The Briefing, Albert Mohler

Thursday, September 29, 2022

It’s Thursday, September 29th, 2022.

I’m Albert Mohler and this is The Briefing, a daily analysis of news and events from a Christian worldview.

Part I

A Massive Storm of Catastrophic Proportions: Hurricane Ian Hits Florida

The massive storm known as Hurricane Ian made landfall in southwest Florida yesterday afternoon and, by the time the storm hit, it had sustained winds of 150 miles per hour. It was listed as category four. That number, by the way, can almost assuredly just go up. The highest category is category five. Also, by the time the storm hit yesterday afternoon, it had tied as the fifth strongest hurricane ever to strike the United States of America.

Now, of course, in saying that we don’t have statistics going back for centuries, but in so far and for so long as such records have been maintained, it’s really clear this is a massively powerful and dangerous storm. Now, at this point, I simply have to say we are not going to be able to do comprehensive coverage or analysis of what took place in the wake of Ian because this is an unfolding story and one of the things we have learned is that when you have a massive natural development like this hurricane, the fact is that you simply can’t take an estimation of the storm until it has had the opportunity to pass.

But we can right now be very much aware of and in prayer for the people in the state of Florida, in particular who are vulnerable. Just think of Sanibel Island, Naples, Fort Myers, Florida. Those are just some of the names of places that are believed, at this point, to have borne or to bear the strongest impact of the storm. Now, let’s just remind ourselves of the fact that hurricanes are massive storm systems and they live on low pressure and high temperatures. By the time you add all of that together, just remember that the Gulf of Mexico that, of course, in the United States stretches all the way from the east coast of Texas to the west coast of Florida. That is, basically, a great saucer of warm water and that warmth, the temperature, the energy, the humidity, all of that adds up under the conditions of a hurricane to a massive intensification.

These storms really do defy our imagination. Just consider the fact that, in times past, when there was no aerial view, no view from atop the atmosphere looking down at the hurricanes, all people knew was that these strange and incredibly powerful storms had rotated such that the high end devastating winds came on one side of the storm in one direction and on the other side of the storm from the opposite direction. Thus, a simple process of observation indicated that these are, as they are called elsewhere in the world, cyclones or cyclonic storms. They, basically, are these giant wheels of water and energy and, of course, translated into wind and danger.

The other very interesting and significant dimension of hurricanes is that they are themselves in motion. It’s not just that the winds are in motion, but the storm systems themselves are in motion. Sometimes people wonder why, and even as you look at coverage of development such as hurricanes, the fact is that the major media just don’t do a very good job of explaining why. One of the reasons that these giant storms move as they move is because with the rotation of the earth and with the process of winds at the upper atmosphere, these storms are both pushed and pulled, in effect. But the question is where exactly will they be going?

That just points to another very interesting dimension of all of this, and this leads to some necessary humility on the part of human beings. Not only do these massive storms make not only an individual human being but, say, an entire human civilization appears so small and vulnerable, even fragile, but it’s also the case that even as, let’s just congratulate ourselves for a moment, even as we have developed satellites that are in outer space and can look down and document and transmit information so that at least some of the danger of the storm can be predicted, even as we have all kinds of modern weather technology and modern communications devices, the fact is that we still cannot adequately predict where a storm will actually go and where it will land, even who is in the greatest danger.

By now, you’re accustomed to this as you’re accustomed to watching the news coverage of these storms. Or if you live in an afflicted or affected area, then you’re accustomed to having to make decisions based upon such reporting. But you’ll know that just a matter of, say, two or three days ago, you had an awful lot of speculation about where the storm might go once it passed over the western tip of Cuba and went into the Gulf of Mexico. And so, even as you had many major media showing graphic projections of where the storm would go, different projections ended up with different color lines all squiggling across a map. By the time you added them up, they covered more than 200 or 300 miles of potential territory. Or you go back far enough, they said so much as to expect that the storm might hit in the state of Florida anywhere from the westward extent in the Florida panhandle all the way down to the lower extent of the western side of the peninsula.

Just to point out, at that point, it covered more coastline that is owned by many coastal nations. The reality is human beings are still small. Our knowledge, by our own measure, is sometimes just immense and magnificent, but it is still incredibly limited. But here’s something else when it comes to human nature, it’s very interesting to see that even as you had national leaders including President Biden and you had state leaders there in Florida, that will be Governor Ron DeSantis, issuing all kinds of warnings, you’ll notice that people respond to those warnings in very different ways. This, again, just points to a part of the human condition. Some people seem not to be able to believe that these warnings are directed to them and to their loved ones. They somehow think that this is just a scare tactic on the part of big government.

