There the blood of the spotless Lamb blotted out the consequences of the ancient trespass; there the whole tyranny of the devil's hatred was crushed, and humiliation triumphed gloriously over the lifting up of pride: for so swift was the effect of Faith that of the robbers crucified with Christ, the one who believed in Christ as the Son of GOD entered paradise justified.
Leo the Great, 400-460 AD, Sermons, Sermon LV, III (translated by Rev. Charles Lett Feltoe, Nicene and Post-Nicene Fathers, Philip Schaff and Henry Wace, T & T Clark and Wm. B. Eerdmans Publishing, 1997, Second Series, Vol. XII, p. 168)
How can humility triumph over pride? How should we live in view of this?
The Quaster spaceship hovered behind the far side of the moon. They were a martial race, spreading out across the galaxy. They were a scout ship considering whether earth should be their next conquest.
"We have obtained prisoners," said the Scout Commander Third Level, "They are at an event called in their language a "philosopher's convention," which seems to translate as a gathering of thinkers. I thought you would like to know what these creatures' thoughts were."
"Has the translation matrix been programmed?" replied the Supreme Ship Commander.
"Yes, it is adequate for basic conversation."
"Then bring them in."
A group of rather frightened looking Terrans were herded in.
"We of the Quaster are traveling around the galaxy observing different cultures," stated the Ship Commander, glad the Terrans could not read his facial expression or tone of voice. "We understand that you are thinkers among your people. Tell us, what is your basic thinking about life?"
"I believe that all that matters is what works," said the first philosopher.
"But does that mean that if I were to take a blaster and slowly burn your skin off, that would be acceptable to you?" replied the Ship Commander. "After all, that would work."
The man stood in silence.
"What do you see as the basic facts that order existence?" continued the Ship Commander.
"I do not believe there are a set of ready made facts to adhere to," said a second philosopher. "Truth, after all, is different for everyone."
"Does that mean we are not really in a space ship traveling on the far side of your moon having a discussion?" remarked the Ship Commander.
This philosopher launched into a long lecture on how existence preceded essence, which totally stumped the translator, and it could only reproduce a few random words.
"I do not know your language that well," interrupted the Ship Commander. "Can you sum it up in simple terms?"
"You must find whatever is true for you. You must make a choice and pursue it."
"So if I decide to take my space ship and attack your world and conquer it, is that a good thing? After all, it would be what was true for me."
The second philosopher stood, looking perplexed.
The Ship Commander turned to a third philosopher. "What do you think of this?'
"Before we can answer, we need to understand the meanings of the words involved," responded the third philosopher. "What is 'good'? What is 'true'? And what is 'fact'? We must answer this before we begin."
The Ship Commander pulled aside the Third Level Scout and asked, "What do you think of this? Could they be trying to trick us?"
"I do not understand their species well, but they seem to be honest. The ship's sensors have not picked up any indication they are lying. They should be easy to conquer. Their outlook on life could not allow for any real resistance."
"But they would make very poor slaves," returned the Ship Commander. "You could never give them any orders and expect them to carry them out. I suggest we leave this madhouse and seek a more sensible world to conquer."
There is, I believe, a legitimate fear of sin. One that is based on our love of God and results in a fear of doing what displeases Him. But there is a fear of sin that simply tears us down. That sends us dredging up things in the past and second- and third-guessing everything we do. It can also send us rationalizing our sin or blaming it on other people to avoid admitting the fact that we have sinned. We are all sinners (Romans 3:23; Jeremiah 17:9; Isaiah 64:6). But if we put our faith in Christ (Ephesians 2:8,9; Romans 4:4,5; Philippians 3:9), our sins are forgiven by God (Romans 8:33,34; 5:6-11; Ephesians 1:7). But God wants to transform us (2 Corinthians 3:17; Ephesians 2:10; Titus 2:11-14) and requires our involvement (Romans 12:1,2; Hebrews 12:1,2; Galatians 5:16). What we we need is enough fear of sin to make us turn to God in repentance (2 Corinthians 7:10; Proverbs 28:13; 1 John 1:8-10), but not so much that we despair or live in denial and pretend it does not exist (Genesis 3:7-13; Matthew 27:3-5; 1 Corinthians 10:12). We do not want to be cavalier about sin, feeling it is not a problem because God will forgive us, but we also do not to go through life paralyzed or haunted by guilt. This is a delicate balance, but we must avoid going off track one way or the other.
