Monday, June 17, 2013

Benjamin Franklin on God and Government

Benjamin Franklin doesn't sound like a deist to me:

I've lived, Sir, a long time, and the longer I live, the more convincing Proofs I see of this Truth - That God governs in the Affairs of Men. And if a sparrow cannot fall to the ground without his Notice, is it probable that an Empire can rise without his Aid? We have been assured, Sir, in the Sacred Writings, that except the Lord build the House they labor in vain who build it. I firmly believe this, - and I also believe that without his concurring Aid, we shall succeed in this political Building no better than the Builders of Babel: We shall be divided by our little partial local interests; our Projects will be confounded, and we ourselves shall become a Reproach and Bye word down to future Ages.

(Ben Franklin, Speech to the Constitutional Convention (28 June 1787); Manuscript notes by Franklin preserved in the Library of Congress)

Calvin's Institutes

From Rev. Richard W Daniels:

“How can I be right with God?” This is surely THE MOST IMPORTANT practical question ever asked, EVERYONE needs to ask it, and there is ONLY ONE CORRECT ANSWER to it ever given by God. It is the subject of our Calvin reading for today and for the next several days: JUSTIFICATION BY FAITH ALONE!

“I TRUST I have now sufficiently shown how man’s only resource for escaping from the curse of the law, and recovering salvation, lies in faith; and also what the nature of faith is, what the benefits which it confers, and the fruits which it produces. The whole may be thus summed up: Christ given to us by the kindness of God is apprehended and possessed by faith, by means of which we obtain in particular a twofold benefit; first, being reconciled by the righteousness of Christ, God becomes, instead of a judge, an indulgent Father; and, secondly, being sanctified by his Spirit, we aspire to integrity and purity of life.… "

"A man is said to be justified in the sight of God when in the judgment of God he is deemed righteous, and is accepted on account of his righteousness; for as iniquity is abominable to God, so neither can the sinner find grace in his sight, so far as he is and so long as he is regarded as a sinner. Hence, wherever sin is, there also are the wrath and vengeance of God. He, on the other hand, is justified who is regarded not as a sinner, but as righteous, and as such stands acquitted at the judgment-scat of God, where all sinners are condemned. As an innocent man, when charged before an impartial judge, who decides according to his innocence, is said to be justified by the judge, so a man is said to be justified by God when, removed from the catalogue of sinners, he has God as the witness and assertor of his righteousness. In the same manner, a man will be said to be justified by works, if in his life there can be found a purity and holiness which merits an attestation of righteousness at the throne of God, or if by the perfection of his works he can answer and satisfy the divine justice. On the contrary, a man will be justified by faith when, excluded from the righteousness of works, he by faith lays hold of the righteousness of Christ, and clothed in it appears in the sight of God not as a sinner, but as righteous. Thus we simply interpret justification, as the acceptance with which God receives us into his favour as if we were righteous; and we say that this justification consists in the forgiveness of sins and the imputation of the righteousness of Christ.” (Institutes III, xi, 1-3)

Why am I trying to post readings of a 16th century theologian? The simple answer: Life is all about knowing God through Scripture and Calvin's Institutes is widely regarded as one of the best ever all around guides to the teaching of the Bible. Go to this link to find out more about it and start reading yourself.

