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Natural Law

Sunday, August 20, 2023

For what can be known about God is plain to them, because God has shown it to them. For his invisible attributes, namely, his eternal power and divine nature, have been clearly perceived, ever since the creation of the world, in the things that have been made. So they are without excuse.

(Romans 1.19-20)

This passage helps us to understand God’s expectations of man in earlier ages.  Clearly, at the present time it’s somewhat of an academic inquiry, since the gospel of Jesus Christ has been shared far and wide.  As Paul told an audience of pagan Athenians,

“Being then God’s offspring, we ought not to think that the divine being is like gold or silver or stone, an image formed by the art and imagination of man. The times of ignorance God overlooked, but now he commands all people everywhere to repent, because he has fixed a day on which he will judge the world in righteousness by a man whom he has appointed; and of this he has given assurance to all by raising him from the dead.”

(Acts 17.29-31)

But something like God’s attitude toward the Gentiles of old tends to come up in discussions of morality today, when people can’t agree on a basis for their judgments, but nonetheless seek to find a common moral framework.

A bit later in Romans, Paul continues discussing the topic of man’s sinfulness:

For all who have sinned without the law will also perish without the law, and all who have sinned under the law will be judged by the law. For it is not the hearers of the law who are righteous before God, but the doers of the law who will be justified. For when Gentiles, who do not have the law, by nature do what the law requires, they are a law to themselves, even though they do not have the law. They show that the work of the law is written on their hearts, while their conscience also bears witness, and their conflicting thoughts accuse or even excuse them on that day when, according to my gospel, God judges the secrets of men by Christ Jesus.

(Romans 2.12-16)

God gave a Law to his chosen people Israel, and held them accountable to its provisions; but he did not expect even their gentile neighbors to live up to the very same standard—to say nothing of nations living on the opposite side of the globe!  How could he expect them to, for example, refrain from wearing clothes “made of two kinds of material” (Le 19.19), when he never told them that sort of behavior was prohibited?  Our innate sense of justice tells us it is wrong to penalize people for infractions they did not and could not understand; and it’s that same innate sense of justice, more or less, that formed the standard to which God held ancient gentiles.  From where did our sense of justice come?  God put it in our hearts!

In the modern day, discussions of natural law usually come from one of two motivations.  The first sort comes from those who don’t believe in God at all, but who can’t shake their innate, God-given sense of justice, and so appeal to natural law as a stand-in to explain away their moral value judgments.  This, of course, makes no sense.  Yes, we can observe that even people who disagree about many—perhaps all!—facets of God’s character and commandments, nevertheless tend to agree that things like rape and murder are bad.  “They show that the work of the law is written on their hearts” (Ro 2.15), but who wrote it there?  Whose law is it?  To say it is simply natural does not answer these questions, from an atheist, materialist perspective; and furthermore, it does nothing to explain why certain individuals feel no pangs of conscience over the atrocities they’ve committed.  The only option left is to say that something is improperly, unnaturally altered in such people, which gives rise to the very same spiritual quandary the atheist was attempting to avoid by appealing to nature. 

The other sort of person who invokes natural law is one who believes in God, but is either too embarrassed to appeal to God’s authority on matters of right and wrong—which is…strange, to say the least—or else, he holds an opinion on a moral matter, but he can’t adequately explain it, and so he appeals to this nebulous and unquestionable natural law to support his position.  Neither of these makes any sense, either!  The latter approach, hopefully, needs no further rebuke.  As for the former, if you hope to convince an unbeliever of the truth on a specific moral issue, you should perhaps ask yourself, what good is it, to convince him about economic collectivism, or pre-marital sex, or racially-motivated violence, while he rejects Christ and so dooms himself to an eternity in hell?  Viewing heavenly and earthly things in perspective, perhaps you should focus your efforts on convincing such a person of the truth of the gospel, rather than using lies to convince him of the truth on comparatively minor issues. 

