Wednesday, April 07, 2010

The Whisper That Screams

It begins with a gentle utterance, an inborn feeling that something is not as it should be. Its voice rises until it cannot be ignored, drawing our attention to the object of its cries. Later, if it is repeatedly dismissed, its sound slowly fades into the background, stirring occasionally but lying mostly dormant as we continue in the course of action that we had begun.

I’m speaking of our conscience.

Vincent Van Gogh said “Conscience is a man’s compass.” It is a compass whose needle points us toward what is good and right. Simply put, the conscience is the moral barometer of our thoughts and actions that tells us we ought to do what is right.

Everyone has a conscience because God has imprinted the knowledge of His nature and law upon us in our creation. (Romans 1:20) It is part of our being made in His image. We all have a conscience, an inborn knowledge of right and wrong.

For the Christian, however, conscience is much more than just a general sense of moral judgment. It is a tool that God uses as part of our sanctification. The Holy Spirit works through our conscience to alert us to moral danger or chastise us for moral compromise. The purpose of this is that we should avoid evil and become mature Christian believers, attaining “the measure of the stature of the fullness of Christ.” (Eph. 4:13)

Conscience is mentioned many times in the New Testament. The biblical authors considered it to be very important. Paul, in his trial before the Sanhedrin, said that he had lived his life “in all good conscience.” (Acts 23:1) He wrote to Timothy, “The aim of our charge is love that issues from a pure heart and a good conscience and a sincere faith.” (1 Tim. 1:5) Peter also spoke of the importance of a good conscience in our testimony to the world. (1 Peter 3:16)

Our conscience, being an important gift from God, is used by Him for our growth and betterment as followers of Christ. There are a few things, however, that we need to know about our conscience.

Our conscience can never be casually ignored

When it was demanded of Martin Luther under threat of death that he renounce his writings that led to the Reformation, he replied, “My conscience is captive to the Word of God. I cannot and I will not recant anything, for to go against conscience is neither right nor safe.” Luther knew that it was a dangerous thing to violate one’s conscience. Likewise, we ignore conscience at our own peril.

Our conscience must be taught by God’s word

Paying close attention to conscience is very important, but you are probably like me, having seen people do terrible things and yet say, “My conscience is clear.” As fallen, sinful people, we have an immense capacity for self-justification. Many people want to live by their own rules and claim that they have no sense of guilt over what they have done. Our personal feelings of right and wrong must always come under the governance of God’s word. Only the Scriptures provide an infallible guideline for moral and ethical conduct. Our feelings are not enough unless our conscience, as Luther said, is held captive to God’s word.

Overriding our conscience places us on dangerous ground

When our conscience is stirring against something that we are doing or intending to do, we should play close attention to it. In violating the warnings of conscience, we sow seeds for trouble in our lives. One compromise leads to another and each time the guilt becomes less and less. Seemingly minor transgressions progress to major ones without a second thought. The result of an overridden conscience is often personal ruin.

Jeb Stuart Magruder was an aide to former President Richard Nixon during the Watergate scandal that forever changed the way Americans look at the Presidency. Looking back at what happened, he said:

“We had conned ourselves into thinking we weren’t doing anything really wrong, and by the time we were doing things that were illegal, we had lost control. We had gone from poor ethical behavior into illegal activities without even realizing it.”

The consequences for Magruder were great. He served time in prison.

This highlights another problem of an ignored conscience. The resulting ruin in our lives slanders the name of Jesus Christ and holds Him up for reproach from the world. It is hard to proclaim Christ as our Savior when our actions work against our witness.

In summary, God has given us a conscience to be our guide and to play a great role in our sanctification as believers in Christ. However, it can be overridden if we do not submit to the leadership of the Holy Spirit and the revelation of God’s word.

The screaming whisper of our conscience is a voice to which we should all be very attentive.

Thursday, April 01, 2010

Fear Overcome by Hope


It can be a debilitating and destructive thing.

There is a phenomenon in the undeveloped world known as ‘voodoo death,’ where a witch doctor, pointing a bone at his victim, puts a death spell on them. The victim then, invariably, dies, sometimes in a matter of hours. Modern researchers disagree on the cause of voodoo death. Some say that fear causes the victim’s body to release a variety of hormones and chemicals that can make them deathly sick. Others think that the persons are so convinced they are going to die that they stop caring for themselves and expire of dehydration and malnutrition. Regardless of how it actually happens, the person dies of fright. They are literally ‘scared to death.’