The Parable of Naboth

Later the following events took place: Naboth the Jezreelite had a vineyard in Jezreel, beside the palace of King Ahab of Samaria. And Ahab said to Naboth, "Give me your vineyard, so that I may have it for a vegetable garden, because it is near my house; I will give you a better vineyard for it; or, if it seems good to you, I will give you its value in money." But Naboth said to Ahab, "The LORD forbid that I should give you my ancestral inheritance." Ahab went home resentful and sullen because of what Naboth the Jezreelite had said to him; for he had said, "I will not give you my ancestral inheritance." He lay down on his bed, turned away his face, and would not eat. His wife Jezebel came to him and said, "Why are you so depressed that you will not eat?" He said to her, "Because I spoke to Naboth the Jezreelite and said to him, 'Give me your vineyard for money; or else, if you prefer, I will give you another vineyard for it'; but he answered, 'I will not give you my vineyard.'" His wife Jezebel said to him, "Do you now govern Israel? Get up, eat some food, and be cheerful; I will give you the vineyard of Naboth the Jezreelite." So she wrote letters in Ahab's name and sealed them with his seal; she sent the letters to the elders and the nobles who lived with Naboth in his city. She wrote in the letters, "Proclaim a fast, and seat Naboth at the head of the assembly; seat two scoundrels opposite him, and have them bring a charge against him, saying, 'You have cursed God and the king.' Then take him out, and stone him to death." The men of his city, the elders and the nobles who lived in his city, did as Jezebel had sent word to them. Just as it was written in the letters that she had sent to them, they proclaimed a fast and seated Naboth at the head of the assembly. The two scoundrels came in and sat opposite him; and the scoundrels brought a charge against Naboth, in the presence of the people, saying, "Naboth cursed God and the king." So they took him outside the city, and stoned him to death. Then they sent to Jezebel, saying, "Naboth has been stoned; he is dead." As soon as Jezebel heard that Naboth had been stoned and was dead, Jezebel said to Ahab, "Go, take possession of the vineyard of Naboth the Jezreelite, which he refused to give you for money; for Naboth is not alive, but dead." As soon as Ahab heard that Naboth was dead, Ahab set out to go down to the vineyard of Naboth the Jezreelite, to take possession of it. Then the word of the LORD came to Elijah the Tishbite, saying: Go down to meet King Ahab of Israel, who rules in Samaria; he is now in the vineyard of Naboth, where he has gone to take possession. You shall say to him, "Thus says the LORD: Have you killed, and also taken possession?" You shall say to him, "Thus says the LORD: In the place where dogs licked up the blood of Naboth, dogs will also lick up your blood." Ahab said to Elijah, "Have you found me, O my enemy?" He answered, "I have found you. Because you have sold yourself to do what is evil in the sight of the LORD, I will bring disaster on you. (1 Kings 21:1-10, (11-14), 15-21a)

The Old Testament, although it is actual history, is also a source of parables.  As we see from the gospels, Jesus spoke in parables, and even things he said that don't seem to be parables can be converted into parables, by putting "the kingdom of God is like" in front of them.  So, whereas, Jesus will speak an actual parable--the kingdom of God is like a man who found a treasure in a field; he went and sold everything he owned to purchase that field, and so he gained the treasure--we can also infer parables from his discourses and actions.  So, for example, the kingdom of God is like a man who feeds five thousand people with five loaves of bread and two fish; the worldly people who are fed want to make him a king genie, so he can feed them magically for the rest of their lives, but he tells them about the bread of life, his own flesh, which, when eaten, will provide everlasting life; they reject him.

The Old Testament stories are like the latter type of parable.  The kingdom of God is like a man who was sold into slavery by his brothers, lied about by everyone he met, but through all his trials, the Lord put him in the right place and right time, so that he could save the region from famine.  Let's look at the above passage from first Kings, and let's see if we can find the parable.

I'm not looking at Jezebel or Ahab or even Elijah.  Look at what Naboth says to Ahab.  Here is where the parable can be found.  Three things are apparent in this exchange.  First, to our modern, American sensibilities, we ask ourselves, "Why didn't he take the deal?!?!"

How many here would have taken the deal for a better vineyard or the monetary equivalent?  No raised hands?  You are all liars!  Everyone in this room would have taken the deal, because we are trained from birth to take such deals.  The world offers us sweet deals and we are told to take them.  We buy properties to flip them, the fix them up and make a profit.  Do you think I'm going to take my family and live in my parents' house when they pass?  No.  My brother and I are probably going to sell it and pocket the money (after the government takes most of it).  That's what my parents did with their parents' properties.  Ancestral property means nothing to us today.  Our parents don't mean anything to us, either.  This is just another way in which we break the 5th commandment.

The second thing I notice is that Naboth uses the phrase, "The LORD forbid."  He invokes the name of Yahweh.  Now, remember, Ahab is the WORST king of Israel, more evil than the others combined.  Whereas the previous kings may have syncretized Israel's religion with pagan ones, Ahab rejects the Lord outright and erects a temple exclusively to Baal.  He erects an Asherah pole, too. God is rejected for false gods.  Now, here is Naboth invoking the name of the Lord, the God Ahab rejected, to his face.  What happens?  Ahab backs down, because the name of the Lord is more powerful than any king.

Now, Jezebel is a different matter.  She doesn't back down but coldly and callously destroys Naboth, living up to her name.  Has Naboth lost?  Has the name of the Lord failed to protect him?  No.  Naboth has only gained his inheritance early. Think of Stephen before he is stoned at the end of Acts 7.  What does he see?  He sees the heavens opened up to accept him and Jesus sitting at his father's side.  Martyrs are not failures.  They are only called home early.

This leads me to my third point: take land out of the equation.  What is the inheritance of Naboth's?  Jesus!  The kingdom of God. Now, we can apply this as a parable to our lives. When we know that our inheritance is the kingdom of God, our eyes are opened to the Ahabs in the world who try to take it from us, and the Jezebels who will kill us for it, and we realize that Naboth was right to not sell it!  When we think of the inheritance as Jesus instead of Land, we will invoke the name of the Lord to protect it ourselves. We may die doing so, but it will be the right decision.

