Thursday, October 31, 2013

The Back Door

In the book 1984 by George Orwell, the protagonist (I will not say "hero") claims that freedom is being able to say that 2+2=4. Later, he is tortured and forced not only to say, but even to believe, that 2+2=5. The philosophical underpinning of this is that truth is relative and, especially given enough incentive, can be made to be whatever you want it to be. I am not a sufficient expert on the effects of torture to be able to say if such a result is possible, though it seems dubious. But even if it were true, it is self-refuting. For in order for the torture to work, it is required that there be one thing that is true, and true both for the torturer and the tortured. The existence of pain. If truth were really relative, there could be no existence of pain for both parties and therefore no torture.

This illustrates one of the fundamental problems in the idea of relative truth. In order not to be left in a vacuum in which knowing or even thinking is impossible, you have to smuggle truth back in the back door.
If you say the issue is not what is true but what works, then you are saying it is true that something works. There is also the question of, works to do what? Then you have to ask whether this is the true goal. Even if you say the goal is working to produce pleasure, you are saying that the fact something produces pleasure is true. You can say that what matters is what produces progress, but then you are saying it is true that something will produce progress. It also implies that you can identify what direction constitutes progress and can say that this is the true direction that real progress must take. I can say what matters is what is true for me, but that implies it is true that this particular thing is true for me. And how can I decide what is true for me if there are no true criteria to base it on? Or you can say that the important thing is to decide, but that implies, it is true I have decided this particular thing. And if truth is relative, why is it better to decide than not decide? Or we can try to appeal to custom, but this implies it is true we should follow what is customary, and it is true that certain things are customary. Or we can claim that life is absurd but we need to face it courageously. But if life is absurd, what difference does it make if I face it courageously or as a craven coward? It is only when I conclude that it is true that courage is a good thing that I can demand it in a difficult situation. And this is, of course, all nonsense, for if truth is relative, what I have written here is just meaningless shapes that have no significance at all.

The truth is, no one believes in relative truth. You cannot even believe it one second in real life. But people use it as an escape hatch when they find some issue (commonly theological or moral) that they do not want to face. But this really will not work, for once you let truth back into the universe, you have to deal with everything based on it. I may conclude there are things I do not know and cannot know. I may dismiss whole disciplines as false and exercises in futility. But relative truth leaves me with nothing.

Wednesday, October 30, 2013

The Magician's Bargain

Sometimes God's power is confused with magic. Magic is something we control and use to serve our purposes. God's power works in us to transform us (2 Corinthians 3:18; 2 Peter 1:3; Philippians 2:13) and to enable us to accomplish His purposes in the lives of others (2 Corinthians 3:5,6; Colossians 1:28,29; Ephesians 2:10). But He does it His way, to accomplish His purposes and according to His timing. But there is a danger of making Him into a giant vending machine that gives us what we want when we want it. And it is then we move in the direction of the magician and begin dabbling in magic. But we need to remember who is really the Lord and who are the servants.

Tuesday, October 29, 2013

A Clash of Methods

There is a continuing battle between different methods of sharing Christ with people. On the one side there are those who are for aggressive proclamation and who believe that those who do not engage in this kind of proclamation are not doing their job in terms of evangelism. There are others who take a more relational approach and say no one can reach anyone without a prior relationship. Both positions tend to stand on opposite sides, claiming the other way is totally unacceptable.  But as I read Scripture I find it hard to see any particular method legislated. And while I do find more examples of the more confrontational methods (speaking to large crowds for example), I  do not believe that an example constitutes a commandment. Also, I expect one of the reasons we see more of this approach is that Scripture tends to follow the high profile people who tend to use this approach.

