Friday, December 25, 2009

What Is Real Conversion? (Part Four)

Sometimes we are so caught up in our day-to-day activities, including overcoming our individual sins, that we forget the goal of the conversion process, the product into which we are to be transformed. Perhaps we do not really forget it, but we often lose sight of it in the rush of our lives. Like ants, we are always busy doing something, and we forget to remind ourselves about what we are converting to. Where do we want to end up when our lives are complete? Answering this question helps us to evaluate how converted we are.

God set down the goal of human life at the very beginning, when He created mankind in the Garden of Eden. Genesis 1:26 states plainly, "Then God said, ‘Let Us make man in Our image, according to Our likeness.'" Many commentators opine that these words, "image" and "likeness," are essentially synonymous in Hebrew—meaning that human beings generally look like God—but doing so limits God's creativity to the merely physical. The gospel declares that God's plan for every person is far grander and quite spiritual in nature. Though the difference between these two words is admittedly difficult to define, they suggest that man's physical creation is only the first step in His two-part creative work.

Two New Testament verses illustrate how we can understand the difference between "likeness" and "image." The apostle Paul writes in Philippians 2:7 that Christ came "in the likeness of men," or in other words, in human form. Thus, likeness conveys the sense of mankind looking like God; humans are essentially God-like in bodily shape. God, therefore, used Himself as a model for His creation of Adam.

In contrast, Hebrews 1:3 tells us that Christ is "the express image of [the Father's] person." The Greek word underlying "image" is charaktér, and while it literally describes an impress on a coin, its figurative usage suggests an exact representation of another's nature. "Image," then, speaks to God's non-physical qualities, such as His mind, personality, and character. Thus, though we are born in the bodily likeness of God, He calls us to be converted into His spiritual image.

In terms of God's carrying out a dual creative process, Paul writes in Galatians 6:15, "For in Christ Jesus neither circumcision nor uncircumcision avails anything, but a new creation." In Christ, God continues to create. While God's physical creation of mankind ended on sunset of the sixth day (Genesis 1:31), His spiritual creation is ongoing, and it will continue as long as there are human beings to transform into His image. Each Christian is a "new creation."

What He is creating is the "new man." Paul instructs us to "put off, concerning your former conduct, the old man which grows corrupt according to the deceitful lusts, and be renewed in the spirit of your mind, and that you put on the new man which was created according to God, in righteousness and true holiness" (Ephesians 4:22-24).

First, he says to put off the "old man"—our sinful nature that has kept us separated from God and that does not live as Christ lives—and put on the "new man," an entirely different nature that reflects the very character and way of life of God. This new man is a creation of God and has everything to do with righteousness and holiness.

In Ephesians 4:25, 28, he provides a few examples of how this process works: "Therefore, putting away lying, each one speak truth with his neighbor, for we are members of one another. . . . Let him who stole steal no longer, but rather let him labor, working with his hands what is good, that he may have something to give him who has need." Notice that in these examples we have a behavior to put off and a different behavior to put on: The apostle advises us to quit lying and to replace it with speaking the truth, as well as to stop stealing and to start working so that we can give to others. This is the process of conversion: with God's help through His Spirit, forsaking our sinful nature and all its destructive behaviors and then taking on the godly nature and its constructive behaviors. This is how God is creating His image within us.

In Colossians 3:1-4, 9-11, Paul approaches this subject slightly differently:

If then you were raised with Christ, seek those things which are above, where Christ is, sitting at the right hand of God. Set your mind on things above, not on things on the earth. For you died, and your life is hidden with Christ in God. When Christ who is our life appears, then you also will appear with Him in glory. . . . Do not lie to one another, since you have put off the old man with his deeds, and have put on the new man who is renewed in knowledge according to the image of Him who created him.Where there is neither Greek nor Jew, circumcised nor uncircumcised, barbarian, Scythian, slave nor free, but Christ is all and in all.

The apostle sets matters in their proper perspective. Christians have been called to a wonderful destiny, but it is not without sacrifice. We were called to die to our old lives—the old man—and to seek and embrace an entirely new way of life, the life of God. If we successfully work through this process of salvation, during which we are converted or transformed into the image of our Creator, then we will be resurrected in glory at Christ's return.

What Paul does in this passage is to orient our lives in their ultimate direction—toward Christ. We are "raised with Christ." We are to seek heavenly things "where Christ is." Our lives are "hidden with Christ." "Christ . . . is our life." We are being made new according to Christ our Creator's image, just as Genesis 1:26 said. To us, "Christ is all and in all." Thus, God is converting Christians, followers of Christ, into "the express image" of our Lord and Savior, to echo Christ's own description in Hebrews 1:3.

There is the goal. Jesus Christ is everything to us. He is the One—the new Man—we are all trying to put on. This is what II Corinthians 3:18 proclaims: "But we all, with unveiled face, beholding as in a mirror the glory of the Lord, are being transformed into the same image from glory to glory, just as by the Spirit of the Lord." Through the Holy Spirit working in us, we are being converted from the glory of man to the glory of God. How awesome!

The apostle John writes in I John 3:2-3: "Beloved, now we are children of God; and it has not yet been revealed what we shall be, but we know that when He is revealed, we shall be like Him, for we shall see Him as He is. And everyone who has this hope in Him purifies himself, just as He is pure." The two apostles agree perfectly. We are in the process of transforming into the image of Jesus Christ, and this conversion requires us to purify ourselves, to refine our lives, to the righteousness and holiness of Christ. Certainly, a tall order, but one that God promises to assist us in fulfilling by His Spirit.

Next time, we will walk the battlefield on which the bulk of the conversion process takes place: the mind.

Friday, December 18, 2009

What Is Real Conversion? (Part Three)

The first two parts of this series considered the questions of who is truly converted and whether conversion is an event or a process. Perhaps an even more basic question on this subject is "What role does sin play in conversion?" There would be no need for conversion without the existence of sin and its destructive effects on humanity. Sin and the anti-God world it has spawned are what Christians must turn from so that they can truly follow God's way of life.

God gives a concise description of conversion in Ezekiel 18:30-31: "Repent, and turn from all your transgressions, so that iniquity will not be your ruin. Cast away from you all the transgressions which you have committed, and get yourselves a new heart and a new spirit." However, if a person is converted, and he subsequently sins, does he automatically become unconverted? Certainly not. Since conversion is a process in which one turns to righteousness and holiness over time, it also takes time and a great deal of habitual sin for one to revert completely to an unconverted state.

The apostle John helps us to understand the Christian's battle against sin in I John 1:5–2:2:

This is the message which we have heard from Him and declare to you, that God is light and in Him is no darkness at all. If we say that we have fellowship with Him, and walk in darkness, we lie and do not practice the truth. But if we walk in the light as He is in the light, we have fellowship with one another, and the blood of Jesus Christ His Son cleanses us from all sin. If we say that we have no sin, we deceive ourselves, and the truth is not in us. If we confess our sins, He is faithful and just to forgive us our sins and to cleanse us from all unrighteousness. If we say that we have not sinned, we make Him a liar, and His word is not in us. My little children, these things I write to you, that you may not sin. And if anyone sins, we have an Advocate with the Father, Jesus Christ the righteous, and He Himself is the propitiation for our sins, and not for ours only but also for the whole world.

In this passage, John is responding specifically to certain claims, voiced by Gnostics who had already begun to infiltrate the church, regarding sin and a Christian's ability to sin. They claimed three false beliefs:

  1. In verse 6, that their conduct had no bearing on their relationship with God. As John repeats their statement, they believed that they could sin—"walk in darkness"—and continue fellowshipping with God with no adverse effects. John calls this a lie.
  2. In verse 8, that they had no sin—in effect, that they were perfectly pure already. John calls this self-deception.
  3. In verse 10, that they were beyond sin—in other words, that they could not sin. The apostle says this belief calls God a liar.
This passage reveals how little the Gnostics understood, though they claimed to know it all, which is what the Greek word gnosis means, "to know." A Gnostic is "one who knows," or pejoratively, a "know-it-all." Gnostics were proud of their knowledge, believing that they knew more than others did. Worse, they felt that their knowledge gave them superiority over others who had not studied the "mysteries" of spirituality as deeply as they had. However, John exposes that they actually knew nothing. As he writes, the truth was not in them; they did not understand even the most basic elements of Christianity.

He answers their false claims quite simply. First, he argues that, by definition, a Christian is one who follows the example of Christ, so it is sheer nonsense to say that our manner of life has nothing to do with our relationship with God. Only if we do as Jesus did will we stay in fellowship with God and please Him (John 8:29). If we are constantly trying to follow the example of Christ, His blood will be available to cleanse us of our sins, and He will gladly do so along the way.

