Tuesday, March 26, 2013

Are you Judgmental? You should be...

      I had two interactions with two different fellow saints (in different states!) in the last couple days that astonished me with their similarity:  both folks had family that professed Christ with their lips, but denied Him by their lives.  After short discussions, both saints had the same response/conclusion (in so many words):
"I've only been a Christian a couple years, and I can't judge my family member's heart.  I guess I should just pray and try to be more understanding."
     Most of the time, we hear this sentiment in Christ's words misapplied:  "Judge not, lest you be judged" (Matt 7:1).  I almost want to add an exclamation point... you know the offended air of indignance that usually accompanies a person's determined decision to ignore their sin.  So I gently tried to shine the light of the glorious truth of regeneration and the new nature into this very practical situation.
     I think it's good to start with what Scripture doesn't say, using a couple key texts:
"Therefore, if anyone is in Christ, he is a new creation. The old has passed away; behold, the new has come."  (2 Cor 5:17)
"The natural person does not accept the things of the Spirit of God, for they are folly to him, and he is not able to understand them because they are spiritually discerned.  The spiritual person judges all things, but is himself to be judged by no one. "For who has understood the mind of the Lord so as to instruct him?" But we have the mind of Christ."  (1 Cor 2:14-16)
The world's allergy to conviction...
     There are many verses to draw on when sketching out the characteristics of a Christian, but there's just one concept I would like to suck out of our first verse:  the immediacy of the transition from light to darkness.  Notice 2 Cor doesn't say: "If any man be in Christ, he starts down a long road of becoming a Christian;  he might later decide to "make Jesus the Lord of his life", but just because this man continues in sin and shows no interest in the Bible, there's no reason to doubt his salvation."  Instead, we see an exclusive statement!  Our world hates them (because they exclude people!), but God in the Bible sure seems to use them a lot.  So if a person is regenerate, is really a Christian in the Scriptural sense, they are a new creation.  Right from the moment God takes out the concrete and performs His heart transplant (Ezk 36:26ff), that individual is changed.  They feel differently about God, the Bible, the Cross, and most importantly, sin.  There are characteristics and responses that are defining and distinctive, even in the first hours and days following conversion.
     In the second passage, we see the same two groups of people, identified by "natural" and "spiritual".  The same distinguishing principle is at work:  one group rejects God and His word;  they're incapable of even understanding what He says.  But the other is given and exercises true spiritual judgment (or "discernment", if you're totally allergic to the other word!);  they are, in one sense, immune to the supposed moral judgments of the world, for they serve a Higher Authority (Rom 14:4).
     So, here's the disclaimer you might be waiting for:  yes, there is a sense of judgment that is wrong and ungodly.  The Pharisees were the best examples of this form of self-righteousness, which Jesus condemns on multiple occasions (Mt 7:2-3, 23:14-28, Luk 13:15).  The best symptom I can detect is the motive of the one passing judgment, which contrasts nicely with the judgment Christians are commanded to use (Jn 7:24):  if the motive is to degrade and slander the accused offender, and thereby elevate the standing and reputation of the "judger"... congrats, you're a Pharisee.  But if you are discreetly and lovingly calling another to consider the Scripture's condemnation of an attitude or activity, and the rock-solid certainty of the Judge of all the earth holding us accountable for every thought, word and deed... congrats, you're an obedient Christian.
     This makes it crystal clear why continual study and searching of the Scripture is so necessary for us:  so that we can "rightly divide the Word of truth" and ensure that the standards used are God's, and not ours.  The only people in the world who can do this are those empowered and indwelt by God's Holy Spirit, who "have the mind of Christ".  So if Christians aren't judgmental in this good and necessary sense, no one else can be.

Photo courtesy of tantek

Saturday, March 23, 2013

I blew it!!!

