Christianity: Doctrine and Ethics

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I am a 1967 graduate of The Citadel (Distinguished Military Student, member of the Economic Honor Society, Dean's List), a 1975 graduate of Gordon-Conwell Theological Seminary (M.Div., magna cum laude, member of the Phi Alpha Chi academic honor society); I attended the Free University of Amsterdam and completed my History of Dogma there and then received a full scholarship from the Dutch government to transfer to the sister school in Kampen, Holland. In 1979 I graduated from the Theological Seminary of the Reformed Churches of Holland (Drs. with honors in Ethics). My New Testament minor was completed with Herman Ridderbos. I am also a 2001 Ph.D. graduate of Westminster Theological Seminary (Systematic Theology) in Philly with a dissertation on the "unio mystica" in the theology of Dr. Herman Bavinck (1854-1921). I am a former tank commander, and instructor in the US Army Armor School at Ft. Knox, KY. I have been happily married to my childhood sweetheart and best friend, Sally, for 43 years. We have 6 children, one of whom is with the Lord, and 14 wonderful grandchildren.

Friday, December 23, 2005

Cremation: Is It for Christians?

Burial or Cremation?
Christians today are being confronted with the reality that friends and relatives are being cremated rather than buried. One of the questions we want to investigate in this position paper is whether cremation is an acceptable form of burial for the Christian. Should a Christian attend a funeral where the body of the deceased has been cremated?
To some, this is a moot issue. Some will participate in this type of funeral unreflectively. What we want to do, therefore, is to search the Bible to see if we can learn what the Word of God has to say to us about this procedure. We do not want to bring our preconceived notions to the Scripture and expect it to conform to our ways of thinking. Rather, we want to be obedient listeners to God’s infallible Word and to let it form and inform our thinking (2 Tim. 3:16-17).

A Brief History
In ancient Rome and Greece, cremation was a know entity. From the side of the Greeks we can read about the cremation of Hector and Achilles. History also records for us that at least four Roman emperors were cremated: Julius Caesar, Augustus, Tiberius, and Nero.
In 785AD, Charlemagne forbade cremation upon the penalty of death. What was his reason in doing this? He considered cremation to be a “rite of the pagans.”[1]
In the history of the world, death by burning has traditionally been for heretics and witches. The church is aware of the deaths of Johann Huss and Savonarola in the flames as well as Thomas Cranmer, Nicolas Ridley, and Hugh Latimer. Even up to and including the nineteenth century, witches were still burned at the stake.
The French Revolution saw the advent of propaganda in favor of cremation. During 1800s many books were written in support of cremation as a means of caring for the deceased. Italy became known as the “motherland” of cremation. In 1873 the first of Italy’s crematoriums was built in Milan. A second followed in 1878 in Gotha. As might be expected, the Vatican was vehemently opposed to both of these crematoria.
The Roman Catholic Church remained opposed to the procedure until 1964. In that year, it was decreed that a Church funeral could not be refused based on cremation.
The Increased Popularity of Cremation
It would be difficult, if not impossible, to calculate the number of crematoriums in the United States today. Suffice it to say that almost every funeral home can make arrangements for cremation.
The usual procedure for cremation is to heat an oven to approximately 1,000 degrees (Celsius). When the desired temperature is reached, the flame is extinguished and the corpse is placed in the oven. The cremation process then takes about one hour.
The ashes of the deceased are then placed in a zinc urn and soldered shut. In some cases, where the family wants to spread the remains in a yard or at sea, they may do so.
What has brought about the popularity of cremation in our time? Certainly, there are numerous factors, but let me give you some of the most salient arguments that are made in favor of cremation. This is, by no means, meant to be an exhaustive list, but the following summarize the pro-cremation arguments: (1) It is the desire of the person dying. (2) Cremation is more hygienic than burial. (3) Cremation is substantially less expensive than burial. (4) Cremation takes less space than a burial plot and is therefore to be preferred. (5) Cremation is aesthetically better than burial. (6) Cremation requires less care of the plot than burial. (7) There is the quasi-New Age “Phoenix” symbolism. Let’s look at each argument in turn.

Cremation is the Request of the Person Dying
For some reason, people today seem to be requesting cremation. Either through the advice of a physician or a friend or relative, a person either with a terminal illness or reaching old age will request to be cremated.
I believe it is incumbent upon the Christian to take the time to ask why. There may be several biblical reasons (see below) to suggest burial instead of cremation. If the time permits, there should be Bible study and prayer—together—about this request.
All too often, out of mere sentimentality—the dying person’s “last request”—people agree without presenting the loved one with the biblical approach to the matter. Certainly, God is in control of the method of death of each person. Sanctification is a process that does not end until each of us breathes our last breath. A loved one might request cremation, but for all the wrong, (secular) reasons. If the Lord grants the time to discuss this matter, the biblical approach should be presented.
What if the person—even after hearing all the biblical evidence—still insists on cremation? In that case, the relatives may proceed with cremation without feeling as if they have violated a specific biblical command that prohibits cremation in the case of a believer.

The Argument from Hygiene
Some of the proponents of cremation speak about the possible problems that can accompany a graveyard. Cremation, on the other hand, they argue, presents no sanitation problems and is to be preferred.
This is a very specious argument. The current graveyards pose no problem in terms of hygiene and health. The specifications vary from country to country, but there are local requirements pertaining to the distance dwellings can be built in proximity to graveyards. There are also regulations and prohibitions regarding the distances between grave sites and water.

