The Antithesis and Witnessing (5)

This article was written by Prof. Herman Hanko and was originally published in the November, 2008 issue of the Beacon Lights.

Christian witnessing is, first of all, a godly life. A godly life attracts the attention of the unbeliever. He reacts with a question concerning the sense of a godly life, for he can see no sense to it. His motto is, “Eat, drink and be merry, for tomorrow we die.” It is at this point that witnessing becomes verbal. It is at this point that we must be prepared to given an answer of the hope that lies within us.

A godly life is an expression of our hope. Our hope is simply that “this world is not my home; I’m only passing through.” Our hope is an expression of our desire to go home, and our home is in heaven where our Father lives and where our elder brother lives. We want to go home. And the land in which we now live is a foreign country to us, in which the citizens of the country hate us and make our life miserable—unless we are satisfied to keep our mouths shut and live the way they do.

So, because they find us so odd, they ask us why we live the way they do. Our witness is, therefore, first of all, our peculiar (to the citizens of this country) walk. And then, when the questions come, our witness is our defense of our hope.

The wicked, Peter says, ask us a “reason” for the hope that is in us. Why do you live the way you do? Why won’t you join us in our “fun?” Why are you so different? Explain yourselves.

We must give an answer.

The word that Peter uses here is really better translated “apology.” This word “apology” is a bit of a puzzle. We take it in the sense of telling someone that we are sorry for what we have done. We apologize. That can’t be what Peter means. We do not and never ought to apologize for our Christian life—although sometimes we act as if we do need to apologize. We are shy about our faith. Or, worse, we are scared that the wicked will mock us for how we live. And so we become very hesitant and apologetic as if we mean to say, “We are really sorry for not drinking booze with you; we are really sorry for not going to your movies; we want to apologize in case we have offended you by telling you not to swear.” All sorts of wrong apologies.

But Peter does not mean that kind of apology. That kind of apology would do more harm than good. Peter means with the word “apology” what we mean by the term “apologetics.” When I was examined by Classis East prior to my ordination into the ministry of the Word of God and the sacraments, I had to be examined in “Apologetics.” It was not such an easy exam for me, because I had never had any instruction in this subject. In fact, it seems to me that I rarely heard the word. Even the subject in which I was examined was not called “Apologetics,” but “controversy.” Perhaps the churches were afraid that the term would be taken in the wrong sense.

Apologetics or Controversy meant “defense of the faith.” The Classis wanted to know whether I could defend the faith. They wanted to know if I could defend the truth of God’s sovereignty over against an Arminian. They wanted to know if I could explain clearly why we believed that the gospel was not a well-meant and gracious offer of salvation. They wanted to know if I knew how to defend particular grace over against common grace. And they wanted to know if I could explain the hard texts that were used by those who defended heresies, so that I could show how these texts were being hopelessly and wrongly twisted.

We have to defend our hope of going to heaven to those who ask us about it. We have to explain clearly the reasons why we live the way we do here in the world. We have to be able to say, “We believe the truth that is revealed in Scripture, and this is what that truth is.” We have to explain carefully and clearly what it means to believe that God created the world in six days of twenty-four hours and why evolutionism in all its forms is a deadly heresy that destroys the truth and all morals. We have to explain why, if those who ask appeal to science as proof of a very old earth, they are dead wrong in their science and why they may not appeal to science to show that the Scriptures are wrong. We have to explain that the reason why Arminianism is a heresy is because it says something terrible about God: it says that God can’t save unless man lets him save. We have to make a strong point of it that we love God and we cannot bear people saying bad things about him—any more than we can stand it when people say bad things about our parents whom we love.

We live the way we do because we love God, do we not? And to love God is a defense of God and a defense of our hope. This sort of thing is witnessing at its best. It is God-glorifying. It is divinely approved. It has the seal of heaven on it. It is the witnessing that God will use to “bring others to Christ.”

