Tuesday, December 28, 2021

Faith

"Without faith it is impossible to please Him, for whoever would draw near to God must believe that he exists (Gk He is) and that he rewards those who draw near to him" - Hebrews 11:6

What is saving faith? I've done a lot of thinking, preaching, teaching, writing etc. on the nature of saving faith over the courses of my pastoral ministry and student life, and I still do not think that I've plunged the depths of the topic. In Scripture, faith is enjoined as the way in which humans connect with God as early as Abraham (Gen. 15:6), and it is so throughout the Old Testament narrative. When the New Testament era comes, consistent with prophetic promises (Is. 28:16, Habak. 2:4), faith is central. All through Jesus' earthly life and ministry, he calls on people to believe in him (Mk. 5:34; Jn. 3:15-16), and the Evangelists are sure to remind their readers that these invitations from the Lord extend to them, too (Jn. 3:36; 20:31). After Jesus leaves and He sends his Spirit, the Apostles go throughout the world preaching eternal life through faith in Christ (10:42-43, 13:34-35, 16:31, cf. 15:9), and Paul emphasizes throughout his letters that the gospel of Jesus can only be appropriated by faith (Rom. 3-5, Gal. 3, Eph. 2:4-9, etc.) The merits of Jesus can only be received by faith as a gift, or else they can't be received. To add anything to His merits is to strip them of their value, and therefore, to not truly believe that He has done enough to redeem us. So faith is central. 

But there are a few central elements that often get passed over, which the Hebrews passage quoted above helps to clarify. 

1. First, faith is oriented to pleasing God. That is, the believer is interested in, before anything else, seeking God's happiness. "Without faith it is impossible to please him," means that the one with faith wants to please Him. To some degree (and the degree varies depending on the degree of spiritual maturity a person has), the believer has learned that reality revolves around and depends on God, not themselves. Therefore, they have learned that they exist for God's glory (Is. 43:7), and, therefore, want to please him.* 

2. Second, faith is relational. That is, the believer wants to "draw near to God," to get close to him and enjoy His presence. They are not afraid of God's closeness. They can't get enough of Him, His presence, and His Word, so they pursue Him for His own sake (ie, Mk. 1:37). They would "rather be a doorkeeper in  the house of God than to dwell in the tents of wickedness" (Ps. 84:10).

3. Third, faith consists of belief in the foundational nature of His existence. In other words, the believer believes that before everything else, and undergirding everything else, God is. The greek of the middle part of the Hebrews passage is more simple than "He exists;" it is more like, "He is," which might remind a Jewish person (the original reader of Hebrews) of God's famous self-identification at the burning bush, telling Moses, "I Am" (Ex. 3:14). When God said, "I Am," he was saying he is pure act, outside of time, not subject to influence, change, or progress.** Before all else, God is; and the rest of existence flows from His being. Faith has some degree of clarity about God's transcendent being; while sound theology might not be as clear as it will be years into the believer's discipleship, every believer must be clear that God is transcendent and other. But God is patient as people continue to grow in their theology.

4. Fourth, and finally, faith means to be sure that He receives seekers. "He rewards those who seek him." Let's be honest: Since Eden, we've been prone to default to snake-talk that convinces us that God has more He could give us, but since He isn't good, and therefore isn't trustworthy, the only way we'll find what we're looking for is if we go and take it ourselves. The notion of waiting on the Lord (Is. 40:31) sounds good for worship songs, but is the opposite of what we assume in real life. Nevertheless, to believe, according to our text, is to believe that God is open to us when we seek him; that He wants to establish fellowship with us; that He is ready to open his heart for us if we draw near to him. "Whoever comes to me I will never cast out," Jesus said (Jn. 6:37). 

Unbelief, then, assumes the worst about God's intentions: He doesn't tell the truth, He is powerless and even exacting when it comes to your own personal sin, and He has limits to what He can do for you. Belief, then, assumes the best about His intentions: He tells the truth, He can not only forgive but heal your fallen propensities, and He has no limits whatsoever.*^ Belief, then, is to assume that, contrary to what is our theological default, God is receptive to us, regardless of what our past or present looks like. How glorious is it that even after all of the disciples' failures and before their most embarrassing failure of leaving Jesus the night he was betrayed, that, nevertheless, "Having loved his own who were in the world, he loved them to the end" (Jn. 13:1)? He knew their hearts, and what they'd do moving forward. But He loved them still. And Jesus is the same, yesterday, today, and forever (Heb. 13:8), always receptive and ready to receive us when we return.

So let's remember when we read the Scriptures concerning faith, and when we examine our faith to make sure it is real--because it might be counterfeit (Lk. 6:46)--that we remember that God looks for the type of faith that assumes that He is both good and warm to us. That is his nature. Whereas He must be provoked to wrath, when his holiness is offended, love and kindness is His default (1 Jn. 4:8, cf. Ex. 34:6). How can we be sure? Because the triunity of the Father and the Son consists in eternal love (Jn. 17:24) which overflowed into eternal decrees that include the loving choice of sinners to salvation (Eph. 1:3-4) and into a creation that puts his goodness on display every moment of every day (Ps. 19:1-2, Mt. 5:44ff). And since He never changes, we can be sure that the relational love that comes from all eternity comes, indeed, to us, establishing relationship with Him, and maintaining it by faith. In short, to truly believe in God is to love Him; and this love is the gift of His Spirit as we feast on His Word and goodness (Rom. 5:5).


