The storm is a gift. This was the thought that was running through my mind as wave after wave crashed upon me. In part because I knew it was true and partly because I hoped it was true. When the skies turned dark they caught me off guard. I found myself lost in confusion as every bit of my weakness was exposed, but that was only a portion of the battle.
As the tempest raged against me from the outside, something else started happening on the inside. My flesh began to rebel. It had been active for years, as I now realize, but it started to let me know that it was upset. As I entered one of the darkest times of my life, my sinfulness began to rear its head in ways I could have never imagined. It was showing me its power.
I never really saw myself as someone who longed for or loved the things of the world, but the minute the pleasures were no longer available, a passion for them stirred in my soul. The fact that they were no longer at my disposal caused a despondency in my spirit that made me feel ill. I thought, “What if all those days of pleasure are gone? I can’t live without them, they are part of what makes me who I am.” The notion that they were no longer mine was more than I could handle.
It was here that I realized the conflict between flesh and Spirit was clashing within me in a battle more fierce than I could ever remember. The problem is, when you already feel you are spinning out of control because of the circumstances in which you find yourself, this type of inner conflict brings your sinfulness to the surface compounding the trial. Once once my sinfulness was added to the mix, I was devastated. I had nothing left: everything I thought I was standing on was systematically dislodged from beneath me. I don’t think I could have plummeted any lower.
This, however, was exactly were I needed to be. When the conflict between flesh and Spirit heightens within us, it is more often a sign of spiritual progress than decline. When the Lord sends us troubles that are designed to mold us to His image, the first thing we tend to notice is how far we fall short. In other words, sanctified affliction seldom seems sanctified because the Lord is drawing the dross to the surface, but never forget, He is drawing it to the surface to wipe it away.
A.W. Tozer once said, “It is doubtful whether God can bless a man greatly until He has hurt him deeply.” This may not sit well with many in the church today, but it is important to remember that God is more concerned with our spiritual growth than our worldly prosperity, and often He will sacrifice the latter to promote the former.
Even the disciples, who had seen Christ perform many miracles, didn’t marvel until it was their own boat that was at stake. We tend see Christ’s power to calm the storm as interesting until it is our life that is on is on the line, then it becomes imperative. Our Savior is not looking for people who admire His power from a distance, His children are the ones who know their very lives depend upon Him. Though everything I thought could support me crumbled beneath me, when it had all been destroyed, I found myself standing on the Rock of Christ Jesus. In an act of God’s grace, the storm killed my idols.
The crucible is for silver, and the furnace is for gold, and the LORD tests hearts. – Proverbs 17:3
And let us not grow weary of doing good, for in due season we will reap, if we do not give up. – Galatians 6:9
Growing weary is something we will all face in the Christian life, especially as we get into our middle years. Martyn Lloyd Jones, in his book, Spiritual Depression, suggests that the middle period of life is the most difficult because there are compensations in youth and compensations in old age that do not exist in the middle years.
When we were young and entered the Christian life and work, there was an excitement, a freshness, that permeated all we did, but as we age, we become accustomed to the Christian life. We also grow accustomed to the work and fall into a routine of doing the same thing day after day. As we do this, the earlier excitements that brought us up to this level of work and energy begin to fade away, and we are simply left with the work. Lloyd Jones goes on to say, “There we are on that level, and the difficulty is to keep going on that level while lacking the stimulus that took us there.”
This leads us to a point where we are not “so much tired of the work as tired in it.” If we find yourself in this situation, Lloyd Jones lays out three distinct temptations that we must resist when we grow weary.
The Temptation to Give Up
When you find yourself growing weary, you will hear the cry coming up from within that this is too much much for you. These voices will tell you it is time for you to give up. They will come to you telling you that perhaps it is now time for you to rest from well-doing and let others take the reins.
Though a sabbatical or a vacation may be appropriate if you have not had one in a while, this is not the time to give up laboring for the Lord. You must resist this temptation to give up. You will reap in due season, so do not let the temptation to quit take that blessing away from you.
The Temptation to Resign Yourself to the Weariness
The second temptation is even more sinister. That is the temptation to press on while assuming that weariness is what is to be expected going forward. Do not resign yourself to the exhaustion.
Lloyd Jones puts it this way, ” The danger at this point is to say something like this: Well, I have lost that something which I had, and obviously I shall not get it back again. But I am going on, and out of loyalty I will go on, as a sheer duty. I have lost the enjoyment I once had, that is gone and undoubtedly gone forever.” People who do this, go on in a “dragging condition.”
Do not give into the spirit of resignation. This is a temptation to sinfulness. Joyless Christian service is not what the Lord has called us to. There is hope, and the Lord can provide the strength we need just like he did for Caleb (Joshua 14:10-11).
The Temptation to Resort to Artificial Stimulants
The third temptation that comes to us is to try to help God along in supplying us the needed energy and relief. We see this regularly in the working world when alcohol and drugs are used to provide strength and to relieve the weight of the burden that is being carried.
This happens spiritually as well. If we are weary in the work of the church or in our Christian life, what we often think we need is some new program or attraction to liven things up. The thought goes like this, “Let’s bring in new entertainment. If our worship is worn and routine, we can add lights and a fog machine or a whole host of other amusements.” All of this is artificial hype. It is a substitution for what we really need; the strength and joy of the Lord.
Among other things, many weary Christians will begin to seek rest by spending hours watching Netflix, others make social media their default retreat whenever the burden of work seems too much. Since none of these substitutes can provide what is truly needed, much like alcohol and drugs, all we are doing is exhausting ourselves further. Lloyd Jones puts it this way, ” As he becomes more exhausted, so he will need to have still more drink and still more drugs; and so the process goes on in a cumulative manner. And it is exactly the same in the spiritual realm.” Do not give in to this temptation, it is a cistern that cannot hold water, and it will only make conditions worse.
How to Fight
Provided that we are not over-working ourselves and we are taking care of our bodies by giving them the needed sabbath rests, to fight all three of these temptations we must do what we are called to do with any temptation. We must resist the devil, and he will flee. The way we do that is by preaching the gospel to ourselves once again, and by remembering what we were saved from and to what we have been called. That is the first gust of wind we need in our sails. “You are set in the midst of the most glorious campaign into which man could ever enter, and you are on the noblest road that the world has ever known.” Do not let that truth slip from your mind.
The second blast of wind we need to move our ships forward is to remember that this life is not our place of rest. Our rest is coming, and it will be glorious. Set your eye on the prize promised by the gospel. Jesus is coming again and his reward is with him. He will give to each person according to what he has done (Rev. 22:12). Cheer your heart with thoughts of the return of your Savior, and let that joy drive you heavenward.
Finally, the third and most consistent wind we need in our sails is the presence of God. God is the gospel, and he is our ultimate reward. Since you have been justified in Christ, he is with you and available to you now. Draw near to God and he will draw near to you. They that wait upon the Lord shall renew their strength.
We live in a fallen world, and many people do not know what to do with their anger, hurt, sorrow, and grief. Much of it is churned into bitterness and spewed out on social media. Unfortunately, cultural Christianity has no place for biblical lament which is a proper response to such things. Even our funeral services have become life celebrations where we do not allow the grieving to grieve. This is why we need Mark Vroegop’s book, Dark Clouds, Deep Mercy: Rediscovering the Grace of Lament. The book is broken into three heads:
Section 1: Learning to Lament
Vroegop shows us how to lament biblically and the pitfalls to avoid. Lament is not being angry with God. Lament is not complaining as if we are not getting what we deserve from God, and lament is not despair. Vroegop gives us a thoroughly biblical understanding of lament and encourages us to turn our pain into passionate cries to God. He reminds us that one third of Psalms contain lament, and it should be part of our worship. If you are hurting, he will show you how to lay out your pain before God.
Section 2: Learning from Lament
Like all prayer, lament is a means of grace that leads us into several spiritual benefits. Vroegop spends time leading us through those blessings. Two examples are that lament takes our trials and turns them into trust, and it uses our injuries to tear down our idols that subtlety hold our hearts captive. This section opens eyes to the individual and corporate blessing we miss when we fail to lament properly.
