Wednesday, March 23, 2005

The Culture of Death

Perhaps you’ve been following the Terri Shaivo case. Its been in the news constantly for the past two weeks. Unless the Supreme Court takes immediate action, which is unlikely, Terri may be dead by the time you read this.

Numerous times, I’ve gone with families through some of their most difficult decisions. Some of those involved continuing or discontinuing life support for a loved one. When asked, I have always counseled for life but not necessarily prolonging life by extraordinary means.

What constitutes prolonging life by extraordinary means? In my view, extraordinary measures are those which artificially prolong life. Today’s technology permits doctors to artificially prolong life when, by all measures, the individual’s brain functions are gone and only a respirator maintains life. When faced with a decision about “pulling the plug,” I’ve advised families to make that decision with the counsel and advice of a qualified physician. At the same time, I’ve counseled them to provide for life’s absolute necessities – food, water, and access to air. A feeding tube is not an artificial measure. If one is to err, it should always be in favor of life!

I am shocked to discover that 70% of the American populace says this woman should die. In spite of the fact there is ample testimony that Terri responds to stimuli, seems to recognize others, and attempts to speak, the overwhelming majority accept the decision to “pull the plug.” Qualified professionals disagree on Terri’s viability, but at the root of the issue is the belief that since Terri will never fully recover she should be allowed to pass on. We are told by her husband that she did not wish to have her life prolonged artificially. In most courts of law, such testimony is hearsay since there is no written “living will.” Nonetheless, her husband, who has had a long standing relationship with another woman complete with children, wants her out of the way. For him, Terri is now just a nuisance and a hindrance to the life he wants to live.

Here are a couple of facts for you to consider. First, death is no friend. The Bible describes death as an enemy (1 Corinthians 15:27). Death is the specific punishment for sin (Genesis 2:17, 3:19; Romans 3:23). Although the Christian has no reason to fear death, the unbeliever does and should!

Second, human life is precious because God created humans in his image (Genesis 1:27). Only humans bear God’s image. Only human life is sacred.

Third, God demonstrates the special value of human life when he decrees the punishment for murder (Genesis 9:6). This is a “Creation Ordinance” and applies to all humanity for all time. The only just and appropriate punishment for the willful non-judicial taking of human life (murder) is the forfeiture of the murderer’s life. Why? Because man is made in God’s image!

Fourth, God states the value of human life in the sixth commandment (Exodus 20:13). The commandment says, “You shall not murder.”

Fifth, Solomon insists any life is preferable to death. In Ecclesiastes 9:4 he says, “Anyone who is among the living has hope – even a live dog is better off than a dead lion!”

In my opinion, our culture has become “a culture of death.” There is little respect for human life as evidenced in the abortion rate and the growing acceptance of euthanasia for the terminally ill. There is only one reason for this as far as I can see. Our culture has pounded the humanistic and naturalistic theory of evolution in our heads until most of us accept the idea that we are nothing more than animals – more intelligent than some – resulting from chance plus time. If humans are little more than a mass of protoplasm from the cradle to the grave, why not extinguish or eliminate that which is imperfect, inconsequential, or inconvenient? Such thinking is vaguely reminiscent of what the world heard from Hitler and his scientists in the 1930s as they pressed for the development of the “Master Race.”

Tuesday, March 22, 2005

Remission of Sins

Over the past few years doctrines surrounding the important biblical subject of the remission of sins has been consistently weakened. Today's healthy emphasis on the importance of faith in the salvation process is helpful and refreshing.

In previous submissions to this blog, I have noted that pendulum swings tend to occur in the churches with regularity. As noted in the previous blog, the pendulum swings between evangelism and edification. The pendulum swings between the Restoration Movement's twin purposes -- unity and truth. Now I fear the pendulum is swinging between faith and baptism.

Not too long ago, many brethren were recapitulating the errors of Dr. John Thomas. You can read about him in the 1836 volume of the Millennial Harbinger. I'm sure there's much said about him in other volumes, but that's as far as I've gotten in my project to read all of this important publication. Thomas was guilty of several errors, but one of them had to do with baptism. He taught that Baptists and others had to be reimmersed because their profession of faith was incomplete. In addition, Thomas seemed to vest some almost magical quality to the water. In a series of articles, Alexander Campbell clearly expressed his disagreement with Thomas's approach. Campbell agreed that Baptists did not correctly understand the purpose of baptism, but they did understand the candidate and mode. Carl Ketcherside used to say, "They may not know the purpose of baptism but God does!"

