Thursday, June 28, 2007

Testify about what exactly?
Bethel Seminary and Reaching out to Muslims

I receive a quarterly magazine from Bethel Seminary called “Heart & Mind” because I had, at one time, shown interest in attending that institution. I normally don’t pay any attention to it because it is just one more piece of bulk/junk mail to keep me thinking about enrolling there. However, when I brought the latest issue in from my mail box, the cover story “Loving Thy Muslim Neighbor” caught my eye. I will admit that I began reading this article skeptical about what it might say regarding the gospel, but at the same time I really did want to understand a perspective of Bethel Seminary (perhaps not ”the” perspective, but a good enough one to be put in the magazine for their seminary) on presenting the gospel to Muslims.

Much of the article, entitled “With Jesus on the Muslim Road”, was written in a bullet-point style outlining a particular process for bringing the gospel to Muslims. The author, a man named Doug, exhorts Christians, or “Christ-people” as he states, to love them, to go to them, to learn from and try to understand them, to befriend them, to introduce Jesus to them, and finally to lay down our lives for them. I think that these steps sound like a very good way to evangelize lost people of any demographic group, including Muslims.

My concern with this article is not with the broad stroked ideas listed above, but it is with how Doug briefly articulated how we should share Jesus Christ. He wrote, “To share Jesus with Muslims, we do not have to know Islamics or be experts in the Qur'an.” I totally agree with him on this point. It may be helpful to understand their religion and traditions, but it is not absolutely necessary. However, my disagreement could not be stronger with what Doug wrote next.

“We do not have to defend Jesus, or have all the answers to every question that may arise. We can go with Jesus, in love, sharing honestly, ready to learn, and bearing witness to all of who He is and what He has done for us. Testimony, we have found, is the strongest witness. Muslims will argue with the "facts" that you present (like whether or not the Bible is trustworthy, Jesus is the Son of God, or that He died on the cross, for example), but we have found that they do not argue with personal experience of the living Christ. On the contrary, they can be deeply touched and drawn to such testimony.”1

“We do not have to defend Jesus.” The initial statement of this quote is utterly shocking to me. We don’t need to defend or articulate who Jesus is? This scandalous statement is only made more outrageous when Doug articulates that some of the facts that Muslims would argue with are “the Bible is trustworthy, Jesus is the Son of God, or that He died on the cross.” Furthermore when he says that testimony is “the strongest witness”, what in the world are you testifying about? It’s obviously not that Jesus is God, that the Bible is the trustworthy Word of God, or that Jesus is the perfect substitute who satisfied the wrath of God on behalf of those who repent and place their complete trust in Him. If we are not testifying about those things, what on earth do we have to testify about? Anything else that we would communicate or show to Muslims (or any other unsaved person) would basically be good works, and how is that different than what a nice Mormon or a good Buddhist would do? It cannot be that much different if we do not defend Jesus in our testimony.

Also, what is the deal with the elevation of personal testimony? This must be an interpretation from Romans 10:17, “So faith comes from hearing, and hearing by testifying about Jesus, but not being too particular about His deity, His word, or His sacrifice.” (Romans 10:17 NHV)2 Of course that’s not what the Bible says! The Bible says clearly that it is in the Word of God, the Scriptures, where the power for the message is.
13 for ‘WHOEVER WILL CALL ON THE NAME OF THE LORD WILL BE SAVED.’ 14 How then will they call on Him in whom they have not believed? How will they believe in Him whom they have not heard? And how will they hear without a preacher? 15 How will they preach unless they are sent? Just as it is written, ‘HOW BEAUTIFUL ARE THE FEET OF THOSE WHO BRING GOOD NEWS OF GOOD THINGS!’ 16 However, they did not all heed the good news; for Isaiah says, ‘LORD, WHO HAS BELIEVED OUR REPORT?’ 17 So faith comes from hearing, and hearing by the word of Christ.” (Romans 10:13-17)

This is so tragic that for whatever reason that some people would be so bold and brazen as to elevate their own personal experience above that of the Scriptures, even at the cost of defending Christ. Remember, personal experience, as well as what our heart tells us, is very fallible, and it cannot be trusted by itself. The Bible tells us that our hearts are “deceitful and sick” (Jeremiah 17:19) or “wicked” (NKJV), and therefore we cannot trust it. Why is Doug promoting a non-divisive (i.e. articulated Christ and the gospel) evangelistic method? I think he answerd that when he wrote,
“I believe that we are called in Jesus to have a positive approach to the Muslim people – sharing Jesus and the Bible and seeking to win them to Christ. We are not called to argue with them, to prove them wrong, or to defeat them. Putting people on the defensive causes them to see us as their enemy, makes them wary of us, and closes their hearts toward us. One can win an argument but lose his opponent, succeeding only in building barriers and pushing people farther away from Jesus. I believe we are called to build bridges, and motivated by love, do everything possible to bring Muslims closer to Christ. Are we up to the challenge?”3

First of all, his initial statement that we need to share “Jesus and the Bible seeking to win them to Christ” is impossible to accomplish if we don’t articulate who and what those things mean. Jesus wasn’t just a prophet like the Muslims believe, and likewise the Bible is not corrupt. But the bigger concern that I had here was with the notion that we can win an idea, lose the person, and push them “farther away from Jesus.” I have heard this phrase used before, but I honestly don’t know what it means? How does one determine the relative closeness to or farness from Christ? How much farther away is an unbeliever from Christ one moment before they die compared to the eternity that follows? While living, there was still the opportunity to be saved, but the reality of the position of that unbeliever’s spirit and heart toward Christ is no different. While living the unbeliever is dead in sin and separated from Christ, and then after death that same person is still separated from Christ, but that reality is fully actualized in all of its terribleness.