Section 3: Living with Lament
The book closes with instruction on how to put lament into practice personally, in our churches, small groups, funerals, and life with others. In this section, it becomes even more clear how much we need lament. People are hurting from both actual and perceived injustices. Our political culture stirs up animosity, anger, and resentment, and biblical lament can be one aspect that could help move us toward healing by weeping with those who weep.
If we do not see any reason to lament, then we are not paying attention to the world around us or the sin that that still dwells within us. Vroegop has done the church a great service by pointing us back to a biblical act of worship that is too often neglected and replaced with bitter and angry social media rants. The church needs to understand and make room for lament, and the world needs the church to understand it as well. Lament is one of the first places we should go when confronting this fallen world.
Anxiety is fear looking for a cause. Depression is sorrow looking for a source. Once they lock on to a molehill, they make it a mountain while turning a blind eye to Jesus. Oh, and it can be debilitating.
Most people do not know this about me, but I have struggled with a chronic illness for the past 20 years. My condition has a way of effecting my nervous system in several ways. For the first several years, one of the most devastating symptoms I dealt with was anxiety. Of all the physical pain, all the dietary restrictions, and the inability to do many of the things I loved, nothing was as destructive as the fear I faced when the anxiety would strike.
These were certainly my darkest years. I remember the day I figured out how it worked. I would start to feel anxious and then my mind would search for something to cling to as its cause. It would go something like this. I would be driving home from work and the anxiety would be raging. Though nothing was wrong, I would feel like I was in danger. I remember thinking, “with my health and limited diet, it is a good thing I live in a free and prosperous country where I am can choose to eat when and what I want.” Then the thought would come, “What if the situation changes? What if you get sent to jail or something.” This would cause a spike in panic. I would immediately calm my nerves by reminding myself of the fact that I have never done anything criminal that would require jail time, and then the anxiety would do what it does so well. It would reminded me that that I could be falsely imprisoned. That was just one scenario, and there where many others. Loss of life, loss of loved ones, loss of job, loss of reputation, all of these were free game for my anxiety.
Reading this, you might chuckle like I do now, but at the time the threat felt real. My nervous system would tell me I was in serious danger. That is the power of an anxiety disorder, and depression often works the same way with feelings of sorrow and despair. It cannot be laughed off. Even when you understand how it works, the emotional pain is real.
The area it affected me the most was in how I perceived my relationship to Christ. I remember thinking, when the anxiety was in full swing, that I was hopeless. This was during the time when Mercy Me’s song, I Can Only Imagine, was topping the charts. There is a lyric in there that says,
Will I stand in your presence Or to my knees will I fall
I would instead say.
Will I stand in your presence Or will I even be there at all
I cannot tell you how terrifying those times were. I repented of every sin I could think of, and then, like Luther, I began repenting of things that probably weren’t sins at all. During this time, I realized I am not the master of my fate. I am not the captain of my ship. It was here I began to turn my eyes away from myself and back to Jesus. Two truths gave me footing. Was God powerful enough to stop this? Yes. And did He know what I was going through? Again the answer was, “Yes.”
With these two truths, the sovereignty of God began take root. Regardless of how I felt, the word of God said I was His child. This meant He loved me. So if He knew this was happening, and He was powerful enough to stop it, it must be His decision that I face this: a decision He made because He loved me.
I would cry out to the Lord and say, “If you want me to draw close to you, why would you allow me to face something that literally makes you seem unapproachable?” Even though my anxiety turned a blind eye to Jesus, and every emotion in my body said He was not there for me, I had something more secure and more trustworthy than my feelings. I had the word of God.
My anxiety forced me to trust His word regardless of my fears. He is greater than our feelings. Nowhere in the scripture does it tell me to trust my emotions, but it continually tells me to trust His word.
The Lord began to give me a firm scriptural footing. The anxiety still raged, and I was still miserable, but I had a foundation. I remember attending a get together at a friend’s house. It was one of those beautiful summer evenings when everything was just right, and my soul was in anguish. I remember looking at the beautiful setting sun and saying to myself. “I may never have never have another pleasant moment in this life, but I have Jesus and He is everything” I began to see that this life is not the place we are called to rest. Our rest comes later.
This life is where we are to reflect the light of Jesus, and often, the light shines brightest in dark places. I would regularly find comfort from His word that I would have never known existed had I not been chained up in the prison of anxiety. I also began to notice that he would put someone else in my path that needed the same comfort I had been given. Had I not experienced a similar darkness, I would not have been able to comfort them in the Lord.
There are many other things I learned during this time. For example, I began to realize just how many worship songs focused on me, the singer, and how I was feeling. What I needed most during this time was not music that pointed me to my feelings, what I needed was praise that pointed me to my God. This and many other things I will need to elaborate on at another time, but let me close with the fact that the Lord did eventually move me out of that period of my life.
I still struggle with chronic illness, but the symptoms are different now. They can still be devastating, but the anxiety is not what it used to be. Now, my feelings often do line up with the truth of His word, but I still know where my foundation lies. I am not anchored to the sinking sand of my emotions, I stand on the solid rock of the word of God.
If you are reading this and you are facing a similar struggle, I hate to tell you this, but there is nothing I can do to make it end. There are paths to improvement you should be seeking like counseling, medication, and relaxation, but most importantly, trust His word, not your feelings. As His child, even when the Lord seems to be pushing you away, He is doing it in love, and you are about to learn things you would never know otherwise.
Charles Spurgeon used to suffer with depression, and when it would hit, he would hate it, fight against it, and get excited to see what God was about to do because God always ended up using it for good. It was one of the ways God taught Spurgeon how to speak the word deep into our hearts.
We live in a time when the enlightenment ideas that brought about modernism are being contested. The “we can do it” attitude is coming to an end. In the words of David F. Wells in the book, Above All Earthly Powers, he tells us that there are three fundamental beliefs of the enlightenment “The disappearance of God, the disappearance of human nature, and omnicompetence of the human being (33).” He goes on to tell us that the disappearance of God, was driven by the enlightenment thinkers “opposition to what they saw as superstition (33).” God was no longer needed and we could figure things out on our own was the attitude of the day. The disappearance of human nature was the result of the idea that we have no inherent nature, instead “we must make oneself what one can (52).” As far as the omnicompetence of the human being, Wells tells us “It is rather ironic that these first two themes—the disappearance of God and of human nature—should accompany the third, which is the bloated sense of human capacity (52).” But this is exactly what happened. We came to believe that we could do it all. We could usher in a better world, through the use of science, and know how (read philosophy).
But after a couple world wars, epidemics like AIDS, and many other problems we have been unable to solve, we have begun to loose our nerve. All of these things have begun to chip away at our hopes that modernism could usher in a utopia. So where do we go from here? Where do you go when you start to lose hope? Welcome to the new world, the postmodern world. It’s a world where we cannot figure out everything. In fact, we realize now that we cannot figure out anything. People don’t want to hear about the one true truth. They have been let down by modernism which promised that truth can be known. Now we just need to know what works.
How does this shift effect the church? Should the church embrace these new ideas and trends, or should it continue in its same old ways. There are many who argue that if the church does not break free from the grip of modernism, it is destined to fail. This was the view of the emergent church, a movement within church which desired to reach this postmodern culture. A movement that believes the church has bought into the modernist views and needs to correct itself. Leonard Sweet, a proponent of the emergent church, claims that his book Postmodern Pilgrims “aims to demodernize the Christian consciousness and reshape its way of life according to a more biblical vision of life that is dawning with the coming of the postmodern era (Sweet, XVII).” But is this what the Church needs to survive and be more “Biblical?”
Though the emergent church has all but vanished from the horizon, their postmodern views still hold many churches and Christian universities captive. The remainder of this article will focus on explaining the Emergent views on such topics as foundationalism, language theory, and other basic doctrines. It will then look at its destructive effects on Christian doctrine, theology, and evangelism. Finally, it will conclude by offering a proper view regarding these topics and offer some final thoughts.
