Does God Require Morality? Character and the Spirit Of God

Does democracy require morality?

Character and the Spirit of God

James C. Denison

Morality is much in the news these days.

In November, 2009 Tiger Woods was injured in a car accident, hitting a fire hydrant and a tree in his driveway in Orlando, Florida. As the investigation unfolded in the news media, we found out about Tiger’s many affairs and his subsequent treatment for sex addition.

Pittsburgh Steelers quarterback Ben Roethlisberger was accused of sexual assault by a college student in Georgia. He has avoided criminal charges, but could face punishment from the league and his team.

In Hollywood, talk show host Larry King is divorcing for the eighth time. He and his seventh wife filed for divorce recently; she believes 76-year-old King had been having an affair with her younger sister for five years.

Today we need to explore the question: does democracy require morality? If it does, how can we draw our culture to a higher moral standard? How does this issue relate to your soul, marriage, family, and other relationships today?

The problem

If you could fix one problem in America today, what would it be? A recent survey asked a large number of Americans that question. Their #1 answer was, “restoring national economic stability.” That’s no surprise, in these days of recession. But tying for #1, ahead of “preventing terrorism” and “curing cancer,” was: “restoring values and morality to society” (“What Americans Really Want . . . Really” by Dr. Frank I. Luntz).

Imagine for a moment what would happen if Americans chose to live by biblical morality. For instance, the Bible says that sex outside of marriage is wrong. No standard could seem more outdated and irrelevant in our society. But what would happen if we lived by this one simple principle?

The United States has the highest teen pregnancy rate in the industrialized world. The Centers for Disease Control say that one-third of girls in America become pregnant before the age of 20; 81% of them are unmarried. Out of wedlock births accounted for four in ten of all U.S. births in 2007.

100,000 websites offer illegal child pornography, which generated $3 billion annually. Ninety percent of 8-16 year olds have viewed porn online, most while doing their homework. There are 372,000,000 pornography pages on the Internet.

Pornography makes more money in America than Google, Yahoo, Amazon, eBay, Microsoft, Apple and Netflix—combined. Worldwide, revenues top all combined revenues of all professional football, baseball and basketball franchises.

How would living by biblical sexual morality change the issues of teenage pregnancy, abortion, and pornography?

The Bible says that stealing is wrong. Property theft in America costs us more than $15 billion. Last year, more than 9.9 million Americans were victims of identity theft, our nation’s fastest growing crime, at a cost of $5 billion. Total dollar loss from Internet crimes is $575 million.

Imagine a nation which lived by the biblical command not to steal.

The Bible says that murder is wrong. In 2006 in the United States homicide was the second leading cause of death for infants. Homicide with a firearm was the second leading cause of persons between the ages of 10 and 24, the third leading cause of death for persons between ages 25 and 34.

There are 774,000 gang members and 27,900 gangs reported active in the U.S. in 2008. There are 900,000 gang members overall across the world fostering illegal drug trade in the U.S. The availability of illicit drugs in the U.S. is increasing; 25 million drug users are under 12 years of age. Illegal drugs cost our country $215 billion annually.

The Bible says that lying is wrong. In a recent survey, 83% of students confessed they “lied to a parent about something significant.” Sixty-four percent cheated on a test during the past year—47% of students attending non-religious schools cheated; 63% of students from religious schools admitted they cheated.

Yet 93% of students said they were “satisfied with their personal ethics and character.”

And things are getting worse. A recent survey compared youth and young adults to their parents’ generation:

The younger group is nine times more likely to have sex outside of marriage.

They are six times more likely to lie.

They are almost three times more likely to get drunk.

They are twice as likely to view pornography.

Why this trend? How did we get here?

Why the issue matters

Plato, one of the greatest minds in human history, was convinced that a democracy could not last. The people could be swayed too easily by public speakers, he warned. And once the people discovered that they could vote based on their personal interests rather than the good of the nation, their democracy would begin to fail.

