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Social Justice: Social Gospel? | September / October 2011 Modern Reformation

Social Justice: Social Gospel?
September / October 2011

In this issue, we shift gears in Matthew 28:18-20, taking up an important discussion of the gospel and social justice. We believe that a Reformation understanding of law and gospel, two-kingdoms theology, and the uniqueness of the task given by God to the church should be brought to bear on this sometimes controversial topic. Our editor-in-chief Michael Horton helps us recognize that the commission and the commandment each has its own logic, means, and application, and that these differences must be recognized so that each one can flourish as God intends. Seminary professor David VanDrunen explains the difference between the church as an institution with offices and means of grace and the church as an organism, or a community of faith and life. Next, Kim Riddlebarger, pastor of Christ Reformed Church in Anaheim and White Horse Inn co-host, spells out the debates concerning eschatology—in particular, amillennialism—that frequently underwrite discussions about the role of the church in relation to culture. Then another White Horse Inn co-host, Ken Jones, also pastor of Glendale Missionary Baptist Church, offers a well-informed discussion of the black church and social justice. And when it comes to realistic strategies for making a difference in this world and loving one’s neighbor, Tim Blackmon—a Christian Reformed minister who serves at the American Protestant Church of The Hague in the Netherlands—encourages us to recover the lost art of hospitality. Finally, looking in passages of Scripture at examples of Jesus’ miracles and service to the poor, Presbyterian pastor Jon Payne reminds us that these events function first as testimonies to Christ’s true status as God’s Messiah.

As you peruse this issue, remember that the gospel alone is the power of God unto salvation. Christ’s liberality and merciful charity to us on the cross does indeed have the power to inspire us to grateful lives of service to the poor and the weak. But remember the words of Lee Iacocca when it concerns the mission of the church, “Keep the main thing the main thing.”

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Basic Apologetics: How can Jesus be the only way?

William Cwirla (LCMS): At issue is the “scandal of particularity,” that Jesus alone is the way, the truth, and the life, and that “no one comes to the Father except by him” (John 14:6). Statements like these would be hubris at best, insanity at worst, except for the fact that Jesus died on a cross and bodily rose from the dead.

This is why the Apostle Paul makes the bodily resurrection of Jesus as an historic fact the lynchpin of his apologetic. “If Christ has not been raised, your faith is futile and you are still in your sins” (1 Cor. 15:17). If Jesus did not rise bodily from the dead, we could not be sure of any of his claims or the claims of his apostles. They could easily be the work of madmen or ambitious religious zealots. The bodily resurrection of Jesus, an historic fact established by the testimony of eyewitnesses who saw him, touched him, heard him, ate with him, validates Jesus’ claim to be the way, the truth, and the life.

The Buddha didn’t rise from the dead; Mohammed didn’t rise from the dead. No one else but Jesus died and rose. This means we have to take all of his claims seriously, or we will be living in denial of a plain fact of history.

What often lies behind this question is failure to apprehend the paradox that salvation in Christ is both inclusive and exclusive at the same time, and so people charge God with being “unfair.” Jesus is the inclusive Savior of the world, the Lamb of God who takes away the sin of the world, who drew all into his death when he was lifted up on the cross. “He is the expiation for our sins, and not for ours only but also for the sins of the whole world” (1 John 2:2). At the same time, Jesus is exclusively the Savior of the world; the world has no other Savior because the world has no other death that atones for sin.

Michael Brown (URC): The Bible is very clear about the exclusivity of Christianity. Jesus said, “I am the way, the truth and the life. No one comes to the Father except through me” (John 14:6). The apostles subsequently preached this same message: “And there is salvation in no one else, for there is no other name under heaven given among men by which we must be saved” (Acts 4:12). But this is precisely what many people in our culture find so scandalous and offensive about Christianity. An objector will often ask, “But isn’t God pleased with the person who lives a good, moral life and sincerely tries to do what is right even if he doesn’t come to God through Jesus Christ? What happens to that person when he dies?”

The answer, according to Scripture, is very simple: the person who truly lives a good and moral life does not need to come to God through Christ at all. A good person is in no danger of God’s judgment and needs no Savior. He has nothing to worry about; when he dies he will go directly to heaven on his own merit.

But the question is not what happens to good people when they die; rather, the question is: What happens to guilty people when they die? The problem is that the standard of goodness and morality is not our own, but God’s, and he demands perfection! Says Paul in Romans 2:13: “For it is not the hearers of the law who are righteous before God, but the doers of the law.” This is something that only Christ has achieved. No one except Jesus has lived a good and moral life that is acceptable to God. This is Paul’s whole argument in Romans 1:18-3:20, namely, that everyone has sinned against God and the whole world is under his wrath. Thus, there are no good people. Our own righteous deeds are not good enough for a holy God who must, by his very nature, demand a righteousness as good as his own. This is what makes Christ the only way to salvation: he is the only true doer of the law. He is the only one who has kept the law perfectly, satisfying all its demands for those who believe (see Rom. 8:1-4).