How close was Judas to the Savior? He never really believed in Jesus, at least no more than any other unsaved person does? Was he closer to Christ during His ministry than he was when he betrayed Jesus and killed himself? Being friendly to Jesus or to nice Christians and being “close” to salvation seem to be very different ideas. We can’t know who is close to being saved, or even if they will be. “The wind blows where it wishes, and you hear the sound of it, but cannot tell where it comes from and where it goes. So is everyone who is born of the Spirit.” (John 3:8)

Doug ends his article by using the parable of the lost son, where the lost son returns home to his father, and that we likewise need to, “open our arms to embrace them with a love that sacrifices, draws near, and overcomes all obstacles.”4 The problem is that in the parable, the son knew who his father was, he didn’t just know someone who knew his father, and this other person just happened to be nice to him but he didn’t correct the son when he slandered his own father. Christ can and will save people in spite of themselves, and He will save them in spite of those of us who desire to see them saved, but who do not see (not in any practical applicational way) Scripture as authoritative or Christ Himself as being worthy to defend against slander.

1 Doug, “With Jesus on the Muslim Road”, Heart & Mind Volume 20 Number 3 (Summer 2007) 16.

2 This is my own invention, the New Heretical Version (NHV).

3 Doug, “With Jesus on the Muslim Road”, Heart & Mind Volume 20 Number 3 (Summer 2007) 16.

4 Ibid.

Wednesday, June 27, 2007

The Plague of Prosperity

Sometimes while we’re watching a bit of television, I will, to the complete annoyance of my wife, flip to the religious channel. I won’t go to just any religious channel – we receive 3ABN (7th Day Adventist), EWTN (Roman Catholic), and TBN. I will usually stop at TBN because, similar to a car accident that you see happening in slow motion, I just can’t look away. I know that there is going to be a lot of mangling and much harm done to anyone involved…but I just can’t look away.

I don’t watch a lot of 3ABN because I weary of their misunderstanding of the Sabbath; the fact that the Sabbath has been fulfilled in Christ, and we find our Sabbath rest in him. Also, the promotion of the annihilationism (God “snuffs” out the condemned, so they will not be punished eternally) as well as the teaching, and I believe that I’ve seen it more than a few times, that worshiping on Sunday is what the Bible speaks of when referring to the mark of the beast. I also don’t watch EWTN because I just cannot handle the devotion to Mary that this channel so saturated with. I mean, there is nothing like hearing titles and powers ascribed to Mary such as Mother of All Peoples, the New Eve, Co-redemptrix, and Mediatrix of all graces, Advocate, and others that make my idolatry “hackles” stand on end.

With all that said, since I am neither a 7th Day Adventist nor a Roman Catholic, I don’t quite feel the need to defend against what is going on there or confront the false teachings in nearly the same way as I do with what is broadcast on TBN. Why? TBN, the Trinity Broadcasting Network, positions itself as the premier place on television for all things Protestant and Evangelical. Virtually all of the preachers that I have ever seen attempt to more closely resemble the model and ideas of Biblical and true Protestant Christianity, even though they quite often do a horrible job of it. For instance, I find it funny (you either laugh or you cry) that one of TBN’s heaviest hitters is a man who denies the Triune nature of God. Call me quirky, but I would have thought that this would be a prerequisite for association, but I guess that’s not the case. Also, I am sure that there are as many charlatan preachers in other movements in and around Christendom, but my focus tends to be more on the assortment displayed on TBN because these are the men and women that are most difficult to distance myself from because they embody much of contemporary American Evangelical Christendom.

One of the most frustrating heresies that is so rampant on this network is that of the prosperity gospel. It is called the prosperity gospel, but it “is really not another [gospel]; only there are some who are disturbing you and want to distort the gospel of Christ.” (Galatians 1:7) Those who preach this twisted view of Scripture argue that God wants all Christians to be healthy and wealthy to the virtual exclusion of speaking about the cross. And when the cross is referred to, it was done so that we could live an abundant life. What does that mean? Here’s what Joel Osteen says about the cross giving us an abundant life,

“… Not a barely-get-by life, not a life filled with bad habits and addictions, and lack, and mediocrity. No, because of the price He paid, we have a right to live in total victory. I want you to get that down on the inside. Not partial victory, to where we have a good family, we have good health, but we constantly struggle in our finances. That’s not total victory. If God did it for you in one area, he can do it for you in another area. Get a vision for it. Don’t’ get stagnant. Maybe God’s blessed you; you have a good family and a good job, but you’ve had pain in your body for years and years. You used to stand against it, you used to believe that you could be free but now it’s been so long that you’ve decided, ‘This is my lot in life. Joel, I guess this is my cross to carry.’ He has paid the price so that we may be totally free. That means free from bad habits and addictions. Free from worry. Free from discouragement and depression. Free from poverty and lack. Free from low self-esteem. You need to start seeing yourself in the right way. You are not a sick person trying to get well, you’re a well person fighting off sickness. God made you healthy and whole….”1

This sickening and cheap portrayal of what Christ accomplished on the cross is the same type of stuff that you will hear from the majority of people on TBN. The various preachers will have their own styles and things that they specifically emphasize, but the main heartbeat is health and wealth. Did you notice anything missing? There was no mention of sin at all. In fact, the statement, “God made you healthy and whole” seems to directly deny the doctrine of original sin or, for that matter, any doctrine of sin and depravity at all.

Once in a while you may be fortunate enough to hear Rod Parsely, Benny Hinn, or another prosperity preacher present a pretty clear presentation of the actual gospel (i.e. you’re a sinner, repent and place your faith in Christ for salvation from sin and it’s end result in hell), but these are few and far between. More often than not, the message that is sent out to the world is that Christians can (and should) be wealthy and that we could have all of the stuff that we want. And this is the message that is exported from the United States to other countries labeled as the gospel.

