Some Thoughts on Justice and Accusations

When significant accusations are made against a person, especially when issues of loss are involved, how do we deal with them? Do we take the modern legal motto of innocent until proven guilty? Do we use the criminal justice standard that says that guilt must be proven beyond doubt? Do we take the civil standard that guilt must be proved simply by preponderance of the evidence? Do we take the line of the #MeToo movement in which we believe all accusers regardless of evidence?

The problem here is that none of the above standards is the best standard. Why? None of those is the standard of the word of God. It may surprise you to realize that the Lord actually spoke quite clearly to his people about what must be the standard met in a case of accusation. And the Lord made it clear that there are also consequences for malicious false accusations.

Deuteronomy 19:15-21 – 15 “A single witness shall not suffice against a person for any crime or for any wrong in connection with any offense that he has committed. Only on the evidence of two witnesses or of three witnesses shall a charge be established. 16 If a malicious witness arises to accuse a person of wrongdoing, 17 then both parties to the dispute shall appear before the Lord, before the priests and the judges who are in office in those days. 18 The judges shall inquire diligently, and if the witness is a false witness and has accused his brother falsely, 19 then you shall do to him as he had meant to do to his brother. So you shall purge the evil from your midst. 20 And the rest shall hear and fear, and shall never again commit any such evil among you. 21 Your eye shall not pity. It shall be life for life, eye for eye, tooth for tooth, hand for hand, foot for foot.

First, note that a charge will not be established without a witness (cf. Num 35:30; Due 17:6-7). The idea of a he said she said or a she said he said claim is simply not admissible. I’m not going to deny that, in our era of modern technology, video surveillance, DNA evidence, and all the rest perhaps this model could shift a bit. There are methods of proof that were not available to the men of the second millennium BC. But it should be a normal standard that we do not attempt to adjudicate claims of one person against another person without a witness and without any sort of physical evidence. Something other than the claim of the accuser has to point toward the guilt of the accused.

Note, in the issue of witnesses, the Scripture is also very clear that any person with evidence regarding a crime is obligated to come forward. It is a crime to conceal a crime in the biblical standard (cf. Lev 5:1).

But, if a person makes an accusation, particularly one that includes consequences for the one accused, the accuser also is to be held accountable for their actions. There is no such thing as a free pass at making a charge against someone if that charge is intended to do the accused harm. Deuteronomy 19:19-21 above shows us that one found to be bringing a false accusation was actually subject to the penalty they attempted to have imposed on the one they accused if they are found to be a malicious witness (cf. Due 5:20). Deuteronomy 17:6-7 adds the provision that one who accuses another of murder must also be the first one to begin the execution of the murderer. Thus, God intended to dissuade people from making false accusations by making it impossible for a person to simply accuse and then walk away.

You might wonder how it could be that God would speak so strongly seemingly on the side of the accused. Obviously the Lord does not want victims to not see justice. Obviously God does not want people to be afraid to speak out and tell the truth. So why would God make this seem so hard?

The answer is one of ultimate justice. When dealing with fallen humanity, we must understand that mistakes are going to be made in our criminal and civil courts. And we must make a decision as to where we err. Will we err on the side of punishing the innocent or acquitting the guilty? Obviously we want to do neither, as both are injustices. But the Lord has shown us in his word that it is better to err on the side of not punishing someone than to err on the side of wrongly punishing someone.

Why would that be? The answer lies in the truth of the absolute justice of God. Even as we are prone to error in our judgments, the Lord our God never makes a mistake. God will perfectly do justice. No one who appears to get away with a crime in their lifetime will find that their sin goes unpunished. God is just. He will always see to it that justice is done.

If we punish someone wrongfully, we can do nothing to give back to them what they have lost. But if we fail to punish a person who turns out to be guilty, the Lord will perfectly do justice. Thus, a belief in the Lord and in his word is what helps us to see exactly where to risk erring.

Let’s also remember that biblical justice, as a friend pointed out to me recently, is more than punishing the guilty. Biblical justice is about the glory of God. Justice is about restoring as much as possibly can be restored when wrong is done or crimes are committed. Justice is also about sanctifying people, preventing future crimes, bringing about purity in a land, and teaching all people to treat all people as image-bearers of God.

