Gospel Firepower

Some say evangelism is like tossing lit matches into upright kegs. Most kegs are filled with water, some are filled with gunpowder. C.S. Lewis was thinking gunpowder when he wrote this (Letters, 3:324–325):

My feeling about people in whose conversion I have been allowed to play a part is always mixed with awe and even fear; such as a boy might feel on first being allowed to fire a rifle. The disproportion between his puny finger on the trigger and the thunder and lightning which follow is alarming. And the seriousness with which the other party takes my words always raises the doubt whether I have taken them seriously enough myself.

Gunmen, Assassins, and Extremists

In the aftermath of the tragedy in Arizona, there is a lot of finger-pointing: the left is pointing a finger at the right, the right is pointing back, those who are less politically inclined point to psychological abnormalities. In his letter on the pervasive wickedness of the natural heart, John Newton points the finger at himself. Newton writes (Works, 1:368–370):

The vilest and most profligate individuals cannot sin beyond the powers and limits of that nature which they possess in common with the more mild and moderate. Though there may be a difference in the fruitfulness of the trees, yet the production of one apple decides the nature of the tree upon which is grew, as certainly as if it had produced a thousand: so in the present case, should it be allowed that these enormities [the wicked displays of the natural heart] cannot be found in all persons, it would be a sufficient confirmation of what I have advanced, if they can be found in any; unless it could be likewise proved, that those who appeared more wicked than others, were of a different species from the rest.

This is precisely why few things are more horrifying to watch than the nightly news; there we see into the depths of evil that our species is capable of reaching.

The histories of Aaron, David, Solomon, and Peter, are left on record, to teach us what evil is latent in the hearts of the best men, and what they are capable of doing if left but a little to themselves. …

How wonderful is the love of God in giving his Son to die for such wretches!

Yes, that is wonderful love! We appreciate this amazing grace when we connect the dots and see that we share the same sinful nature with the most profligate individuals. Apart from the gospel that liberates us from sin, what hope would remain?

On Burning Religious Books

September 11th is four days away, and it will mark the ninth anniversary of 9/11. As a large portion of the world mourns, one church in Florida plans to celebrate with “Burn a Qur’an” day. How many copies of the Qur’an it will take to make a newsworthy flame I’m not sure, but I am sure the media will be there when the pile is lit.

The top US military commander in Afghanistan, General Petraeus, says this anti-Muslim act will only vex America’s enemies in the Middle East and give Islamic radicals more clout in the eyes of the moderate Islamic world. The Florida church now says it will be “praying about” whether to continue with the burning ceremony. Whether the event will actually happen is yet to be seen, but my guess is that Islamic moderates around the world have learned to distinguish religious devotion from the meretricious display of zealots.

The Bible, as far as I can tell, mentions one account where religious texts are thrown to the flames (Acts 19:11-20). On the heels of the great work of God in Ephesus, the people had come to fear God and to trust in the Savior. As a result, “a number of those who had practiced magic arts brought their books together and burned them in the sight of all. And they counted the value of them and found it came to fifty thousand pieces of silver” (v. 19). In modern terms they ignited a bonfire using very expensive magic books.

What were these books? According to Eckhard Schnabel, they were occultist documents that described how to make amulets to protect against demons and how to make love charms (Early Christian Mission, 1221). The books gave directions for casting spells on others, either for good or ill, and they would have been quite expensive, which highlights the effect of the gospel upon the wealthy inhabitants of Ephesus. That Paul went toe-to-toe with the owners of documents, which later led to a book burning, tells me they qualify as religious texts, and probubly comprised the pop religion of the day.

From this account here are six points to ponder:

1. The Ephesian people burned their own books. These new believers renounced their past. This was not an act of Christians barging into homes to ransack libraries for kindling, or weeding out the public library, or buying up all available copies from the local bookshop. They gathered the valuable books from their own houses.

