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Christian Biblical Studies
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WHAT IS IT that makes a man or a woman religious? Is it nature ― a trait genetically acquired from immediate or earlier forebears? Or is it nurture ― the particular environmental influences and conditions that mould an individual’s character? It is a complex question, and the persuasive view is that we are all products of both nature and nurture.
Being ‘religious’ is generally understood as describing someone concerned with sacred matters, with religion or the church, one who professes belief in and reverence for a deity.
The attribute of irreligiousness, of not being devout, has become the dominant feature of modern life in Britain and many other countries formerly based on Christian principles. Time was when men and women either had a genuine faith, or simply conformed without question or interest to the cultural norms of the day. Churchgoing was the way of life, and the discipline it imposed deferred for a time the onset of such fallen moral standards as are now evident.
Unbelievers of course are often persons of admirable moral standards. Many conform instinctively to the highest principles of conduct, and some achieve the genuine nobility of character that even many godly persons fail to develop. Honest, intelligent unbelievers will have no expectation of a resurrection to everlasting life in some heavenly or Edenic situation, and having no such hope of reward are to be commended for their unselfish concern for others. Without knowing it, they are in fact fulfilling the second part of God’s law as summarised by Christ: ‘The most important [law], . . . Love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your mind and with all your strength. The second is this: “Love your neighbour as yourself.” There is no commandment greater than these’ (Mark 12: 29-31).
Some Christians cannot accept that such good people are excluded from God’s love, and feel that they will be rewarded equally with believers, sure of having a place in the ‘church of the firstborn, whose names are written in heaven’ (Hebrews 12: 22, 23). Unbelievers are not excluded from God’s love, and He does have a place for them in His due time. But nobility of character alone cannot gain for them a place in the Body of Christ, failing as they do to recognise Him as their Head, and lacking that faith in His shed blood which alone can open the door to life everlasting.
The destiny of good men was evidently in the mind of the poet, James Leigh Hunt (1784-1859), when he wrote of one righteous man:
Abou Ben Adhem (may his tribe increase!)
Awoke one night from a deep dream of peace,
And saw, within the moonlight in his room,
Making it rich, and like a lily in bloom,
An Angel writing in a book of gold:-
Exceeding peace had made Ben Adhem bold,
And to the Presence in the room he said,
‘What writest thou?’ ― The vision raised its head,
And with a look made of all sweet accord
Answered, ‘The names of those who love the Lord.’
‘And is mine one?’ said Abou. ‘Nay, not so,’
Replied the Angel. Abou spoke more low,
But cheerly still; and said, ‘I pray thee, then,
Write me as one who loves his fellow-men.’
The Angel wrote, and vanished. The next night
It came again with a great wakening light,
And showed the names whom love of God had blessed,
And, lo! Ben Adhem’s name led all the rest. [fn]
Blessed by a living faith the Christian man and woman may well grieve at the plight of the honest agnostic or atheist. To be without hope in the world is indeed a sad situation. How can the kindly agnostic remain a happy man, an Abou Ben Adham of today? And what prompts the unbelieving woman with a heart of gold to continue in well-doing to the undeserving? Does their lack of faith nullify God’s faithfulness?
It may perhaps be less difficult to accept that faithless evil-doers have no future prospect of Divine favour. Yet Jesus in His parable portrayed a wronged father extending loving mercy toward his prodigal son ― surely an affirmation of the Heavenly Father’s abiding love for wayward mankind, even to the ‘Chief of Sinners’, as John Bunyan testified.
There are many people who have sincerely tried to believe in God, but the faith they see in others eludes them. Some therefore profess to being atheists, believing there is no God. Others call themselves agnostics, being unconvinced of God’s existence, or regarding the matter as impossible to prove one way or the other. Such honesty may, perhaps, be more pleasing to the Lord than a hypocritical profession of belief based only on self-interest.
Is the genuine unbeliever to be blamed for his or her unbelief? Have we ― believers or unbelievers ― any personal responsibility in the matter? Genetics, the science of heredity, may indicate that our personal attributes are to a large extent inherited, and it does seem apparent that faith runs in families. Among the twelve apostles there were three sets of brothers ― Peter and Andrew, James and John, James the Less and Jude. Jesus’ mother Mary was cousin to Elisabeth, mother of John the Baptist. The children of Israel were regarded. as God’s chosen people, descended as they were from Abraham, the father of the faithful (Romans 4: 16). Evidently the ‘faith gene’ — if indeed it exists — was moribund or missing in most of Abraham’s natural descendants when Christ preached to them the Gospel of the Kingdom, and it was not the Scribes and Pharisees, the teachers of the Law, that recognised the promised Saviour when He came, but rather those ‘Israelites indeed’, whose lives testified to their simple faith in God’s promises (John 1: 47).
Could it be Nurture?