Second, he counters that we only show our hypocrisy and self-deception if we claim not to sin, because we are obviously full of sin. Paul instructs us that God's law defines what sin is (Romans 7:7), and even a cursory comparison between God's righteous standards and our imperfect lives reveals that a great deal of sin remains in us after baptism—sinful ways that we must turn from. If we fail to see any sin in ourselves, we are clearly deceiving ourselves.

Third, regarding a Christian being incapable of sin, John contends that such a statement calls God a liar. Since the whole plan of God is based on redemption from sin, if we are already so spiritual that we cannot sin, why is God putting us through this farce of conversion? The truth is that all men are sinful (Romans 3:23). Jesus teaches that, just as God is perfect, we are to become perfect (Matthew 5:48), and Paul echoes that our job is to "go on to perfection" (Hebrews 6:1).

In his answer, John admits that, even though the whole thrust of Christianity is to turn from sin and live sinlessly, we still have sinful human nature in us—or as Jeremiah 17:9 says, a heart that is "deceitful" and "desperately wicked"—and we do sin. Yet if we sin, admit it, repent of it, and seek forgiveness for it, Christ's blood covers the sin, and we go on striving not to sin. The desired result is that we have overcome the sin, learned a lesson, and grown in character. This is how conversion works: step by step, one transformation to the image of Christ at a time.

This should tell us a few things about conversion. For starters, it is not something we can do alone. It is God who works to convert us by His Spirit, as we work in cooperation with Him (Philippians 2:12-13). Conversion is His spiritual, creative process at work, transforming us into what He has purposed and designed us to become. As Paul says, the process of conversion is God's workmanship in us (Ephesians 2:10). He conducts us through the entire process.

In addition, we realize that, no matter how long we live, the process of conversion will never be complete. We can never achieve perfection in this life, for we will always fall short of the righteousness of Christ. With its inherent self-centeredness, human flesh can never be entirely converted to God's way of outgoing love. The apostle Paul, certainly a righteous man, lamented many years after his initial conversion, "I am carnal, sold under sin" (Romans 7:14) and "I know that in me (that is, in my flesh) nothing good dwells" (verse 18). Only by the resurrection of the dead at Christ's second coming will we be truly "incorruptible" (I Corinthians 15:52).

Yes, sin is involved in the conversion process, but we are endeavoring to overcome it. Even with the indwelling of God's Spirit, from time to time we will sin. Thus, a converted person is not perfect, but he is constantly working in that direction under God's guiding hand.

Next time, in Part Four, we will consider more deeply the goal of the conversion process.

Friday, December 11, 2009

What Is Real Conversion? (Part Two)

In Part One, we learned that a great deal of confusion exists—even among professing Christians—about true conversion. Contrary to many who teach it, confessing the name of Jesus is not how the Bible defines a converted person. Scripture shows that a person must repent, be baptized, and receive the Holy Spirit; keep God's commandments; work to overcome his sins; and bear the fruits of God's Spirit. Such a person has converted—changed or transformed—from his old life to a completely new one in Christ.

We also saw that the Bible calls a person "converted" when he repents and accepts Jesus Christ as his personal Savior, and is baptized and receives the Holy Spirit by the laying on of hands. Acts 11:19-21 provides an example on this initial conversion:

Now those who were scattered after the persecution that arose over Stephen traveled as far as Phoenicia, Cyprus, and Antioch, preaching the word to no one but the Jews only. But some of them were men from Cyprus and Cyrene, who, when they had come to Antioch, spoke to the Hellenists, preaching the Lord Jesus. And the hand of the Lord was with them, and a great number believed and turned to the Lord.

Luke writes "a great number . . . turned to the Lord." The Greek word that is here translated "turned" is the same word that is elsewhere rendered as "converted." There is a point where God considers a person to be converted. In this case, these people in Antioch believed the preaching of these persecuted Christians, and they not only agreed with their teaching but also "changed" or "transformed" their lives. Once this change of heart takes place, when a person repents and receives God's Spirit, he is converted.

Notice, however, how this scene continues:

Then news of these things came to the ears of the church in Jerusalem, and they sent out Barnabas to go as far as Antioch. When he came and had seen the grace of God, he was glad, and encouraged them all that with purpose of heart they should continue with the Lord. (Acts 11:22-23)

Though the church was young at this point, its leaders had already learned that people can, after the excitement of their "first love" of the truth wanes, fall back into their old, sinful way of life. They can revert to carnality. Some fall away altogether. Their problem is that they do not "continue with the Lord." In other words, they do not persist in being converted more completely, or as the writer of Hebrews puts it, they do not "go on to perfection" (Hebrews 6:1). This teaches us that conversion is not a one-time event but a process that begins with a single event.

Like conversion, salvation is also a process. In one sense, it happens all at once when we are justified, as God considers us to be saved at that point. However, justification is only the initial part of a much greater process that will take the rest of our lives to complete. In fact, the Bible says we have been saved (Ephesians 2:5, 8; II Timothy 1:9; Titus 3:5; etc.), we are being saved (I Corinthians 1:18; II Corinthians 2:15; Philippians 2:12; etc.), and we will be saved (Romans 5:9; 13:11; Hebrews 9:28; I Peter 1:5, 9; etc.)—clearly illustrating a process with past, present, and future aspects, which are respectively justification, sanctification, and glorification.

Conversion is similar. God converts us upon the receipt of the Holy Spirit, but we still have the remainder of our lives to live according to God's instructions and to imitate the holy, righteous character of Jesus Christ (Romans 8:29; II Corinthians 3:18; Ephesians 5:1; Colossians 3:9-10; I Thessalonians 1:6; etc.). Our initial conversion is merely the first touch of God's mind upon us. We have so much further to go. Truly, we will not be completely converted to God and His way of life until we are changed to spirit in the resurrection from the dead (see I Corinthians 15:50-53).

Thus, those who have only recently been baptized and received God's Spirit are newborns (I Peter 2:2) in the lifelong process of transformation to reflect the righteous character of God (Romans 12:2). The writer of Hebrews points out, "For everyone who partakes only of milk is unskilled in the word of righteousness, for he is a babe. But solid food belongs to those who are of full age" (Hebrews 5:13-14).

In a similar vein, the apostle Paul writes in I Corinthians 3:1-3: "And I, brethren, could not speak to you as to spiritual people but as to carnal, as to babes in Christ. I fed you with milk and not with solid food; for until now you were not able to receive it, and even now you are still not able; for you are still carnal." In Ephesians 4:11-14, he explains this concept in terms of the work of the ministry:

And He Himself gave some to be apostles, some prophets, some evangelists, and some pastors and teachers, for the equipping of the saints for the work of ministry, for the edifying of the body of Christ, till we all come to the unity of the faith and the knowledge of the Son of God, to a perfect man, to the measure of the stature of the fullness of Christ; that we should no longer be children, tossed to and fro and carried about with every wind of doctrine. . . .

He describes conversion in terms of growth from childhood to maturity. As babies grow into adolescents, and then into teens, young adults, middle-agers, and senior citizens, so are Christians to develop spiritually. The apostle continues his thought in verse 15, saying that the goal is to "grow up in all things into Him who is the head—Christ." Conversion, then, is a process of spiritual development from carnal immaturity to Christ-like maturity—or in its ultimate sense, divine perfection.

As Christians, we are to go through the process of conversion—spiritual transformation of character—to the point that God considers us ready to fulfill the destiny and the office that He has prepared for us. If God were to change us right now into spirit beings, how many of us would be converted enough to fulfill the responsibilities He would give us? Beyond the fact that God would not do this until the time is right, it is likely that few, if any, of us would have the sterling character required.

That conversion is a process only makes sense. It is just like the natural, human process of growth of a child. What would one think of a "baby" that was born already mature, six feet tall and 190 pounds? Woe to the mother of that kid! Nevertheless, it would be abnormal, a freak, an anomaly. God did not design nature to work that way; living organisms must experience a process of growth, even if it is brief. So, like a baby, a newly regenerated Christian (Titus 3:5) must grow and mature through the process of conversion from a state of carnality to spirituality, from flesh to Spirit (Romans 8:5).

Next time, we will look into the impact of sin on conversion.

