Thursday, April 24, 2014


So much of the modern church strikes me this way, like Pappy O'Daniel, who only wants to be a big shot, ignoring the "electorate" right in front of him in favor of the opportunity to "mass communicate."  Big conferences, bestselling books, famous celebrities.  Who's got the biggest building, the biggest budget, the best show?  We need to get the message out to as many people as possible.  Filling arenas with fifty thousand people.  Multi-site, seeker-sensitive, on and on it goes.  What's a little deception / "marketing" if it makes my book a bestseller?  What matters is, we're "mass communicatin'."  Question the theology, question the methods, ask whether it's quite biblical, and what do you hear?  "How many people did YOU preach to this week?"  He's reaching people for the Lord.  Who cares if he's cutting a few corners?

It's driven by a theological focus, almost to the exclusion of everything else, of the "moment of decision."  Decisionism refers to the tendency to think that the only thing that matters in salvation is the moment when someone makes their "decision for Christ” and to focus all our efforts on that moment.  But we are called to make disciples to Christ.  Jesus warned us about the large numbers that would respond in some sense to the gospel but would fall away.  We are called, as the church, to shepherd the flock, to care for God's people, to protect them from lies, to rebuke sin, to comfort the brokenhearted.  How can a pastor do that if he’s got four thousand people in his church?  How can he shepherd someone at a conference?
Of course that’s the charitable interpretation.  The uncharitable one is that pastors, just as much as anyone else, are susceptible to the world’s siren call of money, of fame, of the world’s approval.  In the church that call is all the more seductive because it’s so easy to dress that call up in church clothes, to say that I only want to be famous so I can reach more people; I only want to be rich so I can more easily do the work of the ministry.  I recently listened to a lecture by Alastair Begg in which he was warning the ministry against the sin of pride, and said that every single pastoral fall, every single disaster he’d seen in the ministry, was caused first and foremost by pride.  I believe it.

I'm not against conferences.  I'm not against books or radio programs.  But we should not mistake those things for the work of the ministry.  They can be aids to the work of the ministry.  But the work of the ministry is always "one-at-a-timing."  It is walking alongside people, loving them, getting to know them, laughing with them, crying with them, rebuking them, being rebuked by them.  It's preaching the word, ministering the sacraments, teaching publicly and from house to house.  This is the only way the ministry works or has ever worked.  These are the tools the Lord gave us to make disciples, and they're the only ones that work.

The preaching of a sermon is not the end of the pastor's responsibility.  He preaches the word as an expression of a pastoral relationship.  That means that when you prepare a sermon, you do so with particular people in mind, the people in your congregation with all their needs and hopes and shortcomings in mind as best as you know them.  I never feel like I'm really preaching when I preach at someone else's church.  And the preaching "publicly" must be combined with preaching "house to house" (Acts 20:20).  The public proclamation of God's word must be followed up with discipline, counseling, encouragement and exhortation which is tailored to the individual.

The work of the ministry, from the world's perspective, will always be horribly inefficient.  You pour your time into people who end up rejecting the church, who walk away from Christ.  Or you spend your time shepherding people who continually fall back into sin over and over.  You spend hours and hours, years and years, trying to get people to see things that maybe they never see.  And if that's your model of ministry, it's just not scalable.  It will not work once your church hits about 200.  It takes too much time.  As a result, you're unlikely to ever be famous, to ever have a name on the New York Times Bestseller list (or to ever have enough money to buy your way on).  It's inefficient.  It requires spending a lot of time to train a man, educate a man, screen a man, just so he can spend his life probably in obscurity toiling among a small group of people.  But it's the only way to do the job.
This is not a “poor me, being a pastor is so terrible” kind of article.  I love being a pastor and can’t imagine being anything else.  The joy I get when I see people, over years, respond to the teaching of the Word and grow in grace and love toward God and their fellow man is a joy that is unmatched by anything I have experienced.  I wouldn’t trade it for the world.  But it’s so easy to get our minds off God’s promises and on the allure of the world.  To fully reap the benefits of the ministry, we must be realistic about what it is and what it isn’t, and be in submission to the One who called us to the work.

Whose approval are we looking for?  If your goal is to make disciples, then "one-at-a-timing" is the only way to do it.  That's the way the Lord has given us to do it.  The faithful servant does not decide for himself what job or position he wants to do.  He doesn't neglect the work that the master gave him in order to do work that he will find more fun and exciting.  The faithful servant will not ignore the master's clear written instructions in favor of strong feelings within himself about what he would rather do.  The faithful servant will obey his master, seeking only the master's approval, and trusting the master with the results.  The kingdom of God is and always has been built one heart at a time.

2 Timothy 4:1 I charge you therefore before God and the Lord Jesus Christ, who will judge the living and the dead at His appearing and His kingdom: 2 Preach the word! Be ready in season and out of season. Convince, rebuke, exhort, with all longsuffering and teaching. (2Ti 4:1-2 NKJ)

Friday, March 28, 2014

Advice for Preachers, from Jay Adams 

A post from Wes Bredenhof pointed me to the blog of Dr. Jay Adams, very well known for his counseling approach, but who also has great advice on a wide variety of subjects for pastors.  As I am repeating sermon series that I have done in the past, I'm finding his advice here to be very true.  I tended to try to cram a lot in at earlier times in my ministry, and now I say more about less, frequently splitting old sermons into two sermons, or preaching an extra sermon on the same text.

If I took 25 minutes to tell you about one event on one night at one place last summer, I could tell all—colorfully, interestingly, and in a way that you could understand. Instead of hurriedly racing hither and yon, I could stop, examine in detail, describe in depth, delineate and delete! But all of last summer? Why, all I could do is vaguely sketch what took place!
As I get older in the ministry, I realize how much better it is to say one thing well than twenty things badly.  Just saying one thing well is challenge enough.

Tuesday, March 11, 2014

Naturalism and the Possibility of Truth 

Thoughts inspired by and collected from Alvin Plantiga's Where the Conflict Really Lies:

Naturalism is the philosophical position that only natural phenomena exists.  According to the naturalist, everything that we see is therefore the result of the laws of nature.  Life exists as the result of unguided evolution, the gradual selection in living organisms among random genetic mutations for those mutations that make it more likely that the organism will successfully reproduce.

People in the past and present believe a great many things that are not true.  If unguided evolution is true, then religion is one example- most of the people of the world believe in God or a god of some kind, and in the past this was even more true than it is today.  Why did they believe these things?  If unguided evolution is true, then they believed it because it provided some survival advantage.  It is not necessary to even know why belief in evolution provided a survival advantage. We know it did because most people possessed the trait, and the trait would not have been so nearly universally selected unless it provided some such advantage.  Belief in religion causes the believer to expend a great many resources in the pursuit of his religious belief; if it did not provide some serious advantage, such a detrimental belief would soon be bred out, as those that believe it would be less fit for survival.  The normal explanation by Darwinists is that belief in religion is advantageous, or was in the past, because it encourages cooperation with others through the idea of absolute morality.  But the mechanism is ultimately unimportant; we know it provided a survival advantage because otherwise it would not exist.