I have heard stories about how the prosperity (or other non-gospel messages) preachers are making their way and having a lot of influence in non-Western countries. I also saw this on a different scale when I went to Africa in the summer of 2000. When I was in Kenya, I saw all of the worst parts of western culture splashed across the city of Nairobi. From Brittney Spears to the latest movies, that is what my Kenyan friends saw and understood about the United States (and the West). The most tragic part of it, though, was when one of the men from the church that I was working with began talking about the very good teaching that he had been hearing over either the radio or television (I’m not sure which). I was still pretty green as it relates to the false teaching that is so prevalent inside of Christendom, but I still asked him who he was listening to. His response gave me no pause at the time, because I hadn’t heard of the man, but he looked at me and said, “Benny Hinn.” I knew that Benny Hinn was a preacher on TBN, but not much more than that, so I didn’t think much more about it until a year or so later. But now that I know the kind of chicanery and horrible teaching that goes on with his ministry, I am so very grieved. I found that the following words from John Piper articulate so much of what this perversion of the glorious and saving gospel of our Lord brings out from my own heart.

“I don’t know what you feel about the prosperity gospel, but I’ll tell you what I feel about it. Hatred. It is not the gospel. And it is being exported from this country to Africa and Asia selling a bill of goods to the poorest of the poor. ‘Believe this message, and your pigs won’t die and your wife won’t have miscarriages. And you’ll have rings on your fingers and coats on your backs.’ That’s coming out of America! People that ought to be giving our money and our time and our lives, instead selling them a bunch of crap called ‘gospel’. And here’s the reason it is so horrible: When was the last time that any American, African, Asian ever said Jesus is all-satisfying because you drove a BMW? Never! They’ll say, ‘Did Jesus give you that? Yeah? Well, I’ll take Jesus.’ That’s idolatry, that’s not the gospel. That’s elevating gifts above Giver. I’ll tell you what makes Jesus look beautiful. It’s when you smash your car and your little girl goes flying through the windshield and lands, like I was with a little girl on 11th avenue two weeks ago, dead on the street, for three hours before the police would let her go, and you say through the deepest possible pain, ‘God is enough. He is good; He will take care of us; He will satisfy us; He will get us through this. He is our treasure. Whom have I in heaven but You? And on earth there is nothing that I desire besides you. My flesh and my heart and my little girl may fail but you are the strength of my heart and my portion forever. That makes God look glorious, as God, not as giver of cars or safety or health. Oh, how I pray that Birmingham will be purged of the health, wealth, and prosperity gospel. Indeed America would be purged. And that the Christian church would be marked by suffering for Christ. God is most glorified in you when you are most satisfied in Him in the midst of loss, not prosperity.”2

It is this kind of false teacher that Peter’s second letter warned us of when we would have teachers in our midst, “will secretly introduce destructive heresies,” and that there will be many who “will follow their sensuality, and because of them the way of the truth will be maligned;” (2 Peter 2:1,2) If this type of perversion does not cause us outrage on behalf of our glorious Savior, then I do not know what will. Will it take persecution and calamity to purge the Christendom in the West of this plague of prosperity and with it unleash the true gospel in it’s glory as testified to by saints with their blood, not their Rolexes? My week and faint heart hopes that God will not send judgment on the church in the West but still purge this infestation from among the redeemed. But my spirit is not so optimistic about the future of Christianity in the West. Christendom may survive and flourish, for a false presentation of Christ is no threat to the devil. But Christianity, wherever the gospel message is pure and Christ is exalted as He should be, I fear will not be unscathed.

May God give us grace and courage now to use what freedoms and resources we have to preach the gospel. And may God give us grace and hope and love for the future for when those freedoms and resources are stripped away from us. May You cause me to cling closer and more firmly to You and Your Word, Lord.

In all things, soli Deo gloria.

1 I personally transcribed the quote from an uploaded video of Joel’s sermon as posted on youtube.


Scripture of the Day

Psalm 1

1 How blessed is the man who does not walk in the counsel of the wicked, Nor stand in the path of sinners, Nor sit in the seat of scoffers! 2 But his delight is in the law of the LORD, And in His law he meditates day and night. 3 He will be like a tree {firmly} planted by streams of water, Which yields its fruit in its season And its leaf does not wither; And in whatever he does, he prospers.

4 The wicked are not so, But they are like chaff which the wind drives away. 5 Therefore the wicked will not stand in the judgment, Nor sinners in the assembly of the righteous. 6 For the LORD knows the way of the righteous, But the way of the wicked will perish.

Tuesday, June 26, 2007

Unfair and Thankful – from Titus 3:3-8

About six months ago I was confronted with the idea of fairness relating to the gospel. I wrote a bit about it in an article I called “The Unfair Gospel” in January of this year. However, when I was starting to prepare for my most recent sermon, I struggled so hard with what topic would be good to cover, text to use, or where to go with the message. This, I think, is why if I am ever blessed to be a regular preacher that I will plant myself in a book and work through it and only occasionally do topical-type sermons. The reason is that I find it hard to nail down what I want to say, and then once I have that figured out, a big part of my job is to make sure that I’m not reading into a text what I want it to say instead of saying what it says.

My most recent sermon, like my previous article, was called “The Unfair Gospel.” I picked the title with the expressed purpose of being provocative, not that my goal is to shock people, but I wanted to have the title and the concept be provocative so that people would engage their minds with what I had to say. And if I were to try and put the whole message of the sermon into one statement, it would be this:

The heart of the gospel message is that of complete unfairness. If God were to simply and ultimately deal fairly with me according to my deeds or my faith or anything of mine, I would have been hurled into a fiery eternity long ago. If God were strictly to deal with mankind in a totally fair way according to what we have done, we would be given exactly what we all deserve…and that is His righteous and eternal wrath.

In order to see and understand the immense unfairness, we must not forget who we were, or (if you’re not a believer) who you are. In Paul’s writings, we see a beautiful statement of the changed nature of the one who has been born again in Christ following a scathing condemnation of the ungodly.

