Whatever one may think of Advent and Christmas, at this time of year people's thoughts do turn, in some fashion, to Christ's coming into the world. That often affords Christians an opportunity to "give a defense to everyone who asks you a reason for the hope that is in you" (1 Pet. 3:15). Particularly in the aftermath of the horrible events of September 11, this Christmas season may offer us a fresh occasion to speak to family, friends, and colleagues about the hope that we have in Jesus Christ and why his incarnation and atonement were absolutely necessary for our salvation.
In the face of such glaring sin, the need for the person and work of Christ is so evident. If sinners ever hope to approach the holy God, they can do so only through the atoning work of the one mediator between God and man. God tells us to make the most of every opportunity (Col. 4:5), and the recent crisis, together with the opportunities that often arise at this season of the year, furnishes us with an excellent occasion to speak the truth in love. Let us then consider the apologetical and witnessing opportunities that we now have.
First of all, we need to weep with those who weep (Rom. 12:15), and mourn with those who mourn. The land in which we live has been viciously attacked. If our first response is anything other than crying out for mercy for victims' families, the injured, the rescuers, our public officials, and justice for the perpetrators, then we are somehow misguided. Being a Christian does not make one less human. It makes one most truly human. And in our mourning, we can speak of the hope that comes from knowing Jesus Christ, the one who is our only comfort in life and death.
As we speak of the hope that is ours in Christ and urge others to turn to him in repentance and faith, we are likely to be confronted with some tough challenges. Many bring up the problem of evil at such a time as this. If God is all-good and all-powerful, they ask, why is there evil in the world? Some profess to have rejected God because of this conundrum.
But if you reject God because of the problem of evil, you face a new problemthe inability to account for evil at all. In order to assert the existence of evil, one must presuppose God and the standard that he has revealed. Apart from him, we have no way to distinguish between right and wrong. Eliminate God and you eliminate the ability to speak of something as evil. Only the Christian can consistently affirm that something is evil, because evil can be accounted for only as a violation of God's law.
This does not solve the problem of evil, but it does point out that apart from a Christian worldview, evil can be identified only by the arbitrary convention of one group or another. The perpetrators of the terrorist acts of September 11 certainly did not believe them to be evil, and it is insufficient to call them evil simply because they hurt people and we do not like that. The unbeliever can call these acts evil only because he has, whether he realizes it or not, a basically Christian moral sense. We should clearly affirm the unbeliever's sense of wrong done and justice required, and should tell him that by such a sense he gives testimony to the living Godthe very God that he says he is compelled to deny because of the problem of evil.
We can say that, within a Christian worldview, God has sufficient reason for the evil that is in the world. Romans 9:21-23 tells us in some measure that God uses evil to magnify his mercy and grace (in the case of the elect) and also his wrath and justice (in the case of the reprobate). God is so great and good that he brings good out of evil (Gen. 50:20), using evil to defeat itself. Nowhere is this seen more clearly than in the crucifixion of our Lord Jesus Christ. This deed of wicked menthe basest act ever committedwas used by our Sovereign God to obtain our salvation. While men were pouring out their wrath on God at the cross, the Father was pouring out his wrath against sinners on his beloved Son. Thus God used the wrath of man to accomplish our eternal salvation.
An interesting variation on the problem of evil is the cry, "How can God let this happen?" What is so intriguing about such a question is what it presupposes. It assumes that God is really in charge of the world. B. B. Warfield said that every Christian, when on his knees, is a Calvinist. Similarly, when a tragedy occurs, even non-Christians sense that God is in control. This is so because we are created in God's image and have eternity in our hearts and know the truth, although we suppress this knowledge in unrighteousness (Rom. 1:18-32).
We know that there is a God who reigns and rules. We wonder if he is good. He is good, and that goodness leads us to repentance (Rom. 2:4). All the "process" theology and "openness of God" theology cannot shake what we all know to be the truththat God reigns and rules, and that no man can stay his hand. To put it another way, where do people who otherwise assert free will come off blaming God? To be sure, God is not the author of sin. At the same time, he has ordained all that comes to pass. Even wicked men know that.
This also affords us an opportunity to tell men not to put their trust in princes or chariots. Many believe that if we beef up our airport security or improve our intelligence gathering or strengthen our military, then we can avoid such calamities in the future. While it is proper to do all that we can to prevent terrorist attacks, what we need to do at bottom is to trust in the Lord. We need to trust, not in the flesh, but in Christ. Disaster calls us to faith in our Savior.