Who has the ultimate authority to decide what is right and wrong?  Is it nature?  Nature is not a person, but has often been depicted as a goddess.  If this were so, it would be difficult to escape the conclusion that lady Nature is cruel and indifferent.  All things end in pain, death and decay, and in general the most effective means of staving off that end are the very same behaviors natural law seems to prohibit—such as lies, theft, murder, enslavement, and abandonment.  If that grates against your sensibilities, you must ask yourself: why?  Perhaps your first answer would be, “well, everyone knows that!”  But the obvious follow-up question is, how do they know it?  The answer is that someone planted this knowledge in our hearts; and one day we “will give account to him who is ready to judge the living and the dead” (1Pe 4.5).

Jeremy Nettles

Following the Rules

Sunday, August 13, 2023

We all have to follow rules.  Children grow up under their parents’ rules, and when they finally break free from those shackles, they discover to their horror that now they must follow even more rules, put in place by people who don’t even love them!  Every human institution has rules to follow.  Employers, schools, property managers, homeowners’ associations, cities, counties, states, and countries all have rules.  Even recreational sporting leagues and social clubs have rules, and they all have some way to enforce them.  Not all of the rules share the same level of legitimacy, reasonability, enforceability, or importance, but as we go through life we’re always under someone’s watchful eye, to make sure we follow the rules.  Sometimes we get away with ignoring the rules, and sometimes we outright rebel against them; but there will always be rules.


The most important rules are, of course, the ones laid down by God himself.  Unlike all the other rules and rulers, we can trust that God’s rules are for our good, even when we don’t entirely understand how or why.

“For my thoughts are not your thoughts, neither are your ways my ways, declares the Lord. For as the heavens are higher than the earth, so are my ways higher than your ways and my thoughts than your thoughts.”

(Isaiah 55.8-9)

One of God’s rules is to “Be subject for the Lord’s sake to every human institution” (1Pe 2.13).  Of course, this is not absolute; the mouthpiece for this commandment was Peter, who once was commended for telling the governing authorities, “We must obey God rather than men” (Ac 5.29); still, in general even foolish and rules from fallible humans are binding.  It’s good to be a rule-follower; but even then, temptation arises.

And behold, a lawyer stood up to put him to the test, saying, “Teacher, what shall I do to inherit eternal life?” He said to him, “What is written in the Law? How do you read it?” And he answered, “You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your strength and with all your mind, and your neighbor as yourself.” And he said to him, “You have answered correctly; do this, and you will live.”


But he, desiring to justify himself, said to Jesus, “And who is my neighbor?”

(Luke 10.25-29)

This man was undoubtedly a rule-follower, and good on him for it!  He drew the right conclusion about the most important commandments in the Law of Moses, on which all the others depend.  He even knew, despite his question to Jesus, that following these rules was the way to eternal life, even if he didn’t fully understand Jesus’ place in that process.  Considering his profession, it’s no surprise that he asked for a definition, to help him properly interpret the statute in question.  Seems reasonable, right?  But Luke gives us a peek beneath the surface, telling us why the lawyer made this request—he wanted “to justify himself.”  What does that mean?  In short, it means he wanted license to hate non-neighbors, a well-established habit he was not about to change.


So what’s the problem?  God said to love your neighbor, and the lawyer just wanted a clarification, in order to establish that he was, indeed, following the rule.  But his attitude was gross, and we all know it.  It’s the same thing we see in a child who, unsatisfied with the vague instruction, “clean up this room,” asks for a detailed accounting of which toys, exactly, he is required to pick up and put away.  You tried to give him some leeway to do a reasonably good job in keeping with the spirit of the rule, but he demands a carefully crafted law, which he will follow to the letter—no less, to be fair; but, crucially, no more, either.  Parents are repulsed by the attitude that going above and beyond would be just as bad as falling short.  We expect this attitude in kids, although we work hard to change it.  How much worse, when it appears in adults, who profess to be God’s children?