It is clear that we need to avoid certain extremes. We are told to present Christ in a gentle manner, which precludes hostile attacks (1 Peter 3:15; 2 Timothy 2:24-26; Colossians 4:5,6). But Scripture also exhorts us to be bold and not timidly fearing men in our proclamation of  God's truth (Galatians 1:10; Ephesians 6:19; Acts 4:31). Also, the underlying motivation needs to be love for the people involved, not just a mechanical devotion to duty (Matthew 22:36-40; Galatians 5:13,14; Romans 13:8-10). But there is left a broad place between these two extremes which is open for debate. I am convinced there are various options open for different people to use different methods, depending on what is right for them. There are also different people who will be brought to Christ in different ways. There are those who need intellectual answers. There are those who need a friend, perhaps in the midst of difficult times. There are those who need direct assistance and are not open to listening until they receive it. Frequently we need to match the approach  to the person who needs it.

I am convinced that these different approaches depend on the spiritual gifts of individuals, along with their personalities and backgrounds (Romans 12:3-8; 1 Peter 4:10-11; 1 Corinthians 12:4-27). Therefore, if someone is a teacher they will try to explain the message so people will understand. An exhorter will encourage people to accept the message. Someone with the gift of service will try to do things for people. Whatever their gift, it can be exercised to bring people to Christ. Now we are called to be involved in helping others find the way to Him (Acts 1:8; Matthew 28:18-20; Luke 24:47). But to try to push everyone into the same box is a mistake. Particularly a box which may not be the one that is really appropriate for that person with their particular set of gifts. But we can all reach out together if we each do it the way God has led us to do it.

Monday, October 28, 2013

A Touch of Humor - Partygoers

Do we fear those different from ourselves? Should we try to overcome it? How?

Saturday, October 26, 2013

Old Erich Proverb - Works

If the ultimate standard is what works, then the question is, Works to do what?

Friday, October 25, 2013

The Voice from the Past - Charles Hodge

From the beginning to the end of the Bible the sacred writers present themselves in the character of witnesses. They demand faith in their teaching and obedience to their commands not on the ground of their superiority in wisdom or excellence; not on the ground of rational demonstration of the truth of what they taught, but simply as the organs of God, as men appointed by Him to reveal His will.

Charles Hodge, 1797-1878, Systematic Theology, Volume I, Theology, Chapter 3, Rationalism, 4, B, 5 (Wm. B Eerdmans Publishing, 1982, p. 47)

What does it mean to be a witness? How might that differ from a philosopher? What significance does this have?

Thursday, October 24, 2013

It Is Not Always Easy

It is not always easy to follow Christ. This sounds like something that should go without saying. But it is not. I am not here speaking of just the health and wealth gospel, though it is an extreme case. I am speaking of the more subtle atmosphere that gives the impression that if you become a Christian, you will always feel happy and satisfied with life. If you have trials, you will always come through them joyful and wearing a smiling face. This view may even concede that we will experience trials (John 16:33; 2 Corinthians 4:17,18; 1 Peter 4:12,13). It can accept that we are tempted to sin (1 Corinthians 10:12,13; James 1:13-15; 2 Timothy 2:22) and that we are in the midst of a state of spiritual warfare (Ephesians 6:10-13; 2 Corinthians 10:3-6; 1 Peter 5:8,9). It can admit that there is a growth process involved in progressing in the Christian life (1 Timothy 4:7,8; Philippians 3:12-16; Hebrews 5:11-14). But these can be seen as being incidental to an underlying attitude that is as hard to pin down as it is to refute.

God does promise us joy and peace (Philippians 4:4-7; Romans 14:17; 15:13). But I am not convinced that this is opposed to any real internal struggles. If we read Job or the Psalms, we see a record of people who honestly struggled with God and what He was doing in their lives. Jesus Himself knew struggles and sorrow when facing the cross ( Matthew 26:37,38; Luke 22:41-44; John 12:27). Paul spoke of his many struggles, both external and internal (2 Corinthians 4:7-12; 6:3-13; 11:21-29). And while there were some, such as Job and Joseph, who received ultimate vindication, there were those, like Jeremiah and Elijah, who saw no clear-cut end to their struggles in this life.