Still, one might object: But if Jesus is the only way, what about the natives in the deep jungles of South America who have never heard of Jesus? How can God judge people for rejecting Jesus if they have never heard of Jesus?

Again, the biblical answer is rather simple. God will not and cannot punish someone for rejecting Christ who has never heard of Christ. That would be unjust and there is no injustice in God. A person is not condemned for rejecting Jesus of whom they have never heard. Rather, they are condemned for rejecting the Father who has made himself clear to the whole world (see Rom. 1:19-20).

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Basic Apologetics: “I think all paths lead to God”

William Cwirla (LCMS): When people say things like that, I always like to ask, “On what basis do you think that? What evidence can you put forward that this statement is true?”

It is true that all religious paths, save one, lead to the same place, but that place isn’t God. All religions, save one, hold that you must work your way to God, whether by your creeds, your conduct, or your worship. This is essentially the religion of the Law, something that all religions, save one, have in common.

The statement presupposes that we are on a search for God, much like a hiking trip through the mountains, and whether we take the high road or the low, we will all ultimately wind up in the same place. Buddhism essentially works this way, and even a surprising number of Christians have been caught up into believing this notion that all paths lead to God as long as you sincerely follow your chosen path.

The path is not ours to define but God’s. Jesus pointed out that the way to destruction is broad, and no one has trouble finding that road, while the way to life is exceedingly narrow, and those who find it are few (Matt. 7:13-14). Christianity is the only religion that is really a non-religion, in the sense that we don’t work to God but God comes all the way to us. “But God, who is rich in mercy, out of the great love with which he loved us, even when we were dead through our trespasses, made us alive together with Christ (by grace you have been saved), and raised us up with him, and made us sit with him in the heavenly places in Christ Jesus” (Eph. 2:4-6). God in Christ does it all.

The narrow door Jesus was speaking of is the narrow door of his own death. We would not seek this door on our own, much less find it. Who in their right minds would construct a religion out of an all-sufficient, all-atoning sacrificial death of the Son of God in which the sinner is justified before God? To the wisdom of the world, this is utter nonsense, not to mention bad for morality in general. That’s why from start to finish, God must do the work of salvation for us. We would not have it this way on our own.

As with everything else in Christianity, it all hangs on the death and resurrection of Jesus. While it is theoretically possible that there are other ways for a sinner to stand justified before God, God has not revealed any. Instead, he sent his only begotten Son who claimed to be the only way to the Father (John 14:6). On its own, that might be an outrageous example of hubris on the part of Jesus. But then, he’s the only One who died and rose bodily from the dead. We’re going to have to take his word on that one.

Jason Stellman (PCA): Well, in a certain sense it is true that all paths lead to God. The Bible teaches that all people, great and small, rich and poor, will stand before their Maker. The problem isn’t getting to God, it’s being accepted by him.

Many today feel that God will happily receive all who stand before him with a smile and a warm hug (R. C. Sproul jokingly calls this view “Justification by Death”). But if we take a few moments to consider who this God is, it becomes necessary to reevaluate our position and question our confidence.

Let’s use the realm of civic justice as an illustration. Suppose there were a judge in a certain town who was known for being an accepting, gregarious fellow in private, and his magnanimous personality spilled over into his work. So when thieves, murderers, and kidnappers stand before him, he just can’t help but love them and let them off with a small slap on the wrist. If this were to happen over and over, the town would rise up and demand justice, wouldn’t they? And rightly so. We all have an inherent sense of right and wrong (which really flares up when we’re the ones wronged!) which tells us that criminals should be punished.

But whatever sense of justice and fairness we share as humans beings is there because we have been made in God’s image. If we think evil should be punished, how much more true is this when we consider God and his standards, his holiness, and his judgment? God is infinitely more pure, just, and offended at sin than we, and therefore his very nature demands that sinners be punished for their actions.

The good news, of course, is that God is also infinitely more gracious and merciful than we, and for this reason he has sent his Son into the world to walk in our shoes, live the life we have failed to live, and die the death that our sins demand. So though it is true that “all paths lead to God,” it is also true that only one of those paths leads to forgiveness and blessing. All others lead to eternal destruction.

From Modern Reformation (March/April 2006): Does God Believe in Atheists?

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Basic Apologetics: How can God exist when there is so much evil and pain in the world?

William Cwirla (LCMS): The problem of suffering (theodicy) is really a matter of the clay critiquing the work of the potter. The question lays a moral problem at God’s feet and then questions the existence of God. “Evil” implies “good” and our ability to discern the difference. Without an external objective standard of good and evil, we would have no ability to speak of evil in the world. Therefore, to call the existence of God into question on account of the presence of evil in the world presupposes a higher standard of the good against which to judge what is and isn’t evil.