9 Or do you not know that the unrighteous will not inherit the kingdom of God? Do not be deceived; neither fornicators, nor idolaters, nor adulterers, nor effeminate, nor homosexuals, 10 nor thieves, nor the covetous, nor drunkards, nor revilers, nor swindlers, will inherit the kingdom of God. 11 Such were some of you; but you were washed, but you were sanctified, but you were justified in the name of the Lord Jesus Christ and in the Spirit of our God.” (1 Corinthians 6:9-11, emphasis mine)

The statements “for we also once were” (Titus 3:3) and “such were some of you” (1 Corinthians 6:11) are there to remind us of the radical change that occurred when Christ saved us. And it is based on the natural state of man, our unwashed and unlovely state, that I can say without reservation that the salvation that we find in Christ is completely and utterly unfair. And these verses in Titus 3 give us a beautiful picture of what took place. Notice all of the language showing who does the actions and, by implication, who is being acted upon.

4 But when the kindness of God our Savior and His love for mankind appeared, 5 He saved us, not on the basis of deeds which we have done in righteousness, but according to His mercy, by the washing of regeneration and renewing by the Holy Spirit, 6 whom He poured out upon us richly through Jesus Christ our Savior, 7 so that being justified by His grace we would be made heirs according to the hope of eternal life. 8 This is a trustworthy statement; and concerning these things I want you to speak confidently, so that those who have believed God will be careful to engage in good deeds. These things are good and profitable for men.” (Titus 3:4-8)

Notice the language of how this text explains that man is saved. God “saved us” according to “His love for mankind” and “according to His mercy” accomplished “by the Holy Spirit whom He poured out upon us” through “Jesus Christ our Savior” so that we would be “justified by His grace.” This passage, as well as all passages that talk about man’s salvation, are so God centered that it is right to say that we are saved in spite of ourselves and “not on the basis of deeds which we have done in righteousness.” The beauty of this text, specifically verse 5, cannot be truly understood or treasured without an understanding that this gospel that we preach and cling to is the single most unfair thing that any man could ever be presented with.

In order to demonstrate this supposition as well as show that it does not minimize God or diminish His glory in salvation, I am going to break this down into five statements of the truth about salvation.

1. The fact that the gospel is unfair doesn’t mean that God is unkind, but it emphasizes His kindness. (v.4)

The fact that God is kind and that His gospel treats people unfairly are not mutually exclusive. These two ideas would be contradictory if we understood and believed that man is inherently good or has some capacity to do any good thing. But, the Bible is clear that just as all mankind sinned with Adam, we are born dead to this sin with the complete and total inability to improve on our current condition.

“Then the LORD saw that the wickedness of man was great on the earth, and that every intent of the thoughts of his heart was only evil continually.” (Genesis 6:5)
“The LORD smelled the soothing aroma; and the LORD said to Himself, "I will never again curse the ground on account of man, for the intent of man's heart is evil from his youth; and I will never again destroy every living thing, as I have done.” (Genesis 8:21)
9 "The heart is more deceitful than all else And is desperately sick; Who can understand it? 10 "I, the LORD, search the heart, I test the mind, Even to give to each man according to his ways, According to the results of his deeds. (Jeremiah 17:9-10)

You will notice that I quoted from two passages in Genesis where God said almost the exact same thing. The first passage is what God declared before the flood where His judgment upon man wiped out virtually everyone, and the second passage was just after the flood where God reiterated His statement about the corruptness of man’s heart but vowed not to deal with man in that exact way again (the world will be destroyed by fire next). The very fact that God knows the reality of our rebellious state before Him and yet still chooses to save anyone doesn’t mean that God is unkind, but instead it emphasizes His kindness. This treatment of anyone by God is unfair because it is simply not what we deserve.

2. The fact that the gospel is unfair doesn’t mean that God is unloving, but it magnifies His love for us. (v.4)

The understanding of both facts that God is loving and that God is kind can only be really grasped for all of their greatness if they are built upon the foundational understanding of the true nature of man. Man is not good. We dare not deceive ourselves to think that we are good, or “not as bad as” others.

6 For while we were still helpless, at the right time Christ died for the ungodly. 7 For one will hardly die for a righteous man; though perhaps for the good man someone would dare even to die. 8 But God demonstrates His own love toward us, in that while we were yet sinners, Christ died for us. 9 Much more then, having now been justified by His blood, we shall be saved from the wrath of God through Him.” (Romans 5:6-9)

What type of understanding of the love of God can we have if we have a distorted picture of the one who is being loved (i.e. you and me)? I think that we, in modern Christendom (especially in more protestant and fundamental circles, have an understanding of this, but we can make the grave error of elevating ourselves in our stance before a holy God in relation to others. It is most healthy, I would suggest, that we keep the mentality of Paul when it comes to our own sinfulness both before and after salvation.

“It is a trustworthy statement, deserving full acceptance, that Christ Jesus came into the world to save sinners, among whom I am foremost of all.” (1 Timothy 1:15)

We were sinful and utterly condemned, and even left to ourselves in a redeemed state, we are still rotten and filthy. I remember when I was at a conference where John MacArthur was speaking, and someone asked him a question about sin and how much one sins as we grow with God in grace. His comment, and it rings true, is that as a Christian, as we grow older and mature, we will sin less but feel worse. In other words, after the refining process of sanctification has been going on for quite some time, through the power of the Holy Spirit, we no longer seem to struggle with some of the more blatant and obvious sins that we did in our youth. However, we don’t have a proud or haughty attitude about this transition, but yet we see the more subtle and otherwise inconspicuous sins as being so much more egregious than we could have ever previously understood.

Because the gospel, and the way in which those who are redeemed are treated by God, is unfair in relation to who we are and what we do doesn’t mean that God is unloving, but it magnifies His love for us. And I would add that this reality only becomes clearer, and the love and mercy of God become more precious as we grow in grace and see all sins, blatant or subtle, as that which is extremely offensive to God, and no sin is ever a small offense to Him.

3. The fact that the gospel is unfair doesn’t mean that cannot be saved, but it shows us that we need to be saved. (v.5)

The message of Christ and the cross will make no sense if we have no context of our sinful state and that we must perish because of our sin.

