A Response to the Decision of the C of S General Assembly, 23 May 2011
PSALM 11:3 If the foundations be destroyed, what can the righteous do?
This Psalm refers to some unknown episode in the life of David, when such terrible things were taking place that it seemed that ‘the foundations’ of society were being destroyed. So, he cries out in grief in the third verse: ‘If the foundations be destroyed, what can the righteous do?’
Perhaps it was a time of national and moral shaking; when the institutions you were brought up to trust in, seemed to have been taken over by evil powers, seeking with all their might to uproot that which was holy, good, and true. Hebrews 12:26 and 27 speak of such times of dreadful shaking, in these words: ‘Yet once more I shake not the earth only, but also heaven . . . this word . . . signifies the removing of those things that are shaken, as of things that are made, that those things which cannot be shaken may remain.’
Six brief points will help us to open up this 11th Psalm:
(1) A time of shaking
In this year of 2011, we have seen instances of terrible shaking in the natural realm. One has only to think of the earthquake and tsunami in Japan, especially in Sendai, when thousands were swept to a watery death, and the foundations of a nuclear reactor were brought to the point of melt-down. Huge tornadoes, that nothing can withstand, have devastated much of the southern and middle western states in America. The Mississippi River is now shaking loose many a family home from its foundations, as a three-mile wide stretch of water sweeps down to New Orleans, destroying a tremendous amount of property, and sometimes, human lives. This year – in terms of Hebrews 12 and Psalm 11 – is a time of natural shaking.
This year has also been a time of intense shaking morally, when the moral foundations of once great churches in Britain and in the United States are being torn loose from their moorings in the Word of God. Earlier in this month of May, enough Presbyteries of the main-line Presbyterian Church in the United States of America (PCUSA) voted to allow ordination of people who practice homosexuality and other forms of unchastity. This past week, the General Assembly of the national Church of Scotland voted in the same direction; chastity is no longer functionally required of its ministry.
These votes represent nothing less than a massive attack on the foundations laid by God for his church. I watched the debates of the General Assembly of the Church of Scotland by internet this past Monday. Remarks by two of the commissioners openly showed how eager some were to destroy the foundations. One of them, a woman minister from America, said that Scripture was in no sense against homosexuality, lesbianism, transgenderism, and so forth. Another one, a Scottish minister, said that one could not take seriously the moral restrictions of Holy Scripture, because the Bible said many wrong things, and had to be corrected by the humanistic Enlightenment. And he listed the so-called mistakes in the moral teaching of the Word of God. I certainly could answer his charges; he exhibited very poor scholarship, but I need not deal with this tonight.
It is grievous when church people take the name of God on their lips, and then directly deny what he has clearly said. But it is nothing new; it did not start in the 18th c. Enlightenment. Isaiah had to cope with it over 600 years before Christ. In Isaiah 48:1, he wrote of such people in his own day: ‘which swear by the name of the LORD, and make mention of the God of Israel, but not in truth, or in righteousness.’ This deviousness was one of the causes of the soon-coming captivity.
Thus, we see earthquakes, tsunamis, tornadoes and floods in nature, but I would say that this direct attack on the eternal truth of the Word of God written, especially by those who are called to lead the church, is actually far more devastating for society. It is not that the trouble started only in 2011 with the Presbyterian Churches of the United States and of Scotland. The destruction of the foundations has been long in the making.
It is like hordes of termites undermining the foundations of a building; for years their destructive work is invisible, and then a gust of wind comes along and suddenly, down it goes! That has been our problem since the rise of unbelieving criticism of Holy Scripture for the last two and a half centuries. The mind of man, the philosophy of the ever-changing contemporary culture, is put above the Word of God. What many intellectual leaders of Christianity do not like in the Bible has been re-interpreted to the point of denial, so that the church will no longer be different from the secular culture. Then, they hope, we will be well spoken of by men; but what a price is paid: the foundations are removed, and the once stately building falls!
