Storks and Vultures

In Florida, my binoculars had the opportunity on separate occasions to spy on two big birds perched high in the trees—one, the wood ibis, America’s only true stork; and two, the common turkey buzzard, America’s vulture.

The stork was dressed in a tuxedo, with black on the back of his wings and white everywhere else, except his head, which was as bald as the buzzard or a wild turkey.  His beak, however, was long, with a slight bend at the end.  Although bald, he looked good, with his downed front feathers all fluffed in front like the frills on the tuxedo’s shirt.

The buzzard, on the other hand, had the typical Captain Hook short beak.  And the downy feathers that ringed the entire circumference of his neck stood out radially.  Instead of a tuxedo, the buzzard appeared to be dressed in a bad turtleneck sweater.  And all black to boot!

And yet, for all their differences, such as the pair of storks on the same branch versus the pair of buzzards in different trees, though flying “together” in a way, the birds behaved remarkably alike.  Both perched and preened—and this appeared more difficult for the stork with the ten-inch bill!  The buzzard even cocked his head this way and that like a city-park pigeon!  (Perhaps he cannot move his eyes, so he must move his head instead.)  At any rate, I was struck through their behavior that a bird is a bird, instinctively (at least at their base) much the same.  Surely their Maker designed them in this way, despite their different flocking and eating habits.  God is amazing!

Thank You, Lord, for letting me see these two great birds “close up” through the binoculars.  I would not have chosen to consider these birds together, but You apparently had a lesson in store for me.  Thank You!

Educating in a Losing Battle

Yesterday, I had a very enlightening conversation with a friend that resulted in a new insight for me as a Christian educator in modern America: I am in a losing battle.

The conversation began with my recommendation of Christopher Caldwell’s excellent article, “The Roots of Our Partisan Divide” (Imprimis, February 2020).  Caldwell claims America is perhaps more divided now than at any time since the Civil War.  The two sides—Democrats and Republicans—split in the 1960s, when the Civil Rights legislation of that era created in effect a “second constitution,” with new laws and new agencies for enforcing anti-discrimination and diversity.  As soon as people realized the effectiveness of aligning with the black victims of the South, these new laws and new agencies became effective means of undercutting any opposition to the new coalition of intersectionality (a sociological term for a new cross-section of culture that cuts across the old divisions).  The Southern blacks were soon joined by all “people of color” and by women with non-traditional values and by those in the gay rights movement.  According to Caldwell, this “second constitution” has all the marks of a theocracy acting on a principle of moral reform—people are unjustly suffering, so it is acceptable to apply emergency measures that violate the Constitution of 1787 and override local governments.  This is what happened to the South during the 1960s with national approval, and this is what is institutionalized today across the country.  As a result, the country is polarized into two parties, with the Democrats associating the resistance with the bigotry of Jim Crow, and the Republicans associating the heavy-handedness of progressive legislation with fascist totalitarianism.  “The bigots versus the totalitarians,” summarizes Caldwell, “that’s our current party system.”

This depiction of the partisan divide is true, I believe, but here is Caldwell’s bold pronouncement: The Democrats have already won.  “Their party won the 1960s,” he concludes.  “They gained money, power, and prestige.  The GOP is the party of the people who lost these things.”

From reading I have done on American history, I think Caldwell’s assessment is sound.  If America has had two cultural stories that dominated the past—first, the God story during colonial New England, and then, the Nation story during the long century from the early republic to the 1960s—then the current era is marked by the sovereign Self.  So laments Columbian University professor Andrew Delbanco in his jeremiad The Real American Dream.  It was during the 1960s, Delbanco claims, that Americans quit working together for a common dream, and split into the New Left and the New Right.  While I disagree with Delbanco’s postmodernism and his claim that Americans have lost faith in “the interventionist state as a source of hope”—for if that were the case, why the fierce rancor over who holds the reins of power?—his historical periodization resonates with me.  In the 1960s, both sides began to justify a personal disengagement with the poor, with the Left leaving that responsibility to the government’s Great Society and the Right finding fault in the individuals, not the institutions.  Moreover, in the mid-60s, Martin Luther King, Jr. shifted from his earlier advocacy of a common Americanness to his later echo of Malcolm X’s call for blacks to fend for themselves.  Lost to everyone was a commonly-held American dream.

Similarly, Eric Foner, another Columbian professor in the humanities, asks of the 1960s’ surprising coalition of the white New Left with the black movement: “What persuaded large numbers of white children of affluence that they were ‘unfree’?”  Certainly, the unpopular Vietnam War contributed significantly to the unrest, a point made by both Caldwell and Foner, but even deeper, the New Left redefined “the meaning of freedom” as a radical individualism.  “To millions of young people,” concludes Foner, “personal liberation represented a spirit of creative experimentation, a search for a way of life in which friendship and pleasure eclipsed the single-minded pursuit of accumulation and consumption.”  This licentious, unintended side effect of consumerism is haunting in light of the prophet Ezekiel’s diagnosis of inhospitality as the cultural cause behind Sodom’s homosexuality (Ezekiel 16:49-50).  As Russell Kirk and other conservatives have noted, there is an inextricable link between leisure and decadence.

Although Caldwell did not venture beyond Civil Rights legislation and agencies, his conclusion finds confirmation in the recent history of the Supreme Court.  Having perhaps inadvertently prepared the way in the early 1960s for a cultural transformation through the removal of prayer and Bible reading from the public schools—our nation’s official means of cultural advancement—the Supreme Court then constitutionalized the New Left’s radically-individualistic definition of freedom through the court’s own system of precedence.  Not only did Roe v. Wade (1973) famously proclaim a constitutional right to privacy, the later confirmation of abortion in Planned Parenthood of Southeastern Pennsylvania v. Casey (1992) proclaimed: “At the heart of liberty is the right to define one’s own concept of existence, of meaning, of the universe, and of the mystery of human life.”  This insular, highly-subjective, and privatized definition of freedom was later explicitly repeated in the anti-sodomy decision of Lawrence v. Texas (2003), which is turn prepared the way for the national legalization of same-sex “marriage” in Obergefell v. Hodges (2015).  It is this court precedence that truly substantiates Caldwell’s claim that the New Left has created a second and rival constitution.

