Saturday, June 25, 2011

Not a chance!

Is there any such thing as luck or chance? For example, a basketball player takes a half-court shot at the buzzer and makes it. Do you think that it’s due to chance, to the player’s skill, or to God’s will?

We can rule out chance right off the bat. As Christians we shouldn’t be in the habit of talking about chance or luck because there’s no such thing. The world is governed by God, and everything that happens can be traced in one way or another back to God’s will. This doesn’t mean that God directly causes everything to happen, as if he’s the only agent at work, the only one who is truly acting; but it does mean that everything is under God’s control.

The Westminster Confession of Faith has an excellent statement on the providence of God.

God the great Creator of all things doth uphold, direct, dispose, and govern all creatures, actions, and things, from the greatest even to the least, by His most wise and holy providence, according to His infallible foreknowledge, and the free and immutable counsel of His own will, to the praise of the glory of His wisdom, power, justice, goodness, and mercy.

Although, in relation to the foreknowledge and decree of God, the first Cause, all things come to pass immutably, and infallibly: yet, by the same providence, He ordereth them to fall out, according to the nature of second causes, either necessarily, freely, or contingently. (Westminster Confession of Faith 5.1-2)

In other words, in any particular event there may be any one of a number of causes at work. When a basketball player makes a last second shot, for instance, he is exerting his will and effort according to his ability, developed through training and practice. The so-called laws of physics are also at work. But above, beyond, and over all is the will of God. From a merely human standpoint it may look like a lucky or unlucky shot. But from a Christian perspective, the shot goes in or it doesn’t because God either willed it or he didn’t.

What could be more random than a roll of the dice? But yet in Proverbs we’re told

The lot is cast into the lap,
     but its every decision is from the Lord (Prov. 16:33).

Consider what happened to Ahab, the wicked king of Israel. The Lord spoke through the mouth of the prophet Micaiah, who told the king that he was going to be killed in battle. Ahab didn’t believe him and went into battle anyway, and the Bible says,

Now a certain man drew his bow at random [not aiming at any one individual soldier, but aiming into the thick of the enemy] and struck the king of Israel between the scale armor and the breastplate… And the battle continued that day, and the king was propped up in his chariot facing the Syrians, until at evening he died (1 Ki. 22:34-35).

Lucky shot, right? Wrong. From a human perspective it seems lucky. From a human perspective the arrow seemed to hit its mark by chance. But it did so only because God willed it.

It’s true that the Syrian soldier exercised his will and put forth the physical effort necessary to shoot the arrow; it’s true that he used his best judgment under the circumstances to aim in such a way into the thick of the enemy so as to have the best possible chance of hitting someone; it’s true that the arrow flew according to the laws of physics, and that the person it hit just happened to be king Ahab; and it’s true that the arrow gave the king a deadly wound. But it’s also true that God was behind it all. He decreed that it should happen. But it came about through secondary causes.

Jesus tells us that not even a sparrow falls to the ground apart from our Father in heaven (Matt. 10:29). Kings are among the mightiest of men, and sparrows among the least of animals; but neither one falls to the ground apart from the will of God. Paul tells us that God works all things according to the counsel of his will (Eph. 1:11). All things. But normally this involves a variety of second causes.

The last second shot that goes in then, is it due to God’s will or the player’s skill? Yes, both are true! The one thing we can rule out, however, is mere luck or chance, because no such thing exists.

Saturday, June 18, 2011

On the hardening of Pharaoh's heart

Please explain what it means when it says that the Lord “hardened” Pharaoh’s heart.

There are several passages that speak of God hardening Pharaoh’s heart. The first time this is mentioned is in Exodus 4:21, where God announces his intention to do this, saying to Moses, “When you go back to Egypt, see that you do before Pharaoh all the miracles that I have put in your power. But I will harden his heart, so that he will not let the people go” (see also: Ex. 7:3; 9:12; 10:1, 20, 27; 11:10; 14:4, 8, 17).

I suppose there are a couple of things our questioner has in mind about this:  (1) what exactly did this hardening consist of, and (2) was God unjust to harden his heart?