We live in the a age of advertising. It has gone beyond the selling of product to individuals advertising themselves for a multitude of purposes. And congregations and Christian ministries have taken this up. It may be argued whether this is all bad. Certainly it seems to be reality. But there is one tendency in it which is nothing but bad. The tendency to make unrealistic and exorbitant claims. To maintain that the right brand of toothpaste is the key to improving your love life. Christians can pick up this idea of making dubious promises to attract people. I am not speaking only of the health and wealth gospel, though this is the extreme case. It is common for people who would shrink from that with alarm to nonetheless to offer Christianity as some sort of happiness pill that will make all your problems go away. But using any kind of deception to sell Christ is wrong (2 Corinthians 2:17; 1 Thessalonians 2:3-6; 1 Corinthians 2:1-5). It also sets the new convert up for a fall when things do not turn out the way they were promised.
Now there are benefits to Christianity. We are assured our sins are forgiven (Ephesians 1:7; Romans 8:33,34; 1 Peter 2:24,25) and we are children of God (Romans 8:14-17; Galatians 4:4-7; John 1:12,13) if we put our faith in Christ (Romans 4:4,5; Ephesians 2:8,9; Philippians 3:9). We can know God (Jeremiah 9:23,24; Matthew 11:27; John 17:3) and have the hope we will be with Him forever (Romans 8:18-25; John 14:1-3; Revelation 21:3-5). And we can rejoice and have peace because we know God and what life is all about (Philippians 4:4; John 14:27; 1 Peter 1:8). But all this comes out of a deep understanding of God and His truth and is not a superficial happiness pill. And God promises we will suffer real trials in this life (John 16:33; Acts 14:22; 2 Corinthians 4:16-18). We are told we will face opposition (John 15:18-21; 16:1-4; 1 Peter 4:12,13). We are also told we will face genuine spiritual struggles (Ephesians 6:10-13; Galatians 5:17; 2 Corinthians 10:3-6). Christ told people to count the cost of following Him, for there is a real commitment involved (Luke 14:25-33; 9:57-62; Matthew 16:24-26). Therefore, we must be careful what we promise people. And we must remember that real faith is a choice and that manipulating people into a profession of faith for the wrong reasons can easily produce false converts. And these can actually be harder to really convert, believing that they already are Christians or have tried Christianity and found it wanting.
And on a second occasion I saw Him praying within me, and I was as it were, inside my own body , and I heard Him above me—that is, above my inner self. He was praying powerfully with sighs. And in the course of this I was astonished and wondering, and I pondered who it could be who was praying within me. But at the end of the prayer it was revealed to me that it was the Spirit. And so I awoke and remembered the Apostle’s words: ‘Likewise the Spirit helps us in our weakness; for we know not how to pray as we ought. But the Spirit Himself intercedes for us with sighs too deep for utterance.’ And again: ’The Lord our advocate intercedes for us.’
Is heaven up? Does this imply that the earth is flat and located in the center of a small universe? This idea is found in the heart of the gospel narrative that speaks of Jesus ascending into heaven. How are we to look at it?
We do not know how other realms such as heaven and hell are connected to the world we know. That they should be reached by going upward or downward in relation to the earth makes as much sense as any other possibility. One can look for some kind of symbolic meaning here, but that does not mean the movements are not real, any more than the bread and cup in communion are not real. But let us look at this in the most crassly literal way possible, though I do not believe it should be understood this way. We know the earth is solid, or rather, at the center, liquid. But who is to say disembodied spirits cannot exist in liquid matter, which is without question hot? As for upwards, there are a multitude of stars and galaxies where you could locate heaven. And perhaps disembodied spirits can exist in the airlessness of space. I do not believe heaven and hell are to be understood this way, but they do not contradict the known facts of science.