But, and I guess this is most difficult of all, we defend our hope also by telling those who ask us questions that the way we live is the only way to go to heaven, and that the way they live is a sure road to hell. There are not that many people who are forever talking about witnessing who are willing to say these things. But it has to be a part of our “apology”, our defense of our faith. The wicked are under solemn obligation to obey God, and God demands that men keep his law. God does not stand in front of men and beg them to believe. He commands them that they must believe at the peril of their souls. God does not pleadingly tell them how much he loves them; how he has done all he can to save them; and how much he would like it that they now accept his kind offers and in that way escape hell. He tells them they must do what he commands, and that they will be destroyed if they do not listen and obey.

This is the sticky part of witnessing, and there be few who are interested in anything like this. Everybody knows that this sort of approach to witnessing will get one into trouble and will inevitably end in suffering for Christ’s sake. And no one likes that—except those few who understand that it is a privilege and a blessing to suffer for the cause of Christ and that it is only through much tribulation that we can go home to Christ (Acts 14:22).

Witnesses love the truth and are willing to die for it. Witnesses are people of unwavering conviction and are ready to suffer for their conviction. Witnesses are people who are courageous and brave and are not scared by the hostility of others. Witnesses are true pilgrims in the world who live an antithetical life.

The Antithesis and Witnessing (4)

This article was written by Prof. Herman Hanko and was originally published in the October, 2008 issue of the Beacon Lights.

I have been at some pains to say that the most powerful, God-blessed and divinely approved witnessing for the Christian is the witness of a life of obedience to the will of Christ.

I insisted on the fact that the key to Christian witnessing is I Peter 3:15: “But sanctify the Lord God in your hearts: and be ready always to give an answer to every man that asketh you a reason of the hope that is in you with meekness and fear.” Peter is talking about good works as a witness. Good works are implied in that absolutely necessary prerequisite for giving a defense of our hope: sanctify the Lord God in your hearts.

Good works are also implied in the fact that people ask us a reason for our hope. They will not ask if they do not see something different—that is, see good works, in us.

But good works are also specifically mentioned in Jesus’ remarks about letting our light shine before men (Matt. 5:14-16); good works are mentioned in the Heidelberg Catechism as being necessary for the Christian to do so that “by [our] godly conversation (life-style), others may be gained to Christ” (HC 32/86).

Not, in the first place, is speech important; one’s life is the crucial thing.

Because genuine (not frothy, sentimental, outward) good works are the stream that flows from doctrine, the prerequisite of witnessing is a firm and correct knowledge of the truth of Scripture. People make a serious mistake when they complain from the pew that preaching is too doctrinal and not practical. The cry is heard so often that it makes ministers uncomfortable. I am not saying that faithful ministers are never practical in their preaching. Surely, we all agree that a minister ought to be careful to show God’s people just how the truths of Scripture apply to concrete situations in life. But to show how truth applies to life means, it seems clear, that one has to talk about the truth and preach the truth.

This is quite sobering. I am convinced that the church of Ephesus received from the Lord such a sharp warning about the imminence of the demise of the church that had lost its first love, because in Ephesus could no longer be found a love for the truth (Rev. 2:1-7). That love for the truth was Ephesus’ first love.

The Lord makes clear that Ephesus was strong in fighting heresy and standing for the truth revealed to them by Christ. They even censured heretics and excommunicated them when these heretics did not repent. But the trouble was that the people had no love for the truth.

When Paul wrote a letter to the church in Thessalonica, he warned them about the Anti-christ and described in one of Scripture’s clearest teachings about Anti-christ that those who followed this man of sin would be punished terribly by a strong delusion so that they believe the lie and are damned (II Thess. 2:1-12). But this dreadful punishment is sent on them because “they received not the love of the truth” (verse 10).

A head full of cold and abstract knowledge of the truth will not do for witnessing. Knowledge of the truth must be present in a witness—of course; but more is needed. He must love the truth. That is something more.

Witnessing is less than the foam on top of a glass of coca-cola if it is only a friendly hand sake and a white-toothed smile accompanied by some reference to Jesus as one’s personal Savior, when it all is a gloss over an ignorance of Scripture and the truth revealed in it. And witnessing means nothing and is fundamentally impossible when it covers a shameless disregard for the truth.

