Which, Not Whether

Last week, I wrote about the purpose of freedom. Freedom, I argued, is given by God so that we will pursue righteousness. Freedom is not an ultimate or final goal; obedience is. This week, I want to shift our focus towards religious freedom, or religious liberty. What is religious liberty? Are there any limits to religious liberty? Why is religious liberty, which our nation has historically celebrated, under threat today?


Our church’s statement of faith contains a section entitled “Religious Liberty”. It reads:

“God alone is Lord of the conscience, and He has left it free from the doctrines and commandments of men which are contrary to His Word or not contained in it. Church and state should be separate. The state owes to every church protection and full freedom in the pursuit of its spiritual ends. In providing for such freedom no ecclesiastical group or denomination should be favored by the state more than others. Civil government being ordained of God, it is the duty of Christians to render loyal obedience thereto in all things not contrary to the revealed will of God. The church should not resort to the civil power to carry on its work. The gospel of Christ contemplates spiritual means alone for the pursuit of its ends. The state has no right to impose penalties for religious opinions of any kind. The state has no right to impose taxes for the support of any form of religion. A free church in a free state is the Christian ideal, and this implies the right of free and unhindered access to God on the part of all men, and the right to form and propagate opinions in the sphere of religion without interference by the civil power.” (Baptist Faith & Message 2000)

We believe the first freedom the government must recognize is the freedom of the individual to worship without coercion. God alone, indeed, is Lord of the conscience, not parents, not the government. Religious liberty, in order to be legitimate, requires freedom for individuals to practice their religion both privately and publicly. Religion isn’t less than private beliefs, but true religion is far more than thoughts in our heads. True religion dictates how we think and act in the world, with our families, as well as with other nations.


Here is the challenge: a government that recognizes and defends religious liberty must also make decisions about how citizens with vastly different worldviews ought to interact. In other words, while the government has no right to coerce beliefs, every government must coerce some behaviors. Every government must decide which actions are permissible and which will be prosecuted as criminal. This reality inevitably means religious liberty is not an unlimited liberty.

If you asked your neighbor why he was stacking firewood in the front lawn and he replied, “I’m just preparing to offer my child as a blood sacrifice,” you wouldn’t yell back to him, “Way to go! Man, I love religious liberty!” No, you would immediately call the Police and get the garden hose to soak the coals, and you would be right in doing so. The Police would also be in the right if they arrested the neighbor for attempted murder. They would limit the neighbor’s freedom of expressing his religious beliefs and they would be justified in their actions. Why? They would be justified because religious liberty cannot be an unlimited freedom. If one religion prohibits human sacrifice while another requires it, the government must out of necessity limit the freedom to express one religion or the other. To support one practice is to act against the religious views of the other. This is why the abortionist argument that “those who don’t like abortion don’t have to have abortions,” doesn’t pass muster. The same is true for those who wish to redefine marriage to include same-sex relationships. If the government sponsors a false definition of healthcare (abortion) or a false definition of marriage (sodomy) it has taken a stand against all who disagree and therefore limited their ability to practice their own views.


Religious liberty faces threats from multiple directions today, but I want to highlight one. Robert Benne, a professor at Roanoke College, writing about religious liberty, says:

“The first freedom that all peoples should enjoy is religious freedom, not only the freedom to worship as they choose but also the freedom to exercise their religion privately and publicly. There are limits, of course, to religiously based behavior when it clashes with the settled moral convictions of a country and its laws, but the latitude for such freedom ought to be wide indeed.” (Benne, Good & Bad Ways to Think About Religion And Politics, 78)

I want to draw your attention to three crucial words in that quote: “settled moral convictions.” Religious liberty works smoothly to the degree that the citizenry shares settled moral convictions. The reason for so much turmoil in American life today is precise because we have lost settled moral convictions. Put bluntly, we are in the middle of a moral crisis. Americans no longer agree on the most basic and foundational questions of existence, identity, the family, education, or ethics. Within our nation are competing understandings of the good, true, and the beautiful.