Explaining Emergent Views
One of the main views expressed by postmoderns of the secular and theistic type, is that there is no such thing as universal objective truth. Objective truth is truth that is true for all people in all places at all times. The reason they deny this is because they do not think it is possible to know any true thought since all thoughts are language-based and all language is contingent. This will be addressed further, but the first attempt they make at discounting truth is by discounting foundationalism.
Foundationalism is the belief that there are two different types of beliefs, basic and non-basic. In the words of Ronald Nash, non-basic or “derivative beliefs are those that are grounded on or dependent in some way on more basic beliefs. Basic beliefs are those not derived from or dependent on other beliefs (Nash, 81).” Foundationalism is the idea that a person’s noetic structure is built from the bottom up. The basic beliefs are those that need no other support in order for a person to be rational and hold them. The non-basic beliefs cannot be held rationally unless something more basic supports them. An example of a basic belief would be that you exist. In order for you to believe that you exist, you do not need evidential proof. Nor do you need to attempt to prove it to someone else. This is a basic belief. A non-basic belief would be something like; God saves those who believe in His Son. This belief is supported by other more basic beliefs like, people exist and God exists.
There are two types of foundationalism. Narrow and broad foundationalism as described by Nash, or Cartesian and modest as described by J.P. Moreland in the book Reclaiming the Center. Narrow or Cartesian foundationalism is the belief that in order for a belief to be basic it must have 100% certainty. Nash explains that in order for a belief to be basic according to narrow foundationalism it must meet three criteria. Basic beliefs are “beliefs that are evident to the senses, self-evident, or incorrigible may be properly basic (Nash 81).” This simply means that no belief can be properly basic that is not experienced with the senses of human experience, self evident in the sense that they are seen as true or false simply by understanding them (82), and cannot be proven false. But as Nash quotes Alvin Plantinga when he says, “Many propositions fail the narrow foundationalist’s tests are properly basic for me. I believe, for example, that I had lunch this noon. I do not believe this proposition on the basis of other propositions; I take it as basic’ it is in the foundations of my noetic structure. Furthermore, I am entirely rational in so taking it, even though this proposition is neither self-evident nor evident to the senses nor incorrigible (86).” Broad or modest foundationalism makes room for these kinds of basic beliefs saying that 100% certainty is not needed in order to be a rational basic belief.
Postmodern epistemology rejects this type of thinking. They see no difference between basic and non-basic beliefs. First, they do not believe that there is any way possible to have 100% certainty on any belief, and if you cannot have certainty, then it cannot be a true foundation. Second they believe that if a belief is not certain, then it cannot be basic because it must be supported by some other beliefs. Nancy Murphy, a proponent of the postmodern view, says that with modest foundationalism we have “foundations hanging from a balcony (Erickson, 109).” What she means by this is that our theory and presuppositions will end up holding our foundations instead of our foundation holding up our theories. This means that our basic beliefs are contingent upon our theories which are non-basic, making our basic beliefs non-basic also. The postmodern goes on to explain that since we cannot have any true basic beliefs, foundationalism must be a false system of epistemology.
Correspondence theory of truth
In all of this, they argue that if we cannot have any certain foundation upon which to build our noetic structure then we do not really have any access to the outside world to say that our belief system actually corresponds to reality. This is why they reject the correspondence theory of truth. This is the theory that the truths we hold actually correspond to the world as it really is. If someone was to say that the sun is hot, it is usually understood that what the person means is that in the world as it really is, the sun is hot. The postmodern’s second attack upon foundationalism comes in at this point. Besides simply arguing that there is no such thing as a basic belief, they go on to say that, all truth is linguistically constructed and all language is contingent upon many different factors such as community, experience, et. al. Because of this, our language cannot correspond to the world as it really is because our language is “in” the world. R. Scott Smith explains the views of Stanley Grenz and John Franke in this way, “What is it that stands between the ‘real’ world and us? It is language, such that, as Grenz and Franke say, “We do not inhabit the ‘world-in–itself’; instead, we live in a linguistic world of our own making (Erickson, 110).”
Richard Rorty, a major non-Christian postmodern philosopher puts it this way, “To say that truth is not out there is simply to say that where there are no sentences there is no truth, that sentences are elements of human language, and that human languages are human creations (Rorty, 5).” This is obviously stating that truth is a human creation. We do not have access to objective truth; instead we create our truth with our language. Again truth does not correspond to reality. Rorty goes on to say, “Truth cannot be out there—cannot exist independently of the human mind—because sentences cannot so exist, or be out there (5).” In other words, since there are no true sentences out there in order for our sentences to correspond with, then our sentences cannot correspond to the real world.
Coherence Theory of Truth
So where does this leave us? If foundationalism is false and the correspondence theory of truth is false, how should we look at truth? The postmodern view is known as the Coherence theory of truth and it is also called Holism by those in the postmodern church. Since there is no foundation that our “truth” can be tied to, the only way it can be supported is by itself. In other words, the most important aspect of “truth” is that our system as a whole is consistent and non-contradictory. The postmodern view leans heavily upon W.V.O. Quine’s “web of belief”. Tony Jones in the book Postmodern Youth Ministry explains it this way, “The fabric, or “web of Belief,” is fashioned by human beings—there is no divinely inspired web (Jones, 138).” He later goes on to say, “Instead of being based upon on indubitable truth-doctrine, the web has truths-doctrine distributed throughout. Therefore, if one truth-doctrine gets adjusted or overthrown by a new discovery, the web repairs itself by adjusting or tweaking other doctrines (138).”
The argument can basically be boiled down to this, that a truth system, or “web” is not founded upon any foundation, instead it is an integrated system that supports itself. But this does not give us any answers as to what is actually true; it only tells us if our beliefs are coherent with each other. On top of this, if no truth statement can actually correspond to reality, where do we get our stability? How do we know our web is the right one?
In order to maintain some objectivity they appeal to eschatological realism. This is the view that we are working toward a community that will eventually understand correctly. “This vantage point provides the world with its main sense of objectivity (Erickson, 119).” But the question may still arise as to how these truthful eschatological communities are created if we cannot know anything with our fallible tradition invading them? The answer is that they are created by the working of the Holy Spirit. Smith goes on to explain the views of Grenz and Franke. “Even though each community will have its own nuances, they will all have something in common. The Spirit will speak through the Biblical texts, and it will guide them to be a community of Christ (119).”
What is the point of all this? According to postmoderns, the Church should stop focusing on trying to prove all these independent truth claims as true and let the “web” of Christianity support the claims. Our focus should be to live out our beliefs in our Christian communities and let the Holy Spirit move us toward the eschatological community where we will be able to see what is really true. In doing this we will be boldly witnessing our faith by our lives. We will have a strong body of Christ because we will be less divided by independent doctrines, and we will grow as individuals as we are in this community of Christ and become more like Christ.
The Dangerous fallout of These Views
The relief from always having to try and prove your Christian faith sounds like a welcome idea, and the desire to grow into the likeness of Christ in a community that is modeled after him sure seems to be a wonderful aspiration. So, should we really be concerned with these postmodern views? Should we not join them, and do what Leonard Sweet told us at the beginning of this post? Should we shake free from these modern entrapments such as foundationalism and the correspondence theory of truth and get back to a more “Biblical” Christianity? After taking a closer look at the effects of these theories it will be evident that we should not join them.
The heart of their view is that we cannot have access to the real world. Everything we believe is true is really something we have created because of our theories, which are contingent upon our communities, which themselves are contingent. Here is the rub, if no proposition we believe actually corresponds to reality, than nothing we believe is actually true. Then what does this say about all of their theories? What becomes then of all their reasoning for replacing foundationalism with holism? Doesn’t this just make their own theories constructs that they have linguistically created to make their truth? Are not their theories also contingent upon their presuppositions that they have no rational basis for holding? Their entire system then becomes self refuting. Why should we shift our created beliefs over to their created beliefs? This is the major flaw upon which the entire postmodern theory stands.
