Friday, September 18, 2020

We Have a Choice

Frances Price Baxter has been described as a salesman and a visionary. At one time he served as an elder in the church, but he had a lot of grandiose ideas, most of which did not work out. Eventually he obtained a divorce from his wife and abandoned his family – going off to marry someone else and showing no further concern for his family. The family never spoke of him.

According to some, that should have doomed his descendants to failure, maybe even justified them in taking to a life of crime.

But the son of Price Baxter did not allow his father’s wrongdoing to ruin his life. He became a preacher and eventually a college president. In fact, that son of Price Baxter served as the president of three different colleges (Abilene, Lipscomb, and Pepperdine).

Yet Batsell Baxter is not best known for his preaching or his work with the colleges. Batsell Baxter is best remembered because he became the father of Batsell Barrett Baxter, the best-known preacher and educator among Churches of Christ during my youth. Batsell Barrett Baxter was the most effective television preacher I ever heard. B.B.B. could stand in an empty studio, look into the camera, and people watching at home would feel as if he truly cared about them. Unlike many who were both college teachers and preachers, Batsell Barrett Baxter was excellent in both occupations.

Yes, it is true, some of us had better home lives than others. But the point is that things can be turned around. Price Baxter abandoned his family. His son decided to do better. He had such a peaceful home that his only son would later say that his parents only had one major disagreement of which he was aware. That disagreement was settled by a brief walk in the garden.

In a single generation the Baxter family went from the tragedy of divorce, to a level of harmony rarely experienced in any home. And in the next generation the Baxter family produced one of the finest evangelists of all time.

We have a choice. We can use our family history as an excuse. Or we can learn from it and do better.


Tuesday, September 15, 2020

Why Did God Allow Sin?


It is a common question. If God knew that mankind would sin, and that sin would bring untold misery to the world, why did he create us to begin with? Why did God allow sin to happen? I have been asked the question, in one form or another, many times.

Brownlow North (1810-1875) was asked the question as well. He replied, “Because God chose to allow sin.” While at first glance that does not seem to be a very satisfactory response, it is really about all we know. God chose to create us, even though he knew we would be sinners, and that our sin would cause untold amounts of suffering. Yet he chose to do so, and he did not choose to explain his reasons to us. We can speculate on them if we choose to do so, but the reasons that we offer are reasons of our own making. God never tells us why. He, of his own free and sovereign will, chose to do so. If we are honest, we will admit that this is as far as we can get for certain.

Romans 9 teaches us that the created is not to ask the creator why he created. It is not our place to know God’s reasons. It is likely that if he told us we could not understand. He is free and sovereign, and he chose to create us. That is as far as we can speak with certainty.

But while thinking on the fact that God chose to create, even knowing that we would sin, we should also consider something else that he did of his own free and sovereign will. He sent Jesus.

Yes, he could see, as he created beings in his own image, that doing so would allow sin to occur. For making us in his image means that we have within a limited sphere a freedom and sovereignty like he has without limitation. He knew that allowing us this freedom allowed sin, and that sin would lead to suffering, often to innocent suffering. In particular, he knew that it would lead to extreme suffering for one completely innocent human.

Why did God allow sin? For the same reason that he sent Jesus, because he chose to do so. In creating us he knew that he would suffer for it. But he chose to create and he chose to suffer. He has the freedom to so choose; and he has accepted the consequences and the suffering entailed in those choices.

Now for a more answerable question. “What will we choose?”

Sunday, August 16, 2020

Distancing

Social distancing is more widely practiced now than in the past, but it is hardly a new concept. Most of us have always put a little extra distance between ourselves and a person who is coughing or sneezing. As children, we were taught to cover our mouth when we cough. Most of us had enough sense to avoid shaking hands after coughing, even before the pandemic. We do not want to spread germs. We do not want to contract an illness, so we keep our distance. That tendency may be amplified now, but it is not new. 