The world will try to give us wealth.  It will try to give us false alternatives.  You don't want to go to that church.  It's stuffy and boring.  The sermons are gloomy.  Come to our exciting, fun church.  Why are you a Christian?  Christians are lame.  Join our prosperity cult!  Find nirvana.  Worship the earth.  Why are you following Jesus?  Tune into American Idol.  Find a celebrity to worship.  The government will protect us and take care of us.  We don't NEED Jesus.  Make the trade!

The kingdom of God is like a man with a beautiful inheritance who was asked to sell it away.  He invoked the name of the Lord and refused.  He was killed and received his inheritance early.

Wednesday, June 12, 2013

Calvin Quote of the Day

From the Rev. Richard W Daniels:

Calvin Quote for the Day.

Since biblical times, professing Christians have had two faulty ways of responding to troubling times: acting like stones (remember Simon and Garfunkel—“I am a rock, I am an island and a rock feels no pain, and an island never cries,”) or being tempted to give up, --“I just can’t take this anymore. Is God still with me or not?” See Hebrews 12:5-6. When Christians “regard lightly the discipline of the Lord,” becoming like rocks, they are not demonstrating Christian “patience in tribulation,” they are acting like Stoics, and there is BIG big difference. In today’s quote, Calvin describes the difference--

“9. This conflict which believers maintain against the natural feeling of pain, while they study moderation and patience, Paul elegantly describes in these words: “We are troubled on every side, yet not distressed; we are perplexed, but not in despair; persecuted, but not forsaken; cast down, but not destroyed,” (2 Cor. 4:8, 9.) You see that to bear the cross patiently is not to have your feelings altogether blunted, and to be absolutely insensible to pain, according to the absurd description which the Stoics of old gave of their hero as one who, divested of humanity, was affected in the same way by adversity and prosperity, grief and joy; or rather, like a stone, was not affected by anything. And what did they gain by that sublime wisdom? they exhibited a shadow of patience, which never did, and never can, exist among men. Nay, rather by aiming at a too exact and rigid patience, they banished it altogether from human life. Now also we have among Christians a new kind of Stoics, who hold it vicious not only to groan and weep, but even to be sad and anxious. These paradoxes are usually started by indolent men who, employing themselves more in speculation than in action, can do nothing else for us than beget such paradoxes. But we have nothing to do with that iron philosophy which our Lord and Master condemned—not only in word, but also by his own example. For he both grieved and shed tears for his own and others’ woes. Nor did he teach his disciples differently: “Ye shall weep and lament, but the world shall rejoice,” (John 16:20.) And lest any one should regard this as vicious, he expressly declares, “Blessed are they that mourn,” (Matth. 5:4.) And no wonder. If all tears are condemned, what shall we think of our Lord himself, whose “sweat was as it were great drops of blood falling down to the ground?” (Luke 22:44; Matth. 26:38.) If every kind of fear is a mark of unbelief, what place shall we assign to the dread which, it is said, in no slight degree amazed him; if all sadness is condemned, how shall we justify him when he confesses, “My soul is exceeding sorrowful, even unto death?”

10. I wished to make these observations to keep pious minds from despair, lest, from feeling it impossible to divest themselves of the natural feeling of grief, they might altogether abandon the study of patience. This must necessarily be the result with those who convert patience into stupor, and a brave and firm man into a block. Scripture gives saints the praise of endurance when, though afflicted by the hardships they endure, they are not crushed; though they feel bitterly, they are at the same time filled with spiritual joy; though pressed with anxiety, breathe exhilarated by the consolation of God. Still there is a certain degree of repugnance in their hearts, because natural sense shuns and dreads what is adverse to it, while pious affection, even through these difficulties, tries to obey the divine will. This repugnance the Lord expressed when he thus addressed Peter: “Verily, verily, I say unto thee, When thou wast young, thou girdedst thyself and walkedst whither thou wouldst; but when thou shalt be old, thou shalt stretch forth thy hands, and another shall gird thee, and carry thee whither thou wouldest not,” (John 21:18.) It is not probable, indeed, that when it became necessary to glorify God by death, he was driven to it unwilling and resisting; had it been so, little praise would have been due to his martyrdom. But though he obeyed the divine ordination with the greatest alacrity of heart, yet, as he had not divested himself of humanity, he was distracted by a double will. When he thought of the bloody death which he was to die, struck with horror, he would willingly have avoided it: on the other hand, when he considered that it was God who called him to it, his fear was vanquished and suppressed, and he met death cheerfully. It must therefore be our study, if we would be disciples of Christ, to imbue our minds with such reverence and obedience to God as may tame and subjugate all affections contrary to his appointment. In this way, whatever be the kind of cross to which we are subjected, we shall in the greatest straits firmly maintain our patience. Adversity will have its bitterness, and sting us. When afflicted with disease, we shall groan and be disquieted, and long for health; pressed with poverty, we shall feel the stings of anxiety and sadness, feel the pain of ignominy, contempt, and injury, and pay the tears due to nature at the death of our friends: but our conclusion will always be, The Lord so willed it, therefore let us follow his will. Nay, amid the pungency of grief, among groans and tears, this thought will necessarily suggest itself, and incline us cheerfully to endure the things for which we are so afflicted."

