We live in a culture where people do not take responsibility for their actions. This is really nothing fundamentally new; it goes back to the garden of Eden (Genesis 3:12,13). One of the first results of sin entering the world was a tendency to blame other people. But we have carried this to a fine art. We have accepted a concept of psychological determinism that blames everything on our parents, society, the government, but not on ourselves. The problem with this is if I blame all my wrongdoing on others, how did the others go wrong, and where does this all start in the first place? Or we adopt a concept of relative morals and claim that right and wrong are just a matter of opinion. But we then turn around and blame others for their behavior as if they were really responsible for it. And the irony of this is that God offers forgiveness based on the death of His Son to all who will admit their sinfulness and come to Him (Ephesians 1:7; Colossians 1:14; Acts 26:18). Also, for those who have accepted this forgiveness, the main thing God requires of us is that we admit and repent of our sins rather than trying to deny them (Proverbs 28:13; 1 John 1:9; 2 Corinthians 7:10). So we can end up going to great lengths to excuse or hide our sins when there is total forgiveness available if we are willing to admit to those sins.
But sometimes it is easier to ask forgiveness of God than to admit our sin and ask forgiveness of other people. We know that God is gracious and that He forgives. But of other people we cannot be so sure. Even though God commands forgiveness (Ephesians 4:32; Colossians 3:13; 2 Corinthians 2:7), they may not offer it. They may, in fact, not be believers in God at all and feel no obligation to forgive. But we still need to be willing to admit our sins to others and ask forgiveness (Matthew 5:23-26; James 5:16; Romans 12:18). If we know that God has forgiven us, it becomes a basis from which we can go and make things right with others. This can be difficult, but we need to be willing to do it, secure in the fact God forgives us no matter how they choose to react. There are a couple of errors to avoid here. We can try to make up excuses like Adam and Eve and try to find someone else to blame. Or we can apologize too easily and superficially without really meaning it. But the biggest error is to not take responsibility for our actions or apologize at all.
Why get wet? What is the point of baptism? Is it just some formality that we are forced to go through because God said so? Sometimes we can be more spiritual than God. We can feel that only the spiritual things are important and that the physical is irrelevant. This is not God’s perspective. God created the physical world (Genesis 1:1; John 1:1-3; Hebrews 11:3), and God plans to redeem and restore a physical creation (2 Corinthians 5:1-5; 1 Corinthians 15:20-28; Romans 8:18-23). So God cares about the physical world and physical actions. Therefore, what is the point of baptism?
Baptism in Scripture is the immediate response to saving faith (Acts 16:30-33; 10:43-48; 2:38-41). It is connected with the ultimate spiritual reality of being baptized into Christ and into His church (Galatians 3:27; Colossians 2:12; 1 Corinthians 12:13). Scripture says that circumcision was the sign and seal of faith (Romans 4:11). I am convinced the same thing applies to baptism. A seal involves stating we belong to God. A sign involves a declaration to those around of where we stand. By being baptized we are recognizing that we belong to Christ and are part of His body. This is important for us to recognize and understand.
There are various types of symbolism involved. It is connected to cleansing (Acts 22:16; 1 Peter 3:21; Titus 3:5,6). It also pictures being identified with Christ in His death, burial, and resurrection (Romans 6:3-11; Colossians 3:1-3; Galatians 2:20). But this does not seem to be the main point. Rather, it is an outward confession of our faith. Now it is faith that saves (Romans 4:4,5; Ephesians 2:8,9; Luke 23:39-43). But baptism is closely connected as the outward expression of that faith. Today we have tended to separate the point of faith from baptism. Interestingly enough, we have invented other physical acts: walking an aisle, raising a hand, saying a prayer, to replace it. We want someway to outwardly express our decision to put our faith in Christ.
We need to remember that we are physical creatures. It is what God originally made us to be. And that being so, I do not believe the physical and spiritual can be totally pried apart. That is why God, right from the beginning, gave His people physical things as reminders of His truth (Exodus 12:14; Joshua 4:6,7; Genesis 9:12- 17). Therefore, we should recognize how God has created us. And we should accept God’s physical gestures to declare to us and to those around us who we are and Who we belong to.