None of us deals with anything as exotic as voodoo death but we all know something about being afraid. We fear we will lose our jobs. We fear for the safety of our children. We fear that sickness or death will strike our family. Add to that any number of unspoken fears that are limited only by our imagination. Reduced to its core, fear is our feeling that things may go bad in the future.

Against this dread of the future is the biblical concept of hope. Fear may be the feeling that things will get worse but hope, in the Bible, is the understanding that things will be well. This is stated clearly in 1 Peter 1:3-4:

Blessed be the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ! According to his great mercy, he has caused us to be born again to a living hope through the resurrection of Jesus Christ from the dead to an inheritance that is imperishable, undefiled, and unfading, kept in heaven for you. (ESV)

Because Jesus Christ rose from the grave, those who believe in Him have true hope. Peter called it a living hope, meaning that it is not dead, dormant, or even postponed. It is a hope that we have right now through the living Christ who gave Himself for us.

This hope we have in Christ has both present and future dimensions.

We experience this living hope today because God’s presence is ever with us, guiding us, helping us, and keeping us. Always, even in times of great difficulty, we have the assurance that things will be well because God is on our side. Paul wrote, “And we know that for those who love God all things work together for good, for those who are called according to his purpose.” (Romans 8:28) This is not always an easy passage to embrace when times are hard, when we cannot see the way out of our troubles. But, when we accept it by faith, we are released from fear and can praise God even in bad circumstances.

Finally, this living hope is one that looks to the future with the expectation of eternal well-being. In the last part of the passage above, Peter describes our eternal home as “an inheritance that is imperishable, undefiled, and unfading, kept in heaven.” Hope in Christ is a hope that transcends this earthly life and looks to an everlasting and unchanging fellowship with the Triune God in eternal dwellings, where the troubles of this life will never again come to mind. This future hope encourages and motivates us in the present to walk in obedience to our great God.

Sadly, many do not possess this wonderful hope because they have never placed their trust in the Lord Jesus Christ. They face life’s storms and uncertainties in their own strength without the help of the One who holds eternity. If that applies to you, I would point you to the words of the Lord; “Come to me, all who labor and are heavy laden, and I will give you rest.” (Matt. 11:28) Jesus Christ can give you the hope and rest that you need and desire.

Sometimes, as believers in Christ, we do not experience this hope because our focus is so much on our circumstances that we forget the promises God has given us, promises of hope and of His commitment to work all things together for good in our life. In those times we need to read God’s word where we find that all of His promises are “yes” in Christ. (2 Cor. 1:20)

It has been said that a person can live 70 days without food, 10 days without water, and up to 6 minutes without air. However, we cannot live a single second without hope.

It is my prayer that you will realize the living hope that is available in Christ and go to Him to receive strength to carry you through this life and deliver you to the eternal blessings of those who trust in Him.

Friday, July 10, 2009

John Calvin's 500th Birthday

My original intention was to write an article doing justice to John Calvin on this, the 500th anniversary of his birth. However, It did not take long for me to realize that it was an impossible task. Books have been written about the man and continue to be written. There are seminary classes that cover his life and doctrine. It would have been folly for me to think that I could sum up the life of such a man in a simple article. So, with less ambitious aims, I would like to celebrate Calvin’s contributions in what small way I can.

It is a testimony to our times that the 500th anniversary of John Calvin’s birth will pass with little notice and no fanfare because few Christians and fewer Americans today know who he was. Even though Calvin was one of the most important men in history and has profoundly influenced the lives of all Americans and especially all Christians, he is primarily, and incorrectly, known as the founder of the doctrines that bear his name.

Calvinism, as it is called, is a body of doctrine that exalts the sovereignty of God in salvation and contains such controversial teachings as sovereign election and predestination. These doctrines were the teachings of the Protestant Reformation but became associated with John Calvin because he taught them and was the primary theologian of the Reformation. The doctrines had their post-biblical origin with Augustine in the 4th century but adherents will say that they reach back to the teachings of Jesus and Paul in Scripture. Calvin’s main notoriety today then comes from something that many wrongly believe him to have invented.

