Friday, December 17, 2021
It's Friday, December 17, 2021.
I'm Albert Mohler, and this is The Briefing, a daily analysis of news and events from a Christian worldview.
The FDA Loosens Regulations on Mail-Order Abortions and Canada Bans Conversion Therapy—Ominous Developments We’ll Be Tracking into the New Year
The year 2021 is barreling towards an end. And as it does so, along with this season of The Briefing, the big issues are still piling up. I just want to mention, as we get ready to go into the Christmas holidays, two huge news developments of massive worldview significance. We're going to be talking about both of these issues just after the first of the year on The Briefing, but I'm talking about what happened yesterday when the Food and Drug Administration made its announcement that it is going to make permanent on loosening of the law in the United States and the policies of the FDA about mail order abortion, that is to say, medical abortions by mail. This is a huge issue and the pro-abortion movement just gained a massive victory here.
It's going to take some time for us to unpack this story, the politics behind it, the worldview significance, but let's just state the obvious, this is an intentional effort to make killing unborn babies easier, in order to make the abortion of babies by medication more common, in order to try to thwart pro-life games when it comes to legislation, particularly restricting abortion. It's hard to come up with a bigger issue than this. It's going to take a few days for us to look at various angles of this particular development. But on the other hand, there's another big story out and it is equally ominous. But this one is not about abortion, it is rather LGBTQ issues. The government of Canada has adopted a radical ban on what the government calls conversion therapy.
But in reality, as we shall see, it could well mean a ban on authentic biblical Christian ministry. Because criminalized in this law is not only what might be defined as conversion therapy, what is also now legally forbidden is what would ordinarily be described as Christian ministry, right down to churches, teaching on this issue and Christian ministers counseling with their own church members, even praying with them over these issues. We have seen similar developments coming into shape in the United Kingdom. But we need to recognize that this is not just about radical legislation still coming into shape in the United Kingdom now passed in Canada. But we need to recognize that these developments will not remain in the United Kingdom, this logic will not be limited to Canada.
LGBTQ activists in the United States want at least to bring about the very same shape of legislation, and this really is one of the most clear threats to the integrity of Christian ministry that we have faced in our lifetimes. And you're going to see the stakes in these controversies just get higher and higher because both sides recognize a fundamental truth. And I'm just going to say this much on this episode of The Briefing. Both sides recognize this, the great, intractable, immovable, non-negotiable obstacle to the full legitimization of the LGBTQ+ agenda and all that will follow is the Word of God. That's the bottom line. The scripture is the unmovable obstacle to the full legitimization of all of these sexual lifestyles, and sexual identities, and sexual behaviors.
And those churches, those ministers, those Christians who hold to biblical Christianity, we are going find ourselves increasingly opposed by, not only the powers that be in the culture, but even political powers, law enforcement powers. In the United States, you may say that can't happen, we have the First Amendment, we have religious liberty guaranteed in the Constitution, but you'll notice this is exactly what is being demanded. As we begin today on The Briefing, I wanted to make reference to those huge headline stories because they have absolutely massive Christian worldview significance.
But it is going to take a matter of time on both of these issues to unpack, not only what has happened, but what this will mean for Christians, how we need to think about it and how we need to prepare our churches, and for that matter, our children for a world in which these are the new developing and darkening realities.
The News Here is Not the Fact of Secularization, but its Velocity: Pew Research Shows 3 Out of 10 Now ‘Religiously Unaffiliated’
That will have to wait for future episodes of The Briefing. Today, even as we're going to turn to The Mailbox in just a few moments, I want to talk about major research that just came out from the Pew Research Center because you may have noted, it's getting a lot of media attention. This has to do with a major study that was released just this week by Pew. Their own headline is this, About Three-in-Ten US Adults Are Now Religiously Unaffiliated. The subhead, "Self-identified Christians make up 63% of US population in 2021, down from 75% a decade ago." Now, there are certain surveys, certain research documents that have an incredible influence on the society. For example, as you look at the Pew Research Center, you're looking at one of the most important research institutions in the United States, and when it comes to religion right now, perhaps the most important and influential.