This forces postmoderns to look to pragmatic results of language instead of whether or not it is true. Pragmatism is the theory that we should do what works. If we cannot know if something is really true, then the best way to judge it is by whether it works or not. The Christian language, according to the emergent church, is the best possible language. Not because it is the one that most corresponds to reality but because it holds together tightly and it works. It works in producing good and not evil.
What then does this do to orthodox Christianity and its doctrines? To answer this I will follow the lead of R. Scott Smith and apply their views to a few core Christian Doctrines.
The Doctrine of Divine Revelation
Christians believe that God exists and that He can communicates truth about Himself to us. He does this, as Luis Berkhof explains, through two different revelations, general and special. “The general revelation of God is prior to His special revelation in point in time. It does not come to man in the form of verbal communications, but in the facts, the forces, and the laws of nature, in the constitution and operation of the human mind, and in the facts and experience and history (Berkhof, 13).” “In addition to the revelation of God in nature, we have His special revelation which is now embodied in Scripture (14).” But if the postmodern view is correct, then God cannot truthfully communicate to us because we cannot escape language. Any truth He tries to communicate to us either through general or special revelation, we end up creating ourselves with our specific language. Ultimately, we cannot know anything objectively true about God. If we do not inhabit the world as it really is, instead we inhabit a linguistic world of our own making, then this leads to a major incoherence in the Christian “web” of belief, because idolatry is prohibited. Smith makes this revealing comment, “Therefore, no matter how God tries to reveal himself and objective truth, we cannot know such revelation in itself. Accordingly, we make the revelation what it is for us by how we talk about it. The same goes for God himself. We cannot know God as he is in himself, so we must make God by how we use our language. But that result is plainly idolatrous on the terms of conservative Christians’ own grammar, the Bible. If I am right, then that result alone ought to make us pause and give up these post-conservative views. (Erickson, 127).” In the book Truth and The New Kind of Christian he says it like this “Quite simply, Christians cannot know God as He is if we are on the “inside” of the pervasive influences of language, as these Christian postmodernist believe. Just like any other aspect of our “reality,” Christians construct God by how they talk. We make God into what He is—for us. This conclusion, however, results in the absurd condition that Christians must be idolaters (Smith, 145).”
Now the objection to these quotes might be raised that postmoderns do believe that God can actually reveal Himself and is doing so. After all they believe that the Holy Spirit, through the narrative of the Scripture is leading them on to the true eschatological community. But the question still remains as to what the Holy Spirit is. Is He something that actually exists in the real world or is it simply the linguistic construct that Christians have created? Also, what is the eschatological community of Christ that we are working toward? Is this not the same, a created linguistic truth? Or is it something that actually corresponds to reality. Either way they answer this question leads them into trouble. If they say it is a created linguistic truth then it cannot be objectively true, and if they say it actually corresponds to reality then they have refuted their own system. Also, if this is the one truth that corresponds to reality then why can’t this be the foundation upon which we can build our doctrine?
We also have the problem of which eschatological community is the correct one. Rorty, the non-Christian, also believes we are moving toward a “liberal society” (Rorty, 60).” But the community he is moving toward is not the Christian one. So which future community is the right one, and how do they know this?
The Crucifixion, Resurrection, and Atonement
What do these theories do to the Doctrine of the crucifixion, resurrection, and the atonement? Christians believe that Christ was crucified and rose for our justification, but these too would be constructions of our language. But do the truths we hold regarding these events actually correspond to reality? To say no is quite damaging to these doctrines because the truth then is not found in the actual propositions but what they produce in you. So the question must then be asked, does this make all savior stories valid because they move us toward this eschatological community? And which theory of the atonement is really true, the moral influence, substitutionary limited atonement, or universal atonement to name three? Does it really matter what theory we hold as long as it makes us good community participants, and who decides what a good community participants is?
Luther said that the doctrine of Justification is the article upon which the Church stands or falls. But what does the postmodern view of truth do to the doctrine of Justification? Christian’s believe that we are sinful and deserve the wrath of God, and it is only by faith that we can be justified. But if the postmodern view is correct, then justification becomes a truth that we create in our linguistic community, and we cannot know whether or not justification has actually taken place in the real world, or if we are really even sinners.
One of the main problem with the emergent view on this doctrine is that since we cannot say it is an objective reality, we must look at its pragmatic results. But if we turn the doctrine of justification into something that works, then we must ask, works to do what? It seems that the emergent answer is whether or not it works to make us better people in the community we find ourselves. This is why we see a strong bent toward the Roman doctrine that justification and sanctification are two sides of the same coin. Jones makes this statement, “We must end the false dichotomy between justification and sanctification (133).” Jones had been speaking about salvation and how justification is not a one time thing and how it is a process. The implication of this view is that the way you get justified is by becoming just (not imputed righteousness). The way you are to do this according to the emergent view, is by getting involved in a Christian community and learning the Christian language. As you do this you become more and more sanctified which is the same as becoming more justified. This leads to problems because it then makes justification based upon something we do, which clearly does not cohere in the Christian “web” as laid out in scripture.
What effects do theses views of language and truth have upon Christian Theology? Besides the main problem that it makes knowledge of God and the study of Him ultimately impossible, because we cannot really know anything objectively true about God, it shifts the focus of theology away from God and places it upon the study of language theory. Much like most liberal schools, they end up talking more about the method of theology than actually doing it.
Finally what does this do to the main focus of evangelism through the Christian community which the emergent church so strongly endorses? After all this is one of the attractive aspects of the movement; the idea that we should stop trying to prove that what we believe is true and just live it. But this involves a major problem because it assumes that the actions of the Christian community can be understood outside of the Christian community which is self-refuting to their own claims (Erickson, 130). It is self-refuting because they believe that people outside of their community cannot understand their language unless they participate in it. Ultimately, true witnessing of Jesus becomes impossible in their view.
A Proper Understanding
So how should we look at all of this? Has foundationalism been destroyed? Should we look to Quine’s “web of belief” to understand truth? To look at this let us start by critiquing the coherence theory of truth.
Critique of the Coherence Theory of Truth It must be stated that the coherence theory of truth, much like many of the ideas of postmoderns, has some truth in it. Our noetic structure is an integrated “web” with many connections. The reason we believe some things is because of the logical connections to other beliefs. A good example of this is the doctrine of verbal inspiration of Scripture. The verbal inspiration of Scripture is the truth that the Bible is exactly word-for-word what God wanted to say. But to understand and believe this doctrine you must believe and understand other things about God. Gordon H. Clark makes this quote, “Verbal inspiration therefore must be understood in connection with the complete system of Christian doctrine. It may not be detached there from, and a fortiori it may not be framed in an alien view of God. Verbal inspiration is integral with the doctrines of providence and predestination. When the liberals surreptitiously deny predestination in picturing God as dictating to stenographers, they so misrepresent verbal inspiration that their objections do not apply to the God of the Bible (Clark, 44).”
So where is the problem with the coherence theory of truth? The problem lies in the fact that it is not grounded to anything other than pragmatism, and the ideas of what works are also ideas in their web that are not grounded to anything. To put it another way, there are many free floating webs of belief out there and none of them are tethered to any foundation. So what do we do with all these competing webs of truth? Is there anyway to get to any kind of neutral standpoint from which to judge? The resounding answer from the postmoderns is no. There is no way to see if one web is better than another, which ultimately leads to relativism. Even if they argue that the truest one is the one that is most coherent in itself, the only way to find out how coherent it is is to become part of every community, learn their language and see which is the most coherent. Since this can never be done, you can never know if your web is the most coherent.
Foundationalism Misrepresented One of the main problems with the postmodern rejection of foundationalism is that it focuses only on a specific kind of foundationalism. The attacks that come upon foundationalism always focus on Cartesian foundationalism, which is the idea that you must have 100% certainty to be a basic belief. On top of this, most philosophers who promote this type of foundationalism are empiricists. The problem with this is that this is not the type of foundationalism that is held by many theologians or lay people in the church. What is held today is more of a modest foundationalism. 100% empiric certainty is not needed in order to have a real foundational belief. Not to mention the criteria for certainty is rarely discussed. It is simply assumed to be scientific proof (read empiric).