“For the wages of sin is death, but the free gift of God is eternal life in Christ Jesus our Lord.” (Romans 6:23)
“And you were dead in your trespasses and sins,” (Ephesians 2:1)

The point here, especially seen in verse five, that is central to this passage and to that of the whole gospel is found in three words – He saved us. This is not some partnership or joint activity. This is not some arrangement where the outcome is mutually beneficial for both parties where they both end up better off than before. But according to His love and His mercy, He saved us.

So, we cannot do anything to save ourselves because we not only deserve death and destruction (Romans 6:23) but we are actually dead in and because of our sin (Ephesians 2:1). Also, we don’t want to save ourselves even if we could, at least not according to God’s designed plan, because no one seeks after God (Romans 3:11), and furthermore every intent of our hearts are wicked and evil (Genesis 6:5:8:21).

The fact that the gospel of Christ treats us in an unfair manner according to our deeds and our thoughts doesn’t mean that we cannot be saved, but it shows us that we need to be saved.

4. The fact that the gospel is unfair doesn’t mean that we deserve to be saved, but it shows that we must be saved in spite of ourselves. (v.5)

What is an example of “deeds done in righteousness”? Some have qualified the New Testaments writings on “works” and “works of the Law” and said that these only refer to the acts of circumcision or the various ceremonial, dietary, and sacrificial rites that were performed by Israel under the Old Covenant. Even though Paul here says “deeds done in righteousness” instead of “works” or “works of the Law” as he does in his other writings, I would like to offer a brief apologetic for how to understand the scope of all of these exhortations. When Jesus was asked to pronounce which of the commandments was the greatest, He said,

37 And He said to him, `YOU SHALL LOVE THE LORD YOUR GOD WITH ALL YOUR HEART, AND WITH ALL YOUR SOUL, AND WITH ALL YOUR MIND. 38 This is the great and foremost commandment.’ 39 The second is like it, `YOU SHALL LOVE YOUR NEIGHBOR AS YOURSELF.' 40 On these two commandments depend the whole Law and the Prophets." (Matthew 22:37-40)

The question that I would ask you, or anyone for that matter, is this: What possible good thing can I do that doesn’t fall into one of these two categories of loving God or loving my neighbor? Honestly, I have thought about this question for a long time. Not because I think that there is anything good that wouldn’t fit into either category, but just to be thorough.
Moreover, even if I could find one (and I don’t believe that we ever could), what would we be left with? We would be left with an example of a good or a righteous deed, right? And even though Titus 3:5 says that we’re not saved by doing these types of things, perhaps Isaiah could shed some light on those same actions.

“For all of us have become like one who is unclean, And all our righteous deeds are like a filthy garment; And all of us wither like a leaf, And our iniquities, like the wind, take us away.” (Isaiah 64:6)

So I can say, without hesitation, that there is not one single deed that any unsaved man could do that would save him because they are still sinful in His holy sight. It is for this same reason that Paul, while defending the gospel, asked an obviously rhetorical question to the Galatians when he wrote,

2 This is the only thing I want to find out from you: did you receive the Spirit by the works of the Law, or by hearing with faith? 3 Are you so foolish? Having begun by the Spirit, are you now being perfected by the flesh? 4 Did you suffer so many things in vain-- if indeed it was in vain? 5 So then, does He who provides you with the Spirit and works miracles among you, do it by the works of the Law, or by hearing with faith?

6 Even so Abraham BELIEVED GOD, AND IT WAS RECKONED TO HIM AS RIGHTEOUSNESS. 7 Therefore, be sure that it is those who are of faith who are sons of Abraham.” (Gal 3:2-7)

The answer to his rhetorical question of whether they were saved or were blessed with the presentation of miracles because of their works was a resounding no! Abraham was saved in the same manner that I am saved, and that is through faith and not any deed on our part. The fact that the gospel is unfair doesn’t mean that we deserve to be saved, but it shows that we are saved in spite of ourselves. There is no good thing that we can do, and even if there were, all of those good things cannot and will not save us.

5. The fact that the gospel is unfair doesn’t mean that God is unjust; it exalts God in His pure and holy justice. (v.6,7)

God is not a law breaker, and He does not pervert Justice. So how can a holy and just God who demands that all sin and offense against Him must be punished (and that punishment for any offender is an infinite damnation), suffer anyone to enter into His presence if, as the Bible clearly states, we all have greatly offended Him? The beauty of the answer that God gives and the message of the gospel is so magnificently precious, but I contend that it can only truly be seen in this light if we see ourselves in our true condition by the same all-revealing light. And since we have looked at our own state by that light, we come to the plan of God in which God would save wretched sinners like me.

“He made Him who knew no sin to be sin on our behalf, so that we might become the righteousness of God in Him.” (2 Corinthians 5:21)
“For Christ also died for sins once for all, the just for the unjust, so that He might bring us to God, having been put to death in the flesh, but made alive in the spirit; “ (1 Peter 3:18)
23 for all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God, 24 being justified as a gift by His grace through the redemption which is in Christ Jesus; 25 whom God displayed publicly as a propitiation in His blood through faith. This was to demonstrate His righteousness, because in the forbearance of God He passed over the sins previously committed; 26 for the demonstration, I say, of His righteousness at the present time, so that He would be just and the justifier of the one who has faith in Jesus. 27 Where then is boasting? It is excluded. By what kind of law? Of works? No, but by a law of faith. 28 For we maintain that a man is justified by faith apart from works of the Law.” (Romans 3:23-28)

The fact that the gospel is unfair doesn’t mean that God is unjust; it exalts God in His pure and holy justice. (v.6,7) For it was because of His need for justice, the need to punish all sin, and have no offense to Him go unpunished that He caused His son to be crucified on our behalf.

Ultimately, Fair treatment of you or me by God would result in our condemnation, and it is only based upon God’s supreme act of unfairly dealing humanity that we have any hope.