The PCUSA has lost over a million members since the merger of the southern and northern branches of Presbyterianism in America in 1983. The Church of Scotland reached its high point of membership and giving in 1956. Since that time, hundreds of thousands have walked away from the churches of Scotland; missions are more or less finished, and moral influence over the secular culture has been gone for years. How much longer both denominations (in Scotland and America) will be able to keep their doors open is a serious question. In terms of Hebrews 12:27, things are being shaken, and there may well be a removal process, with replacement by something else God has in mind, although right now we do not know what shape it may take.
In face of these massive losses, instead of repenting, and humbly asking God why so much is coming down around our heads, the leadership of major churches have generally sought to go on in an ever more radical direction. They are now able to take advantage of the loss of scriptural understanding by those in the pew, in order to get rid of the ancient foundations laid by God, so as to replace them with a different religion that will not be offensive to secularism. Yes, a different religion; it is against the Bible!
Of course, ‘the gates of hell cannot prevail against God’s true church;’ God will see to that, but in the short-run, there may be so much shaking that the church might have to take a different organizational form. And if so, God will show us the way. But whatever happens, Hebrews 12:28 assures us that God’s kingdom cannot be moved, and indeed, will increase through the shakings and removals, for when God lets one thing be shaken down and removed, he replaces it with something better: in the words of Hebrews 12:27: ‘that those things that cannot be shaken may remain.’
Well, I have said enough about what others are doing in upturning the foundations. Now let us come to ourselves, and to what we should be doing. At least, we can do something about that.
(2) David tells us to look to God
Today is a time for deep soul-searching by the true people of God. When we scarcely know which way to turn, David can help us, for he too was in perplexity. Verse 1 of Psalm 11 starts at the right place: ‘In the LORD put I my trust.’ The name used here for God is ‘Jehovah’ or Yahveh: it is the covenant name of the Lord. It takes us back to Exodus 3:14, where at the burning bush, Moses asked God what his name was, in order to tell Pharaoh by what authority he was ordering him to let go the Israelite slaves. God named himself out of the burning bush, which was not consumed (which, by the way, is still the motto of the Church of Scotland – nec tamen consumebatur – ‘And yet it was not consumed’). That name was ‘I AM THAT I AM’. It is based on the four letters of the Hebrew alphabet for existence; God is saying, I alone am the ever-existing One. I depend on nothing; everything less than me depends on me. Pharaoh depends on me; Egypt depends on me; the Red Sea depends on me; all of these created things have an origin, but I have no origin and no explanation; I, alone, always am; all else is less than me; all else is directly dependent upon my pleasure. Therefore, Moses could, with confidence and safety, march into the palace and instruct the proud monarch as to what God demanded of him.
It is the ‘I AM THAT I AM’ that Psalm 11 turns us to when the foundations are shaking, and likely to be destroyed. Since the great ‘I AM’ is absolutely and universally sovereign, none of his fierce enemies, including Satan – none of the opposers of his truth, whether inside or outside the official church membership – can raise a finger against him, unless he gives them breath and allows it. And if he allows it, he will soon enough bring them into account for their wicked behaviour.
David is clear in verse 2, that those who attack righteousness are put in the category of wickedness by God himself. This shows us that no matter how much the very foundations of morality and truth are shaking, right is still right, and wrong is still wrong, because the character of the holy and eternal God is the foundation of righteousness, and he will see to the destruction – in due season – of wickedness. To go against the Word of God, and the people of God, is pronounced by the Lord himself as putting oneself into the category of what God calls ‘wickedness’. This is not to be written off as judgmentalism; it is the plain teaching of the Word of God, little though the relativists like it.