Now, as a Christian and as an American, I view this scenario with grave concern.  Unbridled lust always brings cultural decay and death.  It is just a matter of time before “lust has conceived [and] gives birth to sin; and when sin is accomplished, it brings forth death” (James 1:15; cf. 2 Peter 1:4).  Sixty million unborn babies are the tragic testimony to that truth.  Therefore, the temptation to lust must be resisted, both personally and culturally.  So, what shall we do?

At first impulse, upon rehearsing this scenario with my friend, I was consoled by my active involvement in the education of youth, especially at the high school level.  In contrast to the reactive measures of politics—measures which have value, but can only enforce one step above the culture’s standard of morality—education provides the opportunity to be proactive, to influence the culture itself through its rising generation.  How happy I am to be a teacher!  It was at this point that my friend burst my bubble.

He reminded me of this national fact.  In contrast to the Civil War, where the party lines divided geographically, today’s party lines divide generationally.  Although there is a geographic component today between the cities and what one analyst has ironically called the “out-state,” that division is not geographically concentrated enough to cause a sectional split.  However, the cities control the media and the universities, and these means largely control our young people.  In fact, the very means of education that brought me personal comfort are actually the handwriting on the wall for the conservative party.  Apart from a miracle, the complete, cultural dominance of the New Left politically is only a matter of time.  Literally.  Nothing remains for the Left now but to wait.  When the rising generation gains cultural control, the victory will be complete.  It will have won through a war of attrition.

As a Christian educator, what should I do?  Should I give way to anger, envious that the wicked have gained the ascendency of cultural power?  The opening verses of Psalm 37 oppose this angry fretting, because such anger eventually leads to more evildoing.  The meek, who wait on the Lord, will eventually inherit the earth—something reiterated by our Lord in the Beatitudes (cf. Psalm 37:9, 11; Matthew 5:5).  As a premillennialist, I recognize that this inheritance will not come about through any form of cultural transformation—not through the revivalistic vision of Jonathan Edwards or the theonomic vision of postmillennial educators.  The inheritance will come to Christians the same way it came to Christ Himself, through death and resurrection.  In fact, the Bible teaches me that the world’s culture is destined to an antichrist regime similar to Nazi Germany, and it does me no more good to rebuke this sovereign purpose of God than it did Peter to rebuke Christ about the inevitability of the cross.  Such defiance is ultimately diabolical.

Given this ultimate cultural defeat, should I give up all effort in education?  By analogy, just because a patient will someday die, should a doctor give up all means of recovery in the present?  Certainly not.  Nor should a Christian educator give up hope that God may grant a temporary improvement in cultural health.  In fact, as with Lazarus, God may grant an untimely death to a culture and then resurrect it surprisingly in the current age, long before the worldwide era of the Antichrist.  We may actually have witnessed such a revival to English culture in the days of Whitefield and Wesley, a revival that helped to keep England from the radicalism of the French Revolution, and then helped to end the slave trade and finally slavery itself in the British Empire without the necessity of a bloody Civil War.  Therefore, I educate in hope, and speak to the culture as Jesus did to Lazarus, commanding a dead man to do something.  The culture may be dead, but as Carl Henry taught me in his seminal essay of 1947, God’s word has always commanded the dead to rise (Ezekiel 37:1-14).

Still, even if God does not grant a resurrection to American culture (and we cannot plan on miracles unless there is a specific promise), there is always value in Christian education.  Just as doing our work heartily to the Lord brings pleasure to His heart and fame to His name, despite the inevitability of vanity, so also every day of Christian education is an infinitely valuable day of worship.  As Abraham lived in a tent but always built an altar, so I strive as a Christian educator to build an altar to Christ every day I teach.  He is worthy of my praise, no matter if I die with this dying culture.  And He is worthy of my students’ praise as well.  Ultimately, if simply one student is saved through the classroom—and I have witnessed this happening—there is more joy in heaven over one who repents than over a whole culture that needs no repentance (cf. Luke 15:7).  And if gaining the whole world cannot compensate for the loss of a soul, then how can I discount this one soul gained despite the loss of an entire culture to Satan (cf. Matthew 16:26)?  But even if a soul is not saved, I resist evangelistic head-counting and find joy in even the most trivial acts of service dedicated to the glory of the Infinite God.  This perspective alone brings a revolution of purpose and makes every school day significant to those who love the Lord!

Now, let me bring both strands together—namely, the persistent and imminent possibility of cultural resurrection along with the eternal value of daily worship.  The opening scenes of Luke demonstrate how God does not separate the individual prayers of His people from His larger historical purposes of redemption.  He is the God who answers the prayer of an elderly barren couple, perhaps long after they had ceased to pray for a child due to the death of a womb, and in answering their prayer, He simultaneously inaugurated a global redemption.  Could it be, just as the educator Jan Amos Comenius did not live to see the answer to his prayers in the Moravian revivals of a century later, that God in Christ will answer the prayers of current Christian educators like me a century or two from now, when not only I myself has returned to dust, but the even the present folly of rebellion has finally met the recalcitrance of reality?  And then, unexpectedly, God may grant revival, a resurrection to this barren culture.  Perhaps, He may even use as a means of revival the verbal witness left behind by Christian educators, who in essays like this or in sayings lodged in living memory plant the seeds of cultural revival, no matter the length of delay until germination begins.  Rather than pessimistic, I am filled with hope.  I am thankful for the opportunity to be a Christian educator.

May God grant such a revival of hope among those of us involved in Christian education!  We have not placed our hope in the reactive though valuable measures of politics, but in the powerful nature of His word to give life, a word that politicians may also use if they become so bold.  We have not placed our hope in a false analysis of the current culture, as if the conservatives may be winning or may yet win.  We believe the cultural battle is lost, but the true war will ultimately be won.  And even in the meantime, although the culture is dead, we believe that resurrection is always possible.  Yes, I am educating in a losing battle, but I am educating in great hope, thanks to Jesus Christ.