But here's the problem- according to the believer in unguided evolution, belief in a God that guides everything is false.  Therefore a false belief provides a survival advantage.  For a belief to be evolutionarily advantageous it is not at all necessary that the belief is true, only that it provides some advantage to the survival and reproduction of the species.  Friedrich Nietzche, the atheistic nihilist, expressed the consequence of this belief well when he said that there is no more unfounded assertion in all of human thought than the assertion that truth is to be preferred to falsehood.  In his book Beyond Good And Evil he asserted that the only thing that is real is the will to power- not truth or falsity, good or evil.

But if he's right and beliefs can be held by many billions of people simply because those beliefs provide survival advantages, then how can we have any confidence in any of our beliefs?  In that case our minds are wired by evolutionary biology to believe things because they help us propagate, not because they are true.  And that includes our belief in unguided evolution.  Thus naturalism, the belief that only matter exists and all that is is the result of blind chance and natural laws, and random selection of genetic traits produced all the life that we see, renders all knowledge impossible and makes any assertion of the truth of one proposition over another a meaningless assertion.

One can repeat the same exercise with beliefs such as racism and sexism, things we Christians would agree are false.  And it can be repeated ad infinitum with any number of beliefs that people held in the past.  In the past they were believed because they provided a survival advantage.  Therefore evolution can and very frequently does result in people being hardwired to believe false things for survival advantage, and thus unguided evolution results in minds that are hardwired to believe what helps them survive and propagate, not what is true.  Natural selection ought therefore to select for people like Genghis Khan, who very successfully propagated his genes throughout Asia and Europe.  And the result is the complete overthrow of any such conception as truth.  Only the will to power remains.

Tuesday, March 04, 2014

Give us This Day Our Daily Bread 

Why pray, "Give us this day our daily bread", when the ungodly often have as much bread as the godly?

First, because the godly know their bread comes from God, and are thus incalculably better off than the one who does not know that. Knowledge of God is much more important than bread.

Second (related to the first), because while the ungodly might have bread in the short term, eventually all of God's blessings will be cut off from the one who never learns to acknowledge God in thankfulness as the source of all he has.

Tuesday, February 18, 2014

Science requires Faith 

More thoughts:

The scientist sacrifices a huge amount of time and effort and money to understand the world he lives in.  He fails, over and over and over and over again.  Why does he keep trying?  Why doesn't he just go have a beer?  Life is short.  Why bother?

The atheist scientist has no reason to ever expect that his efforts will be rewarded.  There is no necessary reason at all why his quest should succeed.  Why should the universe be known?  Why should things make sense?  How can he justify his sacrifice?

The Christian scientist (or the scientist who has unwittingly assumed Christian principles) has every reason to continue.  He believes, because the Bible tells him, that the universe is orderly and knowable, and that God created man to know and understand the universe; to be in dominion over it.  Therefore he believes, despite all evidence to the contrary, that his efforts will be rewarded.  His years of failure are not wasted.  He presses on.

Science requires faith.

Knowledge and the Atheist 

Atheism is supposed to be the philosophy of evidence, which seeks explanations and understanding of the world we live in, instead of just resorting to “magic” to explain things.

A few of the things that the atheist must account for in his thinking:

Why anything exists?
Why it exists in an orderly fashion?
Why it exists in a form that is able to support human life?
Why it exists in a form that is understandable?
Why we exist in a form that is capable of understanding it?
Why we exist in a form that is capable of making value judgments about how things ought to be?
Why such value judgments are possible and valid in the first place?
Why knowing truth about the universe is important or valuable, let alone possible?
Why billions of people claim to have experienced the answer to these questions, having had a personal encounter with the divine?  Why they are all lying or ignorant, while the atheist is right?

So we have lots of questions which the atheist can only answer, “It just is.”  Christianity on the other hand has an answer to the question which holds together logically and is backed by evidence that is appropriate to the question being proved.

Atheism often accuse Christians of a “God of the gaps”, or just invoking God whenever we can’t explain something.  But the atheist invokes the cosmos, whenever he can’t explain something.  He says, "it just is."  The Christian, when faced with something he doesn't understand about the cosmos, can say that we know God made it that way and we don’t understand it, yet we have confidence that we will understand it one day since God intentionally created the cosmos to be understood by us.  The atheist, when faced with something he doesn't understand about the cosmos, must simply say that it is the way it is for no apparent reason, and he has no reason at all to believe that he ever will understand it.  The atheist cannot confidently say that he understands anything at all now.  He has no reason to even believe that his mind and senses are giving him accurate information about the world.

Christianity made the scientific revolution possible.  Atheism leads logically to nihilism and the denial of all truth.

Monday, February 17, 2014

What the Devil Cares About 

The devil wants you in hell.  He wants to destroy you.  That is his whole mission in life.  He stalks about like a roaring lion seeking whom he may devour.

The devil doesn't care about abortion, or gay marriage, or evolution.  Believing in the Biblical teaching on any of those doctrines will not save you.  He only cares about one thing- the cross of Christ.  Only faith in the cross can save you.  So the devil uses all those other things to open up chinks in the Christian's trust in the Bible so that he can attack the one thing he really cares about.

That's why everything the Bible says, including what it says about abortion, gay marriage or evolution matters- all of those things exist inside the wall of the infallibility of Scripture.  If you let the enemy inside your wall because he promises he won't steal your greatest treasure, but only some smaller things that you think are unimportant, don't complain when he doesn't stop with those things.  If you let the thief in your house when he promises only to steal a little money, you have only yourself to blame when he steals it all.

Don't let the devil inside your house.  Don't believe that he will stop with abortion, or gay marriage, or evolution, any more than Hitler stopped with the Sudetenland.  He's after the whole kit and caboodle and he won't stop until he gets it.  Defend the wall at every point, even and especially where it's most seriously attacked.  Defend the authority of Scripture on every point regardless of how unpopular it is.  Because regardless of what you think is at stake, the same thing is always at stake when it comes to the authority of Scripture- the cross of Christ, and your soul.

Saturday, February 15, 2014

We Need to Keep the Sabbath 

I am not a Sabbatarian.  By that I mean that I do not believe that the religious observance of days is mandated in Scripture for New Testament believers.  I believe we are called together to worship at times and places decided by the church, and we should be there.  But I do not see any mandated schedule for that in the New Testament.