Institutes III:8:9-10.

Good But Not Nice

This is a difficult concept to discuss.  What does it mean when we call God "good"?  What is good?  Is God good?  Yes!  He is not only good, but he is the source of goodness.  He is pure goodness.  He only wants what is best for us.  He wants the best possible outcome for each of our lives.  But is God "nice"?  No!  God is good, but he is not nice.  Think of how C.S. Lewis describes Aslan in his Narnia chronicles: good but not safe, very good but very dangerous.  God desires good outcomes for us, but those outcomes are achieved through dangerous trials.  "Nice" literally means "know nothing."  Being nice is being imbecilic, not ever asserting yourself, and letting the strong walk all over you.  God is not an imbecile.  He is good but not nice.

Let's look at a few examples from the scriptures on how God desires good for us but not necessarily in a nice way.  We, of course, assign evil motives to God, because in our current day and age we equate nice with good, and so if God isn't nice, then he must not be good.  This is false thinking.  Look at Judas.  Jesus tells Judas to do what he has to do.  Does this mean that Christ directed Judas to betray him?  We don't want to think so, because that wouldn't be nice, but Jesus knows what needs to be the outcome of this betrayal, so the betrayal MUST happen.  Of course, God himself is going to make sure that it does happen.

There's something we don't understand about evil, because the culture feeds us clever villains all the time, like the Joker.  In REAL LIFE, evil is not just the absence of good, it is also the absence of intelligence.  Evil is dumb.  God cannot trust evil to achieve the outcomes he wants, so he has to direct it to a degree.  This does not make God evil.  He is wholly blameless, and the evil party is still completely at fault.  Judas is at fault.  Jesus is not.  What would you rather have running rampant on the earth? Unchecked and undirected evil or evil that is directed by God so that the outcomes are for our good, even if they go through some harsh and dangerous territory?

Joseph told his brothers in Genesis that what they intended for evil, God intended for good.  We know that God got Joseph right to the place he needed him, in command of Egypt, so that the region wouldn't starve.  However, as good little deists, we want to think that God just sat back and HOPED that everything would turn out right.

There are essentially three views of this: there's the straight deism that runs rampant through American Christianity. This is where God sits back on the sidelines and just hopes really hard that we will "get it" and turn to him.  Then there's the idea that God "allows" for evil but doesn't manipulate.  This may as well be straight deism again.  If we want to make God sovereign, we must make him sovereign of ALL.  The third way is the "not nice" directing of evil.  So, Joseph's brothers cannot be trusted to get Joseph to Egypt.  Indeed we read that they almost killed him, but at the last minute they changed their minds and sold him into slavery.  God directed.  God didn't just let go of Joseph and allow random evil from Potiphar's wife, and then take up the reigns again when Joseph was in prison.  He needed to make sure Potiphar's wife played the part correctly.  He needed to make sure Joseph went to the right cell, so that he would meet the cupbearer and breadmaker.  God is the only one who sees the big picture, and he knows how to direct things so that his outcome is reached.  We still have freewill and are therefore responsible for our actions, even when God directs us.

The three readings for today show the effect of God's goodness in our lives:

After this the son of the woman, the mistress of the house, became ill; his illness was so severe that there was no breath left in him. She then said to Elijah, "What have you against me, O man of God? You have come to me to bring my sin to remembrance, and to cause the death of my son!" But he said to her, "Give me your son." He took him from her bosom, carried him up into the upper chamber where he was lodging, and laid him on his own bed. He cried out to the LORD, "O LORD my God, have you brought calamity even upon the widow with whom I am staying, by killing her son?" Then he stretched himself upon the child three times, and cried out to the LORD, "O LORD my God, let this child's life come into him again." The LORD listened to the voice of Elijah; the life of the child came into him again, and he revived. Elijah took the child, brought him down from the upper chamber into the house, and gave him to his mother; then Elijah said, "See, your son is alive." So the woman said to Elijah, "Now I know that you are a man of God, and that the word of the LORD in your mouth is truth." (1 Kings 17:17-24)

