But some one will say, If the Divine substance is incomprehensible, why then dost thou discourse of these things? So then, because I cannot drink up all the river, am I not even to take in moderation what is expedient for me? Because with eyes so constituted as mine I cannot take in all the sun, am I not even to look upon him enough to satisfy my wants? Or again, because I have entered into a great garden, and cannot eat all the supply of fruits, wouldst thou have me go away altogether hungry?
Cyril of Jerusalem, Catechetical Lectures, Lecture VI, 5, (translated by Edwin Hamilton Gifford, Nicene and Post-Nicene Fathers, Philip Schaff and Henry Wace, T & T Clark and Wm. B. Eerdmans Publishing, 1996, Second Series, Vol. VII, p. 34)
How far can we understand God? Where should we draw the limits?
Are James and Paul at war? And if
not, how do we reconcile them? To start, we must beware of explaining either of
them so as to explain them away. Further, we must ask what each writer was
saying in context. Paul in Romans is giving a general exposition of the
Christian faith to a church with many people he did not know. Paul in Galatians
is writing to a church in danger of adopting the idea of salvation by works.
James is writing a letter to those who claim to be Christians, but whose lives
deny it. They are withholding the pay of their workmen (James 5:1-6), showing
favoritism to the rich (James 2:1-13), and refusing to help other Christians in
need (James 2:15,16). Paul in his general exposition states that we are saved
by faith in Christ, apart from anything we can do to earn it (Romans 3:21-31;
4:1-25; 10:1-15). In Galatians he opposes those who believe works are required
for our salvation (Galatians 2:14-21; 3:1-29; 5:1-6). Surely Paul means what he
says and should not be just explained away. But what about James?
James is not saying that we are
saved by works or by faith plus works, but a genuine saving faith results in
good works (James 1:18-27; 2:14-26; 5:1-6). He is not telling people how to be
saved, but is rebuking those who are claiming they are saved--and their lives
contradict it. This, far from disagreeing with Paul, wholly agrees with him
(Romans 6:1-23; 8:1-13; Galatians 5:13-26). James says faith without works is
dead (James 2:17). He does not say it is not enough, but clearly implies there
is something wrong with the faith. It is a contrast between a faith that
affirms intellectual facts (James 2:19) and one that trusts in God’s promises
(Romans 4:16-22; Hebrews 11:13-16; 2 Corinthians 5:7). Also, we have the
example of Abraham (James 2:21-23). Now God said that He reckoned Abraham
righteous in Genesis 15:6, at least 13 years before Isaac was born (Genesis
16:16-17-1). But the offering of Isaac is recorded in Genesis 22 when Isaac was
at least old enough to carry wood and ask questions. God, who sees the heart,
said that Abraham had the faith to be saved, but this faith had the result of
works in Abraham’s life. We cannot scam God; He knows if we mean it (Romans
2:16; Hebrews 4:12,13; 1 Timothy 5:24,25). We also have the example of Rahab, who
was a prostitute, but in spite of her past life demonstrated her faith by
hiding the spies.
Now we need to be careful here. The
Scripture does teach we can have a genuine assurance of salvation (1 John
5:11-13; Romans 8:34-39; John 10:27-30). We should not set the bar so high that
no honest person can believe they are saved. But we need to seriously ask the
question, is there a real work of God in my life? And if not, I need to ask if
I have genuine faith.
The next quality of love in 1 Corinthians 13 is that it is not provoked. Provoked is a rare word in the New Testament and can be used in a good sense (Hebrews 10:24; Acts 17:16). It seems to have the basic idea of to react, as to a strong smell. In 1 Corinthians 13 it clearly speaks of simply reacting to things, generally in anger. I have found it is frequently very easy to put my mouth in motion before I put my brain in gear. In this, it helps to trust God and believe He can help me deal with the difficulties I face in life (Proverbs 3:5,6; Psalms 37:3-7: 127:1-2). It also has helped me, whenever possible, to delay answering until I have time to think about my answer. Sometimes it is best to just keep silent (Proverbs 17:28; 21:23; 15:28). But the bottom line is that love considers the welfare of the other person above our own (Philippians 2:3-11; Matthew 7:12; Romans 15:1-3). This is often hard to remember when dealing with another person, especially if they are genuinely behaving badly (which is known to happen). But we need to trust God to empower us not to react in the immediate moment (2 Corinthians 3:18; Galatians 5:16; Philippians 2:13).