We must be cautious in answering the question about what the hardening consisted of because the Bible doesn’t explain it. But I think we would not be too far off the mark to suppose that, at a minimum, God withdrew whatever positive influences operated upon Pharaoh’s mind. The Bible teaches that we are by nature sinful. We are born into the world with a spiritual defect, in that we have a natural bias toward evil. Left to ourselves we would become monsters. But God hasn’t left us to ourselves. He has ordered the world in such a way that many restraints are placed upon the natural development of our sinful tendencies. For example, the moral instruction we received from our parents, the force of habit and custom, the dictates of conscience, authority figures who keep us in line through a fear of punishment, and the sense of shame we would feel if we should do evil.

But what if all these restraints upon our sinful inclinations should be removed? What if we had no sense of shame? What if our conscience was seared (1 Tim. 4:2)? What if—as in Pharaoh’s case—there was no human authority over us and we could do whatever we wanted without fear of punishment?

I think at a minimum we could say that this is what the hardening of Pharaoh’s heart consisted in. The Lord removed all the positive influences for good and gave him over to fully act out the evil that was in his heart. Three times in the first chapter of Romans Paul speaks of this sort of thing as he describes the moral degeneration of the Gentiles as they turned their back on God. He said,
  • God gave them up in the lusts of their hearts to impurity (v. 24)
  • God gave them up to dishonorable passions (v. 26)
  • God gave them up to a debased mind to do what ought not to be done (v. 28)

He took away their moral restraints and allowed them to fully act out the evil that was in their heart. He did the same to Pharaoh.

But over and above this, it may be that God sent an evil spirit to afflict Pharaoh. The Lord did this in the case of King Saul (1 Sam. 16:14). This was a punishment for sins already committed. And this is something we must always bear in mind. It was not the case that in Pharaoh God took a good man and made him bad, or that he took a holy man and made him sinful, or a righteous man and made him wicked. Rather, God found Pharaoh to be a wicked man and he punished him for his wickedness. A part of that punishment consisted of giving him over to fully act out the evil that was in his own heart, and this may have included turning him over to the power of a demonic spirit.

I think it’s significant that the Bible not only says that the Lord hardened Pharaoh’s heart, but also that Pharaoh hardened his own heart (Ex. 8:15, 32; 9:34). And several times it says that Pharaoh’s heart was hardened, without specifying whether it was the Lord or Pharaoh who hardened it (7:13, 14, 22; 8:19; 9:7, 35; 14:5).

The point is that God did not find Pharaoh a good man and make him bad. No, Pharaoh was a wicked man who was fully responsible for his own demise. A part of his punishment was being turned over to his own base instincts.

Paul dealt with these issues in the ninth chapter of Romans when he said,
What shall we say then? Is there injustice on God’s part? By no means! For he says to Moses, “I will have mercy on whom I have mercy, and I will have compassion on whom I have compassion.” So then it depends not on human will or exertion, but on God, who has mercy. For the Scripture says to Pharaoh, “For this very purpose I have raised you up, that I might show my power in you, and that my name might be proclaimed in all the earth.” So then he has mercy on whomever he wills, and he hardens whomever he wills. You will say to me then, “Why does he still find fault? For who can resist his will?” But who are you, O man, to answer back to God? Will what is molded say to its molder, “Why have you made me like this?” Has the potter no right over the clay, to make out of the same lump one vessel for honorable use and another for dishonorable use? (Rom. 9:14-21)
The one lump of clay is the mass of fallen sinful humanity, and Paul says, “May not God show mercy to some and harden others, as he sees fit?” The answer of course is yes he may. He is sovereign and may do whatever he pleases. But notice that in neither case is any injustice done to anyone. Some who deserve wrath receive wrath, while others who deserve wrath receive mercy. Another way to put it is:  some receive justice and others receive mercy, but no one receives injustice. Pharaoh and the Egyptians received justice, Israel received mercy, and we ought to glorify God for both.