*Piper's Desiring God was written to make clear that seeking God's happiness is not contradictory to seeking our happiness, if it is understood that our happiness is meant to consist in our enjoyment of God's happiness. See that book, if you haven't. 

**See Matthew Barrett's None Greater: The Undomesticated Attributes of God, if you haven't, especially pp. 41-69, which comprise his chapters on God's limitlessness and aseity. 

*^I'm reminded of an old AW Tozer quote: "How completely satisfying to turn from our limitations to a God who has none" (in Knowledge of the Holy, 47).

Saturday, October 16, 2021

Christ the Preeminent Word Who Effectively Saves

(Taken from a recent Wednesday evening study of Colossians 1:15-20. The text is wiidely considered to be one of the most important New Testament texts for understanding Christ’s identity. Many theologians and scholars think the text is a first century hymn that either was penned into the canon or was made into a hymn because it was in the canon. Other NT examples of this phenomenon might be John 1:1-18 and Philippians 2:1-10, both of which also deal with Jesus’ identity and work.)


Christ’s coming into the world altered how the people of God thought about and reflected upon the Word of God. Christ didn’t change the Word of God, nor was his life and ministry a “twist” in the story. Rather, his coming showed how God would fulfill HIs promises and plan which had been witnessed to throughout the Old Testament. Things that were unclear are now clear. This is why Paul refers so often to the “mystery” that was hidden for so long but is now clear (ie, Rom. 16:25; Eph. 3:6,9; and Col. 1:26, 2:2): While God’s Word accomplished all of his purposes throughout time (Is. 55:10-11), there was much that still needed clarified in order to understand it. Christ clarified it, and now the purposes of God are revealed in the fullest way possible within a fallen world. Thus we can’t read the Old Testament any longer without remembering our relationship to Christ. We, to borrow from one theologian, can't help but to “read backwards."*


The Preeminence of Christ’s Person in Col. 1:15-17

How important is Christ, the Son of God? 

-First, He is the “image (Gk icon) of the invisible God” (1:15a), as in 2 Cor. 4:4 and Heb.1:3. For a human to know what God is like, they must look at Jesus, who is his image. 


-Second, Christ is the “firstborn of all creation” (1:15b). An ancient church leader named Arius took the notion of “firstborn of creation” to mean that Christ was the first creation of God. Arius, along with others like him, thought he found support in Prov. 8:22. They say that this verse must mean that Christ is not eternal. For how could he be the firstborn of creation, if he was never “born?” 

-But 1:16-17 entirely rules out the possibility of Christ being created: “By him all things were created…he is before all things,” which means first that he is, in some way, himself the Creator, and second, that he, predating all things, is not a thing himself. So “firstborn of creation” must mean something else. 


Psalm 89 drips with Christ as the promised descendent Seed of David. Verse 27 has God promising “I’ll make David (that is, his promised descendent) the firstborn.” But this promised seed, not having come yet, if he were a created being, would be far from the first person created. It becomes obvious, therefore, that “firstborn” is a term, not of chronology, but of priority. So the Seed promised to David will be the most important in all of creation. 


But what of the phrase “of creation” in “firstborn of creation?” This is where it gets tricky, but not so tricky that we end up confused. The eternal Son of God, the eternal Word (Jn. 1:1-2), in becoming incarnate to be the promised seed of David, put on a created body in order to do so. Make sure you understand that: While the eternal Word is uncreated, the body he took on in the Incarnation is created. This is the doctrine known as the Hypostatic Union (formulated in the Athanasian Creed, 4th c), which means that Christ united in one hypostasis (existence) two natures: Humanity and Divinity. Doing so, he becomes the most important of all that exists, especially of the creation, with which he can identify because his body is created. While the Word is not just a man, but is also divine, in His humanity He is the firstborn of all of creation.


The Efficacy of His Work in 1:18-20

So the next few verses emphasize his work from his time on earth and on, as the Redeemer. Whereas 1:15-17 focus on his eternality, 1:18-20 focuses on his work as the Redeemer who, being divine, identifies with creation in order to save it. The work he did on earth 2000 years ago continues, because his resurrected body included his physical body (Lk. 24:39), and that resurrected body entered into heaven to intercede for sinners such as us as “the man Christ Jesus” (1 Tim. 2:5). 


-1:18 - He’s the head of the church, his physical body on earth. He’s the beginning 

(meaning, the beginning of the New Creation, cf. 2 Cor. 5:17). 

-1:19 - In Him God’s fullness dwelt bodily (Jn. 14:10).

-1:20 He alone can reconcile all things to himself.


The point is this: His eternal Person and his work in time establish him as the most important of all that exists. In this way he is “the firstborn of all creation.” 


The Importance of Distinguishing Bw His Person and His Work 

Arius and others like him (in the modern world, Jehovah’s Witnesses) act as though texts like Col. 1:15 teach that it wasn’t until the 1st century that Christ existed. But being pre-creation, He is eternal. Time didn’t exist until creation existed, and now it only exists as the measure of the temporal limit of creation. But Christ is the eternal Word who is himself from eternity. The incarnation reflects something of His eternality as the Word, but is special in that it fulfills God’s promises and reaches the goal of the Old Testament (that is, giving God a faithful covenant partner). In other words, the eternal Word put on humanity in a way that accomplishes God’s purposes without jettisoning the Word’s eternality. God becomes a man in order to draw man to himself.


