Burning the sacred?

The United States Senate is considering a constitutional amendment to ban the desecration of the American flag. Now, I’ve never once considered burning an American flag nor am I likely to burn one in the future. But I am absolutely against a constitutional amendment of this nature for a couple of reasons.

As a believer in the Lord Jesus Christ I cannot accept the language of this proposed amendment – “banning the desecration of the American flag”. To desecrate something means to violate the sanctity of it. Sanctity means something is holy or sacred. So this amendment, by definition, explicitly forbids the desecration of the American flag because the flag is considered a sacred, holy object. On this issue the Bible could not be more clear. God and God alone is holy and only He deserves to be treated as such. To attribute sacred or holy status to an object is to make an idol of it and I will not do it. To do so would be an affront to God.

Furthermore, I oppose this amendment because it runs contrary to the very foundation of the United States. Ours is a country founded on liberty. The Bill of Rights was authored specifically to limit the power of government over the liberties they viewed as God given.

Encroaching on the individual liberties of citizens in favor of protecting symbols of the state is the conduct of totalitarian countries not free ones. Besides, the respect due to a symbol in inherently found in that which the symbol represents. The American flag only deserves respect as long as the country it represents deserves respect.

It is ironic indeed that the country that embraces individual liberty to the point of allowing the “desecration” of its national symbols is the country whose symbols very few would want to “desecrate.” But, the country that violates the liberty of its citizens for the sake of protecting symbols is the country whose symbols are no longer worthy of protection.

An amendment to prevent the “desecration” of the American flag may yet be adopted and those who see the flag as sacred will have succeeded in making it illegal to burn the object of their worship – all while the principles of individual liberty once represented by the flag go up in smoke.


The death of our enemies

The recent death of terrorist Abu Musab al-Zarqawi has reminded me of my experience on September 11, 2001. I wrote about it in the September 25, 2001 issue of the Indiana Baptist in an editorial entitled, “Demanding Justice?”:

I wanted justice.

After denial gave way to belief. When the shock began to subside. When I finally accepted the fact terrorists had hijacked four American passenger planes and crashed them into various targets along the eastern seaboard I wanted justice.

I was in Alpharetta, Georgia at the North American Mission Board when I heard the news on September 11, 2001. I was scheduled to fly home later that day but ended up waiting at a Hertz rental car counter for almost five hours before I was able to get a car for my 9-hour drive to Indianapolis. I had a lot of time to consider the events of the day and ample opportunity to see first-hand a nation thrown into near chaos. The more I thought and the more I saw, the more I wanted justice.

Images came at me so fast that day I barely had time to process what was happening. There was the prayer time at the North American Mission Board chapel where I saw brothers and sisters coming before God able only to trust in His sovereignty over something we could not understand.

There was the time I spent with the man who drove me to the airport. A native of South Africa with a great deal of experience with this sort of thing, he told me he was indeed a Christian (seminary trained) but wanted me to understand the only way to deal with terrorists is to “hunt them down and exterminate them.”

There was news of 1,500 passengers stranded in Atlanta’s airport and of the restaurant owners who fed them for free.

I saw a man come into the Hertz office and get incredibly upset because the lady behind the desk was going to have to run a few things through the computer in order to get him on his way. The delay, she said, would be about 10 minutes. He almost blew his top, as if there were not thousands of people having a much worse day.

I waited in gas lines in Murphreesboro, Tennessee.

Mostly I had time to think, and it occurred to me, every now and then God gives us a glimpse at just how despicable sin really is. The terrorists who attacked America showed the world what full-strength sin looks like. It is easy for us to look at the behavior of those particular sinners and see how God would be justified in pouring out His wrath on them. I was just about to pray for that very thing when I saw a sign.

On the marquee of a church sign was the phrase, “May God give us justice.”

The notion sent chills down my spine. Then something else occurred to me. I am just as deserving of God’s justice as are these terrorists.

Oh, I’ve never murdered innocent people by the thousands the way they did, but my heart was just as dark and my nature just as depraved as theirs. God does not differentiate between sins. On my own I stand just as guilty before a Holy God as they do. There is just one difference. Rather than subject me to the justice I so richly deserve God, in His love and mercy, chose to give me grace instead. Had God removed His hand of grace from me and turned me over to my own sinful nature I would have been capable of crimes just as despicable. But he showed me grace.

In a temporal sense it is appropriate to desire justice. In Romans 13 Paul points out that this is the purpose for which governments have been established. And it is my sincere hope the perpetrators of this act are brought to justice in this sense. But I will not pray for God to extend to them His eternal justice.

After the attacks Senator John McCain stood on the floor of the U.S. Senate and said to the terrorists, “We are coming. God may show you mercy. We will not.”

As believers our prayer should be “May God show you mercy.” We should not merely recognize it as a possibility but genuinely desire it.

I had wanted justice. But if everyone deserving of justice got it that would include me. I do not want justice. I want mercy. I want grace. And because of the terrible price Jesus paid to secure that grace I want as many people as possible to receive it. How could I want anything else?

God has used this most recent occasion to show me, once again, the wonder of His grace and just how much I don’t deserve it. He has also used it to convict me of a failure of mine.