The final question as to the fairness of God is resolved because, as 2 Corinthians 5:21 and 1 Peter 3:18 so beautifully state, God looked upon and treated Christ according to my sinfulness and He looks upon me and treats me according to Christ’s righteousness. This treatment of man which is unfair according to man’s work and man’s heart, but it is fair and just and good according to Christ’s work and His righteousness. This offer of salvation is available to anyone who will respond to God’s redemptive message by placing your full and unreserved faith and trust in Jesus Christ alone and turning away from your sinful lifestyle and striving to please God with all of your faculties. Again, it is not the striving to please God or the actions of service and loving deeds that save us. These are the natural and perpetual result of someone who God has saved.

Man is saved by God’s grace alone through faith alone in Jesus Christ alone for the glory of God alone.

Scripture of the Day

Titus 3:3-8

3 For we also once were foolish ourselves, disobedient, deceived, enslaved to various lusts and pleasures, spending our life in malice and envy, hateful, hating one another. 4 But when the kindness of God our Savior and His love for mankind appeared, 5 He saved us, not on the basis of deeds which we have done in righteousness, but according to His mercy, by the washing of regeneration and renewing by the Holy Spirit, 6 whom He poured out upon us richly through Jesus Christ our Savior, 7 so that being justified by His grace we would be made heirs according to the hope of eternal life. 8 This is a trustworthy statement; and concerning these things I want you to speak confidently, so that those who have believed God will be careful to engage in good deeds. These things are good and profitable for men.

Friday, June 15, 2007

Reflections on My First Sermon

This past Sunday I was blessed with an opportunity to preach my first actual sermon. I have taught in Sunday school, Awana, and in other formats and settings in the church, but I have not ever been able to preach (not teach) a sermon (not a lesson) to the congregation.

The difference between preaching and teaching, as I understand it, is one of presentation. In other words, it is a style difference rather than a substance difference. When I teach a lesson, my purpose is more to illuminate what the Scripture says and means, but when I preach my goal is to persuade someone of that truth and call to action or to conviction.

To be fair, I don’t think that I teach in a sterile teaching way, there is some exhortation and calling for action or conviction in whatever I do. But when I went to preach (and as I prepare the two or three other messages that I am being asked to deliver this summer), my goal was not to preach on a passage that the congregation had heard 17 times before and walk out not being confronted by the Scripture. My goal was to dig a bit deeper (or broader) and call our attention, as a church, to the cause of discipleship. Truth be told, I didn’t really think about the word “discipleship” as being a focus of my message until days after I had delivered it, but it may be a good summary of my overall emphasis.

I want to let the actual sermon that I gave stand on its own, so I will not try to re-preach it here. I pray and hope that it is a beneficial, and (more importantly) a correct, understanding and communication of the substance of the Scripture at hand. Knowing that it is not a full and complete revelation of the truth contained in the verses, my desire is that my small sliver of understanding was extracted correctly from the text and presented clearly to the audience.

Please click here to listen to my first sermon.

Monday, June 11, 2007

Parenting is Tough...

Noah (left) and Micah (right) Near the water fountains on Kellog St.

But here is a glimpse at two great reasons for why all of the struggle and frustration is worth it. Praise God for blessing me with my two boys. I pray that my little daughter will remain healthy and strong until the day, that is fast approaching, that we can meet her.

Friday, June 01, 2007

Reflecting on Galatians

This past Sunday, I finished going through the book of Galatians with my adult Sunday school class. We started studying it in September, and have not really deviated from it except on a few occasions. I have personally been thoroughly blessed both through studying and teaching this book. I do not fully understand all that there is to know from the book of Galatians (I won’t ever on this side of eternity), but I feel as if I am more equipped to articulate, defend, and incorporate what Paul wrote than I was a few months ago. I became very excited to cover the final eight verses (Galatians 6:11-18) this past week because I found that it was a very…satisfying conclusion to the book.

I say that it was a satisfying conclusion of the book because it appealed to my thought structure in a different way than others of his letters end. Basically, it ends with, what seems to me, Paul firing off a final statement to cover each of the major themes of his letter. Let me also say that my mental appreciation of the form of this letter does not elevate it above any other Scripture, it is just one of those passages that just…clicks with the way that my mind works.

As I look back over the book, I see many themes that Paul covers. He begins by defending the singularity of the gospel (i.e. there is only one message), the intention of the Law, the believer’s sonship in Christ, the allegory of the bond and free women (this is very cool, by the way), the deeds of the flesh and the fruit of the Spirit, bearing of one another’s burdens, and boasting. However, the two primary themes (as I see it, and I am willing to be corrected) that are woven throughout the others are salvation by faith apart from works of the Law and the authentic nature of Paul’s apostolic ministry.

The lesser (by emphasis in the book, not necessarily by importance) of the two themes is Paul’s defense of his apostolic ministry. We see it begin in chapter two where Paul recounts his visit to Jerusalem (cf. Acts 15) and submits his teaching to the other apostles in private out of fear that he “might be running, or had run, in vain” (Galatians 2:2) regarding the gospel of grace and faith that he was preaching. He was utterly convinced of the truth of what he was preaching, and he seems to have wanted the issue resolved once and for all. However, you will notice that the dissention caused by those false teachers in Acts 15 is similar to that of the teaching of “certain men from James” (2:12) that Paul encounters later in Antioch.

The specific issue of the Jerusalem council was to determine if Gentile converts to Christianity had to follow the Jewish laws, particularly if the male converts had to be circumcised. Paul brought Titus to Jerusalem to, as it seems, show off a gentile man, who was not circumcised and did not follow the dietary laws and regulations, as an example of a non-Jewish Christian. Well, the conclusion of the Jerusalem council was to say that converts to Christ did not, in fact, need to undergo circumcision or follow the ceremonial and dietary laws that God gave to Israel.

