Friday, April 6, 2018

On Balaam, Part 1


The famous Christian English writer of the last century, G. K. Chesterton, wrote the following. “It is always simple to fall; there are an infinity of angles at which one falls, only one at which one stands. To have fallen into any one of the fads from Gnosticism to Christian Science would indeed have been obvious and tame. But to have avoided them all has been whirling adventure; and in my vision the heavenly chariot flies thundering through the ages, the dull heresies sprawling and prostrate, the wild truth reeling but erect.” (Orthodoxy)

This is literally true of our bodies. Yet it is even more true of our whole selves as we live in this life. In light of that truth, I want to examine the character Balaam from Scripture and then reflect on the impact of his life example for us who believe.

Balaam encountered the living God when the Israelites began to enter the land yet “fell” in the worst way possible after. We want to learn from this unusual incident from Israel’s history when Balaam’s life intersected their travels into the promised land. What I propose to from the outset is that these stories reveal that there is a holy kind of fear that is essential to real faith in the living God.

Balaam is one of the most intriguing characters in the Old Testament (see Numbers 22-24). He had a reputation for having the power of divination or sorcery. Divination is the (supposed) power to control and direct unseen “spiritual” forces toward some specific evil end (see Numbers 23:23; 24:1, 10; Joshua 13:22). Thus King Balak of Moab came to him requesting that he curse the Israelites because he and others in that region were terrified of the them (Numbers 22:2-5; Deuteronomy 23:4-5). He thought that if Balaam cursed them they would become vulnerable to military defeat (Numbers 22:6).

            God intervened and had Balaam ask for explicit direction before speaking (Numbers 22:8-21). Repeatedly he was prevented from speaking a curse against the Israelites. At first, he sought to ask God what he should do and did heed God’s “NO” answers. God knew that he wanted to do what Balak wanted and gave him a bizarre stern warning as he traveled—by utilizing his own donkey to save his life and speak to get his attention (Numbers 22:22-35).

            Once he arrived in Moab, he was brought to three different locations where he could see some of the Israelites. He functioned as a “Seer” and in a vision he heard from and communicated direct words from God concerning the blessing on the Israelites (Numbers 23:5, 16; 24:3-4)—and this in the presence of King Balak and his officials! Further, once Balak became finally fed up and dismissed Balaam in anger but he then delivered a word from God predicting the defeat of the Moabites by the Israelites (Numbers 24:14-24). Balaam reluctantly did as God required (Joshua 24:10).

His true attitude towards the Israelites was revealed in the fact that he gave these nations advice regarding how to get the Israelites to sin against God (Numbers 25:1-5; 31:16; Revelation 2:14). Balaam died at the hands of Israelites after having allied himself with a neighboring people, the Midianites (Numbers 13:8). Finally, the NT writers describe him as a man who had encountered the living God and yet chose to turn away from knowledge of God for the sake of greed (2 Peter 2:14-16; Jude 11).

When this incident with Balaam occurred the Israelites were traveling in the southern region of what is now land controlled by the modern states of Israel and Jordon. They had already crossed the Red Sea and the Torah of God had been delivered through Moses to the people. Moses led them into this one portion of the land of promise. They were attacked after peaceably requesting to travel through the region controlled by the Amorites and they defeated them (Numbers 21:10-35). They then encamped near Moab (Numbers 22:1). 

What I find remarkable is that apparently they were not aware until later of efforts of King Balak to bring spiritual forces against them through Balaam. Nor were they aware that God was using Balaam to bless them in the presence of the King of Moab who had declared them enemies! There was a spiritual conflict swirling around them that they were not aware of.

Some further explanation is needed to understand the King’s actions: In the ancient near east (that is, the Middle East) it was assumed that in order to secure victory in battle and maintain military and political dominance one had to have the gods on one’s side. And the most lethal way to undermine your enemies was to utilize people with the ability to control and direct negative “spiritual” power against one’s enemies. He recognized that they had the protection of Almighty God on them and that had to be removed to defeat them. 

            Balaam had no interest in blessing the Israelites. He may not have had any personal hatred for them but he certainly did not want to aid them. Thus God spoke forcefully to him and then restrained him so that he would bless them rather than curse them.

One lesson from this story is clear: We must understand that we are surrounded by people and spirits who consider us enemies. The Israelites knew that they were entering a land where the people would be hostile towards them. We are very much in the same situation. Do not be surprised that you have enemies and do not be surprised that you encounter many difficult situations because of this. For the world as it now functions stands against the Kingdom of God. If you have chosen sides by becoming a disciple of the Lord Jesus then you have entered a spiritual struggle. But God is faithful and he turns what is intended for evil into a blessing.