Friday, December 4, 2009

What Is Real Conversion? (Part One)

The world contains over a billion professing Christians—of Catholic, Protestant, and Orthodox creeds, not to mention the hundreds of denominations such as Episcopalian, Lutheran, Methodist, Baptist, Pentecostal, Coptic, Adventist, Messianic, and so forth. Beyond these, a significant percentage of these billion-plus souls is "non-denominational," all of whom consider themselves to be Christian nonetheless. Despite ecumenical efforts, the number of differing Christian groups is only increasing around the globe.

This plethora of Christian "faith traditions" exposes the open secret that Christendom is sharply divided along lines of both doctrine and practice. Not only do the denominations argue over the nature of God, law and works, abortion, and the afterlife, but they also squabble over church government, the ordination of women and homosexuals, liturgy, communion, and a host of other issues, big and small. Hardly any point or observance has not come under fire.

In fact, the bickering between rival faiths can be downright petty, as is illustrated in the silly rivalries among Catholic, Greek Orthodox, Armenian Orthodox, Coptic, Syrian Orthodox, and Ethiopian monks over who controls various areas of the Church of the Holy Sepulcher in Jerusalem. Even today, a Muslim family holds the keys to the church's main entrance because the Christians do not trust each other. In the summer of 2002, eleven monks needed medical attention after a fracas that began when a Coptic monk moved his chair from its approved place to get out of the blistering sun!

Are these the actions of converted Christians? How does a converted person act? What determines whether a person is converted or not? And can just anyone be converted?

Perhaps the most basic question we can ask is, "Who can be converted?" If a person professes to be a Christian, saying that he has accepted Christ as his personal Savior, is he converted? Is that all it takes? If so, does it mean that all "Christians" are converted?

The Bible, specifically Romans 8:6-9, 13-16, answers all of these questions about who can be converted:

For to be carnally minded is death, but to be spiritually minded is life and peace. Because the carnal mind is enmity against God; for it is not subject to the law of God, nor indeed can be. So then, those who are in the flesh cannot please God. But you are not in the flesh but in the Spirit, if indeed the Spirit of God dwells in you. Now if anyone does not have the Spirit of Christ, he is not His. . . .

For if you live according to the flesh you will die; but if by the Spirit you put to death the deeds of the body, you will live. For as many as are led by the Spirit of God, these are sons of God. For you did not receive the spirit of bondage again to fear, but you received the Spirit of adoption by whom we cry out, "Abba, Father." The Spirit [it]self bears witness with our spirit that we are children of God.

This passage lists four points about who is a true Christian—and thus, converted—and who is not. First, Paul says that a person who is still carnally minded—who has not submitted to God's spiritual way of life—is not subject to God's law, nor can be. Conversely, and more positively, a true Christian is subject to God's law. So if an individual claims to be converted but does not and will not keep God's law, then he is not converted.

Second, the apostle tells us that God considers a person His—that is, one of His children—if he has the Holy Spirit in him. When the Holy Spirit resides in someone, he is said to be "in the Spirit," and he will do or want to do all of the things that God desires of him.

Third, a person "in the Spirit" is trying to eradicate the ungodly deeds of the body. In other words, he is making great efforts to overcome sin. Human nature, goaded by the wicked influence of Satan the Devil (Ephesians 2:2), is essentially selfish or self-interested and in opposition to the way of God, which is based on love for others or outgoing concern. The converted Christian strives to change from sinfully self-centered to righteously God-centered, which means he has to deny himself the evil desires of his carnal nature.

Fourth, Paul writes in verse 16 that God's Spirit in the converted person bears witness that he is one of God's children. Put another way, the Holy Spirit produces testimony, proof, or fruit, that an individual is indeed a son or daughter of God. In effect, the true Christian exhibits the fruit of God's Spirit (Galatians 5:22-23), removing all doubt about his conversion.

If someone claims to be converted yet does not fit these four attributes, he is not truly converted.

We need to grade ourselves on these points. Have we been baptized and received God's Spirit by the laying on of hands? Are we keeping God's law? Are we are overcoming the sins that so easily trip us up? Are we growing in God's righteousness and producing fruit? How far has the conversion process gone in us?

Two passages in Acts provide an additional point to consider, one that tends to cause confusion on the subject of conversion. Acts 2 records the details of the Pentecost after Christ's resurrection, when Peter speaks to the assembled multitude, telling the Jews that they had killed their Savior on Passover:

Now when they heard this, they were cut to the heart, and said to Peter and the rest of the apostles, "Men and brethren, what shall we do?" Then Peter said to them, "Repent, and let every one of you be baptized in the name of Jesus Christ for the remission of sins; and you shall receive the gift of the Holy Spirit. For the promise is to you and to your children, and to all who are afar off, as many as the Lord our God will call. (Acts 2:37-39)

Shortly thereafter, in Acts 3:19, Peter preaches at Solomon's Porch and says something similar: "Repent therefore and be converted, that your sins may be blotted out, so that times of refreshing may come from the presence of the Lord." Peter shows conversion to take place at a definite time and all at once. He says, "Repent and be baptized," and "Repent and be converted." It is like snapping your fingers. Just like that. So when we repent and accept Jesus Christ as our personal Savior, and are baptized and receive the Holy Spirit, we are considered to be "converted." We have forsaken our old way of life and embraced God's.

However, as mentioned briefly above, conversion is also a process, which Part Two will explain.

Friday, November 13, 2009

Comfort-Zone Christianity?

Over the past several days, I have been very uncomfortable. Since my adrenal fatigue set in during the summer of 2008, I have had a more-or-less persistent ache in the area of my right hip. This ache does not keep me from my normal activities; in fact, when I am active—playing softball or volleyball, walking, or doing chores around the house and yard—the dull pain rarely registers on my conscious mind. However, when I sit down, a position I often find myself in at work and at home, the ache returns.

Before the Feast of Tabernacles, the pain had been minimal, and I had hoped that it was going away for good. Yet, since it has returned, my wife, Beth, and I have concluded that the stresses and activities of the Feast, contracting the swine flu at its end, catching up at work after I recovered, a weekend trip to visit the brethren in Trinidad, a busy Sunday of work in the yard, and several nights of interrupted sleep wore me down, bringing on this latest bout of discomfort.

Before we understood the cause of this ache, Beth and I had tried a number of different possible remedies to the problem. Could my hip be out of alignment? I went to see a chiropractor, but his adjustments did not decrease the ache. Was I confusing the pain of a hernia with this ache in my hip? I made an appointment, later cancelled, to see a hernia specialist. Could the ergonomics of my chair and desk at the office be causing a repetitive-stress injury? Beth bought me an exercise ball on which to sit. She also increased certain dietary supplements to strengthen my bones and muscles. I consulted various people about exercises I could do to stretch the muscles and sinews around my hip.

Finally, in doing some research on the Internet regarding adrenal fatigue, I found that sufferers of that stress syndrome sometimes complain about aches in various muscle groups, and the hip area was among the most common. The naturopath with whom I consult agreed that my achy hip was most likely the result of my low adrenal function. Had I had any such ache before the adrenal fatigue set in? No. Had I injured my hip in any way? No. Thus, it is probable that, since the hip ache and adrenal fatigue began together, they are related problems.

I am fairly certain that this is the right diagnosis. When I get the sleep I need for my adrenal glands to generate the required amount of hormones for my body's needs, the ache goes away. Yet, when I am stressed and/or have trouble sleeping, the ache returns. Also, the pain is usually more intense in the evening than in the morning, after I have gone through most of the day's supply of hormones. We are still searching out new ways to alleviate the pain, trying various pain relievers, ointments, homeopathic remedies, massage, and the like, to little avail. The best solution to the problem of my achy hip continues to be a series of good nights' sleep.

It is not difficult to see a simple, spiritual lesson in this process. When a person experiences discomfort, he will immediately and diligently search for a way to alleviate his pain and anxiety and to reach a state of comfort once again. This is a very natural and necessary reaction, for if a person ignores his pain and fear, he stands a good chance of experiencing increased pain, ill health, apprehension, terror, or even death. The discomfort can be any number of troubles, from the rumbling of an empty stomach, the searing agony of burned flesh, or the aching of an abscessed tooth. God made us to react both consciously and subconsciously to these stimuli, and we respond by trying to find remedies to reduce or prevent the pain.

Beyond bodily discomforts and pains are those of emotional, relational, or spiritual natures. We normally work just as hard to solve these sorts of problems because no one enjoys living in the midst of hurts, offenses, confusion, misunderstandings, or similar social ills. We will try to find the source of the problem, whether in ourselves or an offending member of the community, and work to straighten out the predicament, or if kinder methods fail, turn to more stringent measures to bring relief. Sometimes these sterner actions lead to separation from the community, either of the self or of the offending member, to allow peace to return to the group.