Look good?  What's it for?
     Yes, that's right... I'm eating humble pie with a cherry on top.  My last post on 2 Cor 8 was not wrong... I just missed the whole point behind the passage, nay, the whole point behind the whole Bible!  Thankfully, my pastor didn't read that post (to my knowledge), and I am very grateful that his sermon last Sunday set me straight.  So starting from scratch and laying the proper foundation, and picking the most controversial way to put it, like an old teacher of mine...
     I said this to a godly coworker today, and he started laughing.  I sketched out what I discovered about the collectivist principles of the covenant communities of Israel and the N.T. Church, and was headed toward the epiphany my pastor blessed me with, but then he took over the conversation (I know you know someone like that!).  The text for my thesis is just before the last passage in 2 Cor;  I'm still kicking myself for such blindness:
"For you know the grace of our Lord Jesus Christ, that, though He was rich, yet for your sakes He became poor, that you through His poverty might be rich." (8:9)
A great view of what we look like...
     So I hope the sting of shock is already departing;  when talking about the proper place for the  redistribution of wealth, we must start with the One who embodies the voluntary release of what is rightfully His, who does so to benefit those "less fortunate" than Himself (there is no such thing as fortune... this phrase really is just a sanitized term that neglects God as the Source of all good).
     In my pastor's sermon, he admitted that to call Christ rich is the classic understatement:  He owns everything (Ps 50:10-12), because He made everything (Col 1:16-17, Jn 1:2-3).  All glory, credit, and honor are His (Rev 4:11, 5:11-14), and the only rightful place of any creature before Him is on their face in fear and awe of His splendor.  And in relinquishing His wealth (which is the exercise of His power and prestige, not the existence of it), Jesus becomes the model that Marx and Lenin never knew they were looking for... the Man who gives up everything for the sake of the crippled and lowly.  But just like earlier in the book (5:21), Christ doesn't just lose His stuff, He takes on lack, want and dependency.  Becoming poor here must entail all the frailties Screwtape heard about;  our weakness as bags of fluid, held together by the most pitiful union of skin and bone.  For the eye accustomed to blinding heavenly glory, one must doggedly hunt the "imago Dei" (image of God) that gives us any value at all.
     But Christ's humiliation, both in life and death, collected our own poverty like a magnet, sucking it into Himself and swallowing it up in His priceless worth.  In Him, every single Child of God makes Bill Gates look like a bum, and everything that was Christ's is now shared with His undeserving Bride.  This is why we shall judge angels, and why everything, every event and object, now serves us to work out God's perfect will (1 Cor 3:22-23).  So it's in view of this jackpot inheritance that we're told to assist our siblings in Christ... I'm reminded of the parable of the ungrateful servant (Mt 18:23-35).  The only explanation for a person consistently not sharing this world's riches with the least of Christ's brethren is that they've never experienced Christ's riches, and are still beggars at the gates of the Kingdom of God.

Photos courtesy of 401(K) 2013, DaveBleasdale

Wednesday, March 20, 2013

Sola Fide

    I fear I have plunged into waters over my head... in brushing up on the marked differences between Christianity and Roman Catholicism on the role of faith in justification, I was again astounded by the complexity and sheer volume of material on the subject by men far more qualified than I.  Thankfully, the further back you go historically, the more concessions we find for ignorant simpletons such as myself:  the doctrinal teachings of the Roman Council of Trent around 1563 are followed by black-and-white, cut-and-dry statements ("canons") so that the common man can know exactly where they stand.  And even better, there are several large passages in the New Testament that are the basis for the Christian position (protesting against Rome, hence the label "Protestant").
     As I admitted last time, much of what Rome teaches sounds good and orthodox;  she stresses the importance of faith and that "...And this translation, since the promulgation of the the Gospel, can not be effected, without the laver of regeneration, or the desire thereof, as it is written: unless a man be born again of water and the Holy Ghost, he can not enter into the Kingdom of God."  But that's not all the Scriptures say about faith, about how precisely we are justified and made right with God.  So our questions from last post are "what is faith? or where does it come from?" and "is faith alone enough to save us?" So by the numbers...
"You gotta have faith.... BABY!!!!"