That being said, the Sabbath was always about a lot more than the observance of a day.  That was only an outward sign of something much bigger.  In Exodus 31:13 (repeated in Ezekiel 20) God tells them that the Sabbaths were given to the children of Israel as a sign that "I am the Lord who sanctifies you."  To "sanctify" means to be made holy, to set apart, to bless, to save.  He was calling them to deliberately give up some of their productive labor as a recognition of the fact that their productive labor was not the source of their blessed state.  In Deuteronomy 5, in the second giving of the Ten Commandments, God uses their deliverance from Egypt as the reason for the Sabbath commandment- they had worked for 400 years without a day off in Egypt and had nothing at all to show for it.  Their blessing came from God, not their labor, and the deliberate restriction on labor was there to teach them that.

Far too many Israelites turned right around and made a different kind of work out of the Sabbath.  They thought that through their scrupulous keeping of the Sabbath day that God would be bound to bless them.  To this day many Orthodox Jews believe that the proper observance of two Sabbaths in a row will result in the coming of the Messiah and the Blessed Age.

It is ironic to me that too many today who continue to believe in the observance of one day in seven as a holy day view it as a way to secure God's blessing.  "If we just obey the law properly, then God will bless us."  But this is the very opposite of the meaning of the day, which is that God's blessing to us is free and independent of our own obedience.  Our obedience always follows His blessing- He sanctifies us.

But the even larger problem is the great many Christians who are so busy chasing after the blessed state in this life that they never leave themselves any time at all to quietly meditate on the things of God, whether individually, in their families or in their church.  We spend our time running after money because we believe that money will give us the blessed life.  We are so busy in our family life that we neglect the thing our children really need, which is a real relationship with the God who saves.  We pour our time and energy into exercise and diet thinking that good health is the key.  We spend our time and money on entertainment, on vacations, on food and drink.  We never have a second to stop and relax, to simply love others, to peacefully meditate on God's word.

In this mindset, balance is always impossible.  Every individual will have their own god, their own idol, their own vain lie about what or what combination of things will give them what they want.  Money, pleasure, health, family, community, politics, religious activity, academic pursuits- everyone will pick one or two or three of those things and pursue them to the detriment of the others.  When religious importance is attached to the things of this world, moderation is not possible.  Idols always demand total devotion.  So we get the glutton, the drunkard, the fornicator, the workaholic, the greedy, the wrathful, the miser, all of them trying to eat things that aren't bread.  We get the ascetic, the man trying to discipline his body in a hermit's cave or in a health club in order to achieve that blessed state.

"Why do you labor for that which is not bread?"  the prophet asks the people of Israel.  Why do they spend their time and effort chasing after foreign gods that cannot save them any more than they save these other nations?  Israel looked at Assyria with their fearsome chariots, or Babylon with their great wealth, or Egypt with their fine luxuries, and said, "We want what they have," and adopted their ways and religions in an attempt to get it.  But they had something so much greater.  They had the God who saves.  Where are the Assyrian and Babylonian and Egyptian empires today?  And yet the people of God go on, while the great empires of the past are relics for archaeologists to study and children to be bored by in museums.

We need to just stop.  Stop our busy schedules.  Stop running around.  Stop trying to achieve the blessed state through our own works.  It will never happen because we cannot bless ourselves.  God saves us.  We need to take a Sabbath, a Sabbath in our hearts, to remind us of that.  We will never be able to get enough money, have good enough health, have the perfect vacation, watch the perfect TV show, build the perfect church, to achieve the blessed state we want.  We can't.  It's a cursed and fallen world and no effort of ours will ever overcome the effects of that curse on the world.

This is the whole message of the cross.  The cross is what was necessary to save us.  And how can we add anything to that?  We're like Israelites in slavery thinking that if we just work a little harder maybe our slavemasters will let us go.  We don't need to work harder, or smarter.  We need to be saved.

Then we can simply, quietly, peacefully, rest in that salvation, in the knowledge that Jesus paid it all.  Then we can, coming from that place of rest, begin to get busy doing the work God has given us to do- caring for our families, working at our jobs, taking care of our bodies, enjoying God's beautiful earth, loving other people, not because we think we will add so much as one minute to our lifespans by doing so, but out of that thankful and peaceful love that flows from the knowledge that all the work is done already, and has been for two thousand years.  The blessed state is already achieved, and all there is left for us to do is to learn how to enjoy it.

So on second thought, I am a Sabbatarian, a New Testament Sabbatarian.  Every Christian desperately needs to stop their vain attempts to secure their own happiness through their works, and rest in Christ.  Take time out from your too-busy schedules to read your Bibles, to pray, to love your families and your churches- not on any particular schedule, but every day of your lives.  At your workplace- rest in the knowledge that God puts the bread on your table.  At play- rest in the knowledge that God is your joy and your pleasure.  At the gym, know that your health is in God's hands and you won't live a minute longer or have any better quality of life than He gives you, and that in the blood of Christ your bodies will be raised to glorious eternal incorruptibility.  On vacation- rest in the knowledge that all the joys of heaven are yours, after you have suffered a little while.  Let the Sabbath principle infuse every breath you take and every work you do.

The Sabbath principle will make the difference between the mad and desperate scrambling that characterizes so many lives, the destructive and miserable pursuit of the lying temptations of this world that is ruining our families, our churches, our nation- and the peaceful and joyful working at whatever God puts in front of us to do.  The Sabbath principle will give us that long-sought-after balance, enabling us to start to understand how to work as much as is right, to play as much as is right, to rest and pray as much as is right, to study as much as is right, all done in the desire to thankfully and peacefully experience all the blessings God is giving His people.  Once we realize that He doesn't need our work to bless us any more than He needed the Israelites' input to free them from Egypt, then we can rest in Christ's perfect and finished work every day and every minute of our lives.  We can give up any vain dream of blessing ourselves through our own efforts, and seek simply to serve Him in thankfulness, peace and joy, to experience the fullness of His salvation.

Saturday, January 25, 2014

A Religious Relationship 

Some people say, “It’s not a religion, it’s a relationship.”   I am curious why one thinks that these two ideas are mutually exclusive.   A religion is a relationship, a connection between God and man expressed in certain defined doctrines and practices.  One would be hard pressed to find anyone within Christianity who would actually say that the empty performance of religious ritual is a good thing.  Our worship ought to be a matter of the heart, or in other words a matter of sincerely held belief, and not just vain formalism.

