Thursday, September 30, 2010

Following the Pathway

The Christian life is likened to a battle (Ephesians 6:10-13; 2 Timothy 2:3,4) and to an athletic competition (Hebrew 12:1,2; 1 Corinthians 9:24-27). Advancement in that life is pictured as exercise (1 Timothy 4:7,8; Hebrews 5:14) and as a growth process (Colossians 2:19; 1 Corinthians 3:1-3). But this is not always a congenial message to Christians today. It seems sometimes we have become more interested in being comfortable in this world than in living for the next in an environment frequently hostile to this.

The Scripture makes it clear we are not to be comfortable in this present world (Romans 12:1,2; 1 John 2:15-17; James 4:4), but to see ourselves as pilgrims and sojourners here (1 Peter 2:11; Matthew 6:19-20; John 17:15). Now there are those who take this to an extreme, inventing unnecessary rules and strictures not sanctioned by Scripture (Colossians 2:20-23; 1 Timothy 4:1-5; Matthew 23:4), but this does not justify total capitulation to the standards of the world. Part of the problem, at least in the United States, is we live in a country where it used to be comfortable and respectable to be a Christian. The key words here are "used to be". We are now Christians in a pagan nation, and we need to accept it and rebuild from there; but we are unwilling to do so. Therefore, we look for some quick and easy way to go back to where we were as a nation. And there is none. I believe the main reason we do not see revival in this country is not that we do not pray (James 4:1,2); I believe many of us do pray. But I believe it is because we ask with the wrong motives (James 4:3), so that we may go back to being comfortable. (I do believe in every prayer there is the question of the will of God; see 1 John 5:14,15, but to the extent the problem is with us, it is here I believe it lies.)

One of the things that stands in our way here is the idea of a magic formula that will provide instant spirituality or power for ministry. Now I do not want to minimize the need for the power of the Holy Spirit in our lives. But that working is not pictured as a quick fix, but a process in which God works in us to transform us (2 Corinthians 3:18, Philippians 2:13; Galatians 5:16). God also works in us to accomplish His purposes in the world (Ephesians 2:10; Colossians 1:29; 2 Corinthians 3:5,6), and He will produce the results He desires (Matthew 16:18; 1 Corinthians 3:6-8; Psalms 127:1,2).

So our journey through this world is not an easy sail over a calm, placid lake. Rather, it is like a river run, full of rapids and rocks, possible dangers. But we must trust our Guide, who knows every stone and bend of the river and has promised to bring us through to the desired haven (John 16:33).

Tuesday, September 28, 2010

Who Should Evangelize?

Who should do the work of evangelism? And where should it be done? One view would see the pastor as being the evangelist and the place as the church building. Others would see it as the duty of every believer everywhere. What does the Scripture teach?

While Scripture is very clear about the necessity of evangelism (Matthew 28:18-20; Luke 24:47; Romans 10:14) and about the content of the message preached (Galatians 1:8,9; 1 Corinthians 15:1-11; 2 Corinthians 11:1-4), it does not go into details on how it is to be done. I believe this is to give us a degree of flexibility in how we do it. But we are all called to be able to explain what Christ has done for us (1 Peter 3:15; Colossians 4:5,6; Acts 1:8). Therefore, every believer is required to be involved in evangelism. However, in Scripture there were individuals who God especially called to an evangelistic ministry (Acts 2:14; 6:8-10; 8:5-8; 13:1-3). This was both through preaching (Acts 8:4,5; 13:5) and one on one (Acts 8:26-39; 13:6-12) in many different contexts.