The evidence is inescapable. To a great extent we are all children of our time, influenced by prevailing conditions, customs and standards of morality. Nurture may be defined not only as the act of providing physical nourishment, but also as the environmental factors and educational guidance that shape a human character.
The word ‘nurture’ may seem to be a misnomer for much of what is provided in today’s increasingly corrupt society. Darwinian thinking reduces belief in a Creator to foolish myth, and godliness is therefore unnecessary. Men now make their own arbitrary laws to replace those formerly based on Biblical standards. Conduct once unthinkable is now commonly discussed and proudly boasted and commended. Eyes and ears are assaulted daily as evidences of corruption go unrebuked, and even infants are exposed to scenes of moral degradation.
Enough said? Let the Apostle Paul add a few words: ‘There will be terrible times in the last days. People will be lovers of themselves, lovers of money, boastful, proud, abusive, disobedient to their parents, ungrateful, unholy, without love, unforgiving, slanderous, without self-control, brutal, not lovers of the good, treacherous, rash, conceited, lovers of pleasure rather than lovers of God’ (2 Timothy 3: 1-4).
Such a scenario is painted large on the public stage, hitting the headlines in every branch of the media, promoted by forces beyond normal human control. Only those having faith in God and His Word can take comfort at the evidence that we are in the last days before Christ will establish His Kingdom on the earth and usher in the long- promised reign of righteousness.
A Dilemma Resolved
Believers are schooled in the declaration of Hebrews 11: 6 that, ‘without faith it is impossible to please God, because anyone who comes to him must believe that he exists and that he rewards those who earnestly seek him.’ Since it appears that the vast majority of earth’s generations have lived and died lacking the vital attribute of faith, how can we reconcile their plight with the character of a God of love who wants all to be saved and to come to a knowledge of the truth?
God has a brilliant solution. It was not the Saviour’s object in His first Advent to convert the world. His commission to the disciples before His ascension was to ‘go and make disciples of all nations, baptising them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, and teaching them to obey everything I have commanded you.’ (Matthew 28: 19, 20).
But Jesus did not promise that His followers would convert the entire world before His return. In fact He hinted rather at the opposite: ‘When the Son of Man comes, will he find faith on the earth?’ (Luke 18: 8). The Lord returns as promised, not to find the world saved without Him, but because His own personal presence is necessary to the world’s salvation. And how will that be accomplished?
Put simply, the time must come when the honest unbeliever ― and the wilful sinner ― will be led by information, observation and experience to a recognition of the Lord of all creation, and to an unshakeable conviction of the love of God in providing a Ransom to rescue the entire human family from the curse of sin and death. Raised from the death state at the call of the Redeemer, a worldwide regeneration process will free all from the inherited or acquired misconceptions that alienated them from their Creator in this present life. So irresistibly drawn to Him will the vast majority be that they will exclaim: ‘Lo, this is our God; we have waited for him, and he will save us: this is the Lord; we have waited for him, we will be glad and rejoice in his salvation’ (Isaiah 25: 9, King James Version).
Christians have been gathered out during the Gospel age, trained and disciplined for a much more extensive missionary work to be undertaken in the next age, though most are not aware of that prospect. Convinced of their own resurrection to eternal life, the vision of their future role and activity in the Divine purpose is somewhat blurred, perhaps designedly so. It is a matter of faith.
Having lacked faith, how astonished earth’s multitudes will be to find themselves at the threshold of a new life! Honest sceptics will see, even in the fact of their awakening from a long sleep, irrefutable evidence of the love and power of the God whose existence they had long denied. The abundant Scriptural evidence of this prospect would be the subject of another discussion but we already have the intriguing assurance that, ‘No eye has seen, no ear has heard, no mind has conceived what God has prepared for those who love him’ (1 Corinthians 2: 9).
At the present time and in the future age, salvation is of God’s grace and not of human effort. Grace belongs to God. It is His gift. To have faith means to trust in Him, but it is not the basis of a bargain and it does not give us any right to receive a reward. The exercise of faith is to some extent a matter of our own development, though arbitrary nature and nurture influences may determine the point at which a full faith is realised – some in the present life, others in the new age.
It is not that God bestows faith on one and withholds it from another. Faith is an attribute inherent in all, but misplaced or distorted in many. It may be that in His wisdom the Lord sees the potential in some to become His servants now, when the exercise of faith in an evil world tests one’s character to the utmost.
And it is surely an evidence of the Lord’s compassion that others will await their trial for everlasting life until, under the righteous rule of Christ, unbelief will be virtually impossible. The freewill of all will remain paramount, and in such conditions rejection of Divine Grace would be the choice only of the utterly incorrigible.
Amazing Grace, God’s free gift to all! God grant also that we have the grace to receive it!
[fn] Hunt’s Loyalist parents emigrated from the United States to England as a result of the War of Independence (1775-1782). The name of this poem was adopted for the Abou Ben Adhem Mosque in Springfield, Missouri.
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