Sources: Christopher Caldwell, “The Roots of Our Partisan Divide,” Imprimis 49 (February 2020): 1-7; Andrew Delbanco, The Real American Dream: A Meditation on Hope (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 1999) 97, 110; Eric Foner, The Story of American Freedom (New York: W. W. Norton, 1998), 287-94.

Should a Church Have a School?

As you may know, Spring Branch Academy is a Christian high school sponsored by our church.  It has an ambitious curriculum and aims to prepare students for their life vocations by instilling wisdom and inspiring worship.  That is our heart!  These things you may know, but do you know why a church would have a school?

Personally, I’m hesitant to promote Christian education with negative reasons—not because these reasons aren’t true, but because they’re not enough.  Yes, the public schools have a God-less curriculum (literally!), and yes, the youth culture and its social media can be toxic, but surely we can aim for goals higher than merely protecting our kids.  After all, what is the point of protection, if we have no higher purpose to protect them for?

Ultimately, we want them to live free lives in Christ and for Christ.  To do so, we aim primarily at their personal liberation through “the sacred writings, which are able to make [them] wise for salvation through faith in Christ Jesus” (2 Timothy 3:15).  We love the Bible and use the Bible in class.  We teach twelve courses in Theology to show students why and how they can trust this Book and its Author in everything, including language, society, marriage, finances, parenting, history, and salvation.  We also seek to love each student and their family.  At its heart, our Christian school is an extension of our pastoral ministry to families.

Granted, but math?  Greek?  What do such things have to do with our spiritual lives?

To live free lives, we need empowerment.  Anyone of us are “free” to dunk a basketball, but few are us are empoweredto do it.  We want our students empowered to do all that Christ has called them to do in this world for His glory, and to do that, our school makes use of the liberal arts—literally, the skills (arts) necessary for free men.

Just think of our Bible.  What is necessary to understand it?  Well, in the Reformation, William Tyndale knew it needed to be translated from Greek into English in order for every plowboy in England to read it for himself.  Empowerment!  But is that it?  Martin Luther knew that the biblical languages were the sheath for housing the sword of the Spirit, and therefore, he encouraged the German princes to sponsor schools.  Extending his metaphor, we might say that knowing English well is necessary for understanding an English Bible.  One half of the liberal arts empowers students in the skills of language through training in grammar, logical argument, and rhetorical forms of speech, especially poetry.

The other half of the liberal arts empowers students to listen to God’s other “book,” the world of nature, a world formed by the same divine word and obedient to His laws (Psalm 119:89-91).  To speak this language, students must speak math, the language of science.  If it is God who teaches the farmer how to farm as part of His wondrous counsel (Isaiah 28:23-29), then true science learned and applied from the book of nature is also part of His glory.  We want students to be empowered in both books as free individuals in Christ.  All truth is God’s truth!

Do you see?  What an opportunity would be missed if we only focused on what a Christian school keeps students from, without thanking God for what a Christian school prepares students for.  God be praised!  Thank you for sponsoring a school and making it available for our families, as well as our country and this community.

Christians, Persecution, and Their Codex

“A prudent man sees evil and hides himself, the naïve proceed and pay the penalty” (Proverbs 27:12).

In discerning the times, as in discerning the weather (a comparison our Lord Himself made), percentages are used by necessity.  Not being prophets, we make educated guesses.  The future is known only the Lord, who has left us with typical patterns and the identification of factors that often lead to a particular outcome.  Therefore, at best, a prudent man “sees evil” coming with near-sighted eyes.  Precision is an illusion.

That said, let us link the past with the future on the matter of the codex.  A codex is the typical, physical form of a book: a collection of loose pages bound on one side, whether stitched or glued.  In biblical language, the word book refers only to a literary work, a collection of words, and not to its particular form of delivery.  The form may vary.  In ancient times, a book was typically found on a scroll.  Today, we often read books on a digital device.  Either way, the book is independent of the vehicle.

For Christians, the book is not open to debate.  We have one Book, the Bible, which is simply Greek for “book”!  Our book, as inspired literature, is the holy book, the Holy Bible, the only book spoken by God Himself.

The form of this Book, however, is open to debate.  From earliest times, Christians have sensed the freedom to experiment in the form of their Book.  Apparently, Christians were culturally instrumental in shifting the ancient world from the scroll to the codex.  According to textual scholar Bruce Metzger, Christians found the codex helpful in proof-texting, in binding collections such as the gospels and Paul’s letters, and in the economy of two-sided writings.  Interestingly, while scrolls also could be written on both sides (Revelation 5:1) and bind collections such as the Jewish minor prophets (“The Twelve”), quick referencing would definitely be difficult.  In contrast, a codex facilitates proof-texting and cross-referencing, a practice almost demanded of Christians by the gospel itself, as the fulfillment of divine prophecy.  For this reason alone, the codex has found a special place in the hearts of Christians.

Given this freedom in form, it would be wise for Christians today to think strategically about the form of their Book, and not just practically.  While digital Bibles have a practical advantage, the codex is strategically superior.

On a practical level, the digital revolution has brought digital Bibles, and while nostalgic preachers may miss the rustle of pages during a pause in the sermon, the advantages for quick referencing surpass even the best reference Bible.  True, we may miss the mental map of our favorite places on the page, and we may find the iPhone a lazy crutch against memorizing Scripture, but thoughtful Christians can overcome these disadvantages and should not be chided for bringing only their smartphone to church.  Portability and easy access to divine truth fits well with a gospel movement.  The very shift itself in form testifies to the practical advantage that many have found in a digital book.

Strategically, however, prudence would argue strongly for the codex.  Just as portable as an iPhone—one Bible published by the American Bible Society in 1869 measures 5 x 3 x 1.5 inches in size—the codex needs no electricity.  It sits completely off the grid.  Moreover, the codex needs no device to run it.  It will never be excluded by technology, whose developments have left cassettes and VHS tapes with little hardware for their use.  Just think, given the ease of Internet downloads, the DC and DVD will soon lack devices to play them, just as the laptop recording this article has no port for a disc.  Strategically, the unplugged Bible has a lot going for it!

