Thursday, December 5, 2019

The incarnation and human dignity

The first Sunday of Advent did not pass without reminders for the church of the importance of human dignity and Christ's incarnation.

For instance, here are a few items from December 1 or shortly before:

-- Unidentified gunmen killed at least 14 people and injured many others during a church worship service December 1 in the West African country of Burkina Faso. Though the killers were unidentified, places of worship have been targets of a series of attacks this year by Muslim extremists, according to the France 24 news channel.

-- A statue of the late Rosa Parks was dedicated in Montgomery, Ala., December 1, the 64th anniversary of her arrest for refusing to give up her seat to a white man on a public bus in the state capital. Parks' civil disobedience prompted a bus boycott that marked an important step in the civil rights movement.

-- A Nov. 29 report by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention showed another two percent drop from the previous year as part of the continuing decline in the number of abortions in this country. Yet, more than 620,000 abortions were still reported, and that is without data from three states, including California, and the District of Columbia.

-- Time magazine published November 27 a report on a federal program in the 1970s that resulted in about one-forth of all Native American women of child-bearing age being sterilized, some coercively or without their knowledge. In addition, black and Hispanic women also were targeted for forced sterilizations, according to Time.

All serve to help us remember the inhumane way human beings can sometimes view and treat other human beings.

Against such atrocities stands the biblical teaching of human dignity. God has created every person in His image. Everyone -- regardless of ethnicity, skin color, physical and mental condition, sex or religious belief -- is valuable based precisely on being made in God's image.

If that were not enough, the incarnation of God the Son adds extra significance to the truth of human dignity. In fact, it is the basis of human dignity, biblical scholars say.

Tony Reinke, senior teacher for Desiring God and author, provided an explanation of this view of "the Christological doctrine of the image of God" -- as theologian Oliver Crisp puts it -- in a November 2016 post. He did so after reading Dignity and Destiny: Humanity in the Image of God and speaking to its author, John Kilner. Kilner is a former president of The Center for Bioethics and Human Dignity and recently retired as professor of bioethics and contemporary culture at Trinity International University in suburban Chicago.

Citing II Corinthians 4:4 and Colossians 1:15, Kilner said, "The image of God is Jesus Christ."

“Christ is the image, and people are created in his image,” Kilner said. “The preposition ‘in’ more specifically means ‘according to.’ So the idea here is that God created people according to his image, which is Jesus Christ. Christ is the standard, the model for what a human being should be.”

Reinke writes, "If that sounds historically backwards — the resurrected, glorified Christ was the prototype for humanity, before Adam and Eve were fashioned from dirt — that’s because 'according to Romans 8:29, before people were created, God determined that Christ would be the model according to which humanity would ultimately be conformed.'"

This means "Christ is the archetype whose human nature is the blueprint for all other human natures," Reinke writes, quoting Crisp's book, The Word Enfleshed: Exploring the Person and Work of Christ. Crisp is the chair of analytic theology at the University of St. Andrews in Scotland.

As a result, the sanctity and dignity of human life is connected to the incarnation of Christ. We are made in His image -- the image of the Son who came in the flesh.

At Christmas, may we rejoice in the revelation of the image in which we are all created -- the One who came to save us.

-- Photo by Kelly Sikkema on Unsplash

Wednesday, October 23, 2019

Kindness and gentleness are friends of truth

It seems this cannot be repeated too often -- we can disagree with other Christians without demeaning them.

Once again, a Christian leader has spoken with a lack of grace in seeking to correct another saint. It's not the biblical view he sought to defend that is the problem. It was the disrespectful way he chose to express his opposition to the viewpoint of, in this case, a woman teacher.

This may not be anything new in the conservative Christian church. The problem has just become magnified on social media and in an evangelicalism that is populated by tribes seeking to assert they have a corner on the truth.

I came across a quote today from Sinclair Ferguson, a Scottish preacher and theologian, who said: "I sometimes wonder if this is a distinctively evangelical sin. Of course it is by no means exclusively so. But how commonplace it seems to be to hear a fellow Christian's name mentioned in some context or other, and the first words of response demean his [or her] reputation, belittle him [or her], and distance him [or her] from acceptance into the fellowship, although this is a brother [or sister] for whom Christ died!"

The apostle Paul paints a much different picture of a Christian leader in his second letter to Timothy.

"And the Lord's servant must not be quarrelsome but kind to everyone, able to teach, patiently enduring evil, correcting his opponents with gentleness. God may perhaps grant them repentance leading to a knowledge of the truth, and they may come to their senses and escape from the snare of the devil, after being captured by him to do his will," Paul wrote in II Timothy 2:24-26.

Quarrelsomeness seems to be prized and praised too often in today's evangelicalism. Kindness and gentleness are not coveted among some Christian tribes. No, it is the snide takedown that gains the applause of too many in the church.

Into this corrosive climate, Paul urges pastors and other leaders -- and, we can add, all followers of Jesus -- to be kind, patient and gentle. With those traits seasoning our declaration of the truth, God may give those who oppose us repentance that leads to knowing the truth. And when disciples disagree over non-essentials, we should do so lovingly.

