Heavenly Father, God of all wisdom, increase our wisdom, we pray. Help us by your Spirit to learn from your word and more and more to live it out. In Jesus name. Amen.
This is the second in our short series called ‘Question Time’, and this evening our question is ‘Can We Really Call Anything Wrong?’
A couple of years ago I had the privilege of going to our partnership diocese of Kirinyaga in central Kenya along with Ben Cadoux-Hudson, late of this parish. We lead a three-day conference for the clergy of the diocese, teaching the Bible and leading seminars on some of the hard questions that they face in their culture. So for instance, Ben lead a seminar on whether we should give and take bribes. If a policeman asks you for a bribe to avoid a traffic offence, should you give it? That was a real example that one of the men there had recently experienced. And I imagine that when you hear that, your gut reaction is “of course you don’t give policeman a bribe – that would be outrageous and quite wrong”. And what’s more, probably most in our wider culture would react in the same way. For the Kenyans, it wasn’t so clear cut. Sometimes it’s easier to see issues clearly when they’re in another culture.
Ben also lead a seminar on abortion. Look out for his forthcoming book on the subject, by the way. But the Kenyans didn’t need persuading to call that wrong. They already knew it was. In our culture, on the other hand, for many that isn’t so clear cut, is it? Anyway, I learned from Ben a very simple and effective outline for tackling such potentially difficult issues, by asking three questions. First, what does the culture say about it? Secondly, what does the Bible say about it? And thirdly, in the light of what the culture says, and in obedience to Scripture, what should we then do? So that’s what I want to ask this morning, about this question, ‘Can we really call anything wrong?’
Firstly, then, WHAT DOES THE CULTURE SAY ABOUT IT?
And my observation is that our culture has four things to say that relate to our question. So here they are:
1. You mustn’t think that anything is wrong.
2. I decide what’s right for me.
3. Some things that God says are wrong are not wrong, they’re right.
4. Some things are wrong.
5. It’s wrong to say that anything is wrong.
That last one makes so clear that what characterises our culture is confusion, contradiction and incoherence. Because of course, if it’s wrong to say that anything is wrong, then it’s wrong to say that it’s wrong to say that anything is wrong. So it is, after all, OK to say that things are wrong. But at the same time it’s wrong to say that anything is wrong. That’s judgemental. But it’s ok to say that the Christian faith is wrong on so many ethical issues. But at the same time it’s wrong to say that the Christian faith is wrong, on that principle that it’s wrong to say that anything is wrong. But of course some things are wrong, like a policemen trying to bribe you.
It’s helpful for us who follow Christ to be clear about the obvious confusion, contradiction and incoherence in the way that our culture thinks. And if people you know get close to saying that it’s wrong to say that anything’s wrong, it can be useful, with gentleness and respect, to tease out with them, whether that’s what they really think, or whether they’re actually believing two contradictory things at the same time. Here’s an example of what’s going on. Tragically, it’s an example of how our culture has invaded deep inside the church. Last week, in his final sermon with us, Jon Teasdale mentioned recent comments by the Bishop of Manchester. I’ll come back to those in a moment. But the same bishop also said:
Where activity has harmed someone, the person who has caused the harm should face prosecution.
That activity should include prayer aimed at changing someone’s sexual orientation, he added. By contrast, if you commit adultery and tear apart two families, then in the words of the same bishop:
I'm more worried about the fact he failed to keep the social distancing than I am about the fact that that here was a middle aged bloke having a bit of a fling.
So in this moral universe, prayer for change is worst, because it’s so seriously wrong to think that someone is wrong. Then comes breaking social-distancing. And of least significance is adultery. As one young millennial journalist commented:
Why is it old-fashioned to judge people for cheating?
Our culture is confused, contradictory and incoherent. So, in the light of that:
Secondly, WHAT DOES THE BIBLE SAY?
Here are four things the Bible is clear on:
1. God decides what is right and wrong. The real question is not whether we can say anything is wrong. It is “what is right and what is wrong, and who decides?” God decides. That is his prerogative. He is our holy Creator. But he is not arbitrary and capricious in what he decides. What he decides is right is holy and good. What he decides is wrong is bad and evil. God decides what’s right and wrong for our own good. Obedience leads to life. Disobedience leads to death. We have a diesel car. That’s another thing that was once right and is now wrong, but that’s by the way! One day, a member of my family filled up our diesel car with petrol. Now I could have said, “That’s fine. If that’s right for you, who am I question what you’ve done?” That’s not what I said. The car’s manual says very clearly that we should only put diesel in our diesel car. The manual is not arbitrary and capricious when it says that. It’s right. And it tells me that for my own good. And the good of my wallet. So it is with God. What he decides is for our own good. Deuteronomy 30.15:
See, I have set before you today life and good, death and evil.