Balaam was an extraordinarily gifted man who peddled his supposed “spiritual” wares (or psychic abilities) to the highest bidder. Yet consider this: God choose to work with this man to bless his own people. And further in giving him an opportunity to prophecy the true word of God, he was giving him an opportunity to join the people of God. For he had defied the King of Moab and done the opposite of what he wanted! Why not go down to join the Israelites? 

Yet his true character came out. He was a man whose “god” was greed and who sought to prey upon the people of God (see 2 Peter 2:14-15; Revelation 2:14). For he thought that God or the “gods” were all “manageable” so long as one knew the right ritual to perform. He cared only to pursue his own interest and gain. Indeed, he was so obsessed that he could not recognize his own limits and vulnerability as a human creature before mighty spirit beings (see 2 Pet 2:10-16).

So then it was this man who encountered the Almighty living God and acknowledged God and spoke truly God’s word regarding Israel, but never became himself a true worshipper of God! Indeed, the last glimpse we get of Balaam is assisting and dying with the enemies of Israel (Numbers 31:8; Joshua 13:22; 24:9-10). What a terrible waste of a man’s life—to live simply for a reputation of power and accumulation of wealth.   

Wednesday, December 6, 2017

The Value of Faith

The Lord of heaven and earth tests people to see if they have faith. This is one of the most obvious conclusions to draw from the biblical narratives. This testimony stands in sharp contrast to the remarkably strange notion we modern people have that somehow “good” people should be exempt from suffering and hardship. Perhaps this is a symptom of the advanced state of denial of reality within the minds of Americans or perhaps a demonstration of the sense of entitlement we Americans tend to have. I am not sure but I do know that it is a pervasive attitude.

This tension between my stubborn will to make life conform to what I imagine to be good (that is, most convenient for me) and the actual constraints which physical needs, responsibilities and my own limitations place upon me was vividly illustrated to me recently. I got into a minor car accident earlier this year. Thank God no one was injured. However, two things stood out in my mind about this incident—one was that I was at fault and two was that the car was deemed “totaled” as a result of the damage. So I no longer had a car—one that was reliable, useful and that I liked to drive.

I do realize that this is a silly example of hardship when compared with the horrendous suffering other people endure every day around the world. But I am not citing it because it is an especially terrible incident. If anything this circumstance should be classified as an annoyance for me—for I have the benefit of car insurance which will cover the costs associated with this incident. What I am more interested in—and I think God is focused upon—is how this incident tests my faith. How will I respond to this loss of “my car”? Will I be grateful to God through this circumstance? Or will I grumble and whine about losing an automobile which I had come to like? Will I see the hand of God in this experience and turn to trust him. 

As I so often find, William Gurnall’s insights are so poignant. And in this matter of the value of faith he has articulated the main point I am writing about quite well.
“Afflictions are a spade which God uses to dig into His people’s hearts to find the gold of faith. Not that He does not seek out the other graces also, but faith is the most precious of them all. Even when God delays and seems to withdraw His hand before coming with the mercy He promises, it is so that He can explore our faith.” (William Gurnall, The Christian in Complete Armour, Vol. 3 [Banner of Truth Trust], p.34.)

This notion that God desires to explore human faith and that he values it more than any of his other gifts of grace is surprising for me. Yet I think this rings true. For what more is there in this life to sustain us but faith? Did not John the apostle affirm the value of faith?
“For the love of God is this, that we obey his commandments. And his commandments are not burdensome, for whatever is born of God conquers the world. And this is the victory that conquers the world, our faith. Who is it that conquers the world but the one who believes that Jesus is the Son of God?”             (1 John 5:3-5, NRSV)

Is it not striking that it is not love but faith that “conquers the world”? Obviously faith is not unrelated to love in John’s mind, for he makes mention of love and faith together as he elaborates on the position and disposition of the believer as he or she lives in this world. While love characterizes one’s relationship to God and his commandments it is by means of faith that one conquers the world. And I notice as well that it is not the exercise of faith that conquers but it is that we have faith in Jesus Christ our Lord. That is, it is the faith of believers in a world hostile or indifferent (they are similar) to God that constitutes victory over the pervasive worldly system which is opposed to God’s rule in his own creation.