The Economic Argument
Another argument that is presented in favor of cremation is that it is less expensive than burial. A couple of things need to be said here. As a pastor, I have done many funerals. Christians need to be aware of the obvious, which is that funeral homes are in business. Burying the dead is their livelihood. Many funeral undertakers are sensitive to the grief of the relatives and friends, but they are also in business.
Certainly not all, but some funeral directors will take advantage of family members who are extremely vulnerable immediately after the death of a loved one. Many emotional as well as psychological factors come into play. It might very well be that the family will insist on nothing but the most expensive vaults, caskets, etc. In these cases, the funeral home merely complies with the wishes of the family. Make no mistake, funerals can run well into five figures.
That need not be the case, however. There are very “affordable” burials. It would be a cold and callous person that would only be thinking about finances when it came to the burial of a loved one. The argument for cremation on the grounds of costs involved is usually made by those who are already convinced that cremation is the way to go.

The Argument regarding Space
Except in the case of extremely densely populated areas, this, too, is a very specious argument. Even a densely populated country like Holland has no problem providing adequate gravesites for its deceased. The argument that cremation is better because it takes substantially less space than traditional burial holds no water.
Certainly here in the US, we don’t have to worrying about not having enough ground to bury our dead. This argument sounds like something Planned Parenthood or the Environmentalists would come up with, but it is an argument without substance. The choice of cremation over traditional burial should not be made on the basis of scarcity of land!

The Aesthetic Argument
This argument is closely related to the hygienic argument. The argument goes something like this: the nature of human decomposition is ghastly and unseemly. Even if good procedures are used in embalming the deceased, the process is not eliminated but only slowed down. Decomposition will still take place in the casket.
Cremation speeds up that process so that it is completed in about one to two hours. Looking into a casket that has been exhumed is definitely no pleasant task. We must keep in mind, however, that it would be equally displeasing to gaze into the oven of a crematorium while the corpse of a loved one was being cremated.
This is a downright silly self-seeking argument. Most people who have lost loved ones will ever have to gaze upon the remains that have been exhumed. The exhuming of a casket is definitely the exception and not the rule. Even when that does occur, the family members are not required to be present.

Cremation Requires Less Care than a Burial Plot
Again, we’re dealing here with a self-seeking argument. There are a couple of factors that come into play. In the first place, this is an argument used by those people who do not want to be “bothered” with caring for another person. This argument is just as valid for the “living” as for the “dead.” That is to say, some people are so self-absorbed that they don’t want to be involved in the lives of their children.
One of the maladies facing America today is that parents no longer want to be parents. They are, as often as not, more concerned about their pleasure and entertainment. I’m not trying to paint all parents with the same brush, but there is an obvious problem among the “baby-boomers” who are used to being catered to and getting what they want. They are a spoiled generation and not many have been able to extricate themselves from the notions they grew up with.
On the other hand, there is a general lack of respect for life in the US today. Our abortion and (impending) euthanasia laws point inexorably to this truth. We are faced today with drive-by shootings, murders in high schools, young girls giving birth to babies during proms and then dumping their new-born into a trash can in the bathroom! If people have so little concern about the living, why should we expect them to care about the dead?
The argument about the care of the gravesite comes from a mindset that is opposed to caring for the living, especially if it causes them any inconvenience. I think it’s safe to say that no one possessing a modicum of common sense—let alone the revelation from the Word of God—would object to the (minimum) care a gravesite requires. That a person would be unwilling to wipe a tombstone with a damp cloth speaks volumes.

The Flight of the Phoenix
Antiquity records the saga of the Phoenix. The Phoenix was a mythical bird that felt his end approaching. He used his remaining strength to fly to Heliopolis, which, as its name states, is the city of the son. The Phoenix gathered dry sticks and built his own funeral pyre. The purpose of the funeral pile was not merely to burn the Phoenix to ashes, but also to prepare his “rebirth.” Apollo appeared and shot a flaming arrow into the funeral pile and told the Phoenix that it was released from being a senior citizen (which meant that the Phoenix lost its AARP card and all its discounts at Mickey D’s), and that it was to fly away to a new and better life. According to the legend, the Phoenix rose from the ashes and flew away into the blue horizon. And they all lived happily ever after.
If this sounds “New Age,” it is. Christians must be on their guard about such fanciful arguments. Fire in Scripture has a very different purpose than secularism ascribes to it. For example, we are told in Hebrews 12:29 that our God is a consuming fire. The fire referred to here has to do with judgment and not rebirth or renewal.
This same image is used by John the Baptizer (he really wasn’t a Baptist) in Matthew 3:12 (Luke 3:17).[2]

What Does the Bible Say?
It is important to note that the Bible does not offer an explicit prohibition against cremation. The notion of an “argument from silence” does not help us much one way or the other. For example, the Israelites knew of cremation from the unbelieving nations around them and yet they buried their dead. By the same token, the apostles encountered the practice of cremation during their missionary and expansion journeys, and yet they did not prohibit it.
My personal belief is that the “standard” for Christians remains burial. Let me give you a number of reasons why I hold this position.

The Practice of Burial in the Old Testament
Over against certain Christians today (many Dispensationalists),[3] I hold that whatever the Old Testament teaches is still normative for the New Testament Church unless the Bible itself abrogates or modifies it. Therefore, the Old Testament has a great deal to teach us about what is normative after the death of a loved one.
We read about the extent to which Abraham went to find a suitable grave for Sarah’s burial (Genesis 23:3ff.). We also read how Isaac and Ishmael (a non-believer) took care to bury their father in the same place (Genesis 25:9).
Joseph gave explicit instructions about carrying his bones out of Egypt to be buried elsewhere (Genesis 50:25ff.; Joshua 24:32). Moses was buried as was Miriam and Aaron. The case of Moses is especially instructive. In Deuteronomy 34:5-6 we have a brief synopsis of Moses’ death and burial. We are told that Moses died in the land of Moab and that God Himself buried Moses.

The Example of the Lord Jesus Christ
One of the most compelling arguments for burial is fixed in the example of Christ Himself. Not only was Christ’s body prepared with spices and then buried, but this burial was prophesied in the Old Testament. Isaiah, in his well-known fifty-third chapter foretold Christ being placed into the grave (53:9).