The question presupposes that God should run the universe according to our set of rules. If we were God, we wouldn’t permit the presence of evil in the world. This is an anthropocentric view of the universe, as though everything that causes us suffering is necessarily evil.

The question fails to take into account the presence of sin and its cosmic effects. The fall of Adam not only plunged humanity into sin, it also disrupted the inherent harmony of the created order (Rom. 8:18-25). Pain and suffering exists because the inherent harmony of creation has been messed up by sin. Even when human beings don’t have a direct hand in the cause of suffering, say an earthquake or a hurricane, it is nevertheless due to the disruption of creation’s order by sin.

So what is God to do? One thing he doesn’t do, at least on a regular basis, is intervene. He doesn’t block bullets from finding their targets; he doesn’t turn hurricanes away from cities; he doesn’t necessarily keep a meteor from plummeting through the roof of your house. Instead, he restores order to the cosmos by reconciling all things to himself in the death of his Son Jesus Christ (2 Cor. 5:18-19) and bringing all things together under a new Head of creation (Eph. 1:10). In Christ, the God who suffers, “evil” and pain are ultimately employed for good, trumped by the all-reconciling death of Jesus.

We run into trouble with the question of evil and suffering when we attempt to address it apart from the cross of Jesus Christ. Then the discussion becomes a philosophical abstraction, pitting God’s mercy and love against his omniscience and power. The cross of Jesus silences these speculations. Here the Innocent One suffers on behalf of guilty humanity; here God himself bears the ultimate injustice and evil in his own crucifixion which he makes the reconciliation of all things. Jesus Christ, the second Adam and the new Head of creation, sets the disordered universe back into order by his own dying and rising, gathering all things into his death (John 12:32).

In Christ, there is no problem of evil and suffering, for “in all things God works for good with those who love him, who are called according to his purpose” (Rom. 8:28). The existence of God is not negated by the presence of evil. Rather, the presence of evil demonstrates the cosmic reality of sin, ultimately reconciled once and for all in the death of Jesus Christ.

Michael Brown (URC): First, we must understand that God did not create the world evil. The Bible reveals to us that God made all things good. He created humans in true righteousness and holiness. He crowned them with glory and honor and gave them dominion over the works of his hands. Violence, sorrow, and death were not part of man’s original experience; he only knew the blessing of life in God’s good earth. It was not until Adam sinned against God and broke the covenant into which he was placed that the horror of evil, pain, and death came to be a regular part of existence in this world. As a result of the fall, God could have judged the world immediately and plunged all of mankind into the eternal punishment we rightly deserve. It is only because of his great grace that he chose to redeem a people out of this fallen and dark world. That is why this age of suffering continues: God is gathering in his elect until the Last Day. We have the confidence that God is in fact doing this because he sent Christ his Son “who gave himself for our sins to deliver us from the present evil age” (Gal. 1:4a).

Second, we must understand that while this present evil age continues, God oversees all things by his providence, that is, his constant interaction and intervention with the world he has made. He not only preserves his creatures, but is directing everything to its appointed end, “work[ing] all things according to the counsel of his will” (Eph. 1:11b). He even uses the evil acts of men for his own purpose and glory. Yet, he does so while remaining free from and the just judge of evil. It is this understanding of providence that led Joseph to declare to his brothers who sinned against him: “you meant evil against me, but God meant it for good” (Gen. 50:20a). What this shows us is that God is both good and sovereign. We are comforted to know that he is always in control and that, as the Heidelberg Catechism puts it, “whatever evil he sends upon me in this vale of tears he will turn to my good; for he is able to do, being Almighty God, and willing also, being a faithful Father” (Q. 26).

Finally, we must understand that the story is not over. Just as this world was once free from evil and pain in the beginning, so shall it be again when the King returns. Paradise lost will be paradise restored, only infinitely greater. This universe will be resurrected to fit the glory of the age to come-an age in which God has promised to dwell with his people and forever keep them from pain, suffering, and evil. As we read in the final chapters of the Bible: “He will dwell with them, and they will be his people, and God himself will be with them as their God. He will wipe away every tear from their eyes, and death shall be no more, neither shall there be mourning nor crying nor pain anymore, for the former things have passed away” (Rev. 21:3b-4).

Jason Stellman (PCA): One philosopher claimed that there are many arguments against God’s existence, but this is the only good one! There are a couple ways to approach this question. But before I start apologizing on God’s behalf and defending his actions, we must remember who it is we’re talking about here: the all wise, all powerful, good, and loving God.

We need to be reminded of this because our sinful temptation is to think that God has gotten himself stuck in a corner and we need to reason him out of it. But this is the height of arrogance. “Let God be true,” Paul insisted, “and every man a liar.” God doesn’t need us to get him off the hook! This is crucial to remember: There’s no hook on which God can get stuck from which we must rescue him. If there is a hook, it is we who are stuck on it, not God.

