Monday, July 9, 2018

Abiding So As Not To Sin

I was raised in Protestant evangelical churches. By the time I came to confront the claims and teachings of the Lord Jesus I was in high school and I was very aware of how much sin had gripped me. And further I was aware of how much it still gripped me.

The focus of so much evangelical spirituality is centered around sin and moral uprightness—which tends to lead people toward the kind of fake religiosity that our Lord condemned in the Jewish religious leaders of that day. In my experience, the leaders attempted to compensate for their emphasis on conversion, striving to live a pure and morally upright life and doctrinal clarity by emphasizing the grace of God towards us. We needed to be reminded constantly how much we were loved and that God was gracious to us because we felt the guilt of sin and the shame that reinforced those feelings of guilt.

Since then I have been in evangelical churches that swung over toward the opposite error—of emphasizing God’s willingness to be merciful so much that they ceased to talk about sin in any meaningful way. Thus the underlying message conveyed is that sin should be expected to continue among Christians and that God covers that because of the blood of Christ. Serious decisions to pursue righteousness and to learn to say no to sinful patterns was simply not taught.

I have come to appreciate this heritage for at least one reason: I know without any hesitation or qualification that without the Presence of God in me I am prone to sin and that without Christ I stand before God corrupted and inwardly dying—of this I am quite sure. The liberating day came when I finally said to God that this was true and that I had no hope without the Lord’s deliverance of me.

This good news of the Lord’s sacrificial death on our behalf brought me great joy and I started to learn what it meant to not have to have guilt for the choices I made to harm myself and others. What took me much longer to learn was the meaning and practicality of the Lord’s command to “abide in me as I abide in you.” This is not to say that I could not recite accurately proper theological terms related faith or comprehend what the biblical writers say about the spiritual life in Christ. I knew it in my mind but I still did not want to do what was necessary to actually experience it.

My own repeated failures to live up to my own standards, which I discovered were not nearly as strict as the Lord’s commands, eventually drove me to find answers and words by which to articulate how to abide in Christ so that I did not have to sin. For is this not what the Lord’s Apostles taught us was possible?

Walter Marshall’s book has been very helpful to me. Here is gem of insight from this faithful pastor of generations past.

“In this way only God is reconciled of us, even in Christ (2 Cor. 5:19; Eph. 1:7). And so He loves us and is a fit object of our love (1 John 4:19). And so in this way only we have a new and divine nature by the Spirit of Christ in us, effectually carrying us forth to holiness with life and love (Rom. 8:5; Gal. 5:17; 2 Peter 1:3, 4), and have new hearts according to the law, so that we serve God heartily according to the new nature, and cannot but serve Him (1 John 3:9). So that there is a sure foundation for godliness and love to God with all our heart, might and soul; and sin is not only restrained, but mortified; and not only the outside made clean, but the inside, and the image of God renewed; and holy actings surely follow. We sin not according to the old nature, though we are not perfect in degree because of the old nature.”[i]

This is the secret of abiding: To let the old nature die by not feeding it and living from it. In this we invite Holy Spirit to perpetually renew us in our spirits and from the center of our being to progressively change us. Thus in this way “the image of God [is] renewed; and holy actings surely follow.” I have to want to abide in Christ in order to avoid sinning but now I actually can do so! What a liberating truth this has been—and how sobering. For now I know what displeases the Lord and I can choose to return to do it, but in such a way that I am doing violence to the renewed inner person.

Andrew Murray echoed much of Marshall’s refreshing teaching and application. His writings have profoundly shaped my thinking and given me reason to think, even when I was in the grip of deeply embedded sin patterns, that somehow there must be hope of breaking free. He asserts the following:

“The believer who claims the promise in full faith has the power to obey the command, and sin is kept from asserting its supremacy. Ignorance of the promise, or unbelief, or unwatchfulness, opens the door for sin to reign. And so the life of many believers is a course of continual stumbling and sinning. But when the believer seeks full admission into, and a permanent abode in Jesus, the Sinless One, then the life of Christ keeps from actual transgression. ‘In Him is no sin. He that abideth in Him sinneth not.’ Jesus does indeed save him from his sin—not by the removal of his sinful nature, but by keeping him from yielding to it.”[ii]

There is here in Murray’s teaching an answer to the riddle of human nature and the operation of sin in us. How are we to live free from willful sin when our nature is corrupted by it? How are we to escape from patterns of thought and behavior that are not merely learned but are expressions of the inner bent towards self-will (and opposition to doing God’s will)? How are we to explain it when a person who genuinely has a measure of faith in Christ is still prone to turn back toward impurity and brute selfishness (and the many varied ways this is manifested)? “Jesus does indeed save him from his sin—not by the removal of his sinful nature, but by keeping him from yielding to it.”