The Example of Death and Resurrection
The New Testament is replete with examples about the Christian life in terms of death (burial) and resurrection (see Romans 6). The Bible also speaks of the relationship between sowing and reaping (1 Corinthians 15:36ff.).
This doesn’t mean that any Christian that was ever burned at the stake or cremated is not saved! There have been many Christians who, during war times, lost their lives at sea, in the air, and on land. There are always exceptions. The rule, however, is that the symbolism given to us in the Word of God points clearly to the relationship between burial and resurrection.
What Does the Bible teach about the “Judgmental” Character of Fire?
As we look to the Bible to teach us about proper burial, we do well to examine cases where people were intentionally burned. What was the purpose of the burning? I’d like for us to consider several Old Testament texts that speak to the issue at hand.
The burning of corpses in the Old Testament is sometimes viewed as an act of desecration.[4] A couple of examples will suffice here. The first is the burning of Achan’s body in Joshua 7:25. How did that biblical narrative unfold? After the destruction of Jericho, Joshua and the troops took on Ai. The army of Ai came out and gave Israel an industrial strength thrashing. The reason this happened is because of Achan’s sin. He coveted some items that God had commanded to be completely destroyed (Josh. 7:21). The result was that Achan (and his entire family) were first stoned and then “burned with fire.”
In Amos 2:1, the Lord speaks to the king of Moab and tells him He will not revoke his punishment because he burned the bones of the king of Edom to lime. Burning corpses was seen as an act of desecration.
Another way of disgracing conquered enemies was to leave their corpses unburied on the battlefield. To be subject to that kind of exposure was considered a disgrace. It denied the deceased a proper burial. This explains why the people of Jabesh Gilead strove so hard to recover the dead bodies of Saul and his sons from the hands of the Philistines (see 1 Samuel 31:11-13). For exposed corpses to be eaten by worms or burned was a disgrace.[5]
Fire was also a symbol of God’s judgment upon and punishment of evildoers.
Again, a couple of examples must suffice. In Genesis 38:24 we read the narrative of Judah’s daughter-in-law, Tamar (NAB Genesis 38:24 Now it was about three months later that Judah was informed, “Your daughter-in-law Tamar has played the harlot, and behold, she is also with child by harlotry.” Then Judah said, “Bring her out and let her be burned!”) The accusation had to do with the perception that Tamar was to have a child out of wedlock. Her punishment for such a sin was to be death by burning. Lest we think that Judah was over-reacting in this sordid episode, let’s look at two other texts from Leviticus.
The first text has to do with the immorality of marrying both the daughter and mother of one family. In Leviticus 20:14 we read, “If there is a man who marries a woman and her mother, it is immorality; both he and they shall be burned with fire, so that there will be no immorality in your midst.” Such immorality was not to be tolerated. There was no “three strikes and you’re out” law. It’s a great idea for baseball, but falls short of morality and the punishment of sin.
The second example from Leviticus is located in 20:14. (“Also the daughter of any priest, if she profanes herself by harlotry, she profanes her father; she shall be burned with fire.”) Here the situation is the daughter of a priest who “sleeps around” and gets pregnant. The disgrace she brings upon her family (in the father as head) is worthy of death by burning. Obviously, this is a punishment.

The Bible is conclusive in describing burial as the normative care of the bodies of the deceased. The grave is an apt form of care and is reflective of the Old Testament standard, of the example of our Lord, and as a symbol of the relationship between death and resurrection.
In unusual circumstances (war, plague, or epidemic) cremation may be employed for sanitation purposes. These forms are exceptions and not the rule.
Christians ought to be counseled to follow the biblical standard of care of the corpses of the deceased. Herein lies an opportunity for Christian care and pastoral advice. Pastors and other church leaders ought to be teaching their congregations about these matters. Sunday School classes and home visits provide ample opportunities to discuss these important matters.
If there are Christians who have had loved ones cremated, they should be comforted that they have not violated any specific biblical prohibition. They should lose none of their assurance regarding the eternal resting-place of their believing relative. In addition, Christians should not be hesitant or judgmental about attending funeral services of other cremated Christians.
Our goal, in all things, should be—first and foremost—the glory of God and obedience to His Word of truth. We must take the time to search the Scriptures in order to discern what God’s perfect will for our lives is. The Westminster Confession of Faith (1.6) says that “The whole counsel of God concerning all things necessary for His own glory, man’s salvation, faith and life, is either expressly set down in Scripture, or by good and necessary consequence may be deduced from Scripture. . .” It is my hope that this little position paper has served—in some way—to help Christians decide what is pleasing to the Lord on this subject.

Pastor Ron Gleason, Ph.D.
Yorba Linda, CA
[1] Cf. J. Douma, “Crematie,” in Christelijke Ethiek, (Kampen: van den Berg, 1976), p. 68.
[2] NAB Matthew 3:12 “His winnowing fork is in His hand, and He will thoroughly clear His threshing floor; and He will gather His wheat into the barn, but He will burn up the chaff with unquenchable fire.”
[3] See my workbook entitled Dispensationalism: Tenets and Texts, available through Renewed Life Ministries, 1118 N. Corrida Place, Orange, CA 92869-1220.
[4] Robert A. Peterson, Hell on Trial, (Phillipsburg, NJ: Presbyterian & Reformed Publishing Co., 1995), pg. 31.
[5] Ibid., 32.

