Ultimate Authority

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Back in August, RNS ran an article entitled, “John MacArthur believes the Bible trumps COVID-19 public health orders. Legal scholars say no.” Here, in a case study of church-state relations, we see the basic failure of a secular worldview.

RNS is, after all, a basically secular organization. “Wait a minute. RNS stands for Religion News Service. How can that be a secular organization?” Because it uses “religion” in the generic sense, various religions, without any conviction as to which religion is true; it is a secular platform for liberal religious views from various traditions, and thus represents a secular society’s approach to religion.

In a secular society’s approach to religion, there is an implicit relativism on spiritual truth, and an elevation of the authority of the state above the church. The separation of church and state becomes one-sided; it is invoked when there is an attempt to bring the church into the state, but ignored when the time comes to bring the state into the church.

A secular approach to religion is not the same thing as religious freedom. Religious freedom is a Christian idea, and happily coexists with the public acknowledgment of Christian truth–as was the case in America for most of its history. A secular society, we are beginning to see, actually impinges upon religious freedom, as atheistic ideologies become public orthodoxy.

We see this in the hypocrisy of certain government officials as they select which gatherings are essential and which are not during the pandemic. Thus we come back around to RNS and their assumption of secular authority: ‘Does the Bible trump COVID-19 public health orders? Let’s ask the experts on government orders.’ That is begging the question.

Of course, the opinions of legal scholars may vary. There is a legal tradition, evidenced in the founding of our nation, that rooted human rights in the authority of God. Then there’s the opinion of one scholar quoted in the RNS article:

“We have rights from the Constitution, not the Bible,” said Eric J. Segall, a law professor at Georgia State. “Biblical duties don’t trump our laws. Period. Full stop.”

When confronted with that kind of attitude, what can a Christian say but “We must obey God rather than men” (Acts 5:29, ESV)? God, not government, is the highest authority. Jesus Christ is Lord.

Legal experts cannot tell us whether the Bible has authority over legal pronouncements–though, if a legal expert is a Christian, he might know the answer. The most legal experts are equipped to tell us is whether or not the law acknowledges the authority of Scripture. If it does not–as is often the case–that tells us nothing about the authority of Scripture vis-à-vis human government. All that tells us is that human government claims to be the ultimate authority.

That is the case in a secular or secularizing society. But that doesn’t make it right.

In this pandemic, Christians have had to wrestle with how the church should respond to public health orders; in particular, we have had to wrestle with how the Bible’s command to submit to governing authorities does or does not apply in these situations. That is a valid and sometimes complex question to work through. But that is not the question RNS is asking; RNS is asking whether God or the government has ultimate authority in these matters–and that is an exceptionally easy question to answer.

The Bible is the Word of God. Of course God’s Word has authority over the word of the state. The state’s opinion on this matter makes no difference, except that it is a potent reminder that what our nation needs most is to return to an acknowledgment of the ultimate authority of God–an acknowledgment expressed at our nation’s beginning: “We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable rights…”

Not Abandoned

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“In you our fathers trusted; they trusted, and you delivered them.  To you they cried and were rescued; in you they trusted and were not put to shame” (Psalm 22:4-5, ESV).

            Psalm 22 is another psalm that begins from a place of desperation.  David cries out to God from a sense of abandonment, that God seems absent (vv.1-2).  But, even in the midst of this feeling of dereliction, he knows that God is the Holy One (v.3).  He reflects, then, upon God’s reliability and deliverance in the past (vv.4-5).  From there he will press his plea with God.  Perhaps the standout feature of this psalm is that Jesus chose the first part of the first verse to put into words His cry of dereliction on the cross.         

    God has shown His mercy and faithfulness in the past, and we can trust Him with our present trials, and with our future.  The ultimate display of God’s compassion is the saving death of our Savior Jesus Christ, who bore our sins upon the cross.  He took on Himself our abandonment, so that when we cry out to God we find mercy and grace.  Look to God in your struggles and doubts; He is strong to save.

Trust Him

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“Some trust in chariots and some in horses, but we trust in the name of the LORD our God” (Psalm 20:7, ESV).

            Psalm 20 begins with a series of blessings or requests, that God would deliver those who hear from danger and distress (vv.1-5).  God can save and protect, grant mercy and bless.  Then the psalm, already optimistic, moves to confidence in God’s deliverance.  The Lord brings salvation to His chosen one (v.6); thus the people of God trust in Him, rather than in the weapons of war (v.7).  God will sustain His people (v.8), and so the psalm ends with another triumphant petition and blessing (v.9).            

God is our confidence and hope.  No power rivals His, no might can compare with His strength.  No matter how weak we are in ourselves, if we rely upon the strength of God Almighty we have nothing to fear.  In your trials, entrust yourself to your great God and Savior, and have good hope, for your heavenly Father is strong to save.