But there is little Biblical basis for claiming all pastors have this calling. The two positions are listed separately (Ephesians 4:11), and the duty of the pastor seems to be that of shepherding the sheep (1 Peter 5:1-4; 1 Timothy 3:2; 2 Timothy 2:2). Now the two may sometimes be both found in one man (note Peter and Paul in the previous verses). But I see no basis for expecting it in general. Further, Timothy is told to do the work of an evangelist (2 Timothy 4:5), but at most this shows pastors should do their part in evangelism. Now the pastor does have a responsibility to see that those under his charge understand the gospel (Acts 20:27, Matthew 28:20; 2 Timothy 2:2) and are able to communicate it to others. But the whole burden of evangelism should not fall on the pastor.

Now those with a special calling for evangelism should encourage others to be involved in evangelism in their own ways (Hebrews 10:24). But if we do not remember that people differ in their gifts (Romans 12:4,5), it can have the opposite effect. The person who is not as gifted in evangelism may become discouraged, not being able live up to the example of those who are. And the natural evangelists may come to look down on those who do not have the zeal they do. And instead of complimenting each other, they may end up at loggerheads. Now we cannot simply accept excuses such as, "It is not my gift," to avoid any involvement in evangelism. However, we must also value every person's contribution in the area, even if it is more subtle and in the background. But we must all of us ask how we may come to better serve God in this and every other area (Hebrews 12:1,2; Philippians 3:12-16).

Thursday, September 23, 2010

The Power of the Assumed Belief

One of the great opponents of Christianity from ancient times into the Middle Ages was Neo-Platonism. Not only did many intellectuals embrace it, but there was a tendency for Christians to compromise with it. The ironic thing is not only does it now have little attraction, but few even know what it was. But once it seemed the obvious way to understand the world.

A similar viewpoint in our modern culture is what C. S. Lewis called the myth of evolution. This does not refer primarily to the scientific theory (though I am not willing to make as ironclad a distinction between the two as Lewis does), but to a worldview that is older than the biological theory. It goes back through Keats and Wagner to the German idealists, such as Hegel. (It has been suggested it goes back further through Jacob Bohme to alchemy.) It fit with the atmosphere of the revolutionary age and the industrial revolution. It continues to find current advocates, such as Gene Roddenberry and Arthur C. Clarke. It should be noted that, as a theory in biology, it began with Buffon, Lamarck, and Erasmus Darwin before Charles Darwin came up with a mechanism for it.

In our normal experience, things left to themselves decay and fall apart. Yet this worldview assumes it is normal for things to get gradually better over time. One of the things that justifies this is the technological revolution, where we constantly see new, better models succeeding the old. But this was brought about by deliberate planning and effort and did not just happen. (Growth of living things has sometimes also been used as a proof here, but this is a cycle, the new immature animal or plant coming from a mature one.)

All of this, of course, does not prove evolution as a biological theory is false. But something that arises so naturally out of the philosophy of the time is at least suspect. Steven Jay Gould once wrote that one of the chief reasons he advocated evolution was that it not only made biology make sense and consist in more than a system for classifying animals, but it also had applications in many other disciplines. But it is questionable to apply a concept in a wide variety of areas without any justification or mechanism. Also, people once believed that heavenly bodies were a series of ascending spheres. And each of these spheres had their own meaning and their influence on the earth. Compare this to the idea that there is a batch of stars out there, possibly with planets going around them, and our sun is one of them. And we can generally classify them and trace their life cycle and note the larger groups they are a part of. Does it not seem a shame to trade something with such deep significance for something so mundane? But it is the mundane view that is correct. And just because something captures the imagination does not make it true.

Tuesday, September 21, 2010

Considering the Trinity

Sometimes Christians can become embarrassed about the Trinity. They have a hard time explaining it to those who want a God they can understand. But not only is the Trinity a fundamental truth of the Christian faith, it is a clear vindication of that faith. We would expect God to be, not only beyond our understanding, but beyond our understanding in ways we would not guess. The Trinity fits that bill. The idea of a God who is three in one at the same time is not something a human being would have come up with. If we look at man-made gods, we find they all make sense, perhaps a little too much sense. They look man-made. The Trinity, by its very mysteriousness, is an argument for the truth of Christianity.