At its core, this comes from a heart that is more interested in pleasing itself, than pleasing God.  This is a heart that is willing to follow the rules, but not out of love or respect for the rule-maker—instead, it’s all a means to an end, and the end in mind is selfish gratification.  This heart despises selfless deeds of love, and so avoids them whenever it deems it possible to do so without losing the reward it seeks.  This is the attitude of the person who asks, “do I have to get baptized?” or “is repentance absolutely necessary?” or “must I attend services,” or “exactly how much am I required to contribute to the church?”  The idea of skating by with the bare minimum of devotion to God is laughable.  It doesn’t work that way!  You cannot skate by.  God wants your heart, not just your grudging obedience at a rate worthy of a passing grade.  If you’re even thinking in terms of doing “enough” to get to heaven, then you’re trying to buy your salvation.  It won’t work!


Does this mean you must always go above and beyond, always deny yourself even the smallest amount of enjoyment in the flesh, and worry constantly that you still haven’t done enough, even if you give away all you have and deliver up your body to be burned (1Co 13.3)?  Of course not.  But not because you’ve already done enough.  You’ll never do enough to be worthy of an eternal home in God’s presence.  But Christ already has!

Such is the confidence that we have through Christ toward God. Not that we are sufficient in ourselves to claim anything as coming from us, but our sufficiency is from God, who has made us sufficient to be ministers of a new covenant, not of the letter but of the Spirit. For the letter kills, but the Spirit gives life.

(2 Corinthians 3.4-6)

Jeremy Nettles

We Want to be Fooled

Sunday, August 06, 2023

I avoid writing articles from a first-person singular perspective, instead using pronouns like he, we, and the occasional you.  But sometimes, there’s just no way to stick to that pattern, and still get the point across in a readable fashion.  I’m sure it’s no surprise that I routinely engage in discussions over what the Bible says on a given topic.  Often, the discussion is with someone who is woefully misinformed about the Bible, and who has never studied it for himself.  Of course, I am not the final arbiter on God’s word, and have been corrected numerous times when I was mistaken; but it’s my job to read the Bible and know what it says, and I was struck by a recent discussion of this sort.

It began when one person confidently presented what he seemed to think was an airtight case, to the effect that what God said about homosexuality was actually not what most Christians think he said.  According to this individual, the Bible doesn’t directly address the topic at all—in fact, he pointed out, forms of the word homosexual didn’t start to appear in English Bibles until after World War Two.  He allowed that there are some concerns about homosexual behavior on the grounds that it’s an affront to God’s commandment, “Be fruitful and multiply” (Ge 1.28, 9.1, 9.7), but in reality—according to this person—when modern Bibles specifically address homosexuality, they’re presenting mistranslations of God’s commandments against men sexually abusing young boys.  That’s the real abomination!

Let’s evaluate.  Some of these points are true.  Forms of the word homosexual, indeed, did not start to appear in mainstream English Bibles until after the War.  Additionally, God did, in fact, instruct mankind to “be fruitful and multiply.”  Further, sexually abusing young boys is, indeed, an abomination.  That’s as much as we can say in agreement, though.  Under examination, it’s clear that his conclusion—that homosexuality is not really an “abomination” in God’s eyes—does not match up with what God has said.

What struck me most was the insinuation that anti-gay bigotry led biblical scholars to insert prohibitions of such conduct into the Bible in the post-war period, evidenced by the absence of the word homosexual in the Bible prior to then.  There are two problems with this.  Let’s take the minor problem first: according to the Oxford English Dictionary, the word homosexual is first attested in a publication from 1891.  The foremost English Bible well into the post-war period was the King James Version, published in 1611 and most recently revised in 1769.  It is absurd to suggest that the absence, in that translation, of a word not yet coined at its publication date, is evidence of some kind of plot.

Now, the major problem: what we call homosexuality existed long before English  had a word for it.  What did the oldest English Bibles say about the topic?