The Bible tells us frequently that members of God's church should expect problems to upset their comfort. Peter writes, "Beloved, do not think it strange concerning the fiery trial which is to try [test] you, as though some strange thing happened to you" (I Peter 4:12). Paul concurs: "No temptation has overtaken you except such as is common to man; but God if faithful, who will not allow you to be tempted beyond what you are able" (I Corinthians 10:13). James takes trials as a given, saying, "My brethren, count it all joy when you fall into various trials, knowing that the testing of your faith produces patience" (James 1:2-3). Jesus Himself tells His disciples, "In the world you will have tribulation; but be of good cheer, I have overcome the world" (John 16:33).

While it is full of reward and fulfillment, the Christian life is rarely a smooth road. The quiet, peaceful respite is often the exception rather than the rule. God does not want us to find a cozy comfort zone because that is when we are most likely to slip into dangerous spiritual drowsiness and complacency, which are deadly to overcoming and growth. Instead, He allows various people and circumstances to stir the pot to test us, and in doing so, He urges us to seek out godly solutions to our difficulties, drawing us closer to Him and building godly character in us.

It is certainly true that "the truth shall make you free" (John 8:32), but it is equally true that, in the midst of this ungodly world, the truth makes us unsettled and different. At times, we are even made to face the encroachment of the world and its anti-God ideas into the church, "for," as Paul writes in I Corinthians 11:19, "there must also be factions among you, that those who are approved may be recognized among you." Such severe trials should move us far out of our comfort zones, provoking a search for godly solutions—yet not necessarily with the aim to return us to comfort but to return us to agreement with God. The godly solution to any spiritual trial always confirms the revealed truth of God and strengthens the bonds between God and us and between His true worshippers.

Despite the discomforts of the Christian life, we can take heart in its outcome: ". . . though now for a little while, if need be, you have been grieved by various trials, that the genuineness of your faith, being much more precious than gold that perishes, though it is tested by fire, may be found to praise, honor, and glory at the revelation of Jesus Christ" (I Peter 1:6-7). If we endure to the end, we will find this ultimate solution.

Friday, October 23, 2009

Can the True Church Be Found?

Perhaps the most famous line from the quill of American patriot Thomas Paine is the sentence that opened his pro-revolution pamphlet, The American Crisis, No. 1: "These are the times that try men's souls." We are not living in the same kind of revolutionary period, despite the rebellious rumblings coming from Americans who vehemently disagree with the radical transformation of America envisioned by the Obama administration. Yet, we do live in soul-trying times—in fact, these days rank high on the list of periods in which men's souls, if you will, are at their greatest spiritual risk.

As Herbert Armstrong often said, this is a time of great religious confusion, and it has only become worse since his death in 1986. There are literally thousands of different Christian churches and hundreds of denominations. Beyond that, the religious seeker must contend with the crusading fervor of Islam, the enduring presence of Judaism, the growing influence of Buddhism and other Eastern belief systems, and the persistent appeal of New Age and occult "spiritualities." There is also a rather militant, activist advocacy of atheism to contend with, along with its secular partners, the isms of relativism, multiculturalism, feminism, socialism, and the like, which are simply intellectual and/or political religions—idolatries of the ungodly. Where is a person who is truly seeking God to turn?

Jesus Christ tells His disciples in Matthew 16:18, ". . . on this rock I will build My church, and the gates of Hades [where the dead are, the grave] shall not prevail against it." This is both a prophecy and a promise, and it is based on the authority, power, and faithfulness of God. In this first mention of the Christian church in the Bible, Jesus informs us of its source and foundation: Himself. He is the Rock on which the church rests, and the whole structure built atop it is also His. That is why nothing, not even death, can hope to defeat or destroy it. The church will continue until it has accomplished its purpose—which means that the true church of Jesus Christ is still in existence on the earth, and it can be found.

Of course, one cannot simply decide on one's own to seek it and find it. Many think they can, but they have deluded themselves on this matter. Jesus says very clearly in John 6:44, "No one can come to Me unless the Father who sent Me draws him." No one! The true Christ will not be found unless His Father personally invites some to draw near to Him. God has not chosen to save everyone now, in "this present evil age" (Galatians 1:4), delaying that general calling to a more conducive time (see Revelation 20:11-13). Currently, He is working through a small body of people called "the elect," who are firstfruits of His Kingdom (see Revelation 14:1, 4-5; James 1:18).

Students of the Bible know that "many are called and few are chosen" (Matthew 20:16; 22:14). As the Parable of the Sower and the Seed (Matthew 13:1-9, 18-23) depicts, God casts the gospel far and wide, but only those on "good ground" produce results. These are the chosen, the elect, the little flock (Luke 12:32) of true disciples of Christ. These few are the church or ekklesia ("assembly," "those called out") of God. Revelation 14:1 limits the number of these "called out ones" to 144,000 throughout all of human history up to the return of Christ, a mere remnant of humanity.

Ephesians 1:22-23 tells us that the church is Christ's body and that He is the Head of the body. Clearly, this is a spiritual description of the organization and function of the church in the world. The church of God, then, is not necessarily found in one human organization or denomination; instead, the church is a spiritual organism composed of individual true Christians, wherever they may be. So it was in the first century, when the twelve apostles and Paul scattered over the face of the earth to spread the gospel, raising up congregations everywhere. Whether under Peter or Paul or John or another apostle, the truly converted members were all united in the spiritual body of Christ despite having little or no contact with each other and working within different organizations. Revelation 2-3 more than suggests that the end-time church members will be similarly scattered among at least seven "churches." Whether these are real church organizations or spiritual designations in the mind of God, we cannot say for certain. Nevertheless, to consider only one physical church organization to be the only true church ignores biblical reality.

Even so, there are larger church organizations in which true disciples of Christ congregate. In Romans 8:14, Paul gives us the most important clue concerning how to find the true church: "For as many as are led by the Spirit of God, these are sons of God." True Christians are those who show by their words and behaviors that God is directing them. God, through the prophet Isaiah, speaks of His people, "'You are My witnesses,' says the LORD, ‘and My servant whom I have chosen, that you may know and believe Me, and understand that I am He'" (Isaiah 43:10). This puts a great deal of pressure on church members to represent Him properly before the world.

Perhaps the simplest test to find members of the body of Christ is one spoken by Jesus just before His crucifixion: "If you love Me, keep My commandments" (John 14:15). In other words, Christ's true disciples will be keeping God's commandments—all of them. They will not pick and choose which ones they will keep; they will in faith follow all of them to the best of their abilities. Paul proclaims concerning the church's teaching, "For I have not shunned to declare to you the whole counsel of God" (Acts 20:27). In this vein of endeavoring to follow Jesus' complete instruction, members of the true church will be "go[ing] on to perfection" (Hebrews 6:1), seeking first God's Kingdom and His righteousness (Matthew 6:33), striving to "be perfect, just as [our] Father in heaven is perfect" (Matthew 5:48). These are tall orders that will quickly eliminate most churches of this world.

A minor point, but one that is a good indicator, is that a true church of God will call itself a "church of God" or some similar form. The New Testament names God's church eleven times, and each time it uses such a phrase (Acts 20:28; I Corinthians 1:2; 10:32; 11:22; 15:9; II Corinthians 1:1; Galatians 1:13; I Thessalonians 1:1; II Thessalonians 1:1; I Timothy 3:5, 15). It is not named after a man, a doctrine, a form of church government, or anything other than the great God who is its Lord. To do otherwise gives honor and glory where it does not belong.

Obviously, a search for the true church of God will not be an easy one—like trying to find the proverbial needle in a haystack. It takes a great deal of study on the part of the seeker to know what God's true disciples believe and teach, and it is likely such a person will go through many worldly churches before He finds one of God's churches. However, if God is indeed drawing the individual to Christ, He will put him on the path to make contact with the true church.

Friday, September 25, 2009

The World's Need for Atonement

This past week saw a meeting of the United Nations General Assembly, before which President Barack Obama gave another "historic" speech, or so the media tell us. That same media breathlessly reported about how significant it was that all these world leaders could come to the same place and speak openly about the world situation and try to "embrace a new era of engagement based on mutual interest and mutual respect," as Obama put it in his address. From behind the same lectern, not only would Obama address the assembled delegates, but also Libyan leader Moammar Gadhafi, Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, and Israeli President Benyamin Netanyahu would also speak.

From all the faith that the administration and the media seem to have in this policy of engagement—without preconditions, as Obama has promised—we should expect the dawning of world peace at any moment. Is that not all it takes? All we have to do, according to this formula, is to get world leaders in one room, and after a few handshakes and a couple of beers—voila! World peace! It is so simple: Just let them jabber at each other for a few hours, and they will walk out arm in arm, best friends forever!