In a democracy, we do not seek to legislate morality. But did the founders of our nation believe that morality was essential to their democratic experiment?

In his farewell address (September 19, 1796), President George Washington told the nation: “Of all the dispositions and habits which lead to political prosperity, Religion and morality are indispensable supports…Reason and experience both forbid us to expect that National morality can prevail in exclusion of religious principle…Virtue or morality is a necessary spring of popular government.”

John Adams, our second president, claimed that “the general principles on which the fathers achieved independence were the general principles of Christianity.” He stated, “Suppose a nation in some distant region should take the Bible for their only law book and every member should regulate his conduct by the precepts there exhibited. What a Eutopia, what a Paradise would this region be.”

Thomas Jefferson, our third president, was not a biblical Christian. He cut from the Bible every reference to the miraculous, and viewed Jesus as only a man. But he insisted, “Injustice in government undermines the foundations of a society. A nation, therefore, must take measures to encourage its members along the paths of justice and morality.”

Abraham Lincoln said of the Bible, “Nothing short of infinite wisdom could by any possibility have devised and given to man this excellent and perfect moral code. It is suited to men in all the conditions of life, and inculcates all the duties they owe to their Creator, to themselves, and to their fellow men.”


Faith and the Power Of God

Faith and the Power of God

Mark 9:14-29

Dr. Jim Denison

“Donkeys kill more people annually than plane crashes. A duck’s quack doesn’t echo—no one knows why. No piece of paper can be folded in half more than seven times. Walt Disney, the inventor of Mickey Mouse, was afraid of mice. Elephants are the only animals that can’t jump. Women blink twice as much as men. It is physically impossible to lick your elbow.”

A friend recently e-mailed me these statements. I had no way to test the truth of any of them (except the part about licking my elbow). So I did some Internet searches, and discovered that everything my friend sent me is wrong, except the fact that elephants are too heavy to jump. I even watched a girl lick her elbow on YouTube, checking off yet another item on my Bucket List.

On the other hand, how do I know that the articles I found are any more correct than the e-mail I received? I’m not sure how the YouTube video could have been faked, but I’m forced to take the rest of my discoveries on faith.

They say that the Sun is 93 million miles from the Earth, that our planet tilts at a 23 degree angle, and that the Milky Way galaxy is 100,000 light years across. But how would we know if it’s so. I hope I have a brain, but I’ve never seen it.

These reflections are of interest to me in light of a recent experience. I was privileged this summer to debate a philosophy professor on the question, “Is religion the basis of morality?” He graciously but firmly maintained throughout our encounter that he does not believe in the existence of God. I was reminded of a church billboard I once saw: “Since I don’t believe in atheists, atheists don’t exist.”

On the other hand, most of us have times when we wonder if God really is the all-loving, all-powerful deity we have been told he is.

Moses questioned the word and will of God. Peter, after he denied his Lord, went outside and wept bitterly. Paul had a “thorn in the flesh” he asked God three times to remove, but God didn’t do what he hoped. Even Jesus cried from the cross, “My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?” (Matthew 27:46).

Where is the reality of God a questionable supposition for you today? Are you dealing with a problem or suffering and wondering how God could allow this? Are you waiting for him to answer a prayer or meet a need? Has he disappointed you in some way? Does he seem more a Sunday sermon topic than a present, transforming reality?

Let’s learn how to deal with our doubts and find in them God’s hope today.

My favorite prayer

As Mark 9 opens, Jesus has just been transformed before Peter, James and John on the Mount of Transfiguration. When they came down the mountain to the other disciples, they found them surrounded by a large crowd and the religious authorities, engaged in a heated argument.

He asked them what they were arguing about, and a man said, “Teacher, I brought you my son, who is possessed by a spirit that has robbed him of speech. Whenever it seizes him, it throws him to the ground. He foams at the mouth, gnashes his teeth and becomes rigid. I asked your disciples to drive out the spirit, but they could not” (Mark 9:17-18).

