The limitations of science

I am a fan of science. I was a boy at the time of the Apollo missions to the moon, and I watched full coverage of them on television. Over the years, my parents bought me a telescope, a microscope, a chemistry set, and a 100-project electrical kit. I got As in science all through school. I still keep up with the latest discoveries, from the exploration of Mars to the particles detected from split atoms.

Science provides many benefits. Science gives us longer and more productive lives, thanks to expanding knowledge about nutrition, sleep, exercise, medicine, therapy, and the battle against pests, from viruses and harmful bacteria to fleas, ticks, and tapeworms. But science cannot help us beyond death. Science cannot tell us whether any part of our being survives death. Nor can science reveal the destiny of that surviving entity, whether it will go to heaven or to hell.

Science is limited to studying the physical world. It can measure and describe matter and energy, but science cannot observe anything that does not consist of matter or energy. Science cannot prove or disprove the existence of God, angels, demons, or the human soul. It is not scientific to say that science disproves those entities, because the rules of science do not permit science to determine anything about the nonmaterial world.

Therefore, anyone who puts his or her faith in science is as mistaken as someone who puts his or her faith in money, or in political power, or in one’s own good deeds, or in Baal or Zeus or Thor. Money and politics and good deeds all have value; they each have a place in our lives. But none of them can take the place of God. None of them can do what God does for his people.

One of the benefits of science is that it changes. New discoveries invalidate prevailing theories and force the creation and testing of new theories about the material world. Isaac Newton applied mathematics to science. He found the equation that describes how gravity works. After Newton, science grew more and more mechanical, with the hope that one day science could explain everything in the universe. But Albert Einstein and other twentieth-century scientists showed that Newton’s mathematical and mechanical universe only describes matter and energy of moderate size. The rules change with the very big, the very small, and the very powerful.

Because science changes, it is unreliable. One researcher says coffee is good for people; the next researcher says coffee is bad for people. Efforts to eradicate the spread of disease and improve the cultivation of crops have damaged the environment by killing off insects and poisoning the creatures that eat insects. Food additives, pesticides, industrial chemicals, and perhaps even life-saving vaccinations can have damaging side effects, which may explain the increase in recent times of autism, anxiety, depression, eating disorders, substance abuse, and intolerance of one another. The poisonous social atmosphere in which we live may literally be poisoned by the same scientific advancements that were intended to improve our lives.

The person who relies on science and scientists to provide all Truth is missing a great deal. The knowledge that our souls will spend time elsewhere when we die—a better place or a worse place, depending upon who we know and trust—and that our bodies will be raised to eternal life at the dawn of the new creation—this knowledge shapes much of what we choose to do today. Knowing the Creator of the universe is far more important than knowing when and how the dinosaurs lived. Knowing that the life and death and resurrection of Jesus provides forgiveness of sins, fellowship with God, and victory over all enemies is far more important than encyclopedic knowledge of all the chemicals or all the planets and planetoids or all the subatomic particles.

One reason science seems to be more valuable than religion is that science has, over the years, provided material explanations for phenomena (such as thunderstorms and epileptic seizures) that were formerly attributed to spiritual causes. One might chart the number of phenomena that are explained by science and no longer attributed to spirits and assume that the need for religion will disappear. But even though science can improve our lives in this world, it gives us no reason to go on living. Nor can science guarantee eternal life in a better world after death in this world. Science cannot lift the guilt of a person who knows that he or she has done wrong. Science cannot teach people how to forgive one another and live in harmony. Science is beneficial, but it cannot replace religion. A life based on science is as empty as a life based on money or politics or entertainment.

I remain a fan of science. But my faith is in God. Science studies the things God made. Theology studies God. God is not too small for science; he is too big for science to grasp, too powerful for science to measure, too grand for science to explain. I thank God for all the things science has discovered about his creation. I praise God for who he is, information which science cannot supply. J.

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Baptism

InsanityBytes wrote a charming piece on baptism which you can (and should) read here. As I commented to her, I agree with most of what she wrote. Many of the other comments began to head in several different directions. There are some more things I want to say about baptism, but rather than trying to say them all in her comments section, I decided to say them here.

First, Christians can disagree about baptism without condemning one another. We can have different opinions about what baptism is, what it accomplishes, where and how it should be done, and so on. To use technical language, each Christian believes that he or she is orthodox (or correct) and that Christians who disagree are heterodox (or incorrect), but we do not accuse the heterodox of being heretics, hypocrites, or unbelievers. We have the same Lord and Savior. We will meet in the same new creation, where we will know and understand all truth and will be able to identify (without shame or embarrassment) who was wrong about what teachings in this world.

