in some sense better than someone else:

The vice I am talking of is Pride or Self-Conceit: and the virtue opposite to it, in Christian morals, is called Humility. You may remember, when I was talking about sexual morality, I warned you that the centre of Christian morals did not lie there. Well, now, we have come to the centre.

According to Christian teachers, the essential vice, the utmost evil, is Pride. Unchastity, anger, greed, drunkenness, and all that, are mere fleabites in comparison: it was through Pride that the devil became the devil: Pride leads to every other vice: it is the complete anti-God state of mind. Does this seem to you exaggerated? If so, think it over.

I pointed out a moment ago that the more pride one had, the more one disliked pride in others. In fact, if you want to find out how proud you are the easiest way is to ask yourself, ‘How much do I dislike it when other people snub me, or refuse to take any notice of me, or shove their oar in, or patronise me, or show off?’

The point is that each person’s pride is in competition with every one else’s pride. It is because I wanted to be the big noise at the party that I am so annoyed at someone else being the big noise. Two of a trade never agree.

Now what you want to get clear is that Pride is essentially competitive—is competitive by its very nature—while the other vices are competitive only, so to speak, by accident. Pride gets no pleasure out of having something, only out of having more of it than the next man. We say that people are proud of being rich, or clever, or good-looking, but they are not.

They are proud of being richer, or cleverer, or better-looking than others. If everyone else became equally rich, or clever, or good-looking there would be nothing to be proud about. It is the comparison that makes you proud: the pleasure of being above the rest. Once the element of competition has gone, pride has gone.

I would add to Lewis’ observations. Pride is also about deceit.

St. Paul says that if any man thinks of himself as something when he is nothing he deceives himself. Pride is self deception. But if a man wants truth then humility will eventuate. The essential characteristic of humility is truth. You desire truth in the inward being (Ps. 51:6).

The more a person sees the truth about themselves the greater their humility will be. This is because humility is not a form of conscious, unwilling abasement. That’s merely the imitation of humility and quite as bad as pride. A person can still feed their pride on fake humility. “Well, I didn’t get the attention I wanted but that’s because I was being humble and more virtuous than those who did“.

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Humility is about reality. When the painted layers of self-glory are sanded away, a man will eventually come to the real surfaces of his true being. And we have it on God’s authority that what a man will find is not nice or worthy or good. We are not self-actualised beings (sorry Maslow). We did not make ourselves (sorry Darwin). We are not powerful and self-sustaining (sorry Nietzsche). Quite the reverse.

No good thing dwells in me, wrote St. Paul. Not one thing.

St. Paul saw the reality of his own being in the blinding rays of Christ’s perfection. And he saw so clearly that he completely disowned himself. I am crucified with Christ, and I no longer live. But Christ lives in me.

Paul saw the reality about Paul. And when he did, he crucified him.

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That is the nature of humility. The nature of truth. This is authentic conversion that breeds a deep yearning to serve out of gratitude and love for Jesus Christ.