  The term faith is not foreign to our ears;  we regularly speak of believing in something or someone.  But you'd have a pretty hard time convincing me that George Michael was trying to communicate the centrality of faith for our forgiveness with God... you can obviously use the word "faith" to have different shades of meaning and different objects.  So what does Roman Catholicism mean when they talk about it?  Here's one of the paragraphs I marvel over...
"For faith, unless hope and charity be added thereto, neither unites man perfectly with Christ, nor makes him a living member of his body. For which reason it is most truly said, that faith without works is dead and profitless; and, In Christ Jesus neither circumcision availeth any thing nor uncircumcision, but faith which worketh by charity. This faith, Catechumens beg of the Church—agreeably to a tradition of the apostles—previously to the sacrament of Baptism; when they beg for the faith which bestows life everlasting, which, without hope and charity, faith can not bestow: whence also do they immediately hear that word of Christ: If thou wilt enter into life, keep the commandments. Wherefore, when receiving true and Christian justice, they are bidden, immediately on being born again, to preserve it pure and spotless, as the first robe given them through Jesus Christ in lieu of that which Adam, by his disobedience, lost for himself and for us, that so they may bear it before the judgment-seat of our Lord Jesus Christ, and may have life eternal." (The Council of Trent, 1563, Chapter VII)
     Got it?  You see why my head twirls about like a top while I try to "test the spirits" (1 Jn 4:1) and measure this teaching with Scripture.  Let's narrow it down a bit:  as best I can tell, in the Roman  point of view, all mankind is given a measure of grace, specifically "prevenient grace".  This allows people to respond positively to the gospel;  you could call it free will.  Assuming one receives the gospel according to Rome, a person receives faith by being baptized (or is "baptistically regenerated") and must now exercise that faith by doing good works, partaking of the Mass, acts of charity, etc.  To become justified and acceptable in God's sight, one must earn a certain amount of merit, that is then added to the merit of Christ, and when one achieves true righteousness, God then acknowledges them as just, ushering them through the Pearly Gates.  So it's evident why being baptized early is so desirable:  one can't begin accruing merit without it.  The problem with this rosy picture is sin, specifically continuing sin in the believer.  The lesser sins are called "venial":  crimes of omission or sins committed with intent or knowledge.  The official Catechism of the Catholic Church speaks of personal penance to remedy this:  prayers, alms and fasting.   But there is another category of transgression that is so serious, it is considered terminal or "mortal";  these crimes are considered "soul-killing" and "destroy charity in the soul", abolishing the regeneration granted by baptism. This must be atoned for in an earthly sense ("temporally"), requiring confession to an apostolic representative, a priest who usually assigns so many prayers and acts of penitence, depending on the Padre's mood that day.  The range of mortal sins are interesting:  in addition to the 7 biggies, the Catechism lists blasphemy, divorce, masturbation, having an abortion, and until recently, skipping Mass.  The defining characteristics of this category are the severity of the sin (as determined by Rome), knowledge of it as sin, and a personal, deliberate decision to sin.
     So, Rome would define faith not only as "fiducial" (a word you'll never hear on TBN... they mean that one trusts in Christ and His work for them), but also confessional (you must believe and accept everything the Roman Church teaches) and the means by which we become righteous; a lifelong process that's painfully slow, under our own steam in a one-step-forward-two-steps-back kind of way.  And I hope I've made one thing clear:  according to Rome, faith is most definitely not enough...
"If any one saith that by faith alone the impious is justified, in such wise as to mean, that nothing else is required to cooperate in order to obtaining the grace of Justification, and that it is not in any way necessary that he be prepared and disposed by the movement of his own will, let him be anathema."  (The Council of Trent, 1563, Canon IX)
     And the Protestant position based on the authority of Scripture?  I can let God speak for Himself:
"For all who rely on works of the law are under a curse; for it is written, "Cursed be everyone who does not abide by all things written in the Book of the Law, and do them."  Now it is evident that no one is justified before God by the law, for "The righteous shall live by faith."  But the law is not of faith, rather "The one who does them shall live by them."  Christ redeemed us from the curse of the law by becoming a curse for us--for it is written, "Cursed is everyone who is hanged on a tree" (Gal 3:10-13)
"For all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God, and are justified by his grace as a gift, through the redemption that is in Christ Jesus, whom God put forward as a propitiation by his blood, to be received by faith. This was to show God's righteousness, because in his divine forbearance he had passed over former sins.  It was to show his righteousness at the present time, so that he might be just and the justifier of the one who has faith in Jesus.  Then what becomes of our boasting? It is excluded. By what kind of law? By a law of works? No, but by the law of faith.  For we hold that one is justified by faith apart from works of the law." (Rom 3:23-28)
Then they said to him, "What must we do, to be doing the works of God?"  Jesus answered them, "This is the work of God, that you believe in him whom he has sent." (John 6:28-29)

     There are many other texts that outline the impossibility of a sinful man being made righteous in any way by his own efforts (Isa 64:4-6, Eph 2:8-9, Tit 3:5).  In contrast, the only text I know of that can be construed to support Rome is James 2:14-26:  if you cherrypick certain phrases, and ignore his reference to Gen 15:6, and neglect to notice the context, you could detect an emphasis on works-righteousness.  But to take such an approach causes Scripture (and thus the Holy Spirit) to contradict itself.
     Ultimately, the question is who do you trust?  Catholics trust their church, embodied by a "humble pope".  Christians trust the Bible, which is another Sola for another time.  Who do you believe?