C. S. Lewis used to object to God’s existence for this same reason (all the evil in the world). But then he realized something that many today have never wrestled with: How do I know things are evil or bad? His conclusion was that, in order to be able to recognize evil, he must have some standard of “good” against which he measures everything else. To use his illustration, one cannot recognize a crooked line unless he first has some concept of a straight one. But if there is no God, the very objection to evil loses its force, for if the universe is nothing but the result of random chance, then evil could never be recognized as such.

So that leaves us with the uncomfortable conclusion that there is a God, and this God allows (and in some way ordains) that evil things occur. What do we do with this? I think it is at this point that eschatology becomes very practical. The story into which we have been written is not just a tale about a Shepherd whose sheep got lost and remained that way. Rather, the Christian story is about a God who went to such great lengths to redeem his fallen ones that he sent his own Son to live, die, and rise again for them. Though we are still living in a period of delay, the promise remains that this same Lord Jesus will descend from heaven and put all things right. To Adam it seemed as if Paradise was lost. To us, Paradise feels postponed (though we presently experience it in part). But from God’s perspective and according to his testimony, Paradise has been regained, and the day will come when a new heaven and new earth will descend, and the former things-such as evil and pain-will be remembered no more.

So my point is this: the problem of evil cannot be abstracted from the rest of the story God is telling and considered on its own. All good drama needs a point of crisis, for without this the ending doesn’t appear nearly as glorious.

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Christianity in America: A Roundtable Discussion

With J. I. Packer, James M. Boice, Richard Halverson, William Pannell and Michael S. Horton

HORTON: Do you think the complaint that evangelicals in this day and age are shallow and superficial is justified?

BOICE: Yes, I would agree with that complaint. For various reasons I think we are contributing to the very thing we ought to be working against. One reason is that we are so preoccupied with numbers. We’re so interested in getting people to make a profession that we often forget to take the time to explain the content of what it is they are about to profess. I notice, by contrast, that our Lord himself never did that. If anything, he seemed to be afraid of numbers. When the numbers got too high, he asked the tough questions, questions that would weed out those who were following only because it was simply the most exciting thing of the hour to do.

PACKER: I think this is right. There is such a thing as cultural Christianity, a Christianity that only goes skin deep and is taken in because it is part of the culture of your home or the group to which you belong. What you receive in this case, you receive by osmosis, rather than by any sort of thinking. When the time comes and the tough questions are asked your mind begins to wake up and you realize that all you’ve got is the veneer of a “Christian lifestyle” without any deeply rooted convictions at all. Culture Christianity is always a problem at this point. Those who have received it think that they are Christians because of the way that they have been conditioned, when in many cases they still have been converted.

PANNELL: What we have failed to do in many of our Christian circles is to present in a stimulating way real biblical questions. Today, people tend to think that you can go to church, be a Christian, and get along best if you leave your mind in the glove compartment.

HORTON: Could it be that we have a cheap and limited view of God and his grace?

HALVERSON: I certainly think we’ve lost that sense of awe when we talk about God in our modern evangelical culture. I don’t sense awe in many of the evangelical gatherings that I have attended. I have a feeling, for example, that if Jesus was to walk into one of our churches or conventions, that we wouldn’t want to stand up and cheer and sing “For He’s a Jolly Good Fellow.” I think we should fall immediately to our knees in an attitude of worship. However, today I think we tend to equate noise with praise and worship and that troubles me a great deal (see Amos 5:21-24).

PACKER: I think you’ve hit on something fairly basic here. I think of the two pans of an old fashioned pair of scales. If one goes up, the other goes down. Once upon a time folks new that God was great and that man by comparison was small. Each individual carried around a sense of his own smallness in the greatness of God’s world. However, the scale pans are in a different relation today. Man has risen in his own estimation. He thinks of himself as great, grand and marvelously resourceful. This means inevitably that our thoughts about God have shrunk. As God goes down in our estimation, He gets smaller. He also exists now only for our pleasure, our convenience and our health, rather than we existing for His glory.

Now, I’m an old fashioned Christian and I believe that we exist for the glory of God. So the first thing I always want to do in any teaching of Christianity is to attempt to try and get those scale pans reversed. I want to try and show folks that God is the one of central importance. We exist for His praise, to worship Him, and find our joy and fulfillment in Him; therefore He must have all the glory. God is great and He must be acknowledged as great. I think there is a tremendous difference between the view that God saves us and the idea that we save ourselves with God’s help. Formula number two fits the modern idea, while formula number one, as I read my Bible, is scriptural. We do not see salvation straight until we recognize that from first to last it is God’s work. He didn’t need to save us. He owed us nothing but damnation after we sinned. What he does, though, is to move in mercy. He sends us a Savior and His Holy Spirit into our hearts to bring us to faith in that Savior. Then He keeps us in that faith and brings us to His glory. It is His work from beginning to end. God saves sinners. It does, of course, put us down very low. It is that aspect of the gospel that presents the biggest challenge to the modern viewpoint. But we must not forget that it also sets God up very high. It reveals to us a God who is very great, very gracious and very glorious. A God who is certainly worthy of our worship.