Given the political and cultural environment, the codex beats the digital form hands down.  We live in a world dominated by a Kantian fact-value split.  Because truth can no longer determine what is right or wrong, values have been left to personal choice and self-identity.  This hallmark of postmodern life has now been ensconced in anti-discrimination law and backed by the Supreme Court’s individualized definition of freedom to such an extent that one recent commentator, Christopher Caldwell, labeled it a “second constitution” (Imprimus, February 2020).  Even in symbols, we find the traditional American flag increasingly replaced by a rainbow flag, whose wrongly-sequenced colors pervert a biblical symbol as much as the swastika twisted the cross.  When we view this second constitution and its Supreme Court against the backdrop of the Progressive-era administrative state with its kingly powers of khadi-type justice, we are only lacking a charismatic executive as president to instill full-scale repression of Christianity as the sole opponent of Sodom.  Should we not, as Christians, take notice of this cultural and political development and prepare ourselves?

For example, how will we educate our children and our ministers in the future?  If we convert all our means to a digital format, we have seen that the Internet powers, both Google and Amazon, strongly back the sexual revolution.  If we rely on them, we may find our digital sources censored or removed.  And even if we place our materials on USB thumb-drives, we are not the makers of the devices that place these memory sticks.  The devices themselves could be tied to the grid in such a way that certain information is prohibited.  No method, of course, is fool-proof, but the codex must be physically hunted down in order to be destroyed.  Scattered ants may be small, but they are hard to exterminate when they spread out.

Centralization leads to totalitarianism.  Right now, all the eggs are increasingly in one basket—the Internet—but the basket is increasingly in the hands of a centralized few who hate the Christ of Christianity.  Why would Christians willingly keep their eggs there?  Prudence is calling Christians to prepare alternative means of evangelism and education that do not rely on the Internet, electronics, or electricity.  Yes, we should continue to use these digitals means as long as we can for the sake of the digital audience and convenience, but we should not rely on them for our long-range planning.  Prudence for the future is calling us is to reconsider the codex of our past.

Once Saved, Always Saved?

The conversation is classic.  I’ve heard it many times.

The Baptist claims, “I know my loved one’s in heaven.  He prayed the prayer as a child to receive Christ.”

The Wesleyan responds, “But how can you be so sure?  The man did not live a godly life.  Swearing.  Avoiding church.  Not even claiming to be a Christian!”  And then, as if to end the conversation, the Wesleyan adds, “I don’t believe in once saved, always saved.”

Now, as a pastor in a Bible church, something in me hurts to hear that last denial.  The statement is precious to me, but not in the sense the Baptist or the Wesleyan means it.  Let me explain.

There are three main positions today on “once saved, always saved.”

First, the modern Baptist often teaches eternal security.  Believe in Christ for the forgiveness of your sins and you will go to heaven.  It is simple.  God has promised “eternal life” to everyone who believes (John 3:16; 5:24; 1 John 2:25) and how can it be “eternal” if you can lose it?  Therefore, the believer is eternally secure.

In response, the Wesleyans assert, “You can lose your salvation.”  Proof texts are abundant.  In addition to many “if” statements about being saved in the end (e.g. Jn. 15:6; Rom. 8:13; 1 Cor. 15:1-2; Gal. 6:7-8; Col. 1:23), there are many exhortations to “remain” in Christ and in His love (John 15:4, 9), to “keep” ourselves in the love of God (Jude 21), and to “work out” our own salvation (Ph. 2:12).  Perhaps the book of Hebrews says it best: “We have come to share in Christ, if indeed we hold our original confidence firm to the end” (3:14) and “Strive…for the holiness without which no one will see the Lord” (12:14).  The believer has conditions for entering heaven.  Sanctification results in eternal life (Rom. 6:22).

The historic Baptist position is the perseverance of the saints.  It stands between the other two positions and affirms both.  While the conditional statement is true, “If you persevere in the faith, then you will go to heaven” (Mt. 24:13; Rom. 5:3; 15:4-5; Jas. 1:2-4, 12), it is also true that every true believer will persevere.  When we received Christ, we received all of Christ—the whole Christ.  He became both our “righteousness and sanctification” (1 Cor. 1:30).  We have Jesus within and Jesus without (Col. 1:27; 2 Cor 5:17).  We are sealed with the Holy Spirit (Eph. 1:14; 4:30), who sovereignly leads us to “put to death the deeds of the body” by fighting against our lusts, so that we will not do as we please (Rom. 8:12-14; Gal. 5:16-18).  As those born of God, we have His seed remaining forever within us to love, obey, and not continue in sin (1 John 3:9-10; 3:18).  And if we sin, our Father disciplines us so that we will share in His holiness (Heb. 12:10).  As a result, we can have confidence of final salvation—not only for ourselves but for all true believers (Heb 6:9).

In short, while I do believe in “once saved, always saved,” I need to know how you understand the word “saved.”  If it means making a decision and then going to heaven no matter what you do, then no, I do not believe in that kind of condition-less security.  But if you mean receiving Christ as both outer right-standing-with-God and inner-power-for-holiness, then yes, I do believe in “once SAVED, always saved.”  Christ fulfills all the conditions!

The Forbidden Fruit of Nuclear Weapons

Lord, today was the first day that I actually considered that the making of nuclear weaponry could have been a sin.  In the past, influenced by just-war theory, which I still believe is right, I justified the making of the atomic bomb as necessary for the war effort.  And indeed, perhaps it was “necessary” on a pragmatic level.  Perhaps the use of the weapon in Japan kept the war from going on indefinitely.  Perhaps.  The firepower on Tokyo with 80,000 dead after three days of jellied gasoline three months before the A-bomb showed that the Americans already had the capacity to level cities and destroy civilians—yes, civilians, who were likely to be trained as potential soldiers defending the island all the way to their suicidal death.  In other words, America may not have needed such a weapon anyways to destroy Hiroshima or Nagasaki, even if the destruction of those cities proved to be a necessary evil in the path to restored world peace.