Now it is not my purpose to oppose the genuine joy and peace that is in God. But there is the danger of it becoming an artificial feeling that opposes an honest perception of the real world or our real hearts. Both Job and Habakkuk questioned God, and they were not struck by a lightning bolt; instead, God responded. No, the Christian life is not always easy. I am convinced it is the only thing that really makes sense of the world that is. But by making it a too easy answer, we can drive away those who see past the facade and are looking for reality.   

Wednesday, October 23, 2013

God's Leading and Our Experience

How does God lead us in our experience? And how do we know it is God? This can be a difficult thing. Especially as there are some who take it to extremes. There are those who react to this by going to the opposite extreme of claiming God only speaks in Scripture and that beyond that we must use our own common sense. I understand this position, as I used to hold to it. It seems somehow much safer. But while it prevents you from following wild impulses, it also makes human reasoning the ultimate arbiter of your behavior in every area where Scripture does not explicitly speak (Proverbs 3:5,6; Hebrews 11:27; 1 Corinthians 3:18). Now it is clear we should not follow our experience when it runs contrary to Scripture (Isaiah 8:20; Galatians 1:8,9; Jude 3). But the real problem comes if we feel God is leading us to do something that is not wrong, but is risky or impractical. I do not think we  should dismiss such things out of hand because they do not look practical. But I also think such things should be approached with great caution and prayer. It is easy to convince ourselves that we are following God when we are simply following our own impulses.

Tuesday, October 22, 2013

The Errors of Good Men

I have not been able to trace the statement, but it has been said, in regard to theology, that it is the errors of good men that are the most dangerous. The reason for this is that once a man comes to be considered a significant and valuable theologian, there is a tendency to accept everything he says, without evaluating whether he might be right in one area but wrong in another. While there is also a tendency to reject certain individuals across the board, thus limiting their influence. But  once a theologian is regarded as a good guy, there is a tendency to embrace all he says, without being careful to examine the arguments on both sides. That is not to say that we should not value the opinions of believers of the past. But we need to nonetheless look carefully at their position.

Now part of the problem with giving examples of this is that there are differences of opinion on who are the good men and what opinions are errors. But I will give a few examples from my own perspective. Ireneaus and Tertullian were thoughtful teachers, who wanted to protect the unlearned from false teaching. But by telling them to use whether someone could trace his descent from the apostles as a final criterion for judging his opinions, they laid the groundwork for apostolic succession. Martin Luther was a strong voice for the grace of God and an opponent to mindlessly following authority. But his idea that Christian doctrine was a round ring and that to be mistaken on any point was to be mistaken on all laid the foundation for the present divided state of the church. John Wesley was a great evangelist and an advocate of personal responsibility. But his teaching of perfectionism held out an unrealistic expectation for the Christian life, making it a serious struggle to try live up to it.

Now what I am arguing is not that we should ignore the teachings of the great leaders of the past. They can provide us with many useful ideas and the reasons for them. But we need to carefully examine their teachings and try to study out the issues for ourselves. We can and should use  listen to what they have to say. But we need to look at the basis of their positions and ask if they are true. So we do not simply repeat the errors of good men.

Monday, October 21, 2013

A Touch of Humor - The Burden of Membership

What does it mean to be a member of a church? Is it important for a Christian to be one?

Saturday, October 19, 2013

Old Erich Proverb - Power

Serving God is not about our competence, but His power.

Friday, October 18, 2013

A Voice from the Past - Matthew Henry

Those that faithfully follow the pillar of cloud and fire shall find that though it may lead them about it leads them the right way and will bring them to Canaan at last.

Matthew Henry, 1662-1714, Commentary on the Whole Bible, Proverbs III; III, 2 (Volume III, Fleming H. Revell Company, p. 802)

Is this true? Does it reflect our experience? Why or why not?