A young man wanted to know what he could do to serve the King. He was told that if he was serious, the best way to do this was to join the Rushers.
He showed up with a crowd of others to Rusher's Orientation. There was an older man with a polished appearance who took the podium and began to give a pep-talk to the group. "We as Rushers are here to accomplish the tasks assigned us," said the polished man. "It is urgent that the tasks be done. Your crew leaders are here to instruct and encourage you. But it depends on you to have the zeal and dedication to carry them out. You must let nothing stand in the way of the completion of the tasks."
The young man was assigned to a crew and given a list of tasks to perform. Some of them seemed obviously useful, like helping a little old lady by cleaning up her yard. Others were more puzzling, and it was difficult to figure out what the point of them was. Others seemed to be just make-work. When he asked his crew leader about this, he said not to ask questions but to do the tasks.
Now the young man noticed that as the Rushers went about completing their tasks, there were a number of people (far more than the Rushers) who sat about on lawn chairs and porches and watched them. Sometimes these people cheered the Rushers on and put a hand on their shoulder and told them that they were doing a good job. Others jeered and criticized and explained what the Rushers were doing wrong. Many times the Rushers had to work around them, which made their tasks more difficult.
"Who are those?" the young man asked his crew leader.
"They are the Sitters," returned the crew leader. "They are not really dedicated, or they would be Rushers. We hope to encourage them to become Rushers some day."
One day the young man ran into a very unusual man. He did not have the frenzied hurry of the Rushers. Nor was he sitting around and observing like the Sitters. He was walking with the calm, firm stride of someone who knew where he was going.
"What are you?" asked the young man. "You do not seem to be a Rusher or a Sitter."
"I am convinced we need to learn to know and trust the King and ask what He really wants us to do," said the strange man. "We need to do the things that are important and not just rush around doing dubious tasks."
"Can you teach me to do that?" asked the young man. And they walked off together.
What does it mean to do things decently and in order (1 Corinthians 14:40)? Some take it as advocating a very strict, structured type of service. Others seem to ignore it altogether. But what does it really mean? In context, in order refers to some kind of basic order (1 Corinthians 14:26-32): take turns, do not all speak at once. The whole description sounds very informal. I am not saying no one violates this, but it does seem to give a fair amount of latitude. As for decently, it is a broad word in the Greek, but in the context it seems to refer to things that do not make sense, like speaking in tongues without an interpreter (1 Corinthians 14:6-19). I would conclude that while there are things done that are contrary to this commandment, it is not requiring something reserved or formal. But let us look a little closer.
What about reverence? Do we not have to show reverence for God? Where reverence is used in Scripture with respect to God, it is normally a translation of the word fear. So what does it mean to fear God? There is no question that it is commanded in Scripture (Proverbs 1:7; Psalms 2:11; 1 Peter 2:17). But we are also told that God loves us and is our Father and Friend (Romans 8:15; John 15:13-15; 1 John 4:18). How do we fit these together? I am convinced Martin Luther’s approach is helpful here. He stressed that the fear of God is the beginning of wisdom. We start by realizing that God is great and majestic and holy (Isaiah 6:1-5; 40:12-17; Romans 1:18) and we are sinners who are guilty before Him (Romans 3:23, Isaiah 64:6; Jeremiah 17:9). But God has provided a way for our sins to be forgiven in the sacrifice of Jesus Christ (1 Peter 1;18,19, Colossians 2:13,14; Isaiah 6:6,7) for those who put their faith in Him (Ephesians 2:8,9; Romans 4:4,5; Philippians 3:9). And this becomes a basis for rejoicing in the great things God has done for us (Philippians 4:4; Psalms 100:1-5; Romans 14:17). But there is still a place for us to recognize the greatness and holiness of God and to live in light of that (1 Peter 1:13-17; 2 Corinthians 7:1; Hebrews 12:28,29). As C. S. Lewis said, perfect love casts out all fear, but so do ignorance, alcohol, passion, presumption, and stupidity. We must beware of having our fear removed by an inferior agent.