Lest we be overly intimidated by the power of the wicked in church and culture, David tells us even more about God in verse 4. He reminds us that ‘The LORD is in his holy temple, the LORD’S throne is in heaven: his eyelids try the children of men.’ Plainly stated, this means that God is just as much in sovereign control when unbelievers take charge of the church as he is in times of revival. Only we do not see it, and do not feel it. Because of that, we tend to feel depressed and hopeless, as though the wicked are really as powerful as they would like to be, and that God is not paying any attention to how they have torn loose the foundations. After losing an important vote, we may even be tempted to think that God actually approves of movements that are clearly contrary to his Word. If you think that, then a moment’s reflection will show you where the thought came from; it was not from above!
David reminds us that God is in complete control of all that happens on earth; he is closely watching everything, including corruption in the church. Psalm 121 reminds us that ‘he that keepeth Israel shall neither slumber nor sleep.’
(3) Why is God allowing such moral evil at the roots of the foundations?
But if it be true that God is still in absolute charge of all things, that his kingdom reigneth over all, what then can he be doing? Why is a sovereign God letting things happen that lay waste his church and dishonour his holy name? Why did he not readily answer our prayers and fasting for the General Assembly (at least, in a way that we could see it)?
Verse 5 of Psalm 11 tells us what lies behind such horrendous shakings: ‘The LORD trieth the righteous . . .’ Job said: ‘When I have gone through the fires, I shall come forth as gold.’ Romans 5 says that tribulations work patience, and patience, experience (that is, character). Evidently, the most precious thing to God in the passage of the history of the world is the development of Christ-like character in the lives of his people; in his church. He will put the church through all kinds of experiences to make her like the one he loves the most, Jesus Christ, his eternal Son. That is the point of Romans 8:28-30:
Verse 28 says: ‘And we know that all things work together for good to them that love God . . .’ Then verse 29 explains that the ‘all things’ are working for God’s supreme purpose in creation: we are predestinated ‘to be conformed to the image of his Son.’ Later verses (35-39) speak of the terrible things which can happen: ‘tribulation, distress, persecution . . . peril, sword . . .’ Some of these things are terrible, yet none of these will ever be allowed to happen to one child of God, unless it can be an instrument to make him or her more like Jesus.
Hebrews 5:8 says of the holy, innocent Lamb of God, spotless and pure, that ‘though he were a Son, yet learned he obedience by the things which he suffered.’ The servant is no better than his master; if Jesus went through sufferings, criticism, and unpopularity, we too must be prepared to follow him. It is all intended to make us more like him: that is the supreme good; the final goal of life: to be like Jesus. God is always doing that, in good times and in bad times, and perhaps especially in bad times.
As far as our churches are concerned, this is a bad time, but God is working as much as in good times, and his purposes are being accomplished, even in such things. Unless something good can come out of it, God allows no difficulty, and that is what we must remember in these very disappointing days for the church. God is wonderfully doing something behind the scenes that we cannot yet perceive; he is bringing the true portion of his church to the increase of Christ-likeness. If we could see what he is bringing to pass, we would be overflowing with triumphant praise, even tonight! Or to put it in terms of Hebrews 12:27, God is removing those things that can be shaken, so as to replace them with a fuller expression of that kingdom that cannot be shaken, but can only increase. As the Rev. William Still of Aberdeen used to say: ‘Where Satan is active, God is more active!’
(4) How do we know what is wicked and what is righteous?
Several whom I heard speak at the General Assembly would immediately deny that sexual promiscuity is in any sense wicked, or that strict male/female morality is necessarily righteous. Who can know such things? Is it not intolerant judgmentalism to assert that one form of sexual activity is wrong, and the other is right? That is certainly what relativists would almost force you to believe, if they could do so! The less you agree with them, the less tolerant they become!
