Results tagged “Justice” from Reformation21 Blog

Retribution and Redemption

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Last month, Pope Francis expressed his opinion that the death penalty is unacceptable in all cases. At the same time as he took his public stand, a series of popular opinions circulated online about whether or not the death penalty was to be viewed as valid as a Christian position. The better part of those who were vocal on the Twittersphere, also rushed to state unequivocally that they believe that the death penalty is always an illegitimate form of justice. The prevalent opinion was that the death penalty is, in fact, an inhumane form of civil punishment that the church ought not support. In response to these assertions, some raised appropriate questions concerning how accepted definitions of justice are formed. However, as I watched this unfold, one thought constantly reentered my thinking--namely, why did God sanction the death penalty as a principle of retribution against murder in the anti-diluvian revelation? The burden of proof, it seems to me, is on those who reject the death penalty to explain the purpose of the death penalty as a Divinely sanctioned form of retribution in Genesis 9:5-6. 

When we approach this subject, we have to first recognize that the death penalty has its origin in God's dealings with Noah and those who stepped off of the Ark with him. Immediately after the flood, God said:

"For your lifeblood I will require a reckoning: from every beast I will require it and from man. From his fellow man I will require a reckoning for the life of man. Whoever sheds the blood of man, by man shall his blood be shed, for God made man in his own image."

Since there is nothing arbitrary about God's revelation, and since we must seek to understand each and every thing that He breathed out in Scripture in context, we must seek to understand the reason why God made this declaration as soon as Noah and those with him stepped onto the newly created world. 

The first important exegetical consideration concerns that which transpired leading up to the flood. In Genesis 6:11-13, we read, "Now the earth was corrupt in God's sight, and the earth was filled with violence. And God saw the earth, and behold, it was corrupt, for all flesh had corrupted their way on the earth. And God said to Noah, 'I have determined to make an end of all flesh, for the earth is filled with violence through them.'" In one very real sense, we can say that the flood was itself a Divinely appointed typological cosmic death penalty. The Apostle Peter draws out the typology when he explained that the flood was a type of the final judgment (2 Peter 3:5-7). Without wishing to get into debates over global or local flood theories, the point is that God destroyed all flesh from the face of the earth on account of the violence that filled the earth. The depravity of man was so extensive after the table of nations (Gen. 10) that the Lord brought the pre-diluvian world to an end in this watery judgment. 

The second important exegetical consideration is that which regards the heart of man before and after the flood. In Genesis 6:5-7 we read, "the wickedness of man was great in the earth, and that every intention of the thoughts of his heart was only evil continually...So the Lord said, "I will blot out man whom I have created from the face of the land, man and animals and creeping things and birds of the heavens." The depravity of the hearts of men is what precipitated the retributive floodwaters. However, in Genesis 8:21, immediately after Noah sacrificed an acceptable sin offering to the Lord, we read, "Lord said in his heart, 'I will never again curse the ground because of man, for the intention of man's heart is evil from his youth. Neither will I ever again strike down every living creature as I have done." Here, God makes a starkly different response to the problem of depravity in the human heart. After all, the flood waters could cleanse the earth externally but could never cleanse what was inside the human heart. 

The third important exegetical consideration comes in connection with these first two considerations. In the place of a worldwide judgment, God instituted the death penalty. Knowing that men would continue to act out the depravity of their hearts in murderous ways, God purposed to give a restraining grace to humanity on the whole. God had just entered into covenant with Noah and with all of creation--securing the stage of redemption--and promising His mercy to every subsequent generation of mankind. If one of Noah's descendants had decided to go on a murder spree, the human race and the promise of the coming Redeemer (Gen. 3:15) would have been eradicated. Jesus was in the loins of Noah, so to speak. The nations were also in the loins of Noah. Noah stood as a second Adam, the head of a newly created humanity standing in a typical new creation--though far from being the consummated new heavens and new earth. In order to secure the populating of the earth and to accommodate the goal of bringing about the nations out of which He would redeem His elect, the Lord established the death penalty. 