But the reality is we’re talking about big storm and we are talking about the fact that even as governments try to say, “Here’s what we believe based upon the evidence,” well, Christians are those who understand that the evidence is inadequate until the storm actually hits. But it gets back to another issue we discuss on The Briefing from time to time, and that is this, the morality of knowledge. It comes down to the fact that, yes, there are some forms of knowledge in which the morality of knowledge simply says, “Well, now you know it and there it is.” Something like the knowledge of how to build an atomic weapon. We talked about that knowledge just in recent days.

But it’s also the knowledge of at least the threat of an impending storm. Once you are warned, well, you find this very much in the Old Testament. You find it in the Prophet Ezekiel. If there is a watchman on the wall, if he doesn’t blow the horn and the enemy comes and destroys, well, then the moral charge is against the watchman who did not issue the warning. But if the watchman does see the enemy coming and does sound the warning call and the people do not heed the warning, then the moral responsibility falls upon them.

It is also significant for us to recognize that, even as we often speak of hurricanes up front, primarily in terms of the power of the wind, as Governor DeSantis in Florida pointed out, more people are killed by the water than the wind. More lives are lost by the water than by the wind. Perhaps it is because we can at least estimate or measure the strength or the speed of the wind. We think we can understand the storm, but the reality is more people also in recent hurricanes have died after the hurricane has passed rather than during the high winds of the hurricane.

Here there’s something else related to human nature, it is because we are very curious people. Once a storm is passed, people tend to go outside their homes to see what exactly the storm has wrought. But it turns out that might be exactly the worst time to go out of the house or to go out of a secure and safe place because, as the waters continue to rise and as other phenomena continue to endanger, it tells us a great deal that the time after the storm is sometimes almost as deadly, and in some cases deadlier, than when the storm is actually passing through.

Part II

A Bloodthirsty (And Strange) Form of Works Righteousness: Patriarch Kirill Argues a Russian Soldier’s Death on the Ukrainian Battlefield Washes Away His Sins

But next, we’ve been talking about Russia’s invasion of Ukraine and recent twists and turns in that story, including the fact that Russia’s President Vladimir Putin has called up something between a quarter of a million and 300,000 reservist troops. That’s turned out to be a big story because so many of them are trying to escape the country before they can be activated in the armed services. All kinds of moral issues come into play here, including Putin’s threat to use nuclear weapons.

But now I want to talk about another development in Russia and, in this case, it is not precisely about President Putin at all. It is about Patriarch Kirill, who is the head of the Russian Orthodox Church. Now, I’ve discussed him before and I’ve discussed the Russian Orthodox Church. By the way, this particular theological dimension actually goes further than you might think in explaining the entire conflict between Russia and Ukraine and why you have so many in Russia who have been so intent upon recapturing Ukraine and absorbing it back into Mother Russia.

Now, let me tell you what’s just happened. The Patriarch or the head of the Russian Orthodox Church, Archbishop Kirill, he is a very close friend of Vladimir Putin. He’s a very close political ally. He’s close, he’s way too close, to the Russian president because the Russian Orthodox Church is close, way too close, to the Russian dictatorship and the Russian government. There’s a reason for that. There’s a theological reason, and we’re going to talk about it in just a moment. But, first, we want to look at recent statements made by the patriarch of the Russian Orthodox Church.

The Patriarch made a statement which has incredible theological significance and political significance within Russia. You’ll understand why when you hear the words. The Patriarch, age 75, said, “Many are dying on the fields of internecine warfare. The church prays that this battle will end as soon as possible so that as few brothers as possible will kill each other in this fratricidal war.” Okay, let’s just stop for a moment. That might sound like the kind of statement you would expect from the leader of an historic Christian Church making the true observation that these deaths are taking place and calling for the end of the war.

But that’s not exactly what the Patriarch of the Russian Orthodox Church did, even in that sentence, because instead he said that he prayed that this battle would end as soon as possible. What does that mean? What does as soon as possible mean? He is the head of the Russian Orthodox Church and this war, this battle, according to his language, could end as soon as Russia, as the invading force, stops invading and, furthermore, stops this war that was begun by the Patriarch’s friend and political crony Vladimir Putin. If it sounds, by the way, like I’m accusing the Patriarch of the Russian Orthodox Church of being basically politically corrupt, it is because that is exactly the argument that I am making.

By the way, in that sentence, I want you to notice that he said that he would pray “So that as few brothers as possible will kill each other in this fratricidal war.” Fratricidal war. That means he’s claiming that both sides are brothers, which means that he is not indirectly arguing that Ukraine is actually a part of Russia. Don’t miss that statement about prayer. It was a very political, very targeted statement. But the statement just got even more bizarre as the Patriarch went on, “But at the same time, the church realizes that if somebody, driven by a sense of duty and the need to fulfill their oath, goes to do what their duty calls of them, and if a person dies in the performance of this duty, then they have undoubtedly committed an act equivalent to sacrifice. They will have sacrificed themselves for others and, therefore, we believe that this sacrifice washes away all the sins that a person has committed.” Okay, I hope you were listening to that.

