Optical and Sensory Illusion in the Wind River Canyon photo by B.W. Townsend
Many locals know a trip up the Wind River Canyon has a surprising twist. While the scenery itself is spectacular, a mixture of optical and sensory illusion often causes the traveler to think that water is traveling uphill.
Want to be assured that you are one of God’s elect? Do you have faith in Christ alone? Do you fear God? Do you mourn over and put to death the sin in your life? Do you exhibit love for the brotherhood? Are you growing in sanctification? These are the true signs, not some delving into mysterious questions that are too deep for us. Nor is a reliance on whether you walked an aisle, recited a prayer, or were baptized.
“Therefore, brothers and sisters, be all the more diligent to confirm your calling and election, for if you practice these qualities you will never fall.” – 2 Pet 1:10
To say that God is sovereign over all is a given among Bible-believing Christians. What is not a given is what we mean by that. Dig deeper and you’ll find that there are differences in what various teachers mean when they affirm God’s sovereignty.
A.W. Tozer wrote, “God’s sovereignty is the attribute by which He rules His entire creation, and to be sovereign God must be all-knowing, all-powerful, and absolutely free.” So far, so good. To the average Christian, to say God is sovereign is to reference that all-powerful rule over his creation.
The question then becomes, how does he exercise his rule over creation?
I believe that for most Christians, this rule is envisioned much as one would envision an authoritative, benevolent earthly king. This king rules with a kindly governance that oversees but does not dictate. For the most part, he has put things in place to ensure the smooth operation of his kingdom but is not hands-on in the day-to-day of his people. Occasionally, he may bring his force to bear when it suits his needs to achieve desired ends. This force may be a gentle persuasion, or at times it may require the full range of his might to subdue his enemies. But as to the dictating of his peoples’ everyday actions, this is beyond the scope of his chosen means of rule, for his people live and move and breathe freely. This king sees to it, however, that his desired end is achieved.
This is God’s sovereignty, commonly conceived.
This is where Tozer, in his otherwise excellent Knowledge of the Holy (quoted earlier) lands in his attempt to reconcile the idea of God’s sovereignty with the will of man. He gives a “homely” (his word) illustration of an ocean liner that the captain steers to its final destination, but within the ship, the people move freely about. Tozer bases this on his statement, “the eternal decree decided not which choice the man should make but that he should be free to make it” (p. 111). In other words, God is sovereign over the end but not the particulars of the meantime. The passengers on God’s ship do as they please within the bounds of the boat and the Eternal Captain steers them to his desired end.
In this view, God’s sovereignty is viewed in a passive and limited sense. God is not decreeing each and everything that happens, but he works with what happens to turn it to good and to finally in the end see his plan come to fruition. While A.W. Tozer has been something of a spiritual hero and mentor to me through his prolific writing, he is wrong here. For one thing, there is no Scriptural basis for his claim that God has only decreed that man should be free to make choices. Neither does his analogy fit with the Bible, as we will see.
I believe that most Christians, however, are satisfied with this explanation. To them the sovereignty of God may mean that nothing happens unless God allows it to happen, or that he knows what will happen before it does. It may simply mean that no matter what happens, in the end God will have the last word (see Tabletalk magazine, March 2017, p. 30).
This kind of understand ultimately fails because to see God’s sovereignty as limited or passive in this way is to deny his sovereignty at all! To quote R.C. Sproul, “if there is one molecule in the universe running loose, outside of the control of God’s sovereignty, what I like to call ‘one maverick molecule,’ then the practical implication for us as Christians is that we have no guarantee whatsoever that any future promise God has made to His people will come to pass” (Chosen by God, Lecture 2: God’s Sovereignty). Namely, there’s no guarantee the ocean liner will make it to harbor!
We will have more to say on the biblical view of God’s sovereignty later. In my next post, I want to delve into a couple of modern Christian examples from our worship music on how this passive view has manifested itself.
Many years ago, I served as Elder and Co-Pastor of a small house church. One of the distinctives of this church was a strong and public stance against abortion. Even before I started attending, they had developed a “Statement on Abortion,” a formal affirmation of life beginning at conception and the need for new laws protecting life. We took out ads in the local paper, publishing this statement as well as others in our pro-life stance.
I have no regrets that we were so public and forthright in our statements. However, in later years I began to wonder if by being so outspoken we were unintentionally putting up false barriers to the gospel. Were we saying implicitly that in order to come to our church, or, more importantly, in order to come to faith in the gospel, you had to first be pro-life?