Why then continue to discuss baptism? Why not “agree to disagree” and remain silent? Because those Christians who misunderstand baptism are missing the fullness of a blessing God intends them to enjoy. Because of their misunderstanding, they are missing the peace and comfort that comes to them through their baptism.

The key question is: is baptism something we do for God or is baptism something God does for us? If baptism is a work we do for God, then it cannot be involved in our salvation, for we are saved by grace through faith and not by works (Ephesians 2:8-9). But Peter wrote, “Baptism now saves you” (I Peter 3:21). On Pentecost, to answer the question “what shall we do?” Peter answered, “Repent and be baptized every one of you in the name of Jesus for the forgiveness of your sins, and you will receive the gift of the Holy Spirit. For the promise is for you and for your children” (pardon a little throat clearing at that last phrase) (Acts 2:37-39). Mark 16:16 says, “He who believes and is baptized shall be saved, but he who does not believe will be condemned.”

Can God save people apart from baptism? Of course; God can do anything. Unbelief condemns; lack of baptism does not condemn. But God links salvation to baptism for a very important reason. Even the most faithful Christian sins, and we all need assurance of forgiveness that goes beyond our repentance and our faith. We all have bad days when we wonder if we have repented correctly and sufficiently; we all have times when we wonder if our faith is strong enough for us to be saved. If we were left only to measure our repentance and our faith by the way we feel or by the good works that we do, we would be left in doubt.

To rescue us from doubt, God gave us the gift of baptism. When the devil and the sinful world and the sin still within us accuse us and make us doubt our faith and our salvation, baptism is our escape. Because God has linked the promises of forgiveness, salvation, and eternal life to the blessing of baptism, we use baptism as our defense when we doubt or when others attack. The correct attitude is not, “I was baptized on a certain day,” but, “I am baptized.” Baptism is a state of grace under which each Christian lives in this world while looking forward to the life to come.

Earlier this year I wrote more about baptism, which you can read here, here, here, and here. J.

Training and discipline from the Lord’s hand: part five

Training and discipline must have a purpose. Earthly fathers, teachers, and coaches do not put children into difficult situations for no purpose. They seek to develop good characteristics, preparing the children for life’s upcoming events. If God permitted Satan to test Job, God was not being arbitrary toward Job or using Job to win a bet. God had a good reason to allow the testing, and Job somehow was improved by the experience. If God permits you and me to struggle in our lives, he is not being arbitrary toward us. He has a good reason to allow the testing, and we somehow are improved by the experience.

God’s training and discipline are not responses to our sins, because God has forgiven our sins and remembers them no longer. What, then, is God seeking to accomplish by our hardships? The answer can perhaps be found in the way Jesus reacted to his chosen apostles. He chose them—they belonged to him—they were covered by his forgiveness as surely as any Christian is covered by his forgiveness. But it appears that Jesus sometimes lost patience with his apostles. As God he is all-knowing and all-powerful, eternal and unchanging. At the same time, Jesus is human. He is like us every way, except that he never sinned. The sins of others angered him. He cleared the Temple of those who were misusing it. He lectured about the shortcomings of the scribes and Pharisees. Jesus taught God’s Law clearly to all who would listen. But what about times when his chosen and forgiven apostles aggravated Jesus? Here are five examples:

“Behold, there arose a great storm on the sea, so that the boat was being swamped by the waves; but [Jesus] was asleep. And they went and woke him, saying, ‘Save us, Lord; we are perishing.’ And he said to them, ‘Why are you afraid, O you of little faith?’” (Matthew 8:24-26)

“Peter answered him, ‘Lord, if is you, command me to come to you on the water.’ [Jesus] said, ‘Come.’ So Peter got out of the boat and walked on the water and came to Jesus. But when he saw the wind, he was afraid, and beginning to sink he cried out, ‘Lord, save me.’ Jesus immediately reached out his hand and took hold of him, saying to him, ‘O you of little faith, why did you doubt?’” (Matthew 14:28-31)

“When the disciples reached the other side, they had forgotten to bring any bread. Jesus said to them, ‘Watch and beware of the leaven of the Pharisees and Sadducees.’ And they began discussing it among themselves, saying, ‘We brought no bread.’ But Jesus, aware of this, said, ‘O you of little faith, why are you discussing among yourselves the fact that you have no bread? Do you not perceive?’” (Matthew 16:5-9)