Thursday, December 22, 2005

The Bible and the Poor

The Bible and the Poor
I’m still trying to figure out precisely what Jim Wallis’ hermeneutic is. From what I’ve been able to ascertain thus far, it’s a sliding scale, hit-and-miss, whatever works hermeneutic. In the section entitled “The Political Problem of Jesus,” he introduces the biblical concept of the poor with a quote from Jesus in his Sermon on the Mount: “Blessed are the poor” (Matt. 5:3) and then embarks on a lengthy discussion of how we should care for the poor. It’s encouraging that Wallis quotes Scripture, but he truncates the actual quote to suit his purposes. The full quote reads, “Blessed are the poor in spirit.” No doubt an oversight on his part, especially since the Bible is filled with clear directives about our attitudes and actions towards the poor.
Wallis points us to the fact that when Jesus began his ministry, according to Luke’s gospel (Luke 4:16-19), he made a clear allusion to the Jubilee Year in the Hebrew Scriptures where “the debts of the poor were cancelled, slaves were set free, and land was redistributed for the sake of equity.”[1] Perhaps, but not all that likely; at least not in the form Wallis intends.
The careful reader will detect a clear dependence by Wallis on John Yoder (The Politics of Jesus) in his interpretation of this text. In fact, Yoder makes precisely the same connection between the Jubilee Year in Luke 4:16-21 as Wallis does.[2] How quaint. This approach goes beyond the pale of what conservative scholars detect in the Luke 4 text. The New Testament scholar Leon Morris, for example, is more to the point when he writes, “Jesus saw himself as coming with good news for the world’s troubled people. The acceptable year of the Lord does not, of course, represent any calendar year, but is a way of referring to the era of salvation.”[3]
Others such as Marten Woudstra[4] and B. Maarsingh[5] find other matters in the Lukan text. In general, they agree on three key principles in what Jesus declares in his citing of the Old Testament: “Each person receives the possibility of living independently by means of that which is his; each man is a free man, free from whatever dictatorship; each man is personally united with and bound in obedience to that God who in Christ has given complete deliverance.”[6]
This is a decent explanation of the Jubilee Year, but I don’t think Wallis would accept it, even though it summarizes the Old Testament notion quite well. Walter Kaiser also correctly notes the following: “The possession and careful use of private property is not against God’s order of things. Scripture is more concerned about the forgetting of God in the midst of our wealth than about the fact of possessions or wealth per se (Deut. 8:17-18). Only the arrogance, idolatry, and selfish use of wealth are condemned in the Scriptures.”[7] At this point, it’s clear that Wallis gives a somewhat aberrant interpretation of Jesus’ words. That doesn’t seem to matter because it suits his purposes and that is all that seems to matter.
To his credit, Wallis cites Matthew 25 (31-46) and explains how Jesus speaks so compassionately about “the hungry, the homeless, the stranger, prisoners, and the sick and promises he will challenge his followers on the judgment day with these words, ‘As you have done to the least of these, you have done to me.’”[8] I can wholeheartedly concur that caring for the poor is a biblical mandate.
But then, in an attempt to be dramatic, relevant Wallis quotes James Forbes (who?), “the pastor of Riverside Church in New York City” who says, “‘Nobody get to heaven without a letter of reference from the poor!’ How many of America’s most famous television preachers could produce the letter?”[9] Cheesy. It’s truly great biblical interpretation. I just can’t find the text Forbes is referring to. No doubt it’s close to the one that says, “God helps those who help themselves.” In terms of straightforward interpretation, a couple of points need to be made here.
In the first place, there is no reference in the Bible that such a letter is a prerequisite for salvation.
In the second place, Wallis, with his cutesy quote, is verging on blasphemy. What saves are the merits of Christ applied to the life of the believer; justification by faith might just play a minor role in our salvation. To take the lunacy to its logical conclusion, the thief on the cross would have been denied heaven because he wasn’t able to do anything for the poor—his hands were tied. Thus he died without his requisite James Forbes letter. What a pity.
How does a Christian, in Wallis’/Forbes’ scheme of things, ever find out when they’ve done enough to warrant that letter? This is the worst kind of works righteousness imaginable. Surely, Christians are to be compassionate towards the poor, stranger, prisoners, shut-ins, and sick. In point of fact, there are churches that are doing precisely that. They might not be doing all of it all the time, but they are attempting to fulfill the biblical mandate in all areas of their lives.
The brief paragraph that promised to be an exposition about the poor suddenly takes a sharp turn and we find ourselves in the midst of the subject of war and September 11, 2001. You’d kind of think that since he’s devoting an entire chapter to the subject of war that this discussion would be out of place, but Wallis is adept at sneaking in whatever he wants to discuss no matter what the chapter is supposed to be about.
He states his case in the following fashion: “In a world of violence and war, the words of Jesus, ‘Blessed are the peacemakers, for they shall be called the children of God’ are not only challenging, they are daunting.”[10] Of course, living in a “world of violence and war” can easily describe history from the time of Jesus to the present. Without doubt, the attitude, disposition of the Christian must be to be a peacemaker rather than a mere peacekeeper.
But are these the only words that count from Scripture for the political realm? If we take the Bible as a whole and the Apostle Paul in particular as our field of reference, then Wallis’ position on the death penalty crumbles completely. In addition, there were times in Scripture when Jesus resorted to violence and strong words.
In our next installment we’ll continue Wallis’ position on the Christian in the public arena, ostensibly from a non-partisan standpoint.
[1] Jim Wallis, God’s Politics, (San Francisco: HarperCollins, 2005), pp. 15-16.
[2] See John Howard Yoder, The Politics of Jesus, (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1972), p. 39.
[3] Leon Morris, Luke, (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1994), p. 117.
[4] Marten Woudstra, “The Year of Jubilee and Related Old Testament Laws—Can They be Translated For Today?” in Theological Forum 5 (Dec. 1977), pp. 1-21.
[5] B. Maarsingh, Maatschappijcritiek in het Oude Testament—Het Jubeljaar, (Kampen: Kok, 1976).
[6] Ibid., 67.
[7] Walter Kaiser, Toward Old Testament Ethics, (Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 1983), p. 220.
[8] Wallis, GP, 16.
[9] Ibid.
[10] Ibid.