Unfortunately, the issue didn’t stop at Jerusalem because it seems that men went out from there claiming to have been sent “from James,” who seems to be the elder of the Jerusalem church. Also, it seems that these false teachers, these “Judaizers” (they were called Judaizers because of their desire to put new converts under the burden of the Jewish system), lied when they claimed to have been sent by him because it was James who articulated the judgment of the apostles against this heresy.

19 "Therefore it is my judgment that we do not trouble those who are turning to God from among the Gentiles, 20 but that we write to them that they abstain from things contaminated by idols and from fornication and from what is strangled and from blood." (Acts 15:19,20)

So, the result of the council is that Paul’s doctrine is recognized as the true gospel1 and that the other apostles had been preaching this same message as well. Paul also contrasts how it was when he initially came to the Galatian church and that he came in need proclaiming the gospel, whereas the false teachers “shut you out so that you will seek them.” (Galatians 3:17) In other words, because of the teaching of the Judaizing false teachers, the followers would be compelled to seek after these teachers instead of going to others (like Paul or the other apostles).

The pinnacle of his argument in favor of his apostleship as presented in this book is found in the second chapter where Paul confronts, opposes, and rebukes Peter (Galatians 2:11-21). One of the messages conveyed here is that Paul shows how Peter was lulled into going along with this hypocrisy, and calls him on it. Peter was always the front man for the disciples of Jesus as well as the apostles. So for Paul to use this account of the confrontation with Peter, he was not pulling any punches. Remember, the readers could have, with relative ease, checked to see if this had in fact happened.

So, in a final way to punch his point across about how his ministry and message is authentic, Paul says this as one of the final statements of his letter:

“From now on let no one cause trouble for me, for I bear on my body the brand-marks of Jesus.” (Galatians 6:17)

Case closed.

Whereas I see Paul’s defense of his own ministry to be a key issue here, it is, by comparison, dwarfed by the subject and the amount of material presented relating to the main theme of the book. This theme is that salvation is by faith apart from works of the law. In other words, Paul here is saying that salvation, or more specifically I believe that he is referring to the process of justification, is applied to the believer on the basis of faith, and faith alone. Now I realize that a common objection to the doctrine of Justification is that the exact phrase “faith alone” only appear in James when he writes, “You see that a man is justified by works and not by faith alone” (James 2:24). The short answer to this objection is that Abraham and Rahab (both referenced in the context of James 2) both did actions showing their faith in and allegiance to God after they had “believed God, and it was reckoned to [them] as righteousness]” (James 2:23). In other words, the justification that James speaks about is how we are seen before men’s eyes, and not through God’s. Here’s what John Gill had to say about this verse and the controversy and apparent contradiction that it presents,

“Moreover, the Apostle Paul speaks of justification before God; and James speaks of it as it is known by its fruits unto men; the one speaks of a justification of their persons, in the sight of God; the other of the justification and approbation of their cause, their conduct, and their faith before men, and the vindication of them from all charges and calumnies of hypocrisy, and the like; the one speaks of good works as causes, which he denies to have any place as such in justification; and the other speaks of them as effects flowing from faith, and showing the truth of it, and so of justification by it; the one had to do with legalists and self-justiciaries, who sought righteousness not by faith, but by the works of the law, whom he opposed; and the other had to do with libertines, who cried up faith and knowledge, but had no regard to a religious life and conversation; and these things considered will tend to reconcile the two apostles about this business, but as effects declaring it;”2

Paul’s issue here in Galatians is against those whom Gill referred to as legalists and I have referred to them as Judaizers. Legalism is, in its most basic and correct understanding, a system that adds anything to the process of salvation above faith in Christ. In other words, the circumcision that the Judaizers were pushing did just that. And because of this heresy, those who followed in their teaching would be led astray, never to hear the true gospel of grace through faith alone.

It is most excellent that Paul’s defense of his apostleship and his defense of the gospel merge in the council of Jerusalem and the following hypocrisy of Peter and Barnabas in Antioch. Both of these instances show the truth of his calling and office and the truth of the gospel. Paul hammers on this doctrine throughout every chapter of this book. In Chapter one he refers to the fact that there is only one gospel, not two or more, and he makes a very clear and stern condemnation of any deviation from that gospel,

8 But even if we, or an angel from heaven, should preach to you a gospel contrary to what we have preached to you, he is to be accursed! 9 As we have said before, so I say again now, if any man is preaching to you a gospel contrary to what you received, he is to be accursed!” (Galatians 1:8,9)

In chapter two Paul shows the nature of the false teaching that he is confronting at the same time as he is asserting proof for his apostleship. The primary issue was that of whether or not there is a required Jewishness in Christians, and it seems to be focused around the dietary laws and circumcision. Paul sets up his argument, that he lays out throughout the rest of the book, about the inadequacy of the Law and adherence to it as a means of being made righteous when he says,

19 "For through the Law I died to the Law, so that I might live to God. 20 "I have been crucified with Christ; and it is no longer I who live, but Christ lives in me; and the life which I now live in the flesh I live by faith in the Son of God, who loved me and gave Himself up for me. 21 "I do not nullify the grace of God, for if righteousness comes through the Law, then Christ died needlessly." (Galatians 2:19-21)

Chapter three opens up with a few rhetorical questions where he basically asks if the Galatians received the Holy Spirit and experience miracles “by the works of the Law, or by hearing with faith?” (Galatians 3:2 & 5) The answer is, of course, that it was all received through faith and not by performing a religious ritual. He then concludes the chapter with an argument for the proper place for the Law given by God to Moses.