Just this week, a federal appeals court ruled that the Fellowship of Christian Athletes must be recognized as an official student group. Their official status had previously been revoked by the school district because the group required members to affirm a historically Biblical understanding of gender and sexuality. This requirement, of course, ran afoul of the moral views of the school district. In this instance, thankfully, the government sided with the FCA group and the federal court upheld their right to define their own members on religious and moral grounds. However, this case demonstrates the final point I want to leave you with in my letter: it’s not whether it’s which. We do not have a choice of whether we will affirm or prohibit certain expressions of moral beliefs. The only choice we have is which expressions will be permitted. The question is not whether there will be religious liberty. The question is which religious expressions will be permitted and which will be prohibited.

I haven’t spent much time in this letter giving pastoral counsel or advice but let me end with this exhortation: the church has a moral responsibility to every nation. We are to proclaim the Truth of all Truths: Christ risen and reigning. We are not to coerce belief with the power of the sword. However, any nation in which genuine spiritual renewal takes place will inevitably adopt the settled moral convictions of the citizenry. For that reason, we ought to preach and teach the Truth in our churches and homes so that our communities and nation can hear, repent, believe, and eventually obey.

God’s Appointments

God has blessed our church with many hard workers. We aren’t sitting around wishing we had more to do. If anything, we wish we had a few more hours every day to get things done. As we write out our annual plans, our monthly calendars, and our daily checklists we must remember that God has also written out a plan and it often railroads our own.

Unforeseen snags in a project, friends that drop by unannounced, kids getting sick at 2 am, and ink cartridges that run dry threaten to derail our sovereign will everyday day. When we hit these potholes, we’re tempted to think, “Well, this can’t honor you, Lord, because it’s not how I had planned to honor you today.” Sometimes the hardest thing to do is to honor God by not doing the things you planned to do, and instead doing the unforeseen things that God has brought to you.

The Apostle Paul tells us that we were created in Christ Jesus for good works, which God prepared ahead of time so that we might walk in them. (Eph. 2:10) And, instead of sputtering out because our own plans were thwarted, you and I are to stop and recognize that our loving Father prepared the day for us, and whatever situation we find ourselves in is the one he planned for us. So, we thank him and ask, “Lord, help me to trust that doing this thing I hadn’t planned on, and doing it with a joyful heart is exactly the thing that will bring honor to you.”

Ultimately God isn’t asking us to finish our to-do list. He’s asking us to lay down our lives and trust him. He knows what he’s doing—and he’s doing everything necessary to conform his children into the image of Christ and take us home to heaven. So, whatever you do, do it to the glory of Christ, and let the joy of the Lord be your strength.

Human Impotence Pt. 2 – Ecclesiastes 2


Our text for today comes from Ecclesiastes 2:10. These are the words of God:

10 And whatever my eyes desired I did not keep from them. I kept my heart from no pleasure, for my heart found pleasure in all my toil, and this was my reward for all my toil. 11 Then I considered all that my hands had done and the toil I had expended in doing it, and behold, all was vanity and a striving after wind, and there was nothing to be gained under the sun.

14 The wise person has his eyes in his head, but the fool walks in darkness. And yet I perceived that the same event happens to all of them. 15 Then I said in my heart, “What happens to the fool will happen to me also. Why then have I been so very wise?” And I said in my heart that this also is vanity.

22 What has a man from all the toil and striving of heart with which he toils beneath the sun? 23 For all his days are full of sorrow, and his work is a vexation. Even in the night, his heart does not rest. This also is vanity. 24 There is nothing better for a person than that he should eat and drink and find enjoyment in his toil. This also, I saw, is from the hand of God, 25 for apart from him who can eat or who can have enjoyment?

We ought to think of Ecclesiastes 2 as a series of highly sophisticated and calculated experiments. Solomon begins with the words, “I said in my heart, ‘Come now, I will test you…” Solomon wants to find meaning in life and he’s going about his quest in a thoughtful manner.

First, Solomon wonders whether pleasure is the purpose of life. Notice that his experiment isn’t a haphazard freshman-year bender at Corpus Cristi. This is not an experiment in debauchery.