The Biblical View
If the Bible is true then there are things we know, and we know them certainly. For example Romans chapter 1 tells us that all men know that God exists, “For the invisible things of him from the creation of the world are clearly seen, being understood by the things that are made, even his eternal power and Godhead; so that they are without excuse: Because that, when they knew God, they glorified him not as God, neither were thankful; but became vain in their imaginations, and their foolish heart was darkened.” The problem is not with foundational knowledge, it is with our sinful nature which does everything it can to suppress the truth in unrighteousness. Scripture tells us on many occasions that we “may know” that the son of man has the power to forgive sins (Matt. 9:6; Mar. 2:10; Luke 5:24). The scriptural language seems to say that we can actually know this, and do not create it in our linguistic world.
What about Rorty’s claim that if truth is propositional and there are no propositions “out there” for our propositions to line up with, then they can’t really be true? How does the Christian worldview answer this? Scripture clearly tells us that God can communicate truth, and God does it propositionally in Scripture. This tells us something about the mind of God. It contains truth. This simply means that the propositions are out there for our propositions to line up to. Every time we think of a proposition that lines up with a proposition in the mind of God, it is a true proposition. In Nash’s book, The Word of God and the Mind of Man, he makes this point quite clearly when he says, “Few Christians have any difficulty affirming the following three propositions: (a) 1 plus 1 equals 2; (b) God knows that 1 plus 1 equals 2; and (c) when a human being knows that 1 plus 1 equals 2, his or her knowledge is identical with God’s knowledge of the same proposition (Nash, 100).”
The Wrong Solution
It seems by reading many of the postmodern’s books, that much of what is driving them into postmodernism is the lack of humility that comes from some pulpits, legalism, and extreme fundamentalism. These are problems that should be addressed, but postmodernism is the wrong solution. There are many church leaders who hold to the correspondence theory of truth who are not arrogant with the truth, legalistic, or extreme in their fundamentalism. Foundationalism is not the cause of these attitudes; in fact these attitudes appear in the emergent church also. There are those who think they understand the way things should be, and if you are not postmodern you are given a smug look and a roll of the eyes. Abandoning the idea of truth is not the answer to these problems. The emergent church with all of its motives that seem to be in line with Godly living, has thrown the baby out with the bathwater. For if truth is gone, then what is Godly living and all these motives and attitudes they promote, but constructs in their linguistic world. To put it into one of H. Richard Niebuhr’s categories, all we have is the “Christ of Culture (Neibuhr, 83).” The Christ each culture creates, and this is not the Christ of Scripture.
Berkhof, Louis, Summary of Christian Doctrine, (Eerdmans, 1938)
Clark, Gordon H., God’s Hammer, The Bible and Its Critics, (Trinity, 1982)
Erickson, Millard J., Reclaiming the Center, (Crossway, 2004)
I recently had the privilege of preaching at First Artesia Christian Reformed Church. In this clip from the sermon, we take a look at how Christ’s righteousness imputed to us is better than the guiltlessness that Adam lost. Below is the transcript of the video with a few edits to better fit this format.
When we talk about justification, the biblical and theological term of justification, we are talking about two imputations. First, as I already mentioned, our sins are imputed to Jesus. He bears our punishment on the cross, but the second part is that his righteousness is imputed to us and, we are counted righteous in Jesus.
Now some may say, “Well, isn’t guiltlessness the same as righteousness? I mean, if I haven’t sinned, am I not righteous? Well, it is much deeper than that. Let me give you an analogy.
Let us say a mom walks into her son’s room, and her son’s room is a mess. It’s been a mess for a week, and she is kind of getting tired of it. It is morning time, and she says, “Son, you will clean this room by five o’clock today. If you have it clean by five o’clock today, I am going to give you movie tickets for you and your two friends so you can go see that movie you have been wanting to see. If you do not have it cleaned, you’ll be grounded for a week.
Get the analogy here. Here is the law. There are blessings if you do it, and cursings if you do not. Now, imagine the mom comes back at five o’clock, and he hasn’t even started on it. The room is still a mess. She would say, “Okay, you are grounded for a week.”
Now imagine a week goes by, and he has paid his penalty. The son comes back to the mom and says, “Mom, I have paid my penalty. You can no longer punish me for this act.” The mom would say, “That is correct, that was the agreement. Imagine the son then saying, “Now give me my movie tickets.” You would say, “Wait a minute, you never did what was required to get the reward. I cannot punish you anymore, but you do not get the reward.”
Now think about Christ on the cross. We are not just in a place where we cannot be punished anymore. Christ lived the perfect life. He fulfilled all the requirements of the law. He has justly received the reward, and his righteousness is now counted as ours. We are co-heirs with him. That is the beauty of the holiness and the righteousness of Christ. Take that to heart. We are declared righteous in Christ as if we have fulfilled the law.
Thomas Brooks, a great Puritan, said this, “Christ provides a better righteousness than Adam lost.
It is of great importance to recall to our minds the real nature of our work as ministers of the Gospel. We should remember constantly the great ideal of what a Christian minister ought to be, sketched out in the sixth chapter of the Acts: “We will give ourselves to the Word of God and to prayer.”
The preachingand expounding of the Word of God, with nothing added, and with nothing taken away–is beyond all doubt our principal business. We must take heed that we give due honor to the Word of God in our public ministrations. A thousand things continually call us away from this–committees, schools, visiting, and the like. But we must remember that we are ministers of the Word of God, that our province is the Word of God, and that we must be very careful not to leave the Word of God to serve tables.
But after that, we must never forget private prayer. This is one grand secret of the strength of the ministry. It is here that the roots of the ministry, practically speaking, are to be found. The ministry of the man who has gifts, however great, but who does not give the prayer-closet the principal place–must sooner or later become tedious and ineffective.
I will remark, in the next place, that it is of immense importance that we should take heed to our own lives. “Pay close attention to your life and your teaching; persevere in these things” 1 Timothy 4:16.
I have been lately studying the lives and private habits of those men whom God raised up to be the revivers of the Church in the last century. I have been much struck with their self-denial, and entire devotedness to the work of the ministry. They were men who lived very plainly and simply, and did not seem to care much for anything but their pastoral work. They were not men who sought the entertainments of the great and the rich. We would do well to consider whether we are living as near to God as they did.
I will remark, in the next place, that we all need to be more careful in the employment of our time. There is a danger of trying to do too much. Some clergymen have so many irons in the fire, that it is impossible to keep them all hot. A few things well done, are far better than twenty poorly done. The man whose work will stand the longest, is the man who, whatever people may say, however lazy they may call him determines that he will not do more than he can do well.
And always remember: What costs little, is worth little.
What an honor! You have been asked to preach. After the initial excitement wears off, you start to think, “What have I gotten myself into.” How do I prepare a sermon? There are about as many ways to do this as there are preachers, so what I am about to present should not be taken as dogma. It is simply an example from which you may benefit. I also realize that many full-time pastors already have their routine, so I am presenting this as a layman, for laymen.
Sermon preparation is as important to preaching as the act of preaching itself, if not more so. As the preacher, we not only need to prepare our message, but we need to prepare our hearts as well. Accomplishing both should be our goal of our preparation.
The plan below assumes that you already know the passage of scripture from which you will be preaching. Please note, if you are currently writing a sermon and you do not know what your main text is (or texts), what you are preparing is a talk, not a sermon: even if you give your talk with passion and emotion. The word of God is what we are called to proclaim, not our own ideas. If you have not been assigned a text, find a passage of scripture and that ministers to you and stick with it; preferably something with which you are already familiar.