If this is what people mean when they oppose religion to relationship, they’re right, though I fear that they often mean something else.  Often, by “relationship”, people seem to emphasize entirely just one side of that relationship, their own, so that by a “relationship” they really mean an experience, a feeling, a particular emotional ecstasy.  Too often it seems that it is the very idea that God has regulated our relationship with Him that people find offensive.  Is it the case that we want to be in control of the way that relationship functions, of how and when we experience that relationship? 

It is a relationship, but because God is who He is and we are who we are, that relationship must be defined and regulated very carefully, and we are not the ones who do the defining and regulating.  So it is a “religious relationship,” a relationship with God which is governed by order and sound doctrine.

Cain’s problem was not that he didn't want a relationship with God.  He wanted one, but he wanted to be in control of it.  He wanted to offer God the sacrifice that he chose to offer, rather than the one God had taught him to offer.  He wanted to change the terms of the relationship.  God responded by rejecting that sacrifice and calling on Cain to repent.  Over and over we can see the same pattern being repeated.  Every kind of sin there is basically boils down to this impulse.  Even atheists, whether they are willing to admit it or not, are demanding to have a relationship with God on their terms, because they insist on the right to enjoy God’s good creation without submitting to Him.  This is right at the very essence of the sin of idolatry.  The practice of idol worship was at its heart a desire to fix and control one’s relationship to the god, governing my relationship to the god by the things that I myself have made.

God is sovereign over us and can never be anything but sovereign.  We can never be in charge of our relationship with God.  So whether or not we will have a relationship with God is not the question.  As His creatures, we will always be in relationship with Him.  The question is, whether we will submit to His rules for that relationship, or whether we will insist on writing our own.  This principle will be reflected in everything we do, and it will be seen in our worship above all else.  Is our worship driven by God’s own revealed truth?  Or is it driven by our feelings, opinions, and priorities?  Do we desire to generate certain kinds of emotional experiences and call that worship, or do we desire to submit ourselves to the God that made us? 

We are called to a religious relationship with God, and that relationship will be an extremely blessed one.  God has all the treasures in the world, and desires to give them to His people.  He will always do so in a way that is true to His own nature, that reflects His sovereignty and rule.  In grace, He sovereignly reveals the truth to His people, opens our eyes to the true nature of our religious relationship with Him, so that we can be conformed to the truth of His sovereignty and receive all of His gracious gifts.

This is all revealed in Christ.  His life was one of perfect obedience in submission to the will of His Father.  His death showed that fellowship with God can only be had in conformity to His law; since God’s law demanded death for our sin, that price had to be paid, and it was.  His call to us is to believe on Him, to be covered by the blood He shed for us, and thus enter into a right and gracious relationship with God which honors both His sovereign justice and His gracious love.  This is the heart of what people find so offensive in the cross.  It expresses perfectly the truth that our relationship with God can only ever be had on His terms, not on ours, that God will sooner undergo the horrors of death Himself than give up His sovereign right to rule.

It only reveals the desperate condition of sinful man all the more that so many continue to reject this perfect offer of fellowship and continue to insist on writing the rules of our relationship with God ourselves.  It would be like the Gauls trying to dictate to Caesar the terms of their surrender after Caesar had utterly crushed them.  God holds all the cards here, yet He has approached us in grace and mercy.  It is only reasonable then that we give up any attempt to try to dictate to God what our relationship with Him will look like, and humbly and simply look to Him to instruct us in the religious relationship, the sovereignly ordered worship and life to which He has called us.

Friday, January 24, 2014

Getting to Know God 

From the church site:
Like a Japanese gardener who shapes a miniature tree over years by carefully tying its branches and trunk in particularly chosen ways, so the worship of God, through patient repetition, will shape us. It will guide us in the way we grow. This is not a matter of simply showing up, but truly being bound to God by personal trust and faith, since it is the personal relationship that forms the connection, not simply physical presence or outward activity. This shaping will not happen all at once; the change will often be imperceptible. We might not think anything is going on at all. But over time, those forces will gently, slowly and certainly shape someone. If the worship services we choose to go to are dominated by the opinions and ideas of men, then that is what will shape us, and our hearts will be far from God. But if the content of our worship is controlled by the personality of Jehovah, then we will be conformed to the image of Jehovah.

Thursday, January 23, 2014

Handmade Heidelberg Catechism from The Purple Carrot (review) 

Heidelberg Catechism, with Scripture Proof Texts
I received this item from The Purple Carrot for review purposes.  It’s a handcrafted Heidelberg Catechism.  The cover in front and back is hard, like a hardback book, but with a sewn-on cover that you can get in a number of different patterns.  It has a binding that I think you’d call stitched or sewn.  I don’t know a lot about book binding.  But I would think that the nice thing about this kind of binding, besides its aesthetic value, is that it seems to be able to open and close and lay very flat without stressing the binding much at all.  It seems like it would be quite durable and stand up to some use. 

That durability would be very nice for a piece like this, because one of the chief uses I could foresee for it would be as a gift for church members having a child baptized.  You’d want something that looks this nice to last a while, and to be actually usable without just falling apart.  Inside is a title page, an introduction to the Heidelberg Catechism, and each of the questions.  All the proof texts are listed as well, very helpful for catechetical study.

I think the price is pretty reasonable for something hand-crafted like this ($20).  I think it would be a really nice touch to give something like this to families with a new baby or new member families or those kinds of occasions.  The Purple Carrot makes a few different versions of this- I think right now they have the Heidelberg Catechism, the Westminster Shorter Catechism and the Catechism for Young Children.  The translation for the Heidelberg that was used is I believe the same one some of the more conservative Dutch churches.  It’s the same as is listed here on Westminster Theological Seminary's site, which says it's the one the Canadian and American Reformed Churches use.  But there's only minor differences in wording between this and the one we are using in the RCUS right now, which itself has been modified a few times with more modern language.  I've been told that The Purple Carrot is putting one together using the current RCUS translation as well.

Overall, I really recommend it.  Well-made, reasonably priced, very useful and attractive item.  Good for churches who want to buy it as a gift item- or buy it yourself for your own family.  I love the Heidelberg of course, but the Westminster Shorter Catechism and the Catechism for Young Children are both great resources too.  If you don't know which one to get, get the Heidelberg!

Here is a link to The Purple Carrot's website.

Wednesday, January 22, 2014

Family Planning and the Christian Couple 

I regularly get asked questions about whether it is acceptable for a Christian to use birth control or family planning.  Within Reformed and Evangelical circles there is a perspective or a movement even, sometimes called "Quiverfull", that teaches against any form of birth control.  I believe this movement to be contrary to Christian principles, primarily the principle that only God is the legislator.