There is in these words truth that cannot be taught in any ordinary way that I or any other teacher or preacher possesses. These are simply words that sound promising but unrealistic to the person chronically stuck in iniquity. That is where I was for many years—half awake to God and convinced that I somehow had it in me to please God; that he would take my half-measures and somehow make up for my failings with his mercy. I was deceived. That is not how God operates in us—he does not compensate or make up for our deficiencies in any way at all. Rather, Holy Spirit speaks to us to convince us that we must fully yield to his Presence and his holy work of spiritual renewal in us.

In me there is nothing that can be “fixed” and then I can stand up and do what is right. Paul stated plainly, “In me there is no good thing.” (Romans 7) The redemption by the blood of the cross for us accomplished our permanent release from sin to be sure. However, God also takes the cross and kills our nature—progressively— and simultaneously he patiently develops and matures his own gift of life (new nature) in us.

James put it this way: “In fulfillment of his own purpose he gave us birth by the word of truth, so that we would become a kind of first fruits of his creatures.” (James 1:18, NRSV) Based upon this assertion of God’s operation of grace and power in us he can then exhort us to learn to listen, to put away anger and unrighteous judgments and to cease to practice all forms of impurity and evil “and welcome with meekness the implanted word that has the power to save your souls.” (vv.19-21). And further, it is possible (but contrary to God’s good will) for believers to deceive themselves into thinking that merely hearing the truth is acceptable to God. They must readily listen to the truth and put it into practice and in this way conduct themselves in ways that are pleasing to God (vv.22-27).

The wonder of God’s grace granted to us in Christ is that we are responsible to act upon the truth we know but we are not able to activate the power to actually do the things that please Father. This is a wonderful paradox that defies all human reasoning because the mind can only conceive of what is possible within the range of God-given abilities. Humans are able to do many amazing things. However, conquering sin by human will, desire or disciplines is not possible; any attempts to do so become yet one more way by which we are propelled into the very destructive sin patterns want to escape or if we manage to stop the particular behavior that is destructive we simply take on another kind of sin.

Again, Andrew Murray asserts the following:

“Is not this way of saving from sin just that which will glorify Him?—keeping us daily humble and helpless in the consciousness of the evil nature, watchful and active in the knowledge of its terrible power, dependent and trustful in the remembrance that only His presence can keep the lion [corrupt human nature] down. O let us believe that when Jesus said, ‘Abide in me, and I in you,’ He did indeed mean that, while we were not to be freed from the world and its tribulation, from the sinful nature and its temptations, we were at least to have this blessing fully secured to us—grace to abide wholly, only, even in our Lord. The abiding in Jesus makes it possible to keep from actual sinning; and Jesus Himself makes it possible to abide in Him.”[iii]

I am grateful to be able to testify that I have found this to be true. And each day I learn more about the interior road of obedience the Lord himself walked and which I must go on. To know the Lord is to walk as he walked with Father. That path is lit by the Spirit’s Presence and quiet guidance and available to those willing to listen and obey because they love the Lord Jesus. 

[i] Walter Marshall, The Gospel Mystery of Sanctification [Fig:2012], pp.261-262.
[ii] Andrew Murray, Abide in Christ (27th Day); cited from The Andrew Murray Collection (Barbour), p.151.
[iii] Murray, Abide in Christ; cited from The Andrew Murray Collection, p.152.

Saturday, May 12, 2018

The Surpassing Value of Loss

Perhaps the most effective means of learning the true value of people and things in life is to lose them. This can also be the most raw and emotionally painful experiences one can go through. Whether one loses a relationship because of repeated and foolish behavior or the brute fist of reality hits one without warning the net effect will be the same. Yours or my life will be permanently altered and what could have been possible in life and the development of relationships is permanently altered. The forms of life ending or life altering events are many: Death, divorce, illness, financial ruin, being victimized by those bent on evil for their own gain and the direct consequences of our choices to do foolish or evil things. No one is immune from trouble but we can learn to be wise and choose God’s way of life rather than the folly of idolatry.

The history of the ancient Israelites is a case in point regarding this. Their persistent rebellion and idolatry brought down on them the curses that Moses warned them about and they cheated themselves out of the protection and blessing of the living God (see Deuteronomy 28). Jeremiah the prophet reminded them of this when he declared this:  

“Thus says the LORD: ‘Stand at the crossroads, and look, and ask for the ancient paths, where the good way lies; and walk in it, and find rest for your souls.’ But they said, ‘We will not walk in it.’ Also I raised up sentinels for you: ‘Give heed to the sound of the trumpet!’ But they said, ‘We will not give heed.’ Therefore hear, O nations, and know, O congregation, what will happen to them. Hear, O earth; I am going to bring disaster on this people, the fruit of their schemes, because they have not given heed to my words; and as for my teaching, they have rejected it.” (Jeremiah 6:16-19, NRSV)

God warned them in advance what would happen to them if they did not heed God’s words and seek to listen to God. Yet the very loss that came upon them—being uprooted from their homeland, watching their relatives and countrymen die and seeing God’s city and temple destroyed. Yet this very loss, even though it came upon them as a consequence of their own hard hearts and persistent choices to sin against God and each other, could become for them the means of their salvation. The loss forced those who survived as exiles to confront their sin, the consequences (with which they were confronted daily) and to throw themselves into God’s mercy.