This does not require that the earth is flat or in the center of the universe, or that the universe small. Nor does the Scripture seem to be interested in teaching such things one way or the other. The statements used to prove this are either descriptions of what we see when we look up in the sky or are poetical statements or metaphors. But where then did the Medievals get these ideas? They did not, in general, believe earth was flat and the universe was small, though there was an occasional scholar (who was not at the time considered totally crackpot) who disagreed. As for the idea that the earth was the center of the universe, they got it from the same source that told them the other two were not true, the Greek philosophers represented by Ptolemy's Almagest. But it is very questionable that they got them from Scripture, though they read it back in.
But the real problem is the connection to pagan myth. There are various myths that put the gods on heights or the top of mountains. It is assumed that the idea that heaven is up is an extension of this concept. But it is the Christian contention that God revealed Himself to all people right from the beginning. Part of that revelation could include the connection of heaven with up, whatever that means. And people understood it in simplistic ways, thinking it referred to the top of mountains. But the exact meaning for the original remains a mystery.
Humility is one of the least valued of the Biblical virtues in the present day. It also competes with meekness to be the most misunderstood and stereotyped. Our society emphasizes self-esteem and assertiveness. It argues that you must believe in yourself to be successful. Humility is seen as putting yourself down and denying the abilities that you actually have. This is not genuine humility. I like C. S. Lewis' description of a man who makes a beautiful painting and recognizes it is a beautiful painting and rejoices in it. But he does not rejoice in it more than if it had been done by another, or in a sunset or a waterfall. It is the strong preference for something that is mine just because it mine that produces the bragging and being puffed up that are opposed to love and are wrong (1 Corinthians 13:4; Proverbs 16:18; Luke 18:9-14).
Now there are clear reasons for humility. We are created by God, and every good thing we have comes from Him (Genesis 1:26-28; Psalm 139:13-16; James 1:17). We are also sinners (Romans 3:23; Jeremiah 17:9; Isaiah 64:6) who have been saved by grace (Ephesians 2:8,9; Romans 4:4,5; Philippians 3:9). Also, it is God who is at work in us to change us and accomplish His purposes through us (1 Corinthians 3:18; Ephesians 2:10; Colossians 1:28,29). Therefore we do not trust in ourselves but in God (2 Corinthians 1:9; James 4:13-16; Psalm 147:10,11).
This type of humility does not lead to timidity, but to a confidence based on God and our relationship with Him (2 Timothy 1:7-12; Ephesians 6:19,20; Romans 8:31-39). And while it may require us to make an honest evaluation of our abilities (Romans 12:3), it does not call us to ignore them, but to use them for the building up of others (Romans 12:4-8; 1 Peter 4:10,11; Ephesians 4:11-16). But it gives credit to God where the credit is due (Galatians 6:14; 1 Corinthians 10:31; 2 Corinthians 12:7-10) and puts the good of others before our own (Philippians 2:3-11; Galatians 5:13-15; Romans 12:16).
One of the key teachings of the Protestant Reformation was justification by faith, that God declares guilty sinners righteous based on the sacrifice of Christ. This was not just a key truth then, but it still is today. The ordinary way of understanding how we come to God is that it is through our good deeds. But Scripture says that we are sinners (Romans 3:23; Jeremiah 17:9; Isaiah 64:6) and are unable to save ourselves by our own works (Romans 3:19,20; 7:14-25; Galatians 3:10-14). Therefore, Christ came to pay the price for our sins (1 Peter 2:24,25; Colossians 2:13,14; 2 Corinthians 5:21). As a result of this, we are declared righteous before God by faith in Jesus Christ (Romans 4:4,5; Philippians 3:9; Galatians 3:6-9), apart from anything we can do to earn it (Galatians 2:21; Titus 3:5,6; Romans 11:6). Now justification is a judicial term. It refers to the verdict of a court (Exodus 23:7; Deuteronomy 25:1; 1 Kings 8:32). Normally it refers to justifying the innocent. But God justifies the guilty. Now one of the results of this justification is that God sends His Spirit into our lives to transform us (2 Corinthians 3:18; Ephesians 2:10; Colossians 1:29) out of our love of God for what He has done for us (Titus 2:11-14; 1 John 4:19; 2 Corinthians 5:14,15). But this is the result of justification, not the cause of justification.