This is a delicate balance, obtained with difficulty. There is a danger of going so far in seeing Jesus as our good buddy that we forget that He is Lord of the universe. But there is also a danger of seeing God as a stern schoolmaster and forgetting His love for us. But I do not think the correct way to guarantee the right attitude is a strict, formal approach. People are different and approach God differently, but I do not think any one approach solves all the problems.
He is not to us a God far off, with whom we have no immediate concern; but a God who is not far from any of us, in whom we live, move, and have our being, who numbers the hairs of our head, and without whose notice a sparrow does not fall to the ground.
Charles Hodge, 1797-1878, Systematic Theology, Vol 1, Chapter III, 2, A (Eerdmans Printing Company, 1982, pp. 35,36)
Why is the nearness of God important? How should we live in light of it?
I love a good mystery. I grew up on Agatha Christie and Erle Stanley Gardner. So I would like to look at one of the greatest mysteries of all time: the resurrection of Jesus Christ. Let us start by looking at the suspects. The first suspect is Jesus of Nazareth Himself; maybe He rigged His own death. Or there were his disciples; perhaps they stole the body. Or perhaps they had hallucinations or mystical experiences which caused them to believe in the resurrection even though the body had not been moved. Or perhaps the authorities themselves hid the body to prevent it from being stolen. Or there could have been some accident, some confusion of tombs or the mistaken involvement of some other party. Or maybe the culprits were later Christians who made up the story to bolster their faith. Let us compare the suspects with the facts.
Jesus was crucified. That He would undergo this, thinking He could somehow survive, is incredible. Even if He had a drug that allowed Him to fake death, the crucifixion and burial would have killed Him. What was His motive for doing this? But if His death was not intentional, why should the disciples stage an elaborate hoax rather than dismissing Jesus as one more failed messiah? What was their motive? If this was all invented after the fact, why? Why give your Messiah a shameful criminal’s death if it never happened? Why did no one check out the facts and expose the fraud?
They claimed the tomb was empty. How did Jesus or the disciples manage to pull this off? Why would they? What did they get out of it? If the tomb was not empty or there was no tomb, how did they convince people? The authorities had a vested interest in opposing this new faction. If the tomb was not empty or they knew there was no tomb, if there was some mistake or even if they themselves had hidden the body, they should have produced or explained the missing body and corrected the error. Hallucinations or mystical experiences might have convinced a few close followers, but without the empty tomb, would anyone else have taken them seriously? As for this being an idea that grew up later, then why did Christianity even exist without it, and why did no one notice they had changed their story?
People were dying for this belief. Nero was putting Christians to death within about thirty years of the resurrection. It is reported that most of the early Christian leaders died for their faith. This meant that by then Christianity was considered something worth dying for. It would not have been attractive for a swindler or charlatan.
But we come back to our first suspect. Could Jesus have chosen to undergo crucifixion, knowing full well that His message was true and He would in fact rise from the dead? And could it be He accomplished this? I conclude that this is the best solution to the mystery.
Blaming all our sins on the devil and his minions is a handy excuse. At least if, like me, you believe there is a devil. But does the Scripture uphold this type of idea, especially in terms of those who are believers in Christ? It says that Satan and his demons can tempt (2 Corinthians 11:1-3; 1 Corinthians 7:5; 1 Thessalonians 3:5), and they have traps and schemes to trip us up (Ephesians 6:11; 2 Corinthians 2:11; 1 Timothy 3:7). Certainly the world as a whole is strongly influenced by them ( Ephesians 2:2; 2 Corinthians 4:4; Hebrews 2:14;15). But Christ has been victorious over them, and we share in that victory (Colossians 2:15; 1 John 4:4; Romans 16:20). The ultimate problem that we have is the fifth column in our own soul, the part that wants to sin (James 1:13-15; Romans 7:14; Jeremiah 17:9). Therefore, while I believe it is helpful to know that we have an enemy that we need to be on guard against, we also need to recognize that, in the final analysis, we make our own choices and should not use Satan as an excuse.
How are faith and repentance involved in salvation? Are we required to have one or the other or both to be saved? Now there are a large number of verses in Scripture that promise salvation based on faith or believing (two forms of the same word in the Greek): (Ephesians 2:8,9; Romans 4:4,5; 3:28; John 3:16; 1:12; Philippians 3:9; 1 John 5:11-13). But repentance is also clearly mentioned (Acts 2:38; 17:30; Mark 1:15). How do these fit together? If repentance is an extra, added thing which is required beyond faith, it conflicts with the places which promise salvation based on faith and makes God appear to be a used car salesman who is trying to sneak in something in the fine print. How then are we to look at this?