Oh may there be a revival of kindness and gentleness in Christ's church in our day.

Friday, September 20, 2019

Standing together as the church in our culture

It's good to know where you stand, and biblically faithful followers of Jesus should recognize we increasingly do not stand with Americans on the left or the right.

Marriage may not be the only issue on which this is true, but it is an especially notable one.

A colleague's tweet earlier this month referenced "prominent conservatives celebrating the same-sex marriage of another prominent conservative." When I learned his identity, I wasn't shocked about the conservative who got married, but I was surprised regarding one of those who attended the ceremony. In the wake of the wedding, my colleague commented, "A movement that won't defend or recognize marriage for what it truly is won't be much good at transforming culture."

Of course, transforming culture is not our primary responsibility as the church. Our focus is on glorifying God, being a faithful church and making disciples. Yet it is telling when political conservatives -- some at least who would identify as Christians -- no longer recognize the significance of defending the biblical and historic view of marriage, the basic, societal unit that conservatives have traditionally sought to preserve.

Political liberals, meanwhile, appear to have fully endorsed the same-sex marriage agenda, even to the point of promoting the denial of freedom of conscience for Christians and other Americans who believe in the biblical view of man-woman marriage and decline to use their businesses and gifts in support of ceremonies that violate their convictions.

In addition, a growing number of people who have identified in the past as evangelical Christians have adopted a revisionist view of marriage. They have accepted a reworking of Scripture that finds room for people of the same sex to marry in contrast to the teaching of Jesus and His church for the last 2,000 years and the divine order designed by God thousands of years before that and revealed in Holy Scripture.

We have known for awhile the left will not support the biblical view of marriage. Now we are learning an expanding portion of the right will not.

The pressure and temptation to bend to the cultural redefinition of marriage are growing.

What are we to do?

First, we should continue to affirm the long-held biblical and church teaching on marriage.

Second, we should not minimize the importance of the correct view of marriage. Holding only to the union of a man and a woman in marriage as a picture of the marriage of Jesus to His bride, the church, is not a matter we can agree to disagree on in a church. Our church's confession of faith calls for agreement on the biblical definition of marriage in order for a person to become a covenant member. It says, "Marriage is the uniting of only one man and only one woman in a lifetime covenant, providing a picture of the union between Christ and His church, the exclusive context for sexual expression, and the means for procreation of the human race."

Third, we should stand united, not alone, within the local church in support of the Bible's teaching on marriage. As the pressure mounts from culture and government to compromise, we have one another. We are able to exhort and encourage one another, and we may even have the opportunity to support one another materially in some cases.

We are the church. Jesus is our King. Let's stand together.

-- Photo by Nathan Dumlao on Unsplash

Thursday, September 12, 2019

The church -- a gift to help us fight self-absorption

One reason we as Christians need a church is to help deliver us from our self-absorption.

In this regard, one New Testament text has been increasingly meaningful to me in recent decades. In fact, it is a vital part of the daily offering of myself to the Lord Jesus.

Philippians 2:1-11 is an appeal from the apostle Paul to followers of Jesus to humble themselves and serve one another. He presents Christ as the supreme example, pointing to God the Son's humbling of himself in taking on flesh and going to the cross before the Father exalted Him.

In verses three and four, Paul writes, "Do nothing from selfish ambition or conceit, but in humility count others more significant than yourselves. Let each of you look not only to his own interests, but also to the interests of others."

Each day, I tell God in prayer I count others more important than myself, and I pledge to look out for their interests and not just my own. Sadly, I fail to do it at times with my wife and others -- likely some of you who are reading this post. Yet, I know this type of humility and valuing of others is required in following Jesus. And if I would become more like Him, this kind of selflessness is necessary.

The challenge comes not so much in committing through prayer to live this way but in actually practicing this kind of servanthood in relationship to others. And that's where the church comes in.

It's much like the "Peanuts" cartoon strip in which Lucy tells Linus he could never be a doctor because he doesn't love mankind. Linus shouts back, "I love mankind . . . it's people I can't stand!!"

The church gives us as Christians the opportunity to move beyond prayers and thoughts to demonstrate with our decisions and actions that we love our forever brothers and sisters, count them more important than ourselves and are looking out for their interests, not just our own. That's not always easy because even as sinners undeservedly rescued by our selfless Savior we struggle with pride and self-centeredness.

For instance, when a church member we have covenanted with has a need, does his or her interest prompt us to action? When we are in covenant with people who differ from us markedly, do we show we are sensitive to and want to understand their interests? When we say or post something provocative, do we consider the interest of a fellow church member who might be offended by what is said? When we gather for corporate worship, do we consider the importance of fellow worshipers and how we can serve their interests?

The church is vital in helping us grow closer to the humility and selflessness our suffering Savior demonstrated. Without the church, we reject a means God has given to help us grow in Christlikeness.