For more info, check out these excellent resources

Photo courtesy of D Services

Saturday, March 16, 2013

Christian Distinctives #1

    I've had several ideas floating around my skull, and this one won the race to get out first;  I thought it would be profitable to start an intermittent series on the doctrines that make Christianity unique, what is absolutely essential and nonnegotiable, the truths that must be defended and, if necessary, that we must be martyred for.
Rick Warren's biggest fan?!?
     When God first changed my heart and gave me an appetite for His truth, this general field was probably the one that I explored the most;  I read books like "Mere Christianity" by Lewis and "The Almost Christian Discovered" by Meade, and "The Religious Affections" by Edwards.  I even tried repeatedly to get through Calvin's Institutes (I eventually made it to the middle of Book 4).  As I grew and learned and was exposed to more and more variety/disagreement on different doctrines, I saw both how important it was to have a firm grasp to what was truly central to following Christ, and how common it was to see that slip through the fingers of whatever public figure or authority on Christianity was in the spotlight at the time.
     So it's with that air of recurrent disappointment that we introduce our first distinctive with this awful confusion of Christ's Church with its most formidable counterfeit by the best known spokesman for Christianity of our day:
"Join me today in fasting and prayer for the 115 Cardinals seeking God's Will in a new leader. "  Rick Warren on Twitter
"What is thy bidding, my master?"
     Mr. Warren was speaking of the recent conclave of bishops in Rome to select a new leader for that religion.  They have since picked one, a man I've heard described with the words "holy", "godly" and most regrettably, "a man of the gospel".  I don't want to dwell Mr. Warren, and why he should know better, but inherent in his plea for prayer is the assumption that these men in Rome can recognize God's will and desire to do it when revealed to them.  If however, Roman Catholicism is deficient in one of these distinctives, these essentials of Christianity, these men who embody all that Rome is are still slaves of sin and bound to do its bidding (John 8:34-36).  So for this reason, I want to clearly express the first, most basic reason that Christianity and Roman Catholicism can not and must not be confused, a doctrine which is the most well-known distinctive of true Christianity but at the same time, the most misunderstood:


     It's slightly funny that 2 simple words could be so important;  the second means "faith" and the first "only/alone" in Latin.  Now, the Bible is positively littered with references to faith:  in the O.T., the synonym "trust" is most often used, and the N.T. has whole chapters dedicated to faith.  So anyone with even a surface exposure to Scripture has to at least give lip service to this doctrine;  and that's exactly what we see groups like Mormonism and Jehovah's Witnesses doing.  And to give them credit, Rome goes even further, saying in so many words that faith is absolutely critical to justification, that no one can get to heaven without it.
     But Rome goes astray in 2 clear, distinguishable areas, and thankfully, has documented their position better than most.  They are:  the definition/origin of faith (or "what is faith, and where do we get it from?") and the potency of faith (or "is faith enough?").  We'll explore these next post, but I want to ask something of you in the meantime...  In the generic, "check-the-box on the survey" sense, Roman Catholicism is classified as a Christian denomination, one of many.  But Jesus isn't coming to your door with a clipboard... He's returning with blood-stained robes and a glistening sword (Rev 19).  He will separate the sheep, His true followers, from all those who might be associated with His name, but in reality, are not His.  So the only sense for the term "Christian" that matters is His, and He's given us ample testimony in His Word.  So let's check our baggage at the desk, and see what He says.

Photos courtesy of whiffer, anneheathen

Monday, March 11, 2013

Socialism in the NT... or More continuity!