2. No Christian leader encouraged the book burning. At least the text doesn’t say it. Or would have been better for the books to be sold and the money given to the Apostolic ministry? Perish the thought. There there is no indication that Paul advised the people to burn (or sell) their occultist books.

3. The books posed no threat to the gospel. The gospel overcame the magic power of the books. The gospel is like a hurricane and nothing will stop its wind, certainly not a book of demonic spells.

4. God’s display of power convinced the people that their books were worthless. There was no need to address the value of the magic books directly. Once God’s power and his gospel were seen in the city, the matter was settled.

5. The book burning was a display of godly sorrow. The recently converted Christians wanted to confess their sin before “all.” The high value of the books (50,000 days wages worth!) made a strong statement. It was an act of personal sorrow for their own sin.

6. The burning illustrated the victory of the gospel. The magic books were burned because the gospel was spreading like wildfire: “So the word of the Lord continued to increase and prevail mightily” (v. 20).

These six points should make us very hesitant about burning other people’s religious books.

May God give the Church open doors to preach the gospel, and may he bless his Word with self-authenticating gospel fruit. If we take our eyes off the priority of the gospel, we will be tempted to settle for the sparks of a small bonfire in a church parking lot, a miniature replica of what happened in Ephesus. The true gospel spreads like a wildfire, if we are faithful to lovingly and boldly proclaim it.

The Gospel + Culture

…The creation of the first man shows this; the subduing of the earth, that is, the whole of culture, is given to him, and can be given to him, only because he is created after God’s image; man can be ruler of the earth only because and in so far as he is a servant, a son of God…Culture, therefore, sinks into the background; man must first become again a son of God before he can be, in a genuine sense, a cultured being. Israel was not a people of art and science, but a people of religion; and Christ is exclusively a preacher of the gospel, the savior of the world, and founder of the kingdom of heaven. With this kingdom nothing can be compared; he who will enter into it must renounce all things; the cross is the condemnation of the world and the destruction of all sinful culture.

But it is wrong to educe from this pronouncement that the gospel must be at enmity with culture. For although the gospel limits itself to the proclaiming of the requirements and laws of the kingdom, it cannot be set free from the organic alliance in which it always appears in history and Scripture. For, in the first place, Christ does not stand at the commencement, but in the middle of history. He presupposes the work of the Father in creation and in providence, especially also in the guidance of Israel; yea, the gospel asserts that Christ is the same who as the Word made all things and was the life and the light of all men. As he was then in his earthly life neither a politician nor a social reformer, neither a man of science nor a man of art, but simply lived and worked as the Son of God and Servant of the Lord, and thus has only been a preacher and founder of the kingdom of heaven, he cannot have come to annihilate the work of the Father, or his own work in creation and providence, but rather to save it from the destruction which has been brought about by sin. According to his own word, he came not to judge the world, but to save it…

The gospel of Christ promises righteousness and peace and joy, and has fulfilled its promise if it gives these things. Christ did not portray for his disciples a beautiful future in this world, but prepared them for oppression and persecution. But, nevertheless, the kingdom of heaven, while a pearl of great price, is also a leaven which permeates the whole of the meal; godliness is profitable unto all things, having the promise of the life which now is, and that which is to come.

The gospel gives us a standard by which we can judge of phenomena and events; it is an absolute measure which enables us to determine the value of the present life; it is a guide to show us the way in the labyrinth of the present world; it raises us above time, and teaches us to view all things from the standpoint of eternity. Where could we find such a standard and guide if the everlasting gospel did not supply it?

But it is opposed to nothing that is pure and good and lovely. It condemns sin always and everywhere; but it cherishes marriage and the family, society and the state, nature and history, science and art. In spite of the many faults of its confessors, it has been in the course of the ages a rich benediction for all these institutions and accomplishments. The Christian nations are still the guardians of culture. And the word of Paul is still true that all is ours if we are Christ’s.

—Herman Bavinck, The Philosophy of Revelation (1909), pp. 266-269.