When we glory in Christ (Phil. 3:3)—that is, when we worship him, reflect on his goodness, and enjoy him—we not only glory in Him because of what He’s done for us, but because of who He is in himself. If you belong to Jesus, you can rest assured that as old as Christ the eternal Word is—and age doesn’t really apply to him, being eternal—that is a reflection of HIs eternal love for you (Eph. 1:3-4). 


________________________________

*Richard Hays, Reading Backwards: Figural Christology and the Fourfold Gospel Witness (Waco: Baylor Press, 2016). 

Wednesday, September 8, 2021

On Avicii, Suicide, and Romanticizing the Wrong Things

If you have been on Google today you have probably seen that today is a day of remembrance for late Sweidsh DJ Avicii, real name Tim Bergling. Tim died a couple of years ago of suicide by glass shards, aged 28. Having become internationally famous, his success didn’t stop him from his constant wrestlings with questions of life, purpose, and absolutes. In a seemingly heartless age, it is somewhat touching to see how many people participate in remembrances of the young man. 


On the other hand, I am struck today by two thoughts that I’d implore my readers to consider with me: 

First, in a modern day that has done everything that it can to strip itself from subjection to any undemocratic absolutes (that is, absolutes that don’t depend on public opinion), we cannot be surprised at the darkness that enshrouds even the most gifted minds. Many of us were stunned at Robin Williams’s suicide several years ago. How could someone with such gifts of humor and laughter be so sad and lost? 


I think that one reason is that the spirit of our late modern age is not built for happiness or peace. The modern mind has set itself up for confusion, restlessness, and subjectivism, the sum of which is unsustainable for those with questions and natural skepticism. Some of us skeptics look for and find some answers that give us satisfaction. Others of us are so skeptical that we see through everything, finding, to borrow from Lewis, nothing on the other side. It seems that Bergling was never able to find answers within a culture that says, “Look inside of yourself and express yourself. That is who you are: What you say about yourself (if what you say agrees with the general consensus).” There are so many problems with this self-expressive individualism, but I’ll just mention two: First, you could be wrong in your self-expression, because you could have habits and ways of living, thinking, feeling, etc. that are not good for you. Second, the rest of us could be wrong in our affirmation of your self-expression, because we could have similar wrong habits (ie, Rom. 1:32). I wonder if Bergling wrestled with this? 


While people look at the Middle Ages as a time of “darkness,” at least there was a sense of absolutes that could be depended upon. I’ve been reading about Thomas Aquinas recently, and have grown to appreciate that the history of Christian philosophy shows a consistent witness to there being God-ordained universals which, once known, give peace. Thus, after the Psalmist wrestles through his own dark night of the soul, he concludes God-ward, “Whom have I in heaven but you?” (Ps. 73.25)  Jesus said “This is eternal life, to know the Father, and the Son whom He sent.” (Jn. 17.3)  When I say “God-ordained universals,” I do not mean that God decides what is true, but that God’s very nature is truth, and that there is therefore a grounding on which we can identify our personhood, our purpose, and the nature of reality. Maybe the so-called Dark Ages weren’t so dark after all? What if a democratically controlled definition of absolutes is the real darkness, seen in what it is doing us and the world around us? 


My second thought is this: Why are we romanticizing suicide? I want to say this with the utmost sensitivity, because I, a depression sufferer and frequent visitor to Bunyan’s slough of despond, understand the darkness. Like Spurgeon, I understand that there are “dungeons beneath the castles of despair.” The Psalmist understood it as well: “Darkness is my only friend” (Ps. 88.18), as did Abraham Lincoln: “If my misery were evenly distributed to every person on earth, there would not be a single happy face.” If you’ve seen darkness then you know, it gets darker. 


But hear me out: The amount of well-wishes and almost celebratory language for the supposed intellectual liberation of our suicide-taken loved ones (forgive me if you think I'm overblowing the degree of romanticism; but explain it another way) is indicative of a greater problem. The worldview of our current day cannot handle questions of the absolute, because there is a latent fear that to accept—or at least imply—absolutes might mean that we have to acknowledge a God in heaven in whose mind those absolutes exist. Put more simply, to ask, “What if I have a purpose but I can’t find it by looking in the fickle world, but by look outside of the world?” begs the existence of God (a la C.S. Lewis’s conversion story). And this is a problem for us because we naturally do all that we can to marginalize God from our thinking (Ps. 2:3, 10:11, 73:11, 94:7). Then when the media incessantly brands Christians with laughable caricatures (some of which are warranted), we find ourselves entrenched in fears of being perceived as “religious,” so we leave God alone, and just suffer silently.
 

But the need for God is not a need to be religious before it is a need for truth, and truth that can set free (Jn. 8:32). It seems to me that the current popular opinion about suicide is that it sets sufferers free. I don’t think it does, but it might not be for the reason you think. It doesn’t set free because to take one’s own life is to follow functional atheism—a functional atheism that says “There is no God who can lead me out of this suffering”—all the way to its end, which is death, the wage of sin (Rom. 6:23). I’m not trying to say that all suicide sufferers are under God’s judgment. I'm not the final Judge, of course. But I am saying that to refuse to acknowledge a God who promises to reward those who seek him (Heb. 11.6) is the genesis of death itself. I think it is at most atheism and at least a cousin of atheism to take one’s own life. It is not selfish (as Christians often say), but Godless. We should not celebrate suicide. Instead we should weep, and seek the God who gives life-giving truth.