It is also necessary for understanding other aspects of Christian truth. We affirm God is love (1 John 4:16). But to love is to love someone. A solitary God may be good, He may be merciful, but He cannot be love. But a triune God can have love as a basic part of His nature (John 17:23,24). A solitary God can be austere or indulgent (Among those who hold to a solitary God you will find both), but He cannot be loving. Also, fundamental to the gospel is that Christ paid the price for our sins (1 Peter 2:24,25; Colossians 2:13,14; 2 Corinthians 5:21) and we are declared righteous in the sight of God based on it (Philippians 3:8,9; Romans 3:21,22; 4:4,5). This requires someone to make the sacrifice and someone to whom the sacrifice is made (Hebrews 9:14; Revelation 5:9,10; 1 Peter 1:18,19; Ephesians 5:2). God must be both at once. Also, while it is not strictly necessary, it fits to have God inside us as another person to regenerate us (Titus 3:5; John 3:5-8; 1:12,13) and transform us (2 Corinthians 3:18; Galatians 5:16; Philippians 2:13). So it is the Trinity that makes redemption make sense.

How then do we explain this difficult idea? We must start by explaining that God is beyond human understanding (Romans 11:33; Isaiah 55:8,9, 1 Corinthians 3:18,20). But this is what we would expect of the real God. If we cannot understand something as ordinary as light, which scientists tell us exists as particles and waves at the same time, how can we expect to understand God? But the Trinity can be broken down to five basic statements. There is one God (Isaiah 43:10; 44:8; 1 Timothy 2:5; James 2:19). The Father is God (John 17:3; 1 Corinthians 8:6; Ephesians 4:6; Luke 10:21). The Son is God (Hebrews 1:8; John 1:1; 20:28; Philippians 2:6). The Spirit is God (Acts 5:3,4; 1 Corinthians 3:16; 2:10,11; 2 Corinthians 3:17). All three exist at the same time (Matthew 3:16,17; John 14:16; 12:27-30; Matthew 26:39). I have found that it helps to ask a person which of these they disagree with and proceed from there. But to deny these is to deny the only true God.

Thursday, September 16, 2010

Do Not Forbid

In 1 Corinthians 14:39 it says, "do not forbid to speak in tongues." Can this be reconciled with the contention that tongues have passed away? The standard answer is that this applies to the genuine gift of tongues, which has passed away, and all current claims to tongues are spurious. But this will only work if it is proven categorically that tongues have indeed passed away.

God can change His way of doing things, as He did in the transition between the Old and New Testament (Hebrews 10:9-18; Colossians 2:16,17; Mark 7:19). But these changes are clearly commanded. Has God ever clearly taught that certain spiritual gifts will pass away? Now 1 Corinthians 13:8-13, when taken in the straightforward, obvious way, would refer to the coming of Christ, when we will know as we are fully known. It is also argued that the verb used here for tongues means "cease of itself" (1 Corinthians 13:8). But since it does not say when, it may allow for the possibility that tongues have passed away but does not prove it. It is claimed from 1 Corinthians 14:21 that tongues were a sign to the Jew and have therefore passed away. But this idea, which is nothing more than an inference from this verse, only works if can be shown that tongues are confined to a clearly-defined Jewish period of the church. This is more than this verse is able to bear. Hebrews 2:3,4 says miracles were used to attest to the Word of God. But to say that their only use was to attest to the Word of God when it was being written and that they would vanish once it was finished is reading more into this passage than is there.

One question that arises is whether the canon is closed, but this relates directly only to two spiritual gifts, apostleship and prophecy, and tying other gifts to them does not seem to be justified Scripturally. (There is dispute over these two gifts, as to what may be involved in them, but that is another subject.) Also, there is not a clear-cut argument from Scripture for the close of the canon. (Ephesians 2:20 & Revelation 21:14 are the best, but are hardly inarguable.) In my experience, the best approach to those who claim to add to Biblical revelation is to apply the Scriptural tests, the chief of which is, Does their teaching accord with the teachings of Scripture? (Galatians 1:8,9; Jude 3; Isaiah 8:20). I have not found anyone who stacks up to these tests.