So, the numbers here really matter. They're going to be cited across the board. Across the American media landscape, people are going to say, "Look, three in 10 US adults are now religiously unaffiliated." Across that landscape, people are going to be saying that the self-identified Christians who made up 75% of the American population 10 years ago now make up only 63%. Now, the narrative that would be presented here was made very clear by Gregory A. Smith for Pew as the report was released. "The secularizing shifts evident in American society so far in the 21st century show no signs of slowing." Now, that by the way, is exactly what you and I perceive anyway. We already knew that. This is putting some numbers behind that assumption, that perception.
But the reality is, it is impossible to look at the United States and say, "That's a nation in which it looks like Christian influences growing." It's impossible to say, "As I look, I see a nation that is likely to have a higher church attendance percentage in the population than before." No, we know better than that. But in this study, the big news is that this is going to indicate that the American culture is secularizing. It's secularizing in two ways, number one in fact, and number two in velocity. That's the big news here. And actually, velocity is the bigger story. As thinking Christians have thought about the American present moment and as we have looked at the modern age throughout the late 19th and to the 20th centuries, as we have understood secularization to have been progressing so fast in Europe over the last several decades, we knew that the same trends were coming to the United States.
And it is not that we are just faced with new research here, this is really updated research. It tells us that the trend line is continuing exactly as we expected it, except perhaps a little faster than we might have expected it. But that's another issue we need to confront. We need to understand that something is going on here like might be illustrated with a tube of toothpaste. Let's say you start a brand new tube of toothpaste. You open it up, you take the cap off, you push at the bottom, because that's the decent way to start using a tube of toothpaste, and the toothpaste comes out. But the greater the pressure, the faster the toothpaste comes out. Let's just say that by accident, you dropped the tube of toothpaste on the floor. You scrambled to try to grab it. Instead, you step on it. Guess what? A lot of toothpaste comes out.
The velocity is radically increased by the deployment of that pressure. Now, that's frustrating if you look at your toothpaste on the floor, but that's what's happening in this research. What you see in this research is that a massive force is now being applied to postmodern American society and the toothpaste is coming out of the tube fast. But Christians need to think carefully, intelligent Christians, about what can kind of forces are now exerting this kind of pressure and why the velocity is now being increased, why the entire process is being speeded up. It is because secularization works just the way that you have other contagions in society. It begins small, it begins slowly but it grows fast. And as you're looking at secularization in the United States, we need to recognize that even something like COVID-19 can and evidently has had an effect.
Now, one of the interesting things for all of us, and Christians, churches, pastors are going to be very interested in the data that's coming off in this Pew study because it indicates that the number of persons who at least said they attended church regularly before COVID has been cut significantly after COVID. How much? Well, roughly 30% to 50% lower according to this study. Now, a little caveat here, this doesn't tell us who does and doesn't attend church. It tells us who says that they do and do not attend church. Nonetheless, we have a lot of data coming in from churches, from congregations themselves indicating that something like this actually is true. There has been a fall off and this is not something that's unprecedented in church history.
You can look back through the centuries of church history and there have sometimes been events such as natural disasters, plagues, there have been developments such as war that have shifted church attendance, not just for a short time or even for say the duration of the war, but for at least several generations in terms of impacting religious involvement and church activity. I don't have a good explanation for that other than when human behavior changes, it doesn't change back quickly.
To Whom Does Christmas Really Matter? To Those Who Believe the Son of God Was Born to the Virgin Mary in Bethlehem
But of course, we just have to recognize that what Pew is looking at is self-identification by a representative group of Americans, and religion is being treated here as a sociological phenomenon. And by the way, if all your faith is to you is a sociological phenomenon, it really won't matter if you go to church or not.