Socialism in the Church = biblically required generosity for the needy
     Faithful readers of the blog (all 2 of you!) will remember that in our jaunt through the last third of Leviticus, we ran into an interesting principle that was the driving force to several commands:  the idea that while money and other financial assets were private property, they were gifts of God to be used for the betterment and support of the needy, not to be spent on the latest chariot with rims and 12" subwoofers (or however big they are).  The uncomfortable truth is that this economic model might be closer to socialism than capitalism;  I know when I stopped to consider the possibility that God might not be a capitalist through and through, I had to take a deep breath and remind myself that I'm a Christian first and an American second.  Whatever benefits our traditional capitalist structure has (and there are many), they do not trump God's revealed will for His people.
     But I know what you're thinking... "But that's the Old Testament!  And even more disqualifying, it's the Law for the nation of Israel!  We're not under Law, but grace!"  So buckle up for what Paul says and expects for New Covenant believers in Gentile churches:
"For I do not mean that others should be eased and you burdened, but that as a matter of fairness, your abundance at the present time should supply their need, so that their abundance may supply your need, that there may be fairness.  As it is written, "Whoever gathered much had nothing left over, and whoever gathered little had no lack." (2 Cor 8:13-15)
     So let's take it by the numbers and just go through the passage slowly, trying to get off the formula of those weaned conservative capitalist theory and just think like Christians...
     Sometimes the best way to describe something is to start with the disclaimers, to say right off what you're not saying;  after describing the exemplary Macedonians and acknowledging the intent of the Corinthians in the past, Paul reestablishes why we have any possessions at all (the grace of Jesus Christ) and then shoots down one huge misunderstanding of Christian charity/obligation:  that the "redistribution of wealth" (to use a conservative pariah!) is meant to pave the way for Jewish indulgence, while the rest of the Church finances this gravy train of greed.  No, no... the Jewish believers were starving to death under the boot-heel of persecution, and desperately needed help.  The Corinthians lived in a relatively prosperous region, and had more than enough.  This is why Paul deals with Macedonia first:  it's assumed that they didn't have enough, that they were just scraping by, but they were so moved and driven by Christian love they begged and pleaded Paul to take their gift to Judea (8:4). 
     So just like the O.T. covenant community of Israel, God often blesses us with more than we need, not to spend it upon our lusts, but to enable us to be channels of grace to other believers first, and then society at large.  "Fairness" (vs. 14 in the ESV) can be a dangerous word:  usually when kids use it, it means "I get what I want, and you get what I don't want"!  But Paul's meaning is clear:  abundance given to the Body of Christ is to meet the needs of the Body of Christ, wherever that local Body may be.  According to the symbolism in his Mosaic quote, God created the molecular structure of manna to train Israel to generosity:  if they tried to store it, it went bad and was useless (Ex 16:18-20).  So there was every reason to share the excess they gathered, and no reason to keep it.  The narratives in the O.T. usually have didactic ("educational") value for us, as lessons for life (1 Cor 10:6), and Paul says manna is no exception. 
     But whatever God has established, man can corrupt.  There are two not-so-subtle dangers with socialism on a national level that arise from an secularization of what we see in the first century church:  the first is a confusion of church and state.  Just because God has established socialist principles in His church does not mean that He demands them of the state, or even that socialism is the divine ideal for society;  we mustn't forget that the Church is largely filled with people who have been radically transformed by God's Spirit to obey Him and strive toward holiness (the exception being the goats who think themselves, or want to be thought of as sheep), while human society, i.e. the state, is largely filled with depraved, selfish sinners to need no encouragement to exploit, oppress and abuse their fellow man (the exception being the Christians sprinkled as salt throughout society).  Our forefathers were wise enough to structure our government not on wide-eyed utopian idealism, but revealed truth from God about human nature;  and so we have all the freedom sanctification through the Spirit could wish for ("against such there is no law" Gal 5:23) and all the restraint that depraved criminals need.
Socialism in society  = recipe for disaster

     The second is much more insidious, and has already greatly shaped the American consciousness:  a replacement of the church by the state.  Around the turn of the 20th century, socialism was becoming much more acceptable politically, and like most cultural trends, bad theology was developed to blend/mimic the ideals that Marx and others propagated into Christianity.  You might not have heard of "the universal fatherhood of God" or "the universal brotherhood of man", but I know you've heard somebody promoting gay marriage, women's rights or decrying discrimination of any kind say "We're all God's children!"  This fatal misunderstanding of the dividing line between the world and church (namely, that there isn't any!) creates a false church (all of humanity) with a false gospel ("We just need to love each other...") and a false Messiah (whatever political leader has the power to enforce this "utopia" on the rest of us).  So when self-centered people, radically corrupted by sin, don't love each other, the only solution is to make them:  you take their property, money and freedom, and entrust them to the state to dole out.  Oh darn, I forgot... the state is run by self-centered people, and they just use all that stuff for their own benefit and/or cementing themselves in power. 
     The church is Christ's, and He will build it (Eph 5:23, Matt 16:18).  The world is (temporarily) the devil's, and he will do everything God permits him to use it as a weapon against the church  (1 Jn 5:19, Eph 6:12).  If we properly understand the difference between them, and the value/extent/danger of collectivist principles for the people of God, we will "destroy arguments and every lofty opinion raised against the knowledge of God, and take every thought captive to obey Christ..." (2 Cor 10:5).