But today, Lord, in reading our physics textbook, I became convinced that the secular author was right to include the social questions in a science textbook, as part of scientific responsibility (thank You, Father, for appointing that inclusion), and I also became increasingly uncomfortable with the “sweet technology” cited by Robert Oppenheimer, director of Los Alamos, where the first atomic detonation of 18 kilotons occurred, which is the equivalent of 72,000 conventional bombs going off at once.  Once the possibility is in view of some technical achievement—in other words, once it reaches that sweet point—the it becomes almost irresistible not to do it.

Wow.  At first, I wondered why technology has such a sweet allure.  For myself, I could picture the temptation working on me: “Look what I can do.  Look what I know.  And even more, look what wealth I possess that enables me to build it.”  In other words, the three pride factors of Jeremiah 9:23 all show up to display human glory—power, wisdom, and wealth.

Looking at it as an allure made me think of it as a transgression, i.e. crossing a forbidden boundary.  It made me think of the Garden of Eden, where Eve saw how beneficial the fruit would be for making her wise and such, so she ate it.  Lord, do You see?  Of course, You do.  We humans justify the means by the end.  “There it is,” we say.  “Look at all the potential benefits!”  But no potential benefits justified our mother’s forbidden fruit.  And perhaps the same is true of nuclear weaponry.

In bioethics too, I have been learning: Just because we can do it does not mean we should do it.  But what does such a world look like, Lord, when such potentials are resisted?

It looks like a world of meekness and waiting on You—not forcing our way because we think this thing or that thing must happen.  (Wow, do I have that attitude in my private life!  Oh, no.)  Instead of forcing their way, the kings of Israel had been commanded not to stockpile horses and chariots (Deuteronomy 17:16).  They were not to boast in these weapons, as other nations, but to boast in “the name of the LORD our God” (Psalm 20:7).  This is how David faced Goliath—not with sword or spear, but with Your name.  Surely, we need to learn a lesson here about our sinful idolatrizing of mighty means, when You are sufficient with five loaves and two fish.

Now in response, Lord, I could imagine someone saying to me, “Stockpiling is a sin.  Mere development is not.”  And granted, You allowed the Israelites to have swords and spears.  And if You allowed (and sometimes even commanded) the use of such weapons, then the development of them initially would not necessarily have been evil.  But then, maybe we allow for simple weaponry, but not those more complex and more destructive—and yet, would this argument not lead to reductio ad absurdum?  After all, if the development of a more destructive weapon is evil, just because it is more destructive, where would we draw the line?  Would this rule not only apply to nuclear weapons, but also to all “advances” in military technology, such as the introduction of gunpowder or the machines in WWI that made the cavalry obsolete?  Again, where would the line fall between allowable and nonallowable weapons development?

Yet there was a line in Judah’s history.  According to your prophets, Lachish was “the beginning of sin” in Judah, the southern kingdom (Micah 1:13).  As a fortified city, did not that city represent military reliance?  Surely You tolerate weaponry (Judah was forbidden a stockpile, but not all weaponry), but in truth, it is only tolerance.  Your plans for the future kingdom show us that You would prefer (if history allowed) that these resources were put to productive use—and after all, we only have so much resources—in having the swords made into plowshares, and the spears into pruning hooks (Micah 4:3; cf. Isaiah 2:4).  Agricultural implements, not military weapons.  How, then, can we, as the human race, justify the exorbitant expense of 25,000 nuclear weapons made during the Cold War?  Was it not largely fear that drove us Americans to make these weapons—first, fear that the Nazis would get there first, then fear of the Soviets getting ahead of us?  And is not such fear the opposite of faith in You, a faith that would keep us from stockpiling weaponry (Psalm 20:7)?  How ironically tragic then, that in the midst of our nuclear race buildup, we changed our motto to “In God We Trust” (1950s)?  Like the Civil War that first generated that particular saying in the North, we have often had our eye more on our enemy (the South then, the communists now) than on You.  Could you not have defeated the Nazis without nuclear weapons?  And even if not, would warding off that defeat with nuclear weapons have justified their creation?

Intriguingly, I have often regarded the 1960s as the decade when the knowledge of You was officially rejected, but could it be that the 1940s was the decade when You were practically rejected?  After all, if Lachish was the beginning of Judah’s sin, could it be that the Manhattan Project was the beginning of American sin?  Certainly, this corresponds to the consciences of many of those physicists behind the project.  In the words of Oppenheimer himself, “The physicists have known sin.”

One more thing stood out today, Lord, and it is interesting that You have gripped me with this story now for over a dozen years.  There is only one natural element that can produce a nuclear weapon: Uranium.  And even though plutonium can fuel a bomb, plutonium is not natural, but is a byproduct of uranium from nuclear reactors, what uranium can look after two beta decays.  Ironically, the name uranium (though perhaps named after the planet Uranus) ultimately comes from the Greek word for “heaven” (ouranos).  The “heaven” element has the doorway to nuclear power.  And even within Uranium, only 1% is Uranium-235, the isotope needed for a nuclear reaction.  This one pathway in the whole wide world, found within a heavenly place, strongly reminds me of the one tree in the Garden that You left for developing man’s knowledge of good and evil.  This pattern, then, is so like You!  To leave one small path into the (perhaps) forbidden grounds of nuclear weapons!  Although I would regard nuclear chain reactions as a good when used to harness energy production in a reactor, this one solitary path to nuclear weaponry is interesting.

Therefore, I am back to where I began.  Just because I can do something, should I?  Oh, for the trust in You, to resist the sweet allure of technology!

An Open Letter on Education Options

Dear Countryside Parents:

As a father, and as a pastor in our church, I share with you the weighty responsibility of raising our children to the glory of God, both for their salvation and for their vocation.  Child-rearing involves many things, but I am writing this letter to you about one topic.  May I speak with you about the education, or future education, of your child?