Thursday, October 17, 2013

That Transgression Might Increase

It says in Romans 5:20 that the Law came that the transgression might increase. This initially seems totally backwards. We want to think that if we preach the commandments of God, if we hold out high standards of moral behavior, then people will sin less. But we are told that there is something in us that rebels against the Law (Romans 7:4-25; 3:10-12; Jeremiah 17:9). It is easy to see this effect in the pure rebel. The person who takes the attitude, "No one can tell me what to do," and when told what to do immediately seems to want to do the opposite. (All of us have some of this inside us.) Yet we do find people who have a good, moral facade, who look good from the outside. How does this work in their case?

The general tendency, if you want to convince yourself that you are keeping the Law is that, like the Pharisees, you water down the Law so you can keep it. You emphasize tiny details and miss the main point (Matthew 23:23,24; 15:1-20; Isaiah 58:3-12). You emphasize looking good on the outside, but ignore the things of the heart (Matthew 23:25-28; 6:1-18; Mark 12:38-40). You come up with loopholes so you can get around having to fulfill the Law in strict terms ( Matthew 23:16-22; 15:3-6; 19:3-12). You forget that the basic concern of God's commandments is the attitude of the heart (Luke 10:25-37; Matthew 5:21-48; 7:12). C. S. Lewis describes this as treating God like the taxman. We try to give Him only what is clearly required and to keep enough for ourselves so that we can still live our life our way. This does not work. So even though it produces an outer veneer of morality, this view ultimately also ends up increasing transgression because it ends up offering only a distorted picture of what God really wants.

The only real solution is the gospel. Where transgression increases, grace abounds to cover it (Romans 5:20). God sent His Son to pay the price for sin (1 Peter 2:24,25; Colossians 2:13,14; 2 Corinthians 5:21), that we might be saved through faith in Him (Ephesians 2:8,9; Romans 4:4,5; Philippians 3:9). As a result, God is no longer the taxman, but we belong to Him totally (1 Corinthians 6:20; Titus 2:12-14; 1 Peter 2:9), and He begins to work in us to change us (2 Corinthians 3:18; Ephesians 2:10; Colossians 1:29). This change comes from a new attitude of love of God for what He has done for us (1 John 4:19; 2 Corinthians 5:14,15; Romans 12:1,2). This does not mean everything will be easy or automatic; there is a process involved (Philippians 3:12-16; Hebrews 5:12-14; 1 Timothy 4:7,8). But it does mean we do not have to kid ourselves into believing we are keeping the Law when we are not, or water down the Law so we can keep it. So that we can, being motivated by grace, actually change.  

Wednesday, October 16, 2013

Waiting on God

I do not like to wait. But while God promises answers to prayer (1 John 5:14,15; Matthew 7:7-11; 21:21-22), He requires us to wait on Him (Isaiah 40:31; Psalms 25:3-5; 37:3-9). We need to wait on God, for Him to do what He is going to do, in His way, in His timing. It is for this reason, I believe, that Scripture commends persistence in prayer (Luke 11:5-8; 18:1-8; 1 Thessalonians 5:17). It is not that God is unwilling and needs to be worn down, but He wants us to continue to trust Him and look to Him even when He does not immediately answer. Now I do not claim to know in every case why God answers some prayers and not others, and some immediately and others only after a long period. But I do know that He wants us to trust Him and wait for Him, even if the answer is not quickly forthcoming.

Tuesday, October 15, 2013

Washing Away Our Sins

One of the most disputed issues in the Christian church is baptism. What is meant to be an expression of faith (Acts 10:43-48; 16:30-34; 8:12) has become a source of contention. Now Scripture makes it clear that we are saved by faith in Christ (Romans 4;4,5; Ephesians 2:8,9; Philippians 3:9). But the standard outward expression of this faith is baptism. Therefore, it is identified with the faith as marking salvation (Acts 2:38; 22:16; 1 Peter 3:21). But the basis of salvation here is on the inward appeal of faith and not simply the outward form. Baptism by water is also closely identified with the baptism of the Spirit, the internal reality of which the outer form is an expression (1 Corinthians 12:13; Colossians 2:12; Romans 6:3-11) . Scripture generally knows nothing of an unbaptized believer. The one exception, the one that demonstrates it is the faith that saves, was due to compulsion (Luke 23:40-43)