This is, of course, not the only redemptive-historical rationale for the death penalty. The Apostle Paul tied together the importance of the death penalty in Israel's civil law when he appealed to Deuteronomy 21:22-23 in his theological significance of Christ's death. In Galatians 3:13, Paul cited Deut. 21:23, stating, "Cursed is everyone who is hanged on a tree." The hanging of an individual who had committed a crime worthy of death was followed by the public display of the retribution of God. Jesus was treated as the disobedient and rebellious son--as a glutton and drunkard (Matt. 11:19)--and hung on a tree so that we might escape the final retribution of God on judgment day. In short, if there were no death penalty, there would be no redemption. If Christ had not died a criminal's death on the cross, we would suffer the just punishment of our sins for all of eternity. As the answer to Heidelberg 38 explains, "Though innocent, Christ was condemned by an earthly judge, and so he freed us from the severe judgment of God that was to fall on us." The restraining factor of the death penalty ultimately moved to the redeeming factor. As the death penalty served the populating of the nations, so it further served the accomplishment of the atonement. 

While arguments can and will be made either for or against the continuation of the death penalty, these explanations as to its origin and purposes should never be lost on us. To reject or forget them will inevitably lead us to the place where we will ultimately be unable to explain the divine insistence on retributive justice and the history of the work of redemption Scripture. 

Human Dignity, Justice and the Death Penalty

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Pope Francis' recent and much-publicized change of the Catholic church's position on the death penalty presents a challenge in the realm of theological and ethical reasoning. His rationale for denouncing the death penalty, according to the Vatican statement, is that "the death penalty is inadmissible because it is an attack on the inviolability and dignity of the person."1 On the contrary, we should maintain that God's truth in inviolable, and let it form our understanding of justice. Pope Francis' argument is problematic because it runs contrary to the Scripture's witness on the connection of justice and anthropology.

With regard to justice, there is a whole conceptual change indicated in Pope Francis' position. A traditional conception of justice regarding murder or similarly heinous crimes is that death is a just penalty, and to give a lesser penalty is mercy. This is no slight to mercy, for God is both just and merciful, and mercy is to be commended. But mercy and justice must not be confused.

The conceptual change necessarily implied by Francis' stance is that capital punishment is unjust; justice must then be found at some lesser punishment, and mercy (presumably) at a punishment less severe than that. For it is assuredly unjust to "attack...the inviolability and dignity of the person." If that is, indeed, the nature of the death penalty, then it is a sin to execute a criminal for any crime, an act of profound injustice. However--as I have already noted--this understanding runs into insurmountable problems in light of the biblical witness.

Regarding theological anthropology, we need to first recognize that the pope's opposition to the death penalty is grounded in a concept of human dignity built on a premise of inviolability--meaning that the human life must not be taken as penalty for a crime. The human person is the central concern, and justice is determined based on anthropology. But is this the correct approach, and is the implicit anthropology sound?

Certainly, human dignity is a factor of tremendous significance in ethics. Humans are made in the imago Dei and have a blessed standing at the height of God's creation. The Fall had a cataclysmic effect on human life, but did not obliterate the dignity with which we were invested by God's creative work. So the problem is not with applying human dignity to the question of criminal justice, but with how that application is made. In the case of Francis' ethics, we see a secularization of the imago Dei, where theological anthropology becomes anthropocentric instead of theocentric.

In Scripture--indeed, the same book in Scripture--God first reveals to us that He made mankind in His own image (Genesis 1:27) and that He decreed the death penalty in the case of murder (9:6). This observation puts advocates of the pope's stance in the perilous position of maintaining that God, having established the basis of human dignity (which they regard as inviolable) proceeded to legislate what in their view can only be regarded as gross injustice.

We also find that the Mosaic law, given by God to the people of Israel, legislates the death penalty for numerous crimes. It is important to note that the first statement of a death penalty, in Genesis, is in agreement with the legal code laid out further in the Pentateuch.

It is not irrelevant to point out that this is precisely where Pope Francis has displayed careless exegesis in the past. In another statement that garnered considerable media attention, in 2016, he declared that "The commandment 'Thou shalt not kill' has absolute value and applies both to the innocent and to the guilty."2 But even a cursory examination of the context of the sixth commandment shows that it refers not to all killing but to murder, and that it stands in a legislative code that prescribes the death penalty for numerous crimes.

My point is not that the presence of the death penalty in the Mosaic legislation automatically requires the death penalty in modern American legislation. We are not ancient Israel, we are not governed by the Mosaic law, and a variety of hermeneutical issues need to be considered when applying the Mosaic legislation to contemporary situations. My point, however, is that one certainly cannot make the sixth commandment an argument against the death penalty. It is exegetically indefensible for one to attempt to do so. Instead, we must acknowledge the place of the death penalty in a law code established by God.