If this will work so well for nations with deep-seated enmities and ancient disputes, just think how far it will go in solving our petty personal and domestic problems. Just apply the formula: Gather the fighting parties in one place, tell them that they have mutual interests and need to have mutual respect for one another, and let them talk it out without preconditions or anything. They should be bowling partners before dinnertime!

Seriously, do the administration and media really think we are so naïve? When has this formula worked before? Have we not lived through previous administrations that have tried variations of this policy only to meet with unmitigated failure and reduced international respect? Jimmy Carter tried this with the Iranian revolutionaries when they took Americans hostage at our embassy in Tehran. Did that not embolden terrorists throughout the Muslim world? To them, it was a perfect illustration of the fact that America was weak and easily led about by the nose.

The same could be said for Bill Clinton's disastrous policy in Somalia, where the "Black Hawk Down" scenario played out. The Somali warlords were not appeased in the least by our humanitarian efforts in Mogadishu and elsewhere. American soldiers were sent into that city without the military strength or the standing orders to be effective in anything except as targets for snipers and gangs of militants. Playing nice and being understanding and talking incessantly about peace did nothing but put Americans in harm's way—in Somalia and around the world—because it was clear to Muslim extremists that America was still soft and could not stand to see bloodshed.

So it was just nine months into the George W. Bush presidency that al Qaida hijacked four domestic airliners, flying two of them into the World Trade Center in New York City, crashing one of them into the Pentagon in Washington, DC, and plunging the last into the ground in Pennsylvania. About 3,000 people lost their lives because Islamic fundamentalists believed that, because America had been all talk and little action in the recent past, it would be a pushover this time too. However, they failed to realize that the Bush administration was made of sterner stuff, and America's retaliation was severe, at least in comparison to its former lackadaisical behavior.

This is the real world, but the Obama administration is looking at it through rose-colored glasses. Tyrants cannot be talked out of power. Millennia-long conflicts cannot be solved by timely concessions and photo-op handshakes. Radical ideologies cannot be disputed with reasonable arguments so that their adherents suddenly say, "Sorry! I was wrong."

That is not how the real world works. Tyrants fight to the death to hold onto their power. Ancient feuds blaze into war. Radical ideologies are stamped out—if that—only by overwhelming force. Human nature guarantees that this is the only way it works because human nature rarely, if ever, thinks that it is wrong. In fact, human nature will often choose death before surrender. This is the simple reason why humanity has never progressed into any kind of "Golden Age" of universal peace, mutual understanding, and prosperity. Our nature will not allow us to.

Obama's policy will fail, just as Bush's did, Clinton's did, Reagan's did, and Carter's did. Mankind cannot find the way to peace because it is not in man to be at peace. Even if peace suddenly broke out all over the world, it would soon pass—very soon—and the people of the world would be back at each other's throats in no time. On this, the prophet Isaiah writes, "Their works are works of iniquity, and the act of violence is in their hands. Their feet run to evil, and they make haste to shed innocent blood; their thoughts are thoughts of iniquity; wasting and destruction are in their paths. The way of peace they have not known" (Isaiah 59:6-8).

Yet, the same prophet predicts, "It shall come to pass in the latter days that . . . they shall beat their swords into plowshares, and their spears into pruning hooks; nation shall not lift up sword against nation, neither shall they learn war anymore" (Isaiah 2:2, 4). What happens between the utter sinful, violent chaos of this world and that peaceful world to come?
Two things: The first is mentioned in Isaiah 2: "The mountain of the LORD's house shall be established" (verse 2). This is a reference to the return of Jesus Christ in power to rule all nations with a rod of iron (Revelation 19:11-15). Because of mankind's recalcitrant nature, He will be forced to deal with humanity sternly, as a conquering King, because man has rejected Him as the gentle and loving Lamb of God. He will set things right. This intervention in human affairs is foreshadowed in the Feast of Trumpets (Leviticus 23:23-25).

Yet, that is not enough; the second event must occur, which is seen in the Day of Atonement or Yom Kippur, as the Jews call it. In the typical ritual of Leviticus 16 is illustrated what will happen after Christ's return. Two goats are selected, one to be sacrificed to pay for the sins of the people (fulfilled by the sacrifice of Jesus on Golgotha), and one to carry the guilt of sin and be led into the wilderness. This latter type will be fulfilled when Satan the Devil is captured and imprisoned in the Bottomless Pit (Revelation 20:1-3), where he will not be able to influence mankind with his rebellious, sinful, destructive attitudes (see II Corinthians 4:4 Ephesians 2:2-3; Revelation 12:9; etc.).

Until the minds of human beings are freed from this constant persuasion to live selfishly, there can be no peace. Such is our need—the world's need—for the atonement only God can supply.

Friday, September 18, 2009

Coming: A Truly Benevolent Ruler

In Mark Twain's A Connecticut Yankee in King Arthur's Court, the hero, a hard-boiled nineteenth-century New Englander by the name of Hank Morgan, opines that the best government is a benevolent dictatorship—particularly one with him at its head. However, a major problem with benevolent dictatorship is that what seems benevolent to one person—the dictator—appears tyrannical to another. As C.S. Lewis once wrote, "Of all tyrannies, a tyranny exercised for the good of its victims may be the most oppressive."

In light of human nature, this is very true. What is good for the goose may not actually be good for the gander. One-size-fits-all solutions tend to be very confining for those whose "size" is uncommon. While most of humanity may not be too far off the norm—whatever that may be—people are so varied that the extremes are quite distant from the mean. Try asking Kentucky Derby-winning jockey Calvin Borel to clomp around in Shaquille O'Neal's shoes! The same goes for government policies. For instance, a general healthcare plan will not cover everyone's needs; someone—in fact, many people—will have diseases and infirmities that are not specifically covered. These people will either be out of luck or have to find an expensive alternative.

A program may work on a small scale yet not be viable on a large one. Some intellectual may have a wonderful idea regarding preschool childcare, and in laboratory-like conditions, it may work superbly. However, it may be entirely impractical to roll a program like that out on a nationwide basis either because of regional educational differences, dissimilar facilities, different levels of funding, differences in teachers and administrators, etc. Besides, not all parents want or need their children to participate in preschool childcare.

Finally, even for themselves, human beings have a limited understanding of what would work best, but their perception of what is best for others is inadequate to say the least. Some people are very happy to live alone and not be bothered by anyone, anytime. Yet, there are millions of Americans, it seems, who have little objection to some aspect of government poking into their affairs on a regular basis. How much is too little or too much government? What human leader has the correct answer to this?

In addition, even if the dictator is the wisest man in the world, the benevolent dictatorship literally has a terminal problem: The dictator will eventually die. He will have to give his power to somebody who is probably not as benevolent as he is. In fact, his heir will probably be a sniveling wastrel or an arrogant thug. Solomon bemoans this fact himself in Ecclesiastes 2:18-19, 21:

Then I hated all my labor in which I had toiled under the sun, because I must leave it to the man who will come after me. And who knows whether he will be wise or a fool? Yet he will rule over all my labor in which I toiled and in which I have shown myself wise under the sun. This also is vanity. . . . For there is a man whose labor is with wisdom, knowledge, and skill; yet he must leave his heritage to a man who has not labored for it. This also is vanity and a great evil.

As much as he tried to make his kingdom, the nation of Israel, great and wonderful, he had to leave it to his son—and he could see that his son, Rehoboam, was nowhere close to his level of genius. But we know the story: Solomon himself did not turn out to be very benevolent, as he overworked and overtaxed his own people to complete his massive building projects. His ironic complaint ends up being just a conceit of one who felt he was a great, benevolent leader.

Surely, many of us have said, "If I were the President, I would [insert your own grandiose plan here]!" Have we not been converted and have the mind of Christ (I Corinthians 2:16)? Do we not know the kind of government and changes this world really needs? Yet, even if we knew all the right policies to enact and enforce, and we did our job perfectly, we would ultimately be failures because we will die. We have only to look at the history of the kings of Israel and Judah to realize that good kings were followed by bad kings, and the people ultimately suffered for it. Even the most godly and benevolent policies and institutions fail because they cannot be perpetuated beyond a generation or perhaps two.

These reasons are why the only answer to humanity's problems is the return of Jesus Christ to set up His Kingdom and rule with a rod of iron (Revelation 19:15). Only our Creator knows what humans really need, as well as how and when to give it to them. And being immortal, He will never have to relinquish His throne to an inferior heir. His will be the ultimate benevolent dictatorship.