John Calvin’s importance goes far beyond doctrinal controversy though. He was a giant in Christian history and left a legacy that no extra-biblical figure can surpass and few, perhaps only Augustine, can equal. His contributions reached beyond theology and doctrine to government and even commerce. Though physically weak and sickly, he was tireless in his work for the church and the Gospel of Christ, burning himself out and dying an early death at the age of 54.

I would like to briefly enumerate some of the ways that Calvin has influenced our modern world.

Interpretation of Scripture
Calvin was first and foremost a preacher and teacher of the Scriptures. In many ways, he taught us all how to do it. He shunned the allegorical methods that were so prevalent in the Middle Ages and sought the meaning of the text through history, grammar and, more importantly, the other Scriptures. Calvin was a great believer in “Scripture interpreting Scripture.” To read Calvin is to see a very modern method of scriptural interpretation at work.

Protestant Doctrine
Calvin was not the first of the reformers but did more than any other to enunciate the theology of the Reformation. Calvin’s Institutes of the Christian Religion was a massive work of theology that he continually expanded until it reached its final form in 1559, five years before his death. This great work is profitable reading today but also laid the foundation for the great books of theology that followed and that would exert profound influence upon Protestant Christianity.

Church and State
Calvin believed that church and state operated in two different realms. In other words, he believed that church and state should be separate. These views were in opposition to the state church concept of Roman Catholicism and even of some other Protestant groups coming out of the Reformation. Calvin was not always consistent in his application of this principle because he exercised considerable authority (some would say domination) over secular society in Geneva. Despite Calvin’s inconsistency, his views were radical for their day and paved the way for such monumental events as the founding of the United States upon the principle of church-state separation.

With his love for order, Calvin believed that the church’s ministers should exercise strong authority within the church but also recognized their need to be accountable to the people. Pastors were “ministers and helpers” to the congregation and the laity had the obligation to examine what their ministers were teaching. Calvin believed that ministers should be elected by the people. To prevent abuse of this privilege, the elections should be supervised by other ministers. It was not congregational government in the modern sense but it was a radical change from the rule of priests within Catholicism. This democratic innovation had a great influence upon political thinking and many today credit Calvin as being one of the prime architects of the modern democratic age in Europe and America.

Free Enterprise
Calvin was a strong believer in the importance of private property, thinking it fundamental to the order of society. He valued free enterprise and commerce though he recognized that men could abuse it. He was totally opposed to early forms of communism which he said would “turn all the world into a forest of brigands where, without reckoning of paying, each one takes for himself what he can get.” Calvin believed that society was bettered when all men work hard to improve themselves saying that there was “nothing more disgraceful than a lazy good-for-nothing who is of no use either to himself or to others.”

No discussion of John Calvin would be complete without mention of the incident for which he receives his harshest criticism, the burning of the heretic Servetus. While scholars debate just how responsible Calvin was for the way Servetus died (strong evidence exists that he argued for a more humane means of punishment), there can be no doubt that he fully approved of his execution for heresy. In sixteenth century Europe, societal order was highly valued and closely guarded. Heresies and non-orthodox religions were considered to be threats to that order and greatly injurious to societal stability. Calvin and his contemporaries (Catholic and Protestant) were fully prepared to use force when necessary to eliminate those threats to order. Calvin was very far from our modern ideas of religious liberty. On this issue, He was very much a man of the sixteenth century.

In conclusion, a man of John Calvin’s talents sometimes defies definition but possibly the most accurate assessment of him came from R. L. Dabney, Presbyterian theologian from the 19th century, who said that Calvin “was a very gifted, learned, and, in the main, godly man, who still had his faults.” John Calvin’s contributions to the church and modern society were immense. He loved Christ; he loved the Scriptures and wanted to see God glorified in all areas of human existence. He was not a perfect man; his great flaws reflected the times in which he lived, but Calvin desired to glorify God in all that he did.

John Calvin was both a man of his day and a man who was ahead of his time. We owe a tremendous debt of gratitude to him for the legacy he left and the world he helped to create.


