Monday, April 26, 2010

"What is the Gospel?": A Book Review

I received this short volume (127 pages including appendix) as one of the many books freely distributed at this year's "Together for the Gospel" conference and read it during three brief sessions. The book is a very easy read, however, it is filled with solid, Biblical truth.

The author of this brief treatise, Greg Gilbert, serves with Mark Dever at Capitol Hill Baptist Church in Washington, D. C. He opens his work by noting various answers to the title's question given by several Christians, some of them evangelical. Quickly readers realize this is a more difficult question to answer than we initially thought. The simple truth is many professing followers of Christ do not have a clear grasp of the basics of the Gospel message. Gilbert wisely observes, "an emaciated gospel leads to emaciated worship."

With that, Gilbert is off and running in his effort to answer the question, "What is the Gospel?" Utilizing the Scripture, the author moves from chapter to chapter coving such topics as "God the Righteous Creator", "Man the Sinner", "Jesus Christ the Savior", and "Response--Faith and Repentance". Step by step, he addresses the key elements which comprise the Gospel message. This book is both profound and simple.

If I must find something in these pages to which I may object, perhaps it would be a brief sentence on page 82. Gilbert writes,

"When a person genuinely repents and believes in Christ, the Bible says that he is given new spiritual life."

Unless I am reading that sentence incorrectly, he and I disagree in the ordo salutis (order of salvation). The sentence implies Gilbert believes repentance and faith precede regeneration while I believe Scripture teaches the opposite. On the other hand, perhaps the author intends to say the exercising of repentance and faith indicates the person has been given new spiritual life.

Despite this ambiguity (or disagreement), Greg Gilbert has penned an outstanding theological work which doesn't read like the typical theological work. "What is the Gospel?" is a brilliant yet brief work which I recommend to all Christians who truly desire the answer to the question, "What is the Gospel?"

Friday, April 23, 2010

Pastor, What Do You Think: Birth Control

I've been receiving various questions from church members as well as students and have been addressing them either verbally or via e-mail. I thought it might be wise to take some of those questions and my responses and create blog posts from them. In this way, others may receive benefit (I hope!) from my response.

Is birth control Biblical?

Let me begin with a clear Biblical statement concerning children:

Behold, children are a heritage from the Lord, the fruit of the womb a reward. Let arrows in the hand of a warrior are the children of one’s youth. Blessed is the man who fills his quiver with them! He shall not be put to shame when speaks with his enemies in the gate. (Psalm 127:3-5)

God is the author of life and I view Him as “pro-child”! Children are not a burden or a curse but a blessing. Those who say “we don’t want kids” because children are “a pain”, “a burden”, “get in the way”, “will ruin our lifestyle”, etc., may wish to practice birth control. But, if they do, they do so for the wrong reasons.

Debbie and I have been blessed with 9 children and I truly mean “blessed”. God has been more than gracious to us in all areas of our lives but especially this one. We love children. If I had to go back and relive our marriage I wouldn’t change a thing when it comes to the number of children we have. Nine was the right number for us. And, yes, we did practice birth control.

The question of birth control and the Bible is frequently raised by believers. This has been the case especially over the past 50 years. Some religious organizations teach only natural birth control if permitted by Scripture while others claim artificial birth control methods are Biblical as well. Some say birth control should never be practiced. Here is my take on this question.

First, the older I get the less I like the terminology used in the question: “birth control”. What is normally meant by the question is not “birth control” but “conception control”. Only those who support the murderous act of abortion practice what could be deemed true “birth control”. So I approach this question from the perspective of regulating the conception of children rather than aborting them once they are conceived.

Certainly the Bible would forbid any form of “birth control” which results in the abortion of the unborn. Therefore, using any birth control technique which kills an unborn child is not supported by Scripture. There are such medications available which do exactly that. They prevent the birth of new children by detaching the fertilized egg from the uterine wall. Such medications and/or practices would be forbidden by Scripture since they result in the death of the unborn.

When it comes to preventing conception, though, the Bible is fairly silent on the matter. The commandment given in Genesis 1:28 is often used as grounds for not practicing birth control.

Be fruitful and multiple and fill the earth and subdue it and have dominion over the fish of the sea and over the birds of the heavens and over every living thing that moves on the earth.

Clearly the Lord wanted man and woman to give birth and raise children. The use of the words “fruitful”, “multiply”, and “fill” certainly imply more than one child. In the very next chapter, God also says:

It is not good that man should be alone; I will make him a helper fit for him. … Therefore a man shall leave his father and his mother and hold fast to his wife, and they shall become one flesh. (2:18; 24)

This passage, of course, ordains the institution of marriage. A man takes a woman, they unite as one flesh, and children are one result of this new union. It would appear to me, then, if we are going to honor God’s commandment in chapter 1 by not practicing birth control but keep having children then we should honor His words in chapter 2 by requiring all men to take a wife so we can have children. We all need to get married. However, the New Testament makes it clear this is not necessarily the case.