The Patriarch of the Russian Orthodox Church just said that he, basically, promises the forgiveness of sins for any sin a soldier has committed if he dies on the battlefield in support of Mother Russia. Notice, again, how he frames this formula. He goes on and describes it as an act of sacrifice. Again, he said that if a person dies in the performance of this duty, that would mean in this military service, “Then they have undoubtedly committed an act equivalent to sacrifice. They will have sacrificed themselves for others.”

Now, just in the moral sense, before we turn to the explicit reference here to salvation. Just in the moral sense, notice that the Patriarch of the Russia Orthodox Church is making this assurance in the face of casualties and deaths coming in from Russia’s invasion of Ukraine. He’s making this statement to the soldiers in an invading army. He is saying that they are dying as a matter of sacrifice for others. But now we got to get to the theology because the theological claim here is that, in so doing, these soldiers who are dying in the name of Mother Russia, they’ve sacrificed themselves for others is his argument.

And then, these words are so crucial, “And, therefore, we believe that the sacrifice washes away all the sins that a person has committed.” Now, let’s just remind ourselves, and let’s just be clear about this, there is no such message of salvation found anywhere in the Bible, anywhere in the New Testament. This is not the gospel of Jesus Christ. This is a repudiation of the gospel of Jesus Christ. It is actually a strange, bizarre and bloodthirsty form of work’s righteousness, suggesting that these soldiers somehow earn their salvation by the way they die on the battlefield.

Now, let’s just state again, this is not the gospel of Jesus Christ. The gospel of Jesus Christ is not a form of work’s righteousness in any sense. As a matter of fact, the Apostle Paul, not as if the New Testament doesn’t make this explicitly clear, the Apostle Paul goes so far as to make clear that if we believe there is anything we are contributing to our own righteousness or to our own salvation, then we are fundamentally repudiating the gospel.

The gospel is about a life sacrifice for others, but that life was the life of the very son of God, the sinless son of God, the Lord Jesus Christ, who died on Calvary’s cross and shed his blood for the salvation of sinners. Of course, as the gospel reminds us, it was the Father who raised the Son on the third day, and salvation is declared in the name of the Lord Jesus Christ to all who believe and repent of sins. We add nothing to the work of Christ. We contribute nothing to the work of Christ. It is a work that is totally accomplished by Christ, and Christ accomplished it totally.

There’s some odd wrinkles to this, by the way. It’s not only the repudiation of the gospel that’s clear here. This reminds us of something else, and that is that as you make a distinction between western civilization and eastern civilization, even in the trajectory of the two different parts of the ancient Roman Empire, the Western Empire eventually becoming what we know as Europe and also including the extensions of European culture, western European culture, into places like North America, that’s all a part of the inheritance of the Roman Empire in the west.

The Roman Empire in the East, it became something very different, known as Byzantium because of the ancient capital, the Eastern Empire, from the beginning, it differed from the Western Roman empire in the fact that it came to a certain understanding of the role between religion and the state, or religion and the state together, that was never characteristic of what became the later Roman Empire in the west. In the east, what we saw was a synthesis of the state, of the government on the one hand and the church on the other. That’s why you have nationalist churches. You have a Russian Orthodox church, you have a Serbian Orthodox Church, and, yes, you have a Ukrainian Orthodox Church. Those churches take on a nationalist mentality that often is reflected in the theology of those churches.

There’s a principle in the eastern churches known as symphonia, that is the church and the state together, and it’s a very dangerous combination. There’s a good reason why in the west, in Western Europe, even where you find a very strong sense of national identity, there is nothing like the symphonia that is still characteristic of so much of what you see in Eastern Europe and beyond, especially in Mother Russia.

But there’s another fascinating wrinkle here. When you’re talking about the Russian Orthodox Church and you’re talking about Patriarch Kirill, and then you look at the Ukrainian Orthodox Church which is, after all, headquartered there in Kyiv. Well, you’re looking at big Russia and little Ukraine, right? Well, when it comes to orthodoxy, no you’re not. When you are looking at the Patriarch of Kyiv versus the Patriarch of Moscow, it is the Patriarch of Kyiv that holds the much older identity and a greater more historical status in Eastern Orthodoxy. It is Moscow that’s derivative of Kyiv. It is not Kyiv that is derivative of Moscow and, in Moscow, that burns.

At least a part of what is behind the support of the Russian Orthodox Church for Vladimir Putin’s Russian invasion of Ukraine is that they want to see a reunification not only of Russia and Ukraine, but of Russian Orthodoxy and Ukrainian Orthodoxy with the Patriarch of Moscow at the top of that pyramid. Now, it is true that theology isn’t always this close to the headlines, but I hope Christians understand theology’s never far from the headlines. In this case, theology shows up in the headlines in a matter of what can only be described as life and death. Given the statements made by the Patriarch of Russian Orthodoxy, we’re not just talking about earthly life and earthly death given his misconstrual of the gospel.