Thou shalt not lie with mankinde, as with womankinde: it is abomination.

(Leviticus 18.22, KJV, 1611)

And lyke wyse also the men lefte the naturall vse of the woma and bret in their lustes one on another. And man with man wrought filthynes and receaved in them selves the rewarde of their erroure as it was accordinge.

(Romans 1.27, Tyndale Bible, 1526)

Even the Wycliffe Bible of 1382 refers in 1 Timothy 1.10 to “hem that don letcherie with men,” which you can probably decipher.

This is to say nothing of the absolute clarity in the original Hebrew and Greek texts.  Despite the argument that was presented as iron-clad, and despite what any of us thinks or feels about the matter, God’s standards on sexuality are as clear as they can be.

How could the arguer have believed what he said, when two minutes’ reading so easily turned his conclusion on its head?  I don’t know how he got there, but I can tell you how I’ve observed others—including myself, at times!—falling into the same trap.  In most of these cases, it happened, not because we were fooled despite our best intentions and efforts; it happened because we wanted to be fooled.  We had our own, preconceived notion about what must be the truth of the matter.  Based on what?  Perhaps it was experience, or emotion, or ideology, or just the spirit of the age.  We all like to think that we are independent, dispassionate judges making our decisions based on the pure truth of the matter, but in reality, we are fickle, motivated by external cares, and incredibly susceptible to outside influence, especially from our peers and, even more, our idols.

For am I now seeking the approval of man, or of God? Or am I trying to please man? If I were still trying to please man, I would not be a servant of Christ.

(Galatians 1.10)

It’s not a lost cause.  In this case, the person who’d presented the falsehoods considered the evidence I put before him and promised to look into it further.  I suspect he had been filled with “plausible arguments” (Co 2.4), by someone whose authority he respected—probably a local church pastor, who may himself have been parroting things he didn’t fully understand, but chose to believe because it made life easier.  And it does make life easier, in the here in now—you get to go along with the crowd!  But one day you will stand alone before the Lord on his throne, and you will not find it so easy to convince him that he really didn’t mean what he said!  In the long run, it’s easier to be the lone voice of dissent on this earth, and to be told on the day of judgment,

“Well done, good and faithful servant. You have been faithful over a little; I will set you over much. Enter into the joy of your master.”

(Matthew 25.23)

Jeremy Nettles

The Worst Thing

Sunday, July 30, 2023

Over the past century, the world has seen some truly awful events: the Holocaust, the Rape of Nanking, the Soviet gulags and forced starvation of millions in Ukraine, the euphemistically named “Great Leap Forward” in China, which killed far more people than other contenders in an offering to the deified State.  We could include the bombing of Hiroshima and Nagasaki, which brought an end to World War Two, at the awful cost of up to 200,000 civilians killed, and a horrifying door opened that we cannot now close.  Perhaps we should include the COVID-19 pandemic, although it will be many years before most of the world can discuss that issue honestly and dispassionately.  Hiding in the middle of all these more obvious evils is one that we don’t often give its due: the invention and widespread adoption of the hormonal birth control pill.

It’s not that birth control is inherently evil—although there are serious ethical concerns with most forms.  But “the pill” separated, in practice if not in principle, sexual acts from their plausible, natural result—reproduction. It enticed the world to stop seeing sex as a mutual expression of love and desire between a man and woman who recognize they may be creating a new life together.  It fooled the world into instead seeing sex as only a means of gratifying one’s own fleshly lusts.  It’s no accident that the history of the pill is tightly intertwined with the history of the 20th century’s sexual revolution.

Then Judah said to Onan, “Go in to your brother’s wife and perform the duty of a brother-in-law to her, and raise up offspring for your brother.” But Onan knew that the offspring would not be his. So whenever he went in to his brother’s wife he would waste the semen on the ground, so as not to give offspring to his brother. And what he did was wicked in the sight of the Lord, and he put him to death also.