Let me be brief and to the point. As Isaiah said of old: ‘To the law and to the testimony!’ The Holy Scriptures make it clear that God considers it wicked to step outside the monogamous male/female relationship. God put Adam and Eve in the Garden of Eden, as husband and wife. Marriage is the first human institution, a creation ordinance. God honoured and protected this exclusive, familial relationship between man and woman in the Ten Commandments: ‘Thou shalt not commit adultery’ (Exod. 20). In Exodus 18, and several other places, the Lord strictly forbade homosexual activity. It is the same in the New Testament. In 1 Corinthians 6:9-10, Paul, under the Holy Spirit’s inspiration, wrote:
Do you not know that the unrighteous will not inherit the kingdom of God? Do not be deceived: neither the sexually immoral, nor idolaters, nor adulterers, nor men who practice homosexuality, or thieves, nor the greedy, nor drunkards, nor revilers, nor swindlers will inherit the kingdom of God.
Yet the very next verse gives us bright hope for sexual sinners; it gives us the divine viewpoint: ‘And such were some of you. But you were washed, you were sanctified, you were justified in the name of the Lord Jesus Christ and by the Spirit of God.’
God’s church has been blessed over the centuries by the holy lives and ministries of people who had been heavily into various forms of homosexuality, lesbianism, and adultery, but by faith they came under the blood, and we must praise him for this! Some true servants of God have struggled with same sex attraction all of their lives, and yet by the Holy Spirit’s power have lived lives of chastity and holiness. I know such people, and praise the Lord for them!
(5) Our attitude to those struggling with sin, and to those who argue in favour of unchastity (i.e., against the clear teaching of Scripture on the matter)
1 Corinthians 6:11, as we just saw, indicates that some who were involved in homosexual activity came over to the Lord and his way of purity. Let me make it clear here, that God’s church always is called to stand with everyone who is struggling with sinful behaviour patterns, as defined by God’s written Word, and to offer them glorious hope, through the blood of Christ shed for sinners, and through the Holy Spirit to indwell and sanctify us all. I have been in the Christian ministry for well over forty years, and during that long period have spent a fair amount of time talking to people who struggle with same-sex attraction. Indeed, I was talking to someone along these lines less than a month ago.
In every case, I have never set myself up as superior to them, or indicated that I am above struggling with many kinds of sin, but always offer the grace of God, in the holy blood of Jesus shed for sinners, as their hope, and the Holy Spirit as their supernatural power to deal with things that tear them apart. When the church is faithful to Scripture, she always humbly invites everyone, no matter what their present struggle or past sins, to join her on pilgrimage to the ‘city that hath foundations.’
The Rev. James Philip so often used to quote the verse from Isaiah, that ‘the Lord is waiting to be gracious’ to us; his arms are wide open, no matter what our sin and shame, and I often think of that verse when speaking to folk whose struggles are past our ability to understand. The ground is always level at the foot of the cross; that is how all of us got here.
But how do we think about those who are seeking to destroy the moral foundations that God has laid in his holy Word, who are calling ‘evil good, and good evil’? Psalm 11:6 indicates that we must never give way to bitterness against such people, for God will handle them just right: ‘Upon the wicked he shall rain snares, fire and brimstone, and an horrible tempest: this shall be the portion of their cup.’
Do we really believe that God will punish the sin of the finally impenitent with torment and fire? Why not? If we believe in Jesus, we will automatically accept his teaching on the dreadful reality of hell (as in Matt. 5:21, 22, 29, 30). Above every other issue in your life, avoid hell! Read Revelation chapters 19 and 20, and get on your knees, and get your children on their knees! Nothing else remotely compares with the importance of where you and I must spend an endless eternity. The liberal theory that since God is love, everyone will be saved, goes directly against the Word of God, and especially against the teachings of our Lord Jesus Christ. If he is really Lord, then we will accept his teaching on eternity, and will ask him to help us get ready for it.
I have been told by an elderly person who was present, that the minister of First Presbyterian Church of Jackson, Mississippi, in the 1940s, once preached on hell. He was not an emotional man at all, yet as he went through this solemn sermon, he kept out a handkerchief to dry his eyes; it was dripping wet by the time he sorrowfully finished! If we could see what will be the latter state of the Presbyterian leaders who deny the Word of God, and the holiness of the God who gave it, we would join the old Mississippi minister in brokenness and weeping for where such people must wind up, unless they repent. In other words, Psalm 11:6 is as true as God is true: ‘fire, brimstone, and a horrible tempest’ shall be the portion of those who live and die as relativists, especially when they knew better! God will handle their final judgment in a magnificently just, and utterly holy way. The whole universe will have to agree with it! Let us relieve ourselves of any tendency to bitterness against hypocrites, by leaving final judgment to him.
