Friday, November 20, 2009

Giving Thanks to God

This blog will be brief (for me, at least), but it is about a subject that is big with me. It is also a bit of a rant about a certain tendency in society. The subject, of course, is being thankful to God for all the good things He does for us. Paul tells us in his letter to the Colossian Christians to cultivate a thankful heart in prayer, in singing and in general attitude. We should thank God for things both great and small. We need to have an 'attitude of graditude'.

Now for the rant: A few years ago I noticed a tendency on television during Thanksgiving to promote the idea of being thankful for what we have. These were the most serious moments on sitcoms where each person at the Thanksgiving table would say what they were thankful for. Sounds good so far, right? My problem with what they said was that they never said who they were thankful to. They would say, "I am thankful for ... " and name what they were thankful for. But never to whom they were thankful. I guess it is not politically correct to mention God even if He is the One supposedly being thanked. But it was all left so vague.

People generally seemed to have picked up this habit. They say all the things they are thankful for but never offer thanks to God who gave it to them. I would much rather hear people say "I thank God for ... " and be unsure what exactly they are thankful for rather than the other way around.

Now maybe you think I am being too harsh, but it seems to me that the focus ought to be on the One who has blessed us and not on the blessings themselves.

I do want to say that I am not condemning those Christians who say 'I am thankful for ... '. I know they are thanking God, but in view of what is now popular in the world I think we should make it clear whom we are thanking. And it keeps the focus on Him.

By the way, I have a lot to be thankful for. Our oldest daughter, Abigail, and her husband, Shannon, are coming home from Kentucky for almost a week. And our youngest daughter ,Rachel, and her husband, Sean, will also be here for Thanksgiving. That is plenty to be thankful for, and I thank God for it.

Friday, November 13, 2009

The Church Should Not Be 'Progressive'

In the political sphere we recently have heard a revival in the term 'progressive' to describe particular points of view or approaches to solve problems. One of Merriam-Webster's Dictionary definition of the word is "making use of new ideas". In other words, it is replacing old ways of thinking and doing with new ways, and in doing so 'progress' is supposed to be made.

Now this word 'progressive' is also used in certain Christian circles to describe some approaches to what changes should be made in the church. As we study church history, as we are doing in our Sunday School class, we find that at various times great progress has been made. Those who consider themselves 'Christian Progressives' use this fact to support their own approach. They say that we need to make progress so let's implement progressive ideas just as the church has done in the past. But we must not confuse the term 'progressive' with actual progress. A progressive movement uses new ideas to replace old ones. Not all progress is 'progressive'. Let me give some examples.

During the 16th century we had the Protestant Reformation. It was a significant departure and improvement from the Catholicism which had dominated the Christian West for centuries. (I say this knowing that my Catholic friends might disagree; however, I think my point will still stand.) At first glance it might seem that the Protestant Reformation was a progressive movement, but it was not. What do I mean by this?

If you study the movement you find that those involved in the movement did not come up with new, progressive ideas but rather revived old ones. If the Catholics held to their ancient traditions, the Reformers went back further still. They went back to the Bible. They rejected the 4th century Vulgate Latin translation and used the best Greek translation they could get. Their teachings on justification by faith alone and by grace alone revolutionized the church, but it was in many ways a backward-looking revolution. It was meant to be a restoration of biblical Christianity.

If we look at subsequent movements that have driven the church and Western society forward, we find the same thing. It is going back to the Bible and restoring something lost that has pushed the church forward and often the surrounding culture as well. Many historians believe that John Wesley's Methodist movement that restored the preaching of the new birth and holy living that prevented a bloody revolution like the one that occurred in France.

The abolitionist movement of the 19th century was largely driven by New England Puritans and the Quakers who were anti-slavery for two centuries before that. These were biblical literalists. I am old enough to remember the speeches given by Martin Luther King. He constantly referred to two old documents: the Bible and the Declaration of Independence. The main civil rights movement was not 'progressive' but simply called people to uphold and apply the principles that we should have upheld the whole time.

Why do I bring this up? There are some in the church who want to change certain things. I am not against change, but I am against change that is not for the better but for the worse, even if it is well-meaning and 'progressive'. To me it is for the better if it makes us conform to the standards and doctrines of scripture, and worse if it takes us away from it.

Take, for instance, the arguments in the church regarding practicing homosexuals in the pulpit. Progressives often argue that this will be a good thing. They think that it is 'progress' in human relations. They argue that homosexuals have been mistreated (true), but they go much further than that. They argue that homosexual relations should be made equal with heterosexual relations. They want us to discard the ideas of the past and adopt new ones.

Should we do this? No, both the Old and New Testaments roundly condemn any type of homosexual activity.

But 'progressive' church people are not so foolish as to think that conservative, Bible-believing Christians will simply toss out the Bible in favor of their 'progressive' views. Instead they have new, progressive ways of interpreting the Bible. Some say that the commands of the New and Old Testaments are for those cultures only and now the Spirit of God is giving us new commands. Really? I do not believe that God's commands are relative to a culture. They are based on eternal principles.