As a result, we have assurance before God (1 John 5:11-13; Romans 8:37-39; John 10:27-30). Based on that, we can correctly deal with guilt (Romans 8:33,34; Galatians 4:4-7; John 3:18). Now there is a place for appropriate guilt in the life of the believer, guilt that leads to repentance of one's sin and returning to follow God (2 Corinthians 7:10; Proverbs 28:13; 1 John 1:8-10). But there is a guilt which dredges up the past or claims we have sinned so badly that God has rejected us. It is against this type of guilt that we should take our stand based on the fact that God has declared us righteous before Him. Therefore, we can go forth with confidence. A confidence not based on our accomplishments or goodness, but on the fact that we are declared righteous in Christ.
But it also undercuts self-righteousness. We stand before God, not based on our superior accomplishments, but on God's mercy (Luke 18:9-14; 7:36-50; Matthew 9:9-13). This results in reaching out to others with love, offering them the forgiveness that we have received (1 Peter 3:15; 2 Timothy 2:24-26; Colossians 4:6). We also forgive others based on the fact that we have been forgiven (Colossians 3:12-14; Ephesians 4:31,32; Matthew 18:23-35). Therefore, being declared righteous by faith avoids the brittle self-righteousness which looks down on and rejects others, particularly those who do not measure up to its standards.
The right attitude toward God and man, the one that enables us to be confident without being puffed-up, flows from justification by faith.
(While I have read him in the past, I was unable to find a quote from Claudius of Turin readily available. I have therefore substituted another commentator on the book of Galatians who emphasized grace.)
It was certainly an outstanding ground for boasting that Abraham accepted circumcision when God commanded it, that he was provided with brilliant virtues, and that in everything was obedient to God. Thus it is a laudable and happy thing to imitate the example of Christ in His deeds, to love ones neighbors, to do good to those who deserve evil, to pray for one's enemies, and to bear with patience the ingratitude of those who requite good with evil. But none of this contributes to righteousness in the sight of God. The outstanding good deeds of Abraham did not help him to be pronounced righteous in the sight of God; in the same way imitation of the example of Christ does not make us righteous in the sight of God. For us to be righteous in the sight of God a price far higher than human righteousness or the righteousness of the Law is required. Here we must have Christ to bless and save us, just as Abraham had Him as his Blesser and Savior. How? Not through works but through faith.
Martin Luther, 1483-1546, Commentary on Galatians (1535), Chapter 3 Verse 9, (translated and edited by Jaroslav Pelikan, Luther's Works, Concordia Publishing House, Vol. 26, p. 247)
What difference does it make that our righteousness is not based on good works? What then is the place of good works?
There was a serious conflict in the eastern part of the early medieval church over the question of icons. There had grown up slowly the idea of praying to saints and their representations. Though they avoided the word "worship," this was what it amounted to. It grew out of a tendency to put the martyrs and other heroes of the faith on a high pedestal. There is a legitimacy in honoring heroic people of the past, but it easily slides into idolatry. This was also encouraged by the remnants of pagan worship. It is easy to just exchange the worship of gods for the worship of saints. But it also grew out of legalistic tendencies. If you believe that you can only win God's acceptance by earning it, you will welcome a sympathetic mediator to take your case. But the thing that caused this practice to triumph in the majority of the professing church was the idea that surely the church organization, descended from the apostles, could not go wrong. This bad idea, originated by good men to prevent false teaching, made it difficult for bad practices to be questioned once they had been established .
The most prominent group that opposed this were the iconoclasts. They did this based on a strict upholding of the rules. The Bible said that making and worshiping images was wrong, and therefore it must be opposed. They were not opposed to prayers to saints, only to images. They held that pictures of any kind connected Christian worship were wrong and must be destroyed. When they were in power they used the force of government to impose their view on their opponents. This resulted in a long struggle, with many violent deeds on both sides.