Solomon had written in Proverbs that laughter is a medicine (Prov. 17:22), but he knows there are times nothing is funny. (v. 2) Having enjoyed the best wine, he built better vineyards, new houses, gardens, and parks. But neither wine within, nor the beauty of nature without could stave off the vanity of life. (v. 3-5)

What about the pleasure of possessions? We aren’t sure how much livestock Solomon had, but we are told that on a single occasion, he sacrificed 144,000 oxen and sheep to the Lord. (2 Sam. 7:5) Solomon’s rule represented the high-water mark of economic trade for Israel. (1 Kings 4:20-21)

Surrounded by gold, livestock, and servants, Solomon enjoyed the security and luxury of being the King. (v. 7-8) Yet all of this was sand falling through his hands in vanity. (v. 9-11)

Maybe meaning in life is wisdom rather than pleasure. Solomon was given great wisdom by God. (1 Kings 3:5; 9-12) Because Solomon was wiser than any man, the fact that his wisdom could not save him from the frustrations of life in a fallen world, caused him to hate life. Brains can’t save anyone. Certainly, wisdom comes with distinct advantages. Wisdom can see which road to take and which alleys to avoid. But both the wise and the fool end in the same place. The only difference is the fool has a few extra knots on his head. (v. 12-16) Experiment 2 failed.

Don’t miss the fact that these two experiments weren’t taken on a whim. Solomon gave years and even decades of his life testing his theories. Yet he declares all of it vanity. Those who are wise die right alongside fools. The wealthy die and leave their inheritance to morons. (v. 18-23)

What then ought we to do? Eat and drink, and find enjoyment in your work, because it comes from God. (v. 24-25) God allows his children experience joy now, even while seeing the silliness of it all. And if you don’t know God, what are you doing? You are accumulating piles of things that only the Godly can truly enjoy to the depths.


Making our way through Ecclesiastes, one question you ought to be asking is, “Why all the vanity?” Where did it come from? As Biblical Christians, we know where headwaters of the river vanity are found. (Gen. 3:16-19)

The human race is not on an upward trend out of the primordial goo, improving through natural selection and technological breakthroughs. We are image bearers living under the curse of God upon human sin.

And this explains why we are all fighting tooth and nail against the futility. From weeds in the garden to errors in the accounting office, from childhood diseases to death in old age—why do we rage against the dying of the light? Because it’s not the way the world is supposed to be.


Though we are cursed, and all the universe with us, notice that, unlike the animal world, we are able to understand our situation.

2 I said in my heart, “Come now, I will test you

No beaver has ever shouted to the heavens, “Why do the logs in my dam keep rotting?” (Matt. 6:26-28) Yet human beings fill museums full of paintings and catalogs with songs all trying to make sense of the frustrations of life.

We expend great effort chasing the wind—yet if we were given the choice instead to be turned into an animal, we’d reject it outright. We know, instinctively that it’s better to be a dissatisfied human than a satisfied pig.

Blaise Pascal:

Man is only a reed, the weakest in nature, but he is a thinking reed. There is no need for the whole universe to take up arms to crush him: a vapor, a drop of water is enough to kill him. but even if the universe were to crush him, man would still be nobler than his slayer, because he knows that he is dying and the advantage the universe has over him. The universe knows none of this.

Even the futility of life is an argument for the faithful Creator.


As said last week, those who know God experience the futility and frustrations of life just like those who don’t. Weeds grow in both gardens.

And yet, to those who seek God, he grants gifts.

26 For to the one who pleases him God has given wisdom and knowledge and joy

God is the one who gives life, breath, and work. He gives houses, grapes, and vineyards. He gives the changing seasons, crackling autumn fires, and even the marshmallows for our smores.

To all these gifts, he adds three more: wisdom, knowledge, and joy. When we recognize the centrality and the supremacy of God as the ultimate giver we are struck with the utter beauty and glory even of the vanity of life.

You are not here by accident. You are not a mistake. Yes, the world is broken by the curse of sin, yet in the same instant—it is all being redeemed by Christ who became the curse for us. This is the true joy that God gives.

If you don’t know the redemption of God in Christ, you’re running to catch up with the Sun but it’s sinking. It races around to come up behind you again. But if you know Christ, the fever of this life becomes a wild ride towards kingdom come.

What is Freedom For?


Our nation has long promoted a tradition of freedom and liberty. We find those two words inscribed in founding documents and American history books as well as bantered about on nightly news shows. Americans love bragging about their freedom. Some even refer to freedom as our greatest export. But what is freedom? Is freedom an end, a supreme good? Or is freedom a gift from God to human beings used as a tool for the pursuit of higher goods?