We should also weep even more for the mental fog which we’ve created by acting as though we’re so smart today. We act as though all that we need are our talents and self-expression, and science will tell us the answers to the important questions of life. That might make for good movies and sitcoms, but it doesn’t make for rich real life. That way of living crushes people, like Avicii. In fact, that way of living isn't real life. Like Rich Mullins sang all of those years ago, “We are not as strong as we think we are.” Why? Because we’re not God. 


But there is a God. And if you long for reality, you have to know that it starts with him. You can either live on your own and hope for acceptance by society, until society finds a reason to cancel you (did Bergling assume that his own cancellation was looming?). Or you can turn your attention to the God who cares and reveals. Like it did to King Nebuchadnezzar, your reason will begin to return to you then (Dan. 4:34). If we keep going in our godless epistemology until we’ve deconstructed everything, even deconstruction itself, what will be left? 


The God who was there all along, with life in his hands. Only let us not wait until the end of deconstruction to find out. There's too much life to live with the God who cares. 

Thursday, July 8, 2021

"We're coming for your children" says gay mens' choir

Click here to view the video of the San Fransisco Gay Men's Chorus singing that they're "coming for your children" to convert their worldview. (UPDATE: Within the time it took me to write this post, the choir has taken the video from public to private. When I first wrote this blog, the public could still watch the video. My apologies. Click the next link to see some of the lyrics of the song. You might be able to find the video somewhere online if you look hard enough. Just google the title and the choir name.)

Click here for an article which includes some of the lyrics, if the lyrics are difficult to understand in the video. 

It is a horrifying way to try and get a point across.

While any effort to stamp out "hate" should be applauded, neither this group nor most progressives define "hate" the same way that true Christians do. To the progressives, "hate" means "disagree." To Christians, hate means to mistreat, famously prohibited by Jesus in Matt. 7:12: Treat others how you'd want to be treated. Contrary to popular opinion, we can disagree without mistreating. But groups like want absolute acceptance in every sense: It isn't about "rights," but a conversion of morality. A revolution.

Based on their mis-definition of "hate", the group linked above has put out a horrifying propaganda song entitled "We're coming for your children." You read that right. Even if I could support the agenda - and no Christian can, I don't care what textual origami you try to do to make homosexuality agreeable with Scripture - I can't imagine ever trying to advance the agenda with a song title like this.

Thereby, they not only jettison the possibility of getting a hearing with many, but they further prove my suspicions that neither wokeness nor the gay agenda are innocent pursuits of "justice." Both are power-hungry pursuits of an anti-God revolution driven by a marxist worldview where the "conversation" is controlled by maoist rules for dialogue: You can't participate in a discussion unless you agree.

Doubtless, many will respond, "You're misunderstanding what they're saying. They're saying they'll turn your kids from hateful like you to friendly like them." Really? A friend would not tell a stranger, "We will convert your children, just wait."

At least we know what they really want. And countless once-sane people will sympathize because they don't want to be regarded as bigoted, homophobic, or racist. Guilt - not thinking - will win the day, again.

You might respond, "Pastor, what difference is there between this and what churches try to do in reaching and catechizing children?" Churches base their message off of revealed truth from the one who has proven throughout history that he is the Creator and sustainer of all things (Ac. 17:25). Churches attempt to convert people to the truth. A group like this bases their message off of internal feelings acted upon and affirmed by a fickle public opinion that constantly changes. You decide.

And if you want to see just how friendly this agenda is, just look up the story of pastor Chuck McIlhenny, possibly reading his book When the Wicked Seize a City.

Wednesday, June 23, 2021

Does the Bible Whisper About Sexual Sin?

I am not a Southern Baptist. I’m the happy pastor of a Conservative Baptist church which is part of a loose fellowship of churches—recently renamed Venture Churches—that broke off from the Northern Baptist Convention because of increasing liberalism in the mid-20th century. But since I have Baptist convictions in common with my SBC brothers and sisters, I try to regularly follow developments there. 


Last week at their annual convention, the SBC elected a new president named Ed Litton. By all appearances, Ed seems to be a godly man, well-respected, gospel-focused, and interested in bridge-building during a time more characterized by bridge-burning. 


That said, I came across an interesting sermon clip that prompted me to write my first blog post in a while. The clip is of him saying that the Bible whispers about sexual sin, when compared to the “shout” God makes about greed and judgmentalism. I was a little taken back by this comment, for at least three reasons.


Interesting Comment 

First, Ed is the newly elected president of the America’s largest conservative evangelical denomination, which has historically held to conservative views regarding sexual sin. So his comments are interesting because they seem to rub against the traditional grain of SBC culture and teaching (as well as those of conservative evangelicalism.) 


Second, and related to the first point above, Litton is now the second straight SBC president who has made a comment like this. The former and most recent president JD Greear, quoting writer Jen Wilkin during a sermon at Greear’s North Carolina church in 2019, made very similar comments to Litton’s. The only difference is that the supposed “shout” from God, as opposed to the “whisper” about sexual sin, refers, according to Greear, to “materialism and religious pride.” Again, American evangelicalism generally and the SBC particularly have always held to a tradition sexual ethic, but Greear, like Litton, rubs against the grain with his comments. While I don’t know if the sudden consistency of this message among SBC leaders should be seen as a sign of things to come for the denomination, it might reinforce the suspicions that many conservative Baptists have held about the trajectory. 