Step 1: Pray Without Ceasing (All 7 Days)
If you are being asked to preach, you are most likely a man of prayer already, but this week you will need to be more so. There is no specific time you should be praying as you prepare. You should be praying continually all week. Pray first for your own spiritual condition. Ask for forgiveness for all your sins. You are not entering the pulpit as the perfect spiritual specimen. Repent and guard your heart. You are weak and vulnerable to all kinds of temptations, especially pride.
The only fit condition for you to enter the pulpit is in recognizing your utter weakness to accomplish anything for the Lord if he does not move. If the Spirit of God is not at work in your heart, and the heart of your hearers, this will simply be another act of a man speaking and people hearing without spiritual benefit. This can happen even if you moved them to tears, and they loved every minute of it. If the Spirit of God is not involved, you might as well read the dictionary to the congregation. Ask the Lord to move in you and your hearers.
Step 2. Read. Study. Listen. (3-6 hours)
This is where you feed yourself full. Your goal is to understand the text. Read the larger context of the passage (preferably the entire book of scripture), study commentaries, and listen to other sermons on the passage you will be covering. For myself, I tend to do this Monday through Wednesday. I work full-time, so my prep time is limited. I typically put in a total of three to six hours over the course of the three days. This includes listening to sermons as I drive to work or walk the dog.
As you are going through this process, the goal, once you understand the passage, is to ask yourself, how these truths speak to our spiritual lives. Why is this passage of scripture important? If you are in the right frame spiritually, the Lord will begin to minister to you through His word. Once you have been warned, comforted, and encouraged by His truth, you are ready to preach it to others and not until then.
Remember, if you are not excited about the passage you are preaching, neither will your hearers, and I am not talking about artificial hype. Too many churches try to cover their lack of interest in the word of God with entertainment. Pastors often do this in their sermons as well. Do not do that. Whether or not the church where you will be preaching has all of these trappings is not the point. You need to ask, do I believe the passage of scripture I am about to preach is important enough that I am comfortable walking into a situation that will be boring if God does not show up? Has God ministered to you through the process of studying so much that the message is beginning to burn within you, and will you not be satisfied until you are able to share it with others? That is when you know you are ready to preach.
Step 3: Write (2 hours)
At this point, you are ready to sit down and write, and by write, I mean either manuscript, manuscript notes, or outline. Whatever it is that you want to bring into the pulpit, that is what you want to prepare. I tend to write manuscript notes. This means I write in an outline form, but the outline is so complete, that if you read it out loud, it would almost sound like you are reading a manuscript.
Whatever format you choose, it is important that you realize that you are not to fit everything you studied into your sermon. As that Lord was ministering to you in your studies, you most likely landed on one to three points from the text you are longing to make. Only use the material from your studies that help you make those points.
You are not called to exhaust the text or your hearers. Remember, this is the Word of God. Thousands of sermons could be preached from this passage, and you are only called to preach one for now. Don’t try to preach them all. Knowing what to leave out is crucial to sermon preparation, and this is where many preachers err.
For myself, I usually sit down for two hours on Thursday night and write the sermon. Avoid the temptation to make it perfect. Your goal at this point is to get something down on paper which resembles a sermon. You still have two days to refine it.
Step 4: Review, Edit, Rehearse (2-3 hours)
Yes, I said rehearse. There is something, probably pride, that wells up within us and says, “If I have to rehearse, it is not from the heart or led by the Holy Spirit.” That is a lie. Rehearsal does not cancel out the work of the Holy Spirit. It is often the means he uses to hone the message.
As you begin to talk your way through your sermon, you will notice phrases in your notes that do not quite work. You may even realize you need to rearrange your points. By practicing your sermon, you get to hear it in its allotted time span. By doing this, you will get a better feel for the flow and the connectivity of the points and illustrations. This is something you were unable to experience during the slower writing process.
As you run through it, make edits in the margin, and then go update your notes. You will be amazed by the things the Lord brings to your mind to enhance the sermon as you do this. You will find yourself recalling other relevant verses, biblical illustrations, and examples from life that you did not think of as you studied and wrote. In the end, I usually try to preach the sermon twice before I enter the pulpit. Once on Friday, and once on Saturday.
When I walk to the pulpit. My notes are typically 95% typed and 5% handwritten notes in the margin. I am usually making notes up to the point I enter the pulpit.
Step 5: Preach
You have now done your due diligence. You have been praying for yourself, the congregation, and the message. Now it is time to put it all in God’s hands and deliver it. In the delivery, remember, you are not preaching at the congregation. You are preaching to yourself as much as anyone. Preach as if your life is dependent upon the Gospel you preach because it is.
As you preach, you may stumble over your words, nerves may cloud your thinking, or you may feel absolute freedom. None of that proves the success or the failure of the sermon. You will never know who the Lord will minister to secretly. Your job is to simply present the truth. If you have done that, you have done your job whether the people like it or not. It is now up to the Lord to produce the results.
Now that you are done, listen to the godly men and women in the congregation who give you feedback. They are often God’s voice to you to help you improve if you are asked to preach again. Accept criticism with humility, and remember any praise you receive belongs to the Lord because you went into the pulpit weak and helpless entirely dependent upon Him.
May our Lord, Jesus Christ, be glorified by your efforts.
Then he returned to Bethany, where he stayed overnight. In the morning, as Jesus was returning to Jerusalem, he was hungry, and he noticed a fig tree beside the road. He went over to see if there were any figs on it, but there were only leaves. Then he said to it, “May you never bear fruit again!” And immediately the fig tree withered up. – Matthew 21:17-19
Following the chronological sequence of the Evangelical narrative, an Olivet ‘memory’ of a different kind, now claims our attention. The incident has the one remarkable peculiarity, that it stands alone in the ministry of Christ as a miracle of punishment. At other times, as we follow the footsteps of our blessed Lord, and are the spectators of His mighty works, He scatters mercy on His path. By miracle and parable, by word and deed, He countersigns and endorses His own declaration, “The Son of man came not to destroy, but to save.” Here, however, though it be but on an inanimate object in outer nature, we are arrested with a strange, solitary exception.
As He is crossing from Bethany on the Monday of the Passion-week, early in the morning, before the great influx of worshipers at this festive season would throng the Temple, a fig plantation, near to the beaten pathway, attracted His eye. “The time of figs was not yet.” As a general rule, it was not yet the fig-season, except perhaps in the earlier and more favoring climate of Jericho and Gennesaret. It was therefore altogether premature and precocious at this period of the year (the end of March) for a fig-tree to be in full foliage, and especially on the comparatively elevated region of the Mount of Olives. While, however, the fig-orchard, now visible, was still destitute of leaves–or, at all events, these were only in embryo–one abnormal and exceptional member of the group is covered with foliage, giving reason to infer that the figs also were ripe and ready for gathering.
You may be aware of the peculiarity in the fig-tree, that the fruit, contrary to the ordinary order of development in the vegetable kingdom, appears before the leaves; so that the spectacle of a tree in full leaf, afforded ground to believe that fruit would be found thereon. Our blessed Lord approaches it, as if He had a right thus to expect, from its leafy appearance, that it should be covered with figs. He finds it to be a mass of pretentious foliage–nothing else; and He utters against it a withering curse. On returning by the same road, that afternoon, to His mountain home, the shades of eventide prevented the disciples noting how literally the blighting word had taken effect. But the next morning, as they are again wending their way to the city, the withered, blasted stem and drooping leaves arrest their attention–“Master,” said Peter, “behold, the fig-tree which you cursed has withered away,” (Mark 11:21.)
Undoubtedly for this strange exception to the customary tenderness of Christ’s miracles, there must be some special reason–a loving Redeemer punishing, and that, also, not a moral, responsible agent, but a dumb unconscious tree. Some peculiar reason indeed there must have been for the miracle at all. Jesus, we may be well assured, did not work it merely to give farther proof and exhibition of His omnipotence. The withering of a tree would, in itself, be comparatively a small attestation to His power, after the grandeur of Lazarus’s resurrection. What, then, meant He? We must go to Himself in the lowly spirit of the disciples, saying, ‘Declare unto us the parable and miracle of the fig-tree.’