The Death Penalty and Theological Liberalism

Jim Wallis & a Supposed Neutral View of Capital Punishment
A Seamless Garment of Life
In the last issue we were discussing Jim Wallis’ notions about various ethical questions in the culture war. His repeated claim is that he is neither Democrat nor Republican, but his statements belie his liberal religious Left position. Early on in his book, writing about why the “Religious Right” was encouraged to vote for Bush instead of Kerry, Wallis expands the wide gamut of religious and moral values facing both candidates such as “poverty, the environment, war, truth-telling, human rights, our response to terrorism, and a ‘consistent ethic of human life’ that included abortion, but also capital punishment, euthanasia, weapons of mass destruction, HIV/AIDS and other pandemics, and genocide around the world.”[1]
Just to give you a little insight into Wallis mindset, he equates abortion, euthanasia, and capital punishment. To his way of thinking, it’s inconsistent to be pro-life and pro-death penalty. Of course, both involve killing, but, as I shall argue below, according to Scripture, not all killing is murder although all murder is killing. I just want to give you a “heads up” early on so that you’ll be aware of how he reasons.
Wallis cites Chicago Roman Catholic Cardinal Joseph Bernardin in the following manner to support his case for his ethical stances on abortion and capital punishment in the following manner: “It was Chicago Cardinal Joseph Bernardin who coined the phrase ‘a seamless garment of life,’ which clearly links the ‘life issues’ of abortion, euthanasia, capital punishment, nuclear weapons, poverty, and racism as critical components of a consistent ethic of life.”[2] He cites Bernardin because Wallis wants to discuss the “other” most controversial “life issue” which is the death penalty.[3]
The central figure in the discussion of the death penalty in this chapter in God’s Politics is Timothy McVeigh.[4] Wallis chose this egregious example for a reason. One of the relatives of a victim of the Oklahoma bombing, Bud Welch, stated, “To me the death penalty is vengeance, and vengeance doesn’t really help anyone in the healing process.”[5] Really? It is telling that out of all of the victims in the Oklahoma bombing, Mr. Wallis chooses one who supports his view. More balance and perspective would have been achieved if he had included some statements from distraught and saddened family members who were glad that justice had been served to McVeigh. I also would have thought Mr. Wallis would have cited passages of Scripture such as Romans 12:19; Hebrews 10:30; and Deuteronomy 32:35, all of which speak to the fact that vengeance is God’s and that there’s nothing intrinsically or inherently wrong with God’s vengeance on evil and wrongdoing.[6]
Moreover, Romans 13:1-7 teaches us that the state is the “avenger” against the wrongdoer. The premise is that the state understands what is right and what is wrong. The Greek word όργή (orgē) translates into English as wrath, anger, retribution, and punishment. The fact that Paul mentions the “sword” (μάχαιρα, máchaira) in conjunction with the state alludes to the death penalty, since this word connotes violent death.[7] Funny that Mr. Wallis neglected to mention this in his consistent ethic of life. Jesus would have been selectively, morally pleased. The caveat for Mr. Wallis and all of us is that if we truly aspire to a consistent ethic of life, we must have constant recourse to the Bible.
What Mr. Wallis does is to line up people on both sides of the aisle on the capital punishment issue, including, as we have seen, select relatives of the victims of McVeigh’s bombing. It’s rather too bad that he didn’t also cite something like the sixth commandment to make his case since that commandment prohibits murder, but not all killing (תִּרְצָח לא).[8] We search in vain for anything akin to a biblical reference to what the Bible—and therefore Jesus—says about this matter in Wallis’ argument.
What we do get is Mr. Wallis’ fractured logic that runs this way: “I am against the death penalty in principle. We simply should not kill to show we are against killing.”[9] I’m appalled at the blatant lack of scholarship and nuance demonstrated by a man who has been an Institute of Politics Fellow at Harvard University’s Kennedy School of Government and who has taught on faith, politics, and society both there and at the Harvard Divinity School.[10]
Let me break down what I just said. In the first place, it is not unreasonable for a teacher at Harvard Divinity School to bring the “Divine” into his principal objection to capital punishment. In other words, I expect a pastor to speak from the Bible and what the Lord reveals in there about ethical issues.
My second objection is that Mr. Wallis’ opposition to the death penalty is, at best, very sloppily stated. He facilely and wrongly equates “killing” and “murder.” The two are quite different realities in important respects. All murder is killing, but, according to the Bible, not all killing is murder. Allow me to rephrase Mr. Wallis’ statement in a much more biblically oriented direction: There are instances where we should put convicted murderers to death (kill them) to show we are against murder.
Wallis continues in his opposition to the execution of convicted murderers with one of the most worn-out, hackneyed slogans in the world: “And there is no real evidence that it (the death penalty—RG) deters murders; it just satisfies revenge.”[11] I, for one, am very interested in what constitutes for Mr. Wallis “real evidence,” because I have a piece of the puzzle that might fit: the death penalty deters the murderer—permanently. He or she will never murder again. I would have thought that a teacher at Harvard Divinity School would recall what the Bible teaches in Genesis 9:5-7, “And 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.” (Comp. Ex. 21:12; Lev. 24:17, 21; Num. 35:9-21; Deut. 21:22).
In addition, one of the forgotten reasons for the death penalty in the Bible is that the evil will be purged from the midst of the people (Deut. 13:5; 17:7, 12; 19:19; 21:21; 22:21-22, 24; 24:7; Judges 20:13). America has neglected this concept for the longest time, but surely it gives us some very thought-provoking to ponder. How much better would the U.S. be if we had put convicted murderers to death? Mr. Wallis fails to bring it to our attention, but the recidivism rate among murderers released from prison is alarmingly high; if there were but one that murdered again it would be too many, but unfortunately, there are more.
Ironically, Wallis’ conclusion is that if anybody deserved death it was McVeigh, but, he says, “I still didn’t think we should kill him.”[12] Huh? Wallis’ analysis is that “McVeigh was a mass murderer, but he was no longer a threat in prison.”[13] That’s hardly the point! Who gives a big rat’s behind whether he was not longer a threat in prison? McVeigh was a mass murderer. Wallis continues, “McVeigh wanted to be executed. Why give him what he wanted?”[14] Again, that’s not the point. Who cares what he wanted? Wallis takes off down the rabbit trail of McVeigh becoming a martyr for his cause. I don’t care what McVeigh wanted. He got what he deserved.
But Wallis has another question for us: “Why stoop to his level and kill him as he so ruthlessly killed others?’[15] How foolish! The proper use of the death penalty is not “stooping to McVeigh’s level,” it is doing what God says is just. Again, I’ll rephrase Wallis’ question, Why kill him as he so ruthlessly murdered others? The answer is not all that complex. It was right to have the state “kill” McVeigh precisely because he “murdered” others. Does that put it in perspective?