“From that time Jesus began to show his disciples that he must go to Jerusalem and suffer many things from the elders and chief priests and scribes, and be killed, and on the third day be raised. And Peter took him aside and began to rebuke him, saying, ‘Far be it from you, Lord! This shall never happen to you.’ But he turned and said to Peter, ‘Get behind me, Satan! You are a hindrance to me. For you are not setting your mind on the things of God, but on the things of man.’” (Matthew 16:21-23)

And when they came to the crowd, a man came up to him and kneeling before him, said, ‘Lord, have mercy on my son, for he is an epileptic and he suffers terribly. For often he falls into the fire, and often into the water. And I brought him to your disciples, and they could not heal him.’ And Jesus answered, ‘O faithless and twisted generation, how long am I to be with you? How long am I to bear with you? Bring him here to me.’ And Jesus rebuked him, and the demon came out of him, and the boy was healed instantly. Then the disciples came to Jesus privately and said, ‘Why could we not cast it out?’ He said to them, ‘Because of your little faith.’” (Matthew 17:14-20)

If anything frustrates Jesus, he is frustrated to see his own chosen people fail to exercise their faith. Jesus grants faith to his people, but he also expects us to exercise that faith. When we fear and doubt, when we lose sight of the cross and try to belong to Jesus without it, when we try to serve him by our own power rather than his power, then we fail. We do not lose our forgiveness—not unless we completely lose our faith. But Jesus wants us to be focused on him, not on ourselves. He wants us to measure his power, not our faith.

This is not to say that the wrath of God falls upon Christians when our faith is too small. Just the opposite: we are saved from God’s wrath by even the smallest faith, provided that our faith is in Jesus Christ, who drank from the cup of his Father’s wrath toward sinners until the cup was empty. But God, in loving discipline and training, gives us faith-lifting exercises even as coaches assign weight-lifting exercises to athletes. Even if Jesus is frustrated by our little faith, he also loves us and wants to see that faith grow—not for his benefit, but for our benefit.

God trains us through adversity, because “suffering produces endurance, and endurance produces character, and character produces hope, and hope does not put us to shame, because God’s love has been poured into our hearts through the Holy Spirit who has been given to us” (Romans 5:3-5). For this reason we rejoice, because our sufferings draw us to the cross of Christ, where all our sins are forgiven, and all our enemies are defeated, and we are claimed as God’s people forever. J.

Training and discipline from the Lord’s hand: part four

Hebrews 11 is often called the Honor Roll of Faith. Great believers of the Old Testament are mentioned along with the obstacles they faced and overcame through their faith in the coming Savior. Verses 35 to 38 particularly focus on believers who were tortured, imprisoned, and killed because of their faith. All these faithful believers are summarized in Hebrews 12:1 as a great cloud of witnesses watching us run the face, and the culmination of this list is Jesus himself, “the founder and perfecter of our faith, who for the joy that was set before him endured the cross, despising the shame, and is seated at the right hand of the throne of God.”

The transition to God’s discipline follows from this mention of Jesus and the cross: “Consider him who endured from sinners such hostility against himself, so that you may not grow weary or fainthearted. In your struggle against sin you have not yet resisted to the point of shedding your blood” (Hebrews 12:3-4). Notice the progression: the saints of the Old Testament suffered, sometimes violently, from the attacks of enemies to their faith. Jesus suffered and died at the hand of such enemies also. We can expect opposition of the same kind, even if it has not yet become as violent as that which Jesus and other servants of God faced.

From this perspective it appears that the discipline of God comes through the enemies of God, which are also our enemies—namely, the devil, the sinful world, and the sin still within each of us. Job was tested by Satan, even though he did not deserve to suffer. God permitted the testing but also limited it. Paul’s thorn in the flesh was “a messenger of Satan to harass me” (II Corinthians 12:7). Jesus once said, “Blessed are you when others revile you and persecute you and utter all kinds of evil against you falsely on my account. Rejoice and be glad, your reward is great in heaven, for so they persecuted the prophets who were before you” (Matthew 5:11-12).

Every setback and disappointment that a Christian faces is not discipline from the hand of God. Some burdens we bear in common with all people, believers and unbelievers alike. Colds, allergies, diabetes, cancer, anxiety, depression: these are not crosses we bear for Christ, nor are they discipline from God. They are part of the result of living in a sin-polluted world. When the car stalls in traffic, when rain falls on our picnic, when an unexpected bill comes in the mail, God is not calling us to examine our lives and determine which sin he wants us to quit. God does not want us to sin at all, but our sins are forgiven. Christ was beaten as he did not deserve to rescue us from discipline we deserve.