Here we encounter the subject of Satan and demon possession, our topic for next week as we consider demons and the power of God. But for today we’ll move on.

Jesus asked them to bring the boy to him. He manifested his demonic possession again, so Jesus asked his father, “How long has he been like this?” “From childhood,” his father answered. “It has often thrown him into fire or water to kill him.” Now comes our point for today: “But if you can do anything, take pity on us and help him” (v. 22).

Jesus replied, “If you can? Everything is possible for him who believes.” There is a clear and significant connection between faith and the power of God. Now we come to my favorite prayer in the Bible: “Immediately the boy’s father exclaimed, ‘I do believe; help me overcome my unbelief!'” (v. 24). I like the King James Version here: “Lord, I believe; help thou mine unbelief!”

Jesus responded by rebuking the demon, healing the boy, and giving him back to his father. Afterwards his disciples asked him, “Why couldn’t we drive it out?” He replied, “This kind can come out only by prayer.” This will be our topic in two weeks, when we deal with the issue of unanswered prayer and consider prayer and the power of God.

Trust and obey

For today, we’re exploring the relationship between faith and the power of God. Why must we believe to see his power manifested in our lives? Why is everything possible “for him who believes”? Why do you need faith to see God’s power in your life and problem this morning?

Let’s deal first with the wrong answers. Faith does not earn God’s favor. He does not measure our faith and reward it when it gets to the appropriate level. There is no grade scale with God—A level faith gets to see miracles, B level doesn’t, and so on. We are saved by grace through faith. Everything we have from God is his gift.

Nor does faith manipulate God’s power. It is not that if we have enough faith we can command God to do as we wish. We cannot obligate the King of the universe. It’s not that we meet the conditions and then God must keep his end of the bargain.

Here’s the biblical answer: faith positions us to receive what grace intends to give. Grace is a gift, but gifts must be opened. Christmas presents are not much good if they stay under the tree. A surgeon can operate only if I will let him. A pilot can fly me only if I’ll get on the plane. A boat can take me to see Hell’s Gate only if I’ll get on the deck.


Straight Licks with Crooked Sticks

Straight Licks with Crooked Sticks

John 6:1-13

Dr. Jim Denison

This afternoon, the largest sporting event in the universe will take place. 715 million people watched the last World Cup final in 2006. Today’s final between Spain and the Netherlands will probably break all records. Raise your hand if you’re going to watch the match. That’s what I thought. I don’t understand the appeal of the game. Watching a game which is high-scoring when it ends 2-1 is like watching someone else fish. But that many people can’t be wrong.

I don’t understand what happened Thursday night, either. As you know, ESPN aired a primetime special to announce that LeBron James is moving from Cleveland to Miami. Millions watched. I understand that LeBron is a great basketball player, but a primetime special so he can tell us where he wants to play next? When he defeats the Taliban or stops the leak in the Gulf, then I’ll watch his special. But that many people can’t be wrong.

Last Thursday I was speaking in Arlington and drove past Cowboys Stadium. Janet and I were privileged to be present for the first event in the stadium, and have been to several games since. I still have not gotten used to it. At $1.3 billion, it is the most expensive sports stadium in human history. The two spans which suspend the roof are a quarter-mile in length. The video screen is the largest in the world. More than 108,000 people attended last year’s NBA All-Star Game in the stadium; the video screen was larger than the court.

Our culture measures success by size. The bigger, the more, the stronger, the better. God doesn’t see things the same way. As we explore some of Jesus’ miracles this summer, today we’ll focus on one of his most famous. I’d like you to see not just what Jesus did, but what he used.

Most of us know that success is not enough. We’ve achieved enough success to know that it’s not all there is. Someone asked one of the Rockefellers how much money was enough. He smiled and answered, “Just a little more.” There’s always the next deal, the next buy, the next thing.