Increasingly, our national culture elevates freedom to the level of a supreme good; something to be pursued and guaranteed at the cost of all else; and many believe that freedom must equal perfect autonomy, with no restraints. In other words, the only way to be totally free is to establish moral norms on our own authority. This conception of freedom runs in opposition to the Biblical definition and use of freedom.


In Exodus 5, when Moses appears before Pharoah to demand he free the children of Israel from their slavery, notice that freedom isn’t the ultimate goal.

Afterward Moses and Aaron went and said to Pharaoh, “Thus says the Lord, the God of Israel, ‘Let my people go, that they may hold a feast to me in the wilderness.’” (Ex. 5:1)

Why did God command and give freedom? He freed his people that they might obey and serve the Lord. The purpose of freedom is the ability to pursue obedience. Again, in Jeremiah 32, when God promises to free his people from the bondage of sin, the ultimate goal isn’t freedom:

39 I will give them one heart and one way, that they may fear me forever, for their own good and the good of their children after them. (Jer. 32:39)

We are not justified by obedience, but by grace through faith. (Eph. 2:8) We are not saved from obedience. But we are saved unto obedience. And the same basic truth can be said about the evangelistic ministry of the church. We are called to proclaim the saving work of Christ, but to what end?

19 Go therefore and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, 20 teaching them to observe all that I have commanded you. (Mat. 28:19-20)

Whether in Exodus, Jeremiah, or Matthew’s gospel, the goal of freedom from political tyrants, or from the bondage of sin, is that we might serve and obey God. Freedom is not an ultimate or final goal. God gives freedom so that we might pursue virtue. Political tyranny prevents human beings from obeying their conscience before the Lord. Sin, by definition, is transgressing the laws of God.

Here’s why all this matters. As our culture pursues freedom as an end, rather than a means to virtue, we will have less true freedom. Our society and its norms will continue to decay. Crime will rise. Bitterness, anger, and resentment will continue to dominate our politics. As the church, we are tasked with teaching the surrounding culture that true freedom is not found in the elimination of moral boundaries and restraints. Freedom resides in acknowledging and living within the boundaries God has set up in nature and revealed in his Word. If a fish pursued total freedom by jumping out of the fish tank, he would soon find himself enslaved to death, not more enjoying more freedom. The fish tank serves as the boundary of his nature, and he experiences maximal freedom by living within that boundary. Similarly, God created us, male and female, in his own image to glorify him. Those are the divine boundaries of human existence, and we experience maximal freedom when we honor the design of the Maker.


If the church is not using the freedom God has given for obedience, we are just as culpable for the moral decay of our culture as the most extreme leftist ideologues. You, Christian, were not freed from sin and born into a free country so that you might decide which of God’s laws you want to obey. If the church is sick of the moral rot in society, but church members refuse to obey God, we have no one to blame for our morally lax culture but ourselves. The gospel is not: “Trust Jesus and live how you want.” The church is to teach the nations obedience to Christ.

You who hate the lies and “fake news” that swirl around our nation like flies on cow stink; are you telling the truth to your family, your employees, and your clients? (Eph. 4:23) You who hate the bitter and acidic tone of our public discourse, are you speaking words that build up and give grace to the hearer? (Eph. 4:29) You who hate the moral decline of the family, are you pursuing Biblical roles as husbands who lead and love, wives who respect, parents who raise children in the nurture and admonition of the Lord? Before we grab our tweezers and try to remove the speck from the world’s eye, we must first examine ourselves. This is a call to regular and humble repentance of our own sin. We must lead the way first in confession before we can ever lead the way in holiness.

Lake Wylie Baptist family, we have an opportunity to model a better way for this sad and sinking world. We have life by the gift of the Holy Spirit. We have new hearts, freed by grace, and prepared to walk in good works. (Eph. 2:10) We are a counterculture of freedom leading to obedience. You are not free to do what you want. You are free to do what God requires.