On the other hand, we are being trained to live as God’s people. When our faith and obedience annoys God’s enemies, we must be doing something right. God allows us to experience their resistance to strengthen our faith. Whatever difficulties we face are good for us, as they direct our attention to the price Christ paid to redeem us. The devil wants us to struggle so he can convince us that God does not love us or is not taking care of us. When our struggles remind us of the cross of Christ, of all that he paid to make us his people, then the devil loses in his opposition and we share once again in the victory Christ has won.

Guilt is good when it brings us to the cross. Guilt is bad when it drives us to examine our sins and try to fix our own lives to please God. The devil uses our sense of guilt as a weapon against us. When trouble strikes and the question arises: “What did I do to deserve this?” we usually can think of answers to that question. But no discipline from God is a response to our sins. God has blotted out all our sins with the blood of his Son. He sees each of us now through his Son’s righteousness. God does not want us to sin, but he also does not want us to focus all our attention on our sins. He wants us to set our eyes on Jesus and to find strength and comfort and hope in him.

To be continued…. J.

Holy Communion (part three)

The Bible says: “For as often as you eat this bread and drink this cup, you proclaim the Lord’s death until he comes” (I Corinthians 11:26).

Luther explains, “How can bodily eating and drinking do such great things? Certainly not just eating and drinking do these things, but the words written here: ‘Given and shed for you for the forgiveness of sins.’ These words, along with the eating and drinking, are the main thing in the Sacrament. Whoever believes these words has exactly what they say: ‘forgiveness of sins.’”

Salvageable adds: Christians are saved by grace through faith. Faith is not something we do for God; faith is something God does in us. Faith is a relationship that trusts God’s promises. Without God’s grace, our faith would be pointless. Without faith, God’s grace does not reach us and we remain in our sins.

Our faith comes to us through the Word of God. Whether that Word is spoken as an absolution or read from the Bible, whether it is accompanied by water in Holy Baptism or by eating and drinking in Holy Communion, this Word creates faith and strengthens faith. These ways of delivering the Word of God are the gifts of the Holy Spirit by which he enlightens us and brings us into Christ’s kingdom.

A mental illness called anorexia causes a person to deny himself or herself of nutrition needed for the body. This disease is devastating toward the person who suffers from it, and his or her condition is agonizing for family and friends to see. We take spiritual anorexia far more lightly. A person says, “I’m a Christian—I believe in God. But I don’t have time to read the Bible or pray or go to church. God understands. I don’t need church to be a Christian.”

Luther wrote about such a person this way: “But what should you do if you are not aware of this need and have no hunger and thirst for the Sacrament? To such a person no better advice can be given than this: first, he should touch his body to see if he still has flesh and blood. Then he should believe what the Scriptures say of it… Second, he should look around to see whether he is still in the world, and remember that there will be no lack of sin and trouble, as the Scriptures say… Third, he will certainly have the devil also around him, who with his lying and murdering day and night will let him have no peace, within our without, as the Scriptures picture him….”

Because we sin often, we need forgiveness often. We eat and drink at the Lord’s Table, receiving his body and his blood from the cross for the forgiveness of our sins. The Ten Commandments tell us why we need forgiveness. The Apostles’ Creed expresses our faith in the forgiveness of sins. In the Lord’s Prayer, we ask for forgiveness and promise to share forgiveness. The Christian Church is all about forgiveness, and the Sacrament of Holy Communion is likewise all about forgiveness. J.

Early medieval Christian writers

Pseudo-Dionysius; John Scotus Eriugena; John Climacus: the names may be unfamiliar, but the writings of these men have shaped the course of Christianity from the earlier Middle Ages to the present.

Western civilization in general and Protestant Christianity in particular perpetuate an image of Europe’s Dark Ages—the Roman Empire fell, and until the Renaissance a thousand years later, Europe stagnated in a miasma of superstition and barbarianism. This myth was encouraged by thinkers of the so-called Enlightenment (a label they chose for themselves); following the religious wars of the Reformation, Europe was allegedly ready to abandon the blind prejudices of religion and emerge into the light of science, reason, and humanistic philosophy. Because of this attitude, many of the treasures of the Middle Ages were buried in libraries and museums. Condemned with labels like “Gothic,” the advances of European civilization during these centuries were all set aside as a bypath to oblivion, barbarism from which the fragile flame of the Renaissance and the more robust furnace of the Enlightenment rescued western civilization.

Even the Great Books of the Western World series acknowledges only three writers from the Middle Ages—Chaucer, Aquinas, and Dante. All three are undeniably great, but they could anchor a new set of books that might be called Great Books of the Western Middle Ages. That set would also include Pseudo-Dionysius, John Scotus Eriugena, and John Climacus.