The “Quiverfull” movement describes a belief that Christian couples ought to be open to having very large families.  In particular, those that describe themselves as “quiverfull” people usually mean that it is sinful to use any method to limit the number of children that the couple has.  There are a variety of expressions of this belief; some hold to the position that artificial methods like chemical or mechanical means of preventing conception are forbidden; others simply state that a couple ought to engage in intercourse naturally at all times without concern for whether it will produce a pregnancy or not.  So some might think that timing intercourse around fertility cycles is acceptable while others would deny it.  

The Catholic position on this subject rests on natural law arguments and the belief that the primary purpose of sex is procreation. The Roman Catholic Church has always viewed sex with suspicion, and for understandable reasons (at least a long time ago), due to the great depravity of the Roman Empire in which the church originally rose.  Attitudes toward sex developed early in that depraved environment and then got locked in place later due to unbiblical theories of the infallibility of church tradition.  So the Roman Catholic Church has always viewed sex as a necessary evil, really only acceptable for procreation, and is seen in its insistence that the holiest and most spiritual men and women will be celibate.

Within Protestant Evangelical circles the argument tends to take a different form.  Here is one example of such an argument.  The argument rests on the very Biblical idea that children are a blessing from God.    The "quiverfull" name comes from a memorable passage from Psalm 127: "Like arrows in the hand of a warrior, So are the children of one's youth.  Happy is the man who has his quiver full of them; They shall not be ashamed, But shall speak with their enemies in the gate. (Psa 127:4-5 NKJ)"  Though it starts with a Biblical principle, it makes unwarranted applications of that principle, applications which run afoul of other Biblical principles.

The argument goes that since the Bible frequently describes children as a blessing, we ought to be open to receive as many of them as God will give us (which is of course true).  Therefore it is sinful for us to do anything that would prevent that from happening (and here is the unbiblical and unwarranted inference).  God commanded Adam and Eve in the garden to "be fruitful and multiply" and repeated that command to Noah after the flood.  In 1 Timothy 5:14-15, the apostle expresses his desire that young women marry and bear children.  In 1 Timothy 2:11-15 the apostle even says that the woman will be saved by childbirth.

Since all of these passages promote childbirth and procreation, therefore it should be taken as a Biblical command to procreate freely, to do nothing to prohibit or delay it, and consequently in most cases to have very large families.

Christian Liberty
My major counterpoint to all of this is the principle of Christian liberty.  One of the strongest criticisms that Jesus leveled against the Pharisees was the charge that they set themselves up as lawgivers for other people.  He said,  "Hypocrites! Well did Isaiah prophesy about you, saying: "These people draw near to Me with their mouth, And honor Me with their lips, But their heart is far from Me. And in vain they worship Me, Teaching as doctrines the commandments of men.'" (Mat 15:7-9 NKJ)"  In particular, the Pharisees were fond of making rules for others based on logical inferences from Scriptures, inferences which were often quite tenuous.  Many of Jesus' Sabbath disputes were based on this kind of reasoning, as were the purity rituals of the Pharisees.  They complained that Jesus' disciples did not fast, for example, when their fasts were imposed by the Pharisees, but nowhere commanded in Scripture.  The Scriptures said in different places that fasting was a good thing to do, and therefore the Pharisees decided that fasting twice a week is something any good Jew ought to do.  Or the Old Testament taught that eating certain foods were polluting, and therefore the Pharisees would not even eat with a Gentile for fear of this pollution, something not required in the Law of Moses. Even though Jesus was perfectly obedient to that law, He freely ignored these rules.  It was their "tradition", meaning the body of law that had arisen as application of the Law of Moses.  Jesus constantly criticizes the Pharisees for teaching this tradition as if it were the same as the Law of Moses.

This is a great temptation that the church has continually failed to see.  As another example, the Scriptures teach that drunkenness is a sin, and something to be very careful about.  Therefore, many Christian groups over the century have taught that a Christian ought not drink at all, simply to avoid the danger.  We all must make applications of the Scripture to our own lives and circumstances.  But when we then take those applications that we have made, and teach them as law for others, then we have usurped God's sole right to be the Lawgiver, and set ourselves up as the Lawgiver for others.  This is a great offence, as Jesus' words in Matthew 15 and many other places show.  

The Apostle James says the same thing: "11 Do not speak evil of one another, brethren. He who speaks evil of a brother and judges his brother, speaks evil of the law and judges the law. But if you judge the law, you are not a doer of the law but a judge. 12 There is one Lawgiver, who is able to save and to destroy. Who are you to judge another? (Jam 4:11-12 NKJ)"  James here says that if I judge my brother then I have judged the law.  James is talking about decisions I make myself about the rightness of my brother's actions.  Telling people what the law of God says is never judging them.  All I am doing is speaking the truth that God has revealed.  But when I make up my own law and judge my brother by that law, then I have acted as if the law of God was insufficient (what he means by "judging the law").  I've set myself above the law of God.  But there is only one Lawgiver.

The great question always comes over what God's law actually says.  Those advancing the "Quiverfull" doctrine of course believe that their doctrines were not invented by themselves, but are derived from Scripture.  We need to determine whether they are right or not.  But I start with Christian liberty because that doctrine is not in doubt at all.  So clear is the Scripture on this point, so frequent the warnings, so strong the language, that it ought to teach the Christian to be extremely cautious before proclaiming what the law of God is to others.  If we proclaim that the Law of God prohibits or commands some behavior, we had better be very sure that we are right.  To fail to do so is to set ourselves up as the Lawgiver, and to usurp God's exclusive right.  We must simply be very, very cautious before ever declaring confidently what other people must do or not do.  Who are we to judge another man's servant?  When the Scripture speaks clearly, so should we.  Otherwise, we should be silent.  God will judge.

Responsible Hermeneutics
With that said, then we can examine the Quiverfull argument.  What we see in this argument is a consistent use of a very questionable hermeneutic (meaning, interpretive approach to Scripture).  It is a similar hermeneutic as that employed by the Prosperity Gospel, which will use examples of times when God made someone healthy or rich as proof that God wants all of us to be healthy or rich.

Just because something happens in the Bible does not mean that it is good.  Further, just because something happens which is stated to be a blessing does not translate into a command for all people in a wide variety of differing circumstances.  Saying that "children are a blessing" does not translate into a command that we ought to pursue having some number of children, or that it is always wrong to delay having children.

In order to be on safe ground declaring that the Quiverfull principles are indeed law, an actual command or articulation of a moral principle needs to be found in Scripture.  It is true that part of the creation mandate was to "be fruitful and multiply".  But this is a general command given to the human race.  Does it apply in exactly the same way to every individual?  Jesus never had any children, even though He was under the Law.  Paul remained single.  They both clearly thought that the command to be fruitful and multiply did not apply to them in their particular circumstances.  Further, does the command "be fruitful and multiply" imply anything about how many children I am to have?  The command says nothing about how specifically it is fulfilled.  It does not give me precise instructions, but is merely presented as a general principle.  We ought to regard children, and having children, as a good thing- true.  But it says nothing about how many children it may or may not be wise to have.