The traditional American ideal is
rugged individualism. But the Bible pictures the Christian church as a body
(Romans 12:4,5; 1 Corinthians 12:12-27; Colossians 2:19). A body is made up of
different parts that are intimately connected and work together as a whole. Now
this stands in contrast, not only to traditional individualism, but to the
modern idea that reduces everyone to replaceable cogs in the impersonal machine
of society. Rather, the picture we are given is that each part is different and
each part is important. Now it is true that we are all to be conformed to the
image of Christ (Romans 8:29; 2 Corinthians 3:18; Colossians 3:10), but that
image can express itself in different ways through different people. Consider
the writers of Scripture; God used them to write His Word, but He did it
through their various personalities. A good picture of this is a stained glass
window. It is made of many different sizes and colors of pieces of glass. But
it is only when the light shines through that the picture emerges. In the same
way, it is only when Christ works through our lives that we become the full
expression of what God wants us to be.
Now I do not want to give the
impression that what is produced when Christ works through us is merely the
expression of the unique individuality that we already possess. Rather, as C.
S. Lewis points out in “Membership” (in The Weight of Glory), our identity in
the body of Christ is not a matter of who we are but of what God is making us
into (Ephesians 4:15,16; 2:10; Philippians 3:12-16). In some cases this process
may actually involve cutting away things we regard as vital (Matthew 5:29,30)
in order to be made into the person God wants us to be.
But the one thing that is clear is
if we are to become a body we must do it together. The Christian life is not
something I am to go alone. This would be like seeing a disconnected eye or
hand walking around by itself. Nor is the community there to serve my
individualist purposes, but we are there to accomplish the goals of the head.
Now each part of the body will, by being part of the body, have its real needs
met. But when one part puts its selfish desires before the good of the whole
body, it becomes destructive. We are admonished in Scripture to promote the
unity of the body by putting others before ourselves (Philippians 2:1-11;
Ephesians 4:1-6; Romans 12:9-21). But the result of this should be a community
where we learn and grow together. Now I know from personal experience that the
Christian church is not a perfect place with perfect people. (We are not going
to see that this side of Glory.) But we are commanded by God to unite together
with all our imperfections as His people that we might together accomplish His
purpose in the world.
For all the heads of true doctrine are not in the same position. Some are so necessary to be known, that all must hold to them to be fixed and undoubted as the proper essentials of religion; for instance, that God is one, that Christ is God, and the Son of God, that our salvation depends on the mercy of God, and the like. Others, agai,n which are the subject of controversy among the churches, do not destroy the unity of the faith; for why should should it be regarded as a ground of dissension between churches, if one, without any spirit of contention or perverseness in dogmatizing, hold that the soul on quitting the body flies to heaven, and another, without venturing to to speak positively as to the abode, holds it for certain that it lives with the LLord?
John Calvin, 1509-1564, Institutes of the Christian Religion, Book IV, Chapter 1, 12, (translated by Henry Beveridge, Wm. B. Eerdmans Publishing, 1975, Vol. II, p. 291).
How do unnecessary things become a cause of division in the Christian church? How could this be avoided?
Joan Pratchett, a report for the Globe, turned away, nauseated, from the rape/murder across the room. She wondered why the police had asked her here.
"What killed her?" she asked the Detective Thompson, who had led her in. "There's not a mark on her."
"We don't know," replied Thompson. "The heart just seems to have stopped. But that's not the worst part. The man next door heard a crash, came rushing over here and found the front door locked. When no one answered his knocks, he called the police. When we got here, there was no one in here but the body."
"Then how did the killer get out?"
Thompson led her to an open bedroom window. Outside was a seven-floor drop.
"An expert rock climber?" she suggested.
"No, we interviewed the people in the area. And this is what we got."
He handed her a photograph showing a man standing in thin air.
"Recognize him?" asked Thompson.
"Yes," she said. "He was that man I interviewed a few months ago. He claimed he was working on a process that would produce a connection between all living things. He thought if this power could be tapped, it could do incredible things. He wanted to use it for the good of all mankind.
"We need to ask you to do something very dangerous. We want you to do a follow-up interview. We will have you rigged with a concealed microphone. We need to see if he has developed this connection and what it can do. There have been other crimes recently which are seemingly impossible. Along with rapes, there were thefts of rare art objects, not easy to fence.They may all be by this same guy. Are you willing to take the risk?"
She glanced back at the woman dead on the bed. "Okay," she said weakly. "I'm willing."
She walked up to the house slowly, trying to appear confident. She reminded herself that the police were listening and had promised to come to her aid if something went wrong.
"Come in, Ms. Pratchett," he said.