In education, it is good to have options.  Each child is unique.  What may be right for one child may not be right for another child, or even for the same child the following year.

In Michigan, we have four options—public school, charter school, private school, and home school.  Each option has its advantages and disadvantages.

The public school is free, has some excellent teachers, and excels in activities, but its environment is often ungodly and its curriculum is literally God-less, lacking the acknowledgement of God.  Some Christian students are able to shine and make it their mission field; many, however, struggle socially and morally.  And even if their integrity remains intact, their education lacks its foundation in the fear of God, which is “the beginning of knowledge” (Proverbs 1:7).  At the very least, it is a missed opportunity.  Sometimes, it is a tragedy.

Both charter schools and private schools allow more Christian content in their curriculum, but since charter schools are state-funded, I suspect the curriculum is limited to morality and lacks the authoritative teaching of the gospel.  Private schools require tuition payments, but this funding gives them the freedom to be explicitly religious—even biblical—in their content.  For some private schools, this freedom means weekly chapel and perhaps a Bible class.  In a thorough-going Christian school, a biblical worldview permeates all classes with the goals of worship and wisdom—knowing God for salvation and for all of life (2 Timothy 3:15-17).

Home school gives the most freedom.  Parents can teach their children whatever they want, using diverse methods such as unit study, so-called “unschooling,” or the classical trivium.  Perhaps the biggest advantage involves time together, with parents and children knowing each other better.  The biggest disadvantage is the burden of responsibility.  It all hangs on you!  As a result, I once heard some educators call homeschooling “no schooling,” due to parental delinquency.  Another risk involves social isolation.  Although often overblown, the risk does exist if the family itself is reclusive and if the children are not involved in a variety of social settings, such as community athletics, employment, and church involvement.  Done well, homeschooling gives young people a significant amount of interaction with a variety of adults, which can help the transition to adult responsibilities.

Which option would be the best for your child?

This is a decision you alone must make before the Lord; however, since decisions should be made with counsel, here are some thoughts for consideration.

First, while only some of us will home school, all of us must home educate.

As Christian parents, we must bring up our children “in the discipline and instruction of the Lord” (Ephesians 6:4).  God commands it, and we owe it to them.  Primarily, this duty involves saturating our home with a godly example and with persistent instruction in the word of God, just as the Jews were taught in the Law to love God fully, to have His words on their own heart, and (only then) to teach these words diligently to their children (Deuteronomy 6:5-7).

As one of the pastors at Countryside, I urge you in the Lord to take home education seriously.  If your child is in a public or charter school, you will need extra diligence, both to prepare your child to be openly faithful to Christ and to supply what is lacking in his or her knowledge of God regarding the natural and social worlds.  I would be happy

to supply resources or to give counsel in this area, as would the other pastors.  Also, you should know that Michigan schools must allow up to two hours per week of released time for religious education.  Please consider dual enrollment in a theology class—something I can describe in more detail, if you are interested.  Again, as one of the pastors, I share the responsibility to equip you to do the work of the ministry in your own home (Ephesians 4:11-12).

Second, if you choose to home school, please consider how homeschooling changes as your child matures. 

Many families start well and then struggle.  The oldest child is thoroughly taught, when the younger siblings are napping and the curriculum is simple.  In time, however, the number and diversity of the children often burden the homeschooling mom with multiple tasks; consequently, children do more and more independent study.  Then comes high school, when the child yearns to be with peers and to be more independent.  The curriculum also gets harder, so online or video courses meet the need for a good presentation of material, but supply little interaction.

In my opinion, homeschooling is optimal in the grade school years, coupled with extracurricular activities in the community and at church.  In high school, parents should seriously consider incremental steps towards independence, such as outside employment and formal schooling.  Jesus Himself interacted with the temple teachers at age twelve, while He continued in submission to His parents (Luke 2:41-52).  Young men, in particular, need these steps; without them, young men can give their homeschooling moms increased grief in high school.

As a pastor, it gives me great pleasure to offer to you a fifth option.  You may not be aware that our church sponsors an educational option for high school, called Spring Branch Academy.  This blend of private school and home school meets two or three times per week for classroom interaction; the rest of the week remains free for homework, employment, socializing, and ministry.  Each year, five core classes are offered—math, science, language, theology, and humanities (history and literature).  These five classes cover the basic requirements for graduation; families add their own electives.  The academy is now in its fourth year, with over twenty students and thirteen families involved.

The curriculum is centered on the work of God through history.  Students begin with pagan Greece and trace the spread of Christianity in the West down through modern America.  Books and ideas are evaluated for their worldview in the light of biblical revelation.  Theology examines some of our culture’s foundational assumptions, including evolution and postmodern multiculturalism.  Theology also covers Scripture, God, the covenants and salvation, and trains students how to view their future vocation, finances, marriage, and parenting.  Even the math and science classes aim to give a vocabulary for understanding and expressing the glory of God in this world.  In each class, students have the opportunity to express their opinions and to ask their questions.

Will you consider your son or daughter for future enrollment?  The academy’s mixture of form and freedom has really helped students to manage their own lives—at first, a painful adjustment, but after a while, a settled habit of independence.  Interestingly, I have seen this process occur for students from both home-school and public-school backgrounds.  As a pastor, I have been so pleased to see students grow in the Lord and in maturity.  The Bible says, “It is good for a man that he bear the yoke in his youth” (Lamentations 3:27).  God be praised!

If you are interested in Spring Branch Academy, please visit our website at sbacademy.us.  It is our desire to serve you, so please contact us, if you think we can be of any help.

Thank you for reading.  May the Lord Jesus direct us all in this very important responsibility!

Pastor Bob Snyder

Expository Preaching Is Not Enough

“The Word of God is preached too often in a way that will not transform listeners because it fails to discriminate and fails to apply.”