God works in the lives of His people (2 Corinthians 3:18; Ephesians 2:10; Colossians 1:29). I am convinced that God works in our lives when we participate in His sacraments. But Scripture does not explicitly say it. I therefore conclude that what the ordinances do to us  is not the main issue. But neither are they just one more duty we have to fulfill. It is said of circumcision, though it applies to the other ordinances, that it was a sign and seal of faith (Romans 4:11). A seal is an outward mark of who we belong to. A sign is an outward expression, like a banner that goes before an army. Baptism is a seal and a declaration that we belong to God and His people. The Lord's Supper is said to be a reminder, a declaration, and an anticipation (1 Corinthians 11:23-26). The same principles apply to baptism. Therefore, the one who receives baptism in faith obtains the benefit of the sacrament. The issue is not the exact mode, particular theory, or person administering it; if that were the issue, God would have spelled it out.

Now if baptism is an expression of faith, I must reject infant baptism. Nowhere  in Scripture are we commanded to baptize infants, and to base this on vague references to households and the blessing of children is a stretch. God commands what He intends to command, and we are not to add to it (Deuteronomy 4:2: Proverbs 30:6; Matthew 15:7-9). Nor do I think an argument can be made from circumcision. There is a clear connection between the Passover and communion. But that does not mean we should only serve communion on the 14th day of the month Nisan. Now I do suspect that if someone has genuine faith and is simply confused about the nature of baptism, God reckons them as baptized (which does not mean I would not encourage them to be baptized properly). But we must beware of believing that just going through the motions of an ordinance without faith accomplishes anything (Romans 2:25-29; 4:10-12: Malachi 1:10).  

Monday, October 14, 2013

A Touch of Humor - Theological Dispute

Can we make a big deal over minor issues? How should we make these types of decisions?

Saturday, October 12, 2013

Old Erich Proverb - Corner

The Father did not send His Son to die for us, to have a place in the corner of our lives.

Friday, October 11, 2013

A Voice from the Past - Bunyan

(in the context of the allegory, a description of a character who argues against Christianity)

What! Why he objected against religion itself; he said it was a pitiful, low, sneaking business for a man to mind religion; he said that a tender conscience was an unmanly thing, and that for man to watch over his words and ways, so as to tie up himself from that hectoring liberty that the brave spirits of the times accustom themselves unto would make him the ridicule of the times. He objected also that few of the mighty, rich, or wise, were ever of my opinion; nor any of them neither, before they were persuaded to be fools, and to be of a voluntary fondness, to venture the loss of all, for nobody else knows what.

John Bunyan, 1628-1688, Pilgrim's Progress (edited by Roger Sharrock, Penguin Books, 1987, p. 65)

Do we meet the same kind of objections today? How might we respond to them?

Thursday, October 10, 2013

In This Sign

Captain Sam Robertson entered the control office of the world crisis center, where David Talltree, his night counterpart, sat in the midst of screens that reached round the world.

"What's come in tonight?" Robertson asked.

"Mostly the usual," replied Talltree stoically. "Gang violence in several cites, food riots in Geneva, but the big thing is, the imperial struggle is heating up."

“Yeah," growled Robertson, "the bureaucracy runs things, but some guy's got to be big and important and call himself `Emperor,' and we get to pick up the mess."

"Old one's almost gone, but we have three youngsters contending. And there's a wildcard. Some crackpot called Elijah Krishna. Claims to be a prophet or an avatar or some combination of the two. Clear fanatic holding a mishmash of various beliefs, you know the type."

Robertson put through a special call to Joan Carson and sat back to see what else they had in the active file.