PANNELL: I’m always impressed with the conversation that Jesus had with some of his contemporaries when they asked, “What can we do that we might do the works of God?” The assumption being that whatever God laid on them, they could handle. Jesus responded by saying, “This is the work of God, that you believe on Him who He has sent.” They could no more swallow that than they could any of the other teachings of Jesus. This one stuck in their minds and I think the reason for that is because it lays upon God all the burden of being Savior. And that is just un-American. To think that we would need someone outside ourselves to save us is in violation of the spirit of American independence.

HORTON: Could that be why we don’t frequently hear the preaching of the cross in evangelical churches? If we do hear the cross, it’s only in terms of how much God loves us, but we never really hear why the cross was actually necessary.

PACKER: Well, before we ever start talking about the cross showing us the love of God, we ought to take the time to define what took place on the cross so as to explain why the death of Christ shows us God’s love. Surely the first thing to say is that the achievement of the cross was the putting away of our sins. Had that not happened through the wisdom of God who put His Son in our place, we would have had to pay the price for our sins and that would have been eternal spiritual loss. Thus, the meaning of the cross is that a God, who was my stern judge, has become my loving heavenly Father because He has put away my sins. The Father, through the Son, redeemed the world. So our relationship with God becomes the most important issue we can ever face and the cross of Christ becomes the most momentous event in history, because we have a loving heavenly Father and the Judge who fully satisfies the account of us for our guilt. This is the God-centered way of looking at the cross.

BOICE: But that is the question, how are we going to look at the cross, or mankind, or God. For example, if your basic premise is that God exists to serve mankind and you happen to be going through a period of suffering, is God going to have to solve your problems for him to mean anything to you? The health and wealth gospels that we’ve heard so much about are merely outgrowths of this man-centered religion. However, if you take it the other way around, we’re there for God’s benefit and then He has a purpose even in our suffering. Christianity does not involve our solving everybody’s human problem, but instead involves our showing we can go through human problems in a way that honors God. Until Christians in our country understand that, Christianity is not going to have the impact that it once had, either for revival or for cultural change.

HALVERSON: I feel that this is where we are today. Although we say we believe in God, we really believe in man. I’ve lived in Washington D.C. for thirty years and I hear this all the time. They never verbalize it quite this way, but what they’re saying is, “If we just get the right man in the White House, and the right people in the Supreme Court and Congress, we’ve got the kingdom of God.” This concerns me a great deal.

PANNELL: I think there is a consensus in the world today as never before that the human race needs to be saved. I think that’s what communism and other isms are about. This leads inevitably to a contemporary idolatry called nationalism. To the degree that the church is seduced to these ideologies, it is to that degree also that the church loses confidence in the power of the gospel. And the cross just becomes something you wear around your neck.

HALVERSON: Years ago we had a breakfast in Washington for Malcolm Muggeridge, who as some of you may know is very pessimistic. After giving his speech, one gentleman, who happened to be constitutionally incapable of hearing anything pessimistic, approached him and said, “Brother Muggeridge, you’ve been very pessimistic, can’t you say anything optimistic?” He responded, “Why my friend, I’m very optimistic because my hope is only in Jesus Christ.” He let that response settle for a moment. Then he said this, “Just suppose the apostolic church had pinned its hopes on the Roman empire?” I’ve never been able to forget that. In a day when we are pinning our hope on the good old U.S.A. There’s a little text that came to mean a great deal to me a few years ago when I was preparing to preach an ordination sermon. Jesus said, “I will build my church, and the gates of hell shall not prevail against it.” I can’t believe he has ever failed, or ever will fail in doing that. So I have to believe he is building his church. The problem is the church we’re building.

From Modern Reformation (May/June 1993): “Beyond Culture Wars”

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Basic Apologetics: How can I know that the Bible is true?

William Cwirla (LCMS): There is sufficient evidence from the field of archaeology to show that the Bible is historically quite accurate. Even skeptical archaeologists have learned to take the biblical narrative at face value. Of course, this doesn’t prove the Bible to be “true,” only accurate in historic details. But that’s a good place to begin.

The New Testament documents are reliable, first-source historic documents written by eyewitnesses to a unique event history-the incarnation of the Son of God culminating in his death and resurrection. The manuscript evidence gives us a reliable text, far more reliable than any other text from antiquity.

The Gospels are a form of historical narrative. Luke mentions the fact that he did historical research prior to writing his account (Luke 1:1-4). The claim of all these writers is that Jesus died on a cross and rose bodily from the dead three days later. Paul mentions that Jesus was seen risen from the dead by more than five hundred eyewitnesses (1 Cor. 15:6) in addition to the apostles, many of whom went to their death insisting they had seen Jesus risen from the dead. These eyewitnesses had everything to lose and nothing to gain for claiming Jesus was risen. In fact, the religious and political authorities had a vested interest in the contrary, so their testimony was given in view of hostile cross-examination.