One of the most common objections lodged against Christian faith is the fact of hardship and suffering that people find that they must endure. Many people think this is an insurmountable problem; actually hardship and suffering are the normal means by which God works to build faith into people. The question that needs to be asked is this: “What do you want to do with this difficulty?” For that is far more important than any other consideration given that suffering and difficulty in life are inevitable and God utilizes them to test and refine faith. Or as Gurnall put it, to “explore our faith.”
        
This truth is confirmed in that the Lord himself was tested by what he suffered. His suffering effectively brought out his characteristic holiness, integrity and love. How he responded to what is for us unimaginable suffering revealed his character and the divine power at work through his purified humanity. Now how much more will be revealed about us, in our weakness and corruption due to sin, will be exposed? What will we then do in response to this knowledge? Will self-knowledge drive us to practice faith and show the power and love of God to others?

God values our faith because it reveals who we are—our intentions, our motives, our desires. In his grace the Holy Spirit opens our eyes to see ourselves as we are so we will turn to press into the Lord Jesus by obedience and ask him to transform us day by day. This knowledge gives enlightenment by which we see how lacking we are in faith but also how readily God is to strengthen and grow our faith. It is those who refuse to grow up and let the Holy Spirit do his creative work in the inner person that will (in the end) discover that they did not have faith in God but in themselves. And that kind of faith is of no value to God or the person who makes such a profession (see James 2:14-26).

Authentic faith in the living God is valuable because it is the authentic expression of trust and love toward God who is faithful. In this way
“faith can see God in His greatness; and therefore nothing but faith can see the promises in their greatness because their value lies in the worth of Him who makes them. This is why [God’s] promises have so little effect on an unbelieving heart, either to keep it from sinning or to comfort it because of sin’s torment. Where there is faith to chase the promise, there the promise will give comfort and peace in abundance. It will be as sweet wine glowing with inward joy in the believer; but on an unbelieving heart the promise lies cold and ineffectual. It has no more effect on such a soul than medicine poured down a dead man’s throat.” (Gurnall, The Christian in Complete Armour, Vol. 3, p.144)

When surveys are done year by year large majorities of Americans report that they are “Christian.” When I hear or read reports of these survey results I immediately ask myself, “What kind of faith do these people have?” God alone can see and pierce into people’s hearts but it is behavior that demonstrates faith. And it is especially during great trial or affliction that people’s character, habits and inclinations become clear. This is the decisive way to measure what people say. The Lord is shaking and will shake all that can be shaken. When the Lord comes and tries us who name his Name, will he find faith on the earth?   


Saturday, September 30, 2017

The Torah, Interpretation and the Perverse Mind

Having studied Scripture and the history of the Christian church for many years, I have concluded that one of the most remarkable changes among Christians involves the Hebrew Scriptures (what Christians have long called the Old Testament). In the earliest centuries the Hebrew Scriptures, specifically through the medium of the Septuagint (a clunky and more literal translation into Greek), were the primary source for study and explanation of the meaning of the Gospel. They asserted that the Gospel explained the meaning of the Scriptures and the Scriptures bore witness to the Messiah, the Lord Jesus.

The study and use of the Old Testament, along with most of the New Testament documents, as Scripture, became normative at a very early date after the resurrection of the Lord. (I would argue that this was the case certainly by the end of the 1st century or at the latest into the 2nd century.) This perspective was important because they took the Lord’s words in Matthew 5:17-20 seriously. I do not think that the same could be said of us modern Christians today.

The Lord stated, when citing a cryptic text from Psalms in defense of his own assertion to be God’s Son (see John 10:34; Psalm 82:6), stated that “the scripture cannot be annulled” (John 10:35, NRSV). This is a core principle which is repeatedly affirmed in the Word of God. For example, in Deuteronomy, Moses warned,

“Now, oh Israel, listen to the statutes and the judgments which I am teaching you to perform, so that you may live and go in and take possession of the land which the LORD, the God of your fathers, is giving you. You shall not add to the word which I am commanding you, nor take away from it, that you may keep the commandments of the LORD your God which I command you.” (4:1-2, NASBU; see also 12:32)

I think it is remarkable that what Moses warned against is exactly what the Lord asserted that the Jewish teachers and religious leaders of his own day had done with the Torah. Texts from Scripture like this one (see also Proverbs 30:5-6; 1 Corinthians 4:6) state the same principle of the unity and authority of Scripture, which our Lord affirmed. We modern people feel rather free to selectively ignore whole sections of the Bible. And I am not merely speaking of the average Christian who intentionally only reads the parts of Scripture that are more familiar or supposedly easier to understand. No, I am referring to leaders—to the pastors and teachers who regularly teach people from the Bible.