-- Photo by youssef naddam on Unsplash

Wednesday, September 4, 2019

Self-denial is always a Christian virtue

Self-denial is not a cultural virtue in our time. It is a Christian virtue at all times.

Oh, we in America and much of the world admire self-denial when books and movies depict it in the lives of fictional characters who heroically give of themselves to protect or rescue others. And we marvel at it when we read news accounts of military service members, first responders or ordinary citizens who take risks to save others.

But we are overwhelmed in our culture with messages that conflict with self-denial. We are told, "You deserve to be happy, and you deserve everything that is required for you to be happy." We are told, "Be your true self" -- no matter what devastating impact it might have on others.

Meanwhile, God's Word tells us self-denial is the only way to true joy and genuine authenticity.

Without self-denial, there is no lasting delight or faithful discipleship.

Jesus said, "If anyone wishes to come after Me, he must deny himself, and take up his cross daily and follow Me" (Luke 9:23).

Self-denial is not all there is to being a disciple of Jesus, but it is an indispensable part. If we would follow Him, we must deny ourselves. If we would say "yes" to Him, we must say "no" to ourselves. If we would be identified with Him and His cross, we must flee any sinful self-identity. If we would enthrone Him, we must dethrone ourselves. If we would live the Christ-guided life, we must reject the self-guided life.

We must not lose sight of the fact the Christian virtue of self-denial does not result in a bleak existence, because Jesus is at the other end of self-denial. And in His presence "is fullness of joy; at [His} right hand are pleasures forevermore" (Psalm 16:11b).

-- Photo by KTMD Photography on Unsplash

Tuesday, August 20, 2019

Perseverance of the saints: We're in it together

Christian perseverance is a community project, not a solo effort.

Perseverance is on the minds of many evangelical Christians in the wake of the recently announced departures from the faith by a couple of high-profile, professing Christians. Their apparent rejection of Christ and the faith offers an opportunity for us to make sure we are taking advantage of the means God has given to help us endure to the end. We face fierce opposition to our endurance, but we are not unarmed.

One of those means is the Bible. We must continue to trust the inerrancy, authority and sufficiency of Scripture. We should rehearse the promises of God in His Word. We also have the gospel. We should remind ourselves of the life, death and resurrection of Jesus -- and the standing we now have as a result. We have the Holy Spirit dwelling within us. We need to rely upon and obey Him. We have the example of Christ, who endured the cross "for the joy that was set before him" (Hebrews 12:2).

So the church is not the only God-given means for our perseverance, but it is an indispensable one.

Our brothers and sisters in Christ -- especially those whom we are in covenant with in a local church -- are gifts to help us endure. And you and I are gifts to help them endure.

The writer of Hebrews tells us, "[E]xhort one another every day, as long as it is called 'today,' that none of you may be hardened by the deceitfulness of sin" (Hebrews 3:13). The purpose of our exhortations of each other is to avoid being "hardened by the deceitfulness of sin." Sin would deceive us and produce hardened hearts toward God. Exhortations to and from brothers and sisters can help keep us from abandoning the family.

Worshiping together also is a way we help others and receive help from others to endure. In the same letter, the writer says, "And let us consider how to stir up one another to love and good works, not neglecting to meet together, as is the habit of some, but encouraging one another, and all the more as you see the Day drawing near" (Hebrews 10:24-25). Encouragement happens in community. Corporate worship helps us persevere.

Also in Hebrews, the writer tells the Christians, "See to it that no one fails to obtain the grace of God" or, as the New American Standard Bible says, "See to it that no one comes short of the grace of God" (Hebrews 12:15). We have a God-given responsibility to help one another endure until the race is finished.

So let's encourage one another. Let's show up for one another. Let's leave no one behind.

-- Photo by Jon Tyson on Unsplash

Monday, August 12, 2019

Restating the obvious on human dignity

Sometimes the church must restate the obvious.

Right now, one of those necessary restatements is the truth about humanity: Every human being is an image bearer of God. No exceptions.

The foundational declaration about the creation of man and woman in the Word of God says so: "So God created man in his own image, in the image of God he created him; male and female he created them" (Genesis 1:27).

Our church's Confession of Faith affirms so: "Each human being, as an image bearer of God, is worthy of respect and protection at every stage and condition from conception until natural death."

The church of Jesus Christ should lead the way in proclaiming this vital truth about all human beings. It is not just a declaration to be offered by political conservatives who oppose abortion. It is not just a declaration to be offered by political progressives who oppose discrimination against minorities.

We -- as the true church -- should boldly assert this reality no matter the context. Within the church, our policy positions on a variety of issues may differ, but our defense of the dignity of every human being should not waver.

Lately in the news, the victims of unbiblical views of humanity -- considered by their victimizers lives not worth respecting or protecting -- have included Hispanics, sex-trafficked girls, and babies unborn and newly born. And there are many more in our world.

Against these wicked, ungodly ideologies and acts the church must proclaim again: Every human being is an image bearer of God. No exceptions.

-- Photo by Nathan Anderson on Unsplash