—Joel Beeke, “The Lasting Power of Reformed Experiential Preaching”

This past summer, I participated in a conference on expository preaching, where principles of exposition were followed by models of expository preaching.  The aim was to expose the meaning of the text for the sake of our listeners.  In other words, to borrow lingo from Leadership Resources International, the main idea and intended response of the biblical passage must become the main idea and intended response of the sermon.  The strength of this method lies in its authority.  The listener can see for himself that the Bible actually makes the statement, not just the preacher.  Instead of a “truth balloon” suspended above the text—something true, but not in that text—the truth extends from the text.  The meaning is exposed.

Now, depending on the preacher, the particular text, and, of course, the heart of the listener, transformation may or may not result from an expository sermon.  Transformation occurs when the Holy Spirit Himself applies the meaning of a particular text to a particular person in a particular way.  The listener somehow senses that this text is for me and for this purpose.  In contrast, a general message, even when its meaning is faithfully derived and delivered, often fails to impress the listener with its particular importance.  At times, it might succeed—even as John Piper learned once in preaching Isaiah 6 without an application—but that is the exception, not the norm.  Most listeners need discrimination (specifying to whom the text speaks) and application (for what purpose).

The Sermon on the Mount definitely exhibits all three traits—exposition, discrimination, and application.  As exposition, the sermon explains the real meaning of the law and drives the commandment back to the heart.  As discrimination, the sermon tests for hypocrisy and ends with lots of twos—two gates, two roads, two destinations, and two builders.  As application, the sermon exhorts disciples to trust rather than to worry, and to pray rather than to judge.  What a sermon!  Even the book of Matthew presents it as a model of how Jesus preached when He went from village to village (Matthew 4:23).  And because the Spirit of Jesus Himself lives in us, it is not unreasonable to expect Spirit-filled preaching to resemble the preaching of Jesus Himself.

At least two apostolic texts remind us of the importance of this kind of preaching.  First, in his second letter, Peter tells his readers twice that he aims “to stir [them] up by way of reminder” (2 Peter 1:13; cf. 3:1).  Much of pulpit ministry is reminder—rarely, do we preachers tell forty-year veterans something new—but it is reminder with a purpose.  Somehow, we must stir them up, and this will require diligence (1:15, “I will make every effort”).  Second, in his open letter to a younger preacher, Paul tells us the goal of the pulpit: “The aim of our charge is love” (1 Timothy 1:5).  Love, however, does not arise automatically from hearing the text; on the contrary, love “issues from a pure heart and a good conscience and a sincere faith” (1:5; cf. 2 Peter 1:5-7).  All of this involves discrimination and application.  In other words, the text must be closely applied to matters of purity, guilt, and sincerity.

Knowing how the text applies involves more than exegetical skill and doctrinal formulation.  Somehow, the preacher himself must live out the text, wrestling with its implications and submitting to its promises in a real-life context.  By necessity, the preacher is part of the equation of success: “Keep a close watch on yourself and on the teaching.  Persist in this, for by so doing you will save both yourself and your hearers” (1 Timothy 4:16).  Therefore, it should come as no surprise that the preacher himself continually needs wisdom from the sacred text for ultimate salvation through faith in Christ Jesus (2 Timothy 3:15).  The pulpit ministry needs wisdom and wisdom involves experience in applying the text personally.

Therefore, if these premises are true, we need more than expository preaching.  We also need insight into living that comes from applying to our experiences the broad scope of Scripture—not just one paragraph at a time, in piecemeal fashion.  Yes, we can preach from a particular passage—perhaps, we even should preach from a particular passage—but the application will draw from the broad wisdom of Scripture learned through the rich experience of endured trials of faith and discerning love.  The Puritans called such preaching experimental, because it involves “examining experience in the light of the teaching of the Word of God” (Beeke).  In modern times, we would more likely call it experiential.  Perhaps we could combine all the words into one statement:

We need preaching that is expository, experimental, and experiential—all three.

As expository preaching, the sermon will expose the main idea and intended response of the original text.  As experimental preaching, the sermon will test listeners and their behavior, leading to proper identification and classification.  As experiential preaching, the sermon will apply the text to the heart and life of the listeners in such a way that making a choice is unmistakable and believers are stirred up unto love and good deeds.  In an Old Testament framework, these three traits of good preaching correspond well to knowledge, discernment, and wisdom.  In a New Testament framework, these three traits correspond well to faith, hope, and love.  The first set has the preacher in mind; the second, his listeners.  Expository, experimental, and experiential preaching.  That is what we need in our pulpits today.

Source: Beeke, Joel. Puritan Reformed Spirituality. Webster, NY: Evangelical Press USA, 2006 [2004], 428, 427.

Contextualizing the Gospel

The idea of contextualizing the gospel is not new to me.  In his book Center Church, Timothy Keller cites a wonderful example of contextualization from the gospel narratives.  In Matthew, the sower casts his mustard seed in a “field” (Mt 13:31); in Luke, the seed is sown in a “garden” (Lk 13:19); and in Mark, the seed is cast on the “ground” (Mk 4:31).  According to scholar Craig Blomberg, the Jews grew mustard on the farm, while the Mediterranean Greeks grew mustard in gardens.  Both Matthew and Luke were apparently contextualizing the generic wording of Jesus (“ground”) for their specific audiences, so that they received the “same impact as the original audience” (Keller 95).

When I site this example with college students, I often ask them, “What did Jesus actually say—field, garden, or ground?”  The answer, of course, is none of the above.  Jesus spoke in Aramaic and all those words from the gospel narratives are Greek words.  Yes, the New Testament has accurate translation; and yes, the ipsissima vox of Jesus is present; but there is also cultural flexibility for different audiences, even if that meant that Jesus spoke the same parable at different times using different words and the gospel writers chose which version best suited their purpose. 

The point to learn here is that the Gospel message—and even its very narrative—is not language-bound or culture-bound.  While given to us in words, even inspired words, both from the lips of Jesus in Aramaic and from the gospel writers themselves, the gospel message itself is bigger than words.  The transcendence of the gospel is necessary for the mission of the gospel.  Jesus Christ is for all peoples and all languages.  Even the inspired writings of the New Testament bear witness to this universal scope and transcultural ability of the gospel, which will ultimately triumph.