The pain and the loss will not be forgotten, but if they are willing to exercise faith as they walk through it God can burn into their memory (as individuals and as a people) the seriousness of sin, the reality of God’s holiness and the true purpose for their existence. Before they had lived under the delusion of idolatry—pretending to be able to live and thrive without faithful obedience to the living God alone. Now those who survive and their descendants can learn from the past and press in to understand the ways of the God of the universe under his covenant love. Whether this actually happens depends upon their willingness to learn to heed the prophetic word with faith.

I would propose that there has been no change in God’s character nor in his ways since the ancient Israelites lived and received the revelations of God through Moses and the prophets. The advent of the promised Messiah Jesus has not changed the fact that God still brings down upon us the consequences of our choices to sin. God still allows hardship and trouble to enter our lives (and sometime severely disrupt them). In other words, God allows pain and loss in our lives. The renewed and ratified eternal covenant we have in the Lord Jesus has not changed this basic aspect of how God operates. What has changed is the breadth and depth of knowledge we now have of God’s character and love in the Lord and thus the capacity for knowing the living God.

The function denial of this truth is evident when one surveys the Christian churches in America and the Western world. All one has to do is pay attention to the general silence of the preachers and teachers in Christian circles on matters of human sin, judgment, God’s discipline and the reality of hell. Simply note how popular the heresy of “name it and claim it” prosperity teaching is and that those who teach that have no words of comfort for those who suffer. Note how frequently we Christians gripe about ordinary and petty inconveniences as though we were suffering some hardship for Christ. Note the attitudes and consequential choices Christian people routinely make to avoid hardship, confrontation and the hard work of reconciling with others.

Suffering is part of life and God utilizes it for our good. Whether we have brought it upon ourselves (and are quite deserving of it) or victims of others evil intentions or foolish choices. If we can come to perceive and value the hardships, the different forms of pain and the real loss that they bring then we can submit ourselves to Father God in the midst of the most difficult circumstances. The troubles and trials will not define us but rather shape our thinking and teach us to fear the Lord--so we can live with a holy realism in this life. Our experiences, no matter what they are, can then become our valued teachers which lead us to greater depth of faith in the Lord Jesus Christ and to press more into the communion of the Holy Spirit, all the while giving thanks to the Father of glory.

Saturday, April 28, 2018

On Balaam, Part 2

            Fear is part of human experience. We all fear something (or many things)—a specific situation or person or task or that which we have no control over (like death or sickness). Life in this world is inherently risky. This is why people invest so much time and money and effort into making everything “safer”. This is also why people have turned to religion—so secure some kind of assurance of a safety net from the visible and invisible forces in this world.

The story of Balaam reminds us of the danger we face for simply being disciples and seeking to be faithful in this life. Balaam lived his life in what I call “worldly fear.” He was chiefly concerned with wealth and status and he feared losing these. This is the opposite of “holy fear” that the Holy Spirit develops in those who become disciples of the Lord Jesus. Peter the Apostle described this attitude: “If you call on the Father, who judges each person impartially according to the deeds of each one, conduct yourselves with [holy] fear during the time of your sojourn.” (1 Peter 1:17, my translation from Greek) Balaam’s example shows a stark contrast to a faithful response to God and his gracious covenant promises.

Regardless of what anyone or any one culture in history dictates to us as necessary, the Lord comes to us saying: I am on a mission and you are to travel with me in my Kingdom on earth. “Come and follow me in the path of righteousness.” This is a great risk indeed and to accept it is to give up all illusions that one can keep oneself safe without the protective hand of God. More than that, to join in with the Lord Jesus in God’s work means we will endure many trials—many difficult situations and challenges.

The Lord taught the disciples to pray (Matt 6:9-13; Luke 11:2-4): “And do not lead us into trials but deliver us from the evil [one].” (Matt 6:13) The fact that our Lord taught us to pray regarding trials demonstrates how crucial our understanding of difficulties and hardships are for the development of spiritual maturity. The point which this petition (apparently) makes is that God will lead us into trials if he deems it necessary. For God will frequently lead us into situations and relationships with people that we would never have wanted or chosen. Indeed, my experience has been that often God leads us directly to situations where we come face to face with our fears. Look at the Israelites: They were moving into a land that was already inhabited and among people who feared and hated them; they did not have state of the art weapons nor were they well trained in combat.

