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The Reason For God - Belief in an Age of Skepticism

Greetings All!

     Today I bring you a selection from Tim Keller's best-selling book "The Reason For God - Belief in an Age of Skepticism."  If you have not read it, you have missed out on some very wise and convincing arguments for the Christian faith.  Many people have what we could call their "pat objections" for why they reject the Christian faith.  "There can't be just one true religion."  "How could a good God allow suffering."  "Science has disproved Christianity."   "How could a loving God send people to hell?"
     Keller takes on such objections and offers many well-reasoned responses to them.  In an age where people often tend to do little more choose a view that fits with their personal preferences (whether they've thought it through or not), Keller offers us some very logical and well-thought-through alternative perspectives, which challenge such pat objections to the core.  If you really want to be challenged to reconsider many issues from a fresh perspective, you will want to pick up a copy. For to miss out on this book is to miss out on an apologetic treat similar to that of reading C. S. Lewis, Os Guinness, Ravi Zacharias, and others.

       Our particular "thought" for today addresses the objection voiced by people who say, "I can't believe in Christianity because I believe in a God of love."  Enjoy.

I believe in a God of Love

       "During my college years and my early twenties, I, like so many others, questioned the Christian faith I was raised in. There were subjective reasons for my doubts. Christianity just didn't seem real to me experientially. I had not developed a prayer life and had never experienced God personally.  There were also intellectual problems I was having with Christianity, all of which I address elsewhere in this book. There was one, however, I will talk about here.  I was troubled by those Christians who stressed hellfire and damnation. Like so many of my generation I believed that if there was a core to all religions, it was a loving God. I wanted to believe in a God of love who accepted people regardless of their beliefs and practices.  So I began to take courses in the other major religions of the world -- Buddhism, Hinduism, Islam, Confucianism, and Judaism.  I have profited to this day from those studies. However, my explorations in other faiths proved me wrong on this particular point about the centrality of a loving God.
       I found no other religious text outside the Bible that said God created the world out of love and delight. Most ancient pagan religions believed the world was created through struggles and violent battles between opposing gods and supernatural forces. I turned to look more closely at Buddhism, the religion I liked the best at the time. However, despite its great emphasis on selflessness and detached service to others, Buddhism did not believe in a personal God at all, and love is the action of a person.
         Later on, after I become a minister, I was a speaker and panelist for several years in a monthly discussion program in Philadelphia between a Christian church and a mosque. Each month a speaker from the church and a speaker from the mosque would give a Biblical and Qu'ranic perspective on the topic. When we covered the topic of God's love, it was striking how different our conceptions were. I was told repeatedly by Muslim speakers that God was indeed loving in the sense of being merciful and kind to us. But when Christians spoke of the Lord as our Spouse, of knowing God intimately and personally, and of having powerful effusions of his love poured into our hearts by the Holy Spirit, our Muslim friends balked. They told us that it was disrespectful, in their view, to speak of anyone knowing God personally.
       Today many of the skeptics I talk to say, as I once did, they can't believe in the God of the Bible who punishes and judges people, because they "believe in a God of Love."  I now ask, what makes them think God is love?  Can they look at life in the world today and say, "This proves that the God of the world is a God of love?"  Can they look at history and say, "This all shows that the God of history is a God of love?"  Can they look at the religious texts of the world and conclude that God is a God of love?  By no means is that the dominant, ruling attribute of God as understood in any of the major faiths. I must conclude that the source of the idea that God is Love is the Bible itself. And the Bible tells us that the God of love is also a God of judgment who will put all things in the world right in the end.
       The belief in a God of pure love -- who accepts and judges no one -- is a powerful act of faith.  Not only is there no evidence for it in the natural order, but there is almost no historical, religious textual support for it outside of Christianity.  The more one looks at it, the less justified [this objection] appears."