If I do not love my wife passionately and exclusively, I am not going to defend her good name when it is attacked. If I do not love the church of Christ of which I am a part, I will not come to the defense of the denomination and congregation when it is slandered. I love my wife because she is what she is. I love God because he is what he is. I love the truth because the truth is God. And a defense of what we love is, after all, what witnessing is all about.

We gain such a knowledge of and love for the truth in church on Sunday when the minister preaches, in catechism class when the shepherd of the flock instructs the lambs and young sheep, when we spend time at home reading books that tell us of the truth, and when we spend part of the day in devotions. How can one know the truth and love it, without these spiritual exercises? I say it again: How can anyone witness when he is remiss and unfaithful in these basic things?

So, if we love the truth we are faithful to the truth—as a man is faithful to his wife because he loves her;—and because we are faithful to God because we love him. Faithfulness to God is faithfulness to his truth. That is the way it is. One cannot change that no matter how one tries. Preparation for witnessing is not a special class on how to meet and talk to others; it is rather a class in Reformed doctrine.

Is this so difficult to understand? It ought not to be. The antithesis means, among many other things, that we stand for the truth over against the lie. “Let your light so shine among men…, Jesus says. The truth is that light! The lie of this world is darkness. We even speak of the light of the truth and the darkness of the lie. Let us then take that seriously.

The trouble is not so much that we do not know these ABCs of life; the trouble is that we do not want to take the time to learn the truth. It seems to us to demand effort that lies beyond our energies, and the knowledge of the truth seems to require a concentration on boring things when life’s pleasures are all out there with our buddies beckoning with enticing words to come and have some fun once. There is little sense in talking about witnessing when such an attitude of indifference to truth clamps its icy fingers around our throats.

The questions we ought to be asking ourselves before we become overly eager to witness are these: Do I know the heritage of the Reformed faith? Am I acquainted with the distinctives of Protestant Reformed doctrine? Can I defend the truth of sovereign grace against Arminianism in all its forms? Creationism against the deadly lie of evolutionism? Do I love that truth? That is, am I willing to give up everything I have for the sake of the truth?—as countless martyrs have done before me? Does that truth mean so much to me that I will die for it? Love of the truth is love for God, is it not? If I love him, I want to be faithful to him in all my life.

Then, and then only are we ready to become witnesses.

The Antithesis and Witnessing (3)

This article was written by Prof. Herman Hanko and was originally published in the August, 2008 issue of the Beacon Lights.

The key to understanding what Christian witnessing is all about is Peter’s words in I Peter 3:15: “But sanctify the Lord God in your hearts: and be ready always to give an answer to every man that asketh a reason of the hope that is in you with meekness and fear.” It is the key also to understanding the relation between Christian witnessing and the antithesis.

The text does not promote “door-to-door evangelism.” Nor does it find real Christian witnessing in arbitrarily approaching people with questions concerning their salvation, or their personal relation to Christ. The text takes an entirely different approach and gives us a viewpoint to witnessing that we frequently forget.

We must always be ready for a defense of our hope when others ask us for an explanation of it. The text talks about an explanation or a defense of our hope. Ah, there we have the key to it all.

We are really talking about the antithesis. It was in an earlier article that I mentioned the fact that the antithesis is really the life of one who is a stranger in the world and, therefore, a pilgrim. Even from the viewpoint of our natural life here in God’s creation, we always prefer home. We enjoy traveling, for there is always a certain allurement about foreign countries and exotic places on the globe, and to learn how other people live is always interesting even to the most jaded of travelers. But the fact remains that, as people are wont to say, “There’s no place like home.” Indeed, the longer one stays abroad, the more desirable home seems; and the nearer he comes to the date scheduled for his return, the more eager he becomes to start homeward. That kind of eagerness is increased greatly if the citizens in the country in which the stranger lives are hostile.

So it is with the Christian pilgrim. The Bible calls that longing to go home “hope.” He hopes for the day he will be home. There is, after all, no place like home. The “hope” to be home becomes more evident in his life. He may even pack his bags three or four days early; or, at least, begin to pack them. The Christian who hopes for the day he will be home will show this hope in his life. It will be impossible to hide. Others will say to him, “You are eager to go home, aren’t you;” and he will have to admit it.