I wish that all were as I myself am. But each has his own gift from God, one of one kind and one of another. To the unmarried and the widows I say that it is good for them to remain sing as I am. (1 Corinthians 7:7-8)

Paul desires those not married remain unmarried if at all possible which seems to “fly in the face” of what is said in Genesis 1 and 2. Something has changed from Genesis 2 which provides a foundation for what Paul says in Corinthians.

If you ponder the reason why Paul wishes those single would remain that way, the answer becomes clear. Paul realizes individuals can be more devoted to Christ and His redemptive mission if they are unattached in this life. Hence, if you can remain unmarried, that is better.

The “change”, of course, is the fall of man in Genesis 3. Sin invades mankind and God begins His work of redemption. The beautiful life in Eden is now gone. No longer do we frolic, relax, and enjoy life and our God in that scenic place. Rather, we find ourselves in a world of evil, a necessity to labor in order to survive and a need for our own salvation as well as our effort to bring others to Christ. No longer do men take wives, have babies, and enjoy life forever with God with no cares, worries, or needs. Instead sin has placed additional burdens on each of us. There is work to be done, kingdom work, for our God. If Adam and Eve had not sinned then, perhaps, all people would marry, each couple would continue to produce children, and birth control would not even be considered let alone needed. But that is not what happened.

So men may take wives as indicated by God in Genesis chapter 2 or they may remain single as taught by Paul in 1 Corinthians. It appears to me the decision must be made on the basis of what impact a wife will have on their life in the redemptive mission of Christ. For some a wife will become a hindrance and a detractor. For others a wife is an absolute necessity.

If my understanding is correct then I believe I may extend it to children as well. Prior to the Fall, the environment was ideal for having many children. But the Fall has changed everything. Now husbands and wives must consider the impact of children upon their redemptive mission for Christ. That mission is impacted by time constraints, by financial considerations, and probably by a host of other things.

What I am saying is this: given the Fall, I believe the Bible is supportive of husbands and wives using wisdom and planning in all areas of their marriage including the having of their children. Such wisdom and planning would include not only the number of children but also the timing of the children. I see nothing in Scripture which forbids the use of birth control provided such control does not kill an unborn child.

With that premise said, I now turn to the method(s) of birth (conception) control. Does the Bible support artificial means of birth control (e.g., “the pill”) or simply natural means (sometimes referred to as “rhythm”)? Those who support only the natural form of birth control usually speak of artificial means as not Biblical because God is somehow better able to override the natural method of birth control than the artificial means. Such reasoning doesn’t speak very highly of God’s Sovereignty or His omnipotence in my opinion!

Some also believe natural means are the only acceptable means of birth control because, with artificial means, you are separating the act of intercourse from the possibility of conception. But common sense tells me if the possibility of conception must always exist during the act of intercourse then why should couples ever have intercourse after menopause (or even during pregnancy!)? So I don’t see this being a valid argument against artificial means either.

In reality, if the intention of using a birth control method is to better plan and provide for one’s family (i.e., number and timing of children) then what is the difference between using a natural method as compared to an artificial one? Personally, I see nothing in Scripture which forbids the use of artificial methods and no reason to introduce some new “law” and the beginning of a Christian “Talmud”!

Before using any method of birth control in your marriage, I would counsel you to consider these questions.

1. Why do you want to prevent the conception of another child? Are your reasons selfish? Or, have you prayed and believe this is the course God would have you take at this time in your marriage?

2. Are BOTH of you in agreement on this matter? Great harm may come to a marriage when there is disagreement on this subject. Be certain you both are committed on this action. I believe it would be wise to periodically review your decision to make certain you remain in agreement.

3. Have you researched the method of birth control you intend to use and, to the best of your knowledge, are sure it does not result in the abortion of an unborn child? It is best to research before engaging on a particular method than finding this out later.

4. If you are considering a form of birth control which will prevent a pregnancy anytime in your future marriage (e.g., tubal ligation) have you considered the long term ramifications of such a decision? Is such a procedure medically necessary? If not, you should research potential physical/mental harm such a procedure may cause on you in the future. Is there a good reason for pursuing this method instead of using a simpler form of birth control? Furthermore, you should think beyond yourself and even your spouse on this question. What about your siblings? What about your parents?