       Though many today will say, "all religions basically teach the same thing," all it takes is actually reading their religious texts to see that this is not so, as Keller, who has read them testifies.  In fact, when it comes to the issue of love, the Bible separates itself even further from the others by not only speaking of the love of God frequently, but even going as far as to declare that "God IS love" (I John 4:16).  God is not just loving, He is love.  In this regard as well, no other religion comes close.
       What many in western society today fail to see (disconnected as we are becoming from our past) is that our culture was influenced for two millennia by Christian thought and practice.  And, therefore, scores of the virtues that have come to be the rallying cry of our secular society, are not virtues our secular culture developed on it's own, but virtues our culture borrowed (or stole) from Christianity, washed of their rooting in Christianity, and tried to claim as their own.
       It's what could (or should) be called, cultural plagiarism -- with no credit given to the original author of those virtues.  Or as one friend put it, our culture has borrowed "lumber" it removed from the structural framework of the house called Christianity, but washed of all it's Christian moorings and meaning, and then made to fit a secularized ideal.  Other cultures stress honor and shame, compliance and conformity, obedience and punishment.  But in a culture influenced for many centuries by the teachings of Jesus Christ, and the redemption that came to us through the sacrifice of Himself for those who didn't deserve it; a culture influenced by the truth that love is the greatest of all gifts (I Corinthians 13), and that God himself is love (as His disciples alone declared), it is quite impossible for love not to be seen the queen of virtues.

In the Bonds of Christian Affection, Pastor Jeff


Personal Testimony of Dr. A. C. Dixon (1854-1925)

Greetings All!

     I chose this week's "thought" for the sheer honesty and transparency evidenced in the heart of the pastor who penned it.  It is a personal testimony that comes from, Dr. A. C. Dixon (1854-1925), pastor of the Baptist Church in Chapel Hill North Carolina, and then later pastor at the Ruggles Street Baptist Church in Boston. His testimony speaks for itself. Enjoy.

"The hand of the Lord was upon him." 
Ezekiel 1:3

     "While I was pastor at the Baptist Church in Chapel Hill, the university town of North Carolina, I was made to realize that, as a preacher, I was a dismal failure. 
     Parents all over the state wrote to me and requested that I look after the spiritual welfare of their sons in the university. I prepared sermons with the students in mind and was glad to see that they showed their appreciation by attending our Sunday services in large numbers.  At one point we appointed a week of prayer and preaching with the single purpose of winning them to Christ, and they attended the evening meetings.
     About the middle of the week their interest seemed to turn into opposition. The spirit of mischief possessed them. One night they tried to put out the lights. As I walked through the grove around the university buildings, I sometimes heard my voice coming from behind a tree. A bright student had caught a part of my sermon the night before, and he was mimicking me in thought and tone for the benefit of his fellow students who showed their appreciation by applause and laughter.  As I walked by an open window I heard my voice being mimicked in prayer and floating out.  I felt defeated and seriously considered resigning from the pastorate.  No one had been saved.

     After a restless night I took my Bible and went into the grove and remained there until three o'clock in the afternoon. As I read I asked God to show me what was the matter, and the Word of God searched me through and through giving me a deep sense of sin and helplessness, such as I had never had before...  That evening the students listened reverently, and at the close two pews were filled with those who had responded to the invitation. The revival continued day after day until more than seventy of the students had confessed Christ.
     Now the practical question is: "What did it?"   Certainly not I; I fear it was the "I" that kept God from doing it for a long time. There came to me out of the day's experience a clear-cut distinction between [human] influence and [divine] power.  Influence is made up of many things -- intellect, education, money, social position, personality, organization -- all of which ought to be used for Christ.   But power is God Himself at work unhindered by our unbelief and other sins.
     The word "influence" occurs but once in the Bible, and that in Job, where Jehovah speaks to the old patriarch of the "sweet influences of the Pleiades" (one of the nearest star clusters to the earth) -- a good text for a young minister to preach on in the springtime, but not sufficient in dealing with a group of mocking university students.  The New Testament word "power" holds the secret, and the power from on high was no other than God the Holy Spirit touching the soul through the living Word and giving it birth from above. I had been trusting and testing many other good things, only to fail.  The touch of God did in a minute what all my best efforts could not do." 
     His testimony speaks for itself. People may mock and laugh at and easily resist all our efforts.  But when the power of the Spirit attends what we say, even our feeblest human efforts can be used of God to melt the most hardened heart. We may (by our innate natural gifts) be able to influence people in some small and temporary way (and many pastors have been content with that), but only God (by the working of His mighty power) can change a hard heart permanently for all eternally.  Therefore, it should be our earnest desire to seek the assistance of this power, and not be content until our spirit is bathed in it and our efforts are attended by it.