A  group of malcontents who had somehow got hold of military weapons and were cutting a swath across Colorado. Some academic had gotten too dogmatic, claiming to have the "truth" and needed to be re-educated. Some corporation in Moscow had decided to ignore the prostitution regulations and started their own private service, resulting in an STD outbreak. And Fundamentalist Christians were multiplying in the area around Prague and Berlin through proselytizers smuggled in from the Southern African Federation. These Christians were a perpetual nuisance.  

Robertson spend several hours with the three imperial candidates, trying to minimize the coming destruction. He reminded them that when they won, the citizens of the empire would be their people and their opponents’ armies, their army.

Robertson’s train of thought was broken by a tour guide coming through, lecturing as she went along, "The reason all previous attempts at multi-national government failed is because they were based on too narrow a foundation. They were constructed around a specific philosophical opinion or ethnic group. Our rule is centered on tolerance. That is why, though our culture has only existed for a couple of centuries, we can confidently expect it to last perpetually and eventually embrace the whole world."

It was later when Joan Carson called. Joan was a small, short woman who few people would suspect was an agent of the world government, let alone their top assassin. That was probably why she was their top assassin.

"You don't have to worry about Elijah Krishna any more," she remarked. "I made it look like an accident.We don't want to make a martyr, after all."

"Good work," returned Robertson, "Keep an eye on things for me and make sure no replacement arises."

"Excuse me," interjected Lieutenant Yuan Ai-ling turning on the public channel,"but we now have a new emperor. He's Abraham Nkota, the one from North Africa. He's giving some sort of speech."

On the view screen Robertson was surprised to see Reverend Bakutu, a Christian fanatic, on the dais behind Nkota. Nkota was in the middle of his speech, "Last night I had a dream. And I looked up in the sky and saw the sign of a cross. And I heard a voice from heaven saying, `In this sign conquer.'"

The picture panned out, showing that the new emperor was surrounded by soldiers with crosses on their helmets who all took up the chant, "In this sign conquer." As Nkota and Bakutu embraced, Robertson felt the bottom falling out of his well-ordered world.

Wednesday, October 9, 2013

Unity and Purpose

The modern Christian church is sorely divided. We are much like the church in Corinth, which was dividing over every minor thing (1 Corinthians 1:10-17;3:1-9; 4:1-5). But the reaction to this can be to embrace a vague, nebulous unity that does not really stand for anything. Now the unity Scripture calls for is more than a broad sentiment. It is a genuine unity of conviction and purpose (Ephesians 4:1-6; Philippians 2:1-4; Romans 15:4-7). Without this, unity becomes meaningless. Therefore we need to veer between the extremes of dividing over everything and accepting everything. We have to ask what things are important. Now I believe Scripture itself sets the limits by what it puts it states to be crucial (Galatians 1:8,9; 1 John 4:1-3: Deuteronomy 13:1-4). But we need to ask the question of where those boundaries are.

Tuesday, October 8, 2013

Turning History Around

Western Civilization is continuing to drift further away from historic Christianity. Is there anything that can be done to reverse this? The conversion of western Civilization to Christianity was very much of a foxhole conversion. The Roman Empire was falling apart, and it needed something to hold it together. Later, when the Empire fell, Christianity continued to be the glue that helped stabilize society. But when society came back together again, it began the process of slowly throwing aside Christianity for a more secular outlook. This is not surprising, as there is a natural tendency in human beings to feel they can manage things without the need of God. Also, it did not help that Christianity had become compromised by conformity to the world. Therefore, in spite of many attempts to turn it around, our culture continues to move away from historic Christian beliefs.

The solution is not some quick fix of passing the right laws or electing the right officials. Nor does it help if we develop a sense of entitlement and become angry because society no longer gives us the respect we feel we have a right to. Rather, we need to remember that it is not surprising if the world is opposed to Christianity (John 15:18-21; 16:1-4; Matthew 10:24-26). But we are called to respond, not in violence, but with a firm gentleness (1 Peter 3:15; 2 Timothy 2:24-26; Colossians 4:5,6). There is a place for us to make our case, but we need to make our case, not just cram it down someone's throat.

