Friday, September 28, 2012

The power of words

Fascinating things, words. Amazing things. They allow us to reveal the otherwise unknowable proceedings of our minds to the minds of others, and they to us. What a lonely, frustrating world it would be if thinking beings should have no means to communicate what was taking place between their ears.

Words are potent things, too, almost magical in their power. By their wizardry we are capable of not only revealing the secret world of our thoughts, but also of molding the thoughts of others. This power can be used for good or ill:  to enlighten and instruct, or to confuse and mislead, and the latter never more frequently than in political discourse.

It is a sad fact that politicians often use high-sounding terms to mask the true intent of their aims. Take, as an example, the many euphemisms that are used to justify the killing of children while still in their mother’s womb. The most ridiculous of these—but then again one of the most effective—is “Pro-Choice.” Who in their right mind would be against choice, against freedom? A woman should have the right to do with her body whatever she wants, right?

Well, in a word, no. No one, male or female, has an unrestricted right to use his body however he pleases. As the saying goes, “You have a right to move your fist; but that right ends precisely where my nose begins.” No one has a right to use his body in such a way as to harm his neighbor.

To claim a right to abortion under the term “Pro-Choice” makes no more sense than under that same term to claim a right to rape or murder or steal. Who would be impressed if a rapist should attempt to justify himself by saying, “I was only exercising my right to choose”? The morality, indeed the legality, of a choice depends upon the object chosen.

In this case, everything hinges on what it is that is chosen to be aborted. Here, too, we find euphemisms galore designed to mislead the unwary and/or soothe the conscience of the guilty. The child in the womb is sometimes referred to as the product of conception, a mass of cells, pregnancy tissue, or uterine contents. These nondescript terms make abortion sound like a morally neutral procedure. Having a mass of cells removed doesn't sound any different than having an appendectomy.

Even the technically more accurate terms used by doctors and scientists—zygote, embryo, and fetus—can be misleading. Most people don’t assign different names for the various stages of an unborn child’s development. They just think of the child in the womb as a baby. And so the use of these less familiar and more clinical-sounding terms has a tendency to depersonalize the child. And sometimes these terms are used with just this intention.

In reality, zygote, embryo, and fetus are simply names for human beings in various stages of development, as are infant, toddler, adolescent, adult, and senior. It makes no more sense to say that abortion should be legal because it’s simply the disposing of a fetus, than it does to say killing a teenager is okay because it is only the disposing of an adolescent.

It is helpful to have terms to specify various stages of human development. The important thing to remember is that regardless of the stage, a human being is created in the image of God and has a right to life that cannot be denied, unless he has forfeited the right by committing a crime worthy of death.

Several years ago I listened to a physician testify in a congressional hearing on abortion. I was stunned to hear him refer to the unborn child as a parasite. This moves well beyond attempting to present abortion as a morally neutral procedure. It presents it as a positive moral good. A leech is a parasite, so too are tapeworms and ticks and fleas. No one wants to be afflicted with parasites. The thing to do is to get rid of them.

The thing to remember is that he who defines the terms of the debate wins. This is why we must never tire of (1) insisting that correct terms be used, and (2) pointing out how the terminology of our opponents obfuscates the issue.

Monday, September 10, 2012

The Intercession of Christ on our behalf

“Simon, Simon, behold Satan demanded to have you, that he might sift you like wheat” (Luke 22:31).

This is a frightful thing; but there is nevertheless something very comforting in it, too. It’s frightful to think of being tested – of being "sifted" – by the devil. But what is comforting is to know that Satan’s power extends no further than what God allows. The devil had to have God's permission before he could lift a finger against Peter.

Some people imagine that the devil has a power nearly equal to God and that he is often able to thwart God’s purpose. But they are not thinking very clearly. God is sovereign over all things. There is no power even beginning to approach the power of God. There is nothing beyond his absolute control. There is no being, whether devil in hell, angel in heaven, or man on earth, who can do anything independently of God. We should not think of the devil as exercising an unlimited power to do whatever he pleases. He can do no more than what God permits him to do. In this case, he was not permitted to have Peter – he could not sift him – without first obtaining permission from God. 

The same was true in Job's case (Job 1:6-12). Like Satan wanted to have Peter and sift him like wheat, so he was asked to have Job in order to do the same. And God granted his request, but limited what he could do. He could only do so much and no more. He could afflict him in his possessions, but not in his person. “All that he has is in your hand. Only against him do not stretch out your hand” (v. 12).

When all of this failed to achieve what the devil was seeking. He went back to God with a further request (Job 2:1-6). Satan requested permission to move the affliction from Job’s possessions to his person. “Stretch out your hand and touch his bone and his flesh, and he will curse you to your face. Once he suffers in his own body he will curse you; he will leave the faith.” Again God granted the request, but limited what he could do. The devil could afflict his body, but he was not permitted to kill him.

All of this should be an immense comfort to us. We are not at the mercy of impersonal forces of nature or at the mercy of the malevolent will of evil spirits. We are in the hands of a merciful God who, as Paul says, “works all things according to the counsel of his will” (Eph. 1:11). Even the malice of Satan is under God’s control and is used for God’s good purpose. What the devil intends for evil, God intends for good. The devil wanted to damn and destroy Peter; but God wanted to humble and refine him. And there was never any doubt about whose purpose would be accomplished.

Jesus said, “Simon, Simon, behold Satan demanded to have you, that he might sift you like wheat.” And had Jesus stopped here, there would have been nothing but despair. If Peter should have to contend alone against the craft and power of the devil, there would be no hope for him, just as there would be no hope for us if we had to stand in our own strength. “Satan demanded to have you, that he might sift you like wheat, but I have prayed for you that your faith may not fail.” This is Peter’s hope—Christ’s gracious intercession on his behalf. “I have prayed for you that your faith may not fail.” What a blessed thought! That Christ prays for his own! It’s a comfort to know that other people are praying for us, but how much more to know that Christ himself is praying for us.