Paul expresses his desire for young women to marry and have children.  This is a good indication of what the normal life of young women will look like, and we ought to follow it.  But Paul also expressly allows and even encourages people in some circumstances to delay marriage for a time (1 Cor. 7) or even to remain single.  In Matthew 24:19 Jesus expresses the idea that during certain times of tribulation it might be undesirable to be pregnant or nursing.  In short, nothing about the general statements about the goodness of marriage and childrearing overrides all prudential or circumstantial concerns.

I Timothy 2:15 says that the woman "will be saved by childbearing."  If this is taken to mean that bearing children is the way of salvation for women, meritorious for her justification, or anything of that nature, then our whole system of doctrine is overthrown.  This is a notoriously difficult passage, and difficult passages are never good grounds for doctrines which are not clearly taught elsewhere.  Salvation is often taken by some to mean "conversion", "the way to get into heaven" or "the way to be forgiven of sins", but often the Scriptures use the word "save" in the sense of the whole process of sanctification and perfection- an ongoing process throughout our lives.  If taken in this likely sense, then Paul is saying that childbearing will be one of the normal means that God uses to sanctify and grow women in their personal righteousness, an observation that rings very true to experience.  But again, nothing is said about women in every condition or circumstance.  Can infertile women then not be saved?  And nothing is said about how many children are necessary to make this process happen.  Is a woman with ten children more sanctified than one with five?  These are all unwarranted inferences from the text.

The hermeneutic approach employed by the Quiverfull movement is similar to that which would take warnings against drunkenness to be prohibitions against alcohol.  It is an irresponsible hermeneutic which twists Scripture to be saying things it does not say, to find commands where there are none, and to find specificity in commands when there are only general statements.  We have in the Scriptures a call to the human race generally to procreate, and to regard children and family life in general as a good thing.  We have instructions that teach that most people's lives will be and should be characterized by marriage and family.  These are all principles that our selfish death-worshiping culture desperately needs to hear.  But none of them translate into a prohibition against a couple making decisions about when to have children and how many children they should have.

Responsible Childrearing
On the contrary, the Scriptures also give us commands about caring for children.  Paul says that he that does not care for his own, especially those of his own house, has denied the faith.  He also tells fathers to bring his children up in the nurture and admonition of the Lord.  Both of these statements imply that parents have a responsibility to their children.  Children require resources- financial, physical, emotional and spiritual.  In this life the resources that God gives us are limited and we are called to make wise choices about the use of those resources.  To be faithful to the commands God gives us regarding our children requires that we make prudent decisions about time and resources.    The sixth commandment requires us to guard life and health, and that includes the life and health of our wives.  In a sin-cursed world, childbearing has health risks which should be considered.

The financial costs of childrearing are often overblown in our culture.  Children do not require many of the luxuries that people seem to think they need, and in fact such luxuries often work contrary to spiritual formation in our children.  But they do cost money.  They need health care and dental care, not to mention food and clothes.  It is not illegitimate for parents to consider their financial state when making decisions about childrearing, especially given Paul's commands to the effect that people should not willingly make themselves burdens on the church.

Even more importantly, however, is the time required to properly train and nurture children.  If older children are doing most or all of the raising of younger children, then parents are not truly discipling and nurturing their children.  We all only have so much time to go around, and it is not responsible for us to choose to have children that we cannot actually raise.  Certainly, sometimes God in His sovereignty overrides our plans and gives us challenges we did not think we were capable of withstanding.  He will certainly give grace in such circumstances.  But none of that excuses us from the responsibility to make wise choices as best as we can.  God's sovereignty is never an excuse for recklessness or foolishness.  God's sovereignty is never an excuse for failing to plan.  We are called to be in dominion, and being in dominion means being wise and prudent, laying up for the future, at the same time as we recognize and trust that God certainly holds the future in His hands and makes all final decisions.  God's sovereignty also should direct us to prioritize the children that God has actually given us over future children that He may or may not provide.

Based on my own experience and observations, I believe it wise for most couples to delay children for some time when first married, to give them an opportunity to put their marriage on a very strong foundation.  I believe it wise to be careful about financial stability, though this is often abused in the service of selfish materialism.  I believe it wise for couples to space children out to a certain degree to give a wife time to recover from the rigors of childbearing.  I also believe that parents ought to consider whether they are being faithful in the Scriptures' call to raise their children in the nurture and admonition of the Lord, a call which requires time, individual time, for each child.  Children are not just commodities. They are not animals to be herded into pens and fed from troughs.  They are individuals, each one a spiritual being created in the image of God, each distinct and unique.  To be nurtured and trained, they must be treated as individuals.  That means the first and foremost concern needs to be the good of those people already existing- the good of the children and the wife that you already have, and not the hypothetical good of children the Lord has not yet provided.

There is also the service of the church itself to consider.  If it is Biblical for some to seek to stay single in order to serve God in unique ways (and it is- see 1 Cor 7), then it is also Biblical for a couple to seek to forego or limit children in order to free them to serve the church (always while also recognizing that raising godly children is a huge service to the church).  Again this should never be a cloak for selfishness or self-serving.  And yet, Paul chose to remain single so as to serve the church in the way God had called him to particularly, and he explicitly allows this choice to others as well.

The primary purpose of marriage in the Scripture is not procreation, but companionship.  The original reason for the creation of the woman is not said to be childbearing, but companionship.  The importance of this principle is the recognition that a married couple that has decided for prudent reasons to delay or limit the children they have are not contradicting or nullifying the purpose of marriage, since children are not given in Scripture as the purpose of marriage- companionship is.  "It is not good for the man to be alone."

I believe it wise for married couples to consider all these things.  But because I am not the lawgiver and have not been given the role of judging my brother's faithfulness, I would never try to issue any laws on this subject.  I love big families.  My wife and I each come from families of six.  We have four children ourselves.  But these decisions are to be made by Christian people themselves.  Where the Scriptures do not legislate, let us be silent as well.  Let the Spirit guide each couple in the way that they apply these principles to the size of the family they choose to have.  Let us not be driven by selfishness, nor yet by a legalistic desire to earn some favor from God by our works, nor yet by a hypocritical desire to set ourselves up as higher or more spiritual Christians by external and carnal measures like family size.  Let us be driven by a humble trust in God and a desire to serve others in love, including our own children.