The preceding day had been an illustrious one. In the week, it corresponded with our Sabbath, and, as we have found, was signalized by what was outwardly the most brilliant Olivet memory, the Triumphal entrance of the Redeemer into Jerusalem. It closed with an act of sovereign power–the cleansing of the Temple, and the dispersion of the traders, who, with their usurious traffic, were desecrating its sacred precincts. The blighting of the fig-tree forms the completion and complement of this series of expressive symbolic actions, relative to the doom of Jerusalem. And mark the order–the gradation rising to a terrible climax. First, The tender tears–the last pleadings of rejected love. Second, The righteous anger at the desecrated Temple courts, and the figurative dispersion of the Jewish people. Finally, and last of all, the impenitent nation, under the type and symbol of a blighted fig-tree, pining and withering away. These together, formed three acted parables–three illustrations in deed, of the dirge He had spoken in words–“O Jerusalem, Jerusalem, which kills the prophets, and stones those who are sent unto you; how often would I have gathered your children together, as a hen does gather her brood under her wings, and you would not! Behold, your house is left unto you desolate,” (Luke 13:34, 35.)
Here, then, is the key to this (in some respects, perplexing and enigmatical) incident, in the closing scenes of the Savior’s ministry. That fig-tree is the kingdom of Israel. One thought, next to the great redemption of His Church, seemed, at that time, to occupy the mind of Jesus–it was the nation’s downfall and ruin. It drew tears from His eyes. He who wept not for Himself, wept for the despisers of His mercy and patience forbearance. The tears on the brow of Olivet passed into holy indignation and anger at the sight of the Temple sacrilege; and this again, led these lips, which loved to utter nothing but tenderness, to frame a final, irrevocable, sentence of doom. In order to teach and impress the great lesson, He invests, for the time, that dumb fig-tree with moral qualities–He makes it the expositor of a moral truth.
And observe how specially and singularly applicable the mute symbol was. The Jewish nation stood forth amid its compeers–the empires of the earth–a proud claimant to goodness and righteousness. The other Gentile kingdoms were in darkness and error. These latter had no fruit on their branches; but then, there was this distinction–they made no boastful pretension of having any. They were empty, poverty-stricken, as the Jew himself; no, a deeper blindness sealed their eyes. But, unlike the Jew, they made no vaunting boast of spiritual superiority. They felt that, in moral development, it might figuratively be said of them, “The time of figs was not yet,” they were waiting with longing earnestness for the dawning of some better day, which would give life and light to the world. The nation of Israel, on the other hand, sought to stand out in proud, self-confident pre-eminence. It was a fig-tree clothed with leaves. It had its imposing outward religion–its hallowed traditions–its boasted Temple–its mitred priests–its phylacteried Pharisees–its morning and evening sacrifices–its aromas of incense–its prophets’ sepulchers–its synagogues, and oratories, and mountain-altars–the land was studded with these outward signs and symbols of religious life.
Yes, when we think of all these, there were “leaves” enough. But beneath this ostentatious foliage, what was there? Pride–formalism–vain glory–selfishness–oppression. “How striking the image of that theocracy of solemn form, proudly displaying its ceremonials of worship, while the very heart of the nation was become dry and dead as sapless wood.” (Pressense’s Life of Christ.) This ought to have been the confession of that privileged people in the day of their merciful visitation–‘We, like that fig-tree on our sacred mountain, have had every fostering natural advantage. In a spiritual sense, ours has been the favoring climate, the congenial sunshine, the rains and dews of heaven. But we feel and acknowledge that we have perverted and abused these sacred influences. We are naked, leafless, fruitless, unproductive cumberers. All true and acceptable righteousness in us is lacking. Our ancestral law, which should have produced holiness, proclaims our deficiency–utters our condemnation. We participate in the longings of humanity, and of the holiest and best of our nation, for a better righteousness than our own. We feel our need of such a Savior as that of whom our prophets have thus spoken, This is the name whereby He shall be called, The Lord our Righteousness.’
And was not that Savior in their midst? Had not all the ardent aspirations of the sainted fathers and worthies of Israel met and been fulfilled in the person of “God manifest in the flesh?” Yet, in blinded unbelief, they closed their eyes to irresistible attestations of His divine majesty and power. Though disease fled at His touch, and winds and waves were lulled at His bidding, and devils crouched at His word, and death, at His summons, gave up its reluctant prey, yet ‘He came unto His own, and His own received Him not.’ In defiant pride, the fruitless fig-tree shook its vaunting branches and foliage before the eye of the heart-searching God, and urged its boastful claim to that of which it was utterly devoid. The Incarnate Redeemer approached in divine-human majesty. He unmasked the pretentious hypocrite, and left it with a blighting doom. Like the earth, which, despite of all genial influences, brought forth only briars and thorns, it was ‘rejected–near unto cursing, whose end was to be burned.’ And as we come at this day, like the disciples of old on Mount Olivet, to gaze on this tree once planted by God’s right hand, what do we see? It is a nation scattered and stripped. The Jewish race, for eighteen hundred years, like withered leaves–carrying the tidings of their curse to the kingdoms of their dispersion.
We can understand, then, the primary meaning and intention of the Savior in this strange exceptional act among His miracles of mercy–mutilating and destroying a work of His own hands–it was, that that blighted tree of the fig-forest might take up a parable to the house of Israel. Nothing could be more impressive. There, on one of the heights or undulations of that holy Mount, like the solitary calcined pillar which once overlooked the Valley of Siddim–stood a withered thing, all the more conspicuous by contrast with the rich carpet of spring-flowers and verdure which doubtless then, as now, spread around; on its scarred stem the doom written, “O Israel, you have destroyed yourself.”
But we have not exhausted the divine purpose and meaning in this symbolic action. That stern deed was a prophecy and sermon to EVERY AGE–a solemn sermon preached for all time, alike for the Church collectively and for believers individually. The Savior’s dooming sentence on the fig-tree, is a searching word to all formalists–boasting hypocrites–who stand forth before the world in pretentious leaves, but who are utterly devoid of that which the great Seeker alone values–fruit to His glory.
Churches are involved in that doom. Since the introduction of Christianity, down to our own days, have there not been too many examples of leaf-covered, but fruitless fig-trees–churches with imposing worldly splendor; decorated aisles–splendid liturgies–venerable relics–dim religious light–gorgeous festivals–priestly and hierarchal orders boasting apostolic succession and sacramental efficacy–and yet, within all this pomp of show, this imposing ecclesiastical organization–an utter dearth and destitution of spiritual energy and life? What have all such been, and proved? deceptive leaves–outer foliage, screening and masking utter barrenness, the outward work of man attempted to be put in the place of the inner work of God–the pomp of ritual and sensuousness of ritual, having the precedence over repentance and faith–the external of the casket looked to, more than the enclosed jewel of holiness.
Is it not this ostentatious outward profession (clustering foliage without corresponding fruit) which is delineated by an inspired pen, as the attribute of the Church in its latter day of lukewarmness and apostasy? Hear the words of the apostle, “But mark this–there will be terrible times in the last days. People will be lovers of themselves, lovers of money, boastful, proud, abusive, disobedient to their parents, ungrateful, unholy, without love, unforgiving, slanderous, without self-control, brutal, not lovers of the good,” and then, mark how the mournful catalogue is summed up–it is by telling us, that this accursed, cumbering tree–not one branch of which has a redeeming cluster of fruit–is nevertheless clothed with pretentious leaves; for it is added, “Having a form of godliness, but denying the power thereof.”
Nor does the searching lesson terminate here. The doom of the withered fig-tree has a personal application to individual professors. Who has not seen the living counterpart in the ostentatious Christian, the flaming orthodoxy of whose creed is sadly belied by the daily life–by the manifestation of selfishness, peevishness, fretfulness, pride, frivolity, discontent, uncharitableness, censoriousness–no inward crucifixion of sin, no molding of the heart in conformity with the will of God? These are the poor, withered, scarred stems, which the leaves of profession overlap and conceal.