And what is the outcome of our Lord’s intercession for Peter? “I have prayed for you that your faith may not fail. And when you have turned again, strengthen your brothers.” Notice here how Jesus speaks of Peter’s return as a matter of fact, and not as a mere possibility. It’s important that we catch this.  “When you have turned again…,” he says. Not, “If,” but “When.” The prayer of Christ on Peter’s behalf guaranteed Peter’s turning again, because no prayer of Christ will ever go unanswered.

No doubt he said this to Peter in order to give him consolation after the fact, lest he be overwhelmed with despair. When he heard the rooster crow, he would undoubtedly remember Jesus’ words foretelling his denial; but he would also remember his words foretelling his restoration, and thus would have hope.

Is it only for Peter that Jesus prays? Does he not also pray for us?

I am praying for them. I am not praying for the world but for those whom you have given me, for they are yours… I do not ask that you take them out of the world, but that you keep them from the evil one… I do not ask for these only, but also for those who will believe in me through their word (Jn. 17:9, 15, 20)

We are among those who believe in Christ through the word of the apostles. We have come to believe in him because of their testimony concerning him. Christ has prayed and he continues to pray for us just as he prayed for Peter, that we might not fall prey to the devil, but might stand fast. And if we should stumble, he prays that we will turn again. Paul speaks of this intercession of Christ on our behalf in his letter to the Romans.

Who shall bring any charge against God's elect? It is God who justifies. Who is to condemn? Christ Jesus is the one who died—more than that, who was raised— who is at the right hand of God, who indeed is interceding for us (Rom. 8:33-34)

Elsewhere he says,

He is able to save to the uttermost those who draw near to God through him, since he always lives to make intercession for them (Heb. 7:25; cf. Heb. 9:24)

Though Peter’s faith faltered, it did not utterly fail  because Jesus prayed for him.

What is the guarantee of our perseverance in the faith? Are we confident in our own natural goodness? Our own natural strength of will? Are we so strong that we can be sure we will never depart from the faith? Are we so confident of our wisdom and of our holy desires that we may trust in them to preserve us from falling? This is what Peter seems to have trusted in. "Maybe everyone else is going to leave and forsake you, Lord, but not me! I'll stick with you even through prison and death!"  But look how miserably he failed. 

We shouldn't look for a ground of confidence within ourselves. We should look away from ourselves and look to Christ. We are great sinners; but Jesus is a great Savior. John Wesley said it this way, “When I look at myself, I wonder how I can be saved; when I look at Christ, I wonder how I can be lost.”

Our hope is not in the goodness of our own hearts, nor in our own strength or wisdom. Our hope is in the gracious intercession of Jesus Christ on our behalf. He is praying for us.

Now, will the Father ever deny a request of the Son? Think about this. Will God ever refuse to answer a prayer of Jesus? Why does God ever refuse to answer prayer? It’s because either the request or the person making the request is disagreeable to him. Either the request itself is contrary to God's will, or the person making the request is displeasing to him. But can either of these be the case with Christ? Of course not. It’s unthinkable either that Jesus would ever ask anything disagreeable to the will of the Father, or that the Father should ever deny a request of his Son. Martha had the good sense to recognize this when she said, “I know that whatever you ask from God, God will give you” (Jn. 11:22).

And why will the Father give whatever Jesus shall ask? Because of the Father’s pleasure in Christ. It is striking just how often, and in how many different ways the Scriptures speak of the Father's delight in the Son.

On two different occasions in the Gospels God bore testimony with his own voice from heaven concerning the pleasure he has in Christ:  once at his baptism, and again on the Mount of Transfiguration, when he said – with a voice from heaven in the hearing of the people – “This is my beloved Son in whom I am well pleased” (Matt. 3:17; 17:5).

God delights in Christ, therefore he will grant all his requests. There is nothing Jesus shall ever ask that God will not be pleased to give. The will of the Father and the will of the Son are one, so there is nothing Jesus will ever ask contrary to the will of the Father.

Further, Jesus never does anything contrary the will of the Father, so that the Father is always pleased with him. Jesus said, “He who sent me is with me. He has not left me alone, for I always do the things that are pleasing to him” (Jn. 8:29). At the tomb of Lazarus, “Jesus lifted up his eyes and said, ‘Father, I thank you that you have heard me. I knew that you always hear me…’” (Jn. 11:41b-42a).

Jesus’ prayer for Peter was the guarantee of Peter’s return. It was the guarantee that his faith would not utterly fail. And indeed, we find that Peter, though falling grievously, did by the grace of God return. And we find him being received by Jesus, not only forgiven, but re-commissioned as one of his apostles, indeed, as chief of the apostles. It was Peter who preached on the great day of Pentecost, and whose preaching was blessed by the Spirit, so that 3,000 believed and were added to the church. It was Peter who also first preached to the Gentiles and saw the first fruits of the harvest brought in from among the nations.

“Satan demanded to have you, that he might sift you like wheat, but I have prayed for you that your faith may not fail.” It was this gracious intercession of Christ for Peter that guaranteed that he did not utterly fail, for the Father will never turn down a request of his Son. And if this is so, and Jesus is praying for us as he prayed for Peter, then we have the strongest possible assurance of our salvation. If you belong to Christ, he mentions your name before the Father. His intercession on your behalf guarantees that you will neither totally nor finally fall away from a state of grace. Without this, we can have no assurance; our salvation must always hang in doubt, like a great weight, suspended by a thread ready to snap at any moment. Our only hope would be the strength of our own will – a very hopeless hope indeed.