Wednesday, May 27, 2009

First Day in the Smokies


{If you click on the pictures, a larger version will open.}

We arrived here in the beautiful Smoky Mountains on Monday afternoon. We were pretty tired from the trip but still went out into Pigeon Forge to get some food. The last time I was at Pigeon Forge was about 12 or 13 years ago when Terryl and I came with a church group from Alabama. It has grown quite a bit since then and become more "touristy." Terryl thought so too. It has all the usual stuff...t-shirt shops, putt-putt golf, arcades...looks a lot like Destin, FL. Still, the environment is beautiful. We have a cabin on the side of a mountain just outside of Pigeon Forge. It is pretty isolated...which is what I wanted. Each night the whiporwills are outside. I'm used to hearing them from a distance. These are close up. Those birds can call really loud!!

Tuesday was our first full day in the Smokies. We went into Gatlinburg, which is about seven miles from Pigeon Forge. [Photo at top] Gatlinburg has been a tourist town for many years. I remember going there when I was a little boy. It is situated in a beautiful area between the mountains. The highlight of the day from the boys' standpoint was eating at Pancake Pantry. They had been looking forward to it. The pancakes were truly wonderful there, probably the best I've ever eaten.

We took the tram (a cable car) up to Ober Gatlinburg. We were concerned that the boys would be scared but they enjoyed it. The view on the way up the mountain was breathtaking. You could see over the mountains all the way to the valley where Pigeon Forge is located. Terryl, of course, was there with her camera.

View from the Tram

The "high point" (literally) of our trip took place later when we drove
up to Clingman's Dome. It is the highest point in Tennessee and one of the highest mountains in the Eastern United States. It's peak is 6643 ft. above sea level. We took winding roads up the mountain and were the only car in sight for much of the trip. The mountain was shrouded with clouds so the last seven miles or so was driven in a fairly dense fog. It was a little on the creepy side. The temperature cooled dramatically as we neared the top. It was in the low 80s in Gatlinburg but in the high 50s up on the mountain. We had the windows rolled down and really enjoyed it.

You could not drive to the summit of the mountain. It was a half-mile hike up a trail that had a continuous upgrade of 20 to 30 percent. It was a steep climb. Add to that the high altitude and we got out of breath easily. I had been running 2 miles a day at Clifton but it was still very difficult. Jonathan, of course, just be-bopped up the mountain like he was walking on level ground.

Tony and Jonathan going up the mountain

Terryl and Matthew resting on the journey on one of the many rest benches

Going up to Clingman's Dome was a special treat for me because I remembered doing it as a little boy. We made a couple of trips as a family to the Smoky Mountains in the late 1960s. Living in North Alabama, the drive was not too bad to the Smokies. When Jonathan asked me why we were going to this place, I told him that I had done it as a little boy and that one day he would take his little boy up there too.

Observation Tower on Clingman's Dome in the Clouds

The Family on the Summit

Believe it or not, I actually had cell phone service on the top of the mountain. I walked up to the top of the observation tower and got a voice mail notice on my cell phone. The walk down the mountain was easier on the breath but harder on the legs. I walked with a family from Waynesboro, MS, on the way down. They were really nice folks.

On the drive down the mountain, Terryl took lots of pictures of the natural beauty. There was a stream running down the mountain by the road that went to the top. It was beautiful.

We were exhausted last night after the walk. I fell asleep on the couch. The boys got up early this morning, as usual. They were ready to go. We'll see what today holds.

Thank you all for all your support and prayers. We miss you all but are truly enjoying the Smoky Mountains.


Friday, March 13, 2009

A Sincere Exercise in Futility

In a recent article in the Baptist Press, Dr. Frank Page, former President of the Southern Baptist Convention, expressed frustration with the policies of President Barack Obama. Page serves as an evangelical member of Obama's faith-based advisory council.

While disagreeing with Obama on abortion policy, Page is also concerned with Obama's lack of clarity on the cloning issue. Obama is on record as opposing reproductive cloning but was not clear on whether he would support therapeutic cloning. Therapeutic cloning is cloning for the purpose of harvesting stem cells and other medical purposes.

Page said:

"I am going to personally deal with that issue with the council, because [research cloning] simply was not mentioned by Obama. He was very specific in [opposing] reproductive cloning but not in research cloning. And I am going to assume at this point that he meant both, but I am going to seek clarification of that."

Page also expressed concern over the radical direction of Obama's abortion policy.

"At this point I would have to say I have been very frustrated that what little protections there are for the unborn have been quickly and systematically removed. So that has very discouraging."