Now faith is trust and reliance on the promises of God (Romans 4:16-21; Hebrews 11:13-16; 2 Corinthians 5:4-8). Particularly those relating to Christ and His death and resurrection (1 Corinthians 15:1-1; Romans 3:21,22; Acts 10:38-43). Included in this is the fact that we are sinners (Romans 3:23; Jeremiah 17:9; Isaiah 64:6) and that Jesus paid the price for our sins (1 Peter 2:24,25; Colossians 2:13,14; 2 Corinthians 5:21). It is in this context that repentance makes sense. It is recognizing that we are sinners and are guilty, and turning from sin to God for salvation. It is not making resolutions to change and reforming our lives. Salvation is not based on our works (Galatians 2:21; Titus 3:5,6; Romans 11:6), and without the work of God in our life we cannot do what God demands (John 15:5; Romans 8:8; 7:14). Now we are told that faith in Christ will lead to a life of obedience to God (James 2:14-26; 1:22 -24; Titus 2:11-14). But this is motivated by the love of God for what He has done for us (1 John 4:19; 2 Corinthians 5:14,15; Romans 12:1,2) and is brought about by God's work in us (2 Corinthians 3:18; Ephesians 2:10; Colossians 1:29).
It is important here to avoid extremes. Genuine faith does produce a change in the believer's life, and one needs to beware of presumption (Galatians 5:6; 2 Peter 2:7,8; 2 Corinthians 13:5), but the believer's life is not yet perfect; it is in the process of growth (Philippians 3:12-16; Galatians 5:17; Romans 7:15-25). And Scripture does offer a real assurance for those who have put their faith in Christ (1 John 5:11-13; 4:17-18; Romans 8:31-39). But we must avoid complacency and self-righteousness. And we must not let a misunderstanding of repentance sneak in a reliance on our works rather than Christ's work.
Every one of the popular modern phrases and ideals is a dodge in order to shirk the problem of what is good. We are fond of talking about "liberty"; that, as we talk of it, is a dodge to avoid discussing what is good. We are fond of talking about "progress"; that is a dodge to avoid discussing what is good. We are fond of talking about "education"; that is a dodge to avoid discussing what is good. The modern man says, "Let us leave all these arbitrary standards and embrace liberty." This is, logically rendered, "Let us not decide what is good, but let it be considered good not to decide it." He says, "Away with your old moral formulae; I am for progress." This, logically stated, means, "Let us not settle what is good; but let us settle whether we are getting more of it." He says, "Neither in religion nor morality, my friend, lie the hopes of the race, but in education." This, clearly expressed, means, "We cannot decide what is good, but let us give it to our children."
G. K. Chesterton, 1874-1936, Heretics, Chapter 2, On the Negative Spirit, (Barnes & Noble, 2007, p.13)
Do we tend to avoid the question of what is good? How can we approach the issue correctly?
It has been claimed that one of the problems with the present Evangelical church is that it is becoming simply another venue for entertainment. Is this indeed a bad thing, and if so how can it be avoided? Now I have no problem with trying to make teaching interesting. I have in the past used drama, object lessons, power point, and many other things to try to get my point across. But that is my goal: to get my point across. The whole point of Christian teaching is to get our point across. We have something to say we believe is worth saying. We need to communicate it in ways so that the people will be willing to hear us. But when we believe we can bring people in largely based on being entertaining, we make a serious error.