The Scriptures must be heard both contextually and in their whole witness; only then will they properly form our theological ethics. What we must observe from the Scriptures is that human dignity is not given as an argument against the death penalty--it is given as the basis for the death penalty (Gen. 9:6; Lev. 17:21). Because humans have been made in the image of God, the heinous crime of murder deserves the severest of penalties--namely, the death of the murderer.

Human dignity, in other words, is connected with justice. God, who created us in His image, established the implication of the imago Dei--that murder should not be treated lightly, but regarded as an offense deserving death. Human life is not, then, inviolable where justice is concerned. A properly theocentric theological anthropology must take this into account.

By contrast, the pope's stance strikes one as a secularized, anthropocentric theological anthropology. Human dignity has become an end in itself, and stands in an ethical position not obviously different from the prevailing secular conception of justice. Western culture has taken a turn to where we are more and more seeing a confusion of concepts: that mercy is justice, and justice is injustice. Pope Francis, with his anthropocentric anthropology, is playing into this mischaracterization of justice.

The point of this essay is not to argue for the death penalty. A Christian may reasonably argue that the death penalty should be opposed because of the New Covenant priority of mercy, or because our justice system is too corrupt and biased to be trusted with such a severe responsibility. Whether either of those lines arguments would prove ultimately reliable remains to be shown, but they are both plausible theological rationales.

What is not theologically reasonable is arguing against the death penalty on the basis of inviolable human dignity. It is unfortunate that arguments against the death penalty are so often not focused on prioritizing mercy but on a shifting understanding of justice. When inviolable human dignity is the driving factor, the death penalty is regarded not as a true and severe justice (which we should perhaps not enforce), but as a barbaric and unjust measure. Theologically, such a position, while not explicitly Marcionite, has definite Pseudo-Marcionite implications.

We must keep our theological anthropology, and its implications for ethics, centered on God. When God is not in the center, humanity becomes all-encompassing. But our dignity is theologically grounded, and our telos is theocentric. Creature-centered ethics do not give adequate attention to the identity and purposes of the Creator. That is where Pope Francis' theological anthropology shows its glaring weakness.


1. "Pope declares death penalty inadmissible, changing Church's stance," CNN, 08/02/18.

2. "There's no excuse for it: Pope Francis on the death penalty," Catholic News Agency, 06/22/16.



Josh Steely is the pastor of Pontoon Baptist Church in Pontoon Beach, IL. Josh received his BA from Wheaton College and his MDiv from Trinity Evangelical Divinity School.

Imagine There's No Hell

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At the Desiring God 1990 Pastor's Conference, Sinclair Ferguson gave a talk titled, "The Biblical Basis for the Doctrine of Eternal Punishment." It is, without doubt, one of the most significant treatments of the doctrine of hell that I have ever heard. At the outset of that lecture, Ferguson told the following story: 

"A number of years ago, certainly within the lifetime of all of us present in this room, one of the royal princesses of the realm coming out of a cathedral service in England spoke to the dean of the chapter of the cathedral, and said to him, 'Is it true, dean, that there is a place called Hell?' To which the dean apparently replied, 'Madame, the Scriptures say so, Christian people have always believed so, and the Church of England confesses so.' To which she responded, 'Then in God's name, why do you not tell us so?'" 

If the princess' sentiment was an adequate reflection on the preaching in churches in the Western world so many decades ago, it is certainly true of preaching in the church today. Despite a paucity of biblical preaching on the doctrine of eternal punishment, there remains no shortage of attacks on the idea of preaching about the doctrine of hell. Carving out a caricature of conservative Southern pastors, Andy Stanley recently sounded off about his aversion to the idea of preaching about hell. He said: 

"Have you ever heard preachers (well, you have if you grew up in the South)...have you ever heard preachers rant about sin? It's like they're angry at sinners, they're angry about sin, they're just judgmental--they're angry at sinners and happy about hell (audience laughter)? That's Old Covenant thinking that leaked in. That's mix and match. That's an Old Covenant prophet railing against the nation of Israel, "And God is going to judge you," "And God is going to get you." It's Old Testament. It's Old Covenant. In the New Covenant, do you know what we discover? That sin doesn't make God angry." 