Instead of bitterness, or even hatred, against those who are destroying, to the fullest of their unconsecrated abilities, the foundations of God’s church, we will weep for their latter end, and will earnestly pray for their conversion, and will take the risk of speaking to them, and offering God’s grace to them, come what may! With St. Paul, we must say with feeling, ‘I beseech you, be reconciled to God.’ ‘I beg you, with tears, to come back to him!’ ‘Christ receives sinners, of whom I am chief!’
Finally, concluding remarks on the Psalmist’s counsel on:
(6) What must the righteous must do when the foundations are destroyed?
Our sixth point is much the same as our second point, but now we have more to build on. In one simple word, we must look to God! That is the message of verse 1, ‘In the Lord put I my trust’; in verse 4, we remember that ‘the Lord is in his holy temple’; in verse 5, we keep in mind that God is at work right now, ‘trying the righteous, and hating those who love violence’; in verse 6, we look at God, and remember that he will apportion fire and brimstone to the arrogant church people, who refuse to repent of their hatred of his Word, and in verse 7, we remember that ‘his eye is on the sparrow’, and ‘his countenance doth behold the upright.’
‘His eye is on the sparrow.’ You know how it is when a young mother gets off the bus on Princes Street with her little two-year old son. He is very proud that he can walk by himself, and very keen to do so. The mother tactfully lets him walk about, but how carefully she is hovering nearby; watching his every move, so as to intervene if he gets into trouble. Her watching the little one is a beam of the love of God for his children: ‘his countenance doth behold the upright.’ If we are in their number, it is only by sheer grace to the unworthy; not by our own deserts.
But what does it mean, in the most practical sense, to look to this God in this situation of shaking? It means that we will stand on his Word of holiness, without undue worry about what others will think of us for doing so. In some ages, it is not very respectable to stand with God. But what is really lost, if your stance is unpopular? Nothing whatsoever! As Isaiah once said, ‘the Egyptians are men, and not gods.’ Why should we worry over the opinions of men, who must soon enough die? ‘To look to God’ means to orientate our lives by his holiness and love; cost what it may in the short run. The lost world’s only hope is that the church will love God, and love worldly people enough, to be blessedly different from the world! A merging with the worldly culture is not a sign of love; it is a sign of not caring what happens to them!
Therefore, every relationship and every organization must be evaluated in the light of eternity. All things have to be checked out in terms of who God says he is in his Word, and what he would have us do. There are times when we are called to re-evaluate things thoughtfully and prayerfully, in the Master’s blessed presence. This is one such time. Hence, we must be seeking his face in such matters, more than ever, and he will gladly lift his countenance upon us, and direct us in his steps. He said he would do so! Psalm 32:8: ‘I will guide thee with mine eye.’
Whatever Holyrood Abbey Church, and others who share its faith and practice, may decide to do in denominational terms, the key issue is to seek to be pleasing to our holy Lord Jesus Christ! If Jesus says certain behaviour patterns are wrong, then they are wrong, pure and simple, and we cannot appear to condone such things, even though it is easier to close our eyes, and pretend not to see.
This is the surest way to show true love to those who need it the most. Yes, some of them may well see it as judgment, not love, but love is always defined by what God’s Word says it is. If we compromise to please them in the short run, then both we and they will lose everlastingly. But if we truly love them, then we will pay any price to be faithful to Jesus Christ and his passion for the Father’s holiness and honour! May we say with Psalm 69, and then with the Gospel writer, who applied the verse to Jesus, after he had cleansed the temple: ‘Zeal for thine house hath consumed me!’ This is the very best thing we can do for people, who are caught up in false thinking and destructive practices. The more we look to God, the more it will help them. The church owes the world holiness, or at very least, a sincere effort in that good direction, and constant repentance and humility when we fail.