Photos courtesy of mira66, simonella_virus, xoclate

Thursday, March 7, 2013

Fear and Trembling pt 3

Meet Sam, the world's ugliest dog!
     So with an intro on the subject with 2 types of fears (dread and veneration), and a post on the first, let's finish up with the second.  Remember the clear analogies provided by Al Martin:  dread is the feeling a little boy feels when confronted by of the neighborhood bully, a fear of pain and damage done to his frail body; and veneration is the awe that same little boy feels when thrust into the presence of the President of the United States:  a sense of the dignity and majesty of the man before him, and he is honored and privileged to be in his presence.
     And that's probably a good place to start... you see, dread is repulsive.  No, I don't mean that it's ugly or hideously deformed;  I mean that dread pushes away its subject from the object of his terror.  The little boy has no desire to stay near the bully;  quite the opposite.  But if the President asks the boy to stay in the Oval Office for a while and see how he runs the country, wild horses couldn't pull him away.  This perfectly explains the response of both believers and the lost to God:  while the lost can get a taste of the dread of God, due to His holiness and hatred of sin/sinners, they flee away from Him in the vain hope of escaping His wrath (Isa 2:19-21).  Believers have even a better grasp of the consequences of sin and the punishment of hell, but they are divinely granted the second type of fear as well (Jer 32:40) and are drawn to God as their only hope of rescue and relief.  So we see that while all people can glimpse the recompense of sin, and dread God's punishment, only the elect are blessed with the proper sense of respect and humble adoration in view of God's Person, drawing them closer to this incredible Being.
     To helpfully define veneration, Mr. Martin has a couple prerequisites: 
  • We must have correct concepts of God's character, particularly His immensity, His transcendence, His majesty and His holiness.  We in America are crippled in this:  we have no royalty, very little pomp and circumstance, and a dangerous lack of respect for our divinely appointed magistrates.  Yes, I know we elect them, but they are God's ministers unto us for good (Rom 13:1-6) and we are commanded by the One who rules over all to "honor the king" (1 Pet 2:17).  If we can't muster up some respect for the rulers we can see, it's evident how much we dishonor the God who is over all principalities and dominions.  There are several passages in Scripture designed to instill and renew an appropriate sense of speechless wonder at the majesty of God:  Ps 50 portrays God in matchless beauty, over all things and dependent on none for anything.  Isa 40 asks numerous rhetorical questions to showcase how powerful, wise and immense He is.  Ezk 1 helps us to understand how pitiful our powers of comprehension are... we can barely scratch the surface of Who and What He is.  And Rev 19 reveals a triumphant Godman, splendid in might and terrible in judgment.
  • We must have a pervasive sense of the presence of God.  I know I personally struggle to remember God is omnipresent... when surrounded by family, coworkers, or even strangers, I instinctively present a Christian display, but when I am alone, I struggle not to be the man Paul describes in Rom 7, doing the things I don't want to do.  So Pastor Martin counsels us to be saturated by an awareness that God is there;  Ps 139:7-11 vividly tells us there's nowhere to get away from God, and one of my favorites is Amos 9:1-4.  An ever present God, right there looking over your shoulder, must always be reckoned with.
  • We must have a constraining awareness of our obligation to this God.  We are not free and independent, as we are so often told in our society today.  We are obliged to the One who has created us, who sustains us (putting every breath in our lungs!), and who can very easily end us.  Martin puts this in perspective by laying out all our relationships to all other things:  angels, demons, other men, inanimate objects, etc.  Over and above all these is our relation to God:  this is the bond that must define every other tie and supersede them.  Jesus says that anyone who loved their father or mother or son or daughter more than Him was not worthy of Him (Matt 10:37).  I love my wife for many reasons, but the best and most important reason I must love her is because God commands me to;  this keeps the most important human bond I have subordinate to the supreme relation of all.  So since we are, as His creatures, His slaves and His children, in a status of owing ultimate allegiance, consideration, fealty, and love to God, the person who fears God gives these to Him!  And not grudgingly or solely out of duty, but with a rejoicing that can't be matched...
"Oh sing to the LORD a new song; sing to the LORD, all the earth!  Sing to the LORD, bless his name; tell of his salvation from day to day... Ascribe to the LORD the glory due his name; bring an offering, and come into his courts!  Worship the LORD in the splendor of holiness; tremble before him, all the earth!"  (Ps 96:1-2, 8-9)
     Fear gets a bad rap these days;  I think it's offensive to people who think they're in charge of it all, who are "empowered" and "liberated" and believe they have nothing to fear.  The tragedy is that these folks will be afraid of God one day, the Day that they "see the one they pierced" (Zech 12:10) and He returns to judge us all.