There is another important consideration that must be taken into account: a sense of “closure” for the victim’s loved one. Since I mentioned the recent Supreme Court case of Roper v. Simmons earlier, allow me to quote from Justice Kennedy, who delivered the opinion of the Court. Describing Christopher Simmons’ actions Kennedy writes, “Before its commission Simmons said he wanted to murder someone. In chilling, callous terms he talked about his plan, discussing it for the most part with two friends, Charles Benjamin and John Tessmer, then aged 15 and 16 respectively. Simmons proposed to commit burglary and murder by breaking and entering, tying up a victim, and throwing the victim off a bridge. Simmons assured his friends they could ‘get away with it’ because they were minors.”[16]
Justice Kennedy proceeds to describe in rather graphic detail the grisly manner in which Simmons carried out his plans. Ready for this? Here are Justice Kennedy’s words. “Using duct tape to cover her eyes and mouth and bind her hands, the two perpetrators (Tessmer “chickened out” but was charged with conspiracy, but the charges were dropped when he agreed to testify against Simmons—RG.) put Mrs. Crook (she was married with a daughter—RG.) in her minivan and drove to a state park. They reinforced the bindings, covered her head with a towel, and walked her to a railroad trestle spanning the Meramec River. There they tied her hands and feet together with electrical wire, wrapped her whole face in duct tape and threw her from the bridge, drowning her in the waters below.”[17]
Simmons was charged with burglary, kidnapping, stealing, and murder in the first degree. Kennedy adds, “As aggravating factors, the State submitted that the murder was committed for the purpose of receiving money; was committed for the purpose of avoiding, interfering with, or preventing lawful arrest of the defendant; and involved depravity of mind and was outrageously and wantonly vile, horrible, and inhuman.”[18] But here’s the “kicker,” “The State called Shirley Crook’s husband, daughter, and two sisters, who presented moving evidence of the devastation her death had brought to their lives.”[19]
Clearly, the Crook’s are only the tip of the proverbial iceberg. Justice Scalia cites this example in his dissent: “In their amici brief, the States of Alabama, Delaware, Oklahoma, Texas, Utah, and Virginia offer additional examples of murders committed by individuals under 18 that involve truly monstrous acts. In Alabama, two 17-year-olds, one 16-year-old, and one 19-year-old picked up a female hitchhiker, threw bottles at her, and kicked and stomped her approximately 30 minutes until she died. They then sexually assaulted her lifeless body and, when they were finished, threw her body off a cliff.”[20] Keep in mind that these are only cases of minors. As I reflect what I just wrote my mind races and I fight back tears. The brutality of the perpetrators is only surpassed by what must have been horrific fear on the part of that female hitchhiker. Society needs to take retribution on murderers like these. If murder is not a clear case of purging the evil from our midst, I don’t know what is.
Why should the State have executed Timothy McVeigh? The answer is because he took human life with malice aforethought. The same holds for Christopher Simmons. For being such a prominent “evangelical,” Wallis surprises me with his assertion that the death penalty is “foolish.” Is Mr. Wallis wiser than God? Is Harvard? Deuteronomy 19:21 is an often-misunderstood text. Rather than being a primitive vindictive statement of justice, it clearly, definitively limits retribution. It restrains escalation. Where the life of a perpetrator is required by God, the real fools are those who disregard what the Almighty says—even if you’re from Harvard.
Wallis’ solution is for the opponents to the death penalty, however, is to “offer alternatives commensurate with the crime.”[21] Wouldn’t it be easier to allow God to give the appropriate punishment for the crime? Mr. Wallis obviously finds references to what God desires too fundamentalistic and opts for Gallup polls that show that in 2003 74 percent of those polled found the death penalty a good idea. Later, however, when asked, “If you could choose between the following two approaches, which do you think is the better penalty for murder: the death penalty or life imprisonment with absolutely no possibility of parole?” the percentage dropped to 53.[22] Apparently, for Mr. Wallis, it’s a question of God or Gallup, with the scales being tipped in Gallup’s favor. When it comes to choosing between Jerusalem and Athens, Mr. Wallis’ choices are clear.
Supreme Court Sandra Day O’Connor weighed in on this subject in a speech delivered to the Minnesota Women Lawyers organization in July 2001. Even though Justice O’Connor has supported the death penalty in previous decisions, in this particular speech she “emphasized the importance of effective counsel, noting that in Texas, for example, defendants with appointed counsel are 28 percent more likely to be convicted than those who can hire their own attorneys and are 44 percent more likely to receive death if convicted.”[23] My question is this: if they are duly convicted of murder and received a fair trial, what is Justice O’Connor’s point? Her comments lend themselves to the situation (appointed counsel) or status (poorer individuals) than their actual actions (murder).
While it is a popular argument that when felons are convicted of murder that they received inadequate counsel. The recent Roper v. Simmons is a classic case in point. In Kennedy’s concurring opinion addressed this matter. After telling us that Simmons obtained new counsel after the verdict of the death penalty was handed down, he sought to set aside the conviction and sentence. He continues, “One argument was that Simmons had received ineffective assistance at trial.”[24] In spite of Simmons’ efforts, Kennedy is forced to report the truth which is that “The trial court found no constitutional violation by reason of ineffective assistance of counsel and denied the motion for postconviction relief…. The federal courts denied Simmons’ petition for a writ of habeas corpus.”[25]The long and short of all this is that even though Wallis denies being a liberal, he certainly acts as if he’s had big gulps of their Kool-Aid.
[1] Jim Wallis, God’s Politics, (San Francisco: HarperCollins, 2005), pp. 8-9.
[2] Ibid., 301.
[3] Ibid.
[4] For a more detailed analysis of my position on McVeigh’s execution, please visit my web site at and click on “Ethos” and you’ll find the downloadable article.
[5] Wallis, GP, 302.
[6] The Greek word is ekdíkēsis, which bears the meanings of retribution, punishment, and revenge.
[7] For a more in depth discussion on Romans 13:1-7 and the death penalty, see my web site under “Ethos for Everyone.”
[8] The Hebrew verb רָצַח means to murder with premeditation or, as we would say today, with malice aforethought.
[9] Wallis, GP, 303.
[10] According to the back inside dust jacket cover.
[11] Wallis, GP, 303.
[12] Ibid.
[13] Ibid.
[14] Ibid. Emphasis mine.
[15] Ibid.
[16] Roper v. Simmons, Kennedy, concurring, pp. 1-2.
[17] Ibid., 2.
[18] Ibid., Italics mine.
[19] Ibid.
[20] Scalia, Roper v. Simmons, 13.
[21] Wallis, GP, 304.
[22] Ibid.
[23] Ibid.
[24] Kennedy, Roper v. Simmons, 4.
[25] Ibid., 5.