Dr. Page is a solid conservative and is not a compromiser. In my opinion, neither is he naive. He took the opportunity to serve on Obama's faith-based council to provide an evangelical presence there. I'm sure he was under no illusions that he could have a major influence upon this liberal administration. Perhaps, he hoped that Obama would follow through on his campaign promises and bring all people to the table and to sincerely consider their concerns.

Page has discovered that, while Obama welcomes all people to the table, many are there only for window dressing so Obama can maintain his facade of openness. Barack Obama is a member of the radical left wing of the Democrat party and he governs as such. His policies should surprise no one who is familiar with the beliefs of that segment of our population.

Frank Page is to be applauded for his sincere, if futile, attempt to provide a conservative influence upon the President. Perhaps, the next service he should perform would be to publicly resign from this farce of a council and clearly state his reasons for doing so.

Saturday, June 14, 2008

Regenerate Church Membership

Since the beginnings of the Baptist denomination in the early 1700s, the idea of regenerate church membership has been a foundational Baptist principle. This was the concept that church membership should consist of the consciously converted rather than those baptized as infants. It was radical for its day because believer's baptism was radical in that time of paedo-baptism domination. This foundational Baptist principle has now spread throughout the free church movement and can no longer be considered exclusively Baptist. That is the good news.

The bad news is the decline of regenerate church membership among Baptists. The combination of shallow evangelism, a lack of church discipline, and general inattention has swelled the rolls of most Baptist churches to where the total membership figure is meaningless. It is not at all uncommon to find that active church members constitute only one-half or one-third of the total membership.

Over the past few years, a group of Southern Baptists have tried to introduce a resolution on regenerate church membership at the Southern Baptist Convention, calling for repentance for our past inattention and a renewal of the biblical practice of church discipline. Each time, the resolution failed to make it out of committee to be voted on by the convention at large.

This year was different. The recognition had grown across the Southern Baptist Convention that we had a problem that needed to be addressed. There were three competing resolutions on regenerate church membership. Predictably, the committee brought the weakest of the three to the floor for a vote. In the discussion prior to the vote, groups wanting a stronger resolution managed to add two amendments to the proffered resolution.

The first amendment called for the resolution to mention baptism by immersion. The second called for churches "to repent of the failure among us to live up to our professed commitment to regenerate church membership and any failure to obey Jesus Christ in the practice of lovingly correcting wayward church members."

The second part of that amendment stated: "We humbly encourage denominational servants to support and encourage churches that seek to recover and implement our Savior’s teachings on church discipline, even if such efforts result in the reduction in the number of members that are reported in those churches."

Both amendments were accepted and the amended resolution easily passed. I applaud the messengers to the the convention for passing this needed resolution. I doubly applaud those who were not willing to accept the watered-down resolution and offered amendment that the convention accepted. This was a good day for Southern Baptists. Now, we must be diligent in following up on this action.

The full resolution can be read here.

Monday, March 17, 2008

Hankins' Thoughtful Response to Climate Change Declaration

David Hankins, Executive Director of the Louisiana Baptist Convention has written a wise and thoughtful response to last week's release of "A Southern Baptist Declaration on the Environment and Cllimate Change" that appeared in the Baptist Press. I wrote of this declaration last week in my blog and had intended on dropping the subject but Dr. Hankins' article deserves to be mentioned. He correctly notes the unsettled nature of climate science and, especially, how our role as stewards of creation means using it for the good of man, not just for passive observation.

This is a very good article by Dr. Hankins.

Why I will not sign

ALEXANDRIA, La. (BP)--Recently a number of conservative Southern Baptist leaders endorsed the document, "A Southern Baptist Declaration on the Environment and Climate Change," which asserts: "We believe our current denominational engagement with [climate change] issues has often been too timid, failing to produce a unified moral voice. Our cautious response to these issues in the face of mounting evidence may be seen by the world as uncaring, reckless and ill-informed. We can do better."

Although many of the signers are my friends and respected colleagues, I am writing to say why I will not sign the document, and why I wish they had not.

First, the fundamental assumption of the declaration is predicated on a seriously flawed understanding of the debate regarding climate change. It affirms the view that human-induced, catastrophic global warming is an undeniable fact. Some of the signers have implied that the declaration is neutral on the question of the imminent threat of global warming. The clear language of the declaration is anything but neutral:

-- "We recognize that if consensus means unanimity, there is not a consensus regarding the anthropogenic nature of climate change or the severity of the problem. There is general agreement among those engaged with this issue in the scientific community."