Once He has established His government on the earth and instituted His righteous, just, and equitable policies over Israel, they will begin to bring peace and prosperity to all who follow them. Others will see the joy that His way of life provides to His people, and they will seek His governance over them. His rule will spread over all the earth in perpetuity. In fact, I Corinthians 15:25 tells us, "For He must reign till He has put all enemies under His feet."

The church of God will be observing the Feast of Trumpets tomorrow, the holy day the Jews call Rosh Hashanah. We believe that God's holy days, described and commanded in Leviticus 23, reveal to us God's plan of salvation for all humanity. The Feast of Trumpets is the fourth of the seven annual holy days, sitting in the central position of God's plan, and the great event that it symbolizes is the wonderful return of Jesus Christ to establish the Kingdom of God on earth.

On this holy day, we look forward to the time of God's direct intervention into the affairs of humanity, to bring divine order and peace to a chaotic, war-torn, immoral, and deceived world. While some may scorn this as an impossible Utopian vision, we merely point to the pages of the Bible and Christ's promise, "And if I go and prepare a place for you, I will come again and receive you to Myself; that where I am,there you may be also" (John 14:3). We would like nothing better than to live under the benevolent rule of our King, and thus we pray, "Your kingdom come" (Matthew 6:10).

Friday, September 11, 2009

9-11 and American Decadence

This morning marked the eighth anniversary of the attack on the World Trade Center buildings in New York City by Islamic fundamentalists. On that day of tragedy, nearly three thousand people of all ages and ethnicities lost their lives in an act of terrorism that is still being avenged by American troops in Afghanistan. Most of the masterminds behind the attack are still at large, especially Osama bin Laden, the head of al Qaeda, who, in spite of an incessant manhunt, remains in hiding somewhere in the remote, mountainous wilderness of Afghanistan or Pakistan. September 11, 2001, was a horrible day for the United States of America, and it continues to reverberate through its people.

Curiously, the question of whom to blame is also still being debated. Although a surprisingly hefty minority believes 9-11 was an "inside job" by the U.S. government to incite the country into going to war for oil and to suppress Americans' freedoms to a greater extent, most people place the blame squarely on the shoulders of bin Laden and his fellow radical Muslims. Islamic terrorists have been plaguing U.S. assets, installations, and citizens for at least four decades, escalating their attacks as often as they can. In addition, they have targeted our allies all over the globe, from Israel to Britain to Australia to Denmark. Guilt for these atrocities is not hard to place.

If that is so clear, where is the controversy?

The arguments begin when anyone even remotely suggests that we Americans played a role in bringing these attacks upon ourselves. This morning on a Charlotte radio station, the host played a clip of a local Christian minister quoting Chuck Colson's May 4, 2006, "BreakPoint" broadcast titled "Decadence and Vulnerability":

Now, we want to be careful not to blame the victim—that is, to blame innocent Americans for murderous attacks against them. At the same time, let's understand how America's increasing decadence is, in a sense, giving aid and comfort to the enemy. When we tolerate increasing amounts of trash on television, when we permit pornography and gambling to invade our homes via the Internet, when we allow babies to be killed at the point of birth, we are fueling the flames of radical Islam. And when we talk about legitimizing homosexuality by granting same-sex relationships the status of marriage, we're giving powerful ammunition to those who use America's decadence to recruit more snipers and hijackers and suicide bombers. We're also making it much more difficult for Christian pastors and missionaries to win the hearts and minds of Muslims around the world—one more very good reason we need to clean up our act.

Colson plainly states that his intention is not to blame the victim but to show that America's increasingly secular and decadent culture adds fuel to the fire of Islamic fundamentalists' hatred. In their eyes, we are already infidels, and every instance of immorality that they see coming from the depraved West reinforces their belief of divine justification in putting us to slaughter. They are religious fanatics who, like a crazed rapist blaming his victim, feel that their horrid crimes are entirely warranted because their enemies had it coming to them. Colson writes:

Mark Galli . . . in Christianity Today . . . noted that Islamic militants are angry at the West for exporting "hedonism and materialism into their very homes through television, enticing Muslims to become religiously lazy and morally corrupt." Galli quoted a 1985 communique from the terrorist group Hezbollah which said, in part: "Our way is one of radical combat against depravity, and America is the original root of depravity." Members of these groups see themselves, not as terrorists, but as holy warriors fighting a holy war against Western decadence.

Had Colson suggested that a Christian reformation in America would stop Islamic terrorism against America and Americans, he would have been wrong. While he does suggest that a moral revival would modify Muslim impressions of Americans, it does not change the fact that we would still be infidels to them. They would still want to convert us to Islam either by persuasion or by the sword, for that is the aggressive nature of the religion.

However, Colson is a Christian minister whose focus is reaching and teaching the individual believer, not the whole society, although he would undoubtedly be thrilled if his teaching convinced all Americans to live moral lives. In his own way, he is doing his best to plant seeds of biblical truth that may one day sprout and mature, turning one person at a time away from the excesses of the modern American lifestyle. He knows, as many Christians know, that America's problems are moral and spiritual in nature, and if this nation is to solve its growing problems, the solutions to them must be moral and spiritual as well.

That being said, we would be foolish to leave God out of the equation. Notice Psalm 11:4-7:

The LORD is in His holy temple, the LORD'S throne is in heaven; His eyes behold, His eyelids test the sons of men. The LORD tests the righteous, but the wicked and the one who loves violence His soul hates. Upon the wicked He will rain coals; fire and brimstone and a burning wind shall be the portion of their cup. For the LORD is righteous, He loves righteousness; His countenance beholds the upright.

This is David's poetic way of saying that God is not playing intergalactic Space Invaders® while we humans run wild over planet Earth. No, God is watching. He tests mankind to check where they fall against His standards. If they are righteous, He extends His loving kindness and blessing, but if they are evil, He sends punishment in various forms of destruction. He is not a sap who lets decadence have the upper hand for long—witness Sodom and Gomorrah (Genesis 19).

There is plenty of blame to go around for the disaster of September 11, 2001. Certainly, the Islamists who perpetrated it bear most of it. Yet, we must also acknowledge that American culture is far from righteous, and God is amply justified in chastising this country. The question is: Have we learned its lessons?

Saturday, September 5, 2009

A Strengthening Germany

Forerunner, "WorldWatch," September-October 2009

September's general elections in Germany saw the Christian Democratic Union (CDU), led by Chancellor Angela Merkel, remain in power. The CDU formed a conservative coalition with the Free Democratic Party (FDP) led by Guido Westerwelle, but without a doubt, the Chancellor's party will be at the helm, particularly in the area of foreign policy. With amicable German-American relations over the last several decades, it would seem that they would continue to be "steady as she goes" into the foreseeable future. However, the signs are that rough seas are ahead.

Westerwelle, the next Foreign Minister, may indeed want to craft a pro-American foreign policy. His own views fit very nicely with American aims. For instance, the FDP campaigned on staying committed to the Afghan War. Like U.S. President Barack Obama, Westerwelle wants to pressure both Russia and China on human-rights issues and also desires the removal of nuclear warheads from Germany. On the questions of Iran and Israel-Palestine, he supports the current American approach of engagement and dialogue.

However, Germany has its own self-interests that will surely trump any altruistic desire to remain a staunch junior partner of America, no matter how enthusiastic both Germans in general and the government are about Obama himself. Having broken free of its Cold War restraints, Germany is beginning to use its considerable weight in Europe and elsewhere to proclaim that her presence will be felt on the world stage.

Berlin's initial unilateral action has been seen in the energy sector. Most of Germany's energy—in the forms of oil and natural gas—comes from Russia, making its industry reliant on Moscow's whim. During past winters, Russia has used its power to threaten to shut down its westward pipelines as a cudgel to force price concessions on Europe, and Germany does not want to be manipulated again.

One of the new government's policies concerns its aging nuclear power plants. The plan is to extend the life of the current reactors and to begin construction on new ones, thereby reducing the country's dependence on Russian energy. Further, to offset Moscow's displeasure in losing the German market, Berlin wants to invest in Russian ventures and to build oil and gas lines through Germany and/or the nearby Baltic Sea to become a conduit of Russian energy to other European nations. As a bonus, Germany would earn revenue by charging transit fees to recipient countries.