The hardest part of this concept given our social and political environment is that I would never want a man or woman, a boy or girl, to be afraid to tell the truth. If a person has been abused or attacked, they need to know that it is safe for them to speak out. At the same time, we must not develop a culture in which every accusation is so completely believed as to destroy a person’s career and reputation without any form of evidence.

What then must we do? IN general, we love those who accuse and love those who are accused, protecting the dignity of all humanity—people created in the image of God. We do not pretend that any person’s accusation is not a big deal. We do not make anyone think we will not take them seriously. And we counsel, and we apply the healing grace of the gospel to all our wounds. But that cannot mean that we automatically pre-judge all who are accused. As we see in Leviticus 19:15, “You shall do no injustice in court. You shall not be partial to the poor or defer to the great, but in righteousness shall you judge your neighbor.” We do not defer to the strong or the weak, the rich or the poor, the accuser or the accused.

We love the accused by seeking genuine, biblical justice. Are they guilty? Is there real evidence? Are there witnesses? If there are , we love the guilty best by doing justice so as to punish crimes and to call for repentance. WE preach the gospel to the guilty and point them to the Savior. That may not get a woman her job back or keep a man out of prison, but eternal life is worth far more than any loss in this present world.

But what if the accusation is proven false? Then we must consider biblical justice there too. False accusers are attempting, for some reason, to damage other people with their words. Can we discern intent? Can we find out that a person was malicious in their motivation? IF so, then we should enact just penalties for that crime.

What if we cannot discern intent? What if there may be a genuine false belief based on a problem with memory or simple misunderstanding? Or what if the one accused might be guilty but we just cannot prove it? Is justice thwarted? Of course not. In such a situation we entrust the situation to the eternal justice of God, we strive to biblically comfort the hurting and the oppressed, and we move forward knowing that, at the final day of judgment, the Lord of Heaven and Earth will do rightly.

Six Degrees of Kevin Bacon as a Hermeneutic

Did you ever play Six Degrees of Kevin Bacon? Someone names a celebrity. You have to name a celebrity who appeared with that celebrity in a film. Then you take the second celebrity, name a celebrity who appeared with that celebrity in another film, and continue the chain. The goal is to arrive at actor, Kevin Bacon, as quickly as possible, within six degrees of separation.

For example, start with Charlton Heston:

  • Charlton Heston appeared with Val Kilmer in Tombstone (perhaps my favorite movie).
  • Val Kilmer starred with Tom Cruise in Top Gun.
  • Tom Cruise appeared with Kevin Bacon in A Few Good men.

In my study of 1 Peter 3:18-22, I discovered that Peter was using a method of topical connection somewhat similar to Six Degrees of Kevin Bacon to bring encouragement to Christians. Of course, it is my civic duty to share this with you.

1 Peter 3:18-22 – For Christ also suffered once for sins, the righteous for the unrighteous, that he might bring us to God, being put to death in the flesh but made alive in the spirit, in which he went and proclaimed to the spirits in prison, because they formerly did not obey, when God’s patience waited in the days of Noah, while the ark was being prepared, in which a few, that is, eight persons, were brought safely through water. Baptism, which corresponds to this, now saves you, not as a removal of dirt from the body but as an appeal to God for a good conscience, through the resurrection of Jesus Christ, who has gone into heaven and is at the right hand of God, with angels, authorities, and powers having been subjected to him.

Peter is here offering encouragement to suffering Christians. In the process, he walks us through some really obscure topics to make his point. And, like Six Degrees to Kevin Bacon, the end of one thought connects us to the beginning of a seemingly unrelated thought. And somehow, when it is all said and done, Peter starts with Jesus and returns to Jesus.

How does that work?

  • Jesus suffered in the flesh, but was made alive in the spirit.
  • Speaking of the spirit, in the spirit, Jesus preached to spirits who were in prison for their disobedience during the days of Noah.
  • Speaking of Noah, Noah built the ark and was one of only 8 people saved from the waters of the flood.
  • Speaking of water, that reminds me of baptism which saves us through an appeal to God based on the resurrection of Jesus.