My point is that when the pendulum swings too far in one direction, baptism becomes the "end-all-be-all" of salvation. The best place to see this portrayed is in the "Lunenberg Letter" which appeared in the 1837 volume of the Millennial Harbinger. The "good"lady of Lunenberg wanted to know why Campbell would dare to suggest that a Presbyterian might be saved. Her letter evidenced that for her immersion in water was everything.

Today the doctrine of baptism for the remission of sins is weakened until it reflects the popular evangelical (Baptist) view. That is, that baptism is something you do after God saves you. In fact, the way I read many church web sites, one is unsure if baptism is important. You must be immersed to be a member of the church (a local congregation), but the purpose of baptism is unclear. In most cases, I would like to think that those in leadership understand the importance of baptism for the remission of sins. If it is still believed, it is well camouflaged. I think there is often a conscious decision to camouflage what the Bible clearly teaches because of an unfounded fear that potential attenders and members -- many who come from evangelical backgrounds -- will think the church teaches baptismal regeneration.

The fact is that Walter Scott and Alexander Campbell, as well as most early restorationists, had no qualms about boldly speaking out on baptism for the remission of sins. Relying heavily on Acts 2:38 and Mark 16:16, they unequivocally taught that the purpose for baptism was the remission of sins. There was no doubt, there was no camouflaging of the language, no equivocation. They taught that faith (the belief of testimony) led to conviction and repentance and then, based on one's confession of faith, baptism occurred which resulted in the remission of sins and the gift of the Holy Spirit. Furthermore, that's exactly what the Bible teaches.

A few popular preachers and writers in today's church have said, "Well, we don't really know when God chooses to save a person." On occasion, the salvation process is compared to a wedding. The questions are asked: "Is a person married when they get engaged?" "Is a person married when they take their vows?" "Is a person married when they physically consummate the union?" The answer to all these questions is, "It isn't important! Once the wedding is over, we all celebrate with the couple." So the questions are: "Is faith important?" "Is repentance important?" "Is confession important?" "Is baptism important?" "When are they saved?" And the answer is given, "It isn't important! We just rejoice with the born again individual."

That's just not what God says! God's Word says you are "saved by grace" (Eph. 2:8). No one can be saved by their own effort and no volume of good works will earn God's acceptance. Salvation is solely by grace. God's Word says you are saved "through faith" (Eph. 2:8). The Greek word translated "through" can also mean "because of." You are "saved because of your faith." Nothing is said about any idea that you are saved at the moment of your faith. God's Word says you are saved "at baptism" (Acts 2:38). It is at the moment of water baptism that the believer who confesses his trust in Jesus (Rom. 10:9) receives the remission of sins and the gift of the indwelling presence of the Holy Spirit. Other passages support this view: Acts 22:16, Galatians 3:27 and a lot more (look'em up).

Our evangelical friends protest: You are baptized in the Holy Spirit and he washes you clean not the water. So! What's the point. Are there two different baptisms? One baptism, according to the evangelical, occurs at the moment of faith when Holy Spirit baptism occurs. (Give me a book, chapter, and verse for that! Any reference to time is "read into" the Scripture.) The other baptism, according to the evangelical, is water baptism that occurs later as a testimony to what has already happened. (Give me a book, chapter, and verse that too. That's a deduction or an inference, not a clear biblical teaching.) According to Ephesians 4:5, there is only one baptism. There is no precedent for identifying that one baptism as the baptism of the Holy Spirit and there is no precedent for suggesting that such baptism occurs at any other time than simultaneous with water baptism! Only when the washing of the Spirit is simultaneous with water baptism can there be any understanding of one baptism. At the time of one's immersion in water that occurs in the material realm, the Holy Spirit is providing the washing of regeneration that occurs in the spiritual realm. It is one act! In that regard, and only that regard, can water baptism be seen as an "outward act that expresses the inner reality."

