Thursday, November 26, 2015

Thankfulness That God Is Near

There is a thought that if God was not so hidden and so far off but was near to us, then everyone would believe in Him. But it is the Christian belief that He is not simply far off, but He came down to help us. And when He did so, He was not welcomed and accepted but rejected and crucified.

There was a song popular not that long ago that described God as watching us from a distance. One thing we can be thankful for this Thanksgiving season is that this is not the God of the Bible. God is not someone who sits up in His ivory tower deploring the state we are in and hoping we learn to do better. Rather, Scripture says that God became flesh and dwelt among us (John 1:14) in order to give His life as a ransom for many (Mark 10:45).

When I was young my father used to like to take us out on old dirt roads to explore. And occasionally we would manage to get stuck. The area around where I grew up was loose sand, and once your wheels started spinning, they kept digging down until the truck was high-centered and you had to dig your way out. Now if someone stood on a nearby knoll and yelled down advice, he might be helpful. If it was useful advice we could even be grateful. But if someone grabbed a shovel and came down and helped us dig, we would be more grateful. But God comes down to where we are with a big truck and a winch, gets out of the truck and hooks the winch’s cable to our bumper, and pulls us out. (We can decide whether to let Him, but that’s another story). Therefore, we have a God who can understand us, for He Himself has been there and has come down to our level (except for sinning), that we might come boldly into the presence of God (Hebrews 4:14-16). And He promises to be with us through our problem,s not watching from afar off (Matthew 28:20; 2 Timothy 4:17).

But sometimes we as Christians, who have heard the story so many times, can start to take it for granted. We can forget how incredible it is that the One whose glory the heavens declare (Psalms 19:1), the One who created and sustains all things (Colossians 1:15-17), emptied Himself and took on the form of a servant (Philippians 2:5-11), that He might reconcile all things to Himself (Colossians 1:20-22). Let us not lose our sense of wonder as we remember this. And if we do not, we will have something truly to be thankful for.

Wednesday, November 25, 2015

Giving Forgiveness

There are mistaken ideas of what it means to forgive. We can believe that some things are forgivable and others are not. G. K. Chesterton in one of his Father Brown mysteries (The Chief Mourner of Marne) describes a group of people who are vehement about forgiving a man who killed another man in a duel. But they change their minds completely when they find it was really a murder. The idea is that some things are forgivable and others are not. But God forgives us even though we were hostile to Him (Romans 5:6-10; Ephesians 2:1-10; Colossians 2:13-15). He also forgave King David for adultery and murder (2 Samuel 12:13; Psalms 32:1,2; 51:7-13). And we are to forgive as God forgives and not as we want to forgive (Ephesians 4:32; Colossians 3:13; Matthew 6:12).
Another mistake is to believe forgiveness means justifying or minimizing the other person’s actions. Now there may be cases where we have misconstrued other people’s actions and need to correct our impressions of them. But this is not forgiveness. In fact, if we have misjudged them there is no longer the need for forgiveness. But it is simplistic to think that every bad thing done to us can be explained away as an innocent mistake. But the fact that we cannot excuse something does not mean we should not forgive it. God does not condone our sinful behavior (Romans 3:23; Isaiah 64:6; Jeremiah 17:9), but He forgives us (Ephesians 1:7; Romans 3:24-26; Hebrews 9:12). It would not be surprising to find that people who have hurt us are less culpable than we think they are, but this is not the issue. Whatever their guilt is, we need to forgive them. Or this can get twisted the other way and we may hesitate to forgive someone because we are not really sure they did anything wrong. It is not required that we determine the level of another person’s guilt. Our job is simply to forgive, however much they may have wronged us. (There may be cases where, for other reasons, it is necessary to determine what really happened, but our forgiving must not depend on this. We may never know exactly what happened in every case.)

Nor does forgiveness necessarily mean we are obligated not to use reason. If a person repeatedly borrows money from you and never pays it back, you should forgive them, but that does not mean you are obligated to keep loaning them money. There may be a case where this might be the appropriate thing to do. But it depends on the circumstances. Our example here again is God. He loved us enough to paid a tremendous price to allow us to come to Him (1 John 4:9-11; John 3:16-18; Philippians 2:5-11). But He also requires just behavior from people (Romans 1:18; Acts 5:1-11; Matthew 18:15-17). Now how to balance the demands of mercy and justice in every instance may be difficult, but it is necessary.

Tuesday, November 24, 2015

What Is Saving Faith

What does it mean to have faith in Christ for our salvation? People have funny ideas about faith. Some see faith as believing what you know to be untrue. Others see faith as some kind of a leap in the dark against reason. Still others see it as simply affirming a series of facts. (This is the kind of faith even the demons have; see James 2:19.) Real faith is trusting in the promises of God. In Romans 4:17-21 it gives the example of Abraham, who in spite of the physical impossibility of having a son, nonetheless trusted God, and God fulfilled His promise. You see, the real enemy of faith is not reason but sight (2 Corinthians 5:7). We may be able to believe intellectually that God can accomplish something; it is another thing to genuinely trust Him to do it. In the Old Testament the Hebrew word for faith is related to the word for pillar. The underlying meaning is “to be firm.” A pillar is firm to hold the roof up. We must regard a building’s pillars as being firm (have faith in them) before we will enter it. In the same way we must regard the promises of God as being firm in order to have faith in them. Or to use a modern example, an individual may be absolutely convinced an airplane can fly but be afraid to actually get in the airplane and fly in it.

