My calling on the staff at Bethlehem includes the charge to study and preach the Scriptures, to sharpen and shout the vision, and to sound the bell of warning when there is danger ahead. So on our recent pastors’ prayer and planning retreat, I rang the bell three times. Of course, there is always danger ahead. So there was nothing unusual about this. The Bible is strewn with ever-relevant warnings. And I felt that three were urgent. Actually, there are two warnings, and one positive exhortation. Here is a summary of what I said. Please pray this for yourselves and for us on the staff.
1. Beware of the idolatry of pragmatism (2 Chronicles 28:19-27).
Ahaz, king of Israel, “had made Judah act sinfully and had been very unfaithful to the Lord” (2 Chronicles 28:19). So the king of Assyria came against him and afflicted him. Ahaz tried to take portions from the house of the Lord to placate the Assyrian king. It did not work. His folly he became more foolish, and he “sacrificed to the gods of Damascus that had defeated him” (v. 23). Incredible! He sacrificed to the enemy’s gods! Why? What made this king tick?
Answer: “For he and said, ‘Because the gods of the kings of Syria helped them, I will sacrifice to them that they may help me’” (v. 23). In other words, it looks like prayer to the gods of Syria worked. So if it worked for them, it might work for me. This is pragmatism in its rawest form. The idolatry of pragmatism. Pragmatism worships what works. The end of Ahaz’s story: His sacrifices “were the ruin of him and of all Israel” (v. 23).
Beware, Bethlehem, of sacrificing truth and holiness on the altar of what seems to work. Things are not what they seem. Instead of pragmatism . . .
2. “Welcome the love of the truth and so be saved” (2 Thessalonians 2:9-12).
That’s a literal translation of the last clause of 2 Thessalonians 2:10: “The coming of the lawless one is by the activity of Satan with all power and false signs and wonders, and with all wicked deception for those who are perishing, because they refused to love the truth and so be saved.” They did not “welcome the love of the truth that they might be saved.” If a person does not love the truth, he is not saved.” Loving truth is one of the sure fruits of the justified life.
What happens in the end to those who will not welcome a love of truth into their lives? Paul says, “God sends them a strong delusion, so that they may believe what is false, in order that all may be condemned who did not believe the truth but had pleasure in unrighteousness” (vv. 11-12).
That last phrase is astonishing. We spent a good while as a staff unpacking it for our ministry. Paul contrasts “believing the truth” not with disbelief but with “pleasure in unrighteousness.” In other words, wherever anyone considers Jesus and rejects him, it is not owing merely to an intellectual conclusion but, more deeply, to stronger pleasure, namely, “pleasure in unrighteousness.” The fallen human mind is not a neutral observer of Christ. People do not believe in the light because they love the darkness (John 3:19). Love. Take pleasure in. The pleasure of sin is the alternative to loving the truth. So, Bethlehem, love the truth. Flee the idolatry of pragmatism, and love the truth.
3. Beware of pride which brings destruction (2 Chronicles 26).
Uzziah became king of Judah when he was sixteen. He reigned 52 years. “He did what was right in the eyes of the Lord. . . . He set himself to seek God in the days of Zechariah, who instructed him in the fear of God, and as long as he sought the Lord, God made him prosper” (2 Chronicles 26:4-5). He became very strong and everywhere he went God helped him. But then the constant and thudding theme of the Old Testament happened again. The best kings fail.
“His fame spread far, for he was marvelously helped, till he was strong. But when he was strong, he grew proud, to his destruction. For he was unfaithful to the Lord his God and entered the temple of the Lord to burn incense on the altar of incense.” (vv. 15-16). His God-given success proved to be his ruin! He became proud. And his pride expressed itself in feeling himself to be above the law and above criticism. So he entered the temple to do what only the priests were allowed to do.
Azariah and eighty priests who were “men of valor” confronted the king in the name of the Lord. “It is not for you, Uzziah, to burn incense to the Lord. . . . Go out of the sanctuary, for you have done wrong, and it will bring you no honor from the Lord God” (v. 18). When Uzziah became angry, God struck him with leprosy in his face, and he lived the rest of his life in a separate house as a leper (v. 21).
Bethlehem, God has strengthened us. We are at risk of this leprosy: “But when he was strong, he grew proud, to his destruction.” What then shall we do? I said two things to the staff: 1) Never let me be above criticism and correction. I invite you to give me constructive criticism whenever you see some attitude or words or actions that dishonor the Lord. 2) Stay close to the cross and never cease to be amazed and thankful that you are saved. People who are perpetually and thankfully amazed that God has saved them are not likely to be destroyed by pride.
Pray for us concerning these three P’s: The idolatry of pragmatism that ruins the church; the pleasure in unrighteousness that refuses to love the truth; and the pride of being strong that leads to destruction.
Leaning on the purifying power of ever-arriving future grace,