 But I also do not believe that we can solve the problem simply by trying to fit in with the culture. Now there is a place for meeting people where they are and explaining things in a language they can understand (1 Corinthians 9:19-23; Matthew 9:9-13; Luke 19:10). But the cross is a stumbling block, and we should not expect people to embrace it without struggle (1 Corinthians 1:22-25; 2 Corinthians 4:3-5; Romans 10:2-4). I am convinced that the reason the Roman Empire embraced Christianity was that it was different. It had something the Empire needed, but did not have.

To avoid these extremes we need to understand that God is at work in His church to accomplish His purposes in the world (Matthew 16:18; Ephesians 2:10; 1 Corinthians 3:6,7). Therefore, we can trust in Him, not our own plans (Proverbs 3:5,6; Psalms 127:1,2; Hebrews 11:6). We need to avoid the magic formulas and to start again at the beginning as Christians in a secularized society, and to build from there. While there is a place for standing up for justice, we need to realize that, barring a clear miracle from God, what we are facing is the long haul of convincing people to accept Christian principles.  And this means being different enough to be helpful, without being simply hostile.

Monday, October 7, 2013

A Touch of Humor - Membership Drive

Can we as Christians sometimes make too big a point of the incidentals? How can we put these in perspective?

Saturday, October 5, 2013

Old Erich Proverb - History

Lack of any perspective on history can lock us in the prison of the mindset of our own time.

Friday, October 4, 2013

A Voice from the Past - Luther

Is not this a beautiful, glorious exchange, by which Christ, who is wholly innocent and holy, not only takes upon himself another's sin, that is, my sin and guilt, but also clothes and adorns me, who am nothing but sin, with his own innocence and purity? And then besides dies the shameful death of the Cross for the sake of my sins, through which I have deserved death and condemnation, and grants to me his righteousness, in order that I may live with him eternally in glorious and unspeakable joy. Through this blessed exchange, in which Christ changes places with us (something the heart can grasp only in faith), and through nothing else, are we freed from sin and death and given his righteousness and life as our own.

Martin Luther, 1483-1546, Sermons I, At Baptism of Bernhard Von Anhalt, 1540, (Luther's Works, Volume 51, translated and edited by John W. Doberstein, Muhlenburg Press, 1959, p.316)

How should the idea of being declared righteous before God affect our thinking? How should it affect how we live?

Thursday, October 3, 2013

Prepared that We Should Walk in Them

If you are a Christian, God has planned good works for you to walk in (Ephesians 2:10). Now there is nothing in this verse that indicates that this applies only to certain important people. Also, there does not seem to be any implication that these good works are complicated to figure out or difficult to find. The implication is that the ordinary person who does what God commands them in their ordinary life is doing those works God has set out for them (Colossians 3:22-25; 1 Corinthians 10:31; Ephesians 4:28). Also, the church is Christ's body, and we are told that every part, no matter how seemingly insignificant, matters (1 Corinthians 12:12-27; Romans 12:3-13; 1 Peter 4:10,11).

Now we live in a celebrity Christian culture. And it is easy to get the idea that if we are not preaching to stadiums of people or writing books or leading crusades to halt sexual trafficking or, at the very least, a pastor or a missionary, we are not significant. Now I do not want to discourage those who are called to some great ministry or cause. (I am speaking of those celebrities who do something valuable. There are celebrities who are all flash and no substance, and I would not encourage that.) These may be the works that God has prepared for them. But over-emphasizing this type of calling can have a bad effect on believers who are not called to these prominent tasks. They can conclude their contribution is unimportant. They can either become discouraged, feeling that their contribution is meaningless, or complacent, feeling that because they are not an important person, they are not required to do anything. Or they may slog on, doing what they feel God has led them to do, but with a feeling of insignificance. But the goal of the Christian ministry should be to build up every believer to maturity in Christ (Ephesians 4:11-16; Colossians 1:28,29; Matthew 28:18-20). We short-circuit that if we make the goal something every Christian was not meant to do.