Pseudo-Dionysius is an anonymous writer of the fifth or sixth century who represented himself as the man named Dionysius who heard Paul preach in Athens and became a Christian (Acts 17:34). His surviving writings include “The Divine Names,” “The Mystical Theology,” “The Celestial Hierarchy,” and “The Ecclesiastical Hierarchy.” As these titles suggest, the writer organizes the known universe into levels of power and authority, reaching from the lowest forms of created being to the one Uncreated Being, God Himself. Pseudo-Dionysius is known for organizing the angels of heaven into nine levels—three sets of three—and also for describing the levels of church leadership that existed in his time and place. More important, Pseudo-Dionysius recommended humility in the believer who would approach God. The Lord of the universe is far beyond human understanding, and we know him only through what He has told us about himself in the Bible.

Pseudo-Dionysius wrote, “Let us hold on to the scriptural rule ‘not in the plausible words of human wisdom, but in demonstration of the power granted by the Holy Spirit’ (I Corinthians 2:4) to the scripture writers, a power by which, in a manner surpassing speech and knowledge, we reach a union superior to anything available to us by way of our own abilities or activities in the realm of discourse or of intellect. This is why we must not dare to resort to words or conceptions concerning that hidden divinity which transcends being, apart from that the sacred scriptures have divinely revealed. Since the unknowing of what is beyond being is something above and beyond speech, mind, or being itself, one should ascribe to it an understanding beyond being. Let us therefore look as far upward as the light of sacred scripture will allow, and, in our reverent awe of what is divine, let us be drawn together toward the divine splendor.”

John Scotus Eriugena was a theologian, philosopher, and scientist of the early ninth century who lived in the British Isles. He preserved and commented upon the writings of Pseudo-Dionysius, and also wrote a  profound commentary on the Gospel according to John. As a scientist, Eriugena continued the tradition of ancient Greek and Roman science, bridging the time between ancient civilization and the scientists of the High Middle Ages such as Roger Bacon and Nicholas of Cusa. The work of Copernicus, Galileo, Newton, and their heirs would have been impossible without the contributions of men like Eriugena and Roger Bacon. Yet medieval European science was always grounded in the truth of God’s Word, finding meaning and purpose for all creation in the messages from God which communicate the thoughts he wants known by human beings.

Commenting on the opening verses of the Gospel according to John, Eriugena wrote, “When humanity abandoned God, the light of divine knowledge receded from the world. Since then, the eternal light reveals itself in a two-fold manner through Scripture and through creation. Divine knowledge may be renewed in us no other way, but through the letters of Scripture and the species of creature. Learn, therefore, to understand these divine modes of expression and to conceive their meanings in your soul, for therein you will know the Word.”

John Climacus was a monk who lived in a monastery near Mount Sinai at the beginning of the seventh century. His last name refers to his most famous writing, “The Ladder of Divine Ascent,” which describes the Christian life in terms of gaining virtues and dispelling vices. One of the virtues recommended by Climacus is apathy or dispassion, detachment from the things of this world. This may reflect a Buddhist influence upon Christian monasticism in west Asia, unsurprising in the centuries before the rise of Islam in that part of the world. John’s description of the ladder, based loosely on Jacob’s dream, was a deep influence on the writings of the Greek Orthodox and Russian Orthodox churches, lasting until the present. John was himself deeply influenced by the Desert Fathers, the early monks of Egypt and the surrounding area, extending back in time to Saint Anthony. While John’s writings appear to tilt toward legalism, he was more interested in prescribing rules for life in a monastery than he was in speaking of the grace of God and the unearned redemption that belongs to all Christians.

John wrote, “We should love the Lord as we do our friends. Many a time I have seen people bring grief to God, without being bothered about it, and I have seen these very same people resort to every device, plan, pressure, pleas from themselves and their friends, and every gift, simply to restore an old relationship upset by some minor grievance…. In this world, when an emperor summons us to obedience, we leave everything aside and answer the call at once without delays or hanging back or excuses. We had better be careful then not to refuse, through laziness or inertia, the call to heavenly life in the service of the King of kings, the Lord of lords, the God of gods…. Some people living carelessly in the world put a question to me: ‘How can we who are married and living among public cares aspire to the monastic life?’ I answered: ‘Do whatever good you may. Speak evil of no one. Rob no one. Tell no lie. Despise no one and carry no hate. Do not separate yourself from the church assemblies. Show compassion to the needy. Do not be a cause of scandal to anyone. Stay away from the bed of another, and be satisfied with what your own wives can provide you. If you do all this, you will not be far from the kingdom of heaven.’”

Far from being mired in any dark ages, these writers show themselves to be as intelligent and as relevant as any of our contemporary Christian authors. J.