In the West the general opinion was that pictures were acceptable for instruction but should not be worshiped. How much of this was just an excuse or an evasion is hard to judge, but it does not seem to have stopped the growth of image worship in the long run. But there were a few who took a stronger stance. Claudius of Turin, along with Agobardus of Lyons, rejected the whole idea of the service of saints. And Claudius in particular argued against it based on grace. He took his stand based on the book of Galatians: that God Himself is gracious to us in Christ, and we do not need another intermediary. He did try to eliminate all pictures, but in an age where they were so often abused, this was understandable. But he was ignored, and image worship continued to grow. It is interesting to note that though they were opposed, both Claudius and Agobardus died in good standing in the existing church organization. But the time was coming when a strong adherence to grace and opposition to the service of saints would get you in trouble with the authorities. However, there is a time to stand up to the authorities in the name of truth.
One of the marks of community is people working together to overcome their differences (Colossians 3:12-14; 1 Peter 4:8; Ephesians 4:14-16). But it is easy to try to avoid this. It is made particularly easy by the present divided state of the church. Contrary to Scripture, we have become divided over small issues (1 Corinthians 1:10-17; 3:3-4; Romans 14:1-12). And this makes it very easy for people not to work things out, but simply go to the next church down the road, which is only slightly different from the one they left. Also, church leaders can take the attitude, "If you do not like what we do here, just go somewhere else." There is very little incentive to stay and work things out. And in many ways this is tragic, because it can leave a trail of broken relationships on both sides. I do not say it is wrong to leave a church. I have done it myself more than once in the past. But I do think there needs to be an effort to work things out if there is a disagreement. And not to leave just because we did not get our own way.
One great danger to the spiritual life is to see it in terms of a scorecard. We can see living for God in terms of the number of activities we are involved in and the number of events we attend. If I do enough things, show up at enough meetings, hold enough offices, then I am spiritual. This can take different forms in churches or groups and can involve many different types of activities: teaching a small group, singing in the choir, engaging in evangelistic activities, going to committee meetings, being there every time the church door is open. All of these can be good in their own context, but it is a mistake to see any of them by themselves as an evidence of spirituality. And to do so can turn one's life into an endless round of activities, with little or no spiritual substance. It can result in infant believers being thrown into the struggle with little or no spiritual foundation. And the result can be spiritual and emotional burn-out.
When a person put their faith in Jesus Christ for salvation (Ephesians 2:8,9; Romans 4:4,5; Philippians 3:9), God begins to work in their lives to change them (2 Corinthians 3:18; Ephesians 2:10; Titus 2:11-14). But the basic thing God wants to build is genuine Christian character (Galatians 5:22,23; 2 Peter 1:5-9; Matthew 22:36-40). Now this character, once it is developed will encourage us to behave in certain ways. But we can try to produce a spirituality that is superficial, based on external behavior. And ultimately it can become something we go through to try to please other people (Galatians 1:10; Matthew 6:1-18; 23:25-28). This is one of the reasons people tend to prefer this approach. It makes it easier to keep score and determine where we stand in relation to others. It also fits in with seeing people as a resource to make the church organization run. If we can get people to fill the necessary slots and do the necessary activities, it will make our system work. And we can ignore the attitude in which it is done. But God is more interested in the heart attitude than the outward appearance (1 Samuel 16:7; Hebrews 4:12,13; Romans 2:16). And He does not want things to be done simply to make the organization run, but to build each other up (Hebrews 10:24,25; 1 Corinthians 14:26; 13:1-3).
This means we need to make some hard choices. We need to ask, "Is this activity I am involved in helping me to grow spiritually or meeting the needs, spiritual or physical, of others?" If not, we should consider dropping it. Now there are things that can help people at second remove. Helping count the offering may meet the pastor's physical needs and help pay the bills to keep the building open, which is hopefully a benefit to the congregation. But doing thing just to be doing things, because it looks spiritual, is a mistake.
Still not less true is the injunction of Paul to pray "always" (Eph. vi. 18); because, however prosperously, according to our view, things proceed, and however we may be surrounded on all sides with grounds of joy, there is not an instant of time during which our want does not exhort us to prayer. A man abounds in wheat and wine; but as he cannot enjoy a morsel of bread, unless by the continual bounty of God, his granaries or cellars will not prevent him from asking for daily bread. Then, if we consider how many dangers impend every moment, fear itself will teach us that no time ought to be without prayer.