Here we see a set of leaps that take us through the mystical, from Jesus to Jesus, and leave us with hope. How this all gives us hope, well, that is the topic for Sundays’ sermon. But for now, know that the hermeneutical principle of Six Degrees of Kevin Bacon has played a role.

Why Are You Happy about the Rescue of the Soccer Team in Thailand?

How sweet it is to have good new celebrated all over the Internet? From every angle, left, right, center, whatever, people are showing gratitude for the rescue of those kids and their coach trapped in the cave. And I totally agree.

But, just to be that guy, let me ask you a question: why? Why are you celebrating that these 13 people have been rescued? Don’t write me off here. Stop and really address it. Why?

I’m happy because… What do you say? I’m happy because they are alive. Great, why? It’s good that they did not die in the cave. I agree; why? Does your worldview actually have an answer to why this good thing, this thing that everybody who is not a moral degenerate agrees is good, is in fact good?

If your worldview is one of naturalism, I think you will be harder pressed than you think to tell me why the rescue of these people is good. Maybe you can argue that one of those 13 could possibly go on to do something for humanity. Maybe you will argue that giving the globe a psychological boost is positive. Maybe you will argue that this pattern of giving, if imitated, will improve human flourishing. But in truth, are any of those reasons satisfactory? Do any of those get down to the heart of why this is an actual moral good?

In truth, only a worldview that sees human life as valuable, valuable for a valid reason, has a real reason to celebrate. If all that human beings are is a collection of fluids, cells, random atoms bouncing around the universe, then there is no real, moral reason why it is good for this team to be alive. Their random atoms could have stayed in the cave and it would have been all the same to the universe.

But, and here is the truth, if indeed those 13 lives matter for the simple reason that human lives matter, then this is a great cause for celebration. And I argue that those lives matter, regardless of whether or not any of the 13 ever does one single thing to benefit society. Their lives matter because of the existence and revelation of God.

In Genesis 1:27, God declares that he created humanity in his image. That, my dear friends, is the reason that the rescue of those 13 from a flooded cave in Thailand is good news. Thirteen people who bear upon their very souls a reminder of the existence and glory of God are preserved. Thirteen people who are told by the word of God that their value is in the imprint of God on them have been spared. Thirteen reflections of the truth that God is the glorious Ruler over the universe are still living and breathing. This is ultimately good.

Good is good because good is what God declares is good. Saving these lives is good because it matches the purpose for the existence of the universe—to glorify God.

If you are a God-doubter, if you are an atheist, if you are a naturalist, why not stop and ask yourself what reason you have, what real reason you have, to celebrate the rescue of the team in Thailand. We all agree it is a good thing. But I say it is good because it matches the revelation of God and it preserves people made in his image. Why do you say it is good?

Ultimately, what makes human life matter? See, o please see, that life matters because of our Creator. Random chance, cellular mutations, and survival of the fittest just cannot make life matter for the sake of life.

Respect Your Pastor Enough to Talk with Him

The word of God is clear that the role and duties of elders in a local church is a tough role. Elders are charged by God with faithfully handling his word, with shepherding the flock, and with caring for souls. Pastors (elders are the same as pastors) are called to pray for the church, to correct the doctrine of those who stray, to call people back from sin, to comfort the hurting, and so very much more. And all of that is while regularly preaching and studying—and perhaps even writing on a regular basis in the modern world.

I would not give away my job for anything. I love the role to which God has called me, even though it can surely be hard. I love to teach the word of God and care for the people of God. And I pray that, by the grace of God, I might do this work well.

With the pastor’s job in mind, let me share with you an issue that pastors face that I think could be something all church members need to hear about. I have come across something that is necessary in the church, but which I think many Christians shrug off. If you need a prooftext verse for what I’m going to suggest, try this one from Hebrews:

Hebrews 13:17 – Obey your leaders and submit to them, for they are keeping watch over your souls, as those who will have to give an account. Let them do this with joy and not with groaning, for that would be of no advantage to you.