The Church leaders up into the modern period, generally took this principle of the unified witness and authority of Scripture seriously. They may have interpreted Scripture in some ways that I would not agree with, or use methods of interpretation that I think are somewhat dubious (particularly allegorical) but nevertheless the whole of it was perceived as having a unified and authoritative main message. They believed that the words of Scriptures were the Word of God and therefore were to be revered, studied and action taken to do what they indicated was God’s will.

“For centuries, it was taken for granted that Scripture spoke with a single theological voice; where there were problems of harmonization, devices such as allegory were employed to get over the difficulty. More recently, theology has become increasingly dissociated from the Bible and has looked for its systematic principle within a philosophical framework. One need only compare Calvin’s Institutes of the Christian Religion with Barth’s Church Dogmatics to realize how true this is. Barth, who claimed to be a biblical theologian, quotes or uses Scripture only very sparingly in his great work, whereas Calvin saw his systematics as intimately connected with his whole practice of biblical exegesis.” (Gerald Bray, Biblical Interpretation [IVP:1996], p.42)

Without this core conviction of a unifying set of principle doctrines which are set forth in Scripture how can anyone make sense all the material in the various books of the Bible? How can the Bible become a source for answering questions about doctrine and providing guidance for how to practice a truly “good life”? Further, the core affirmation that Scripture is “God-(out)breathed” and thus a mighty tool for teaching, reproving, correcting and training men and woman in righteousness (2 Timothy 3:16) makes little or no sense.

Either we modern Christians have departed from the tradition of the Christian church in regard to the authority and doctrines of Scripture or the Christian tradition has fundamentally misunderstood the purpose of the Bible. I am more fully convinced that the modern disregard for Scripture is symptomatic of a more basic unbelief in revelation. And that religious people who give lip service to the Bible are very much like the Pharisees and Temple leadership (Sadducees) in the Jesus’ time. They are lawless people who use the Bible as they please but do not believe its message nor do they intend to submit their lives to the God who is described in its pages.

The Jewish people called the Scriptures the “Torah”—that is, the instruction or teaching. The prophets persistently called them to listen to it and heed its message by obeying God’s commands and instructions. The prophets and the righteous men and women among the people (and occasionally among the leaders) did seek to understand the Torah and put into practice the commandments through the acquisition of wisdom. Others did not and God’s prophets warned them that God knew the perversity of their hearts and would not accept their sacrifices and religious acts.

I would contend that all errors and heresy are borne from choices to depart from the plain instruction of the Word of God. When we are confronted with the truth of the Word and we understand it properly we have one of two choices: Either we submit to it and conform our lives to that instruction or we seek to find ways to convince ourselves and others that it must mean something different—something more in line with what we already believe. This situation is different from genuine questions about the meaning of a specific passage(s) and the need to wrestle with how to best interpret Scripture.

Peter addressed a case in point by warning his readers against certain false teachers who live according to their own desires, ignoring truth revealed in Scripture even while they present themselves as Christian teachers (see 2 Peter 2). Acting from motives of greed they sought to “exploit” them “with deceptive words,” speaking “bombastic nonsense,” and they enticed people who had “just escaped from those who live in error. They promise them freedom, but they themselves are slaves of corruption; for people are slaves to whatever masters them.” (2 Peter 2:3, 18-19)

He refers to these men again, in an aside comment related to select affirmations in Paul’s letters (2 Peter 3:14-16). Namely, that Paul’s writing is sometimes “hard to understand” and that these men, being “ignorant and unstable [they] twist [or literally from Greek ‘torture’]” the meaning of Paul’s letters, “as they do the other scriptures. You therefore, beloved, since you are forewarned, beware that you are not carried away with the error of the lawless and lose your own stability.” (2 Peter 3:16-17, NRSV) They had intentionally manipulated the meaning of Scripture in order to give cover for, and give the appearance of legitimacy to, their own teaching and manner of life which they wanted others to adopt for themselves.

How could they do this? These men had perverse minds much like many modern people today—and many people who claim the name of Christ and identify as Christians. The true test for genuine faith in God revealed in Scripture is a sound mind and single-minded desire to know and please the Lord Jesus. God will not be mocked nor will he play games with us. He will show himself to a person according to that person’s character (see Psalms 18:25-27). If a person does not want to know the truth about the living God then he will judge him or her accordingly and they will perish in their own perversity of mind.