(Genesis 38.8-10)

People have botched sexual ethics nearly as long as there have been people.  The desire for sexual gratification without consequence has been central to the story.  But as with all human solutions to spiritual problems, the pill did not address the core issue of slavery to selfish desires, and instead tried to prevent the more obvious results of gratifying them.  The idea was to allow those who have no business procreating, to have their fun without consequence—leading to fewer fatherless kids, in the end.  So, what happened?  Fatherlessness skyrocketed.

There are plenty of other birth control methods, of course, but due to the intersection of effectiveness, convenience, the illusion of ethical clarity, and, shall we say, user experience, the pill was a revolution in itself, reinforcing the lie that sex should be about each individual’s own gratification.  In the popular conscience, sex is now divorced from obvious, life-changing consequences, because of the pill.

This was driven, we should note, by Thomas Malthus’ fear that there were just too many people for the world to sustain—in the late 18th century, when the world had roughly one eighth of its current population.  Many people latched onto this idea in the 19th and 20th centuries, including the eugenicist bigot Margaret Sanger (who founded Planned Parenthood, by the way—there’s a rabbit hole, if you don’t already know).  Among other things, she was a leading voice in pushing for solutions to the pesky problem of procreation.  She preferred sterility, at least for poor people.  But what did God say?

And God blessed Noah and his sons and said to them, “Be fruitful and multiply and fill the earth.”

(Genesis 9.1)

Sadly, Sanger’s attitude won over society, but instead of diminishing the number of kids in less-than-ideal situations, it simply abolished responsibility and excused sin, bringing about more of the problems it promised to prevent!  Consequently, western sexual ethics are broken today.  In the absence of God’s rules, the sexual landscape has shifted to pornography, hookups, sex trafficking, and an ever-increasing number of similarly sterile “alternative lifestyles,” to the point where manhood and womanhood are no longer clearly defined in the popular conscience.

“Have you not read that he who created them from the beginning made them male and female, and said, ‘Therefore a man shall leave his father and his mother and hold fast to his wife, and the two shall become one flesh’? So they are no longer two but one flesh. What therefore God has joined together, let not man separate.”

(Matthew 19.4-6)

Meanwhile, marriage rates decline, couples have fewer children, the WHO estimates that about 73 million babies are aborted each year worldwide, and women’s self-reported “happiness” is at an all-time low.  The sexual revolution, which promised enlightenment and joy, has led to misery, despair, and self-centered hatred toward the innocent.  The answer to all of this isn’t in more and further degraded sex, promiscuity, and turning a generation of children into eunuchs.  The answer, broadly, isn’t in celibacy, either.  It’s not even in getting married, enjoying each other immensely, and having lots of kids, although that’s closer to the mark.  Really, the answer is in finding your sense of purpose in life, through Christ.

Now as the church submits to Christ, so also wives should submit in everything to their husbands.

        Husbands, love your wives, as Christ loved the church and gave himself up for her, that he might sanctify her, having cleansed her by the washing of water with the word, so that he might present the church to himself in splendor, without spot or wrinkle or any such thing, that she might be holy and without blemish. In the same way husbands should love their wives as their own bodies.

(Ephesians 5.24-28)

Jeremy Nettles

Justified by Works

Sunday, July 23, 2023

In last week’s article, we examined a long list of passages in Paul’s letters, in which he hammered the fact that we cannot earn salvation.  We struggled to make sense of this, in light of his prediction elsewhere that each of us will “receive what is due for what he has done in the body, whether good or evil” (2Co 5.10).  In the end, we found that our motivations in tugging one way or the other were, to say the least, suspect; and that we are supposed to trust God, do what he says, and let him sort out the details.

But what about James?  He tells us as plainly as you could ever want, belief is not enough!

You believe that God is one; you do well. Even the demons believe—and shudder!

(James 2.19)

Demons believe, yet they are destined for destruction!  We can see an example of this, in one of Jesus’ miracles in Capernaum.