It’s very easy to view a person like al-Zarqawi as something altogether different from one’s self. He has committed acts of terrorism. He has brutally beheaded innocent people. And, for the longest time, I wanted him captured or killed just as much as anyone. But the jubilation I’ve seen with the news of his death has disturbed me. I’m pleased he is no longer able to kill and terrorize, but his death is not something to be celebrated.

Scripture commands us to pray for our enemies. Jesus, during the Sermon on the Mount said, “Ye have heard that it hath been said, Thou shalt love thy neighbour, and hate thine enemy. But I say unto you, Love your enemies, bless them that curse you, do good to them that hate you, and pray for them which despitefully use you, and persecute you;” (Matthew 5:44,45)

We need to be praying for our enemies.

Standing on the promises of God … for now

Does God change His mind?

At first glance this question seems ridiculously easy. Of course God does not change His mind. The Bible explicitly says He does not:

“God is not a man, that He should lie, nor a son of man, that He should repent; has He said, and will He not do it? Or has He spoken, and will He not make it good?” – Numbers 23:19

“And also the Glory of Israel will not lie or change His mind; for He is not a man that He should change His mind.” – 1 Samuel 15:29

There, that should settle the matter… but, not so fast. There is a school of false teaching that is creeping (and in some cases charging) into churches at an alarming rate known as Open Theism. Open Theism teaches that God does not know all things, is constantly learning, and is subject to changing His mind when presented with information He did not previously have.

Adrian Rogers, the late pastor of Bellevue Baptist Church in Memphis, Tenn., used to say, “Did it ever occur to you that nothing occurs to God?”

But Open Theism embraces the notion that things occur to God all the time. And, to be fair, there are verses in the Bible that support this claim. One of the more commonly used ones is:

“So the Lord changed His mind about the harm which He said He would do to His people.” – Exodus 32:14

So, what do we have here? Many people, upon reading these passages will say, “Aha! A contradiction in the Bible.” But what we really have here is a paradox. A paradox is an apparent contradiction that, upon further scrutiny, can be resolved. So how do we resolve this?

A key principle in biblical interpretation is that verses are to be interpreted in light of other verses. If one passage seems ambiguous then perhaps another verse speaks more clearly on the subject and can shed some light. Another principle is to pay careful attention to the language. Is it literal or figurative? The Bible makes use of several different figures of speech: similes, metaphors, personifications, euphemisms, hyperbole, irony, anthropomorphisms, and typology. We need to see if any of these are in use. It is these last two that I want to take a closer look at.

An anthropomorphism is just a really big word which means describing God in human terms. A good example is 2 Chronicles 16:9, “The eyes of the Lord run to and fro throughout the whole earth.” We know from Scripture that God is a spirit and does not have actual eyes. This is just a description in human terms to help us understand that nothing escapes God’s notice.

Typology is a special kind of symbolism where a person or thing in the Old Testament foreshadows a person or thing in the New Testament. When we refer to something as a “type” of Christ we mean it does something which corresponds to Jesus’ actions or character. The brazen serpent in Numbers 21:8 is a “type” of crucifixion.

Now, as for the resolution of our paradox: The passages in Numbers and 1 Samuel are clearly intended as literal. There is no wiggle room there. The Bible says God does not change His mind nor does He repent. So, we are left with the passage in Exodus. What other possibilities exist there?

In Exodus 32 is God actually reacting to new information or is He acting in human terms for the benefit of our understanding (an anthropomorphism)? Let’s look at the whole passage in context: In verse 10 God said, “Now then let Me alone, that My anger may burn against them, and that I may destroy them…” But Moses interceded, saying, “Turn from Thy burning anger and change Thy mind about doing harm to Thy people…” To which God responds in verse 14, “So the Lord changed His mind about the harm which He said He would do to His people.”

First, God did not actually promise to destroy. He said “let me alone so that my anger may burn against them.” The condition of Israel’s destruction was Moses leaving God alone and God knew Moses wasn’t going to do that.

Second, God’s judgment of Israel comes after the law was given. Remember, the whole purpose of the law is to show us our need for grace. So, now the law is given and God is prepared to judge but He does not because of the actions of an intercessor. In this instance Moses is a “type” of Christ. God turns from judgment to grace in this case because of the work of Christ. In John 5:39 Jesus said, “You search the Scriptures, because you think that in them you have eternal life; and it is these that bear witness of Me.”

God did not change His mind concerning Israel. He gave us an example, a “type,” of how he would withhold His judgment on the basis of the redemptive work of a mediator, Christ. This passage, like all of the Old Testament, points ahead to the cross of Christ while all of the New Testament points back to it. Everyone in history who has ever been saved has been saved by God’s grace on the basis of the redemptive work of Jesus Christ.

Of course Open Theists argue against this and continue to cling to a false teaching. Ironically, many of them continue to claim they have wonderful assurance of salvation on the basis of God’s promises. Which brings to mind an old hymn…

“Standing on the promises that cannot fail,
When the howling storms of doubt and fear assail,
By the living Word of God I shall prevail,
Standing on the promises of God.”

My question is this: How can you trust you have eternal security if there is even the slightest chance God will one day be presented with new information that will compel Him to change His mind?

Let me answer. You can’t have assurance. The very best you can say, if you believe God doesn’t know everything and is subject to changing His mind, is this:

“I have eternal security, unless …”

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