I'm not sure what's worse--the fact that Andy Stanley tagged every minister who happens to be Southern, who hates sin and who preaches about eternal punishment as an angry, judgmental bigot who loves hell or that he threw the Old Covenant prophets in the same basket. 

Whatever one may think about his statement, it is clearly en vogue, in our day, for false teachers to mock the biblical teaching on eternal punishment, every chance they get. The mocking of eternal punishment became something of a trend among former evangelicals when Rob Bell responded to the insistence that Ghandi was in hell back in 2011:

"Gandhi's in hell? He is? We have confirmation of this? Somebody knows this? Without a doubt? And that somebody decided to take on the responsibility of letting the rest of us know?" 

The irony is that while Bell was subtly denying the idea of a place of eternal punishment altogether when he utilized his series of rhetorical questions, he was simultaneously affirming the reality of the existence of such a place. As John Lennon suggested, denying the reality of hell is "easy if you try." But that's the point, isn't it? You have to try and imagine there isn't a place of eternal punishment in which the justice and wrath of God is displayed on the unrighteous for all of eternity, precisely because there is such a place. Which is what makes Stanley's statements so perplexing. It's as if he believes that God somehow did away with a place of eternal punishment--a place that he, at one and the same time, seems to affirm existed prior to Christ coming into the world to saved his people from the wrath to come (1 Thess. 1:10). 

A few days ago, Rachel Held Evans took to Twitter to mock an important point that Tim Keller made about eternal punishment and the cross. Keller had written, "Unless you believe in Hell, you will never know how much Jesus loves you." Clearly missing the theological import of Keller's statement, Evans responded, "I will never understand a worldview in which one's security in Christ is dependent upon the eternal torture of millions of men, women, and children in hell. 'Well at least it's not me' is not a faith rooted in love, but a faith rooted in selfishness and fear.'" Though a terribly twisted misrepresentation of the intent of Keller's statement, Evans is correct about this much: the issue of the importance of the doctrine of hell is the issue of security in Christ. In other words, "From what does Jesus save us (secure us)? and "For what does Jesus save us (secure us)?" If we don't know the biblical teaching about that which Jesus saves us from, we will never adequately begin to grasp the greatness of the love that compelled him to die to secure that which he saves us for

The other issue that Evans fails to see is that Keller, in highlighting the love of Christ, is emphasizing the conjunction of justice and mercy in the death of Christ. In Cur Deus Homo, Anselm--the great eleventh century theologian--captured the essence of this conjunction when he He wrote: 

"The mercy of God, which seemed to disappear when we considered the justice of God and the sin of man, is so great, and so consistent with justice, that we can think of nothing greater or more just. For what can be conceived more merciful, than, when the sinner has been condemned to eternal torments, and has nothing by which to redeem himself, God says, 'Take My Only-begotten Son, and give Him for yourself:' and the Son Himself says, 'Offer Me and redeem yourself?'...Again, what can be conceived more just than that He to whom is offered a Price greater than all the debt, should, if it be offered with the due disposition, forgive the whole debt?"

On the cross, the eternal Son propitiated (i.e. removed) the eternal wrath due to those who have sinned against the eternal God by himself falling under that wrath and suffering the equivalent of eternal punishment in the place of his people. We will never begin to adequately understand Jesus' cry of dereliction on the cross, "My God, My God, Why have you forsaken me" (Matt. 27:26), until we come to terms with the fact that we deserve to be forsaken by God for all eternity on account of our sin (Matt. 25:46). After all, one sin against an eternal being necessarily has eternal consequences. We will never understand what Jesus experienced when he said, "I thirst," until we first hear what he said about the rich man in torments in Hell (Luke 16:24). Jesus warned repeatedly about the reality of eternal punishment under the figure of being cast into "outer darkness" where there will be "weeping and gnashing of teeth (Matt. 8:12; 22:13; 25:30). As J. Gresham Machen once noted, "These words were not spoken by Augustine, or by George Whitefield, or by Jonathan Edwards, but by Jesus of Nazareth."