Thy Kingdom come

Jesus says, “When you pray, say ‘…Thy Kingdom come….’”

Luther explains, “What does this mean? The kingdom of God certainly comes by itself without our prayer, but we pray in this petition that it may come to us also. How does God’s kingdom come? God’s kingdom comes when our heavenly Father gives us His Holy Spirit, so that by His grace we believe His holy Word and lead godly lives here in time and there in eternity.”

Salvageable adds: Scholars speak sometimes of the three kingdoms of God, although they do not intend to say that these are distinct kingdoms. No, they overlap, and a person can be part of more than one of God’s kingdoms. They are called the kingdom of power, the kingdom of grace, and the kingdom of glory. The kingdom of power is creation, over which Jesus rules right now. The kingdom of grace is the Church, including saints in Paradise with Jesus and believers still living on the earth. The kingdom of glory is the coming new creation, in which all things will be perfected, all evil will be removed, and all the saints will live with Jesus forever. They will be royalty because of their family relationship to the King.

We do not need to pray that the kingdom of power will come. Creation already is here. We pray about that kingdom, though, when we pray for daily bread.

We pray for the kingdom of grace—for the Church. We pray for pastors and other church leaders, that God would keep them faithful and would work through their ministries. We pray for missionaries spreading the good news about Jesus. We pray for people we love, especially those who seem not to believe in Jesus right now. We pray that the kingdom of grace would come to more people so they can be redeemed and can enter the kingdom of grace and await eternal life in the kingdom of glory. The Lord’s Prayer is a missionary prayer.

At the same time, we are praying for ourselves. We pray that we would continue to mature in the faith—as a famous song from Godspell says, to see God more clearly, follow him more nearly, and love him more dearly. On the one hand, there are not different levels of faith. The faith of every Christian is identical, because it is faith in the same Savior, the same Lord, and the same promises. The Christian life is easier, though, for believers who have stopped measuring themselves, who have put their full trust in the Lord, and who are being transformed into the image of Christ, loving God and neighbors according to the example of Christ and by his strength.

Even as we pray for the kingdom of grace, we also pray for the coming of the kingdom of glory: “Maranatha—come, Lord Jesus!” We look forward to the Day when we see Jesus coming in the clouds, bringing with him all the saints of Paradise, raising all the dead, and inaugurating the new creation. We pray for that Day when all sorrows and sufferings will cease, when sin and evil will no longer exist, and when death will no longer be an end to life. That Day is already guaranteed through the redemption of Christ. By his life and death and resurrection, he has conquered sin, death, and evil. By his life, death, and resurrection, he shares his victory with us. Therefore, we do not fear the Day of the Lord. We look forward to it with hope and excitement, and we pray for its coming. Yet it has been delayed for the sake of the work of the kingdom of grace. There are yet more people—at least one more person—who will come to faith and enter the kingdom of grace before it all becomes the kingdom of glory.  J.

The parable of the persistent widow (Luke 18:1-8)

As I continue working on a book about the parables of Jesus, interpreting those parables by the secrets of the kingdom of heaven, I continue to discover new treasures in the Word of God. Consider, for example, the parable of the persistent widow:

In Luke 18:1-8, Jesus tells a parable “to the effect that they ought always to pray and not lose heart.” On other occasions Jesus compared himself to a thief; in this parable he compares himself to “a judge who neither feared God nor respected man.” A widow repeatedly approached this judge, begging for justice. Because of her persistence, the judge eventually decides to answer her plea “so that she will not beat me down by her continual coming.” Jesus concludes, “And will not God give justice to his elect, who cry to him day and night? Will he delay long over them? I tell you, he will give justice to them speedily. Nevertheless, when the Son of Man comes, will he find faith on earth?”

Of course Jesus intends to contrast the goodness of God with the evil of a judge who neither fears God nor respects man. Judges should fear God; they should do their work faithfully, knowing that God is watching them. They should do their work fairly, granting justice to all people, whether they are rich or poor, black or white, young or old, male or female. Withholding justice from a widow because she can neither afford to bribe the judge nor threaten him with any harm would be wrong. God, on the other hand, can be trusted to do the right thing all the time. God can neither be bribed nor threatened. When we pray to God, we have no power over him. All we have going for us in our prayers is his command to pray and his promise to hear and answer our prayers.

God wants us to pray. He does not need our prayers. He knows everything about us, including what we need and what we want and what is best for us. He does not need advice or instruction from us. Jesus reminds us why we pray with his sample prayer, which begins with the words “Our Father.” God wants us to approach him confidently, as little children on earth turn to their fathers, expecting good things from them.