History Matters

Yes, we must stand against those who would naively baptize all in the past and that would wrap Christianity in the country’s flag. But we must equally stand against those who would accommodate to the world spirit of this age under the guise of scholarship, and in the process not only distort the facts of history but Christian truth as well. (Schaeffer, The Great Evangelical Disaster, p. 118)

Recommended Reading: The Universe Next Door

I was first introduced to The Universe Next Door by one of my college professors, Ivan Spencer. In Dr. Spencers History of Ideas classes our main work was reading and analyzing primary sources in Western Thought (think: Plato, Dante, Karl Marx etc.) We read the works of these thinkers aiming to understand how they would answer the following seven questions:

  1. What is prime reality? (What’s really real?)
  2. What is the nature of external reality? (Is this world all there is, an illusion, or a creation of a deity?)
  3. What is a Human Being?
  4. What happens to a person at death?
  5. Why is it possible to know anything at all?
  6. How do we know what is right and wrong?
  7. What is the meaning of human history?

Those 7 questions come straight from The Universe Next Door, written by James Sire. Sire takes all 7 of those fundamental questions and catalogs the answers given by various dominant worldviews:

  1. Christian Theism
  2. Deism
  3. Naturalism
  4. Nihilism
  5. Existentialism
  6. Pantheistic Monism
  7. New Age Spirituality
  8. Postmodernism
  9. Islamic Theism

These worldviews are like individual universes of thought, custom, and culture living next door to one another, and all of them provide different answers to the aforementioned questions. If you are interested in learning about other worldviews, or in being able to think critically in terms of worldview, this text is a masterful starting point.

Application Ideas:

  • This book makes for a great reading group book. I have taken several groups of men from my church through this book.
  • These 7 questions are wonderful conversion topics as you seek to evangelize others. Ask someone what they believe about the world, or death, or humanity, and see where the conversation goes!

Human Impotence (Pt. 1) – Ecclesiastes 1

Human Impotence (Part 1) – Ecclesiastes 1

In his novel, When Nietzsche wept, Irvin Yalom writes, “Despair is the price one pays for self-awareness.” In other words, don’t look deeply into life. If you begin to think deeply about the world, wealth, work, and wisdom you’ll despair. And yet, God, through the author of Ecclesiastes spends 12 chapters forcing us to think deeply about all these things.


Our text for today is Ecclesiastes 1. These are the Words of God:

1 The words of the Preacher, the son of David, king in Jerusalem. 
2 Vanity of vanities, says the Preacher, 
vanity of vanities! All is vanity. 
3 What does man gain by all the toil 

at which he toils under the sun?


In his novel, When Nietzsche wept, Irvin Yalom writes, “Despair is the price one pays for self-awareness.” In other words, don’t look deeply into life. If you begin to think deeply about the world, wealth, work, and wisdom you’ll despair. And yet, God, through the author of Ecclesiastes spends 12 chapters forcing us to think deeply about all these things.

The author of Ecclesiastes introduces himself as the Preacher and a son of David. Scholars debate over authorship, but I believe we can safely assume King David’s son, Solomon to be the Preacher of Ecclesiastes. Solomon wrote most of the Proverbs which served as a training manual for young people, especially young boys in ancient Israel. He also authored the Song of Songs which is an erotic love poem.

Personally, I believe Ecclesiastes was written in Solomon’s old age as a repentant statement of his youthful apostasy. The Scriptures are filled with examples of last words. Jacob (Gen. 47) Joshua (Js 23) David (2 Sam. 22)

Solomon, who was granted a throne and wisdom, diluted his strength and power as king to a thousand women and introduced their apostasy into the worship of Israel. The man who wrote Song of Songs in his youth now pens Vanity of Vanities as confesses the worthlessness of his pursuits. (1 Kings 11:1-10)

For the purposes of this series, I’m breaking the book into three sections: first, the Preacher teaches us that human beings are impotent in themselves to find satisfaction in this life. If you are pursuing joy, heedless of God, then despair is what awaits you. (ch. 1-2) The Preacher then teaches us that God is sovereign over everything, from the largest galaxy to the tiniest quark, and wrestling with this perennially difficult doctrine is the key to joy. (ch. 3-8) Finally, the preacher ends with various practical exhortations. (ch. 8-12)


Two refrains dominate the book. One, a dominant refrain in a minor key, which tends to get all the attention. The second, a subordinate refrain in a major key, which, sadly gets ignored. The first is the minor-key refrain of human impotence, and Solomon uses three repetitive phrases as chords in this refrain. First: “Vanity of Vanities.” That single noun, vanity, occurs 76 times, and can also be translated “frustration of frustrations.”