Monday, December 19, 2005

Discovering the "Will of God" for Our Lives

What is God's Will for My Life?

We are all faced with various decisions in this life. Some of them are of huge proportions; others are of seemingly insignificant magnitude. For example, we want to know who we should marry, where we should attend college or university, whether or not we should take this or that job, or any variety of similar questions.
As Christians we want to know, specifically, what God’s will for our lives is. Some become almost paralyzed as they agonize over what God would have them do or not do in various situations. Almost invariably, these Christians will be looking for God to give them some kind of special revelation or sign of what course of action they are to take. There is a lot of confusion, ignorance, and downright sloppiness in this area, so we want to clarify the matter of what we mean when we speak about the will of God.
Even much of our theological language can be muddled and confusing. For example, some of the radio and TV evangelists choose to speak about God’s sovereign will, his moral will, and his individual will. Now that sounds plausible, doesn’t it? But when you stop and think about it, these are very vague and indefinite categories. Let me explain what I mean. Since God is sovereign, all of his will is his sovereign will. So the category sovereign is too vague. What about God’s moral will? Well, try to think of some revelation of God to man about how man s to be and what man is to do that is not moral in nature! The third category is where a lot of people get “hung-up” today. Does God have an individual will for my life? Let’s see if we can bring some clarity into the subject by asking ourselves what we really mean when we speak about God’s will.
In the very first place, I want to present you with a term that you might not be familiar with. I want to talk for a moment about God’s decretive will. A kind of common definition here might go something like this: God’s decretive will is that will by which God decrees things to come to pass according to his supreme sovereignty.
The Westminster Confession of Faith (chapter 3.1) speaks of God’s decretive will in this fashion: God from all eternity, did, by the most wise and holy counsel of his own will, freely, and unchangeably ordain whatsoever comes to pass: yet so, as thereby neither is God the author of sin, nor is violence offered to the will of the creatures nor is the liberty or contingency of second causes taken away, but rather established.
Now there’s real sovereignty. God ordains. God is in complete control of all of his creation. What he decreed from eternity is good, holy, wise, righteous, and perfect. Notice that this is not some arbitrary or capricious decision made by God. Neither is this some impersonal force in your life. This is the living God who has revealed himself in Jesus Christ and in the Bible. This God’s will is greater than mine. It restricts my will. My will cannot restrict his. God works from a divine plan and that plan cannot be thwarted. Such is God’s decretive will.
We like to talk about another will of God, however. In addition to God’s decretive will, we also speak of his preceptive will. What is that? This would be God’s will found in his precepts, statutes, and commandments. All of this is moral for God’s commands are a reflection of his moral character.
The Bible talks to us about the difference between these two wills in Deuteronomy 29:29: “The secret things belong to the Lord our God, but the things revealed belong to us and to our children forever, that we may follow all the words of this law.” Here’s an important key! The secret things belong to God. Let him deal with those things. Where you and I need to busy ourselves is with the “revealed things” that are found in Scripture.
Let’s see if we can make some practical application of this truth. For the sake of example let’s say that there’s a young man who is looking for a wife. He’s dating four girls at the present. Three of these girls are Christians, and the other is not. Our young man is in a quandary as to which of the girls he should marry. He’s frantically running around looking for God to speak to him in a deep baritone voice and say something like, “Marry Jill, you big dummy!” Alas, no voice is ever heard and our young man is left in his indecision. What’s a young man to do? The answer is fairly simple actually and the Word of God provides it for us. Is the non-Christian girl an option for this young man? Absolutely not! Here’s where Christians run into all kinds of problems. They say they’re looking for God’s will and then go out and marry a non-Christian. That’s nothing less than disobedience to God. He has made it abundantly clear in the Bible that Christians are not to be unequally yoked and that they are to marry “in the Lord” (2 Cor. 6:14; 1 Cor. 7:39). So the Word of God has narrowed down our young man’s choice to the three Christian girls. But now he’s still in a bind, because he’s not sure which one of the three. The answer to his dilemma now is fairly straightforward: choose one! You’re free to marry any one of the three since they all meet the biblical requirements.
Certain considerations might be taken into account at this point. Suppose our young man is a Presbyterian and two of the girls are Pentecostals. There is nothing in Scripture that prohibits them getting married, but all parties involved might want to sit down and talk out some of the important doctrinal differences that exist between Presbyterians and Pentecostals. That is, they would want to discuss Baptism, for example, since one holds to infants of believing parents and professing adults being baptized and the other holds to professing adults only. But the point is: they may still marry since they are both Christians.
I am convinced that the Bible speaks to every issue and circumstance of life—either directly or indirectly. Again, let me quote from the Westminster Confession of Faith (1.6). “The whole counsel of God concerning all things necessary for his own glory, man’s salvation, faith and life, is either expressly set down in Scripture, or by good and necessary consequence may be deduced from Scripture: unto which nothing at any time is to be added, whether by new revelations of the spirit or traditions of men.”We’ve become lazy and accustomed to being “spoon fed.” What is needed, however, is being willing to do our “homework” and search the scriptures to determine what God’s will is for all of our life. This is going to take some digging into the Word, but the rewards will be great.