See, so-called progressives are trying to use our modern culture to interpret the Bible instead of letting the Bible speak to our culture. This is a gigantic error and it is backwards. They argue that God has led our culture to this point and we must use the standards of progressive culture to determine what is right and wrong.

Jesus didn't do that. He applied the scriptures to his generation and used it to criticize his culture. He said, "You know neither the scriptures nor the power of God". When asked a question about divorce Jesus was biblically countercultural. He referred them to the book of Genesis, to the creation story.

Of course, Jesus did give us revelation from God. And the apostles did as well. However, the canon is closed. God has given us all the revelation that we need. In the last chapter of the last book in the Bible says, "Everyone who hears the words of the prophecy of this book (not just Revelation but the whole Bible) if anyone adds to them, God will add to him the plagues which are written in this book; and if anyone takes away from the words of this prophecy, God will take away his part from the tree of life and from the holy city." Rev 22:19 We can never add to, or take away, from what God has revealed.

We must not use the Bible and twist it to suit our own agenda. We cannot even use general concepts like 'love' or 'unity' or 'inclusivity' or 'nonjudgmentalism' to undermine the clear, specific commands of scripture. Yes, we must love people and welcome them into the church, but we must not allow modern notions of right and wrong to determine what behavior is approved or disapproved by the church. Therefore, it is dangerous to allow our 'progressive' notions to override the Word of God. God is not doing something new morally. Right and wrong have not changed. We have changed.

We look back at people in the past and we think them unenlightened, even primitive. They had slaves and acted barbarically. We think our ideas are superior to theirs. I can just imagine what future generations might think of us. We kill babies in the womb by the thousands and millions. We have relativized religion to the extent that we do not even think it matters what we believe. And then we could talk about the sexual revolution of the 60s and 70s which has taken us to about the level of the Roman Empire with regards to sexual morality.

It seems that the world never gets it together morally. It makes progress in one area and completely messes up something else. No, our era has not really made much true progress, even in the way that we think that we ought to be. We must constantly go back to the Bible to straighten out our thinking. And then we must be doers of the Word, and not hearers only.

Friday, November 6, 2009

The Great Apostasy (NOT)

When I became a Dispensationalist some 30 years ago, I slowly became convinced of the truth of the Rapture of the Church before the seven year Tribulation Period which precedes the Millennial Reign of Christ. Now this is basic dispensational teaching regarding the church which I have endorsed for three decades. But there was one teaching that I was not comfortable with. And that was the teaching that the vast majority of the church would fall away from Christ shortly before the Rapture. There will be, it is said, a great apostasy. Some are convinced that we already see signs of it.

My problem with this is twofold. One is that something in my spirit tells me that this is not so. Now I must take a little detour to explain what I mean. I do not mean that I simply dislike the idea or that it does not fit into the way I think or feel. I am saying that deep down on the inside of me, in the hidden man of the heart (as Peter says), I lose my sense of peace when this idea comes up. When this happens, I begin to find out why I feel this way. The Bible says that when the Spirit of Truth (the Holy Spirit) comes that He will guide us into all truth. I believe that. I believe that He is guiding me into all truth. And He bears witness with our spirits about spiritual truths. (See Rom 8:14; Jn 14:17,26; 16:13) But how do I know that my feeling is right or wrong? In other words, is this the Spirit showing me something or is it just the flesh rebelling against the truth? We have to go to the Word of truth to find out. It means that we have to dig deeper into the Bible to find what the truth really is. Sometimes, like a miner searching for precious gems, you have to dig deep. "If you seek [truth,wisdom] as silver and search for her as hidden treasure ... then you will discover the knowledge [that comes from] God." Proverbs 2:5-6

Our quest here is to find out if the NT teaches the doctrine of the great apostasy. Let's look at the scriptures that are used to support this view. The foremost scripture used to support this idea of a great apostasy is 1 Timothy 4:1-3, "But the Spirit explicitly says that in later times some will fall away from the faith, paying attention to deceitful spirits and doctrines of demons, by means of the hypocrisy of liars seared in their own conscience as with a branding iron, men who forbid marriage and advocate abstaining from foods which God has created to be gratefully shared in by those who believe and know the truth". Notice the expression 'fall away from the faith', a classic description of apostasy. Another passage is in 2 Timothy 3:1-5, "But realize this, that in the last days difficult times will come. For men will be lovers of self, lovers of money, boastful, arrogant, revilers, disobedient to parents, ungrateful,unholy, unloving, irreconcilable, malicious gossips, without self-control, brutal, haters of good, treacherous, reckless, conceited, lovers of pleasure rather than lovers of God, holding to a form of godliness, although they have denied its power; Avoid such men as these."