Is there any biblical teaching that suggests this? Yes. Jesus told Nicodemus that he could be born again when he is "born of water and the Spirit" (John 3:5). Evangelicals protest that this is a reference to physical birth and spiritual birth. Oh! How so? Why, since Nicodemus was standing there, would Jesus say that to be born again he had to undergo physical birth? I agree with Bishop Westcott who said, "It can ... scarcely be questioned that as Nicodemus heard the words, water carried with it a reference to John's baptism, which was a divinely appointed rite, gathering up into itself and investing with a new importance all the lustral baptism of the Jews: the spirit, on the other hand, marked that inward power which John placed in contrast with his own baptism. Thus, the words taken in their immediate meaning as intelligible to Nicodemus, set forth, as required before entrance into the kingdom of God, te acceptance of the preliminary rite divinely sanctioned, which was the seal of repentance and so of forgiveness, and following on this the communciation of a new life, resulting from the direct action of the Holy Spirit through Christ. ... They look forward to the fulness of the Christian dispensation, when after the Resurrection the baptism of water was no longer separated from, but united with, the baptism of the spirit in the 'laver of regeneration' (Titus 3:5, comp. Eph. 5:26), even as the outward and the inward are united generally in a religion wich is sacramental and not only typical. Christian baptism, the outward act of faith welcoming the promise of God, is incorporation into the Body of Christ, and so the birth of the Spirit is potentially united with the birth of water" (Gospel According to John, p. 50).

Someone may also respond, Alexander Campbell didn't seem to think water baptism was all that important. After all, he recognized those sprinkled as Christians. This question arises out of Campbell's responses to the lady from Lunenberg. In a previous article to the series called "The Lunenberg Letter," Campbell had identified Presbyterians and others who sprinkle as Chrsitians. Our brethren in the Disciples of Christ latched on to this and instituted the concept of "Open Membership" sometime back in the early part of the last century.

The fact is, Campbell was merely recognizing an important biblical truth: God judges on the basis of one's ability to know. When speaking at Capernaum, Jesus said, "If the things that were done here were done at Tyre and Sideon, they would have repented. Therefore, it will be easier for them in the judgment (my paraphrase)." This provides us with a biblical precedent. Those with greater knowledge and opportunity to know have greater responsibility. Jesus does not say those in Tyre and Sidon would be "saved," he merely says God will be more tolerant toward them because of their ignorance and lesser opporunities.

Campbell then enunciated an opinion. It was his opinion that someone erroneously taught about such things as water baptism could be saved, provided they put their absolute confidence in Christ. This was one of the strongest of opinions shared by early restorationists. Before coming to an understanding of the importance of baptism, Thomas Campbell had written in the "Declaration and Address" that the only things necessary to becoming a Christian is to confess Christ and obey him in all things according to their understanding. In other words, God may choose to save a person with genuine faith provided they have demonstrated that faith to the extent of their understanding.

I share that opinion. But the honest truth is, I don't know what Go may choose to do. The only way one can have assurance that God will save them is to do all that he commands. That means that when one comes to understand that baptism is immersion in water for the remission of sins, they should respond in humble submission and obedience. It is my opinion that God may choose to save those who were mistaught or who misunderstood through no fault of their own. (One must recognize the influence of teachers and preachers whom one hears and trusts.) If one is taught throughout their whole "Christian" experience that baptism is sprinkling, it is difficult for them to read anything else in Scripture but "sprinkling" when they see the word "baptism" for it is rarely translated as "immerse."

Let me go one step farther, however! You cand I have the responsibility to correctly teach -- to the best of our own limited knowledge and ability -- the truth of God. Therefore, God has not given you or I any right to camouflage or reduce the importance of baptism for the remission of sins. We have no right to soften or change biblical teaching to make biblical truth more palatable or acceptable. Our task is "to preach the Word," to preach it honestly, to preach it accurately, and to let God and our hearers produce the results.

What God may do is up to him. What he has said he would do is to graciously receive those who trust Jesus fully, who turn away from their sins, and are baptized into Christ for the remission of sins. Such individuals are promised -- promised, mind you -- the "gift of the Holy Spirit."

Monday, March 21, 2005

Healthy Churches

I first heard Bob Russell speak during a North American Christian Convention. Since that day, I have followed his ministry with interest and admiration. No "ifs," "ands," or "buts," God has used him to build a great church. Over the years I've stolen sermon ideas from Bob. His tapes and written pieces instruct me and help me in my own ministry. I've had the opportunity to know him personally and I've always found him gracious and insightful.

With that in mind, Bob has an article entitled "A Healthy Church" in the March 27 "Lookout." As usual, he is right on target. He says, "A healthy church puts a proper emphasis on both evangelism and edification. When the pendulum swings too far to one side or the other the church loses its equilibrium and becomes unbalanced and unhealthy." As the article progresses, Bob notes that large churches are accused of being "a mile wide an and inch deep." (I can't for the life of me think of anyone who said such a thing! Sarcasm noted!)