Hardships reveal to us what God already knows: Our fear puts a spotlight on who and what we trust and depend upon. The true intent of our hearts are laid bare before God and other people. What do you fear? To what do you give ultimate sacrifice to preserve your own life? When God “leads us into trials” we are forced to see the truth regarding ourselves.

During the American Civil War, the Union term “shotty” was coined. The national government has purchased new uniforms for the Union army from the first day the men began to wear them they quite literally shredded and fell off the bodies of soldiers when it rained. Here is the parallel I would draw: Israel was tested by God and found to have “shotty” faith because their faith was in themselves or perhaps Moses but not in God alone—thus they did not enter the promised land. This is the point of God’s tests—they reveal to us our character and are intended to lead us to humility.

This petition to “lead us not into trial” also teaches us that at least some hardships or trials can be avoided. For much of the difficulties we find ourselves are the consequences of our own making. If we insist on doing our own will and following our desires then God will lead us “into trials” so that we can learn to obey him. Faith is an expression of trust. From Scripture, we discover that Israel had some measure of faith in God but they had not learned that God actually expected from them trust in all concrete life circumstances. When they insisted on fearing other people or things besides God he led them “into trials” so they may learn to obey him alone.

What will ultimately determine our path in this life is the kind of blindness we have (John 9:39-41). Is it blindness of arrogant presumption—like Balaam? He encountered God and walked away the same person—never having his spiritual blindness removed (Isaiah 56:10). Or is it the blindness of true faith? This kind of blindness enables one to see only God’s truth and to follow in God’s path exclusively (Isaiah 42:19).

The Lord himself came to induce both kinds of blindness: To free from the bondage of sin and to confirm the choice people make to walk through life by sheer self-will and worldly wisdom. This work of God is an expression of God’s love and justice and an opportunity for all to turn and put trust in the living God. And God’s will for us is to practice radical faith; which is like blindness in its exclusive focus on understanding and valuing the Kingdom of God. One becomes “blind” to all else in the world and can only “see” through God’s eyes. This is the spiritual freedom that the Lord longs to give to his all.

There is an priceless statement in Deuteronomy (10:12) which is instructive for our understanding of how to respond to God’s grace. Here Moses parallels a faithful human response to God as involving love, fear and service to God. How can that be? To equate these is almost heresy for modern Christians. But there is something crucial in this teaching that we must understand if we are going to mature in faith and service to God.

Let me try to use an illustration to explain the importance of this. When I was a child I was afraid of my father because he was the one who disciplined me when I did bad things. I did not actually know him as a person but as the main authority figure in my life.

As I have grown into maturity as a man, and had some parenting experience myself, I have come to understand what he was doing for me when he disciplined me. And further, as an adult I have made efforts to know him as a person and figure out why he has made key life decisions. I do not directly depend upon him for things now, he does not discipline me or correct me and I no longer share the same home with him. But he remains my father and he will always carry weight with me. As the years pass my respect and love for him becomes stronger. I am not afraid of my father but I have a healthy deep-seated respect for him.

I think that there is some parallel between my experience with my earthly father and how spiritually maturing persons perspective on God develops. We need to recognize God as the Authority in life. This will always be so no matter the depth of knowledge one has of God and his ways. Submitting to the authority of God is necessary for human health and spiritual development. As we submit to him as the authority, the Holy Father, we love him more. 

For this we must come to a point where we come to understand who God is by practicing faith through hard fought experience. And God is to be feared because he is God even as we learn to love him because he reveals his character and kindness to us. Thus we come to a point of experiencing healthy holy fear and love for God (Luke 12:4-7). This is a wonder and a joy for a disciple of Jesus.

There are many lessons we can draw from this intersection of Balaam and the ancient Israelites. Here are a few.

First, avoid the way of Balaam! For he had no fear of God—that is, he put his trust in himself and did not trust in the living God. Rather, seek to learn to have a healthy fear of God by faith—that is, have radical faith in God as powerful but good.

Second, let us simply acknowledge to God that we have held onto concepts of God that make him less than holy as he is; to make him like ourselves and follow our rules. We must recognize and reject all attempts to “manage” and “negotiate” with God concerning what he requires of us. We need to practice radical faith and believe in God as God is revealed in Christ and in Scripture.

And the Lord Jesus offers to all the true knowledge of the living God in himself as one puts oneself under the shelter of the Almighty in him. And then we can join hands with God’s people in serving in the Kingdom and enter into the good promises he has made for his people.
This is the invitation of God in every generation.

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!