This same dead and risen Jesus predicted his own death and resurrection three times before it happened. As baseball pitcher Dizzy Dean once said, “It ain’t braggin’ if you can do it.” Jesus did it. For that reason, we need to take seriously what Jesus says. He says that the Old Testament Scriptures speak of him and teach the way of eternal life (John 5:39). He says that the Scriptures teach his death and resurrection and of repentance and forgiveness in his name (Luke 24:45-47). He promised that his apostles would receive the Holy Spirit who would bring to mind all that he had taught and would guide them into all truth (John 14:26; 16;13). The Apostle Paul writes that the Old Testament Scriptures are the very “breath of God” (2 Tim. 3:16), and Peter similarly writes that the prophets spoke not on their own initiative but as they were carried along by the Holy Spirit (2 Pet. 1:21).

The lynchpin for the veracity of the Scriptures is the death and resurrection of Jesus. It is not only the central teaching, it is also the foundation to the truth claims of the Scriptures. If Christ is not raised, then everything that is written in the Bible is suspect. But Jesus Christ, the Word Incarnate who died and rose from the dead, points us to the Scriptures which he claims reliably speak concerning himself.

Jason Stellman (PCA): The Westminster Confession of Faith I.4 states that the authority of Scripture does not depend on the testimony of any man or church, but wholly upon God. In both the Old and New Testaments the Bible declares itself to be the very Word of God: “The law of the Lord is perfect, reviving the soul; the testimony of the Lord is sure, making wise the simple; the precepts of the Lord are right, rejoicing the heart; the commandment of the Lord is pure, enlightening the eyes; the rules of the Lord are true, and righteous altogether” (Ps. 19:7-9); “All Scripture is breathed out by God and profitable for teaching, for reproof, for correction, and for training in righteousness” (2 Tim. 3:16).

But accepting Scripture’s self-testimony is not simply random, circular reasoning; it’s not something we do in spite of manifold evidence to the contrary (like believing that the Book of Mormon is true because we get a “burning in our bosom” when we read it). Rather, the Bible’s own internal evidence-such as “the heavenliness of the matter, the efficacy of the doctrine, the majesty of the style, the consent of all the parts, the scope of the whole (which is, to give all glory to God), the full discovery it makes of the only way of man’s salvation, the many other incomparable excellencies, and the entire perfection thereof” (WCF I.5)-bears witness to its truthfulness and authority.

But as with the existence of God, believing the Bible’s message is not something we can do without the work of the Holy Spirit within us. We are not passive, neutral observers who weigh the evidence in some objective, disinterested way. Rather, we are, by nature, inclined to evil and hostile to divine things. That’s why all the rational arguments in the world will not convince us to bow before our Creator and submit to his message. Only the power of the Spirit working through the Word can accomplish that.

Next in the series: How can God exist when there is so much evil and pain in the world?

From Modern Reformation (March/April 2006): Does God Believe in Atheists?

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Word and Sacrament | July / August 2011 Modern Reformation

Word and Sacrament: Making Disciples of All Nations
July/August 2011

What is the secret key for growth in the Christian life? It is the gospel of the died and risen Savior that gives life, delivered by means of the preached Word, and then signed, sealed, and confirmed by “visible word” in the sacraments of baptism and the Lord’s Supper. Teaching and discipline come to bear immediately in a well-ordered church that is growing and maturing. In this issue in our continuing series on “The Great Commission,” we want to help realign the church’s mission to these specific means that Christ ordained for the expansion of his kingdom. Toward this end, Editor-in-Chief Michael Horton sets out our need for catechesis in discipleship-a theme running throughout this issue. Lutheran pastor John Bombaro argues against a “Facebook” Christianity, showing that discipleship necessarily involves a communal setting, including personal representation as being of the essence of Christian disciple-making; and Rick Ritchie helps us think about our choices of media in the church. Pastor Andrea Ferrari and Professor Alex Chediak also discuss churches and children who are coming of age in a Facebook age, while Pastor Nam-Joon Kim relates the extensive discipleship and teaching ministry at Yullin Presbyterian Church in Korea. An interview with J. I. Packer and Gary Parrett further reiterates the importance of catechism, and Presbyterian minister and seminary professor J. V. Fesko persuades us that baptism is a strong link to a lifetime of discipleship.

In the book of Acts, the Great Commission unfolds as the church was born by Word and Spirit and then “devoted themselves to the apostles’ teaching and the fellowship, to the breaking of bread and the prayers” (Acts 2:42). Word and Sacrament ministry, in other words, is the full mission of the church. This is how God directs our hearts and minds to Christ. It is his rescue mission for the nations. Join us in this July/August timely and vital issue of Modern Reformation!

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Basic Apologetics: How can I know that God exists?