-- "Though the claims of science [affirming catastrophic global warming] are neither infallible nor unanimous, they are substantial…."

-- "... we resolve to engage this issue without any further lingering over the basic reality of the problem…"

Hardly neutral, the declaration has staked out a definite position which is simply untenable. There is no "general agreement" in the scientific community on any facet of this subject. There is evidence of growing dissatisfaction in the scientific community with the claims that global warming 1) is caused by human factors; 2) has any alarming consequences; 3) can be altered by a change in human behavior; and 4) should provoke the kind of draconian economic and political actions being currently proposed by many environmental activists.

Second, the declaration gives little evidence of serious interaction with even the most basic arguments on the other side of the debate. For example, the declaration did not appear to take into account any of the analyses produced by the Cornwall Alliance ( -- a coalition of scholars and religious leaders that has addressed the flawed positions of the "Evangelical Climate Initiative" which preceded the most recent declaration and which meandered down the same errant paths.

If global warming is a catastrophic danger caused by destructive human behavior, then everyone, especially godly people, ought to act to correct it. If, however, global warming is only a naturally occurring weather pattern which has been blown out of proportion by politically motivated partisans misconstruing the data, then it is irresponsible to call for actions that will actually harm, not help. If the latter, this new declaration actually evinces the "reckless and ill-informed" behavior it worries Southern Baptists may be exhibiting.

Catastrophic, human-induced climate change 1) has insufficient factual basis and 2) already has been saliently addressed by qualified evangelicals, and the SBC has decided the issue is worthy only of caution. The declaration's assertion that climate change should occupy a more prominent place in Southern Baptist interests should be rejected.

Should Southern Baptists be more engaged with environmental issues? Any issue presented for action by the convention ought to pass at least two tests:

1) Is it a real and pressing problem? Is it right to shout "fire" in a crowded theatre? Only if there really is a fire. Otherwise, raising the alarm is the only real danger. Is climate change more important than, say, world hunger and economic stability in the third world? It is now clear that suggested solutions to the non-problem of global warming would have devastating consequences for national economies, especially in the poorest countries.

2) Is it the business of the church? Should Southern Baptists have a "unified moral voice" on the right to get prescription drugs from Canada? Or on the European Union? Or on the value of NAFTA? There are any number of weighty matters which could consume the attention of the church, but some things are off-message. Climate change is such an issue. Southern Baptists leaders should be careful not to rally our people to a cause that is not only suspect in its reality but also a distraction to our real work.

In appropriate measure, Southern Baptists should, especially in light of the confusion created by the climate change furor, carefully articulate an ecological theology. There is a wealth of theological resources in the Scriptures that guide us.

For example, the Bible states that "the earth is the Lord's and the fullness thereof" and that humans are "to be fruitful and multiply and fill the earth and subdue it." This unequivocal assertion of God's Word puts humans in the role of stewards of the earth (not interlopers or intruders) whose duty is the maximum utilization of natural resources (not mere passive observation) for the glory of God and the good of men. A sound theology of creation-care will consider human achievement (building dams, erecting skyscrapers, mining for fossil fuels, etc.) as much a cause for celebration of God's creative purposes as a picnic in a virgin forest.

Reclaiming a proper theology is a task related to the environment that we can welcome.

But what about the concern that we are perceived as uncaring among those who are anxious about catastrophic climate change?

This reminds me of a poll reported in SBC Life last year that church young people believe the conservative church is mean to homosexuals.

Are we "mean"? Or could it be that the church believes homosexual behavior is sinful and, when it has addressed this highly volatile subject, it has said so?

Now, it doesn't matter how many ministries we have to homosexuals or how much we express our concern for all sinners, we are still considered "mean." Until we say homosexual behavior is acceptable, we will not be considered by the culture to be "caring." "Caring" means affirming their point of view, including their error.

So, how ought we, as Southern Baptists, minister in love to people who think that the sky is falling because of climate change? Sit down with them over a skinny latte at Starbuck's and gently tell them the truth.
David Hankins is executive director of the Louisiana Baptist Convention.