When you put these two scriptures together they seem to paint a very bleak picture for the future of the church. But should we put them together at all? They actually talk about two very different things. The first speaks of a gross legalism that forbids marriage (which means it forbids sex) and certain foods. These are religious people trying to impose ascetic rules on others. The group in 2 Timothy are just the opposite. Some are outwardly religious but are extremely worldly rather than ascetic. Our day seems more like this second passage and this second passage does call the era 'the last days'. The first passage speaks of later times, not necessarily the 'last days'. In the first few centuries of the church, we do have some religious groups that forbid marriage (some gnostics and manicheans) and some that forbid certain foods (Judaizers and, later, Muslims). It does not describe our day very well. Paul must have been speaking to Timothy of something in his immediate future and the early centuries of the church. Some departed from the faith into gross legalism.

The passage in 2 Timothy seems much like our present day. Is Paul telling us that the church will commit apostasy here or is he saying that the world will be like this so 'avoid such men as these'. Now there are, and have always been, people like this in churches. It seems that Paul is saying that these are characteristic of an era and not some great apostasy.

So let's examine one more 'falling away' passage. 2 Thessalonians 2:3-4 says, "Let no one in any way deceive you, for [the Day of the Lord] will not come unless the apostasy comes first, and the man of lawlessness is revealed, the son of destruction, who opposes and exalts himself above every so-called god or object of worship, so that he takes his seat in the temple of God, displaying himself as being God". Now here seems to be solid evidence that there will be a general apostasy before the Day of the Lord (beginning with the Rapture, then the Tribulation). The word 'apostasy' is actually used here with the clear reference to the last days. Is it proof positive? This was the second thing that I was uncomfortable with - the word 'apostasy' or 'falling away'. Here is where I began to dig deeper.

The word translated 'apostasy' (or 'falling away' in other translations) comes from the Greek word, 'apostasia'. So apostasy comes directly from this Greek word. The English word means to renounce one's own religion. Let's look at the definition of the Greek word. "The Liddell and Scott Greek Lexicon defines 'apostasia' first as 'defection, revolt;' then secondly as 'departure, disappearance."1 The English definition follows the first Greek definition, not the second.

Once I found this alternate definiton I began to read the passage with that definition. It would read to the effect that the Day of the Lord with the revealing of the Antichrist will not come until the 'departure' comes first. The departure of what? The logical choice is the church, meaning that the Day of the Lord will not come until the Rapture (departure) of the church into heaven. I actually think that the passage makes better sense translated this way. So this so-called 'falling away' or 'apostasy' is not 'falling away from the faith' as in 1 Timothy, but rather a departure of the church. It is a departure of the church from this planet not the departure of believers from the faith. This view also fits what Paul told this same church in 1 Thess 4:17. "We who are alive and remain will be caught up to meet the Lord in the air." Paul seems only to be referring to the event he described in detail in 1 Thess. He does not seem to refer to some apostasy. Paul mentions this 'departure/apostasy' as if they knew what he was talking about. There is no evidence that Paul spoke/wrote to them about some sort of general apostasy.

Now I believed this for a long time but I did not have any confirmation of this right away. Then I picked up a book by Roy Hicks, former general superintendant of the Church of the Foursquare Gospel. The main point of the book is what I have outlined above. More recently I have run into Dr. Thomas Ice, professor of theology at Liberty University. He says the same thing. "I believe that there is a strong possibility that 2 Thessalonians 2:3 is speaking of the rapture. What do I mean? Some pre-tribulationists, like myself, think that the Greek noun apostasia, usually translated "apostasy," is a reference to the rapture and should be translated "departure." Thus, this passage would be saying that the day of the Lord will not come until the rapture comes before it."2

I also looked up many other translations to see if any of them translated the Greek 'apostasia' as 'departure' in this passage. What I found is that the English translations before the King James 1611 Bible always translated it as departure. After the KJV it is translated as apostasy or falling away or something like that. This means that Wycliffe, Tyndale, and the Geneva Bible (the only Bible used by the Puritans) agree with me. (I guess I am just old-fashioned.) It seems that the influence of the KJV on subsequent translations has been very strong.

I feel very comfortable in believing that there will be no general apostasy of the church and I also think that my view of the Rapture has been shown to be the view of scripture. Believing that the church is going into a great apostasy gives us a very negative view of the church. Even if one thinks that their church is okay, they might think that other churches and Christians are apostate. (Well, some actually are.) We need to be wary of the apostasy of liberal Christianity, the type that denies that the Bible is the Word of God, denies the deity of Christ, His substitutionary sacrifice, His physical resurrection, His bodily Return. That we do need to fight.

However,there are scriptures that better characterize the church just before the Rapture. One of them is Ephesians 5:25-27, "Christ also loved the church and gave Himself up for her, so that He might sanctify her, having cleansed her by the washing of water by the Word, that He might present to Himself the church in all her glory, having no spot or wrinkle or any such thing; but that she would be holy and blameless". Rapturing a holy church sounds like something that Jesus would do.

1 Dr. Thomas Ice, "The Rapture in 2 Thessalonians 2:3" at Pre-Trib Research Center, online.
2 Ibid.