How Christ again and again, by word and deed, shows how He hates all facade, pretense, display, unreality. He ever dealt with tenderness to the very chief of sinners. He never spurned true penitence, however great the guilt, from His feet. But with what burning invective does He hurl His denunciations against Pharisees, “HYPOCRITES!” Fruitless professor, sad and mournful indeed is your state. There is more hope for the open sinner than for you. Yours is the mimic life of the dumb insensate mummy in the Egyptian sarcophagus. It is the hectic flush in the maiden’s cheek–the appearance of loveliness, the deceitful sign of beauty–but, in reality, the ominous symbol of inner waste and decay and death. The blight of God’s curse is upon you. “How soon is the fig-tree withered away!”
The great practical deduction from this solemn passage, may be expressed in the words which the old Preacher of the desert addressed to the thronging crowds around him–“And now also the axe is laid unto the root of the trees–therefore every tree which brings not forth good fruit is hewn down and cast into the fire.” This whole passage, indeed, seems to bring out “the goodness and severity” of Jesus. His goodness and tenderness towards all–but that goodness when insulted, injured, despised–passing into needful severity and doom!
We may mark, also, in these chapters, the same gradation in the case of individuals, we have already noted with reference to the Jewish nation collectively. First, There are the tears of divine human emotion; the unutterable sorrow over His rejected overtures of love, as the Redeemer still strives and pleads with the impenitent, saying, “How shall I give you up?” The next step, is when He enters the soul-temple, and sees it degraded and desecrated with works of darkness and sin–that soul, with its Godlike chambers converted into a robber-haunt of Satan, a den of thieves. Then comes the sad climax of all. The soul He has loved, wept over, borne with, entreated, becomes a doomed, blighted, withered thing, a dreadful monument of His righteous judgment and avenging wrath!
In these different ways He may be dealing with those whose eyes trace these pages. With some, it may be, in the way of tears and tenderness. Seated on the brow of the Heavenly mount, He may be bending over you in pitying love, and addressing you in words of affectionate admonition. In the case of others, He may be using sterner means, He may be entering the Temple with the whip of small cords, “driving,” with affliction’s scourge, these robber spoilers from what He would still reclaim and purify for Himself, saying, “Except you repent you shall all likewise perish.” In the case of others (may there be none such) it is the last, sad, utterance of all. Warning, and admonition, and forbearance, and patience, are terminated. The tears have wept themselves away; compassion has exhausted its treasures; and the thunder-cloud rises in its stead. He must (dreadful alternative!) curse those who will not receive His blessing–“Henceforth let no fruit grow upon you forever.” Oh what a terrible state is this, into which the doomed soul then passes! The tree–the moral, thinking, living agent, is dead. Yes, living on, a conscious existence, and yet dead while he lives!
There are two ways by which God deals with incorrigible sinners, corresponding to the two ways He dealt with the two fig-trees of the Gospels. Both were cumberers. Both were doomed. But by different methods was their doom consummated. The one was ‘cut down.’ After a three years’ patient bearing with it, (continuing to resist all efforts to make it fruitful,) the insulted Husbandman clears the grass around the stem; the axe descends; it lies prone on the ground, stripped, bared, plucked up by the roots; the place which once knew it knows it no more!
The dealing with the other is different. It still keeps its place in the plantation. But it is a naked, lonely, blighted stem, bearing upon it the curse of permanent unfruitfulness. It needs not a judgment to come. It is judged, ‘condemned already’–“I the Lord have dried up the green tree,” (Ezek. 17:24.) The dreadful doom is consummated in silence. There is no audible voice to record its fulfillment; no avenging angel descends to pour his vial on the stem of the fig-tree; no horde of devouring locusts to strip its leaves; no tempest to wrestle with its branches. Unlike the symbolical vine of Egypt, no boar out of the wood desolates it, no wild beast of the field devours it. God simply withdraws the agencies which have been so long repelled and resisted–the moistening rains and the reviving sunshine, which, in the case of others, have quickened life and fruitfulness.
Like Gilboa, on whose arid top, amid its sisterhood of mountains, the refreshing dew seems, to this day, to fall in vain–the barren tree stands in its life of death, given up by God–“Ephraim is joined to his idols, let him alone”–“Let no fruit henceforth grow upon you forever!” Yes! I repeat, dreadful indeed such a case as this. Abandoned! Like that picture of the abandoned vessel, so truthfully delineated by the pencil of a great modern painter, a hulk on the wide sea, abandoned to its fate, the sport of winds and waves and ruffian elements, an unwieldy log on the great waters, without mast, or sail, or helm, or crew–drifting, drifting onwards along the ocean, amid the bleak howling winds and wastes of a dark and cheerless eternity!
‘Forever,’ ‘irreversible,’ did I say? No, not so! God speaks of those who are ‘near unto cursing, whose end is to be burned.’ “But the end is not yet”–while there is life there is hope. In the middle acted parable to which we have adverted, (the driving from the Temple,) there is an incident of blessed significance introduced. Jesus healed the diseased ones–“And the blind and the lame came to Him in the temple, and He healed them,” (Matt. 21:14.) It was an evidence interjected in the midst of righteous retribution, that ‘in wrath He remembers mercy;’ that even now, that heart of Divine power and human love is a hoarded garner of pity and compassion, open to all who will avail themselves of its treasures.
We dare never, to one lost soul on this side the grave, shut the door of pardon. “Forever” is the fearful word for the dungeons of despair. Mercy, pardon, forgiveness, are still words for the living. There is a summer-time of grace ever near, even in the dreariest winter of spiritual desolation. God is giving us a reprieve. Every new day is such–another chance of salvation, another offer of mercy, before the knell of the soul be rung forever! Prisoners–but “Prisoners of hope.”
Yes, go stand by that stripped, speechless, silent fig-tree, on the crest of Olivet, and while you behold there a dreadful witness to the Redeemer’s wrath, look at the same time at that sister fig-tree to which He pointed, at an earlier date of His ministry, in the regions of Galilee. He came to it, as He comes to each one of us, expecting “fruit;” “I looked that it should bring forth fruit.” There was none. Is it doomed at once?–No; an all-prevailing Intercessor pleads for one other year of respite and mercy–one other year to fertilize and dig about its roots, one other blessed chance of hope and forgiveness; and then, if there be no fruit, “after that,” to cut it down.
‘After that’–who can tell how brief the duration? ‘After that’–it may be a measured, meted out, perhaps nearly-exhausted season, for some one of us! Reader, self-convicted and self-condemned, are you led in prayerful penitence to exclaim–‘Lord, I am that fig-tree; the message of this ‘memory’ is for me. That one year of gracious respite and reprieve, oh let me improve it! There may be but some weeks of it, some days of it, yet to run. A few more swings of the pendulum, and the time so graciously included in “after that,” will have fled forever, beyond the possibility of recall. Oh spare me that I may recover strength before I go hence and be no more!’
And if we would add one word more, it is a closing gospel thought, suggested by the fig foliage of this parable-miracle. It was with the pretentious leaves of this same tree, that Adam and Eve, in Paradise, sought to cover their nakedness. God stripped away the leafy garments, and provided them instead, with the hides–the skins of the animals slain on the sacrificial altar. That was the earliest of the Bible’s acted parables. It was a Gospel Parable uttered in Eden, but one full of gracious comfort to the Church in every age. The fig-tree clothing of self-righteousness is utterly unavailing; the Lord who walks amid the trees of the garden strips it away–it cannot abide His righteous glance, His avenging scrutiny. But He has a blessed substitute at hand. He has woven, into a divine texture, the leaves of the Tree of life for the healing of the nations. “I will bring near,” says He, “my righteousness”–the covering, the glorious vesture provided by the Lamb of God, slain from the foundation of the world. He reveals “the righteousness of Christ, which is unto all and upon all those who believe.” Oh! dead, barren fig-tree, lift up your drooping withered leaves and live. “For whoever believes in Him shall not perish, but shall have everlasting life!”