So, let's turn this report on its head. Who does go to church? Increasingly, those who go to church are those who believe that Jesus Christ is Lord, those who believe in the truth of the Bible as God's Word, those who believe in the gospel of the Lord Jesus Christ, and those who understand the priority of the local church in the purposes of God. Those are the people who are going to church. Fewer and fewer people are going to be going to church because it's socially expected. Very few people are going to be going to church because going adds social capital. The reality is, the people who are going to be going to church are going to be those who believe what the church teaches and preaches, what it sings and its hymns, that's going to be absolutely crucial.
Pew really doesn't deal with that but we should, especially as we think about the celebration of Christmas coming in just a matter of days. To whom does Christmas matter? Well, it matters to those who are running a consumer economy, it matters to those who are putting on Christmas entertainment, it matters to our entire society because, of course, it is a major event in our cultural calendar, it matters to Christians. But it doesn't matter to Christians for the same reason. It matters to Christians because we believe that born in Bethlehem on that night was none other than God in human flesh, the very son of God, the second person of the Trinity, born to the Virgin Mary. And yes, the virgin birth is an essential doctrine of Christianity.
And even as Christians recognize the heartwarming nature of the cultural celebration of Christmas, we have to come back and say it is only truly heartwarming because it's true. Christians understand that whether or not the society at large pays Christmas any heed or not, the reality is that the most decisive event in all of human history after the creation of the world was the birth of the Lord Jesus Christ. "He who," the gospel of John tells us, "is the very agent of creation, the pre-existent word through whom the world's were made." The glory of Christmas is the glory of God incarnate. "We beheld his glory. Glory is of the only begotten of the Father, full of grace and truth," as we read in John 1:14. "And the word became flesh and dwelt among us." That's the great good news of Christmas. That's why Christianity exists, that's why Christians are Christians.
The sole explanation for the Christian faith and for the joy of Christians at Christmas is the realization that the birth of the Son of God in human flesh is the most decisive event in human history and it is the event of our redemption. And to say that means that Christians are never merely Christmas Christians. We are always incarnation, birth, life, crucifixion, resurrection, ascension Christians. Our celebration of Christmas is not just about the baby Jesus, but about the Savior who is Christ the Lord. All this comes together merely to remind us that our confidence is not in the status of Christianity in our culture, but in the truth that God in Christ is reconciling the world unto Himself. All around us are those who are increasingly defining themselves as having no religious affiliation.
And there are those around us who still think that they have some attachment to Christianity, but they're losing even an idea of what Christianity represents. And our answer, Christmas in every day has to come down to this, "For God so love the world, that He gave His only begotten Son, that whosoever believes in Him might not perish but have everlasting life." That indeed is the story of Christmas. And if that is not true, then there is no joy in Christmas at all. But it is true because Jesus Christ is Lord and because the babe in Bethlehem was none other than Jesus Christ incarnate.
What Does It Mean That Jesus is God’s Son? — Dr. Mohler Responds to Letters From Listeners Of The Briefing
But as we turn to questions from listeners, and again, I just thank you for these questions, incredibly thoughtful questions. I wish I could get to every single one of them. But I'm going to begin with a question about Christmas.
The question is sent in, "What does it mean to say that Jesus is the Son of God?" Very, very interesting question. It reminds us that Christians often use language that we do not define, perhaps even when we're talking about Jesus. What does it mean that Jesus is God's son? Well, the most important thing to keep in mind is that the one true and living God is not only one God, but one God in three persons, the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit. As you read the scriptures, you come to understand that it is a simple issue when it comes down to the fact that God is one and at the same time, the Father is God, the Son is God, and the Holy Spirit is God. That's the Christian doctrine of the Trinity. When it comes to the second person of the Trinity, the Son, we come to understand that the love of the Father issues in the beginning, the generation of the Son.
And even as Christians have learned to say very clearly that the Father, the Son, and the Spirit are all fully divine, that is to say they are equal in their deity, the reality is that there is the Father, and the Son, and the Holy Spirit, the Son is begotten of the Father, the Holy Spirit proceeds in both the Father and to the Son. What we have here is the understanding that the Son of God is too dimensional. First of all, it means the relationship between the Father and the Son. The other has to do with the mission of the Son, the redemptive mission of the Son. And you see that even in the Old Testament, "For unto you, a son is born, unto you, a child is given." In this sense, we talk about the person and the work of Christ. And in both, He is God's Son.