Now I do not want to discourage Christians from asking if there is something more they should be doing. And if people are ignoring clear sins, they need to repent. But I would encourage every Christian who is honestly trying to obey God to trust God, that He will lead them into those things He has for them to do (Proverbs 3:5,6; Psalms 127:1,2; 1 Corinthians 3:6,7). For it is God to whom we will ultimately give an account (1 Corinthians 4:3-5; 3:10-15; Romans 14:4). I am convinced that on that day there will be surprises. But until that day we are better off, like Paul, leaving judgment in the hand of God. I am not speaking of meaningful evaluation that can help us do better but that nagging guilt which offers no concrete, viable suggestions for improvement. It is here that we need to trust in the fact that we are doing those good works God has prepared for us.

Wednesday, October 2, 2013

The Devil Made Me Do It

One of the dangers of believing that Satan and his demons are real is the tendency to blame all our failings on them. Now I do believe it is good for us to know we are in a battle, and we must be willing to stand firm against the attacks of the enemy (Ephesians 6:10-13; 2 Corinthians 2:11; 11:1-3). But we should not use this as an excuse to avoid taking responsibility for our own actions. Our sins come from within us, and it is wrong to try to shift the blame to others (James 1:13-15; Romans 7:14-25; Jeremiah 17:9). And we must remember that when we stop hiding and excusing our sin and admit to it, then we can experience God's forgiveness   (1 John 1:9; Proverbs 28:13; 2 Corinthians 7:10). 

Tuesday, October 1, 2013

In the World and Not of the World

One of the great struggles of the Christian church has been to be in the world and not of the world. It is a complicated balance. There are those who are so afraid of being corrupted by the world that they withdraw and erect barriers of rules to protect themselves. Then there are those who feel comfortable in the world and are willing to be swept along wherever it leads. I do not have any pat answers, but I believe it is important to see the dangers in both directions.

The Christian church started in persecution and therefore understandably leaned toward withdrawal from the world. But even then there were some who objected that the church was too lax and forgave people too easily. Later, Christianity became acceptable, and ultimately the state religion, and ended conforming to society. The reaction to this was monasticism, an effort by the few to withdraw from society entirely. In these developments we see the desire to have a positive impact on society and influence it in a Christian direction. And in competition with that, the desire to pursue a deep piety that goes beyond the ordinary. Both of these can be fueled by ego. But they also can contain a legitimate desire to love God and help others. And sometimes even the people involved have a hard time distinguishing the two.

These two impulses were at war with each other throughout the Middle Ages. It resulted in a long fight between the government and the serious churchmen over who controlled the church organization. But the church organization, in acquiring political power to fight the state, became more corrupt than what it opposed. And those who pushed for purification of the church were either absorbed or expelled in the long run.

Then came the Protestant Reformation. While there were minority groups that advocated withdrawal from society, the majority attempted to maintain the state church. This resulted in the various church organizations  becoming embroiled in politics, and ended in a series of nasty wars. Many finally accepted some form of tolerance, and some advocated separation of church and state. This also resulted in furthering the secularization of society. Some churches tried to fit in with this secular tendency and others reacted against it.

The United States was an experiment in running a nation based on separation of church and state. On this, the jury is still out, because we are still struggling over what this should really look like. It was originally thought nominal Christianity would continue to be the predominant belief. It is dubious whether it can be expected to remain so. But we must beware of either pursuing political power till we become corrupted by that power. Or completely withdrawing in reaction against this situation. There are difficult questions here, but  we must beware of going to extremes due to not thinking the situation through. And it is only as we avoid both extremes that we can find the right path through the present struggles.