At the same time, God wants our prayers to be meaningful. “When you pray,” Jesus taught, “do not heap up empty phrases, as the Gentiles do, for they think that they will be heard for their many words” (Matthew 6:7). Persistent prayer is not vacuous prayer, speaking words without considering what they mean or to whom they are addressed. We cannot impress God by our prayers, so we need not try. A child cannot overpower a father with many words, persuading the father to do as the child wants even though what the child wants will harm the child. So also, God’s promise to hear and answer our prayers does not mean that we have magic power to make him do as we want. He is wiser than us and more knowledgeable. If we ask for something harmful, he loves us too much to grant us what we ask.

Imagine, though, spending day after day with someone you love while that person refuses to say a word to you. Think of the pain that silence would cause you. Often we treat God this way. We do not speak to him at all, either to ask for anything for ourselves and for others, nor to thank him for any good thing he has given us, nor to confess our sins and beg for his forgiveness. God encourages us to do all these things, and more: he invites us to praise him. He does not need our praise—flattery accomplishes nothing with God—but we need to praise God in order to remind ourselves how good he is and how blessed we are that he loves us and delights to hear our prayers.

So Jesus told a parable about a persistent widow who finally obtains justice from an uncaring judge. Because this story is labeled a parable, the secrets of the kingdom should reveal more from the story than an exhortation to pray. Indeed, much more is happening in this story. For as Jesus compared himself to a thief, robbing us out of the hands of the devil, he now compares himself to a corrupt judge. Jesus truly is the Judge who will rule on our eternal home. Sinners will be locked out of the kingdom, while those who are pure and flawless will be welcomed into the kingdom and called children of God.

Were Jesus purely just and fair, he would lock us out of his kingdom. We have sinned; we do not deserve a place in heaven. But Jesus is unfair to us, not to our harm but to our benefit. Jesus judges that we are sinless because he covers our sins with his righteousness. Jesus judges that we are flawless because he has paid in full our debt for sin. Jesus judges that we are worthy to live in his kingdom—even to be called the children of God—because He, the Son of God, took our place and our punishment so we could receive the rewards he earned.

We have adversaries—not worldly foes, but spiritual enemies. We need protection from the devil, from the sinful world around us, and from the sin still within us. We persistently confess our sins and ask God to protect us from our enemies. God answers swiftly—so swiftly that he has finished answering our prayers before we reached the “Amen.” Christ has already paid our penalty. On the cross he fought our enemies and defeated them. Even the final enemy, death, has been defeated by Jesus. God has not delayed; he has given us all that we need and far more good things than we ever deserved.

“Nevertheless, when the Son of Man comes, will he find faith on earth?” Without faith, no one can receive the benefits of the exchange that Jesus offers. We are saved by God’s grace through faith. Our faith is not a work that earns God’s grace; it is a gift, a result of God’s grace. Jesus asks whether or not he will find faith, not in despair that all faith will be quenched, but as a reminder that he will be seeking faith when he sits on his Judgment throne. Those approaching the throne of Judgment with faith in Jesus will be welcomed into his kingdom, an inheritance prepared for them from the foundation of the world (Matthew 25:34). Those approaching the throne demanding justice, demanding to get what they deserve, will receive such justice. They will be sent into the eternal fire prepared for the devil and his angels (Matthew 25:41). Jesus does not want to send anyone into that fire. He died to rescue all people. But those who refuse the gift of the unfair Judge truly will receive the justice they deserve rather than the gift the Judge offers them.

 

More about the last enemy

One week ago I attended the funeral of a friend. He had battled severe mental health issues for the past ten years. In the end, he ended his life by his own hands.

The church was filled to capacity. Like most of the people who came, I tried to say a few words of comfort to the family of the deceased. His father remarked to me that they had nearly lost him this way on two earlier occasions. I think that, even in his shock and his sorrow, the young man’s father was able to treasure the time the two of them had shared.

What does one say at the funeral of a person who has committed suicide? The preacher was magnificent. He began his sermon by expressing his own regrets, his own fears that he had not been a good enough pastor, not persistent enough in reaching out to the deceased. He went on to say that he expected that many of us—family members, friends, co-workers—felt the same sense of guilt, of not having done enough. He assured us that whatever mistakes we had made, whatever sins we had committed, God’s forgiveness covers them all. He then also assured us that the same is true of the man whose death we mourned. Whatever mistakes he made and whatever sins he committed, God’s forgiveness covers them all. He reminded us (and quoted to us) the Scripture promises of unconditional forgiveness and of a resurrection to eternal life in a better world—a perfect world.