If there is no hell then there is no need for the atoning sacrifice of the eternal Son of God. If there is no hell, we should draw the same conclusion that the Apostle Paul drew when he put forward the logical implications of the resurrection: "If the dead do not rise, 'Let us eat and drink, for tomorrow we die'" (1 Cor. 15:32)! If there is no eternal punishment, then there is no magnification of the love of God. As the Apostle explained in Romans 5:8-10, "God demonstrates His own love toward us, in that while we were still sinners, Christ died for us. Much more then, having now been justified by His blood, we shall be saved from wrath through Him." If there is no eternal wrath of God removed by the blood of Jesus then there is no eternal love of God demonstrated in the death of Christ. 

If we are to faithfully herald the love of Christ which passes knowledge, we must faithfully and compassionately herald the wrath of God which passes comprehension. We don't help anyone see their need for the eternal life and blessedness that comes to us by faith alone in Christ alone, if we deny, downplay or disregard the reality of eternal death and destruction that we deserve on account of our sin. Far from being judgmental or selfish, preaching about eternal punishment in order to magnify the grace and mercy of God in Christ crucified and risen is the most loving, compassionate and God-honoring thing a minister can do. May God raise up a generation of pastors and preachers who will faithfully proclaim the wrath to come in order to hold up the One who died to save his people from that wrath.

Pitying Criminals and Imprisoning Society

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In addition to the many rich theological insights one will glean from working through Herman Bavinck's Reformed Dogmatics, there are equally profound sociological observations from which we could benefit today. When he came to tackle the question of crime and punishment in a society that has cast off biblical definitions of God and sin, Bavinck made the following profound observation about the inevitable consequences and implications regarding criminals in such a society. He wrote:

"The decline of the ancient Christian worldview has also resulted in the modification, indeed the abolition and banishment of the concepts of good and evil, responsibility and accountability, guilt and punishment. Along with belief in the justice of God, belief in justice on earth disappeared as well. Atheism proved to be the annihilation of all justice and morality: no God, no master. The modern, positivist, evolutionistic worldview, after all, though it cannot deny the fact that there is something like good and evil, sin and virtue, guilt and punishment, looks at and attempts to explain these things very differently. Sin and crime are not traceable to the evil will of individual persons, are not their responsibility nor imputable to them personally, but are, generally speaking, remnants or aftereffects of the animal ancestry of humans and to be explained in terms of their nature or of their environment.

...Others regarded every criminal case separately and individually and viewed criminals as victims of heredity, people who stayed behind in the evolutionary process...[and] crime as a symptom of social disease, a necessary product of circumstances, a consequence of ignorance, poverty, poor upbringing, and heredity...From this position, naturally, it becomes impossible to maintain the justice and essential character of punishment. For if crime can, in fact, be totally traced to the innate animal nature of humans or to the environment in which they grew up, and their own evil nature need not or may not be taken into account, criminals are completely free of blame, and society loses all right to punish them. Rightly considered, the roles are even totally reversed. Criminals have nothing on their conscience vis-à-vis society, but society bears an enormous burden of guilt toward them...Society has failed to nurture and educate them into civilized moral beings. Just as nowadays many educationists tell us that the parents are to blame for the badness of their children, so also many criminologists have adopted the opinion that society is to blame for its criminals.

It is difficult, however, to be consistent in this connection. For then we would have to pity criminals and imprison society as the really guilty party. But since this is impracticable, people commit two inconsistencies. The first is that they accuse society of every possible injustice; the criminal is excused, defended, sometimes even praised and glorified, but to modern criminologists, educationists, and sociologists, society is proportionately all the worse. No words are sharp enough to condemn it, no columns of print long or wide enough to properly castigate it. But if in the case of crime the evil will, personal responsibility, accountability, and culpability may not at all be considered, where do people then derive the right to bring all these ethical factors to bear in the case of society? Criminals can only be the persons they are, but can society be other than it is? Does society not have a past to which it is bound, from which it came into being? Does society have a free will, the very thing that is denied to all its members personally? Clearly, those who throw away ethical standards in the case of the crime of the individual cannot again pick them up when it concerns that of society."


1. Bavinck, H., Bolt, J., & Vriend, J. (2006). Reformed Dogmatics: Sin and Salvation in Christ (Vol. 3, pp. 163-165). Grand Rapids, MI: Baker Academic.

A Prayer for Survivors and East Lansing

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Our East Lansing community is grieving, hurting, and reeling in light of the revelations that emerged these past weeks regarding heinous atrocities committed in our community over the past twenty years. That this would happen anywhere is painful; that is happened in our community feels devastating. To say that we are distraught would be an understatement of epic proportions. As a university church, we especially feel intertwined with these events. Yesterday, during our worship service, we called on the Lord in light of recent events. Please join us in prayer.