Sola Gratia, Sola Fide, Solus Christus

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The story hit the news the other day that Mark Galli, who retired as editor of Christianity Today at the beginning of this year, has crossed the Tiber (i.e., converted from Protestantism to Roman Catholicism). This was not, of course, a split-second decision; one wonders if there is any connection with CT putting Pope Francis on the cover in 2014. It is, at least, suggestive that perhaps not everyone at CT understood why justification by faith is so very important.

That’s an awful thing to not understand. It’s sad to read stories like Galli’s, where, as far as the news report has it, his conversion seems motivated by outward structure and ritual and tradition–and for that, he will embrace a church that denies the truth of the gospel by grace alone, through faith alone, in Christ alone.

Those three ‘alone’s are some of the key elements of the Protestant Reformation. Ritual and liturgy, history and unity, are not nearly enough to outweigh those three ‘alone’s. Let us grant that many evangelical churches are shallow and over-politicized, that the Protestant world is absurdly fractured and painfully fractious; let us grant that we have much reformation to undertake. None of that is good reason to trade away justification by grace alone, through faith alone, in Christ alone.

We cannot earn the gift of salvation. It is God’s gift, and we can only receive, if we believe. Christ alone can make us holy and whole.

Absolute Security

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“The LORD is my rock and my fortress and my deliverer, my God, my rock, in whom I take refuge, my shield, and the horn of my salvation, my stronghold” (Psalm 18:2).

            In this psalm, David extols the God of deliverance, whose strength and trustworthiness is greatly praised.  He sets the tone from the first verse, declaring that God is his “strength” (v.1).  Then, in verse 2, he proceeds to describe God’s might and the safety he finds in God’s power.  He does this by piling up one descriptive image after another: God is the place of refuge, the stronghold, the Savior, the shield, the horn of deliverance.  All of these descriptors create a composite picture of the absolute security he finds in God.            

We are safe in God’s hands.  Those who call on Him find a defender who does not fail or weary.  No power in this world truly poses a danger to the people of the Almighty, who can run to God Most High for protection.  When dangers surround us, when the storms of life gather, let us take refuge in God, against whom none can contend nor compare.

Steadfast Love

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“But I have trusted in your steadfast love; my heart shall rejoice in your salvation.  I will sing to the LORD, because he has dealt bountifully with me” (Psalm 13:5-6).

            Once again, these verses come as something of a reversal at the end of the psalm.  But this time it is a very short psalm, and so the passage from desperation (vv.1-2) to supplication (vv.3-4) to hope and praise (vv.5-6) is rather tight.  David endures grief and scorn, and God seems distant; but, rather than despair, he calls out to God for deliverance.  His confidence enables him to glorify the God of his salvation, whose mercies do not fail.

            What is the believer’s confidence, when God seems distant and trouble seems triumphant?  God’s love persists.  We stumble and fail, but God always accomplishes His purpose, God is always true to His word, God guards and redeems His people.  If we know this, can we find the depth of hope these verses describe, to cry out to God not only with requests and longings, but with joyful praise in His gift of salvation?  God is faithful.

Defender of the Oppressed

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“O LORD, you hear the desire of the afflicted; you will strengthen their heart; you will incline your ear to do justice to the fatherless and the oppressed, so that man who is of the earth may strike terror no more” (Psalm 10:17-18).

            These verses end a psalm of earnest questioning where the author balances appearances versus faith in God’s sovereign justice.  It can appear that God is distant, disconnected, and unconcerned in the injustices of the world (vv.1-3).  The wicked defy God, oppress the weak, and seem to prosper (vv.4-11).  But this is not really a cynical counsel of despair.  All of this sets up the psalmist’s plea that God will rise up and bring justice upon the earth (vv.12-15); and the end is confidence in the supremacy of God, who will put things right (vv.16-18).            

God is compassionate and gracious.  He reaches down to those who are suffering and comforts them with His love and mercy, to lift them up and protect them.  He will vindicate those who are mistreated and oppressed; in His time, He will bring justice.  Hope in God’s deliverance, and entrust yourself to Him.

Hope of the Poor

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“For the needy shall not always be forgotten, and the hope of the poor shall not perish forever” (Psalm 9:18).

            After the assurance of God’s faithfulness in verse 10, David proceeds to glorify God for His works (v.11), particularly in vindicating the oppressed (v.12), for which he pleads in his own case (vv.13-14).  The latter part of the psalm emphasizes that God, in His power and justice, is able to bring about a great reversal: powerful oppressors are brought low by His might (vv.15-17).  In this context the psalmist declares that God will lift up the needy (v.18), and calls upon God to execute justice upon the earth (vv.19-20).  The poor and downtrodden may trust God, for He will not turn a blind eye to their misery.            

God sees you.  God hears the cries of the needy, and He cares for those who suffer injustice.  In this world, evil may seem to prevail, people may seem to get away with wrongdoing, and the powerful take advantage of the vulnerable.  But God’s power is unchallenged, and He has compassion upon the oppressed.  The heavenly Father does not forget His children.  Entrust yourself to Him, and wait for His deliverance.