We want our lives to count, to know that we mattered for something. Next to my fear that something would happen to my family, my greatest fear is that I would stand before God one day and hear him tell me that I missed what he made me to do. You want your life to be significant, to leave a legacy, to matter. How can we know that God is using us for eternal significance today? Let’s find out.

Give God your need (vs. 1-7)

As this week’s miracle begins, our Lord wanted time alone with his disciples for teaching and rest. They’ve just been down to Jerusalem, a 90-mile hike (from Dallas to Waco) and back, and have been in a demanding season of ministry. However, the crowds did not cooperate: “A great crowd of people followed him because they saw the miraculous signs he had performed on the sick” (v. 2). So he withdrew to this remote location. But they could follow him around the shore of the Sea, so that “Jesus looked up and saw a great crowd coming toward him” (v. 5).

They were 5,000 men in number (v. 10), not including their families (Matthew 14.21: “The number of those who ate was about five thousand men, besides women and children”). Philip’s estimate of the money required to feed them (v. 7) would indicate that as many as 10,000 were present in total.

With their arrival, the only miracle (except the Resurrection) to be recorded in all four Gospels began. Jesus spent the day with this persistent crowd, teaching them about the kingdom of God (Luke 9:11).

Now the hour was late, the location remote. The crowd has been with Jesus all day, with no food or supplies. Jesus’ disciples urged him to send them away to find their own food (Matthew 14.15, Mark 6.35-36, Luke 9.12). But he was unwilling to feed spiritual hunger while ignoring the physical. And he saw in the need of the multitude a spiritual opportunity for one particular disciple.

So Jesus said to Philip, “Where shall we buy bread for these people to eat?” (v. 5). Did he need his help? No: “He asked this only to test him, for he already had in mind what he was going to do” (v.6). He knew already how to meet this need. But Philip did not.

Here was an opportunity for faith. A chance to believe that the One who had turned water to wine could feed this crowd as well. An opportunity to trust the Healer of the nobleman’s son and the Bethesda paralytic. Philip has seen Jesus calm storms and raise corpses—surely he could trust him with lunch. Philip could have asked Jesus what he wanted done; he could have found the resources at hand and delivered them to his Master; at the very least he could have prayed.

Instead, he gave up: “Philip answered him, ‘Eight months’ wages would not buy enough bread for each one to have a bite!'” (v. 7). In the Greek, 200 denarii. A denarius was a Roman coin, the usual pay for a day’s labor; 200 would be payment for eight months of work. Even then, the people of the crowd would have only “a bite” (a detail only John supplies).

If Philip had been the only follower of Jesus present, the story would likely have ended here, with the words of a discouraged disciple. Disheartened by a need greater than he could meet, frustrated by a request he could not possibly honor, Philip responded with fear rather than faith. He was not the last.

Give Jesus all you have (vs. 8-13)

By contrast, Andrew had more faith than Philip, but not by much: “Here is a boy with five small barley loaves and two small fish, but how far will they go among so many?” (v. 9).


Straight Licks with Crooked Sticks

Straight Licks with Crooked Sticks

John 6:1-13

Dr. Jim Denison

This afternoon, the largest sporting event in the universe will take place. 715 million people watched the last World Cup final in 2006. Today’s final between Spain and the Netherlands will probably break all records. Raise your hand if you’re going to watch the match. That’s what I thought. I don’t understand the appeal of the game. Watching a game which is high-scoring when it ends 2-1 is like watching someone else fish. But that many people can’t be wrong.

I don’t understand what happened Thursday night, either. As you know, ESPN aired a primetime special to announce that LeBron James is moving from Cleveland to Miami. Millions watched. I understand that LeBron is a great basketball player, but a primetime special so he can tell us where he wants to play next? When he defeats the Taliban or stops the leak in the Gulf, then I’ll watch his special. But that many people can’t be wrong.