Wednesday, June 15, 2011

So much for global warming

New research indicates that instead of facing steadily increasing global temperatures, we may actually be heading toward a little ice age.
Low sun activity is cited as the reason. In recent measurements, sunspot activity, intense solar eruptions caused by magnetic activity, has been astonishingly lower than predicted, which translates into a period of cooling — what scientists dub a “little ice age...” (read more)
But who really knows? It's always a bit dicey trying to predict the future. Current sunspot activity may not necessarily be an indicator of future sunspot activity. As Danish physicist Niels Bohr once said, "Prediction is very difficult, especially about the future."

It seems to me, however, that sunspot activity - which of course is wholly beyond our control - is likely to have far more to do with global temperatures than human activity (with the possible exception of all the hot air emitted by Al Gore).

Apostasy and the welfare state

The welfare state is only possible where there is a loss of the Christian faith.
But we urge you, brothers...to aspire to live quietly, and to mind your own affairs, and to work with your hands, as we instructed you, so that you may live properly before outsiders and be dependent on no one (1 Thes. 4:10-11)

Friday, June 10, 2011

What about demon possession?

In the New Testament we find several accounts of people being possessed by evil spirits. Do you think that still goes on today?

I think it’s clearly possible that it still happens today, but I don’t think we should expect it to happen with the same degree of regularity with which it occurred in the period of the New Testament.

And I might add that the same is true for the miraculous gifts of the Holy Spirit. We should not expect miracles to happen with the same degree of regularity.

Some people believe that since miracles were frequently performed by Jesus and the apostles, then they should still be frequently taking place today. The reason they don’t take place, we’re told, is because of our sinfulness or our lack of Christian maturity or our lack of faith.

But there is a serious flaw in reasoning here. We should not assume that whatever took place in the New Testament ought to be regarded as normative for the church for all time.

Here’s why: God was clearly doing something unique in Jesus’ day. It was an unusual divine intervention into human history. And God wished to overcome our natural inclination to disbelieve it.

I mean think about it. Here is a man who claims to be the Son of God; who claims to be God manifest in human flesh; who claims that his death would have cosmic significance; that in fact he would die as a sacrifice for human sin; and that whoever should be united to him by faith would be received into God’s favor.

These are pretty extraordinary claims! What kind of man would make them? Someone, perhaps, who had delusions of grandeur. Or a man who was a thoroughgoing fraud. Or someone who really was the Son of God. But how are we to tell? Any man could make these claims. But how are such claims to be verified? How are they to be proved true?

Jesus said, “The works [i.e., miracles] that I do in my Father’s name bear witness about me” (Jn. 10:25). And again, “Even though you do not believe me, believe the works [miracles], that you may know and understand that the Father is in me and I am in the Father” (Jn. 10:38).

And this is why apostles were given the power to work miracles, too. They were commissioned to give a unique testimony concerning Jesus. They were eye-witnesses of his resurrection. They had all seen him after he was raised. Again, this is a very extraordinary claim. Who would have believed it if God himself had not confirmed their testimony by performing signs and wonders through their hands? The miracles they performed had evidentiary value. As the writer of Hebrews says,

[The gospel] was declared at first by the Lord, and it was attested to us by those who heard, while God also bore witness by signs and wonders and various miracles and by gifts of the Holy Spirit distributed according to his will (Heb. 2:3-4)

It is illegitimate to take this unique role of the apostles as eye-witnesses of Jesus’ resurrection and say that what was normative for them, in terms of the power to work miracles, should be normative for us. We’re not apostles, and we’re not eye-witnesses of Christ. This is not to say that we cannot pray and ask God for extraordinary things, even miraculous things, like healing. And God does grant answers to our prayers in pretty remarkable ways sometimes. But we’re not warranted to expect the same kinds of miracles with the same degree of regularity as we see in the New Testament.

Understanding this I think helps us to also understand the place of demon possession as it took place in the New Testament period. It is precisely because the incarnation of Christ was an unusual divine intervention in human history that there was a similarly unusual demonic intervention in human history at the same time. The devil sought to counteract what God was doing. Just as there was an intensification, if you will, of divine activity, so there was an intensification of demonic activity in order to lead people astray. But of course Jesus confronted the power of devil on many occasions and triumphed over him.

Does demon possession still take place? I suppose that it does; but I don’t think we should expect it to happen as frequently today as it did in the New Testament period.