Surprisingly, this contextualizing flexibility is also found in the New Testament epistles.  The apostle Paul, missionary to the Gentile par excellence, tailored his message for different thought worlds.  We definitely see this practice in the book of Acts, where Paul speaks narratively in the Jewish synagogue but dialectically on Mars Hill; but until recently, I had not noticed the same thing happening in his letters.  Please consider the following examples.

When the Judaizers were troubling the pagan converts from Galatia, Paul penned the letter to the Galatians.  The style and emphases reflect the Jewish concerns for law, covenant, history, and righteousness.  Later, Paul seems to have generalized this approach in writing a systematic and logical gospel to the Jewish-and-Gentile church at Rome.  Here we have a specific letter (Galatians) followed by a generalized treatment of the same gospel (Romans), written in the same thought world or system of symbols.

Similarly, late in Paul’s career, he heard from Epaphras that the small church planted by this faithful pastor was troubled with Gnostic teachings about cosmic layers of deities in contrast to the one Christ, Jesus the Lord.  In writing the letter to the Colossians, Paul appears to have utilized some Gnostic language of invisible powers to present “the cosmic Christ” (as one book, When Helping Hurts, labels Him).  As with Galatians and Romans, Paul then took this specific letter of Colossians and generalized it into the letter of Ephesians, which may have been a circular letter (the opening address has some manuscript variants).  What flexibility!  Given two different thought worlds confronting the church—the Jewish world of the Judaizers and the pagan world of the Gnostics—Paul was enabled in the Spirit to articulate the same gospel using two different sets of language symbols.  In fact, and this may be the most remarkable trait here, the same author accomplished this feat, and even systematized or generalized the message, but without changing the gospel one bit.  Again, this flexibility in the gospel wording is necessary for the gospel mission, because it will triumph in all languages with all their thought worlds.

These examples from the New Testament challenge us to preach better.  As pastors, do we know what thought worlds are troubling our people?  Can we articulate the gospel using the language of those thought worlds?  The Reformers did.  The Bible does not speak of merit, but the Roman Catholics certainly did in the era of Trent, especially when they applied the “extra credit” from the treasury of the saints to the release of temporal punishment through indulgences.  Ironically, such a transaction is a pure imputation; therefore, the Reformers could assert that we are saved eternally through the imputation of the merits of Christ.  This is not the language of the New Testament, but it is the fundamental message of the New Testament gospel.  We have an exciting challenge awaiting us in the pulpit this Sunday morning!

East versus West (Part 2)

In preparing for the trip to Singapore, I read a recommended book on cross-cultural missions.  Wisely, the author warned of many differences between cultures, often between the West (in writing to a North American audience) and the rest of the world.  Among the differences, two stand out for discussion. 

First, the West has a linear view of life more than the East.  Interestingly, Charles Norris Cochrane, in his book Christianity and Classical Culture,points out that the West used to have a very cyclical view of history, viewed either as a pattern of repeated history or very literally as a repetition of events.  Christianity, however, especially seen in Augustine’s City of God, despised this view and presented the biblical view of historical progression, based on prophetic Scripture.  Even if this has now been twisted in the West into a cult of progression or a tyranny of efficiency, its roots are nonetheless Christian in nature.  Therefore, a missionary should not be ashamed of teaching a linear view of history as if it were merely western—it is biblical.

Second, regarding the famous individualism of the West versus the collectivism of the East, certainly both sides could claim some aspect of biblical worldview.  The church is a collective, but conversion is individualistic.  As Luther quipped, just as a person must die alone, so each must have his own faith—and woe to the one who dies without faith!  The New Covenant, as well, is very individualistic, in comparison to the tribal emphasis of the Old Covenant (Jeremiah 31:27-34), as delineated recently by Peter J. Gentry and Stephen J. Wellum in their large book, Kingdom through Covenant.  And if Cochrane is correct, Christianity contributed much to the development of individual personality in the West, both through its emphasis on the persons of the Trinity and its debates over free will.  The residue effects of this emphasis lingered through the Second World War, when a submarine came to the rescue of one “flyboy” downed at Chichi Jima, the future president of the United States, George H. W. Bush.  As told by a Japanese eyewitness years later, Japan would have never sent a submarine after one pilot (see James Bradley, Flyboys).

Therefore, two tasks present themselves.  First, I would like to know the relationship between Christianity and classical culture.  In some sense, the relationship between Christianity and classical culture is the key to understanding the West, just as the relationship between the Old Testament and New Testament is the key to understanding the Bible.  Second, for my own sake—since I live in the West—and for the sake of missions, I would like to know what aspects of western culture are due to Christianity and then to discern how these aspects have been distorted and perverted in modern times due to secularism.  Without this discernment, missions will be hampered by the bald objection, “You are imposing your western ways on the rest of the world.”  Perhaps we are, but if I can say that these aspects are biblical and that’s why they are now also western, I will have my defense.

Note: In addition to linear history, free will, and personality, Christianity also brought to western culture an emphasis on compassion in contrast to Caesar’s clemency (see Peter G. Bolt, The Cross from a Distance).  If I remember correctly, this emphasis on mercy was one aspect of Christianity that Nietzsche hated in his desire to bring the West back to pagan strength.  Herbert Schlossberg reports that both Arnold Toynbee and Christopher Dawson regarded this western incorporation of paganism as a sign of cultural decay (Idols for Destruction, p. 269).  Regarding free will, Thomistic scholar Etienne Gilson asserted, “It remains a fact that Aristotle spoke neither of liberty nor of free will…Among Christians, on the contrary, and especially among the Latins, liberty at once comes to the forefront” (The Spirit of Mediaeval Philosophy, trans. A H. C. Downes [New York: Charles Scribner’s Sons, 1936], 307).  Gilson attributes the rise of debates over liberty of exercise to the “moral preoccupation” of Christians (ibid., 308).