The grace-nature of the gospel is such that God accepts those who repent and place their faith in Christ alone apart from works of righteousness (Ephesians 2:8-9). We’re not saved by correct theology, or the right political views. As we move along with Christ, our theology and our views will hopefully grow and become more and more aligned with a biblical world-view. That’s the ongoing transformational nature of Christianity.
This raises the question of how can we as Christians and the Church at large speak out against specific sins (abortion or homosexuality, to name two that are current cultural flashpoints), and yet not put up false barriers that keep sinners from even hearing the gospel message? I’m still collecting my thoughts on this. Here are a few considerations I’ve come to
The preaching of the gospel will always be offensive and off-putting.
Because the call of Christ is so decisive, it will always be foolishness to those who are perishing (1 Corinthians 1:18). Jesus came to divide, not to bring peace but a sword, and to set father against son, mother against daughter (Matt. 10:34-35). So we in no way must speak of somehow making the gospel message palatable to sinners. If we do, we are not preaching a true gospel. We must never water down our convictions to attract an audience.
2. Elements of Evangelical Church culture have become false barriers to the preaching of the gospel.
But then again, our behaviors and church culture, aside from our convictions, sometimes get in the way of the preaching and hearing of the gospel. I can guarantee you that for most American unbelievers, the perception is that you must be a politically right-wing, card-carrying Republican in order to be a Christian. For others, perhaps the sense is that “real” Christianity is about social betterment and change – a more left-wing approach. Now I’m aware that we may not be not explicitly saying these things, but perhaps we’ve allowed these impressions to arise. When our speaking out is more about politics and candidates than it is about Jesus Christ and the gospel, it should be no surprise when we push away half our audience.
3. Speaking out against sin is proper, but only if we speak against all manner of sin.
As I discuss in my book Take Root, Bear Fruit, the passage Romans 1: 18-23 has gotten much press lately for its strong statements of condemnation against homosexuality. Indeed, an entire paragraph of 4 verses takes up same-sex activity as evidence of the futility of thinking that comes when humanity rejects the living God. The condemnation for homosexuality in this passage is a correct understanding. But as I pointed out, we have come to treat this passage as if it condemns only homosexuality. However, that is just one manifestation of God “giving up” sinners to deeper sin. In verses 28-32, Paul sums up by speaking of God giving humanity up to a “debased mind to do what ought not to be done,” making an extensive list of sins. These include such “small” sins as envy, gossip, heartlessness, maliciousness.
The Church must speak out against sin. Part of the message of the gospel is repentance from sin. But to the degree that we condemn certain sins and not others, we become like the Pharisee who prayed, “Lord, I’m thankful that I’m not like that tax collector” (Luke 18:11-13). Because he wasn’t guilty (in his mind) of certain heinous transgressions, he couldn’t see the depth of his own iniquity. Instead, a gospel prayer is, “Lord, be merciful to me, a sinner!”
When we speak out against homosexuality or abortion and don’t at the same time condemn the greed, the avarice, the pride and haughtiness we also clearly see, we lose credibility. We are also seen as hypocrites, because we generally fail to condemn our own sins. And that leads us to the final point.
4. Speaking out against sin is proper, but only if we condemn sin in ourselves as well.
The gospel clearly begins with the message that we are all sinners (Romans 3:23). There is not one of us who does not need the grace of the gospel. All sin is cosmic treason against God and deserving of eternal condemnation. Coming to a point of conviction about our fallen state is the first step in moving toward faith in Jesus.
When speaking out publicly against certain manifestations of humanity’s guilt, the Church has a tendency to devolve into an us/them paradigm. Even if I once was guilty of the transgression I am now speaking out against, it can come across that I am no longer a sinner in need of grace. There’s a subtle pride there that the world clearly hears.
Now, there is a sense in which we are different than we used to be. “Such were some of you,” Paul wrote after listing several examples of sins, “but you were washed, you were sanctified, you were justified” (1 Cor. 6:11, emphasis mine). Positionally, we are not what we once were.
However, simul justus et Peccator, has been the teaching of the Church for centuries – “simultaneously justified and a sinner.” Paul testified, “Christ Jesus came into the world to save sinners—of whom I am the worst” (1 Timothy 1:15). Though obviously a hyperbole, he identified himself in the present tense as a sinner. The latter part of Romans 7 shows his ongoing struggle with indwelling sin. We must never lose sight that we, though saved by grace, still can identify as sinners.
This requires a humility when we speak out and speak against sin.