And then the choice we face is spelled out in Deuteronomy 30.19:
…Therefore choose life, that you and your offspring may live…
One, God decides what is right and wrong, for our own good.
2. God has told us what is always right and always wrong. He didn’t decide and then keep it to himself. He has told us in his Word. Jesus summed up the law of God in this way (Matthew 22.3-39):
You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your mind. This is the great and first commandment. And a second is like it: You shall love your neighbour as yourself. On these two commandments depend all the Law and the Prophets.
That’s Matthew 22.37-39 and that law is expanded further in the Ten Commandments. One preacher in a country church I visited said that the Ten Commandments were for then, but they need to be updated for today, and he encouraged us to write our own list for our own use. No. We are not free to do that. So when the Methodist Church in the UK decides, as the BBC reported it had done a few days ago, that, I quote, ‘marriage can be between any two people’, including of the same sex, then it is contradicting God. And when it says at the same time, as it does, that "marriage can only be between a man and a woman", then it is contradicting itself. That is breath-taking incoherence. God has told us what is always right and always wrong.
3. God is our Judge. 2 Timothy 4.1:
I charge you in the presence of God and of Christ Jesus, who is to judge the living and the dead…
God, the judge of all…
God will judge…
So God is the judge. Not us. We are to accept his judgement, on others and on us. We are not to judge for ourselves. We are not to condemn anyone as beyond hope. We are not God.
4. God is merciful. 2 Chronicles 30.9:
For the Lord your God is gracious and merciful and will not turn away his face from you, if you return to him.
Return to the Lord your God, for he is gracious and merciful…
These are the great themes that run right through the Bible. As the apostle Paul puts it so wonderfully in Romans 6.23:
For the wages of sin is death, but the free gift of God is eternal life in Christ Jesus our Lord.
It is these words that we need to listen to – not the cacophonous voices of our chaotic culture. So, in the light of what our culture says, and in obedience to what the Bible says:
Thirdly, WHAT THEN SHOULD WE DO?
Let me remind you of the words of Jesus that we heard earlier, from Matthew 7.1-5:
Judge not, that you be not judged. For with the judgement you pronounce you will be judged, and with the measure you use it will be measured to you. Why do you see the speck that is in your brother's eye, but do not notice the log that is in your own eye? Or how can you say to your brother, ‘Let me take the speck out of your eye’, when there is the log in your own eye? You hypocrite, first take the log out of your own eye, and then you will see clearly to take the speck out of your brother's eye.
What then should we do? Four things:
1. Don’t decide for yourself what’s right and wrong, or be swayed by our culture, but accept what God commands. Jesus says, “Judge not”.
2. Realise that we are all in the wrong. So learn humility. Romans 3.23:
for all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God…
Jesus says (Matthew 7.4-5):
Why do you see the speck that is in your brother's eye, but do not notice the log that is in your own eye?...You hypocrite, first take the log out of your own eye…
3. Don’t write anybody off. God is both severe in his judgements and shocking in his readiness to forgive those who repent. Shocking in the price he is prepared to pay for that forgiveness. And shocking in his readiness to forgive absolutely anyone. Even me. Even you. Again, Jesus says: “Judge not”.
4. Don’t compromise on the truth. Be ready to stand for what is right and wrong, and be prepared to help others to see too. Jesus says:
…first take the log out of your own eye, and then you will see clearly to take the speck out of your brother's eye.
Rod Dreher has written a challenging and helpful book called Live Not By Lies. Martin Morrison recommended it when he spoke to us earlier in the year. Let me add my own recommendation. Live Not be Lies is a great title. It’s a quotation from the Soviet Christian dissident of the Cold War era, Alexander Solzhenitsyn. As he was arrested, charged with treason, and exiled to the West he wrote:
Even if all is covered by lies, even if all is under their rule, let us resist in the smallest way: Let their rule hold not through me!
Our way must be ‘Never knowingly support lies!’ Having understood where the lies begin (and many see this line differently)—step back from that gangrenous edge! Let us not glue back the flaking scales of the Ideology, not gather back its crumbling bones, nor patch together its decomposing garb, and we will be amazed how swiftly and helplessly the lies will fall away, and that which is destined to be naked will be exposed as such to the world.
So in the light of what our culture says, and in obedience to what the Bible says, what then should we do? Don’t decide for yourself what’s right and wrong, but accept what God commands. Realise that we are in the wrong and learn humility. Don’t write anybody off. And don’t ever compromise on the truth. Let’s pray:
Heavenly father, whatever pressures we face from our confused, contradictory, incoherent and increasingly godless culture, please give us grace to follow your Son, who is the Way, the Truth, and the Life, and with gentleness and respect to bear witness to that truth. In Jesus name we pray. Amen.