 We keep our distance from germs that might damage our physical health, but all too often we invite spiritual illness into our lives, and into the lives of our children. There was a time when schoolteachers could be dismissed if they had a contagious disease (either physical or spiritual). We still expect that the school board will not allow a teacher with tuberculous into the classroom. But we accept it calmly when they hire persons known for immorality as teachers. Which is worse? When she was a child, my mother-in-law contracted tuberculous from a schoolteacher. She survived, but even if she had died, it would only have been her body. 

When we cozy up to immorality, and allow the immoral to teach our children, we are inviting their spiritual death. That is far worse. We are told to “Flee immorality” (1 Cor 6:18). All too often, we are doing the opposite. We must remember that the friend of the world is an enemy of God (James 4:4). Let’s put some distance between ourselves and sin. 

 “For what will it profit a man if he gains the whole world and forfeits his soul? Or what shall a man give in return for his soul?” (Matthew 16:26, ESV)

Friday, August 7, 2020

Varied Reactions

After quoting a letter praising one of the sermons of Brownlow North, his biographer goes on to say, “Strange to say, the sermon which awoke such a strain of thanksgiving … and brought her sweet note of gratitude, awoke bitter opposition in another breast and brought an angry and rude letter ….” The same sermon, but a different reaction.

When Jesus healed the man with a withered hand (Mk 3), I am sure that the man himself and all his friends rejoiced. But the Pharisees went out and held counsel with the Herodians how to destroy Jesus (Mk 3:6). The Apostle Paul had a close friendship with the Christians in Galatia, until some false teachers came in and made them suspicious of him. Having been told by the new teachers that they could save themselves by good works, they reacted in anger when Paul reiterated the Gospel to them. He was forced to ask, “Have I then become your enemy by telling you the truth?” (Gal 4:16)

Good preaching does not always receive a good reaction. Speaking of the generation that wandered in the wilderness, the Hebrew writer says, “the word preached did not profit them, not being mixed with faith in them that heard it” (Heb 4:2, KJV). Does the word meet with faith in us? If it does not, the best sermons in the world will do no good.

Sometimes a preacher misspeaks or speaks unclearly. But let us always remember that our reaction to what is said is our reaction. If we think that we have heard something terrible, while others have a different reaction, maybe we misheard, misunderstood, or misapplied what was said. Or maybe the message simply was not received and mixed with faith in our hearts.

The same sunshine will melt butter and harden clay. The same teaching that causes rejoicing in the heart of the penitent sinner, draws an angry reaction from one determined to go on in sin. The reaction of our heart toward a given teaching is not entirely the result of that teaching. The state of our heart contributes considerably to the overall result. That is why preparatory prayer is so important before worship or Bible study. Sin must be confessed. The heart must be prepared to receive the message.

When the Bible is expounded, our reaction may tell more about the state of our heart than it does about the quality of the delivery. A cold indifferent response indicates a cold indifferent heart. An angry response …. A warm and joyous response ….

Wednesday, August 5, 2020

Glorify God

J.I. Packer died July 17, five days shy of his 94th birthday. A native of England, Packer taught at various schools in England, and authored several influential books, before moving to Regents College in Vancouver, B.C. in 1979. He served as the general editor of the English Standard Version.

Near the end of his life, Packer was asked if he had a final word to leave for his fellow believers. Being a man who prided himself on brevity (“Packer by name; Packer by inclination” he used to say) he responded with a four-word sentence. “Glorify Christ every way.”

In saying this he was echoing the first question and response of the Westminster Shorter Catechism. “Q: What is the chief end of man? A: Man's chief end is to glorify God, and to enjoy him forever.”

More importantly, he was echoing the plain and persistent teaching of scripture. We exist to glorify God. That was the purpose of our creation; and it is the purpose of our recreation in Christ.

“Whether therefore ye eat, or drink, or whatsoever ye do, do all to the glory of God” (1 Cor 10:31). “For of him, and through him, and to him, are all things: to whom be glory forever” (Rom 11:36). “In the same way, let your light shine before others, so that they may see your good works and give glory to your Father who is in heaven” (Mt 5:16). “As each has received a gift, use it to serve one another, as good stewards of God’s varied grace: whoever speaks, as one who speaks oracles of God; whoever serves, as one who serves by the strength that God supplies—in order that in everything God may be glorified through Jesus Christ. To him belong glory and dominion forever and ever” (1 Peter 4:10-11).