God says that when Jesus died on the cross, it paid the whole price necessary to redeem us from sin (Romans 3:24). God also says that if we will have faith in what Christ has done, we will be declared righteous in the courtroom of God. (“Righteous” or “justified” are judicial terms; they refer to the verdict of a court; see Deuteronomy 25:1.) This results in our possessing eternal life (1 John 5:11-13). The problem is we do not now see any of these things. Now I am convinced, though I am not going to cover it here, that there are good reasons for believing this is true. But the issue is: Can I rely on this being true, even though I do not now possess it? God comes to us and says, “I will give you forgiveness of everything you have ever done wrong, eternal life in My presence, fullness of joy forever, but there is one catch. You need to trust Me for it.” It is not enough to simply affirm that such things are theoretically true; we must genuinely stake our eternal destiny on God’s promises. Not on what we can do, but on what Christ has done. And for those of us who have done this, we need to be willing to trust God with the rest of our lives. It seems ironic that we can trust God with our eternal destiny, but we may not trust Him to provide the money tomorrow to pay the bills. But I know from my own experience it is so.

Monday, November 23, 2015

A Touch of Humor - Thankful People

What things should we give thanks for? When does thanksgiving become self-serving?

Saturday, November 21, 2015

Old Erich Proverb - Door

Humility is the door we must enter to follow Christ.

Friday, November 20, 2015

A Voice from the Past - Nicolas I

(In response to whether baptism given by a man pretending to be a priest is valid.)

If baptism comes unimpaired to the person receiving the gift, even though it was given by an adulterer or a thief, why does it not therefore stand unimpaired and without need of repetition when some worldly fellow, pretending for I do not know what reason to be a priest, has offered it?

Nicolas I, 820-867 AD, Answers to the Questions of the Bulgars, Chapter XV (translated by W. L, North, MGH Epistolae VI, edition of Ernest Pearls, 1925, Letter 99, from Internet History Sourcebooks, Medieval Sourcebook)

What is the validity of the ordinances based on? Does it matter who administers them?

Thursday, November 19, 2015

Nicolas I - Man in Charge

The next major pope after Gregory,  Nicolas I, had an important part in asserting the authority of the papacy. He took a definite view of his administrative authority and his ability to be the final judge of appeals. In defending this he used the Pseudo- Isidorian Decretals, now generally conceded to be forgeries. These include a number of items, real and forged, including the spurious story of the Donation of Constantine. This narrative claims that Constantine the  Great donated to Pope Sylvester the popes' temporal power and possessions. Nicolas I used his authority to rebuke Lothaire II, king of Lorraine, one of Charlemagne's descendants, for abusing and divorcing his wife and marrying his mistress. Nicolas corrected Hincmar, archbishop of Rheims, for deposing a bishop without sufficient reason. But Nicolas' great controversy was with the eastern church.   

The heart of this controversy was who was the boss, the pope or the patriarch of Constantinople, who, both contrary to the admonitions of Gregory I, were claiming the title universal bishop. Also, based on the idea that the church descended  from the apostles could not err, it was thought that the traditions of the church were authoritative. But the western and eastern church had different traditions. Involving such things as the date of Easter, the strictness of clerical celibacy, whether communion should be celebrated with leavened or unleavened bread, and how many times a widowed individual could remarry. There was also the abstruse and dubious doctrinal question of whether the Spirit descended only from the Father or from the Father and the Son. Though part of the issue was that the western church added the phrase "and the Son" to the Nicene Creed, which the east believed should never be changed. Also, there was the question of whether various newly arrived and converted people in Eastern Europe should be under the eastern or western authority.

Nicolas became involved because the emperor of Constantinople had deposed and banished the patriarch of Constantinople, Ignatius, with little reason and had replaced him with Photius, a scholarly layman who had to be moved up quickly through the clerical ranks in order to become patriarch. Nicolas ruled in favor of Ignatius. Photius retaliated, bringing up the disagreements between the east and the west. This resulted in a long and inconclusive struggle that alienated the two sides. Later, as a result of a political struggle, the patriarch of Constantinople, Michael Cerularius, and  Pope Leo IX ended up excommunicating each other. While there were various attempts to reconcile, the rift grew deeper over time, resulting in two churches, the Roman Catholic and the Eastern Orthodox.

A case could be made for the correctness of Nicolas's particular judgments. But claiming excessive power, even in a good cause, is a dangerous thing. In this case it ended up dividing the church over minor things and laying the foundation of the authoritarian papacy. I am forced to wonder how many of our current church divisions are really over issues or over who gets to be in charge.