In a similar way, the person’s choices about how to perceive reality will color then how he or she interprets the word of God. No matter what the plain meaning of the biblical text(s) may be, this concern is not crucial to people who have already decided what is real for them. They will make the biblical text, as well as any other evidence gathered in other ways regarding God’s will for us, fit their own corrupt perspective of the world and themselves (Titus 1:15).

As the Scripture says again and again, God sees into the depths of the human heart and knocks to get access there so he can transform it with his power and love. To those who open to him he makes them pure and thus they can rightly perceive the beauty, truth and goodness in God and what he intends to make of his creation. People like this are by known by God and he will give them their due reward. 

Monday, July 31, 2017

Pure Pleasure

I am most impressed with the durability of actual pleasures. What I mean is real pleasure rooted in the good creation God made and utilized in an upright way. This is a new experience for me as I have been so accustomed to running, in so many different ways, from the inherent difficulties in life. I found that I could not take pleasure in things or even in you, my God. Anxiety and fear drove me constantly to the point that I did not stop to look at a beautiful sunset, or sit quietly enjoying a cup of tea or enjoy listening to my wife tell me about the day. I was too driven and busy to do “important” things to waste my time.

I have long found a refuge of sorts in rational thought and reflection. This is why I have read so much over the years. But now the experience of reading and critical reflection is somehow different and my ability to enjoy the normal process of rational thought is enhanced. And with that also to enjoy seeing the beauty of the natural world and consciously do routine tasks with a sense of dignity.

Are not our activities layered with a subtle complexity of form and wisdom that, if we seek to understand them, make them interesting in and of themselves? How is that I can read and comprehend the text of a good book? How does the act of reading words on the page translate into comprehension and insight and even move me to think or act differently? Why is it that when I exercise my body working outside at my home or helping someone move (or whatever else) that I feel so good even while I am physically worn?

Is it not the curse of sin-infested human life that people cannot appreciate the incredible beauty and simplicity of true pleasure? This problem is endemic to modern culture and people have articulated this in literature and poetry and everyday conversation. We call this being “bored.” The answer to this is more than shifting to a new intellectual paradigm (world-view); it requires much more than that—one’s mind must be cleansed from the perversity of sin and one must want to learn to utterly depend upon the Lord Jesus to energize one’s whole self. Then one can perceive clearly (and with increasingly greater acuteness) what is true, virtuous and beautiful. This is what you have done in me, my Lord!

Paul was certainly right and spoke with great insight when he cut through the perspectives of the fleshly minded:

“To the pure all things are pure, but to the corrupt and unbelieving nothing is pure. Their very minds and consciences are corrupted. They profess to know God, but they deny him by their actions. They are detestable, disobedient, unfit for any good work.” (Titus 1:15-16, NRSV)

Everything in life can have its proper place when you are given your rightful place of rule. You declared (you still do declare) that the Kingdom is near—repent! Yes, Lord, you seek your rightful position to fill up our whole selves and thus give all our lives meaning.

This is the key to getting into that position of inner victory and then as the result to be able to take joy in pure pleasure—real created pleasure and not the synthetically designed means we have devised to escape from relationship with the living God, from hardship and intimacy and service with other people. This is the utilization of things as tools for good, to respect and love people and not abuse them for one’s selfish ends; to give due credit and honor to God for having built into oneself and life on earth means of enjoyment appropriate to the transience of our short time on earth and thus not use anything or anyone as a means in and of itself. (1 Corinthians 7:29-31)

The cry of the psalmists to God is often that the wicked will end up the one’s ashamed and disappointed—for they have rejected the reign and authority of God’s good rule over them and then in in turn have persecuted those who do have faith in the living God. But the righteous persons know that there is a better portion to be found in the God of Israel. Thanks and praise be to God that he is a refuge and that he has prepared for his own good things to enjoy because they trust in him rather than foolishly embrace idolatry.

“You will make known to me the path of life; in Your presence is fullness of joy; in Your right hand there are pleasures forever.” (Psalm 16:11, NASBU) This is the cry of one who knows that all true pleasure comes from the living God as a gift and can only be experienced in fullness in him. And this has become my cry to you, my faithful Father. For you have love me with an everlasting love!



Wednesday, May 31, 2017

How to Abide in Christ

Many years ago, when I was a student leader with InterVarsity Christian Fellowship, at the University of Arizona, I was given an opportunity to speak to the group. This occasion was for our weekly meeting which met on the campus on a weeknight. I was both excited and frankly scared at this prospect. And this trepidation was not merely the usual nervous anticipation that is normal before doing public speaking. Rather, I was nervous because of prospect of talking about the topic that had prominently come to mind: Abiding in Christ.

