Monday, September 24, 2012

Making Fun of Muhammad

I was travelling outside of the United States last week when the various news sites were covering protests and demonstrations throughout the Muslim world in reaction to the publication of certain video’s and cartoons that are apparently disparaging to the Muslim prophet Mohamed. This led to a lively discussion among my international friends and they were eager to hear what I as an “American” thought about all of this.

The consensus among the group was that the United States government should use its power to remove the video from YouTube in order to protect people from further violence. I did my best to explain that the American government did not, and should not, have this kind of power. We discussed the fundamental liberties that Americans have traditionally defended and the danger of allowing the government to restrict them. It was difficult for my friends to understand how such a philosophical commitment could be so powerful that a government would refrain from taking action that would protect people from harm. I did my best to explain that unfortunately liberty often has an extremely high price. Some of my foreign friends seemed to understand this explanation and others were more hesitant.

While I believe that government censorship is indeed a threat to personal liberty, it is important to distinguish between supporting an action and believing that the government has no right to restrict it. Although I support the idea that government should not interfere with the freedom of speech except in extreme cases (i.e. you do not have the right to yell fire in a crowded movie theater) it does not mean that I agree that these increasingly frequent parodies of Muhammad are appropriate.

Unfortunately, some Christians seem to have a smug sense of satisfaction at seeing the type of irreverent attacks that have so often been aimed at us, focused on another target. Some believers apparently think that since Muhammad is a false prophet any attempt to discredit him is acceptable. The publication of properly supported historical analysis, theological evaluation, and factual criticism are all fair game but the publication of slanderous, insulting, and intentionally inflammatory art or communications is sinful and should be recognized as such. For Christians, the ends do not justify the means. We are to speak the truth.

The priority for all Christian behavior is love. We are to speak the truth in love and as far as it is possible with us, we are to be at peace with all men. Our endorsement should never be on anything that seeks to inflame zealous reaction apart from love and the truth. We have to remember that our battle is not against the deceived, but against the deceiver. Amusement at the agitation of the lost is evidence of our own spiritual deadness and hatred for those in darkness is an indictment upon our own heart.

Some may try to rationalize sinful opinions against these demonstrators by pointing to the violent hatred that they exhibit. In doing so they fail to recognize that the zealous hatred in the faces of those protestors is a picture of the ugliness of our own hearts apart from Christ. Except for the grace of God, we are as fanatically committed to idolatry as they are. They are similar to the Jews of Paul’s day in that “they have a zeal for God, but not according to knowledge”. Our burden for them must be to share Christ. We are to take no pleasure even in the insults hurled at those who insult us. We address Islam not with satire or slander but with the Truth. The world hates those who hate them and laughs at the discomfort of its enemies. We, however, are to love those who hate us and to pray from them.

It is not the place of the Church to try to regulate the behavior and speech of the unbelieving world. We can support the freedom of those who disagree with us to share their views in a free society. We understand that a society that protects this right is beneficial to the Church because it allows us greater freedom to share the truth and participate in the marketplace of ideas. This does not, however, remove our responsibility as Christians to oppose slanderous and irresponsible expressions. Let us pray for the grace to live by the words of Paul to the Ephesians, “Let no corrupting talk come out of your mouths, but only such as is good for building up, as fits the occasion, that it may give grace to those who hear.”

Let us pray that we may live to see the Lord glorify Himself in the lives of these violent extremists by bringing them to know Christ just as He did with a young man of a similar spirit named Saul who went on to be used mightily as an apostle of grace. 

Monday, September 10, 2012

Machen's Final Lesson

One of the most influential people in modern Christian history is Dr. J. Gresham Machen. His influence extends in some way or another to virtually every conservative evangelical group in America today. A short time ago, I came across his last recorded words and the power of them impressed me so much that I wanted to share a few thoughts regarding them. Just before he died (January 1, 1937), Dr. Machen had a telegram sent to his colleague and friend Dr. John Murray. The telegram was brief and to the point, it read simply, “I'm so thankful for the active obedience of Christ. No hope without it."

It might not be surprising for a Christian to express hope in Christ as they near the end of their life but this is not just a general expression of confidence in the Gospel. This is a very careful expression of his faith. He is thanking Christ and proclaiming that there is no hope apart from Him (as many Christians do), but he is doing so with purposeful theological precision. Notice that Dr. Machen gives thanks for “the active obedience of Christ.” This brief yet powerful expression of his understanding of the Gospel shows the extent that meditation upon the glories of Christ must have characterized his thinking. So much so, that even with his last words Dr. Machen offers valuable instruction to the Church about the glory of the Gospel and of our Savior Jesus Christ.

He was offering thanks for a specific aspect of the life and work of Christ as it was applied to his own life. Theologians distinguish between the passive and active obedience of Jesus but it is not something that most Christians often think about. It is an important distinction, but one that we are rarely taught to appreciate. These words by Dr. Machen are an expression not only of the precision of his theological understanding but also of a deep meditation on their personal application to sinners such as himself.

The passive obedience of Jesus is His suffering the penalties for the sins of His people. It is His perfect submission to the will of The Father in facing the holy and just wrath of God poured out upon our sin. It is all the humility and pain He suffered culminating in the Cross itself. Distinguished from this is the active obedience of Jesus that Dr. Machen mentions. Christ’s active obedience is His perfect fulfillment of the requirements of the Law and of Holiness before the Father. While His passive obedience is paying our debt to sin, His active obedience is His attainment of perfect righteousness on our behalf.

We most often hear about Christ’s passive obedience but His substitutionary atonement is made effectual by His perfect righteousness attained through His active obedience. The two cannot be separated and the hope of the Gospel depends upon them both. It is for good reason that Dr. Machen specifically calls attention to Christ’s “active” obedience in reflecting on the hope and comfort he has in Christ. If Christ had simply died to pay our debt we would still remain without any righteousness of our own. We would have simply returned to the state in which Adam was.

Dr. Machen is saying that in Christ we have obtained something that Adam did not have, namely a secured and certain inheritance in the eternal kingdom of God. Jesus did not just pay for sins and then leave us to our own devices. Dr. Machen is saying that the life of Christ and the perfections of Christ are credited to the believer so that as believers we possess the very righteousness of Christ Himself. Jesus is the complete substitute in that our punishments are transferred to Him and His rewards are given to us. Unlike Adam, we are credited as righteous because of the obedience of Jesus (Rom. 5:19). Dr. Machen was expressing his confidence before God because the life by which he would be judged was none other than the life of Jesus Christ. The hope he expressed was not just that his sins were forgiven but that he had inherited all the blessings of God in Christ.

Our savior not only pays the debts we have accrued, but also grants to us the fullness of His riches. Dr. Machen points us to an amazing savior. I pray that the hope he had is present in you as well.

*Before posting this, I wanted to verify that these were indeed Dr. Machen’s last words. During that process, I came across these two articles that give further insight into the meaning of Dr. Machen’s final statement. If you are interested in reading further, I recommend them to you.