We are on a pilgrimage to an everlasting heavenly city; we are in this journey for the long run. Let us humbly and lovingly invite those who have courted the favour of this passing world to join us by ‘the marvellous grace of our loving Lord’ (to quote an old hymn). Let us stretch out our arms of kindness and faith to all who are struggling with the passions that consume them, and invite them to join us, unworthy pilgrims, to ‘a city that hath foundations’; a city which is cordially open to anyone who sincerely wishes to love God better than their sins.
In closing, I have spoken of the apostate church cultures of Britain, America, and the secular West. But that is not the whole story. Dr. Philip Jenkins, a Welshman, who is professor in Pennsylvania State University, and the famous author of The Coming of Global Christianity, has shown us that while the rich West has turned its back on the Lord (who made it great), much of Africa, Eastern Asia (especially China), and South America is coming by the millions to faith in Jesus Christ. These nations, who may constitute the greatest movement of Christianity since the day of Pentecost, are characterized by a profound faith in the Triune God, and in the supernatural teachings of his written Word. Liberal, unbelieving Scotland and America are not the wave of the future; at least, not so long as they continue in unbelief and unholiness.
The future belongs to those who profoundly believe in the truth of God, who has spoken truly in his holy Word. The churches of what Jenkins calls ‘the global south’ are full to overflowing, and their cultures are beginning to change in a Godward direction, because they believe in the Lord, accept without reservation his Word, and thus have his Holy Spirit. Let us seek the grace to do whatever is necessary to join them! God will guide all praying Christians as to how specifically to do this in our own Western countries.
God has called us to serve him in a time of great shaking, but his Word reminds us that those things that can be shaken are being shaken, in order that those things which cannot be shaken may remain. The foundations on earth are being terribly shaken, but our citizenship is in heaven; in a city that hath foundations, whose builder and maker is God. That is where our true foundations are! As we fix the eyes of our faith on him who has established these unshakeable foundations above, he will stabilize us here below, in and through every earthquake, and will make clear what to do next.
In conclusion, as we contemplate what God would have us to do next, I take you to another Psalm, to Psalm 25: especially verses 15 to 22. These verses help fill out what Psalm 11:1 tells us ‘In the Lord, put I my trust.’ So, let us take to heart Psalm 25:15-22:
Mine eyes are ever toward the LORD; for he shall pluck my feet out of the net. Turn thee unto me, and have mercy upon me; for I am desolate and afflicted. The troubles of my heart are enlarged: O bring thou me out of my distresses. Look upon mine affliction and my pain; and forgive all my sins. Consider mine enemies; for they are many; and they hate me with cruel hatred. O keep my soul, and deliver me: let me not be ashamed; for I put my trust in thee. Let integrity and uprightness preserve me; for I wait on thee. Redeem Israel, O God, out of all his troubles.
Psalm 11:3: ‘If the foundations be destroyed, what can the righteous do?’ The answer is in Psalm 11:1: ‘In the Lord put I my trust.’ The Covenant LORD – ‘I AM’ – Jehovah – will make clear the pathway before every willing person and every yielded congregation. As we go home tonight, let us memorize and claim two promises concerning what we do next. First, Isaiah 48:17: ‘I am the LORD thy God, which teacheth thee to profit, which leadeth thee by the way that thou shouldest go.’ And secondly, James 1:5: ‘If any of you lack wisdom, let him ask of God, that giveth to all men liberally, and upbraideth not; and it shall be given to him.’
Dr Douglas F. Kelly is Richard Jordan Professor of Theology at Reformed Theological Seminary in Charlotte, North Carolina. This sermon was delivered in Holyrood Abbey Church of Scotland, Edinburgh, during evening worship, Sunday 29 May 2011.
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