In Europe, Germany is undoubtedly the dominant state in terms of geography, population, and economic strength on the continent—with only France as a distant rival—and it is using its heft to push its objectives in the European Union. In tandem with France, Germany is the main force behind the retry of ratifying the Lisbon Treaty and subsequently the selection of an EU president and foreign minister. Once those things are a fait accompli, Berlin's agenda—moderated only by an often-compliant France and a currently weakened Britain—will effectively be Europe's agenda. With the combined economies of the EU states behind it, Germany's voice will have to be taken seriously in Washington, Moscow, and Beijing.

In addition, Germany recently crossed another boundary line that divorces it from its post-World-War-II passivity. Just this spring, German military forces took part in a two-week offensive in northern Afghanistan, for the first time using heavy weapons and armored vehicles in firefights in an effort to repulse the Taliban from the region. Germany's 4,300 troops are now the third-largest national contingent in Afghanistan, trailing only the U.S. and Britain. It is likely that additional troops, perhaps as many as 2,000, will be sent to the region when the U.S. military's Afghan surge finally takes place.

And it is not just the German government that is becoming more confident. On May 23, 2009, Germans celebrated the Federal Republic's 60th anniversary with an outburst of German pride, waving thousands of black, red, and yellow flags, a practice once frowned upon as too nationalistic—too Nazi or neo-Nazi. In addition, the University of Stuttgart published a study earlier this year, reporting that 75 percent of respondents were proud to be German "despite the country's history," which was twice as many as responded positively to a similar question in 2001. As the older generation and its guilt continue to wane, the German people feel increasingly patriotic and unhampered by the nation's aggressive past.

As an analyst wrote in Stratfor's September 29, 2009, Geopolitical Diary, "The Return of Germany":

Germany is awake. It is thinking for itself. It has its own policy preferences, its own energy preferences and its own security preferences. It already is showing signs of developing autonomy in foreign policy and energy matters, and it is very likely only a matter of time before it starts developing autonomy in security matters.

This isn't your father's (or even your grandfather's) Germany. This is your great-grandfather's Germany.
The church of God has long identified Germany with the Bible's fierce Assyrians—"the rod of My anger" (Isaiah 10:5), sent to punish the idolatrous Israelites for their ungodliness. In verse 7, God remarks on the Assyrian character in a way that seems to fit Germany historically: ". . . it is in his heart to destroy, and cut off not a few nations." The nations of Europe have long feared German dominance on the continent for just this reason, having seen the horrific destruction caused by two German-instigated World Wars. To be sure, even in this time of peaceful relations among Western nations, there are many Europeans nervously wondering what Berlin will do next.

Friday, August 28, 2009

Liberal Lion or Liberal Lyin'?

With the death of longtime Massachusetts Senator Edward "Ted" Kennedy this past week, the American people are provided another "teachable moment" in this summer of teachable moments. According to the mainstream media, with the exception of a few courageous pundits on Fox News, Kennedy was "the Lion of the Senate," a shaggy but noble figure whose very presence in the world's most exclusive club brought progress and bipartisanship to an otherwise unruly and divided collection of decidedly lesser beings. Whatever the measure before the Senate, he could forge an alliance with a colleague across the aisle and craft a compromise bill that made both sides giddy with feelings of accomplishment and victory.

Okay, time to wake up from our trip to Fantasyland.

Granted, Kennedy was by all accounts an affable, likable fellow in public and private and certainly toward those who shared his liberal vision. It is also true that he spent 47 years in the Senate making deals with moderate or liberal Republican Senators to push through legislation that incrementally accomplished his goals. Finally, it is difficult to find even political enemies of his who will speak disparagingly of him as a person, especially now that he is dead. Evidently, despite his money, power, position, and "Kennedy aura," he was a jovial, amiable man.

Yet, here is the teachable moment: Notwithstanding the charming veneer, Ted Kennedy was not a good man, and his politics were not beneficial for the United States. All of this begs the question: Why are Americans constantly duped by well-dressed, well-spoken snake-oil salesmen posing as concerned advocates for needed progress? From Franklin Delano Roosevelt to John F. Kennedy to Jimmy Carter to Bill Clinton and now to Barack Obama, Americans seem to love liberals who promise utopia yet produce only more government control and spend more of our money.

In spite of the mainstream media's self-imposed silence on the matter, Ted Kennedy's sins are well-known. His appetites for alcohol and women are legendary. The most notorious incident of his life occurred in July 1969 on Chappaquiddick Island. Young Mary Jo Kopechne died in a fathom of water under Dike Bridge, after the first-term Senator, who was married, panicked and left the overturned, submerged car in which they had been driving home from a party. Kennedy later returned with two friends to rescue her, but he never reported the accident to authorities. The car was pulled from the water the following morning and identified as his, whereupon he gave a statement to the police.

He later pleaded guilty to leaving the scene of an accident after causing injury. The judge gave him a suspended two-month sentence, and his license was suspended for about sixteen months. At the inquest, requested to be held secretly by Kennedy-family lawyers, the presiding judge found that Kennedy had been negligent, but the district attorney decided not to pursue manslaughter charges against him. The next year, Kennedy was reelected to his seat, receiving 62% of the vote.

His actions at Chappaquiddick affected the lives of only a small number of people, but his numerous political actions throughout his Senate career involved millions of Americans. His first major piece of legislation was the Immigration and Nationality Act of 1965, the law that in essence opened the floodgates to millions of illegal aliens, producing the immigration fiasco this country now faces. About it, Kennedy declaimed on the floor of the Senate:

First, our cities will not be flooded with a million immigrants annually. Under the proposed bill, the present level of immigration remains substantially the same. . . . Secondly, the ethnic mix of this country will not be upset. . . . Contrary to the charges in some quarters, [the bill] will not inundate America with immigrants from any one country or area, or the most populated and deprived nations of Africa and Asia. . . . In the final analysis, the ethnic pattern of immigration under the proposed measure is not expected to change as sharply as the critics seem to think. . . . The bill will not flood our cities with immigrants. It will not upset the ethnic mix of our society. It will not relax the standards of admission. It will not cause American workers to lose their jobs.

In fact, the critics were correct, as subsequent events have proved.

He is also known for his devastating, Senate-floor attack on Judge Robert Bork, only minutes after his nomination to the Supreme Court was announced by then-President Ronald Reagan. Judge Bork is a highly intelligent, civilized, even witty man, but one would think he was nothing short of Hitlerian after hearing Kennedy's scathing verbal assault:

Robert Bork's America is a land in which women would be forced into back-alley abortions, blacks would sit at segregated lunch counters, rogue police could break down citizens' doors in midnight raids, schoolchildren could not be taught about evolution, writers and artists could be censored at the whim of the Government, and the doors of the Federal courts would be shut on the fingers of millions of citizens for whom the judiciary is—and is often the only—protector of the individual rights that are the heart of our democracy.

In this spirit, he and other Senators engaged in an unprecedented offensive to scuttle Bork's nomination, an action that has become a recognized verb, "to bork." Judge Bork has since written that Kennedy later said it was "nothing personal," but as vicious as the attack was, that is hardly likely.

Lastly, the present healthcare reform legislation is as much the product of his mind and ambitions as anyone's. With his death, Democrats are seriously considering placing his name on the bill, changing it from the wounded "Obamacare" to "Kennedycare," a more sympathetic moniker. No matter what it will ultimately be called, it will still be horribly damaging to American freedom, the healthcare system, and the free-market economy.

Which bring us back to the "teachable moment." How long have we known and repeated the old saying, "Don't judge a book by its cover?" It is clear that, as a nation, we have not learned the lesson. Have we in God's church learned it? Can we tell a good man from a bad one? Can we discern a servant of God from a servant of Satan? Can we tell the difference between true, godly love and human nature's counterfeit? Remember Paul's command in I Thessalonians 5:21: "Test all things; hold fast what is good."

Friday, August 21, 2009

Nonsense and Senselessness

When did the world stop making sense? Perhaps it has not made much sense for a long while, but lately it seems to have taken a definite turn toward the nonsensical, especially here in the United States. We Americans pride ourselves on being grounded and self-sufficient, full of practical know-how and a can-do attitude that can solve any problem or overcome any obstacle to our ambitions. Four centuries of history on this continent chronicles the efforts of a nation of pioneers and achievers in just about every area of endeavor. We filled a continent, fed the world, split the atom, and put men on the moon, not to mention our building the world’s most powerful military and becoming the world’s lone superpower. Much of this occurred because men and women used sound knowledge and reason to find ways that work.

Such soundness of mind appears to be rare these days. Unlike the overhyped swine flu, America’s loss of her senses seems to be a true pandemic. All over the country and in many different areas of life, people are making foolish choices, based not on facts and outcomes but on hopes and fears ginned up by Madison Avenue blitzes and eloquent hucksters. All it takes is a pretty or handsome face, a bit of enthusiasm, some flash and sizzle, and the average person is hooked.