There are many churches that identify as “welcoming and affirming.” (This is usually in the context of sexual and gender identity.) In other words, your lifestyle won’t be excluded here and in fact, will be affirmed as accepted by God. However inviting this may be, this is not the gospel. Against that, “welcoming but non-affirming of your lifestyle” is not the gospel either.
The gospel is “welcoming to all, but affirming of none.” There is no lifestyle, no life that can be affirmed by God. We all were and continue to be in need of God’s grace. So, even as we speak out against iniquity, the gospel message requires that we keep our own humble dependence on God for grace and forgiveness at the front of our message.
These are some of my thoughts as I navigate this question of how we can maintain our convictions and still not alienate non–believers with either our manners or with secondary issues. Our convictions, faithfully proclaimed and defended, are necessarily decisive. People will either be offended, or they will be convicted by the Holy Spirit. I pray for more of the latter.
One of the things I miss the most with the alternative gatherings we’ve had with my church is the weekly communion. It helps me to look back on the work of Christ, to look inward at my sins and failings, to look upward at the provision God has made for my redemption, and to look forward to Jesus’ return in glory. This is a meditation I wrote many years ago as I was preparing for a communion service.
It’s another Friday night, and three young girls from the office pool are excited about hopping in the car and heading to the club for a few drinks and dancing. It’s a chance to forget about the boss and the headaches of their jobs. As the night goes on, their minds jaded by the effects of the drink and the loud music, they almost forget who they are, and who they are with.
It’s another early Monday morning, and an old man in a tattered coat slumps into a public park bench to try to get a little sleep. Years of the bottle have dulled his senses to where he can only vaguely recollect who he was so long ago, a lifetime ago.
It’s another Wednesday afternoon, and a lonely housewife pours herself a drink, her fourth already today. She tries to remember the days when life with her husband was exciting and romantic, but 14-hour days at the office have left her a widow in effect if not in fact. Her heart dimmed by the whiskey, she lies down on the couch to forget her own life and live through the ones she see on the TV screen…but only sleeps.
It’s another Saturday night, and a bunch of good ol’ boys, anxious for a good time and a chance to forget about their jobs head to the local tavern to shoot pool and swap fish stories. Later, their senses slowed by the smoke and the beers, they forget who they are, get a little rowdy and later regret the damage left on their trucks.
The world drinks to forget…
It’s another Passover in ancient Israel, and in the midst of the long-established religious tradition, a Teacher lifts the bread and the cup and gives them new meaning. “Eat this…drink this…to remember me.”
The world drinks to forget; we take the bread and the cup…to remember. Because we tend to forget and need the reminder. “Praise the Lord, O my soul, and forget not all his benefits.”
Psalm 103 lists the many benefits of the Lord…forgiveness, healing, redemption, love and mercy, satisfaction with good things, renewed youth, righteousness and justice, revelation, steadfast love.
Arisaema triphyllum, also known as a Jack-in-the-Pulpit, is a flowering plant found in the wooded areas of eastern North America, including the forest behind my back yard. They show up quickly in early May and stick around into June. This year, with a cold, rainy spell this past week, I saw a second wave of blooms.
Every year it’s a challenge for me, as my dogs playfully tread the mountain paths, to spot these plants when they first arrive. In the midst of May Apples, thorny sprouts, ferns, and other greenery, the Jacks hide tucked away in shady spots. Each evening as I return home, I announce how many new plants I spotted that day.
This search goes all the way back to my high school days, when in my sophomore or junior year, my science teacher whose name escapes me, assigned us to search the woods and dales of the north-central Ohio landscape for wild spring flowers. We were to collect, press, display, and describe as many as we could find. We would be graded on a sliding scale based on how many specimens we completed.
As one who woefully underachieved in high school and seldom did homework, ironically I really enjoyed this assignment. I even bought a little pocket guide to wildflowers to help me with the identification.
Unfortunately, my excitement for the assignment failed to overcome my inherent laziness and procrastination (something I struggle with to this day), so I ended up not turning in many examples. I probably got a “D” as I recall.
But near the due date, I summoned up some initiative and headed into the wood across the street from my house on Ohio Route 58, hoping to find enough to get me over the threshold of failure. For some reason, and I had no real scientific knowledge of this, I thought maybe I might find a Jack-in-the-Pulpit.
I spent the better part of an hour wandering through this small woodland. I don’t remember if I found any other specimens, but I continued to look for Jack. I didn’t know that most Jacks plants have an additional stem with 3 leaves; I was just looking for the familiar striped spathe – the pulpit – that housed the spadix – “Jack” – that I had seen somewhere before in some distant memory.