For I want you to know, brothers and sisters, that the gospel that was proclaimed by me is not of human origin; for I did not receive it from a human source, nor was I taught it, but I received it through a revelation of Jesus Christ. You have heard, no doubt, of my earlier life in Judaism. I was violently persecuting the church of God and was trying to destroy it. I advanced in Judaism beyond many among my people of the same age, for I was far more zealous for the traditions of my ancestors. But when God, who had set me apart before I was born and called me through his grace, was pleased to reveal his Son to me, so that I might proclaim him among the Gentiles, I did not confer with any human being, nor did I go up to Jerusalem to those who were already apostles before me, but I went away at once into Arabia, and afterwards I returned to Damascus. Then after three years I did go up to Jerusalem to visit Cephas and stayed with him fifteen days; but I did not see any other apostle except James the Lord's brother. In what I am writing to you, before God, I do not lie! Then I went into the regions of Syria and Cilicia, and I was still unknown by sight to the churches of Judea that are in Christ; they only heard it said, "The one who formerly was persecuting us is now proclaiming the faith he once tried to destroy." And they glorified God because of me. (Galatians 1:11-24)

Soon afterwards he went to a town called Nain, and his disciples and a large crowd went with him. As he approached the gate of the town, a man who had died was being carried out. He was his mother's only son, and she was a widow; and with her was a large crowd from the town. When the Lord saw her, he had compassion for her and said to her, "Do not weep." Then he came forward and touched the bier, and the bearers stood still. And he said, "Young man, I say to you, rise!" The dead man sat up and began to speak, and Jesus gave him to his mother. Fear seized all of them; and they glorified God, saying, "A great prophet has risen among us!" and "God has looked favorably on his people!" This word about him spread throughout Judea and all the surrounding country. (Luke 7:11-17)

The first thing God's good achieves is bringing us to faith.  Each of these three passages shows one or more people coming to faith--turning from superstition to true belief in God--because of God's direction.  The woman in Kings is superstitious.  She believes that Elijah CAUSED the death of her son, like a witch doctor.  After the boy is healed and alive again, she understands that Elijah is a man of God and that the Word of Truth is in him.  Paul moves from zealous superstition to belief, and the people who remember how he persecuted Christians come to faith as well. Finally, Jesus' bringing the dead boy back to life moves a population from superstitious belief in a cursed widow to true belief in the one, true God, who desires good for his children.

The second thing God brings about in these three passages is a transition from DEATH to LIFE.  In the Old Testament passage and the Gospel of Luke we see this literally happen.  In the Epistle, Paul testifies to how he was dead in his sins.  He was as dead to God as it is possible to be.  And yet God brought him back to life.  Furthermore, God had chosen him from the beginning.  Just because Paul had spent over half of his life in opposition to God didn't make him any less God's.  Paul was a level 3: he was a scoffer who not only sinned against God but encouraged others to sin against God, and yet he was God's own from the beginning.

The third thing that comes from God's goodness is MERCY.  When the widow in Kings accuses Elijah of killing her son, Elijah takes the boy's body upstairs and immediately asks God why GOD killed the boy.  Did God kill the boy?  Yes, Elijah is right.  We can't just assign providence to God and then, when we don't like the outcome, assign it to random chance.  God ordains death.  It is a curse that comes with fall, but it is also a mercy.  Why did God kick Adam and Eve out of the garden?  To be mean?  It wasn't very nice.  Was it for their own good?  Yes!  If they ate from the tree of life, they would live forever, as sinful, fallen people.  There would be no hope.  There would be no way out of the mess we got ourselves into.  God had mercy on us and gave us death.  We are sanctified in this life, but are we ever completely sanctified?  No.  Not until we pass through the veil of death will we be worthy to stand in the Father's presence.  We should not fear death, because it is the transition from this temporary, fleeting life to the real, imperishable, everlasting life on the other side.

We shouldn't fear death, but we should fear God.  He is good but he is not safe.  He is not nice, but he is LOVE, self-sacrificing, agape love.  He ordained the death of his own son, not because he was mean and evil but because he was good.  He used the wicked world to achieve it, and the wicked world is to blame, but the father needed Christ's death to happen EXACTLY the way it did, to save us from our sins and become children of God.  He couldn't leave it up to the wicked to get Jesus on that cross.  They may have cut his throat in the square, and then we would have no hope.  Fear God, because he is good, and he has the most wonderful outcome planned for his children, but if we think of him as nice, we lose faith, we lose life, we lose his mercy.