23 But before faith came, we were kept in custody under the law, being shut up to the faith which was later to be revealed.
24 Therefore the Law has become our tutor to lead us to Christ, so that we may be justified by faith. 25 But now that faith has come, we are no longer under a tutor.” (Galatians 3:23-25)

The picture here is that before the gospel of faith was revealed through Jesus Christ, we were bound to keep the Law of Moses even though it was impossible to do. In other words, we were bound to this system that we could not fulfill and therefore could not redeem us. This system and standard of God’s holiness that also shows our inability to measure up is the “tutor” that helps us and, by God’s grace, shows us that we need a substitute. Therefore, once Christ came, He fulfilled the Law; He “redeemed us from the curse of the Law, having become a curse for us.” (Galatians 3:13) This is pictured beautifully in the prophetic words of Isaiah and in the doctrinal statement of Paul when they said, speaking of Christ’s punishment on our behalf,

“But He was pierced through for our transgressions, He was crushed for our iniquities; The chastening for our well-being {fell} upon Him, And by His scourging we are healed.” (Isaiah 53:5)
“He made Him who knew no sin to be sin on our behalf, so that we might become the righteousness of God in Him.” (2 Corinthians 5:21)

Therefore, Paul’s letter to the Galatians goes on to say that the reason for why God set it up this way is “so that we would receive the promise of the Spirit through faith” (v. 14), not through observing and keeping the law or performing deeds, but “by means of a promise.” (v. 18) We would be saved by Christ’s work on the cross, but we would not and cannot contribute anything to our justification. If we attempt to add to that finished work on the cross, we in effect say that Christ’s righteousness is not enough and that He was unable to deal with all of my sins. This type of legalistic addition is blasphemy and heresy, and it is a doctrine of devils that cannot save.

The fourth chapter’s contribution is primarily contained in the allegorical way that Paul uses Hagar and Sarah to show the different outcomes from the law and from the promise. Ishmael was born according to the flesh, through Hagar, and Paul shows how Ishmael and the rest of Hagar’s spiritual offspring came about by the flesh, and they are not the chosen of God. However, Isaac, and the rest of Sarah’s spiritual offspring, are born according to God’s promise. This is an excellent portion of Scripture that took me quite a while to wrap my head around.

Paul’s argument here is hitting the false teachers and those under their sway on a level that is at the very root of their attempts to achieve full “Jewishness”. The descendants of Ishmael were outside of the covenant that God made with Abraham, and therefore they were not allotted any inheritance with the nation in terms of the physical land or in terms of the Spiritual promises. Paul equates the Judaizers with those born from Hagar, and that they are likewise outside of the covenant relationship with God. He also shows the similarity of Isaac’s mistreatment by Ishmael and that of Christians who are mistreated by imposters, posers, as well as pagans.

Chapter five is most known for its teaching about the fruit of the Spirit, and that is as it should be, because that is a great section of this chapter. However, one must note that this whole chapter is a contrast between the same things; flesh and spirit. The beginning of the chapter sets the stage for how we are to understand the teaching that follows as well as how it connects back to the previous statements about faith contrasted to law keeping.

“It was for freedom that Christ set us free; therefore keep standing firm and do not be subject again to a yoke of slavery.” (Galatians 5:1)

All of the discourse in this chapter is rooted in the teaching that we are not saved by any human work. Whether Paul is writing about the deeds of the flesh as being the evidence of an unsaved person and that this leads to destruction (Gal 5:16-21), or when he contrasts it with the fruit of the Spirit that is evidence that those who display this fruit live and walk by the Spirit (Gal 5:22-25), he is explaining that our salvation is based on grace and mercy, not merit and wages.

This leads us to the conclusion of the book, and what Paul says near the end of Chapter six. Paul summarizes the issue that was at hand for the Galatians, those in Antioch, and those at the Jerusalem Council with the definite summary of the conflict and the doctrine that resolves it when he wrote,

15 For neither is circumcision anything, nor uncircumcision, but a new creation. 16 And those who will walk by this rule, peace and mercy be upon them, and upon the Israel of God.” (Galatians 6:15,16)

We need to be created anew by Christ, and we can have that done by God’s grace through our faith in Christ Jesus. And for those of us who place our faith in Christ’s completed work in his life, death, and resurrection, we will be granted salvation, or “peace and mercy”, and inherit the blessings of God.

The truth of this great doctrine is the same today as it was for those to whom Paul initially wrote it. The difference is that there is no contemporary movement (or at least not a notable one) demanding circumcision and dietary adherence for attaining salvation. We do, however, have many different forms of this type of legalism that will not save.

This legalism takes the form of all non-Christian religions in their requirements to attain any higher enlightened state or their perception of heaven. This also takes many forms inside of Christendom. From the Mormon cult that requires baptism (whether you are living or dead) for salvation to the cult of the Jehovah’s Witnesses whose works-righteous system appears very crass and less cloaked in Christian terminology.

The distorted teaching that baptism is required, or a prerequisite, for salvation is rampant throughout more main-stream portions of Christendom; from Catholic to Methodist, and Lutheran to Easter Orthodox, this is a gross misunderstanding of baptism and it is a heretical teaching. Do Christians need to be baptized? Yes. But we don’t need to do it in order to attain salvation as it is an act that is done after faith, and we have seen how we are saved through faith apart from works of the Law. However, it is also true that a continued refusal to be baptized when the command of Christ is preached and known could very well be a sign of an unregenerate heart. The rebellion that shows in relation to one of Christ’s simplest forms of obedience is an ominously telling sign of the probability of a greater rebellion and condemning rebellion that has never bent the knee of faith to Christ alone.

Paul refers to this teaching in his letter to Titus when he said of Christ and our salvation,

“He saved us, not on the basis of deeds which we have done in righteousness, but according to His mercy, by the washing of regeneration and renewing by the Holy Spirit,” (Titus 3:5)

May we hold fast to the truth of God’s word and never prostitute ourselves for a counterfeit that cannot save. Soli Deo Gloria.

1 It was always the true gospel, and that is why I don’t say that it was “declared” true or “made” true or something along those lines. Paul’s doctrine was affirmed against the growing apostasy and heresy that was taught by the Judaizers and those caught in their sway.

2 Gill, John. "Commentary on James 2:24". "John Gill's Exposition of the Bible". 1999.

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