The Christian church cannot beat the world in the area of entertainment. We are a minority and do not have the resources to do so. We also do not have access to certain low roads to entertaining people that the world has no scruples about using. Also, entertainment is always looking for new things. Those who come for entertainment will leave for entertainment. But on a more basic level, majoring on entertainment can be or be perceived as a form of manipulation and trickery (2 Corinthians 2:17; 1 Thessalonians 2:3-6; 1 Corinthians 2:1-4). For Christianity requires real faith (Ephesians 2:8,9; Romans 4:4,5; Philippians 3:9) and real commitment (Romans 6:12-14; Matthew 16:24-26; Titus 2:11-14). This clearly goes beyond being a superficial observer to being those who are willing to be involved in living out what they believe (Ephesians 6:10-13; Romans 12:3-8; Hebrews 12:1-3). Now all this is futile without the power of God working in us (2 Corinthians 3:18; Ephesians 2:10; Colossians 1:28,29). But we are not called to mere passivity, but to trust God to do His work in our lives (Proverbs 3:5,6; Psalm 127:1,2; Hebrews 11:13-16).
This comes back again to being in the world and not of the world (Romans 12:1,2; 1 John 2:15-17; James 4:4). We need to meet people where they are, but to have a message that challenges them to leave there to follow Christ. We should not avoid looking for ways to communicate well. But we also cannot allow the message to be reduced to mere entertainment.
One thing that should put in perspective finding God's will is understanding the final outcome. For those who put their faith in Christ (Ephesians 2:8.9; Romans 4:4,5; Philippians 3:9), no matter what or how long the pathway, they will end up in presence of God ( Revelation 21:3-5; Psalm 16:11; John 14:1-3) and will be like Christ (1 John 3:2; Philippians 3:20,21; Romans 8:29,30). We are not sure if the way will be short or long, straightforward or convoluted, but He will bring us through. And we are told that no matter how hard the way, it will be worth it (Romans 8:18; 2 Corinthians 4:17,18; Acts 14:22). Now I do not want to disregard the need to make good decisions. But we need put this in perspective . God will ultimately bring us through, and that, rather than our making the right decisions in life, is our hope.
One of the dangers for any organization is that it can put promoting the organization over the purposes for which the organization exists. The Christian church is not immune to this tendency, which I call the machine mentality. We can put increasing the size and possessions of the organization over the reason for which the organization exists. I have written earlier of this concept on the organizational level. But here I want to deal with it on the personal level. How do we as individuals avoid being pulled into this way of thinking?
The primary thing we need to remember is what our purpose is. The purpose of the Christian church is to build up believers in the faith (Colossians 1:28,29; Ephesians 4:11-16; Romans 12:3-8) and to invite others to embrace the message of Christ (Matthew 28:18-20; Acts 1:8; 1 Peter 3:15). This should result in believers loving God and their neighbor (Matthew 23:36-40; Romans 13:8-10; 1 Corinthians 13:1-3) and reaching out to help others in a tangible way (1 John 3:17; Luke 10:25-37; Galatians 6:9,10). That is not necessarily the same thing as an increase in numbers and finances. But it is easy to confuse the two and to assume that because an church is growing organizationally, it must be growing spiritually. If often takes hard and careful thinking to distinguish these.
Therefore, as individuals we need to look carefully at our activities and involvements. We need to ask, is this carrying out God's purposes or merely furthering the organization? If we do this, we may find ourselves in conflict with those who see promoting the organization as paramount and expect people just to conform. There are some in leadership who may expect people just to conform. There are leaders who look for yes-men who simply affirm their agenda. Now there is a place to respect those in authority over us (Hebrews 13:17; 1 Thessalonians 5:12,13; 1 Timothy 5:17-20). There is also a point at the opposite extreme where we need to serve God rather than men (Acts 4:19,20; 5:29; Galatians 2:11-16). But there is a considerable space between these that calls for thoughtful, rather that mindless, obedience. And an attitude which looks beyond the mere welfare of the organization and sees its real purpose.
For Providence often permits the just man to encounter misfortune in order that he may reveal to others the virtue that lies concealed within him, as was the case with Job. At other times it allows something strange to be done in order that something great and marvellous might be accomplished through the seemingly strange act, as when the salvation of men was brought about through the Cross. In another way it allows the pious man to suffer sore trials in order that he may not depart from a right conscience nor lapse into pride on account of the power and grace granted to him, as was the case with Paul.
John of Damascus, Exposition of the Orthodox Faith, Book II, Chapter XXIX, (translated by Rev. S. D. F. Salmond, The Nicene and Post-Nicene Fathers, Philip Schaff and Henry Wace, T & T Clark and Wm. B. Eerdmans Publishing, 1997, Second Series, Vol. IX, p. 41)
Can tribulation be a benefit to the person honestly attempting to follow Christ? How?