Father, we come to you this morning with heavy hearts
For the evils committed in our community
The innocence that was stolen
And the pain that has been inflicted.

As the prophet said, so we hear
"A voice is heard in Ramah,
lamentation and bitter weeping.
Rachel is weeping for her children;
she refuses to be comforted for her children,
because they are no more."

Our children, Lord! Our children
Oh, how our hearts are filled with sadness
and our eyes with tears
as we think of the small children, our teenage daughters, and young women
abused over the past twenty years
O Father, what wickedness
An evil that turns the stomach, confounds the mind, and depresses the soul
A monstrous evil committed in our community
An evil filled with selfishness and corruption
A wickedness that made a mockery of trust and authority
A crime injuring the least among us.

It pains us to think of a man committing such a crime over and over
And the pain only grows as we think how many turned a blind eye
But You did not
You did not.

We praise you this morning that you are a god of justice
Larry Nassar thought the abuse he committed would always be shrouded in secret
But nothing is hidden that will not be made manifest by your authority
Nor is anything secret that will not be known and come to light in your light
For You will render to every man according to his deeds
Your justice will stand
And none can thwart it.

And so, we believe that it was no accident that these things have come to light
We thank You for those who had the courage to make these crimes known
What courageous young women
To stand against evil
To know they would become the objects of ridicule
To bare their soul's great pain before an unentitled world
To shine light in the midst of darkness
So that justice might be served
And others protected
We thank you for them.

We pray for each of these women, teenagers, and little girls this morning
Though their courage has been great, so has their suffering
Grant them healing under your wings
Give them hope amidst their pain
Extend to them comfort that can only come from above
And in the days and weeks and years ahead
May they find that though the scar remains, it has become less tender
That the dark days of the past have faded in their mind's eye
That the pain is less fresh
And healing more at hand
And we ask that the years that the locusts have eaten,
You would restore.

This morning, we especially want to pray for Rachel Denhollander,
our dear sister in Christ
Like Moses before Pharaoh, David before Goliath, and Paul before Felix
She has modeled for us sacrificial, strong, faith-filled-courage
Give us boldness like her
To speak for truth, to condemn evil, and to grant grace
What a testimony, a living testimony she is
Thank you for her leadership,
Her desire to pursue justice and at the same time to extend forgiveness
Truly we have much to learn from her
We pray that after this long battle--and it has been a battle
That after this long battle, you will give her rest
Rest in body
Rest in mind
Rest in spirit
Rest in heart
O Lord, Sabbath, be a resting place for her
For the sake of your name, shower her with your grace and love and peace.

We also praise you this morning that you are a God of truth
And so, we pray for our community
May truth reign
A university city which prides itself on the pursuit of knowledge
And yet so many swam in a sea of lies
Awaken this land to the evil in it
Lead us as a community in repentance
Heal us
And as the God of truth
Protect those who have done no wrong
Safeguard their reputations
Keep them from false accusations
May truth reign.

We also praise you this morning that you are a God of salvation
And so, we pray for Larry Nassar
As Rachel modeled before us,
so we pray that he would come to know You,
We pray that he would be brought low
That he would fall upon his knees
Be forced to reckon with the guilt of his sin
Its terrible weight and burden
So that he might find that his only hope is You
We would see him like Saul, an enemy of righteousness,
struck blind and given sight to see you the one and only true God.

Lastly, we thank you this morning that you are a God of compassion
That You do not sit idle in heaven
But look with a tender eye upon your people
And so, we pray for those hurting in our own midst
Some who have been abused in horrific ways like this
Others who have had loved ones experience this violating evil
Dark revelations like these over the past weeks
Easily bring old injuries floating to the surface
What felt like a pain of the past
All of sudden feels present again
O Father, wrap your everlasting arms around those hurting in our midst
May our church be a community where safety is found
Love is present
And hope is extended to all carrying such pain
And may You wipe away our every tear.

On a morning such as this
We take great comfort that You are
Our Father, who art in heaven
Comforting words any morning, but especially on mornings like this
Though our city and university appears to be swirling in chaos
You reign
You sit enthroned in heaven

And so it is to You we turn,
A glorious sovereign God,
But a god who is also our Father
A God of power and might
And fatherly tenderness
Where else could we turn?
Where else would we want to turn?
Keep us
Heal us
Protect us
Comfort us
And may You receive the glory.