William Cwirla (LCMS): We know things in a variety of ways. We know things empirically, the way we know a scientific fact. For instance, we know that water is two parts hydrogen and one part oxygen because we can analyze water and literally take it apart. Since God can’t be measured or tested scientifically, we can’t know of God’s existence that way.

I’ve never been terribly impressed by the various “proofs” for the existence of God. All of them seem to lead to so much logical or philosophical arm wrestling, the God of logical necessities. I think these arguments are much more meaningful to believers than they are to skeptics.

We also know things inductively and retroductively, the way we know facts of history or the way a jury is convinced of a crime “beyond a reasonable doubt” by the evidence. The Apostle Paul writes that the pagans, who do not have the revealed Word, can still know something about God. “For what can be known about God is plain to them, because God has shown it to them. Ever since the creation of the world his invisible nature, namely, his eternal power and deity, has been clearly perceived in the things that have been made” (Rom. 1:19-20). The Divine Suspect left his fingerprints.

Here, science has unwittingly done a decent job dusting for divine fingerprints. The finely-tuned order of the universe in a delicate balance of universal physical constants, the apparent rarity of Earth as a life-sustaining planet, the wonderful complexity of biological systems, and the intricacies of the genetic code all make a strong case for the existence of God. Like any circumstantial evidence case, there are always alternative explanations, so one can never be absolutely certain in knowing God this way, only reasonably certain.

This sort of natural knowledge of God is also quite limited. We can know of his eternal power and deity, namely that God transcends time and space and that he is omnipotent and omniscient and whatever other “omni” you can think of, but we can’t know anything about his character or person. That must ultimately be revealed to us.

To know Jesus Christ is to know God. He is the fullness of the Deity dwelling among us bodily. This kind of knowing is different from knowing facts about God or studying God the way one studies biology or chemistry. This is knowing in the biblical use of that word, as in entering into a relationship with someone. “This is eternal life, that they know thee the only true God, and Jesus Christ whom thou hast sent” (John 17:3).

The Incarnation is the grand revelation of God who’s been at work in, with, and under the created order from the beginning. He shows his face in the face of the Son of the Virgin, the Man of the Cross. If you want to know God, you need to learn from Jesus, the Son of God, the Word made flesh. You can be as certain of the existence of God as you are certain of the existence of the historic figure named Jesus, who claimed to be the Son of God, and offered a variety of signs, culminating in his own predicted death and resurrection.

Michael Brown (URC): We know that God exists because he has revealed himself to us. He has done this in two ways: through creation (which we call his general revelation) and Scripture (which we call his special revelation). Many people try to avoid the latter, but no one can escape the former. General revelation is something that all people experience. It is, as Article 2 of The Belgic Confession puts it, “before our eyes as a most beautiful book, wherein all creatures, great and small, are as so many letters leading us to perceive clearly the invisible things of God.” Like a book that tells a story, nature communicates a message-one that is understood by all people irrespective of their location, language, or education. This is precisely what David says in Psalm 19: “The heavens declare the glory of God, and the sky above proclaims his handiwork. Day to day pours out speech, and night to night reveals knowledge. There is no speech, nor are there words, whose voice is not heard. Their measuring line goes out through all the earth, and their words to the end of the world” (Ps. 19:1-4a).

Every day, nature reveals to the world the existence of its Creator. The rising of the sun and the shining of the stars say unequivocally to mankind: You are a creature living in the Creator’s universe. This, as Paul says in Romans 1:19-20, leaves people without excuse: “For what can be known about God is plain to them, because God has shown it to them. For his invisible attributes, namely, his eternal power and divine nature, have been clearly perceived, ever since the creation of the world, in the things that have been made. So they are without excuse.”

Man cannot accuse God of not revealing himself. No one will ever be able to say, You didn’t give me enough evidence, God; I didn’t know that you existed! The fact is that every person knows God exists. Every human being knows something about God’s eternal power and deity by what is clearly perceived in nature. Moreover, as Paul points out in Romans 2:14-15, God has planted in the soul of every human being a basic awareness of God and his law. Calvin called this the sensus divinitatis-an elementary, intuitive perception of God’s existence.

Consequently, before a Christian even opens her mouth to give an argument for the existence of God, the unbeliever already knows that God exists. The unbeliever’s problem is not that he doesn’t know this, but that he hates and suppresses what he already knows to be true. This, according to Paul, is the indictment that God gives to the entire human race when he says: “For the wrath of God is revealed from heaven against all ungodliness and unrighteousness of men, who by their unrighteousness suppress the truth” (Rom. 1:18). Thus, “How can I know God exists?” is the wrong question. The question that the unbeliever needs to ask is, “How can I be saved from the wrath of God?”

Jason Stellman (PCA): This is such a profound question, but what makes it especially interesting is the fact that the Bible (which is the primary source of our knowledge about God) never actually argues for his existence. Instead,it presupposes it with the opening words of its first book, Genesis: “In the beginning, God… ” To those who doubt his existence, Psalm 14 just responds, “The fool says in his heart, ‘There is no God.'”