For all of the centuries of its existence, there has been tension over the question, Is the church for the many or the few? One form of the question focuses on the tension between reaching the lost and teaching the saved. It is a natural tension stemming from the Great Commission itself. After all, Jesus told his followers to "go make disciples" and "teach them...." Over the centuries, one can see a cycle of expansion and contraction. During the times of expansion, the church is effectively reaching the lost. Times of contraction are usually times when the church is solidifying its gains through teaching. I will admit, too, that contraction also occurs when the church is under duress, but the careful observer will see the pendulum swinging between outreach and teaching.

What I have called for is a balancing of the pendulum -- stopping the swing. A healthy church will see both outreach and edification. In my view, however, the emphasis for the last score of years has been and remains outreach. Is that bad? Not at all, but if there is little or no effective teaching of both content and application there is the danger of making Christians who are every bit as worldly as those added during the Middle Ages by conquest or people movements. Charlemagne "won" thousands with a sword at their throat who were told, "Convert or die!" At that point those defeated foes replied, "No one ever explained the Gospel to me so clearly!" The difference today is that instead of incorporating people by force, we win too many to a kind of "culture Christianity" that makes few demands, provides little discipline, and certainly downplays discipleship.

I'm not sure how you measure balance in a church. Southeast Christian Church regularly counts 18,000 in weekend worship but fewer than 5,000 are in weekend Bible classes (according to the last statistics I saw). I'm not being critical, I'm just stating a fact. Perhaps another thousand or more are in small groups, but as I've maintained before, you rarely teach biblical content in a small group. SECC is not unusual. Most of our mega-churches have less than 40% in a weekend Bible class. Many have no Bible classes for adults at all! Where is the balance in that?

It is sad to see congregations where "the unbeliever has no entry point and the church goes for months without anyone being born again." Bob is right when he says "the result [of that] is not a body of spiritually mature Christians but a bunch of disgruntled, borning, self-righteous, bickering old coots." (Now that I minister in Sun City, I'm a bit sensitive to any identification of "old coots.")

It is just as sad to see huge congregations of worldly Christians where excitement is king but the message of transformation and discipleship makes little impact. From my experience, that does not happen at Southeast but it does happen elsewhere. When references to the gathering for worship are casually clled "the show" and performance is key you have to ask what is going on. Is this time set aside for genuine worship or is it merely another attraction for seekers?

Bob wrote, "A church without any baby Christians lacks joy and fervor. It's boring! The long-time members aren't deepening -- they're often stagnating and instinctively sense something is wrong. New believers make church work thrilling and refreshing." Right on! I would agree with that. Here, however, there is a "but." If a church focuses on "the show" and makes little provision for "deepening the life" they can become like the Corinthians to whom Paul said, "I could not write unto you as spiritual but as to worldly -- mere infants in Christ" (1 Corinthians 3:1).

My point is that we have come to a place in our history where we no longer believe biblical content is important. Few of us can preach the "meaty" messages a Bob Russell preaches. Most of the time, mega-church preachers focus on the "practical" and the "self-help" message. As congregations build their new superstructures to house the mega-church, they are investing thousands upon thousands of dollars in theatrical lighting, sound, and high-tech special effects with comparative little on facilities for Christian education and discipleship. How a church spends its money demonstrates its commitment. In years gone by, churches spent most of their money on themselves for their own comfort and upon facilities where effective teaching could take place (not that it always did). Now the pendulum has swing. When Maryland Community Church in Terre Haute built its new facility it made no provision for adult education space and it released the minister responsible for that program. A congregation in Evansville, Indiana, made no provision for adult education in its new facility intending to depend on small groups. First Christian Church in Canton, a church built to greatness through the Sunday School, is reducing the availability of meeting rooms for adult classes and plans to consolidate classes. These examples are just the "tip of the iceberg."

We are at a place in our history where the church may be swallowed by culture if we are not careful. In my view, a healthy church is a growing church but it is also a feeding church. When I look at the growing list of mega-churches, I rejoice! But I also tremble at the tremendous responsibility these churches have to truly "make disciples" of all those reached. It is not an "either, or" but a "both, and" responsibility Christ gave to his followers. Let's never quit focusing on winning new people, but let's never forget that Jesus didn't tell us just to go "baptize heathens" but to "make disciples" and making disciples requires a lot more than spinning turnstiles, splashing water, and people streaming down the aisle! It will require an investment in time, talent, and treasure to get the job done!