That term son is not merely a title, it is not merely a description, it is the absolute truth of the relationship between the Father and the Son. It goes back to that most famous verse in the New Testament that I cited just a moment ago. "For God so loved the world, that He gave His only begotten Son," Son, "that whosoever believes in Him might not perish but have everlasting life." The incarnation of the Son of God is the great gift to the great good news of Christmas. Because again it's, "For unto you is born this day in the city of David, a Savior who is Christ the Lord." Unto you, unto sinful humanity, the Son of God is born. And that and that alone, He and He alone explains our redemption.
How Should Christian Parents Raise Children in the Culture of Santa Claus? — Dr. Mohler Responds to Letters From Listeners Of The Briefing
Next, a very interesting question comes in from Dustin, who's the father of three boys ages three, two, and soon to be eight months.
Congratulations to you and your wife, by the way, Dustin. What a beautiful family described here. And he just points to one of the perplexities faced by many Christian parents this time of year. And that is, "What do you do with small children in the question of Santa Claus, particularly when in the home, you're not talking about Santa Claus but everyone in the culture is and many of your relatives are, and the children might be confused?" And so, Dustin, I just want to be faithful Christians here. I really appreciate that, Dustin. Let me tell you, my understanding of this has changed a little bit, my strategy, you might say, that I recommend over the last several years. It is because if you just put the question, "Do we talk about Santa Claus or do we not, do we acknowledge Santa Claus or do we not," this can lead, I think, to a lot of confusion in the child.
And here's one thing. When you just talk about who's real and who's not real, there might be a better way to handle this. So, here's my suggestion. My suggestion is that when your children ask about Santa Claus, you do not speak of Santa Claus as an imaginary figure. You speak of Santa Claus as going back to the story of Saint Nicholas in the late 3rd and early 4th centuries, a very early Christian who has been called by the Catholic Church as a saint, also Eastern Orthodoxy. And it was he and the legend that he gave children gifts that has come down throughout history and has been transformed, it's been commercialized, it's been consumerized, it has been well, you name it. Santa Claus is now a major figure. But the reality is that there is something you're able to say to a child which is, "You know, there was an early Christian who lived long ago who was very kind to children and gave gifts."
And there are all kinds of stories told about him now. But we don't believe that it's Saint Nicholas. And by the way, that's where old Saint Nick Santa Claus. And when you look at all the different languages and booting, especially by the way, the Germanic influences here, many of the names come in, much of the romanticism that comes with a Victorian Christmas during the 19th century, that's come in as well. But the reality is, you don't have to say there never was a Santa Claus, you just have to say, "Our attention at Christmas isn't towards any particular human being at all." And by the way, all this about riding a sleigh, and reindeer, and coming down chimneys, all of that is just a story. But we believe in the true story of Jesus Christ. Christmas is about the baby born in Bethlehem's manger and that is something that took place, not just as a story but is true.
Just as true as you were born, and your brother was born, and baby brother was born, Jesus Christ was born in Bethlehem. The reason I suggest it that way is just my experience as a father and now as a grandfather. I think it might not be most helpful just to say Santa Claus is not real and Jesus is real because you really need to start backing that up with some arguments and talking about the consequences of whether or not Jesus is real or Santa Claus is real. The point is, we need to speak of Jesus always, as real, eternally real, incarnate in Bethlehem, our real Savior and Lord. And when it comes to any number of figures, we put them in their play simply by saying, "The world is just too fixated on Santa Claus, and the world's built up all kinds of stories about him which, frankly, aren't even true."
But the reality is that Christians need to be generous. The reality is that Christians need to love children. And so, we don't have to go around talking about how much we don't believe in Santa Claus, we go around talking about how much we do believe in Jesus.