Photo courtesy of spierzchala

Sunday, March 3, 2013

Fear and Trembling pt 2

Hmmm... are you sure?
     To recap last time, we established the centrality of the concept of the fear of the Lord in Scripture (we'll explore some specific examples soon) and distinguished between the two basic types of fear described: one of terror and dread and one of honor and veneration.  Today I hope to carefully assign these two categories of fear to the two basic types of humanity: the regenerate/converted and the unregenerate/unconverted. 
     First our favorite:  sheer bowel-loosening terror.  As a side note, I am convinced that the reason Americans have a fascination with horror, in movies and in other forms, is that we do not understand what it is to be afraid.  In our protected, pampered country, insulated from the vast majority of humanity's basic ills (invasion, famine, disease, etc.), we don't have much to terrify us.  This was not the case with the peoples of Bible times:  along with their vulnerability to these ravages, without exception, Israel and its neighbors were intensely religious, if we can, for the moment, overlook the false targets of their religious affections.  So, when war or pestilence came along, the ancient man instantly wondered:  "What have we done to anger our god(s)?"  I believe this is a common grace reflection of the first type of godly fear;  the link between calamity and God's displeasure is a good reflex to have.

A fear of gravity is healthy!

    So to quote our tutor, Albert N. Martin, speaking of feeling dread:  "There is no virtue in this fear of God by itself..."  That's right;  it doesn't take a special work of grace opening the eyes to figure out that hell isn't a nice place and that you'd rather not go there.  Even more appropriately, when unbelievers witnessed the mighty, supernatural judgments of God in the Bible, they more often than not responded in a manner to avoid further affliction.  The Egyptians said "No thank you!" to an 11th plague and hurried Israel to their borders.  Why?  The previous 10 had rightly frightened them.  How did the folks in Jericho feel about Israel coming to visit?  "And as soon as we we heard these things, our hearts did melt, neither did there remain any courage in any man, because of you;  for the LORD your God, he is God in heaven above and in earth beneath." (Josh 2:11)  Ditto with the Gibeonites (Josh 9:24), and who could forget how David's neighbors felt about his intimacy with God?  "And the fame of David went out into all lands, and the LORD brought the fear of him upon all nations." (1 Chr 14:17) 
     OK, so of course, those dirty heathens should be afraid of God... they've got it coming!  But we're under grace, covered by the blood of Christ!  Surely a Christian need not fear his Abba, right?  The completion of the Martin quote is "...though there is no evidence of grace if you have this fear, it's doubtful if you have any grace if you don't have this fear."  Pastor Martin then goes on to reference many men in good relation to God, justified by grace through faith, but when confronted with the Presence of the Almighty, they break down and quiver.  He speaks of Isaiah and his lament (6:5), Peter after the greatest fishing day ever (Lk 5:8), and John when granted a vision of the glorified Christ (Rev 1:17).  I am reminded of Daniel's reaction to the derivative glory of the angel (10:6,8) and Habakkuk (3:16).  This is why Christians are commanded to fear God and are motivated in Scripture by His fierce punishments.  No mere human was more spotless in God's sight than Adam before the Fall, but he is motivated to obedience with a threat of the consequences of disobedience!  Why does anyone threaten someone?  To make them afraid...  so Christ tells His flock to fear the God who throws people into hell (Matt 10:28), the Hebrews are strenuously warned of God's wrath (10:31, 12:28-29), and Peter portrays the final burning of all things to exhort us toward holiness (2 Pet 3:11-12).
Prison is an effective deterrent... People are AFRAID of it.

     This is probably a good place to take a break... to conclude for now:  despite all our culture proclaims, fear can be a good, healthy thing.  Anyone with a firearm at home fears his kids getting ahold of it, so he locks it up.  Anyone crossing the street doesn't want to get run over, so he looks both ways first.  Anyone considering sin needs to call to mind a vivid picture of the damned, writhing in agony, so he runs from sin like Joseph escaping from Potiphar's wife.  We'll explore veneration next.