We’re talking about eternal life and eternal death. That is to say, that’s what’s at stake in getting the gospel right or wrong.

Part III

‘Lord, in My Luggage I Have Scripture That I Want to Take to Your Children Across This Border’: Brother Andrew, ‘God’s Smuggler,’ Dies at 94

But finally, as we’re thinking about some related issues, we come to an obituary. In this case, the obituary is for the man known for decades as Brother Andrew. Now, he had a Dutch name, and I’m not going to state it. It was not well known when he was alive. It became known later, but he became known as Brother Andrew or God’s smuggler. That’s because the first person account that he wrote about his experience smuggling scriptures, in particular, mostly New Testaments into lands under Soviet domination during the Communist age. These included, most importantly, Poland, Czechoslovakia, Yugoslavia, East Germany, Bulgaria, but that is not an extensive catalog of the countries. There are more countries in which Brother Andrew and others, especially through the ministry known as Open Doors, had smuggled Bibles.

Now, here’s a very interesting thing. This was a very controversial practice even among Christians. There were many Christians, many Christian missionary organizations and others, who were at least officially opposed to Bible smuggling. Now, there were a couple of reasons for this. For one thing, it not only put the smuggler’s life in danger, it put the people there in the country to which the Bibles were being smuggled in danger, and sometimes things could go wrong. Sometimes they could go badly wrong. At times, it was not particularly clear whether some of these evangelistic and missionary organizations were really against Bible smuggling. After all, they were about the furtherance of the gospel and the knowledge of scripture or whether they were saying so for what were pretty well understood political reasons under the condition of Soviet domination, that Soviet domination and official atheism, by the way, led to all kinds of contortions in policies and in statements during that era.

This led to a lot of Christian conscience struggle, and it came down to the fact that do you owe someone like a communist authority the truth when that truth can lead not only to injury to yourself, but injury or death to others? All kinds of horrible moral quandaries that arose, not only in the 20th century when it came to trying to smuggle scriptures into Eastern Europe and communist dominated lands, but throughout much of the experience of the two horrifying world wars that scarred the landscape of the 20th century. Just to think of another similar kind of moral quandary, the question Christians faced, in at least some places during World War II, is whether or not a Christian owed the truth to a Nazi official who demanded to know where the Jews were hidden. That’s just another of the excruciating questions that came to believers in the Lord Jesus Christ during that era.

I’ll simply say that Brother Andrew was generally honored by Christians and understood to be the right thing to do. Furthermore, even as he did not disclose his personal identity during the time of Soviet domination, he did write, though under a pseudonym, this first person memoir in which he identified himself as God’s smuggler. It was not written so much to draw attention to himself, after all he didn’t give his actual name, but rather to the cause of smuggling Bibles and publishing them so that they could be smuggled into communist dominated lands and also the extending of the gospel into those lands as well.

But there is one very interesting aspect of the life of God’s smuggler that became very, very interesting, and that was his prayer. The prayer that he uttered, even as he was seeking to smuggle Bibles past Soviet or other communist officials, he knew he was breaking their law. The question is, would he get away with it? Would he be able to smuggle the Bibles into those countries? He offered a very unusual prayer, and this is what he prayed: “Lord, in my luggage, I have scripture that I want to take to your children across this border. When you were on earth, you made blind eyes see. Now, I pray, make seeing eyes blind. Do not let the guards see those things you do not want them to see.”

An obituary that ran in Christianity Today noted that “Cold War historians had debated the impact of Bible smuggling on communist regimes.” But it went on to cite one historian who said, “There’s at least some evidence that the KGB kept close tabs on this man’s activity and may have had informants inside his network.” Well, the point is this, we don’t know exactly who did what. We don’t know exactly how many Bibles got smuggled successfully into these communist dominated lands. We don’t know what happened to every one of those Bibles. We don’t actually know what happened to virtually any of them. But we do know this, the power of God’s word is such that, once it is in the hands and it is read with the eyes, the Holy Spirit does the work of taking that word read with the eyes into the heart and bringing about a transformation that only the word of God can bring.

But even as a teenager during many of these years, and like so many other evangelical teenagers, I heard of Brother Andrew and the story of God’s smuggler. I often heard the message then, and it rings in my ears even now, it’s one thing to ask yourself whether you would be willing to risk your life to smuggle Bibles into a communist dominated land, it’s another thing to ask yourself the question as to whether or not you and I are good stewards of the possession of God’s word when we have them in our own hands.

Thanks for listening to The Briefing.

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I’ll meet you again tomorrow for The Briefing.

R. Albert Mohler, Jr.

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