But thirdly, and most importantly, these comments are interesting because they seem to be, on Biblical grounds, patently false. When I say “Biblical grounds,” I mean this: When one seeks out the Bible's teaching on a particular subject, what is the sense that Scripture gives, when the whole of Scripture is used as the context of each passage which addresses the topic? When considered that way, my conclusion is this: I don’t know how one could ever say that the Bible “whispers” about sexual sin.


The Bible and Sexual Purity

To understand the Biblical position regarding sexual sin, one must understand what is God’s intention for sexual ethics. Think about this: The first people created are a man and a woman, who are to be married, stay together, and have kids, thus building up godly society. After the fall of Genesis 3, ethics go awry, including sexual ethics. By the time Abraham arrives on the scene, monogamous marriage and child-bearing between husband and wife is still the norm, which is reinforced by God’s disdain of Abe’s and Sarah’s little plan to have kids through Hagar the mistress. But by the time we get to Jacob, polygamy enters the picture, and doesn’t seem to leave decisively until we get to the New Testament. I am oversimplifying here, so you can get a feel for the narrative. 


When Jesus comes, he reinforces the one man-one woman model of marriage, saying that only on the grounds of sexual immorality does God allow the husband and wife to divorce (Matt. 5:31-32), because, whereas God patiently allowed divorce under the Old Covenant, it was because of hardness of heart (Mk. 10:6-9). And since Jesus has come, God’s original purpose of one man and one woman, living together as one flesh and enjoying each other sexually (Prov. 5:15-20, 1 Cor. 7:1-5), is recaptured. Jesus then goes further to say that divorce for the sake of remarriage is itself adultery (Mk. 10:10-12). Thus this picture of marriage, and with it, sex, is presupposed throughout the rest of the New Testament. Not every NT letter speaks of marriage/sexual purity, but many of them do, in crystal clear terms. See 1 Cor. 6:12-7:16, Eph. 5:22-33, Col. 3:18-19. Also 1 Tim. 3:2,12 and Tit. 1:6, both passages about leadership qualification in a church, reinforce the norm of healthy family structure. 


But this is not a discussion first about marriage before it is a discussion about sexual sin. I only bring up marriage because, to understand sexual sin in Scripture, you have to understand sexual purity un Scripture. And according to God’s plan laid out in Scripture, sexual purity only happens in relationship to committed heterosexual marriage (that is, a single person can be sexually pure by remembering that sexual activity is only appropriate in hetero marriage). Thus Jesus says that people defile themselves by their sexually immoral thoughts and behaviors, their adultery, and their sensuality, all of which come from within (Mk. 7:21-23; see also James 1:14-15). If one ever looks at another person’s spouse with lustful thoughts, God calls that heart adultery, as much an offense to him as actual adultery (Matt. 5:27-30). There is a good chance that if you’re reading this, I’m not saying anything that you don’t already know. But based on comments like Greear’s and Litton’s, I wonder if people need reminded of what they once knew. Anyway, Jesus also said that if your eye causes you to sin, pluck it out, and if your hand causes you to sin, cut it off; your soul matters more than an eye or hand (Mt. 18:8-9). He is clearly speaking in hyperbole, but the fact that he says the exact same thing almost verbatim when talking about the aforementioned lustful thoughts (see Mt. 5:29-30) must mean that the hand and eye thing is related to sexually impure thoughts that lead to actions. (WARNING: GRAPHIC - SKIP TO THE NEXT PARAGRAPH IF YOU WANT.) One application of Jesus’ words is this: If you are stuck in a cycle of watching or looking at porn, you will need to get rid of your alone times, your tv, or your smart phone. You can survive without tv, smart phone, and "alone time," but porn is killing you. Related, if you are stuck in a cycle of masturbation, you will need to eliminate your alone time, internet access during trigger-times, and get married so you can enjoy sex God’s way. Even though you might not realize it, masturbation is also destroying you, too. 


That’s what sin does: It kills you (Rom. 6:23) - you lose a little of yourself with every unconfronted destructive (read: sinful) behavior. Thus virtually all New Testament writers encourage what previous generations called mortification: Killing sin in your life. Here are just a few: 


Paul: “Put to death the deeds of your body (ie, your impulsive, 

undisciplined, and natural indulgences that would embarrass you 

put out in public), or you die” (Rom. 8:12-13). Put to death “your 

earthly members” (Greek): “sexual immorality, impurity, passion, 

evil desire, covetousness,” etc. (Col. 3:5). 

Peter: “Abstain from the passions of the flesh, which wage war 

against your soul” (1 Pet. 2:11). That is, you have natural passions, 

impulses, and behaviors that, left undisciplined, will destroy you.

Hebrews author: “Lay aside the sin that clings so closely” (Heb. 

12:1); “Watch out, that you not be hardened by the deceitfulness of 

sin” (3:13). That is, sin clings to us and deceives us. It lies to us 

about what it is or isn’t, and about how in control of it we are. And 

in the end, we lose ourselves and die. 