Whether we live into our nineties or die young, whether we are well-known or little-known, whether we are successful in worldly terms or end our lives in poverty, the key question will always be, “Did we fulfill our God-given purpose?” At the end of this day, and every day, let us ask ourselves, “Did I face my tasks, bear my burdens, and enjoy my pleasures in a way that honored my Lord?” And let us start each new day with the determination that we will, once again, glorify the Lord. And when our final hour comes, let us face death in a manner that glorifies our Lord.

Friday, July 24, 2020

Mary Magdalene

For those who follow a lectionary and remember different biblical characters on certain days of the year, Wednesday, July 22, was Mary Magdalene’s day. Now it may seem odd to have special days to remember people in the Bible, but it is better than not remembering them at all. It is also better than observing “National Pancake Day” (February 25) or “National Hammock Day” (which was also July 22).

Mary Magdalene is worth remembering. She was delivered from seven demons (Lk 8:2). Seven is often used to represent completeness. It could be that she literally had seven demons, or the term may indicate how completely she was in the control of evil forces. Either way, the fact Jesus delivered her gives us hope. Whatever our problems, whatever our sins, to whatever extent we have come under the control of evil, there is hope for us.

Sometimes we imagine that Jesus may be able to deliver us from the guilt of sin, but that those who have been deeply involved in evil will never be of much use to the Master. Mary is an example that disproved that theory.

Mary the demon-possessed was chosen as the first witness of the resurrection (Jn 20:11-18). In those days, many people would not accept the testimony of a woman. This was especially true of a woman with a checkered past. But the Lord chose Mary as the first to witness his resurrection and announce it to others.

It seems that the Lord has often chosen to use unexpected instruments in his work. Mary is, of course, not the only example; but she certainly is a prominent example. Yes, the Lord can use the highly educated. He can use the middle-class, the respectable, the expected ones. But he also chooses to use the down and out, the troubled and even the demon possessed. He can use me. He can use you.

It is good to remember Mary Magdalene. It is better to remember that the Lord who cast out her demons, and used her as his first witness, can cleanse and use us as well.

Saturday, July 4, 2020

Geerhardus Vos

In 1992, I purchased a book by Geerhardus Vos. I did not like it. He did not seem to be saying anything of significance.

In May of this year, I was supposed to attend a conference in Pennsylvania. But the conference was cancelled by the pandemic. As a consolation, the conference organizers sent me several free books. One of them was by Geerhardus Vos.

This time, before reading what Vos wrote, I read the forward, which was by Sinclair Ferguson. Ferguson noted that Vos was difficult to read for at least two reasons. First, his native tongue was Dutch, and he often seems to be thinking in Dutch although writing in English. Secondly, Vos is simply over our heads at times. His students (he taught at Princeton from 1892 to 1932) often found that he assumed them to have knowledge that they did not actually have.

I have not gone far in the free book, but what I have read has impressed me immensely. Perhaps this book is a better sample of his writing. Perhaps I am older and more ready to understand. Or perhaps the hint that Sinclair Ferguson dropped was what I needed. Essentially, Ferguson was saying, “If you do not get something out of reading this, the problem is not with the author, but with you.”

I do not recommend that every Christian read the writings of Geerhardus Vos. But I do recommend that every Christian read the Bible. In making that recommendation, I am aware that we will not always understand what we read. But a lack of understanding is not always the fault of the author. Sometimes the reader is the problem. Let’s not blame God for our lack of understanding. Our preconceived notions, our sinfulness, our lack of concentration and persistence are more likely the root cause of our failure to understand.

Geerhardus Vos – even the man’s name should give us the hint that perhaps his writings will require study, not mere causal reading.

God, the creator and ruler of all, the source of all wisdom, the possessor of all knowledge – perhaps we ought not to expect that we will always understand him immediately and without effort.