Christians find it hard to talk about suicide. We never want to appear to approve of suicide, to treat it as less than sinful. We want to discourage any person from committing the sin of murdering one’s self. At the same time, we want to be careful not to speak of suicide as an unforgiveable sin. The only unforgiveable sin is refusing to repent and rejecting God’s forgiveness. This is the sin against the Holy Spirit, who works through the Word of God and his blessings to bring people to repentance and to faith.

How can one repent of suicide after succeeding in the act? God’s forgiveness is not limited to the sins we remember to list when we repent and confess our sins. Like the Psalm, we pray, “Forgive my hidden faults.” In the model prayer Jesus taught, we pray for forgiveness; and God’s forgiveness, won for us at the cross, covers all our sins.

God’s forgiveness and our faith are not a series of events. They are a continuing relationship. A Christian who dies in his or her sleep is not lost because of the inability to confess faith while sleeping. A person who slips into senility is not lost, no matter what words or actions occur during the months or years of sickness before death. A Christian battling mental illness who, in a minute of weakness, causes his or her own death is not lost to God forever. The act of suicide is a sin, but Jesus paid for even that sin by offering his own life as a sacrifice on the cross. As the letter to the Romans assures us, nothing can separate us from the love of God in Christ Jesus our Lord.

From the beginning of the sermon to the end of the service, tears welled out of my eyes. (I cannot remember the last time I cried in public—it was a long time ago.) I grieved, but not like those who have no hope. Death is our enemy, but death is already a conquered enemy. Jesus has defeated death, and he shares his victory with us all. I will see my friend again at the resurrection on the Last Day, and both of us will dwell in the house of the Lord forever. J.

Christ in Genesis: Abraham, the Father of Faith

Abraham is called the Father of Faith. The apostle Paul and the writer of the letter to the Hebrews both stress the faith of Abraham, the fact that he trusted God even when the son God had promised appeared increasingly unlikely every year. The two actions that demonstrate Abraham’s faith are these: in obedience to God, he traveled to Canaan; and, in obedience to God, he prepared to offer his son Isaac as a burnt offering.

Between these two acts of faith, probably more than thirty years apart, Abraham often demonstrated the weakness of his faith. During a time of famine, Abraham left Canaan and traveled to Egypt, evidently doubting that God would take care of him during the famine. In Egypt, he persuaded Sarah to call herself his sister rather than his wife, evidently doubting that God would protect Abraham and his family in Egypt. Although he believed that God would provide him a son, he also tried to help God keep this promise. First, he suggested that he would adopt his servant Eliezer to produce a son for God. Later, he accepted Sarah’s suggestion that her maid Hagar be a surrogate mother to produce a son for God. God had to insist to Abraham that neither Eliezer nor Ishmael (Abraham’s son by Hagar) was the promised son. Then, in the land of Gerar, Abraham once more persuaded Sarah to say that she was his sister, not his wife, evidently still doubting that God would protect Abraham and his family from the power of King Abimelech.

One day Jesus and two angels were traveling towards Sodom, and they stopped at the tent of Abraham. Abraham recognized Jesus and insisted that the group stay for a meal. He ordered a calf slaughtered and fresh bread made, and Jesus and the angels enjoyed his hospitality. During the meal, Jesus told Abraham that by that time next year, Sarah would have a son. Sarah overheard the promise and laughed, but when Jesus asked why she was laughing she lied and said, “I didn’t laugh.”

After Jesus had sent the angels to Sodom, Jesus told Abraham that he was investigating Sodom and that he would destroy the city if things were as bad there as he had heard. Abraham knew how bad things were in Sodom, and so he began to bargain with God (always the sign of a weak faith). He had Jesus promise not to destroy Sodom if fifty righteous people were living there. Then, step by step, Abraham worked his way down to ten righteous people. Each time Jesus agreed, even though Jesus knew that not a single person in Sodom was righteous. Knowing the intention of Abraham’s prayer, Jesus did something Abraham hadn’t asked: he had the angels remove Lot and his family from the city before burning sulfur fell from the sky to destroy Sodom and the sinners who lived there.

Abraham’s faith was weak, but it still was saving faith, because it was faith in the right God. Our faith can be as weak as Abraham’s faith. We say we believe God’s promises, and then we do things our way rather than his way. We say we believe his promises, and then we struggle to make them come true by our efforts. We say we believe his promises, and then we try to bargain with God instead of trusting that his will is good. Yet when we put our trust in God, even though our faith is weak, God saves us by his grace through faith. Abraham is our father because we are like him: clinging to Christ with a feeble faith, but saved all the same by the strength of Christ’s work. J.