And immediately there was in their synagogue a man with an unclean spirit. And he cried out, “What have you to do with us, Jesus of Nazareth? Have you come to destroy us? I know who you are—the Holy One of God.”

(Mark 1.23-24)

This demon believed in God’s Son, Jesus Christ!  Yet it was an “unclean spirit,” who well knew that Jesus would eventually bring destruction to such spirits.  Why doesn’t that spirit get a pass?  After all,

with the heart one believes and is justified, and with the mouth one confesses and is saved.

(Romans 10.10)

It’s reasonable to suggest that the demon’s works are the problem.  Recognizing Jesus doesn’t count for much, if you actively rebel against him!  This is what James meant.

What good is it, my brothers, if someone says he has faith but does not have works? Can that faith save him?

(James 2.14)

That’s a rhetorical question—the answer is no.  But James isn’t done there! 

Was not Abraham our father justified by works when he offered up his son Isaac on the altar? You see that faith was active along with his works, and faith was completed by his works; and the Scripture was fulfilled that says, “Abraham believed God, and it was counted to him as righteousness”—and he was called a friend of God. You see that a person is justified by works and not by faith alone. And in the same way was not also Rahab the prostitute justified by works when she received the messengers and sent them out by another way? For as the body apart from the spirit is dead, so also faith apart from works is dead.

(James 2.21-26)

This seems obvious, and yet James has to point it out, and an enormous number of those of who profess to be Christians today cannot fully acknowledge what James says here, because it undermines their dogma.

Yet Paul was the Apostle who so clearly laid out Christ’s system of salvation by faith, not works (e.g. Ep 2.8-9), and it’s not as if he gave us no hints about the importance of what we do.  In addition to the 2 Corinthians 5 passage, he also wrote things like this:

[God] will render to each one according to his works: to those who by patience in well-doing seek for glory and honor and immortality, he will give eternal life; but for those who are self-seeking and do not obey the truth, but obey unrighteousness, there will be wrath and fury.

(Romans 2.6-8)

In fact, we can even hear this straight from the judge, himself!

“For the Son of Man is going to come with his angels in the glory of his Father, and then he will repay each person according to what he has done.”

(Matthew 16.27)


“I am he who searches mind and heart, and I will give to each of you according to your works.”

(Revelation 2.23)

And again,

“Behold, I am coming soon, bringing my recompense with me, to repay each one for what he has done.”

(Revelation 22.12)

This all leaves us confused.  On the one hand, in many New Testament passages God speaks of justification by faith, and his mercy—not giving us the penalty we deserve—as well as his grace—giving us the reward we don’t deserve.  Yet, on the other hand, in the very same New Testament God also speaks bluntly about repaying us in eternity for the works we have done in the body.  Which is it?

We can find some help in the account of the demon who recognized Jesus in Capernaum.

But Jesus rebuked him, saying, “Be silent, and come out of him!” And the unclean spirit, convulsing him and crying out with a loud voice, came out of him.

(Mark 1.25-26)

Wait a second—the demon’s belief obviously didn’t count for much, but didn’t it also obey?  Jesus gave the demon a command, and it immediately did exactly as it was told!  So the demon had both the belief, and the action to back it up!  Why does the demon expect to be punished, then?  Notice that the demon makes a spectacle of its obedience.  It’s an ugly scene, with an obviously unwell man thrashing and shrieking as the source of his suffering begrudgingly departs.  The demon obeys, because he’s compelled to do so.  He obeys unwillingly.  That’s not the faith that Jesus and the Apostles meant.  They meant a genuine, reverent trust in the one who claims to be our Savior, and our King—a faith that leads us to choose obedience, rather than having it forced upon us.  Instead of arguing bickering about words and semantics, we should be busy living faithfully.  Thus, by openly considering God’s word on the topic of works, we’ve drawn the same conclusion we drew last time, from God’s word on faith and grace—Christ is in charge, so trust and obey him, and he’ll take care of you.

Jeremy Nettles

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