Friday, January 17, 2014

Speak, Lord, for your Servant Hears 

These are the words which Eli gave to Samuel, teaching him how to respond to God’s call.  Oh, that Eli himself had listened to those words!  Instead, his sons used the house and worship of God to enrich themselves and satisfy their lusts, and Eli did nothing, ineffectually rebuking them when the outcry got too big, and failing to remove them, and execute them, as he should have.  He decided that he knew better how to accomplish good outcomes than God Himself did.  Even if he didn’t articulate it that way, that is the effect of substituting his own goals for God’s.

There is a great deal of talk about what the church should be trying to accomplish, what goals we should have for our ministries.  We have vision statements and ministry models and the like.  Some say their great goal is to save sinners, or to promote missions.  Some want to “be” the gospel, promoting social justice, or cultural transformations of one kind or another.  There is currently an article going around about how the church needs to be more outspoken about abortion.  Some think that healthy families are what we need to be promoting; some push political change; some have some other idea.

But Eli’s instruction to Samuel gives me pause.  It seems to me that we are far too often goal-oriented, when as servants of God we really should be task-oriented.  Samuel says, “Your servant hears.”  A servant shows up at his master’s beck and call simply to be commanded, to be told what to do.  He has no right and no ability to tell the master what the goals ought to be.  He just does what he’s told.  Is that not our relationship to God?  Ought we not simply to faithfully do what God has told us to do?  We have no control over outcomes.  We cannot control which way the culture goes or which way our own churches go.  Those things are in God’s hands.

Jesus set the vision for the church in Matthew 28, and spelled out the details through the Apostles.  Our job is to preach the gospel and to teach people to observe what God has commanded.  We are to preach the whole counsel of God, to watch out over our flocks, to refute false teachers, to warn and exhort people.  That is the task the church has been given.  Whenever the church has tried to shape the outcomes, the results have been terrible.

It’s not that there isn’t plenty to do.  Our people need taught the truth.  Sin needs to be rebuked.  The gospel needs to be faithfully preached.  People need to be encouraged and exhorted as the Scriptures lay out for us.  So many ministers are so involved in their various causes and programs, one wonders- are their churches being pastored?  Are the brokenhearted being built up, the proud rebuked, the sick visited, the children trained?  Are they so involved in all their various pet projects because they’ve so mastered the work of ministering to the local church, there are no needs to occupy them?  Have they so faithfully fulfilled their Master’s commands that they now feel free to go and pursue their own agendas?  Or is it perhaps that the difficulty of the work before them causes them to neglect it in favor of easier and safer pursuits?

Even for those things that fall into the work of the church, like calling people to repentance or training them in discipleship, much of the church’s failure, I think, comes from this tendency to be goal oriented instead of task oriented.  When our goal is to make disciples, we tend to think of how we can best accomplish that goal, and then adjust our techniques to the mode that will effectively achieve that result.  So in the past we got indulgences, clerical celibacy, monasticism, mandated fasts and holy days, all in this attempt to do what, in our wisdom, would accomplish the right goals.  Today we get the seeker sensitive movement and the like.  I have heard people say that they don’t do church discipline because “it doesn’t work,” as if it was up to us to decide whether God’s commands were effective or not!  If instead we recognized that it is God who truly makes disciples through His Spirit, then we would just be busy about the tasks that God gives us- preaching the gospel, teaching His word, governing His church according to His rules, and trusting Him to work the results He wants to work through our labors.  This is what it means to be task-oriented instead of goal-oriented.

Paul exhorted Timothy to preach the word, in season and out of season- meaning, when it’s heard and when it isn’t, when it’s popular and when it isn’t.  We just need to preach the word.

In a company, there is the board of directors and then there’s the guy in the mailroom.  I remember in my foolish youth thinking that the companies I worked for ought to be run differently than they were.  But the guy in the boardroom sets the vision and goals for the company.  The guy in the mailroom just delivers the mail.

In the church, and in the world, we are just the guys in the mailroom.  God knows what He’s doing, and has no need to be advised or informed by us.  Eli, Hophni and Phinehas made their own decisions about what God’s church was for.  God killed them as a result.  He raised up for Himself a faithful servant in their place and taught that servant to say simply, “Speak, Lord, for your servant hears.”  May He continue to raise up faithful servants to Himself in our day as well, who will put away the pride of thinking that we get to decide what the church should be and what it should do, and simply be faithful to the tasks that God has given us, in His strength.

Friday, January 10, 2014

40 Years On 

1973 was the year Roe v. Wade was decided, legalizing most abortions.  That year, a poor family with five kids went into the hospital to discuss a sixth pregnancy.  The doctor asked them if the pregnancy was planned, and they answered, "no."  So the doctor said, "We'll schedule the abortion."  Appalled, the family refused.  Right at the beginning of 1974, 40 years ago, as a result of their willingness to sacrifice their own finances, time, and even health for the life of another, I was born.

That was the first of many testimonies to me to what it means to be a disciple of Christ.  I am who I am because an awful lot of people have been willing to suffer for my good.  In that, they follow the example of Christ Himself, willing to suffer the wrath and curse of God for my salvation.  I have been greatly blessed in my life, by the grace of God, and that decision that my parents made was just one example of that.  I just would not even be able to name all of the people in my life who have done good for me, often at costs that I didn't appreciate for many years after.  Many of them never received any thanks or recognition from me.  I am sure that I am not even aware of many of those people, many of those sacrifices.  And they all flow from that One Sacrifice, the lamb who was slain for the sins of the world.

I will celebrate my 40th birthday in two days.  I thank God for my life, for what He has given me and continues to give me, and I pray that God would teach me grace, teach me to take up my cross for others, that I might learn this year a little bit more what it means to die to self and live for God, as so many before me have done.

Friday, December 20, 2013

Atheist Morality and Castles Built on Sand 

It was common in time past to think of atheists as untrustworthy, without moral character, with no understanding of right and wrong.  Many of the States of this nation, when they were colonies and even later as states, had various clauses in their constitutions that forbade anyone who did not believe in a supreme being or a future state of reward or punishment from holding office.  Even though the US Constitution forbade religious tests, the doctrine of states’ rights at that time held that states were free from those kinds of restrictions that existed on the federal level.  The reasoning for those tests was not really religious bigotry per se, since they were worded broadly enough that Jews, Muslims, or even many Hindus or Buddhists could have passed them.  But it was the particular concern that anyone who did not believe in a future state of reward or punishment or who did not believe in a supreme being had no real basis for morality.  They had no foundation for right and wrong.

Naturally, as atheism or agnosticism has grown in popularity, they have been anxious to refute this charge.  Certainly, they seem to have some evidence on their side.  Nations with low levels of belief in God do not necessarily have higher crime rates; indeed, they often have lower ones (like the modern largely secular democracies such as France, Sweden or Japan.)  The evidence is not monolithic, however; one recent study strongly correlated stronger belief in hell with lower rates of crime.