Suddenly, there he was! It was almost startling, kind of like the feeling you get when someone jumps out at you from behind a door. And then, where before I couldn’t find a one, now I was seeing dozens everywhere. Some were light green, and others had more of a purple-ish striped hue. I carefully broke one off at the base, took it home, and pressed it into my collection. I never went back to that woods.
Here in the temperate climes of western North Carolina, I began to walk the woods with Shadow the Dog, later adding the Amazing Roscoe Dog, I began to think about hunting for Jack anew.
Again, that nervous pursuit. Where might I find him? Looking, looking, looking. Peering, staring, studying. This time, he didn’t startle me; he was just there. I looked around; surely there are more of his mates. But no, he was a solo preacher. Maybe that first year I found three.
The next year there were more, and in additional places. Each year the numbers increase. Either they are spreading, or my powers of observation and discovery are hightened.
I’ve even found some variations beyond the coloring, green or purple. There are the early ones that are shorter and smaller with thinner stems. 3 leaves. There are some stalks with only leaves that grow. I look closely; they’re the same leaves, but no pulpit. I’ve found some with five leaves. Is this a new species? After all, they’re called tri-phyllum. Probably not, just a variation. Later in the season, I start to see a different kind. The base is a brown wrap giving way to thick stems, 3 in fact! One with the Jack and two stems of 3 leaves. Big leaves!
Today’s the first day of summer, and the Jack blooms are starting to wilt. With the cooler weather, we’ve had an extended season this year. so it’s been a gratifying adventure to take my nightly walk.
I like to think that this is something like what Adam must have felt in the Garden as he worked it and gave names to his discoveries. I believe my Father is pleased when I delight in what he has placed in this world. Through no fault of its own, the whole creation was subjected to corruption and eagerly awaits the revealing of the sons of God (Romans 8:19-23). But, though groaning, creation still tells a story.
Each spring, these Jacks step into their pulpits and preach the glory of God.
Darnell Phillip is a friend of mine, an African-American man. On Tuesday, the day after the murder of George Floyd, he posted these thoughts. This is raw, fresh, and real. At the time, all I could post was the words, “thank you.” His words have stayed with me throughout the week, even as tensions have mounted. I have tried to stay focused in my mind on the single incident, not wanting the unrest and the riots to dilute my sense of shock and horror of that senseless act. His words have further opened my eyes; I truly do not know what it’s like to be a black man in America. I asked if I could share his words, and he agreed. I want all of us to begin to see through the eyes of others.
If you comment, please keep your comments related to his thoughts. If you bring up the riots and how they may or may not discredit or minimize the racial injustice, I will delete your comment. This is not the place to discuss that.
“Today has just been a gut wrenching day. I’m reminded of every time that I have been pulled over by police or questioned by a position in authority. I am reminded that no one had to teach me coping mechanisms of how not to appear to be a threat. I am reminded of how I have changed my body language, altered my tone, dressed differently, or walked to the other side of the street as to give you space and made you comfortable. And why do I do these things? Because this nation has taught black men that the consequences of not doing them can be deadly.
“I think of the ways that we have explained it, the lengths we have gone to demand a voice and a place within this society. When we held back our hand and refused to adopt methods of violence, we were hosed and assassinated. When we decided that we must stand up for ourselves by any means necessary, We were vilified and assassinated. We were ridiculed for kneeling during the star spangled banner when no one else would seek change.
“I remember the ways that my hands gripped the wheel each time I drove through long sections of Southern states anxious that I may have a tail light out and a reason to be pursued. And I could comfort myself with the notion that the South is the only region that I would need to avoid. The South has been the epicenter of black suffering and trauma the effects of which are still prevalent today. But that would only be a delusion. These stories of murder at the hands of those sworn to protect us hail from NYC, Baltimore, Minnesota, as well as New Orleans, Ferguson, Florida and too many other places to name. The fact is that this is an American problem. Not a regional thing. Or a blue or red thing. Or a religious thing.