I had by that time been studying Scripture for some years and in my own estimation I was knowledgeable about the content of Scripture. I also had an inclination that this was a very important topic to address—for multiple reasons. But when it came time to get up there and speak that night, even though I followed through presenting the content of my prepared notes on John 15, I felt as though I had actually not understood what I had set out teach my peers about “abiding in Christ.” I sensed that whatever I had said it had not really done justice to the depth of meaning of the Lord’s teaching and that the reason my words fell so far short was because I lacked in my own experience knowledge of how to abide in Christ.

What I recognize now, having studied, lived and reflected upon my own life with much more honest self-awareness, is that to abide in Christ requires one to practice faith fully and to be willing to obey him. Any carefully reader of these recorded words of the Lord in John 14-17 can easily find this statement confirmed in the actual words of the text. I had read them too but I had not acted upon them in many respects, even as I was serving within a Christian student group. Thus the full truth and power of spiritual life they describe and give guidance for receiving was not of much practical use for me. They were beautiful words that sounded in my mind too lofty and beyond me to experience. Yet, there I was standing before my fellow undergraduate college peers attempting to tell them how to abide in Christ!

Some years later, having read some of the writings of Andrew Murray, I began to get a better appreciation for what it requires to abide in Christ. I have yet to find a Christian writer who has been able to describe and give such helpful concrete teaching about abiding in Christ. In Abide in Christ, Murray notes this:

“They [the twelve disciples] doubtless have many questions to ask as to what that abiding in Him and His love is. He anticipates and meets their wishes, and gives them His OWN LIFE as the best exposition of His command. As example and rule for their abiding in His love, they have to look to His abiding in the Father’s love. In the light of His union with the Father, their union with Him will become clear. His life in the Father is the law of their life in Him.” (Andrew Murray, Abide in Christ, Twenty-Third Day, p.129; cited from The Andrew Murray Collection [Barbour]. Note: Capitalized words and italics in original.)

Murray’s clarification of this point is, of course, entirely correct. Yet this truth is also overlooked by so many Christians! Why is this? Perhaps we could lay responsibility at the feet of the pastors and teachers who do not explicitly teach the plain meaning of the Lord’s words from John’s gospel. I do think that this may indeed explain some of the phenomena but not all of it. For how many Christian people are there, who have had the opportunity to consistently read, study and hear the Scriptures taught accurately, yet still do not understand with their hearts the existential meaning of abiding? Far too many.

I think that the main reason more of those who profess faith in the Lord do not abide in him is because it defies what they think to be possible. Their conception of God, of faith and of actually relating to God does not allow for this kind of spiritual union. This is despite the fact that so many contemporary Christian people have heard teaching and preaching on the grace of God. But this resistance to and confusion about abiding in Christ is not rooted in intellectual knowledge but rather in a person’s willingness to submit to the deep and ongoing work of the Spirit within.

“We are naturally so prone to ground our salvation on our own works that, if we cannot make them procuring conditions and causes of our salvation by Christ, yet we shall endeavor at least to make them necessary preparatives to fit us for receiving Christ and His salvation by faith. And men are easily persuaded that this is not at all contrary to salvation by free grace, because all that is in this way ascribed to our works, or good qualifications, is only, ‘That they put us in a fit posture to receive a free gift. . . .” (Walter Marshall, The Gospel Mystery of Sanctification [Fig Press:2012], p.102)

The radical nature of the invitation to become a learner of the Lord Jesus is simply too much for many people. They seek to fit him and his teaching into their preconceived notions of spirituality. And those notions do not include intimate abiding; raw faith which requires one to trust the Lord for everything in life and to lean into him to receive everything from him. I think that this was the Lord’s point when he provoked his disciples by telling them that they had to eat his flesh and drink his blood (see John 6:35, 47-58).

In the Lord Jesus we encounter God himself. And as all who come to meet God in Christ discover, no one can control or manipulate the living God. He is free to love and bestow grace and be merciful. And thus he is also able to be the most perfect Judge of all people because he knows people’s hearts and how they have responded to God’s love and mercy. It is far better to take the risk of raw faith in the Son of God and surrender all preconceived notions one holds about God. That is to say, to be genuinely open to learning the truth and putting into practice. 