But I’m not particularly wanting to debate that specific issue here simply because people are inconsistent.   I believe it is perfectly possible for an atheist to act in a moral way.  I know many that do.  But the question is whether belief in right and wrong can be defended or supported by an atheist philosophy.  We want to address particularly atheists who are materialists, that is, that believe that only the material world is real and that everything other than matter and energy (such as souls, angels, spirits, God or gods) are figments of our imagination.  The great problem the materialistic atheist faces is that he has no basis for saying what should be.  What is the ideal state of matter?  How can we know?  The materialist can only comment on what is, not what should or should not be.  Thus any statement a materialist makes about what ought to be is a castle built on a foundation of sand.

The question is not whether an atheist might have good reason to behave in a moral way.  There are many incentives for him to do so.  Society might punish him legally or informally for behaving badly.  His friends and family members might disapprove.  He might suffer physical or financial consequences for doing certain kinds of things.  He might even feel bad inside, suffering guilt for doing bad things.  But none of those things can really answer the question of whether something is right or wrong.  It only tells us if certain actions may have good or bad consequences.

Take this video, for example, which purports to define morality in the absence of theistic belief.  In the first several minutes of the video, the speaker says that morality cannot be based on power, tradition, majority belief or law, and I agree.  But he never really does state what it is based on.  He outlines rational principles, that it must be in agreement with scientific fact and rationality.  But at one point (in defining society 2, starting at 3:44), he introduces the principle of reciprocity, that it is rationally inconsistent for me to hurt others when not wanting to be hurt myself.  But he never supports this assertion.  He states that if I recognize my own wrongdoing then consistently I must recognize others, by the same system of justice.  But there's simply no reason why that is so.  He has already assumed the existence of an abstract system of justice with which I must be consistent.  But he has never demonstrated the existence of any such system.

It is in fact perfectly consistent for me to desire not to be harmed myself, while being indifferent to the harm of others or even causing that harm.  That can be adequately supported by my desire to avoid suffering myself because I find that suffering unpleasant or a threat to my survival, a principle that does not extend to the suffering of others since that suffering does not bother me.  In fact, if my welfare can be enhanced by causing the suffering of others, then there is no rational reason for me to refrain from causing that suffering.

He even states that part of morality's essence is a plural view- recognizing our impact on others and adjusting our actions in response.  But this is pure assertion.  He's skipping steps.  He has not established why I should care about the impact my actions have on others.  Apart from the possible impact that other people's feelings may at some point have on me, why should I care what impact my actions have on others?  This is never established.  But he goes on as if he has made the point, and bases much of the rest of his argument on the premise that it is immoral to cause suffering to others having never actually presented any reason for that assertion.

This is just one example of course of how to defend morality in an atheistic worldview.  In fact, popular opinion or cultural standards as the basis of morality is the more common argument that I have heard, though it's an argument that is obviously flawed.  If popular opinion defines morality then truly there is no morality, since virtually any kind of terrible crime has been approved of on a popular level at one time or another.  Basing morality on cultural standards is essentially surrendering the argument and admitting that there are no moral standards.

If popular opinion or cultural standards were the basis of morality, then in fact it would be immoral to ever agitate for social change, since by definition such agitation would be contrary to popular opinion.  If your cause was already accepted by the majority of your culture there would be no reason to agitate for it.  Thus, those who agitated for an end to slavery, for voting rights for women, or for an end to child labor were all acting immorally since all of those things were approved by majorities at one point.

Often, atheists will appeal to evolutionary principles.  They say we evolve empathy and a desire for social cooperation because those things give us a survival advantage.  Without going into the whole argument for and against evolution, consider- if our morality is simply based on evolved traits, then it still can't be properly called right and wrong, but just what humans do to survive.  Humans also often resort to murder and enslavement to improve their survival and welfare.  Is that an evolved trait as well?  If not, why not?  And if so, why is it more moral for me to live by one evolved trait (empathy) and not another (cruelty)?  Further, if a man decides to resist his natural empathy and act cruelly to others without regard to the suffering he causes, on what grounds can the atheist say he is behaving immorally?  Perhaps he is evolving further, and developing to a greater degree his natural trait of cruelty, and leaving behind his more primitive empathy.  If you think empathy is a superior and more sophisticated trait than cruelty, you need to have some principle to base that on.  If it's your opinion that empathy leads to greater survival of the species than cruelty, that is just an opinion, and it's only a matter of opinion and no cause for moral outrage.  Some people might come to a different conclusion about what will benefit their survival and welfare, and you'd have no reason to protest on any moral ground.

The Roman Empire, for example, existed for a thousand years, and the people who ran it had lives of great luxury and ease for the most part.  That empire was based on slavery.  Slavery was very good for the people who lived at the top.  The few slave revolts that happened were always crushed and were never any threat to the survival of the Empire.  Eventually the empire fell, but only after a thousand years, and the countless upper-class people whose positions were made possible by slavery never paid any price for their exploitation and abuse of millions of people.  Were they immoral to do so?  On what grounds?

All of this is to say that the atheistic materialist has no grounds for preferring one set of moral standards over another, or over no standards at all, other than personal preference or opinion.  He may no more claim that kindness is preferable to cruelty than red is preferable to blue, or liquids to solids.  Physical substances and energies simply are.  There can be no question of what they should be, only what they are.  If matter is all there is, then there is no ideal to compare the current state of affairs to.  There is no "perfect" state of matter and energy; they simply are.  Nobody talks about what an ant or a tiger ought to be, we simply say what they are.

I certainly prefer kindness to cruelty.  I even prefer atheists to be kind as opposed to being cruel, since that is likely to work out better for me.  And I know many atheists prefer kindness over cruelty.  But there are a great many people in this world, both atheist and theist, who are usually cruel and not kind.  We do not say simply that they are what they are, or even stop at taking steps to protect ourselves from them.  We react in horror and outrage when innocents are hurt, when men are robbed of their property or the result of their labor, when people say one thing and do another.  We react with moral outrage to those things.  Yet the atheist's philosophy offers him no reason for such horror.  The truth is that there is an absolute standard, given to us by a Lawgiver, who embedded that standard in our hearts to point us to Himself, for He created us in His image.  This is why it is wrong to hurt others, because to do so is an offense to the God that made the other and also made me.  The atheist has this moral sense within him regardless of what he claims to believe, and this is why he spends so much time and effort trying to construct moral systems on a foundation of sand, in order to justify the existence of moral beliefs he holds while he flouts whichever ones he finds unpleasant or inconvenient.  He knows he is moral, but he wants to define that morality himself, leaving himself free to do as he wishes while still defining himself as a moral person.

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