That hope that becomes evident in a Christian’s life is what is called an antithetical life. The world about him becomes increasingly drab and dull; he understands more clearly that the “pleasures” of the world are not pleasant at all and cannot make a person happy and content. The accumulation of many possessions are a drag for a pilgrim who is on a journey—at best; and they tie him down so that he cannot travel at all, should they become too dear to him. In other words, he says “No” to sin and “Yes” to God. And that is what the antithesis is all about.

But the more he lives out of hope, the more odd he becomes. To those with whom he comes into contact he seems extremely strange, somewhat titched in the head, unaware of reality and one who does bizarre things. The worldly people find it impossible to comprehend such conduct. He is not “out for money.” Partying on weekends is all that many live for, but here is someone who longs for weekends so that he can go to church. To others drunkenness (along with its hangovers) is “fun” and we all are having a good time drinking our beers and becoming increasingly idiots who gradually sink into a stupor; but this guy over here drinks milk or pop, and that is about all, except maybe coffee. He stays married to his wife. He spends thousands of dollars on Christian education for his children when he could go on expensive vacations. He doesn’t sit hours in front of the TV inviting the devil and the world’s whores into his living room and mind. And you should see what he reads: dry, dull, incomprehensible books on things people talked about 500 years ago, but which no one reads today.

And so it goes. The child of God is an odd character. I was still going to college but working for the Grand Rapids Park Department with a fellow church member when such a simple thing as praying before we ate our lunch at noon elicited questions from our co-workers: What are you doing? Why do you do that?

These are the things that people notice. These are the things that are important to Scripture. Jesus defines letting our light shine before men as doing good works (Matt. 5:16) and not as accosting people in a hurry to get to work and inquiring about their salvation. Others are, in God’s good pleasure, turned to Christ by the witness of our good works. That is, good works become the occasion for witnessing. The order is important: good works; then witnessing.

The man who goes door-to-door to hand out tracts and then goes home to his second “wife,” because he divorced his first one does harm to the gospel, not good. The man who corners busy people to discuss salvation with them while disinterested in going to church or studying the Scriptures is a fake. The man who has religion on the tip of his tongue, but is a grasping, grabbing miser is worse than a fool. The man who makes a lot of noise about religion, but will not live the quiet, overlooked, dedicated life of humble service to God in the place God has placed him is useless in the kingdom.

I recall that many years ago a man came to see my father, quite agitated. He claimed that he had been persecuted for Christ’s sake because he had been fired from his job on a GM assembly line for witnessing. A bit of additional questioning brought out the fact that the man had been neglecting his work to go up and down the assembly line to talk to others about Jesus. He was told rather emphatically that such conduct was not witnessing, but sinning against the fifth commandment; and that his witness was to be faithful, hard and diligent work in his place on GM’s assembly line.

There are many in the last day who will tell the Lord, “Lord, Lord, did we not distribute tracts in thy name, and speak of our religion with every one we met?” But the Lord scathingly says to them, “I never knew you. Go away.”

When our “life-style” attracts the attention of others so that our good works become the occasion of our witness, such witnessing has the added advantage of witnessing to those whom God sets on our path.

We do not do missionary work in a willy-nilly way. We do not throw the names of fifty cities in a hat and then, blindfolded, pull one slip out to see where we are going to do missionary work. We make it a matter of principle to go where the Lord directs us by some obvious and unmistakable way. Many years ago when I was on the Domestic Mission Committee a request came to the committee from a man whose name I have forgotten. He asked the committee and our churches through the committee to take over the work of caring for churches he had established in Jamaica. The committee, inexperienced in that kind of mission work, leering of assuming responsibility for such an undertaking, and not convinced that our churches had the resources for Jamaican missions, tried desperately to decline the request. I no longer remember the chain of circumstances, but it soon became obvious to the committee and to Synod that we could not get out of the responsibility of doing the work even when we wanted to do so. That began many years of commitment to Jamaica. The Lord set Jamaica on our path. We could not get around it.

Something like this must happen also in Christian witnessing. God knows which people in this world ought to hear the witness of a Christian, for God has his own purpose in each case when the calling to witness is forced upon us.