In The Service of the Gospel, Pastor Jeff


George Mueller's Secret

Greetings All,

      This week's "thought" comes from the well-known man of faith George Mueller of Bristol, England (1805-1898).  The testimony of his life is both amazing and inspiring, with many books being written about him.  For at one point in his life he decided to live entirely by faith, asking God alone, through prayer, to meet his financial needs. It was difficult at first, and with no fixed income he was sometimes down to his last penny before the Lord would supply his need, but God always did.  And soon he was not only able to support himself and his wife Susannah, but eventually build 5 orphan homes which housed over 10,000 orphans from 1834-1898.  And as if that were not enough to occupy his time, would minister in 42 countries (the last at age 87), and preach 3 times a week during this time.  Yet even with so many to take care of, he still stayed true to his conviction not to make his needs known to anyone but God in prayer.

      In the last 68 years of his life (he lived to be 92), he obtained through prayer the equivalent of $7,200,000.00 and never asked anyone directly for any money.  In those last 68 years he never took a salary for his ministry but trusted God to put in people's hearts to send him what he needed. He never took out a loan and never went into debt. And neither he nor the orphans were ever hungry.  Much to his credit, and unlike many today, "George Mueller never prayed for a thing just because he wanted it, or even just because he felt it was greatly needed for God’s work. He would search the Scriptures to find if there was some promise that covered the case. Sometimes he would search the scriptures for days before he presented his petition to God. And then when he found the promise, with his open Bible before him, and his finger upon that promise, he would plead that promise, and so he received what he asked. He always prayed with an open Bible before him" (R. A. Torrey). The story of his life is indeed inspiring, with many accounts of God's miraculous provision and answers to prayer.

     This excerpt is what has been called "George Mueller's Secret," or his personal method of sustaining his inward joy and happiness in Christ amidst the many stresses and responsibilities laid upon him by virtue of overseeing such a large ministry.  I have often reflected back on it and sought to practice his method.  I pray it might be of help to you as well.  Enjoy.

     “It has pleased the Lord to teach me a truth, the benefit of which I have not lost for more than fourteen years. What is that truth? I saw more clearly than ever that the first great and primary business to which I ought to attend every day was to have my soul happy in the Lord.  The first thing to be concerned about was not how much I might serve the Lord; but how I might get my soul in  a happy state, and how my inner man might be nourished.  For I might seek to benefit believers, I might seek to relieve the distressed, I might in other ways seek to behave myself as it becomes a child of God in this world, and yet not being happy in the Lord, and not being strengthened in my inner man day by day, all this might not be attended to in the right spirit.
       Before this time my practice had been, at least for ten years previously, as an habitual thing, to give myself to prayer after having dressed in the morning. Now, I saw that the most important thing was to give myself to the reading of God's Word, and to meditation on it, that thus my heart might be comforted, encouraged, warned, reproved, instructed; and that thus, by means of the Word of God, whilst meditating on it, my heart might be brought into experimental communion with the Lord. I began therefore to meditate on the New Testament from the beginning, early in the morning. The first thing I did, after having asked in a few words of the Lord's blessing upon His precious Word, was to begin to meditate on the Word of God, searching as it were into every verse to get blessing out of it; not for the sake of the public ministry of the Word, not for the sake of preaching on what I had meditated upon, but for the sake of obtaining food for my own soul.
     The result I have found to be almost invariably this, that after a few minutes my soul has been led to confession, or to thanksgiving, or to intercession, or to supplication; so that, though I did not, as it were, give myself to prayer, but to meditation, yet it turned almost immediately more or less to prayer. When thus I have been for a while making confession or intercession or supplication, or have given thanks, I go on to the next words or verse, turning all, as I go on, into prayer for myself or others, as the Word may lead to it, but still continually keeping before me that food for my own soul is the object of my meditation. The result of this is that there is always a good deal of confession, thanksgiving, supplication, or intercession mingled with my meditation, and that my inner man almost invariably is even sensibly nourished and strengthened, and that by breakfast time, with rare exceptions, I am in a peaceful if not happy state of heart.
The difference, then, between my former practice and my present on is this: formerly, when I rose, I began to pray as soon as possible, and generally spent all my time till breakfast in prayer, or almost all the time. At all events I almost invariably began with prayer.... But what was the result? I often spent a quarter of an hour, or half an hour, or even an hour on my knees before being conscious to myself of having derived comfort, encouragement, humbling of soul, etc.; and often, after having suffered much from my mind wandering for the first ten minutes, or quarter of an hour, or even half an hour, I only then really began to pray. I scarcely ever suffer now in this way. For my heart being nourished by the truth, being brought into experimental fellowship with God, I speak to my Father and to my Friend (vile though I am, and unworthy of it) about the things that He has brought before me in His precious Word. If often now astonishes me that I did not see this point sooner...
     And yet now, since God has taught me this point, it is as plain to me as anything that the first thing the child of God has to do morning by morning is to obtain food for his inner man. Now what is food for the inner man? Not prayer, but the Word of God; and here again, not the simple reading of the Word of God, so that it only passes through our minds, just as water passes through a pipe, but considering what we read, pondering over it and applying it to our hearts.  When we pray we speak to God. Now prayer, in order to be continued for any length of time in any other than a formal manner, requires, generally speaking, a measure of strength or godly desire, and the season therefore when this exercise of the soul can be most effectually performed is after the inner man has been nourished by meditation on the Word of God, where we find our Father speaking to us, to encourage us, to comfort us, to instruct us, to humble us, to reprove us. We may therefore profitably meditate with God's blessing though we are ever so weak spiritually; nay, the weaker we are, the more we need meditation for the strengthening of our inner man.
     Thus, there is far less to be feared from wandering of mind than if we give ourselves to prayer without having had time previously for meditation. I dwell so particularly on this point because of the immense spiritual profit and refreshment I am conscious of having derived from it myself, and I affectionately and solemnly beseech all my fellow believers to ponder this matter. By the blessing of God, I ascribe to this mode the help and strength which I have had from God to pass in peace through deeper trials, in various ways, than I have ever had before; and having now above fourteen years tried this way, I can most fully, in the fear of God, commend it.”
     It is my hope that this "secret" comes to be known far and wide, and that it might be used to encourage and challenge many to follow in his footsteps. Obviously, given all Mueller accomplished in his life, no one can say, "It was easy for him  back then, life wasn't as busy then as we are today."  For when I think of all that he did, I find it hard to comprehend how he managed to do it all!  Of course, the answer surely lies (to some degree) in the secret he shares above.  You may seek to try it and see!