John Calvin, Institutes of the Christian Religion, Book III, Chapter XX, 7 (translated by Henry Beveridge, Wm. B. Eerdmans Publishing, 1975, Vol. 2, p.151)
What does it mean to pray always? How do we go about doing it?
There were two nearby towns that were rivals. This was encouraged by their being on similar sites and about the same size, with approximately similar populations. They therefore took totally different approaches to life.
One city, Traditionia, was opposed to change. Their answer to every challenge was, "We have never done it that way before." They could not, of course, totally stop the ravages of time. But they were every careful that every repair exactly replicated whatever was there before. They were fortunate that they had started this program after the electric light and the telephone. But the personal computer and cell phone were outlawed. The houses were all very traditional and hinted at nothing modern. Their clothing and demeanor seemed very old-fashioned. As did their taste in entertainment and music. Everything there seemed to stay as it always had been.
The other city, Modernia, was devoted to change. They believed in always following the times or simply changing because something had been that way too long. Their buildings and structures were constantly being changed, even if they were practically new. In fact, many were never really finished, because before they were done, someone decided they needed to be built after a different pattern. They always had to follow the newest fad and do the newest thing, no matter how strange or ridiculous it might look from the outside. They always had to have the latest products, entertainment, and music, no matter how much effort it took to do so. And they were constantly discarding perfectly good items on the ground they were outmoded or obsolete.
In an attempt to resolve their rivalry, they called in a panel of judges from the cities round about. After looking around one of the judges waved his hand in a motion to be heard. "Why do you follow these extreme principles?" he asked. "Why not evaluate what is old and what is new and chose the best things out of each? Why this rigid prejudice regarding a thing's date?" He met only with blank stares.
The time has passed when the western church can simply be comfortable in the world. And perhaps this was never totally a good thing. It is easy for the Christian church to become slowly conformed to the culture it has become comfortable in (1 John 2:15-17; James 4:4; Romans 12:1,2). And the Christian message, when clear, can produce the exact opposite reaction (John 15:18-21; 16:1-4; 1 Corinthians 1:18-25). But sometimes in spite of this, we can raise comfortableness almost to a principle to be defended. And we can make it our our chief selling point.
Now do not get me wrong; I love good Christian fellowship. Singing, worship choruses around a campfire. Meeting together as friends to fellowship and study the Bible. But when we make this our main goal, we miss something. This world is a battlefield (Ephesians 6:10-20; 2 Corinthians 10:3-5; 1 Peter 5:8,9). It requires us to be constantly vigilant and on our guard to live for God (1 Peter 1:13-16; Matthew 16:24-26; Romans 6:12-14). This does not mean that we do not need one another. Quite the contrary, we need other believers to build us up, to fight the battle together with us (Romans 12:3-8; 1 Corinthians 12:12-27; Ephesians 4:11-16). We need people who have our backs. And we each individually need to do our part in the battle.
But we are still sinners (Philippians 3:12-16; Romans 7:14; 1 John 8-10). We will disappoint one another and fail one another. Therefore we must be willing to bear with one another and forgive one another (1 Peter 4:8; Colossians 3:12-14; Ephesians 4:31,32). And when we correct people, and correct them we must, we should do it with gentleness and firmness (Galatians 6:1; 2 Timothy 2:24-26; 1 Thessalonians 3:14,15). We also are required to reach out to those who need a Savior but may not live up to our idea of respectable people (Matthew 9:9-13; Luke 7:36-50; 19:1-10). This will not always be comfortable or always be safe. It is so much easier to try to build a comfortable church around like-minded people and to try to keep everyone else at arm's length. But this is not the biblical pattern. And I question if our culture will let us get away much longer with doing that. Perhaps this is God's wakeup call to get us to take His purposes seriously. There is part of me that feels uncomfortable writing this post. It desires a nice comfortable church with comfortable people, that presents no real challenges, But I am convinced this is an illusion.