This verse of Scripture calls for church members to do their best to make shepherding them easy for pastors. This is by no means a verse that allows pastors to lord authority over people in the body. It is not the Bible saying that, if the pastor wants you to fund a new building, you whip out the checkbook without hesitation. It is simply a reminder that, because your pastors keep watch over your soul, you should help them do their jobs well, with as little pain as possible.

So, what do you do when your pastor holds to a doctrine with which you are struggling or with which you disagree? I would like to suggest, as a pastor and as a student of the Bible, that you have the respect for and love for your pastor to actually talk with him about your struggle. It is wise for church members who are trying to work out their beliefs, or who are even struggling with what the pastor teaches, to actually sit down with the pastor, hear his rationale for his argument, and see what can be done. It is possible that this discussion will sharpen or even change one or both of the people in the discussion.

I have seen a church member call up his pastor, ask for time, and then sit down to talk through a challenging and often-debated doctrinal issue. The young man came with his argument ready, but he also came with grace and humility. The conversation did not end with anyone’s mind totally changed, but the conversation certainly ended in fellowship, in love, and with both sides understanding each other better. This was good.

On the other hand, there are those in churches who disagree with their pastor doctrinally who simply make the decision that they will figure out the issue on their own without ever sitting down with their pastor to talk it through. As a pastor, let me simply say that this is a discouraging decision at the least. Pastors are surely not better than anyone else in the church. But pastors have, by the grace of God, often been given the privilege of years of study in which to wrestle through tough doctrines. To simply refuse to talk with your pastor about a doctrine may communicate to your pastor that his years of study mean nothing to you, and that you, in a few months on your own, will do a better job of figuring out a thorny theological problem. It can come across as a person saying that they will trust an author or a speaker from the Internet more than they will trust the wisdom of one who is in their own church.

The sad thing is, we will sometimes see that church members who do not talk doctrine through with a pastor may bring about division in the body because of their conclusions. They may leave the church. Or they may bring about a major conflict in the church. And often, these conflicts bring great sorrow to the body. All the while, had the person chosen to sit down with their leadership, the pastors the members said they would submit to, they could have avoided a great deal of the pain of the process.

Of course, I do not believe that every church member will agree with his or her pastor on every issue. In truth, I need to be challenged and corrected, and so do all other pastors. Which is why, for a church member to decide that nothing would change from a conversation is counterproductive in the body. Perhaps the pastor will learn something. Perhaps the church member who has his or her mind made up might actually find out that the pastor can lovingly present a truth to them that they had not yet understood. But to not give your pastor the opportunity for this, that is certainly not helping him to keep watch over your soul.

As always, thinking an issue like this through requires wisdom. I am not asking that one brings every petty preference issue to the pastor’s study for a four-hour discussion. There are surely doctrines that are of lesser importance, doctrines that will not demand division or policy changes in the church. Such doctrines do not always have to be addressed. But, then again, why not at least have a single conversation with your leaders about such issues if you are noticing them. No, do not become a thorn in your pastor’s side. But neither disrespect your leadership by assuming that they are wrong and they can say nothing that might influence you.

Also, we understand that not every person leaves a church over doctrine. People may desire to worship in a different setting or to serve a body they find fits them better. There are surely good and godly reasons to leave a church that do not require a doctrinal division.

Hebrews 13:17 commands us to help our shepherds shepherd our souls. Think along those lines as you think about tough doctrines you struggle with or doctrinal disagreements you have with your church. Perhaps thinking this way will help you to love your shepherds enough to talk with them about your struggles. Such conversations, if handled with love and grace, would glorify God and be good for all the souls involved.

What do you do, then, if you have a pastor who is not interested in doctrinal conversation? I have been in such a church in the past, and it was a really hard place to be. When you find out that your pastor is not interested in theology, or that he will not have a conversation about theology, then you may well need to consider another place to serve the Lord. But give the pastor the chance first. Respect him enough to speak with him. Make sure he knows what you are thinking and why you think it is important. Then, if you need to move on, if you have heard his thoughts on your doctrinal issue, you can go with a clear conscience, knowing that you have tried to be led by the shepherd the Lord placed over you.