Thursday, April 27, 2017

The Value of Faith


The Lord of heaven and earth tests people to see if they have faith. This is one of the most obvious conclusions to draw from the biblical narratives. This testimony stands in sharp contrast to the remarkably strange notion we modern people have that somehow “good” people should be exempt from suffering and hardship. Perhaps this is a symptom of the advanced state of denial of reality within the minds of Americans or perhaps a demonstration of the sense of entitlement we Americans tend to have. I am not sure but I do know that it is a pervasive attitude.
This tension between my stubborn will to make life conform to what I imagine to be good (that is, most convenient for me) and the actual constraints which physical needs, responsibilities and my own limitations place upon me was vividly illustrated to me recently. I got into a minor car accident. Thank God no one was injured. However, two things stood out in my mind about this incident—one was that I was at fault and two was that the car was deemed “totaled” as a result of the damage. So I no longer have a car—one that was reliable, useful and that I liked to drive.
I do realize that this is a silly example of hardship when compared with the horrendous suffering other people endure every day around the world. But I am not citing it because it is an especially terrible incident. If anything this circumstance should be classified as an annoyance for me—for I have the benefit of car insurance which will cover the costs associated with this incident. What I am more interested in—and I think God is focused upon—is how this incident tests my faith. How will I respond to this loss of “my car”? Will I be grateful to God through this circumstance? Or will I grumble and wine about losing an automobile which I had come to like? Will I see the hand of God in this life experience and turn to trust him in all things?
As I so often find, William Gurnall’s insights are so poignant. And in this matter of the value of faith he has articulated the main point I am writing about quite well.    

“Afflictions are a spade which God uses to dig into His people’s hears to find the gold of faith. Not that He does not seek out the other graces also, but faith is the most precious of them all. Even when God delays and seems to withdraw His hand before coming with the mercy He promises, it is so that He can explore our faith.” (William Gurnall, The Christian in Complete Armour, Vol. 3 [Banner of Truth Trust], p.34.)

            This notion that God desires to explore human faith and that he values it more than any of his other gifts of grace is surprising for me. Yet I think this rings true. For what more is there in this life to sustain us but faith? Did not John the apostle affirm the value of faith?
           
“For the love of God is this, that we obey his commandments. And his commandments are not burdensome, for whatever is born of God conquers the world. And this is the victory that conquers the world, our faith. Who is it that conquers the world but the one who believes that Jesus is the Son of God?” (1 John 5:3-5, NRSV)

            Is it not striking that it is not love but faith that “conquers the world”? Obviously faith is not unrelated to love in John’s mind, for he makes mention of love and faith together as he elaborates on the position and disposition of the believer as he or she lives in this world. While love characterizes one’s relationship to God and his commandments it is by means of faith that one conquers the world. And I notice as well that it is not the exercise of faith that conquers but it is that we have faith in Jesus Christ our Lord. That is, it is the faith of believers in a world hostile or indifferent (they are similar) to God that constitutes victory over the pervasive worldly system which is opposed to God’s rule in his own creation.
            One of the most common objections to Christian faith is the fact of hardship and suffering that people find that they must endure. I understand this question because I have asked this myself but at this point in my journey of faith I am more likely to ask God, “What do you want to do with this difficulty?” For that is far more important than any other consideration; suffering and difficulty in life are inevitable and God utilizes them to test and refine faith. Or as Gurnall puts it, to “explore our faith.”
            The Lord himself was tested by what he suffered. His suffering effectively brought out his characteristic holiness, integrity and love. How he responded to what is for us unimaginable suffering revealed his character and the divine power at work through his purified humanity. Now how much more about us, in our weakness and corruption due to sin, will be exposed to drive us to practice faith and show the power and love of God to others?
            God values our faith because it reveals who we are—our intentions, our motives, our desires. In his grace the Holy Spirit opens our eyes to see ourselves as we are so we will turn to press into the Lord Jesus and ask him to transform us day by day. This knowledge gives enlightenment by which we see how lacking we are in faith but also how readily God is to strengthen and grow our faith. It is those who refuse to grow up and let the Holy Spirit do his creative work in the inner person that will (in the end) discover that they did not have faith in God but in themselves. And that kind of faith is of no value to God or the person who made such a profession.   