Do Nativity Scenes Violate the Second Commandment? — Dr. Mohler Responds to Letters From Listeners Of The Briefing
Also, at Christmas, a very timely question comes in from John. John is asking about the second commandment when it comes to the prohibition of images of God and what we do with something even like a crèche or a nativity scene, which offers a depiction of Jesus, and Mary, and Joseph, and usually sundry, the shepherds, and animals, and often wise men. What do we do with all that? Well, this is not the point at which I draw any really hard line. I will tell you, I am nearly Puritan in all of this. You will not find in my study or my library, for example, an artistic depiction of Christ.
You'll find depictions of Christians, of Christian theologians, of figures in church history, even of figures from the scripture such as the apostles, you will not find an image of Christ. Now, I am not going into people's houses knocking down those images, I am not going into churches tearing down Sunday school pictures of Jesus. But I was asked what I think is advisable and wise and I think the logic of the second commandment is that we avoid having depictions of God. Now, at the same time, we do need to recognize that in the history of Christianity, depictions of Christ have been considered differently simply because of the incarnation. But here, I just want to point out, that means that some artist is going to have to be inventing an image. And when it comes to the history of Western representations of Christ, let's just face the obvious, they have not been very accurate.
I also understand as a student of the history of art in Western civilization and as a theologian, that art has had an instructive role, for example, in bearing witness to the incarnation, some of the earliest depictions of the infancy of the baby Jesus. And these are probably the safest of all of these images because they are, after all, of a baby and that's safer than trying to draw an adult man. But the point is that in the history of Christian art and even in the history of apologetics, one of the central issues has been to point to the birth of Jesus there in Bethlehem and make very clear He was a human baby, a real human baby. He just didn't appear as a baby, He was a baby. He just didn't appear as in human flesh, He was incarnate in human flesh. Much of that early medieval and even Renaissance art is pointing to that fact.
Now, just one of the issues we need to keep in mind as you think about the traditional nativity scene or the crèche display, just recognize that a part of it is the problem of the conflation of biblical history because the wise men were not there the night that Jesus was born. They saw His star arise in the East. It took some time for them to travel from the East to come to see the baby Jesus who might have been as old as say, two years old by the time that the wise men got there. And the evidence for that, by the way, is not just the distance that they had to travel, but it was the horrifying order by King Herod that all the baby boys be killed ages two and under. I think John asks a very legitimate question and I'll simply say I do not believe that having a nativity scene in your home obscures the truth of Christmas.
But it does need to be the opportunity to tell the truth about Christmas, even perhaps to gather the family together and read the Christmas narratives from the gospels, particularly the gospels of Matthew and Luke, and then just look at the Christmas scene and recognize everything we do to try to describe this is inadequate to the task. Some Christian churches, of course, even have what are called living nativity scenes. And I'll admit that as a child and as a young person, I was involved in some of those living nativity scenes. And that can lead to some very interesting church announcements. My wife and I were recently in Central Kentucky where I was preaching at a wonderful faithful Baptist church, and one of the announcements given just about two Sundays ago had to do with a living nativity scene.
And the announcement was made, "We need more adult shepherds." And my thought was, that's pretty much true of every church, every day, we need more adult shepherds. I want to thank you for listening to The Briefing and I want to wish you and your family a wonderful Christmas filled with the joy of the incarnate Christ. My prayer is that you and your family will know, not only the joy of Christmas, but that you will know Christ and that by your celebration of Christmas, others may also come to know the Lord Jesus Christ as Savior and as Lord. We come to the conclusion of today's edition of The Briefing knowing that we are just now ready to go into our Christmas break. I hope that you and your family enjoy that time as well.
The world's going to continue to throw headlines at us, but we need to take some time to concentrate on eternal truths and I hope that's exactly what happens in your house.
Lord willing, we will be back with The Briefing on Monday, January the 3rd, 2022, and I hope you'll join me then.
Thanks for listening to The Briefing.
For more information, go to my website at albertmohler.com. You can follow me on Twitter by going to twitter.com/albertmohler. For information on The Southern Baptist Theological Seminary, go to sbts.edu. For information on Boyce College, just go to boycecollege.com.
I'll meet you again on Monday, January the 3rd, 2022 for The Briefing.