But when you think about it, it shouldn’t be that surprising that the existence of God is considered to be as central and basic as the Bible implies. After all, we all hold beliefs for which we have no proof and for which we never think to argue (such as the belief that truthfulness is better than lying, or that it is wrong to torture children for fun). Now I’m not saying that the existence of God cannot be demonstrated, it certainly can, but our belief in him is only strengthened by such evidence, it is not founded on it.

Though Scripture, as I said, doesn’t furnish us with arguments for God’s existence, it does appeal to his handiwork as a demonstration of his power and wisdom. Speaking of pagan idolaters, Paul insisted that they “knew God” and had witnessed “his eternal power and divine nature” by observing the wonders of creation. Yet because of the darkness of their hearts men refuse to glorify him, and choose rather to serve creatures instead of the Creator. Man’s “atheism,” therefore, is a farce. His “intellectual doubt” is often a moral refusal to admit what his eyes and heart plainly testify-that there is a God to whom he is accountable.

When you look at it this way, I guess you could turn the issue on its head and argue that God doesn’t believe in atheists.

A. Craig Troxel (OPC): Many people in the West respond to the reality of religious pluralism by affirming that all religions are really the same. But one problem with such a viewpoint is that it seeks to domesticate religions by stripping them of all that is unique about them. Certain beliefs must be sacrificed in order to amalgamate religions into parallel or analogous ways to God. The distinctive elements of the various religions are pured into one flavor-and by an “outsider”-who is an expert and, of course, has our best interest in mind. As Steve Turner puts it tongue-in-cheek, “We believe that religions are basically the same. …They only differ on matters of creation, sin, heaven, hell, God, and salvation.”

The religion that is least conducive to such reductionism is Christianity, because the person who is least tamable is Christ. You cannot begin to treat Christ as merely a prophet or wise teacher (like Moses, Mohammed, Confucius, or Buddha). Yet in order to assert that the Christian faith is just another brand or label of one all-purpose universal religion, you must essentially gut the Christian faith of all its content, much in the same way that a modern taxidermist removes all of a fish so that hardly anything remains when it is mounted on the wall.

For example, in order to make his point, John Hicks argued in God Has Many Names that Jesus never designated himself as Messiah, never thought of himself as divine, and that the incarnation is a mythical idea applied to Jesus. Jesus gets reduced to being our “saving point of contact” with God. This is a huge distortion of Jesus’ declaration to be “the way, the truth and the life” and that people should honor the Son just as they honor the Father. Emphasizing this truth, and the truth of his substitutionary death, resurrection from the dead, and future return is not a static or freeze-dried view of truth. It is the truth that set us free.

Next in the series: How can I know that the Bible is true?

From Modern Reformation (March/April 2006): “Does God Believe in Atheists?”

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Modern Reformation Digital Issues now available as PDF downloads!

May/June 2011 MR

At the end of 2010 we began launching digital versions of Modern Reformation issues. This allows subscribers (both our print and on-line subscribers) the option of reading the magazine in its fully formatted form across a number of devices. However, we had heard from many subscribers that would like the option of downloading the issues in PDF form so they can read the digital issues of MR when they were not connected to the internet or on other e-reading devices (i.e. Kindle, Nook, etc. that can read imported PDFs). Now that option is available! In the menu bar of the digital issue there is a PDF icon that allows you to download select pages or the entire issue of Modern Reformation.

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Remember those who are in prison

We often tell subscribers that the price of their subscription helps us to circulate nearly twice as many magazines as we have subscribers. Many of the magazines that we give away go to prisoners across the US. Today, we received a letter (and a money order to pay for his own subscription) from a prisoner in the West. I wanted to share just a brief segment of the letter with you for your encouragement:

I am a prisoner in _______ with a life sentence and I can’t tell you how much of an impact your unashamed proclamation of the sovereign grace of our God has had on my theological understanding and consequently my everyday life. Thank you for your stand on the solas and the Reformed tradition as well. I am 28 years old and grew up in the _______ ______ church family. As well intentioned as most mainline Christianity is, young men like myself need guys like you to be the unpopular voice from the past that calls the church back to the doctrines of St. Paul, the apostle of Christ.

This prisoner was introduced to Modern Reformation through the back issues that another prisoner had kept and passed along. Your gifts to Modern Reformation and White Horse Inn do more than just keep the lights on, they help change people’s lives…sometimes in the most unexpected places.

We’re in the final stretch of our mid-year appeal and your gifts make a significant difference. If you haven’t already, would you please call us at 800-890-7556 and make a donation over the phone or you can give online or by mail (White Horse Inn, 1725 Bear Valley Pkwy., Escondido CA 92027). Thank you for your support of Modern Reformation, White Horse Inn, and prisoners like this young man.

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