The so-called solution to this crisis—healthcare reform, Obamacare—is itself mindboggling in its absurdity. On his August 20, 2009, radio show, Rush Limbaugh, never shy about saying what he thinks about liberal policies and initiatives, commented insightfully:

Obama's health care plan will be written by a committee whose head, John Conyers, says he doesn't understand it. It'll be passed by Congress that has not read it, signed by a president who . . .smokes, funded by a Treasury chief who didn't pay his taxes, overseen by a Surgeon General who is obese, and financed by a country that's nearly broke. What could possibly go wrong?

Of course, his comment does not even consider the details of the massive reform bill passed by the House of Representatives, many of which will radically alter the way Americans will receive and pay for healthcare. In short, the proposed bill will take healthcare choices out of the hands of patients and doctors and give them to government bureaucrats and appointees. Clearly, its proponents eventually want to drag Americans into a single-payer system along the lines of Canada’s or Britain’s government-run healthcare monopolies.

What seems to be lost in all of the dickering over details is the fundamental matter of constitutionality. Does the Constitution of the United States even allow the federal government to run a healthcare system? Instead of being ignored, this should have been the first question America’s elected leaders—sworn to uphold the Constitution—asked themselves, but they are willing to let their negligence pass quietly unnoticed because healthcare reform will accrue far more power to government and its allies than just about any other scheme. In fact, the present hullaballoo created in these town hall meetings does not concern them, as it only deepens and widens the confusion and exasperation among the electorate and validates the idea that healthcare reform is legitimate, necessary, and urgent.

Could this senselessness and confusion be a fulfillment of Bible prophecy? In the blessings and curses chapter, God promises to send a kind of foolish madness upon Israel when the people fail to obey Him:

The LORD will send on you cursing, confusion, and rebuke in all that you set your hand to do, until you are destroyed and until you perish quickly, because of the wickedness of your doings in which you have forsaken Me. . . . The LORD will strike you with madness and blindness and confusion of heart. And you shall grope at noonday, as a blind man gropes in darkness; you shall not prosper in your ways; you shall be only oppressed and plundered continually, and no one shall save you. (Deuteronomy 28:20, 28-29)

His spiritual people, however, His church, can be spared this plague of irrationality: “For God has not given us a spirit of fear, but of power and of love and of a sound mind” (II Timothy 1:7). “We have the mind of Christ” (I Corinthians 2:16), giving us the ability to see, ponder, and choose the right with wisdom and foresight. We can expose the nonsense of this world and provide the proven answers from God’s Word (Ephesians 5:11-13).

The apostle Paul advises, “See then that you walk circumspectly, not as fools but as wise, redeeming the time, because the days are evil. Therefore do not be unwise, but understand what the will of the Lord is” (Ephesians 5:15-17). As the confusion and nonsense mounts in the world, Christians must make no delay in seeking God and His Word for what makes eternal sense.

Friday, July 17, 2009

The Face of Identity Politics

This week, the country witnessed the heavily televised confirmation hearings on the nomination of Judge Sonia Sotomayor to the Supreme Court. Besides the rather galling partisan support (read: fawning infatuation) that she received from the majority Democrats on the Senate Judiciary Committee before whom she appeared, the "wise Latina" from the Second Circuit Court of Appeals, obviously intently coached by the Obama administration, deflected and sidestepped most questions concerning her controversial statements, rulings, and associations. While she in no way did this deftly—her comments and answers were often rambling and occasionally non-sequiturs—she did it well enough to avoid causing any fatal harm to her nomination.

However, her answers were disingenuous at the very least. Commenting on Sotomayor's second-day testimony, Georgetown law professor Mike Seidman, an avowed liberal, said: "I was completely disgusted by Judge Sotomayor's testimony today. If she was not perjuring herself, she is intellectually unqualified to be on the Supreme Court. If she was perjuring herself, she is morally unqualified." In this instance, he was reacting to one of her answers that obviously contradicted a core belief and practice, that a judge cannot just simply apply the law to the facts of a case—in other words, that a judge must use his or her beliefs, background, and presuppositions to come to a conclusion on a matter. In essence, this is the "empathy" argument that has been so hotly debated since Obama announced her nomination. She went so far in her denial as to say, "I wouldn't approach the issue of judging in the way the President does."

Even early supporters like the Washington Post's Eva Rodrigues wrote: "I'm surprised and disturbed by how many times today Sonia Sotomayor has backed off of or provided less-than-convincing explanations for some of her more controversial speeches about the role of gender and ethnicity in judicial decision-making." She even claimed that she had never read—more, was unaware of—the Puerto Rican Legal Defense and Education Fund legal arguments in Ricci v. DeStefano, otherwise known as the New Haven, Connecticut, firefighters case. From 1980 to 1992, Sotomayor sat on the board of directors of this nonprofit law group, where she was a top policy maker. Since she had herself ruled on the case—and was later overturned by the Supreme Court—it is almost impossible to believe that she was unaware of what her former organization had argued about it.

This particular case has become the poster child, as it were, for the brand of political and judicial activism that Sonia Sotomayor endorses and practices: identity politics. The case involved a test given to firefighters who wished to be promoted. As it turned out, only whites and one Hispanic achieved the required grades to earn promotion, so New Haven's powers that be decided not to certify the results, claiming that the test was unfair to blacks and other minorities. The lawsuit, by the firemen who passed the test, claimed that New Haven had discriminated against them racially—what is commonly called reverse racism. Sotomayor, along with a small panel of other Second Circuit judges, upheld a lower court ruling that found for the city. Her ruling is one among many in which she decisively favors minorities regardless of the merits of the case.

In another case, Gant v. Wallingford Board of Education (1999), the parents of a black student sued, claiming that their son had been harassed due to his race and that the school had discriminated against him by demoting him from first grade to kindergarten without their consent. The parents maintained that white students in the same situation were treated differently. Due to the lack of evidence of harassment, Sotomayor was forced to agree with the dismissal of that claim, but wrote that she would have allowed the discrimination claim to go forward because the grade-demotion was "contrary to the school's established policies." This, she said in her dissent, along with the school's typical treatment of white students, "supports the inference that race discrimination played a role."

In testifying before the Senate Judiciary Committee, columnist Linda Chavez urged the Senators not to confirm Sotomayor, saying, "It is clear from her record that she has drunk deep from the well of identity politics." Later in her testimony, she said:

Judge Sotomayor's offensive words [the "wise Latina" statements] are a reflection of her much greater body of work as an ethnic activist and judge. Identity politics is at the core of who this woman is. And let me be clear here, I am not talking about the understandable pride in one's ancestry or ethnic roots, which is both common and natural in a country as diverse and pluralistic as ours. Identity politics involves a sense of grievance against the majority, a feeling that racism permeates American society and its institutions, and the belief that members of one's own group are victims in a perpetual power struggle with the majority.

Chavez went on to cite many instances of Sotomayor's involvement in identity politics, from her undergraduate days to her time with the Puerto Rican Legal Defense and Education Fund and to her well-known views that the death penalty and English-language requirements are racist. She concluded her remarks with:

Although she has attempted this week to back away from her own words—and has accused her critics of taking them out of context—the record is clear: Identity politics is at the core of Judge Sotomayor's self-definition. It has guided her involvement in advocacy groups, been the topic of much of her public writing and speeches, and influenced her interpretation of law.

There is no reason to believe that her elevation to the Supreme Court will temper this inclination, and much reason to fear that it will play an important role in how she approaches the cases that will come before her if she is confirmed.

The U.S. Constitution, along with its amendments, is a document that recognizes certain rights as granted to Americans regardless of race, origin, religion, creed, gender, and social station. Although it has been used as one, it is not a club by which minorities can beat concessions out of the majority. In both its wording and its intent, every citizen is supposed to receive equal treatment under the law. And the nation's judges all the way up to the Supreme Court are to rule under this principle, taken directly from the Bible:

Hear the cases between your brethren, and judge righteously between a man and his brother or the stranger who is with him. You shall not show partiality in judgment; you shall hear the small as well as the great; you shall not be afraid in any man's presence, for the judgment is God's. (Deuteronomy 1:16-17, emphasis ours)

It is curious that this "wise Latina" cannot understand that, if she fought for impartiality, we would truly have a "color-blind" society, the purported goal of intellectual progressives for decades. Yet, it is naïve to say so, since that is not what they want at all; they want power, not equality. And Sotomayor, the new face of identity politics, will now be in a position to wield it.