We like to fit people and things into nice neat little boxes. We want them to be either totally for us or totally against us. Church history has a way of knocking down our nice clear boundaries and leaving us scratching our heads. There are many things that are admirable about John of Damascus. He was a Christian and willing to be known as a Christian in a Muslim country. He seems to have left a lucrative position as a servant of the caliph to become a monk and study theology. (I am not in favor of monasticism as an institution, but many who entered it had a genuine desire to follow God.) He was a key writer on theology and opposed the errors of his time, particularly the idea that Jesus was not fully human as well as fully God but was some sort of a mixture. He also had a strong view of grace, that salvation is from God and not something we deserve.
But John was also a strong supporter of the idea of serving (I would say worshiping) images. Nor was this a mere incidental part of his belief. This is the theological position he first wrote to defend. He claimed that the iconoclasts' view that images should be neither made nor served was based on a denial of the humanity of Christ. I suspect that underlying this was a strong respect for the traditional, whether good or bad. John of Damascus has not encouraged me to change my views on the service of images. I still cannot agree with the position. But it has made me more reluctant to dismiss someone simply because there is something I do not agree with him on. And I believe this is a good thing.
How do we help those who are hurting? And why are we often afraid to? I am convinced one of the reasons we often hesitate is that it hurts. When we sympathize with those who hurt, we suffer with them (Romans 12:15; 1 Corinthians 12:26,27; 2 Corinthians 11:26,29). As C. S. Lewis points out in his book "The Four Loves," if you love someone, even an animal, you risk being hurt. But the alternative is to have an heart of impenetrable stone, which is the exact opposite of what God is and what He wants us to be. We are called to be people who really care (Galatians 6:2; Romans 15:1-3; Hebrews 12:12,13). Therefore, to be willing to help the hurting, we need to trust God to work in us to make us able to reach out to people (2 Corinthians 3:18; Ephesians 2:10; Colossians 1:28,29). Then we will be imitators of Christ, who gave His life to save us (Philippians 2:3-11; 2 Corinthians 8:9; 1 John 3:16). But this can often be hard to do. It is easier to keep people at arms' length and mumble a few cliches. But it is what God commands.
We live in a culture that seems to thrive on being busy. The idea is that if we simply try harder, we will accomplish our goals. This concept creeps its way into the church.We think that if we simply work hard enough, we will accomplish the work of God. And that if we come up with enough clever strategies or impressive programs, we will be successful. And that if we follow the right methods and procedures, our congregations will grow in numbers; and that is the main goal. This is often based on the idea of promoting the organization, rather than promoting God's purposes. And the power of God and the character of the congregation can be seen as unimportant. But Scripture would direct us to rely on the power of God (Colossians 1:28,29; Matthew 16:18; 1 Corinthians 3:6,7). And the chief goal of this power is to change people from the inside (Galatians 5:16-23; 2 Peter 1: 3-9; Matthew 22:35-40).
Now this approach to running a church organization ends up loading people down with heavy burdens, which they are simply unable to bear. And it judges people based on the extent of outward activity. It often does this to Christians who are new in their faith and have not yet developed the spiritual foundation in their lives to stand up to this pressure. It sets people up for burnout and discouragement. It results in a Christianity which is superficial and external. The result is churches that send their time flogging dead horses. Trying to nag immature Christians into doing things they do not have the character to support. Also, when people with this mindset encounter people with the comfortable church mindset there is a major collision. It does not help that the frenzied doers are often leaders (they are after all more motivated), and the seekers of comfort are often those under the leaders. I am convinced that many of the conflicts in the present church are a result of these attitudes clashing.
Now I am not against activity. But I am convinced that activity should flow from the inner character of the person. When we try to promote activity for activity's sake, we are trusting in ourselves. But we need to trust in God and His power (Proverbs 3:5,6; Psalm 127:1,2; 37:3-6). And we need to see that what is important is what is in our hearts and not our external activities (1 Samuel 16:7; Romans 2:16; Matthew 23:25-28).