The Bible and Homosexuality

Finally, what about homosexuality? I want to be very clear here: I have people close to me who are practicing homosexuals, and I don't want to be insulting. But I am more committed to Jesus than I am to loved ones' feelings. That said, contrary to what my liberal friends (or, based on the sermon clips above, my conservative friends) might want to say about Scripture’s clarity, let me just say unequivocally that the Bible could not be any clearer about how much of a perversion of our God-given sexuality homosexuality is.

 

-Again, the first relationship between humans is between a man 

and a wife. Jesus teaches that as programmatic for sex and 

marriage moving forward (Mk. 10:1-9). Thus any time Jesus 

speaks of marriage and sexuality, he clearly presupposes 

heterosexual practices as God’s norm. See texts above.**


-Yes Leviticus addresses homosexual behavior, calling it “an 

abomination” (18:22). There are two interesting things about this, 

one less interesting and one more interesting. Less interesting are 

peoples’ rejoinders suggesting that we’re not under the Law 

anymore, so that that verse holds about as much weight as “don’t 

eat shellfish.” I say that these arguments are “less interesting,” 

because of the clear teaching of the NT that all foods are clean 

under the New Covenant (Mk. 7:19, Ac. 10:15), while at the same 

time, the NT supports and reinforces Leviticus’s teaching that 

homosexual behavior is abominable (see below). More interesting 

is the fact that that verse is sandwiched between prohibitions on a) 

parents sacrificing their children to foreign gods (18:21), and b) 

bestiality (18:22). Apparently in God’s eyes, these practices are all 

thought of as similarly absurd and evil. And yet we live in a society 

that normalizes both killing babies and celebrating homosexuality. 

Is bestiality next? Maybe.


-When Paul addresses homosexuality, it is always in the negative, 

and always clear. The most blistering is in 1 Cor. 6:9, where, 

clearly, neither partner during a homosexual encounter will inherit 

the kingdom of heaven. Related is 1 Tim. 1:10. In both texts, 

homosexual practitioners are grouped with liars, murderers, 

drunkards, greedy people, etc. (as are all practitioners of sexual 

immorality, heterosexuals included.) You get the picture. But 

Paul’s clearest treatment of homosexuality is in Romans 1:26-27.

After describing humanity’s post-Fall descent from knowing the 

true God, Paul describes the kinds of judgments that God called 

down on humanity as a penalty for their rebellion. The two 

mentioned in 1:26-27 are lesbian activity and male homosexual 

activity. Is Paul being neutral or soft-spoken here, and 

“whispering”? No. These acts are dishonorable (Gk. - atimias, 

dishonoring the body part’s purpose), against nature, and done 

shamelessly (1:27). Those who do such things know—at least at 

first, before their conscience warps (1:21)— that their behavior is 

wrong (1:32).


In other words, just because you can do something doesn’t mean you should do something (forgive me for the backdoor reference to Jeff Goldblum’s famous Jurassic Park line). Is the behavior giving you life, or taking life from you? The God of the Bible demands that you believe that He knows you better than you know yourself, or you can’t claim to know him at all (Jer. 16:17, Dan. 5:23). If He says something is killing you, it doesn’t matter how it feels to you. He’s right. Deep down, you know it.


Closing Thoughts: Could the Bible Be Clearer? 

Not only does the Bible not whisper about sexual sin, but I don’t know how the Bible could be any clearer about it. While, to Greear’s and Litton’s points, there are major texts addressing judgmentalism (Mt. 7:1-5, Rom. 14), greed/covetousness (ie, Ex. 20:17, Col. 3:5), materialism (Mt. 6:19-21, Ezek. 16:49f), and religious pride (Lk. 18:9-14), it seems to me that sexual sin comes up at such a high frequency that, since in God's eyes there are "weightier matters" of his law (Mt. 23:23), sexual sin must be one of them. 


Regardless, if God speaks about something that needs to be repented of in order to know him, he does not whisper. His loving rebukes are divine summons from heaven, us being struck "as by a thunderbolt,"*** so we’d know who He is, who we are in relationship to Him, and how to draw closer to him. As a response to Greear's comments, I would say that if we shirk God's words off as unclear or too quiet, then we’re the ones behaving in religious pride. And frankly, both secularism and progressivism, which are built upon jettisoning the Biblical ethic that made the West the freest civilization in world history, are just as much religions as Christian evangelicalism is. The truth is not that the Scripture is unclear, but that, as late theologian John Webster said, “We refuse to be schooled by Christ. We don’t want to give our mind and affections to what he has to say to us.”*^


I realize that saying all of this in such clear and lucid language might mean that I lose some friends. It’s okay - I’ve lost several friends over some of my views in recent years. While I’m not getting used to it, I do realize that it comes with the territory, not just as a pastor but as a Christian (Jn. 15:20). But if these words can help Jesus gain a disciple, or help a disciple be more sure that in Jesus they have the truth, it is worth it to me. I’d rather you hate me for the truth than for us to have a quasi-friendship based on unclarity at best and lies at worst. Even better would be if we could be friends in spite of our disagreements. Only make sure you’re just as skeptical of yourself and society as you are of me. I’m not demanding that you agree with me. But I am demanding that we stop treating God’s Word as though it is subject to our modernistic relativizing tendencies. The One who’s way is perfect (Dt. 32:4) has a Word that is perfect, too. Not only is it more clear than anything else in existence, but it is a gracious shout of invitation to beggars to come and eat bread. And if one is hungry, that invitation is far from a whisper. 