How the Mighty Have Fallen: A Call for Character as We Respond to the Paige Patterson Situation

What do you do when those who oppose you are hurt or defeated? How do you react when those who would make themselves your enemies are put in their place? Do you rejoice? Do you sing?

David sang when King Saul met his end. But when David sang at the death of Saul, it was not a song of celebration. Even though Saul had chased him and attempted to murder him, David sang in genuine sorrow over the death of the king.

2 Samuel 1:17-19 – 17 And David lamented with this lamentation over Saul and Jonathan his son, 18 and he said it should be taught to the people of Judah; behold, it is written in the Book of Jashar. He said:
19 “Your glory, O Israel, is slain on your high places!
How the mighty have fallen!

It is interesting that, in our world, the snippet of this Scripture passage that is well known is the phrase, “How the mighty have fallen!” You hear that line in the mouths of movie characters quite often. Unfortunately the line is often delivered with a sneer. Good guys or bad guys in the movies like to rejoice when people on the other side get their comeuppance.

But if we were to handle this rightly and learn from David’s example, we would learn that, even when those who were our enemies face their ends, we should experience grief. Even when the evil schemes of mean-spirited people are exposed, we should not rejoice in their pain. Of course we can and should rejoice when justice is done and when righteousness prevails. But, when people hurt, when people fall, when people die, our hearts should also have in them a sorrow for the fact that people had to come to judgment rather than repentance.

To risk a politically charged example, I think to myself of how some are likely responding to the recent removal of Paige Patterson as president of Southwestern Baptist Theological Seminary. Patterson’s pattern of incautious comments and the offense they caused as they were seen together made it impossible for the trustees of the seminary to keep Patterson as the school’s head. I’ll not speak to other accusations of cover-ups and the rest, as I know nothing and have no right to suspect things.

The reason I bring up Patterson, however, is the fact that there will be many on the Internet who will celebrate. Patterson has certainly not always been kind or fair in his criticisms of others. He has often spoken of the reformed or of Calvinists with a smug dismissal. I have heard him say things regarding the exegesis of biblical passages that I believe he has to know are untenable. And the harsh edge of those sorts of comments has certainly widened the divide between Patterson and those with whom he disagrees. Thus, there may be many who would, with a sneer, say, “How the mighty have fallen.”

But, Christians, let us remember that there is nothing godly about rejoicing in the fall of a brother in Christ. While we may think that the seminary trustees of SWBTS have done the right thing, there is nothing godly about somebody doing a little Internet victory dance. There is nothing godly about rejoicing in something that has brought so much hurt to many Southern Baptists who are deeply upset by Patterson’s removal.

Let’s learn from David. When a person who has opposed us falls, let us mourn. It would be so much nicer to see those who oppose us turn from that opposition and graciously change their views. It would be beautiful to have people live with character, above reproach, and with biblical fidelity in all things. But neither we nor those who think we are nuts actually live in perfect faithfulness. I’m sure that I will find, before my life comes to an end, that there are doctrinal issues I’ve missed. I would far rather have the Lord bring me to change gently than for him to have to bring my life and ministry crashing down. And If I would want the Lord to change me gently, how could I ever rejoice when a brother in Christ, flawed like me, is hit hard with the consequences of his own actions? May we give the grace that we wish to receive. May we always take the high road. May we lament at the fall of anyone, especially those who are genuine believers, regardless of whether or not they have been nice to us or our positions.

In this, I am not at all defending anyone. I believe that, in the case of Paige Patterson, his removal from the seminary presidency was overdue. But I can also mourn for the hurt all this has caused and pray that God use this time of sorrow at SWBTS and the SBC for good as he works out his plans for his glory. And I can pray that God have mercy on us all, as it is only the grace of God that keeps any of us from sinful self-destruction.