• Everything is vanity (1:2)
• All that is done under the Sun is vanity (1:14)
• Pleasure is vanity (2:1)
• Work is vanity (2:11)
• Wisdom is vanity (2:15)
• Laboring night and day is vanity (2:23)
• Money is vanity (5:10)
• The days of a man’s life are vanity (6:12)
• All that is coming is vanity (11:8)

• Youth and all that came before is vanity (11:10)

In 1969, the Irish playwright Samuel Beckett produced a play entitled “Breath.” The play only lasts 34 seconds. No human being ever steps onto the stage. The play begins with a birth cry, followed by someone inhaling and exhaling, the lights come up, and the stage is littered with rubbish lying flat on the ground. A second cry rings out, the lights fade out, and the play ends. What’s the point? All is vanity.

The second chord of this refrain is “What is the profit?,” which occurs 10 times in Ecclesiastes and nowhere else in the Old Testament. This chord is most clearly heard in 5:15-16

15 As he came from his mother’s womb he shall go again, naked as he came, and shall take nothing for his toil that he may carry away in his hand. 16 This also is a grievous evil: just as he came, so shall he go, and what gain is there to him who toils for the wind?

The last chord is “Under the Sun.” We hear this minor chord in 1:9

9 What has been is what will be, 
and what has been done is what will be done, 

and there is nothing new under the sun.

All three chords compose a dirge for us: any search for joy or meaning apart from knowledge of and trust in the Creator results in despair.

Years ago, Sophia Loren gave an interview in which she said, “My life is what I have dreamed of: films, marriage to Carlo, bearing his children. Marvelous. I lack only one thing. In the center of my life, there is a void impossible to describe.” Vanity of Vanities indeed.

For those who live under the Sun and think the Sun is all there is, there are but two options: to think deeply about life to your despair or to ignore reality and pursue shallow happiness.


There’s no denying the minor chords are played with more volume than the major chord of Ecclesiastes, but if we train our ears, we can hear the sound of deeper, more substantial joy beneath it all: those who know that everything is a gift from God can enjoy everything for what it is.

18 Behold, what I have seen to be good and fitting is to eat and drink and find enjoyment in all the toil with which one toils under the sun the few days of his life that God has given him, for this is his lot. 19 Everyone also to whom God has given wealth and possessions and power to enjoy them, and to accept his lot and rejoice in his toil—this is the gift of God. (5:18-19)

15 And I commend joy, for man has nothing better under the sun but to eat and drink and be joyful, for this will go with him in his toil through the days of his life that God has given him under the sun. (8:15)

12 I perceived that there is nothing better for them than to be joyful and to do good as long as they live; 13 also that everyone should eat and drink and take pleasure in all his toil—this is God’s gift to man. (3:12-13)

Everyone under the Sun does the same things. Those who fear God eat, as do those who hate God. Christians work jobs just like non-Christians. The difference is, a Christian knows why he’s eating and drinking.

As one pastor said, the blessings of this life are like cans of peaches. To his beloved, God gives both the can and the can opener. To others, he gives just the can. Who is wealthier, the man with one can and a can opener, or the man with a thousand cans and no can opener?

Yes, there is much vain repetition under the sun. The sink that was empty has filled. The ledger that was reconciled last month needs attention today. One project ends, another begins. And we do all of this right alongside non-believers.

The difference is the non-believer says, “Drink, for you do not know where you came from or why. Drink for you don’t know when you’re leaving or where you are going. Drink because nothing is worth trusting or fighting for.”

But in heaven, Christ stands, with cup in hand, and says, “Drink, for the whole world is red as this wine with the crimson love and wrath of God. Drink for the trumpets are blowing for battle. Drink for this is the blood of the New Covenant shed for you. Drink for I know where you came from and why. Drink for I know when you are leaving, and where you are going.” (A riff on Chesterton)

So, eat and drink, pack a million school lunches, and mow the lawn one more time. Christ has come. Christ has died. Christ is risen, and all of our work is done in him.