------------------

**Yet, anyone familiar with the term malakos, used by Jesus in Mt. 11:8 and Lk. 7:25, knows that it is a term that means womanliness. Jesus applies it to men behaving in a womanly way, crystal clear that he does so negatively. 


***Calvin's Commentary on John 4:22, Volume XVII, 500th Anniversary Edition (Grand Rapids: Baker Books, 2009), 159.


*^Webster, “Sin Shattered Within Its Stronghold," in Confronted By Grace: Meditations of a Theologian (Bellingham, WA: Lexham Press), 36 (Ibook).

Saturday, April 3, 2021

The Black Sabbath, and God's Faithfulness

I was talking with someone last night after our Good Friday service about what we should call the Saturday between Good Friday and Easter Sunday. We have a name for the other days, but I'm not aware of a name for that in-between day, whereby we might commemorate the day of the disciples' waiting. My conversation partner suggested that, since the day was the Jews' Sabbath, it could be called Black Sabbath! I was impressed that this older fella knew that band's name, but when I reciprocated by beginning to sing the lyrics to "Iron Man," he didn't follow. Eh, I'm used to it.

God's Work in Our Little Faith

In any event, I was reading a passage in Luke this morning that is no doubt familiar to all of us, but also felt surprisingly pertinent to this "Black Sabbath" the day before Easter. In Luke 12:22-34, Jesus famously teaches his followers to not be anxious about their material needs if they're seeking first the Lord's Kingdom. They need not fear, because as they cling to Jesus and seek the Father's glory, He will take care of and provide for them, because they are His (Is. 43:1, Phil. 3:12). Jesus says so many things here that are so balmy for the fearful and worried soul. Perhaps the disciples were reminded of this as they waited praying before Jesus rose on Sunday. Here are a few highlights, followed by one final lesson that deserves a few more thoughts: 

    1. If God takes care of soulless natural matter like grass, he will clothe you, oh you of little faith (12:28). Did you catch the sentence's last clause? Even if you have weak faith - and let's be honest, even the strongest among us still wishes they had a stronger faith in the Lord - that doesn't change the Father's love for you. Even when Peter sunk into the water, all he needed was to cry out and the Lord immediately reached out his hand and pulled him back up (Mt. 14:31). Even in our worst, most faithless moments, the Father still promises to provide for us. It isn't our hold on Him that protects us, but His hold on us.

    2. The little flock of God need not fear, because the Father's good pleasure is to give us His Kingdom (12:32). Even if everyone else were to turn from Christ, leaving only six followers throughout the world, those six would not need to fear, as the Father not only promises to give them the Kingdom, but promises that is gives his pleasure (Gk - eudokesen, delight) to do so. He is no timid, self-conscious god from whose hands we have to pry blessing. He loves to bless and care for His people, seeking their happiness. 

So far, we see two things: First, the Father cares for us when we're faithless; and second, the Father, being pleased by whatever is happening around and in us (just reflect on that: He's happy with the direction history is going in, because "our God is in the heavens, doing all He pleases" Ps. 115:3), is moving time toward giving us His Kingdom, and He'll complete what He's begun. 

Marinating or Floating Away 

But there's one final thing I want to reflect on: 

    3. We need not "be anxious ... (or) worried" (12:22, 29). It is interesting to me that in the original of these two verses, Jesus' uses different words that are basically synonymous to us. In v. 22, talking in general about our life and more particularly about our clothing, we are told to not be merimnate (a general term used often in the NT, referring to having your thoughts preoccupied with a fear). So, don't be preoccupied with your tangible needs: God will clothe you. But in v. 29, talking specifically about your need for food and drink, he tells them not to be meteorisesthe. This word means to "be suspended," or held in suspense. From this Greek word derives English "meteor." So, don't be held in suspense over something that is so certain: The Father will give you what you need, and Jesus is not saying, "Just wait and see" as much He is saying, "Believe me, and let your heart be at rest because what I'm saying is true." 

I don't have any proof of this, and neither online searches or my old-school resources (books) show any connection, but when I read "merimnate" it sounds a lot like the word "marinate." I wonder if the latter is a cognate of the former (ie, it sounds a lot like the former word, because it derives from it). Etymology resources online say that "marinate" originally comes from Italian, and is related to "mariner," referring to being submerged. Since Italian stems from Latin, which itself has a lot of ancient relationship with greek, it's an interesting connection to consider. Jesus might then be telling his followers, "Don't marinate on what might happen for your hurt. It'll submerge you in fear, when your Father's pleasure is to bless and keep you." 

But then on the opposite end of the illustration spectrum, Jesus also says not to be meteorisesthe, or be suspended in the air, with the fear of a painful fall back down to "reality," which, in our flesh, often seems to predict our abandonment. Jesus says, "It's not true. Your Father won't let you fall." 

I suppose then that since we're dogged by the twin temptations to a) let our thoughts wander through the air in worry, and b) let our thoughts get submerged in what-if's, Jesus would simply have us stay on the ground. Jesus is telling us, "Don't let fear sink you, and don't let it float you away. Live in the present, on the ground, knowing your Father loves you, and is out for your care, as you seek His Kingdom. Live simply, quietly, and peacefully. Enjoy life with your feet on the ground" (which sounds a lot like Ecclesiastes, doesn't it?)