A Just Silence

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We've all felt the pressure to speak out about things that we know little to nothing about. The increasingly prevalent sentiment is that if Christians-and especially Christian leaders-don't speak up on the hot button issues of the day, then they are complicit in fueling social injustice. 

The insistence of many that all of us need to continually speak out about almost every social issue and make official statements of sympathy or refutation in the court of public opinion--when, in fact, the courts that God has established have not had a chance to run their due course--is, quite frankly, wearing me out. I suspect I'm not alone.

The strong insistence of those who press Christian leaders to speak out on any given social issue is fundamentally flawed by virtue of the fact that many of us simply don't know enough about most issues in order to make educated, timely and necessary statements. It is a very dangerous thing for finite creatures of limited intelligence to behave as though we are infinite beings of unlimited intelligence.

This past summer, a number of individuals insisted that I was complicit in a police shooting when I did not speak out about the evil of such an injustice. I can understand someone leveling that charge against an eyewitness or against someone who was withholding pertinent information. But to tell someone sitting in a living room 800 miles from the incident--who knows virtually nothing about the situation or those involved--that he isn't loving his brethren unless he speaks out against an injustice is itself an injustice. It is the injustice of placing a biblically unlawful burden on the conscience of another. 

Many feel compelled to watch more news, read more pertinent books, research related cases and further educate themselves so that they can knowledgeably speak out and finally absolve themselves of the charge of functional complicity. But is this the right response? 

Years ago, John Piper was speaking on the subject of sleep. In that talk, he emphasized that when we attempt to live without sleep we are ultimately trying to become like God. Sleep is the great equalizer. Ultimately, all of us need sleep. We can't live without it. Sleep is one of God's ways of reminding us that He is the Creator and we are the creatures. As Psalm 121:4 reminds us: "He who keeps Israel will neither slumber nor sleep." The very thing we often want to claim for ourselves is only true of God.

I can't help but wonder if this urge to watch 24 hour news and to read article after article on a particular social issue is not only an attempt to become a more informed individual--it is a way in which we seek to have such comprehensive knowledge as to render a judgment on everything. It may be that we are simply seeking to do that which belongs to God alone. In the face of a particular human injustice, it may be incumbent on us to speak out. But it can also be just as right to say, "I don't know. I hope justice is done, but I eagerly await the verdict of the courts and ultimately the verdict of God." It's liberating to admit our limits.

Jesus did not speak out against every single social injustice with which He was confronted. On one occasion, a man came to him to dispute a matter about his brother and an inheritance that their Father had left behind. Instead of speaking to that particular social injustice, Jesus said, "Man, who made me a judge or arbitrator over you" (Luke 12:14)? He then went on to warn the man about the dangers of harboring covetousness in his heart. Was Jesus wrong for not pronouncing judgment on the social injustice of one man withholding a portion of a father's inheritance from his brother? Was Jesus complicit in that injustice? None of us would ever dare say such a thing.

As I have been preaching through the book of Revelation, I have been struck by the fact that all of the evils that men think they can sneak past the courts of men will be finally and fully called up at the great judgment seat of God. Those wicked schemes that we pressured one another into speaking about (even in ignorance) will be dealt with by the one who knows all, and who will in no way acquit the guilty.

This doesn't mean that we are to be indifferent to issues of social or moral injustice. This doesn't mean that we are to be complacent or fatalistic about evil. But, it should help foster in us a bit of humility and a sense of our human limitations.

Brothers and sisters, let's make sure that in our zeal for the execution of justice, we don't fasten burdens around the necks of others that we and they were never meant to carry. There comes a point where the destruction, death, and evil of the world around us can begin to take a very tangible toll on our hearts and lives. In light of our limits, and in light of God's very own place as the ruler and righteous judge of the universe, we have to be willing to place the injustices and evils of this world into the hands of Him. Let's make sure that our attempts to be guardians of justice is not an attempt to claim for ourselves what ultimately belongs to God alone.

If you're burdened by the evils of the world, I want to encourage you not to respond with either conscience binding expectations or with frustrated indifference or fatalism. Rather, I want to encourage you to learn when to sleep and when to let the world rest in the hands of our Father who always knows what is happening, and who always knows exactly what He will do about it. After all, "the Judge of all the earth" will do what is right. 