Cults and Math

With the recent Secret Church 18 presentation on cults and counterfeit gospels, I remembered this clever little trick for identifying a cult. I heard it in a sermon presented by Danny Akin, who is an author and who serves as president of Southeastern Baptist Theological Seminary. I know I will not have his illustration word-for-word, but the main point will still come through.

You can always tell a cult, because a cult always does math. They will always either add, subtract, multiply, or divide.

Cults will add an extra-biblical source of authority. This source might be a book, prophet, or something else, but they will have something that is authoritative along with the scriptures.

Cults will subtract from the person and the works of Jesus Christ. Generally, this will be to deny the deity of Jesus, but could also include denying the sufficiency of the atonement or other Christological issues.

Cults will multiply the requirements for salvation. No cult keeps the message of salvation by grace alone through faith alone in Christ alone.  They will all add something else (works based) that is required to get into heaven.

Cults will divide your loyalty. They will tend to present a human leader to whom they call you to be loyal along with Jesus.  This new leader is often presented as a new mediator or prophet between God and the group.

I do not know why, but ever since I heard this little pithy explanation, it has stuck with me. If you find a group adding an extra-biblical source of authority or subtracting from a biblical understanding of Christ, watch out. If you come across a group that multiplies for you a set of good works to do to get into heaven or divides your loyalty from Christ and his word to share that loyalty with a modern prophet or leader, get away. This is how knowing that cults do math can help you evaluate a religion’s claim to be either true or false.

What is Good about Good Friday?

Is it not strange that the single most evil thing ever done by human beings is an event we call “Good?” On Good Friday, the only perfect man ever to walk the earth was murdered. On Good Friday, the Son of God was brutalized by sinful men. On Good Friday the merciful and kind Lord Jesus was tortured and crucified. How can this be good?

2 Corinthians 5:17-21 – 17 Therefore, if anyone is in Christ, he is a new creation. The old has passed away; behold, the new has come. 18 All this is from God, who through Christ reconciled us to himself and gave us the ministry of reconciliation; 19 that is, in Christ God was reconciling the world to himself, not counting their trespasses against them, and entrusting to us the message of reconciliation. 20 Therefore, we are ambassadors for Christ, God making his appeal through us. We implore you on behalf of Christ, be reconciled to God. 21 For our sake he made him to be sin who knew no sin, so that in him we might become the righteousness of God.

Mankind, because of our sin, is separated from God. We all have rebelled against the Lord and earned his judgment. The wages of such sin is death, the eternal infinite wrath of a holy God (cf. Rom. 6:23). In our sin, we separated ourselves from God, battling against him and attempting to throw off his rule.

On Good Friday, God worked the work of reconciliation between God and man. Jesus voluntarily substituted himself for all those God will forgive. God the Father laid on Jesus, God the Son, the full weight of his wrath. God the Father justly punished our sin in Jesus so that we would not have to spend eternity suffering the wrath we deserve.

God also did the work to accomplish a glorious trade on Good Friday. Jesus, God the Son, had lived an absolutely perfect life. Jesus had obeyed the word and will of God so that the Father was well pleased. Where you and I have failed, Jesus succeeded. Because of Good Friday, God can grant us the most unbelievable of gifts. God will trade us Jesus’ righteousness for our own failings. Where our record is blemished and calls us to judgment, God gives us Jesus’ perfect righteousness as a gift. Good Friday is good, because there God moves to be able to give us the perfect righteousness without which none of us could ever enter the presence of God.

If you have not come to Jesus for this gift of grace, why not do so today? Believe that Jesus is the Son of God who died and rose again to save your soul. Confess your sin against God and need of a Savior. Commit your life to follow Jesus. Ask God for his mercy because of Jesus. If you turn from sin and trust in Christ, God’s word promises you eternal life and perfect forgiveness because of the finished work of the Son of God.

For us all, pray: Take a moment to pray. Confess your rebellion against the holy God who made you. Thank him for punishing Jesus in your place. Thank him for making a way for you to be reconciled to God. Thank him for giving you the gift of the perfect record of Jesus in place of your own. Ask God to empower you to worship him and to rightly yield your life to him out of gratitude and love for the Savior.