Friday, March 31, 2017

Seed, Soils and Salvation


It is remarkable how easily I miss the profound and important truth that the Lord taught—even after much study. Perhaps this is simply my inattention (probably so) or perhaps my unwillingness to “pay close to” what I hear the Lord Jesus say (Mark 4:24). Regardless, the most excellent Shepard is kind and patient with us. Is it no wonder that he had to reprove his twelve disciples repeatedly for be so dull of mind? What an extraordinarily powerful act of God it is to awaken us to pay attention to his word, to actually heed the Gospel message and then for God the Spirit to grow the “seed” of truth up so that human beings can be transformed spiritually!
I have been very familiar with the Lord’s parable which is generally called the “parable of the sower” (Mark 4:1-9) and have overlooked another in that same section of Mark—that of the “growth of the seed.” This realization came to me as I read a book which cites and attempts to elaborate on the meaning and significance of this parable of the growing seed (Mark 4:26-29). The book is: I Once Was Lost: What Postmodern Skeptics Taught Us About Their Path to Jesus, by Don Everts and Doug Schaupp (IVP:2008).
While this book is not primarily about the parable itself the authors propose a grid for understanding and applying the truth that particular parable conveys. I came away from that reading with a startling and refreshing perspective on the meaning of the process of spiritual awakening and growth in the human soul. I recommend the book as a tool for understanding how to gauge what is happening in the lives of those who are being drawn into the Kingdom—those we pray for and seek for ways to bear witness to. These reflections are partially in response to the book and the parable.
In Mark, after the Lord explains his most well know parable (Mark 4:1-20) about the different soils, there is an additional parable which follows. This is the parable about the process of growth of the “seed” of the Kingdom of God (Mark 4:26-29). There are five distinct phases that occur as the seed is imbedded into the soil (the human soul).

“He also said, ‘This is what the kingdom of God is like. A man scatters seed on the land. Night and day, while he sleeps, when he is awake, the seed is sprouting and growing; how, he does not know. Of its own accord the land produces first the shoot, then the ear, then the full grain in the ear. And when the crop is ready, at once he starts to reap because the harvest has come.’” (Mark 4:26-29, New Jerusalem Bible)

First, there is the planting of the seed itself (v.26). This would be obvious—the hearing of the Gospel and the “seed” of truth about God’s salvation is the landing of the seed in a person’s soul. This “planting” of the seed of the word occurs in relationship with a disciple of the Lord. All communication of the Gospel is mediated through persons to other persons. A relationship is established between the believer and the person who has not yet come to believe in the Lord.
Second, there is the beginning of the process of growth of the seed as it begins to come out of the soil. That is, it sprouts and begins to grow up (v.28). This is surely the development of faith in its beginning stages. That beginning stage is curiosity about the Lord Jesus and the Kingdom of God. This is not yet seeking after God to know the truth—that is a later stage in the process. This comes about because the seed of the truth was planted through a trusting relationship with someone who is the Lord’s disciple.
Third, there is further internal change in the person. This is the “ear” and represents a recognition and willingness to change some specific area of one’s life. This is not yet conversion nor is it seeking after God yet. Rather, it is the expression of the Holy Spirit’s work of illumination and conviction about a particular aspect of the person’s life that is not right. And further, it is the stirring of the conviction that he or she must do something to change.
Fourth, there is the “full grain in the ear.” (v.28) This is now the point when that conviction about the need to change takes on an urgency which, under the Spirit’s work, becomes a pursuit of truth and answers. This is a critical time because the enemy will be at work to counter this pursuit of God and truth. And thus it is therefore especially a time when we need to intercede for our friends and family who are under this inner compulsion to find answers from God.
Fifth, there is the full growth of the seed and the harvesting of it (v.29). This is what we could call “conversion” or entry into the Kingdom of God. This is when it is ripe for harvesting.
What usually happens is that those who care enough to pray and be a witness in word and action to people about the Lord do not discern where others are at in this process. Perhaps we confuse someone’s curiosity as readiness for seeking or conversion. If we do so then we may miss taking steps necessary for the further growth of the seed at that stage. What my friend needs is to have his questions answered by someone he trusts. That is my witness at that point. I love him and respectfully seek to clarify the answers he seeks—what he is asking and not those I think he should be asking!
I think that so often we have no idea “where” people are at in this conversion process which this parable speaks about. And further we do not appreciate that our witness in a trusting relationship is vital to help foster the growth of the seed. While we do not know how this growth process happens (v.27) we can see evidence of it and we can become detrimental to that process if we are not wise and speak and act in accord with the leading of the Spirit.
God’s work is to energize the seed of the Gospel in people while we faithfully speak of it and demonstrate it with our lives. Our lives make it attractive or give the enemies lies credence for those not in the Kingdom. God’s purpose is for his disciples to walk alongside people as he works by his Spirit to lead them to the truth about the Son of God and spiritual life in the Kingdom of God.