I am not at all suggesting we should blindly accept everyone who claims to have a spiritual gift. Rather, we are commanded to put things to the test (1 Thessalonians 5:21; 1 John 4:1; Acts 17:11). Also, Scripture clearly teaches that not every believer is to possess every spiritual gift (1 Corinthians 12:27-30). But while it may be more convenient to dismiss the whole thing out of hand, I do not see a Scriptural basis for doing so.

Thursday, September 9, 2010

Violating the Laws of Nature

Miracles have been held to be impossible because they are violations of the laws of nature. But the laws of nature are generalizations about how things happen if nothing interferes. If I jump out of an airplane at a high altitude, the law of gravity will cause me to accelerate until I reach terminal velocity, which, when I hit the ground, will result in my death. But if I am wearing a parachute and open it, I will have prevented this. Have I violated the laws of nature? No, it is the laws of nature which say that if I do something to change the original situation, I will get a different outcome.

The real question in terms of miracles is whether there is a God beyond nature who created the laws and can interfere with them to accomplish His purposes. We are to obey the traffic laws. Unless there is a policeman there directing traffic. However, whether there is a policeman there cannot be predicted by the traffic laws. But even if God was subject to the laws (something I would categorically deny), could not an all-powerful, all-knowing God, working within the laws, produce what would to us be miracles? If human beings, with their limited ability, working within the laws can put people on the moon and fly through the air, could not a God of unlimited power turn water into wine?

It has been claimed that people in earlier times were ignorant of the laws of nature and that is why they believed in miracles. But miracles presume an understanding of the laws of nature. If you do not know how things normally happen, how can you spot the exception? When Joseph found his fiancee was pregnant, he decided to divorce her (Matthew 1:18-25). He knew where babies come from, and he thought he knew where this baby came from. It took another miracle, a visit from an angel, to convince him otherwise. If people had thought it was normal for a man to lift his hand and calm the sea, they would not have said, "What kind of a man is this, that even the winds and the sea obey Him?" (Matthew 8:23-27). If they had thought resurrections from the dead were normal, they would not have first doubted Christ's and then responded, "My Lord and my God!" when it was proven (John 20:24-29). One of the first objections made against Christianity was by the physician Galen. He said that miracles were violations of the laws of nature. To claim that miracles were accepted because no one had the idea of the laws of nature does not stack up historically.

The real truth is that the idea of miracles is not really in conflict with our science but with our philosophy. We want to believe that we, individually and corporately, are in control of our lives, and the idea that there might be someone who could interfere does not fit in with our plans. But does this mean it is not true?

Tuesday, September 7, 2010

How Far Should We Accommodate the Unsaved?

How far should we go to accommodate the unsaved? To what degree should we order our worship so they can feel comfortable? And if we do not, are we failing in carrying out Christ's mandate to reach the lost? Now Scripture does teach we are to reach out to those who need to know God (1 Corinthians 9:19-23; Matthew 9:10-13; Luke 19:10). But it also says not to be conformed to the world (Romans 12:2; 1 John 2:15-17; James 4:4). You can be so concerned about about being defiled by the world that you are afraid to do what God commands you to do (Colossians 2:20-23; Luke 7:39; 1 Timothy 4:1-5). But you can also smooth the way into the church so much you multiply false converts (Matthew 7:21-23; 2 Timothy 4:3,4; 1 John 2:19). How do we avoid these extremes?

Now I do not believe the basic issue is that of predestination (Ephesians 1:4-6). We are, whatever we hold on that, commanded to reach out to those who are lost and to do the job well (Matthew 28:18-20; 1 Peter 3:15; 2 Timothy 2:10). (Though a belief in predestination may help prevent a person from panicking and adopting some particular approach to evangelism out of desperation.) The question is, what does doing the job well involve?