In the Service of Jesus,  Pastor Jeff


Conversion Story of Saint Augustine

Greetings All!

     Last week we considered the conversion story of Charles H. Spurgeon.  This week I'll be sharing the conversion story of Saint Augustine. In the weeks to come I will share some others, because I find the stories of God's unique and saving work in the lives of many different people extremely fascinating!
     For those who are unaware, Augustine lived from 354-430 A.D. in North Africa.  He was born in Numidia (or what is today the country of Algeria) to Berber parents, a group of people indigenous to northern Africa. His father was well-to-do, and his mother Monica was a devout Christian woman.  From a young age it was obvious that Augustine was extremely gifted and intelligent, and so he was sent away to school at 11 years old. There he studied Latin literature and philosophy, as well as pagan beliefs and practices. By 15 years old he admits he preferred hedonism to studying, and by 16 he started to enjoy stealing and began satisfying his sexual cravings.
     At the age of 17 he went away to school in Carthage (present day Tunisia) to study rhetoric. It was here that he would break his mother's heart in two ways:  First, he would fully embrace a hedonistic lifestyle and embark on an affair with a girl that would last 15 years (followed by another affair with another young woman). Lust was the sin that consumed him, and led him at one point to pray his now famous prayer, "Grant me chastity and continence; but not yet."   The second was his rejection of Christianity and his "conversion" to Manichaeanism, a highly elaborate form of Gnosticism which taught that "light" (goodness) was gradually being removed from this world of matter and returning to the world of light (the immaterial spirit world) from which it came, making the world progressively more dark and evil as a result.
     Augustine developed great rhetorical skills and became very knowledgeable of the philosophies behind many faiths. In fact, word of his comprehensive knowledge of many subjects and philosophies, combined with his superior rhetorical skills, led him to be asked (at the age of 30) to be the instructor of rhetoric to the imperial court in Milan, winning him, "the most visible academic position in the Latin world at that time."   After arriving at Milan, Augustine heard of a great Christian preacher named Ambrose. He went to listen to him to see if he was (as some suggested) one of the greatest speakers and rhetoricians in the world.  More interested in his speaking skills than the topic of his messages Augustine went and listened, quickly discovering that Ambrose was indeed one of the best speakers he had ever heard.  He would later confess that Ambrose was one of the primary human instruments God used to break down one of the two major intellectual roadblocks he had in regard to Christianity.
     The following is an account, taken from his classic work, "The Confessions," speaks of the actual moment when he considers himself to have been converted. Enjoy.