Photos courtesy of Ed 37, Dar

Friday, March 1, 2013

Fear and Trembling pt 1

She's afraid, but not of God...
     If you read the Bible for any length of time and explore the history and development of theology, it's hard not to work up some "pet doctrines": you know, verses, passages and teachings that impact us greatly and that we feel are vitally important and that we and those around us get right, both intellectually and practically. I bet if we were to ask John the Baptist, he'd zero right in on repentance (Matt. 3:7-11). John the Apostle might zoom in on love (1 Jn 4:7-21). A conversation with Paul would be dominated by justification by faith (Rom 1-8). So one of mine is the concept of the fear of the Lord: I think many those of who profess Christ have heard this idea and healthy (and necessary) response to God grossly neutered and distorted. I just finished an email to a friend who has been concerned about 1 John 4:18 and the connection/distinction between perfect love (God's and ours for Him) and fear. The book I mentioned last time ("Future Grace" by John Piper) includes a great concise definition of the fear of the Lord we all are commanded to, which is a great place to start: "In other words, 'fear the Lord' means 'fear the terrible insult it would be to God if you do not trust His gracious promises of power and wisdom on your behalf.'" I've been greatly taught by a series by Al Martin on this doctrine, and I used one of my rare opportunities to teach at church to draw my brothers and sisters into a truer and deeper grasp of just what the Bible means by this fear.  According to Pastor Martin, there are between 150-175 explicit uses of the term "fear of God/the Lord" and dozens of texts where it is implicitly referenced, so this is not a topic we are permitted to brush off or treat lightly.  Martin uses 2 broad categories to dip our toes into understanding godly fear and uses analogies we are all familiar with...
God's got us right where He wants us...
1.  The Fear of Terror and/or Dread:  This is the most obvious and common meaning:  when a 9 year old boy turns the last corner between school and his house and is confronted with the neighborhood bully, a 14 year old giant weighing in at 5'10" and 170 lbs, the boy is gripped with an intense fear of the damage the bully is capable (and more than willing!) of doing and the pain associated with that damage.  We all have felt this, and when applied to God in Scripture, it is usually linked with the force of His wrath against evil and evildoers, often along with appropriate examples from prior revelation.  One great example is every reference to Sodom and Gomorrah:  implicit in the use of Gen 19 is the horrific consequences of God's righteousness against all who defy Him.
2.  The Fear of Reverence and Awe:  The lesser known fear, this concept is seen in the honor, submission, and respect that we are to have for those superior to us.  Pastor Martin uses that same boy, but tells of him on a school field trip to the White House in Washington D.C.:  while his class is listening (or pretending to listen) to the tour guide drone about the West Wing or the Lincoln bedroom, a Secret Service agent comes in and calls out this boy's name.  He is shaken from his education and stares at the agent with wide eyes.  The G-man focuses on the little boy and says "Are you So-and-so?  The president wants to speak to you."    Now the trembling really starts, and the boy has to be pulled by the scruff of his neck along with the agent.  Now he's not dreading a physical beating by the president... he rightly fears the prestige and power of the highest executive in the land.
     We'll develop this a bit more next time, but there's two common problems that I've encountered with the fear all men are commanded to offer to God, one for unbelievers and one for believers:  
  • Unbelievers, especially in America, are trained by our political system and increasingly by a broad cultural disdain for authority to regard all fear as coercive and tyrannical.  Any resort to or mention of the dignity and submission due authority (and the consequences of disobedience) is seen as something only a Neanderthal would stoop to.  We shouldn't fear anything, especially our leaders.  Obviously, every person will be held accountable by God one day... Martin paints out the picture of a man on a train track with a locomotive 100 feet behind him going 60 mph.  For the man to be there, only seconds away from a squishy death, he is either unaware of the danger (unaware that "after this comes the judgment"; Heb 9:27), or he is insane:  he is incapable of linking the sight of the train with the potential it has for destroying anything in front of it.
If this guy was tickling your neck, would you "honor" him?
  • Believers, on the other hand, are aware of the judgment of God and rightly grasp its consequences... but many, consciously or unconsciously, operate under the idea that if a person is washed in the blood of Jesus, they have no reason to be afraid of God.  Respect yes, but these folks are still brainwashed by the aforementioned cultural bias (only a despotic Neanderthal would want people to fear him) and drastically downgrade the majesty of God.  This flies in the face of texts we'll explore at length next time (Isa 6:5, Rev 1:17, Matt 10:28).  I remember talking with a man on the bus:  he saw me reading the Bible and started a conversation.  I found out he attends a local "prosperity gospel" Christian center (not "church", thankfully!) and the last question I asked him was on this topic:  he automatically replaced "fear" with "respect/reverence" in any text he ran across.  He had used some Greek earlier, so I told him the Greek word for fear:  "phobos", used in English as "phobia".  So as he stepped off at his stop, I asked him "Does a person with arachnophobia respect spiders?"  This is where we'll pick up next time.
"The fear of God is the soul of godliness." John Murray

Photos courtesy of alvaro tapia hidalgo, allie, John from Canberra