"Thank you, Dr. Liverpool," she responded. "I appreciate your granting me this interview. I wanted to follow up on how you were doing with your research."
He led her into a posh living room full of expensive furniture. Around the room were various expensive looking objets d'art. Joan wondered if they might be the ones that had been stolen. The way young man looked at her was unnerving.
"As a matter of fact, I have had some success," began the young man. He opened his sports coat to show around his waist a strange-looking wide belt with various pieces of electronic circuitry on it and a complicated-looking box in the front. "This is my new invention, the connector, which connects me into all living things."
"What can it do?"
He lifted his hands, and various small objects began to float around the room. "I want to use this power for the good of mankind, and I was wondering if you would be willing to help me with the publicity."
"I'm not sure..." Joan began.
"Oh, come now. Surely we can come to some kind of understanding. Besides, that microphone you're wearing is no longer working."
"I need to think about this."
"Oh, don't be shy. you do want to make love to me, don't you?"
"There is nothing I would like less," she blurted out.
"Come, come, be reasonable. We don't want to have to do this the hard way, do we?"
Joan remembered vividly the body of the young woman she had seen earlier. Just then the picture window shattered and the police rushed in. The first officer was thrown against the wall, and the rest began to fire.
Joan shouted, "The belt, get the belt." Three bullets converged on the box in the front. It exploded in a shower of sparks.
She entered his hospital room, knowing he was not expected to make it.
"What happened?" Joan asked. "You said you wanted to help humanity."
"I thought I did, but I was fooling myself. I tapped in into all living things, but that included both good and evil. While the lower beings were. I think, neutral, humans were really conflicted. There was good there, but there was a fundamental evil, a self-centeredness that tainted even the good. There seemed to be some source of good, but it was far away and I could not tap into it. But the biggest problem was me. I found I was not as good as I thought I was. The lure for power, to gratify every urge was just too great."
As the hospital chaplain entered the room, Joan hurried out, tears streaming down her face.
How do we deal with the idols in our
lives? If we rightly understand what idols are, we will realize that we all
have them. Whatever we put in our lives before God is an idol (Colossians 3:5;
Romans 1:23; Matthew 22:37). How do we deal with them? We could focus on the
obviously bad things that people make idols in their lives. Things like
alcohol, drugs, pornography, and gambling. But the Scripture says that even
otherwise good things put before God are wrong (Luke 14:26; Matthew 6:24; 1
Corinthians 10:31). Nor should we react by going to the opposite extreme and
attempt to avoid any and all pleasures, with the idea that this will keep us
from idolatry (Colossians 2:20-23; 1 Timothy 4:3,4; Titus 1:15,16). But finding
the right path between the two extremes can be difficult.
We need to start by putting Christ
first in our lives (Matthew 6:33; 16:24-27; Colossians 1:18). Now we cannot do
this on our own, but we need to look to God for His power to enable us to do
this (John 15:5; 2 Corinthians 3:18; Philippians 2:13). Further, we need to
base our actions on what Christ has done for us in dying on the cross to save
us (Romans 12:1,2; 1 John 4:19; 2 Peter 1:9). This should result in a pattern
of trusting God for every aspect of our lives (Proverbs 3:5,6; Psalms 127:1,2;
Hebrews 11:6). This is the real antidote for idolatry. For if we trust God for
our salvation, our growth in Him, and all the other aspects of our lives, then
we will have put Him first in our lives. But we need to be careful here. We do
not obtain faith in God by attempting to drum up a feeling of faith. We obtain
faith in God by understanding God and what He has done for us (Hebrews 12:2;
11:24-27; Romans 4:18-25). Now this does not happen all at once but is a
process (Philippians 3:12-16; 1 Timothy 4:7-9; Ephesians 4:11-16). Involved in
this process is God removing the idols from our lives. Now sometimes this can
be a painful process (Matthew 5:29,30). I do not take this passage as referring
to the literal cutting off of body parts, but to the willingness to get rid of
whatever is necessary from my life so I can follow God. Assisting in this
process is a focus on the basic disciplines of the Christian life, particularly
the Word of God (Hebrews 5:11-14; John 17:17; Psalms 119:9-11) and prayer (Ephesians
6:18; 1 Thessalonians 5:17,18; Philippians 4:6.7). But in the end it is a
matter of our choice. Are we willing to let God strip away the idols from our
lives? Or will we continue to cling to them in spite of what God has told us to
do. Removing the idols from our lives is a lifelong process. But it takes place
one step at a time. What idols do you need to give up?