The Questions of Christian Ethics

Christian Ethics--101

Our subject in this installment deals with the fundamental matter of the questions that are raised in doing ethics. In our society—as often as not—people are not concerned with this particular aspect of behavior or conduct.
Many want merely to express their opinion and have everyone accept what they say as equally valid among all the competing ways of doing ethics. Our thesis in this blog is that not all systems of ethics are of equal value. In fact, our thesis is that apart from the God of Christianity, ethics is impossible. So I am not defending some general form of what might be called “theistic” ethics. The defense is the system of Christian ethics taken from God’s revealed will in the Bible as the standard for all of ethical life.
So we begin with an introductory blog on the “questions of ethics.” What do I mean here? The questions of ethics are similar to the following: What goals ought we to pursue in life? What sort of persons ought we to be? What practices ought we to follow?
Most people in our society don’t spend a lot of time and attention focusing on these questions. They tend to live life almost totally unreflectively. But to answer these questions requires a great deal of thought and understanding. The questions require that all human conduct be subject to a threefold evaluation from a moral point of view. Let me break this down.
First, when we get ready to do something we need to know that the end that we seek to realize with our decision is good and worthy of human pursuit.
In the second place, our motive must also be good, so that the end is worthwhile and the mark of good character.
Finally, the means to the end must be good and honorable, confirming to an absolute standard of what is right and wrong, since neither a good end nor a good motive is compatible with a bad means.
Since non-Christians have no such standard, the only way they can really do ethics is to “borrow capital” from Christianity in order to find justice in a realm of relativism. Christian ethics is quite different. “In the biblical ethic we are concerned with the norms, or canons, or standards of behavior which are enunciated in the Bible for the creation, direction, and regulation of thought, life, and behavior consonant with the will of God.” (J.Murray, Principles of Conduct, p.14).
Let me flesh this out by using Paul’s admonition in Romans 12:1-2. In this short article I don’t have the time to give all the attention necessary for a full explanation of what Paul is saying, but I would like to paint with a broad brush and hit on some of the most important features for our purposes.
In the first place, Paul’s words point us to the focus of his admonition: in view of God’s mercy. Christian ethics is a reflection upon God’s merciful dealings in our lives. God’s mercy is meant to awaken the “affectional” side of our lives. That is, since the Holy Spirit is making us sanctified or holy people, we must understand that this sanctification process concerns all of our being. Our emotions and affections must be sanctified as well as our minds. We learn to love, for example, because God first loved us (1 John 4:19; Rom. 5:8). When God, in love, calls us to be his children, then, we are to respond with biblical repentance, faith, and obedience—all three. At the end of 12:1 Paul speaks about “your spiritual act of worship.” What does mean? The word translated “worship” is latreia, which always means “service” in the New Testament. But what Christians are to offer is a particular type of “service.” Paul calls it “spiritual.” The word is logikos, which is rare indeed. It is a word that carries with it the connotation of “possessed of reason” or “intellectual.” Christian “service” is not a matter of unthinking, mindless activity or rote, unfeeling performance. It engages the mind a well as the heart and will of man. When Paul proceeds to speak about the will of God, he uses three terms to describe it.
What are they? Paul says God’s will is good, pleasing, and perfect (Romans 12:2). This is what sinners must know and live. Human beings have affections; they have a will; and they are rational, but they are also fallen and sin has severely, spiritually, and radically (from the Latin: radix, meaning “root”) depraved them. What man must have is a standard that is good, pleasing, and perfect. That's God’s will in the Bible. Paul says that God’s will is “good.” That’s the most comprehensive term for what human beings ought to do and to be. Christian ethics is unique in that it identifies the good with the revealed will of God (Micah 6:8; Deut. 10:12-13) and calls upon man to seek what is good (Amos 5:14-15; Rom. 12:9; 16:19). We’re also told that this will of God is “pleasing” or “acceptable” (euarestos). I put the Greek word in italic because it is such an important one in the New Testament vocabulary for moral conduct (Compare Heb. 13:20-21).
What is indispensable in man’s ethical decision-making is receiving God’s approval and not doing what is “good in our own eyes” (Ex. 15:26; Deut. 12:28; 1 Kings 11:38). Mankind is not called upon to conform to some impersonal command or whatever he might think is right or wrong. He is commanded to conform to the pleasing will of the Creator. Paul concludes his comments by telling us that God’s will is also “perfect.” That is, God’s will is “complete.” (Compare Matt. 5:48).
The standard that is help up before us is God. This is anther way of saying that we must continually learn to deny ourselves and submit ourselves to God’s will. You see, the Christian life is not aimed at doing away with man’s personality, but at getting rid of sin in our lives. God’s will is the perfect way to show us how that is to be done. To sum up, Christian ethics is the constant and continual study from the Bible of the way of life that conforms to the will of God—the way of life that is good, that pleases God, and that fulfills human nature.

Pastor Ron Gleason, Ph.D.