     "I fled into the garden with my friend Alypius following step by step, for I had no secret in which he did not share...  We sat down as far as possible from the house. I was greatly disturbed in spirit, and angry at myself with a turbulent indignation, because I had not entered God's will and covenant, while all my bones cried out for me to enter...  Now, when deep reflection had drawn up out of the secret depths of my soul all my misery, and had heaped it up before the sight of my heart, there arose a mighty storm [within me], accompanied by a mighty rain of tears. So that I might give way fully to my tears and lamentations, I stole away from Alypius, for it seemed to me that solitude was more appropriate for the business of weeping. I went far enough away that I could feel that his presence was no restraint upon me....
     [Under great conviction and sorrow for my sins] I flung myself down under a fig tree and gave free course to my tears... And, not indeed in these words, but in this way, I cried to [God]: "And Thou, O Lord, how long? How long, O Lord?  Will you be angry with me forever?  O remember not against us our former iniquities."  For I felt I was still enthralled by them...  I was saying these things and weeping in the most bitter contrition of my heart when suddenly I heard the voice of a young boy or girl -- I know not which -- coming from the neighboring house. It was chanting over and over again in song: "Tolle Lege. Tolle Lege" ("Pick it up, read it. Pick it up, read it").  Immediately I ceased weeping and began most earnestly to wonder whether it was usual for children in some kind of game to sing such a song, but I could not remember ever having heard anything like it.  So, stopping the torrent of my tears, I got to my feet, for I could not help but think this was a divine command to open the Bible and read the first passage I should see.  I had heard about how Anthony had accidentally come into church when the Gospel was being read and received the admonition as if what had been read was addressed specifically to him: "Go sell all you have and give it to the poor, and you shall have treasure in heaven, and come follow me." By such an oracle he was converted...
     So I quickly returned to the bench where Alypius was sitting, for there I had put down the apostle's book (Romans) when I had left there.  I snatched it up, opened it, and in silence read the first paragraph my eyes fell upon: "Not in rioting and drunkenness, not in sexual immorality or wantonness, not in strife and envying, but put on the Lord Jesus Christ and make no provision for the flesh to fulfill the lusts thereof" [Romans 13:13].  I wanted to read no further, nor did I need to. For instantly, as the sentence ended, there was infused in my heart something like the light of full certainty and all gloom and doubt vanished away.  Closing the book, and putting my finger or something else to mark the spot, I began -- now with a tranquil countenance -- to tell it all to Alypius. He then disclosed to me what had been going on in himself, of which I knew nothing. He asked to see what I had read. I showed him and he read on even further than I had read. I had no known what came next, but it was this: "Him that is weak in the faith, receive." This he applied to himself and told me so. By these words he was strengthened and joined me in full commitment [to Christ] without any restless hesitation.
     Then we went in to my mother and told her what had happened, to her great joy.  We explained to her how it had occurred and she leaped for joy triumphant; and she blessed You who are "able to do exceedingly abundantly above all we can ask or think." For she saw that You had granted her far more than she had ever asked for in all her pitiful and sad-hearted lamentations."

     Years earlier (when Augustine was in his late teens) Monica had a dream. In it she was standing on "a rule of wood" (a plank or platform she took to be the "rule of faith"). In the dream, she met a young man to whom she despaired of her son's "living death" [in sin] and expressed her desire that he should come to know God. The young man told her to have no fear and to look around to see who was with her on the rule... and there stood her son Augustine!  She considered the dream prophetic in nature and told Augustine. He threw it back in her face and told that far from the dream meaning that he would become a Christian, it meant that she would join him and embrace Manichaeanism!
     After asking Ambrose and others to do something numerous time to intervene on Augustine's behalf, Ambrose told her: "Leave him alone and just pray,"  and added, "Go, I beg you. The son of so many tears cannot perish."   What a wonderful account of how the God of grace rescues and redeems His chosen ones through the conviction of sin, the preaching of the Gospel, the simple reading of the Word, and the love of a mother who would not give up praying for her wayward son.

In His Service, Pastor Jeff