“The most disheartening thing that I experience is people who claim ‘well, we were not there and it’s easy to make a judgment about a video but you don’t know what he did to provoke that kind of attention.’ Or the way that people will scour a black victims social media to find anything that would suggest that he deserved to die. It sickens me when I think that white supremacists have been arrested after killing in cold blood American citizens while black men have been murdered in broad daylight without resisting arrest. I have no easy answers for those who want to help. There are no convenient ways that we as Americans can begin to set right what is so broken within our own society. It’d be so easy for our conscience to donate to a fund because in our own detached way we could convince ourselves that we were in an active role for seeking change. POC don’t need saviors (in any non-religious sense), but we certainly could use allies. People brace enough to speak up and admit that enough is enough. We won’t have any solutions until we can admit what we as a society have done wrong. Can you see America putting down its pride long enough to make that kind of restitution? Right now to be completely honest it doesn’t seem likely. However, I have been encouraged by the people who have asked I wanted someone to vent to or asked how we can help.”
I have a passion for God’s people to know God’s Word. In short, it’s a passion for biblical literacy. That’s not my term; you see it used often. I define it as –
A biblically literate person is able to apply the skills of language, literature, and logic to passages of the Bible, comparing one with another, so that the reader is able to accurately determine the meaning of a passage and to grasp its place in the greater story that God is telling.
25 Bible Passages You Should Know, Mark Knox
There are many articles, books, and tools that can help the believer better understand the Bible. David Mathis has written an excellent one on DesiringGod.org. He’s said it so well. Read it. Share it.
Inasmuch as this blog at times becomes advisory – whether of leadership, productivity, or the like – it would be easy to think of my writing as in the genre of “self-help.” And while some of the things I write share similarities to self-help literature, my articles are intended to look at the various topics from a biblically-informed world-view.
That said, “self-help” would not be an apt description for my writing. This leads me to commend to you a wonderful article from Desiring God by Greg Morse, entitled “Trade Self-Help for God-Help.” This article embodies the perspective I share when considering issues that could better our lives, a perspective that puts God and Jesus Christ clearly at the center.
I recently went to the movies with my daughter-in-law to see “Yesterday,” a tale of a struggling musician who, through some twist of fate, finds himself in some kind of alternate reality where he’s the only person who knows who the Beatles were. He proceeds to introduce the world to the music of the Fab Four as if it’s his own. Comedy and conflict ensue. We enjoyed the film; it’s a fresh premise in a summer of adaptations, sequels, TV-to-movie offerings, and no less than three live-action Disney remakes. Plus, I have spent the last couple of days getting reacquainted with the Beatles catalogue.
Which, for me, is to say, I found some albums on Spotify.
You see, in one of those unusual quirks of my personal history, I own NO music
by the Beatles. For someone whose life has been marked by the music on my
various radio stations, turntables, tape decks, and CD players, it seems
unthinkable that I would not have any Beatles in my possession.
Except, it’s not that unthinkable, when I delve into my
early history. This whole re-immersion has caused me to ponder my upbringing
and engagement with rock-n-roll. The “what if the Beatles didn’t exist” premise
of the movie is closer to reality for my childhood. The Beatles may as well not
have existed in my household. No Beatlemania there. My dad would scoff at those
“long-hairs” as beneath him. No chance to catch the Ed Sullivan appearance that
was so defining for many of my peers; no sir, we went to church on Sunday
nights. When I purchased a couple of packs of Beatles trading cards, my mom let
me know they were not welcome. And when John Lennon famously proclaimed that
they were more popular than Jesus, well, if he’d announced that he was the Anti-Christ,
it wouldn’t have been any more reprehensible.
This is not to say that my childhood was overly-repressive
or joyless. I was, after all, saved by the aforementioned Jesus during one of
those Sunday night services that caused me to miss the end of the 4:00 football
games and the Ed Sullivan show. I suppose Beatlemania arrived in my life well
before the more independent and rebellious times of my junior high and high
school years. So, I was more or less obedient to my folks and never learned to like
Plus, my parents, though flawed as all are, were simply trying to live out their beliefs in a world that didn’t always embrace our Christian faith. I can’t fault them for that.
H. Richard Niebuhr’s Christ and Culture identifies several ways that Christians have attempted to engage the authority of Christ when facing the culture around them. My folks were clearly in the “Christ against culture” camp. Things like drinking, smoking, and certainly rock-n-roll were vestiges of the secular city and were entities to be opposed as a Christian.
I’ve come to see Christ as the Transformer of Culture. There are
certainly evil things in the world, but I’ve lost the “anything that is not
Sacred is to be disregarded” mindset. In the common grace of God, John, George,
Paul, and Ringo can produce something truly human that might just touch my soul
in a way that can only be described as divine. So, I’m listening…and thinking.
Excuse me, Sgt. Pepper just ended. I need to “Get Back” to where I once belonged.
For a more complete discussion of Niebuhr’s book and the Christ and Culture debate, go here.