Last Thursday I was speaking in Arlington and drove past Cowboys Stadium. Janet and I were privileged to be present for the first event in the stadium, and have been to several games since. I still have not gotten used to it. At $1.3 billion, it is the most expensive sports stadium in human history. The two spans which suspend the roof are a quarter-mile in length. The video screen is the largest in the world. More than 108,000 people attended last year’s NBA All-Star Game in the stadium; the video screen was larger than the court.

Our culture measures success by size. The bigger, the more, the stronger, the better. God doesn’t see things the same way. As we explore some of Jesus’ miracles this summer, today we’ll focus on one of his most famous. I’d like you to see not just what Jesus did, but what he used.

Most of us know that success is not enough. We’ve achieved enough success to know that it’s not all there is. Someone asked one of the Rockefellers how much money was enough. He smiled and answered, “Just a little more.” There’s always the next deal, the next buy, the next thing.

We want our lives to count, to know that we mattered for something. Next to my fear that something would happen to my family, my greatest fear is that I would stand before God one day and hear him tell me that I missed what he made me to do. You want your life to be significant, to leave a legacy, to matter. How can we know that God is using us for eternal significance today? Let’s find out.

Give God your need (vs. 1-7)

As this week’s miracle begins, our Lord wanted time alone with his disciples for teaching and rest. They’ve just been down to Jerusalem, a 90-mile hike (from Dallas to Waco) and back, and have been in a demanding season of ministry. However, the crowds did not cooperate: “A great crowd of people followed him because they saw the miraculous signs he had performed on the sick” (v. 2). So he withdrew to this remote location. But they could follow him around the shore of the Sea, so that “Jesus looked up and saw a great crowd coming toward him” (v. 5).

They were 5,000 men in number (v. 10), not including their families (Matthew 14.21: “The number of those who ate was about five thousand men, besides women and children”). Philip’s estimate of the money required to feed them (v. 7) would indicate that as many as 10,000 were present in total.

With their arrival, the only miracle (except the Resurrection) to be recorded in all four Gospels began. Jesus spent the day with this persistent crowd, teaching them about the kingdom of God (Luke 9:11).

Now the hour was late, the location remote. The crowd has been with Jesus all day, with no food or supplies. Jesus’ disciples urged him to send them away to find their own food (Matthew 14.15, Mark 6.35-36, Luke 9.12). But he was unwilling to feed spiritual hunger while ignoring the physical. And he saw in the need of the multitude a spiritual opportunity for one particular disciple.

So Jesus said to Philip, “Where shall we buy bread for these people to eat?” (v. 5). Did he need his help? No: “He asked this only to test him, for he already had in mind what he was going to do” (v.6). He knew already how to meet this need. But Philip did not.

Here was an opportunity for faith. A chance to believe that the One who had turned water to wine could feed this crowd as well. An opportunity to trust the Healer of the nobleman’s son and the Bethesda paralytic. Philip has seen Jesus calm storms and raise corpses—surely he could trust him with lunch. Philip could have asked Jesus what he wanted done; he could have found the resources at hand and delivered them to his Master; at the very least he could have prayed.

Instead, he gave up: “Philip answered him, ‘Eight months’ wages would not buy enough bread for each one to have a bite!'” (v. 7). In the Greek, 200 denarii. A denarius was a Roman coin, the usual pay for a day’s labor; 200 would be payment for eight months of work. Even then, the people of the crowd would have only “a bite” (a detail only John supplies).

If Philip had been the only follower of Jesus present, the story would likely have ended here, with the words of a discouraged disciple. Disheartened by a need greater than he could meet, frustrated by a request he could not possibly honor, Philip responded with fear rather than faith. He was not the last.

Give Jesus all you have (vs. 8-13)

By contrast, Andrew had more faith than Philip, but not by much: “Here is a boy with five small barley loaves and two small fish, but how far will they go among so many?” (v. 9).