Adam Parker is the Pastor of Pearl Presbyterian Church (www.pearlpres.com). He is a graduate of Reformed Theological Seminary Jackson and the Assistant Editor of Reformation 21.

The Gentleness and Fierceness of Christ

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Isaiah's first Servant Song (Is.42:1-4) pictures a Servant who is gentle, patient, unthreatening and tender hearted. It is a magnificent portrait of the Lord Jesus Christ, the perfect Servant of the Lord. It is remarkable that in his recorded public ministry, on only one occasion did Jesus draw attention to his personal character: "Come to me all you who are weary and burdened and I will give you rest. Take my yoke upon you and learn of me for I am gentle and lowly of heart" (Matt.11:28-30). There are few more heart-warming and encouraging words in the Bible. This is God the Son, in the frailty of our flesh, holding out himself to weary, broken and burdened sinners, calling them to come to him and be made whole in his merciful, gentle and kind embrace.

But there is another "side" to the Lord Jesus Christ. Commenting on Ps.110:6, "He (i.e. God's Messiah King) will execute judgment among the nations, filling them with corpses; he will shatter Chiefs over the wide earth," John Calvin wrote: 

"Should any one be disposed to ask, Where then is that spirit of meekness and gentleness with which the Scripture elsewhere informs us he shall be endued? Is. 42:2-3; 61:1-2; I answer, that, as a shepherd is gentle towards his flock, but fierce and formidable towards wolves and thieves; in like manner, Christ is kind and gentle towards those who commit themselves to his care, while they who wilfully and obstinately reject his yoke, shall feel with what awful and terrible power he is armed. In Ps 2:9, we saw that he had in his hand an iron scepter, by which he will beat down all the obduracy of his enemies; and, accordingly, he is here said to assume the aspect of cruelty, with the view of taking vengeance upon them. Wherefore it becomes us carefully to refrain from provoking his wrath against us by a stiff-necked and rebellious spirit, when he is tenderly and sweetly inviting us to come to him."

Over the past centuries, men and women who should know better (and who do know better but "hold down the truth in unrighteousness," Rom.1:18), have constructed an amenable Jesus, a non-threatening Jesus, a Jesus who is the mirror image of their hopes and desires. This "make believe" Jesus is always affirming but never condemning. He is ready, of course, to speak out against sins, but not the sins that are imbedded in the hopes and desires of God denying, commandment despising, gospel rejecting men and women. This Jesus is a fiction. He is little more than a "cut and paste" Jesus, a Jesus emasculated of his passion for God's glory and his whole souled commitment to God's law (Matt. 5:17-20).

It should not surprise us that the NT tells us, "It is a fearful thing to fall into the hands of the living God" (Heb.10:31). Jesus himself warned his hearers not to fear those "who can kill the body, and after that have nothing more they can do." Rather, they should "fear him (that is, God) who after he has killed, has authority to cast into hell." To reinforce his admonition, Jesus said, "Yes, I tell you, fear him!" (Lk.12:4-5).

There is a wonderful incident in the Gospels that brings together Jesus' gentleness and fierceness. In Jn.8:1-11, we have recorded for us Jesus' encounter with the woman caught in the act of adultery. Her accusers brought her to Jesus to discover what he would say and do. Jesus' response stunned the woman's accusers, they melted away ashamed, and she was left alone with Jesus. Augustine captured the moment brilliantly when he wrote, "There remained but two, mercy and misery" (Relicti sunt duo, misera et miserecordia). It is in the Lord's final words to the woman that we hear his gentleness and fierceness: "neither do I condemn you; go, and from now on sin no more" (Jn.8:11). He freely and fully and mercifully pardons the woman. But he leaves her with a 'sting in the tail', "go, and sin no more." This woman was being embraced in the loving, gentle mercy of the Saviour, but she was also being warned to sin no more; to show her new life in a new lifestyle. Imbedded in Jesus' command was a scarcely veiled warning: "God takes sin seriously. Be warned."

All this is simply to say, make sure the Jesus you follow and confess is the Jesus of Holy Scripture. The full orbed Jesus. The Jesus who is both gentle and threatening. Not a Jesus who allows you to live any which way you choose.