We always need to repent of our sins, to be sure, whether or not we have experienced a disaster. But disaster may well remind us that there is sin in the world (because of Adam's and our sin), that sin merits God's judgment, and that we need to repent of our sin. This is what our Lord Jesus teaches us in Luke 13:1-5that disaster often strikes suddenly, and that we all need to repent, lest we perish. It is not that those on the planes or in the buildings hit had done anything other than what we've all done. Jesus warns us not to jump to the conclusion that the victims of a disaster are somehow guilty of worse sins than everyone else. Rather, a disaster is a stark reminder that each of us must repent.
We need to be very careful about saying things like "This judgment is because of our national sins of homosexuality, abortion, etc." This sounds very much like what Jesus condemned in Luke 13, because such a sentiment assumes that the sins that characterize us as a nation are sins that people in the world are guilty of, but not us good folk in the church. Most Christians do not see themselves as partaking of sins like homosexuality and abortion. But in fact we do.
Sin is not a matter of kind, but of degree. Each of us breaks each of the ten commandments in varying degrees. Homosexuality and abortion are egregious violations of the seventh and sixth commandments, respectively. Homosexuality is a perverted refusal to love the other (the other sex), and is instead an inordinate self-love in which one has affection for one's own sex as an extension of an inverted self-love. Abortion is the killing of one's own offspring because of self-centered refusal to care for the fruit of sexual union. Both involve a twisting and misusing of sexuality. But do Christians never inordinately love and serve themselves or seek their own pleasures rather than those of their spouses? This savors of homosexuality in a lower degree. Do we ever fail to love our children in every proper way? This savors of abortion in a lower degree. Before we speak in a way that makes sin sound like something that is only "out there," perhaps we had better look in the mirror.
We tend to condemn sin the most when we are unable to identify with it. Most people have no trouble condemning the terrorist acts of September 11, because such behavior is unthinkable to them. But a number of people have expressed at least understanding of the frustration that the mother in Houston who drowned her four children might have suffered. It is not that people have been unable to condemn the murderous mother, but that they have identified sufficiently with her to call for sympathy, if not leniency. Few call for any sympathy or leniency for terroristsnor should they. Here's my point, though: We seem to think that if we can sympathize in a measure with what others have done, that lessens the heinousness of their act. If we can't, we are content to regard them as "monsters." We must be able to denounce and condemn sins with which we can identify or sympathize. That's what true repentance is.
Do we not have plenty of sin in the church? Why point fingers at the world and not repent of our own sin? Isn't this what Jesus warns against in Luke 13? Do we diligently, consistently, and wholeheartedly draw near to the Lord through his means of grace, publicly and privately? Do we generously offer up our time, our treasures, and our talents as we ought for God's church and for each other as his people? Do we devote the whole Lord's Day to him, delighting ourselves in communion with God and his people? Do we love God's people enough to assist and support their shepherding, their discipling, and their discipline? Or do we walk altogether too much in the flesh and fail to bring forth the fruit of the Spirit (Gal. 5:16-25)? Are we not "conceited, provoking one another, envying one another" (Gal. 5:26)? What about the many sins of our tongue? When we talk about sin, it is self-deception to speak of notorious sins that point to somebody else, but never to us.
It is God's people who should "humble themselves, and pray and seek [his] face, and turn from their wicked ways." Then God will "hear from heaven, and will forgive their sin and heal their land" (2 Chron. 7:14). When we talk about sin, we need look no further than ourselves for ample illustrations of it. It is only as we live and walk in repentance and faith that we show forth the hope that will arrest the attention of those about us and afford us the opportunity to give to all who ask a reason for the hope that is within us.
To be sure, sin does merit judgment. And one day Jesus Christ will return to judge the world. Disasters nownatural or man-madeonly remind us of that coming day in which we will all have to give an account for the deeds done in the body. But no disaster now is the full judgment that sin merits. God is merciful to us. We can see that, even in the events of September 11. We see the mercy and goodness of God particularly in that he delays his coming and continues to gather and perfect his church. There is a way of escape from the coming wrath.
Let us then warn men of impending doom and tell them about Jesus, who is the only way to the Father (John 14:6). Here you have an excellent opportunity to tell people that they need to come to the one who bore his people's sins in his own body on the tree. For those who are his, he has taken all of God's just judgment against sin, not so that we will not have to experience any tribulation, but so that such tribulation as we have will be cleansing and not destructive. Jesus has drunk the cup of wrath for his own people, and gives them in exchange a cup of the new covenant in his blood. This is why God became man and lived among usso that he might save his people from their sin. What a wonderful message that is to give out now and throughout the year, whether we are living in times of prosperity or of want, of bane or of blessing.
The author is a teacher at Mid-America Reformed Seminary. Reprinted from New Horizons, December 2001.