We are commanded not to change the message (Galatians 1:6-10; 1 Corinthians 2:1,2; 15:1-11). It is one thing to try to communicate it in terms people can understand; it is another to make it over into something they will like. While holding to the truth, we need to reach out to others in love (Colossians 4:5,6; 2 Timothy 2:24-26; Galatians 6:10). But loving a person does not mean you do not tell them any hard truths. Suppose I am walking by a house at night and see there is a fire starting at one end. I knock on the bedroom window and those inside tell me to go away and leave them alone. Am I really being loving to listen to them and walk away and leave them? This is not genuine love.

But the application of these principles to practical situations can be difficult. It is clear we are not to disobey God's commandments in an effort to reach people (1 Samuel 15:22). But we need to ask if we are holding on to traditions that exclude people (Matthew 15:8,9), perhaps even with the intention of keeping out those we feel uncomfortable with. But the gospel is by its nature a confrontation (1 Corinthians 1:18-25), and we cannot expect to slowly edge people into Christianity with no sense of boundaries crossed. Much less can we expect manipulation to do anything but make false converts (1 Thessalonians 2:3-5). And ultimately, we must remember it is God's power, not our clever methods, that does His work, and that is what we must trust in (1 Corinthians 3:6,7; Matthew 16:18; Psalms 127:1,2).

Thursday, September 2, 2010

Hardheaded Grace

We live in an age of sloppy, sentimental grace. This is true both on a secular and Christian level. The idea is if we'll just be nice and accept each other, we will all get along and all our problems will vanish. There is even frequently an implication that under these conditions we will all automatically become better people and follow God. But it does not really work out that way. There is then a tendency to react and to compensate by advocating strict legalism. To see the goal as strictly observing the rules, so everyone who gets out of line must be immediately condemned. Is there another option?

The place we need to begin with is that we are sinners (Romans 3:23; Isaiah 64:6; Jeremiah 17:9), and grace is God acting to save us in spite of that (Romans 5:6-8; 1 Peter 2:24,25; 1 Timothy 1:15). Further, even after we are saved we are still imperfect people (Philippians 3:12-14; 1 John 1:8-10; Galatians 5:17), and not all those who claim to be saved are saved (Matthew 7:21-23; 13:36-43; 1 John 2:19). Also, we have an enemy that is out to destroy us (1 Peter 5:8,9; Ephesians 6:10-13; 2 Timothy 2:24-26). Therefore, the idea that we can be safe and comfortable and not have to face any challenges, individually or corporately, is not realistic. We are sinful people living in a sinful world, and we can expect conflict.

Because of this we need grace not less, but more. But it cannot be a vague emotional type of grace, but hardheaded grace that faces reality. It must be a grace that reaches out to help and correct those who need help and correction. But it must do so with the realization of the imperfections of the people we are dealing with. It must be hardheaded but not hardhearted, compassionate but not naive. This is hard, but it reflects what God commands in Scripture (Ephesians 4:15; Galatians 6:1; Jude 22,23; Hebrews 12:12,13). It is much easier just to write people off or accept them no matter how they behave. But we are called to represent the God who sent His Son to save those who were hostile to Him (Romans 5:10), but would not just wink at sin, requiring it be paid for (Romans 3:24-26). We need to reflect that kind of grace.

Even for Christians, God is not willing to just let down the standard to accommodate our failings. After we are saved He calls us to live for Him (Ephesians 2:10; Titus 2:11,12; Romans 12:1,2) and provides us with the power to do so (2 Corinthians 3:18; Philippians 2:13; Colossians 1:28,29). Nonetheless, He deals with us based on our position in His grace (Romans 8:15; 5:1,2; 14:4). We need to behave the same way, not simply excusing sin but doing everything we can to bring people back to the right path.