He Loved Them Til the End

Indeed, the disciples' faith almost fell during those dark days at the end of Holy Week: Peter denied knowing Jesus, all the disciples all scattered from Him, and it was perhaps the darkest time in history. But Jesus had prayed that Peter's faith would stay strong, and that he'd then be able to return and strengthen the rest (Luke 22:31-33). And what do you think happened? It just took waiting on the Lord, and in time, He restored them all, because He loved them to the end (Jn. 13:1). And you better believe that if you wait on Him, keeping yourself on the ground, not floating into Fearville or marinating in Anxious Lake, He'll keep your footing steady, and your heart strong. He gave too much at the cross for us to think he'll short us now.

Tuesday, December 1, 2020

Jesus' Two Birth Names

Two Sundays ago one of our church’s missionaries Robert Walter visited and gave a powerful gospel presentation out of Leviticus. Working with Chosen People ministries, a ministry focused on bringing the gospel of Jesus the Messiah to Jewish people, Robert has been in a pastoral-evangelist role in Brooklyn for ten years. So he has plenty of practice demonstrating the presence of the gospel in the Old Testament. His experience was evident in his Sunday gospel presentation from Leviticus. Jesus is there! 


The message reminded me of a study our Wednesday night prayer group did a couple of years ago. Studying Leviticus, we saw that it is essentially a telling of how a sinful people can live in the presence of a holy God. All of the sacrificial and purity laws that characterize Leviticus are in place so that the people can draw near to His presence. The need for such laws is not due to God’s raising the standard of holiness so that humans struggle to know him. Rather, the need for laws is due to the fact that something happened to humanity in the Garden of Eden whereby they can no longer live in God’s holy presence without mediation (hence their expulsion from Eden). Therefore, God establishes the system in Leviticus, centering on the Day of Atonement, which is placed in the exact middle of the book (Lev. 16). 


Leviticus and Advent

This brings us to Advent. You’re probably familiar with the account of Jesus’ birth and the events leading up to it in Matthew 1. There, Mary is found “with child from the Holy Spirit” (1:18), and her fiancĂ© Joseph, no doubt feeling betrayed upon learning of his fiancĂ©’s unforeseen pregnancy, resolves to divorce her quietly because he’s a good guy and doesn’t want to shame her (1:19). At that point, an angel appears to Joseph and tells him the child comes not from sexual promiscuity on Mary’s part, but from a miracle of God. And when the child is born, he is to be named Jesus, “for he will save his people from their sins” (1:21). Jesus is English for Greek Iesous, which is itself a translation of Hebrew Yeshua/Yohoshua, which means “the Lord saves.” Finally, Matthew tells us that all of this fulfills what the prophet Isaiah promised when he said that a virgin will have a son who shall be called Immanuel, which means “God with us” (1:23-24). 


You’ll notice that in his birth narrative, Jesus has two names: 

1. “The Lord saves,” because He came to save His people from their sins; and 

2. “God with us,” because He came to bring God’s presence to His people.  


Don’t miss Matthew’s point—the two names are intimately connected. Bringing back the theme of Leviticus, how can God dwell with sinful people? Only if there is mediation, so that the sinful people can somehow be placed into a position whereby their sins don’t keep them at odds with God. And whereas Christianity is not unique in contending that sin keeps us from God (for many religions claim the same), yet Christianity is unique how it contends that sin is dealt with: Through an act on God’s part, not ours.


Notice, Jesus comes as a baby born to a virgin (a miracle only God could perform); then (Matt. 2:13-15) he escapes Herod’s extermination efforts by being taken to Egypt, to show His continuity with Israel who had earlier lived in Egypt and were called the “son of God” (Ex. 4:23); eventually, after countless other actions to demonstrate that this is all God’s doing, He offers himself in the place of His people at the cross, to complete and fulfill both the sacrificial system and his own word that He’s come to “give his life as a ransom for many” (20:28) thereby establishing the new covenant which purchases the forgiveness of sins for all who believe (26:28). Finally, Matthew ends with the risen Christ telling his disciples that He will be with them always, until the end of the age (28:20). One might say that Matthew is sort of a New Testament Leviticus, answering the question, "How can God dwell with sinful people?"


Grace as a Means to Presence

The point is this: Jesus did not come to remove sin’s penalty and power as an end to itself. Rather, sin is removed so that there is room for the Holy Spirit to come and live with us, so that we can gain reality with God. We might say that Friday happened so that Pentecost could happen: Sin is taken away so that the Holy Spirit can be taken in. But let’s not miss the middle-portions of the story. First, Jesus rose from death, so that death is not the end of our story or our time with God; in fact, it is a sort of beginning insofar as we then experience His presence more gloriously. And second, He ascended back to His earlier heavenly throne, with humanity added, so that He can give His Spirit to all who seek God through faith in Him (Ac. 2:33). Therefore, with confidence (confidence!), a sinner can draw near to the throne of grace, because Jesus always lives to* make intercession for him or her (Heb. 4:16, 7:25).


What this means is that even if you were to have a continual struggle with sin—and let’s be honest, to some degree we all do (1 Jn. 1:8-10)—in your need, Jesus’ heart warms to you, longing for you to seek the Father’s grace and care, because the Son gave an offering at the cross which the Father accepted. That’s why Jesus rose: The Father took the offering, and now all who need Him can have confidence that He is there for them. Continual need doesn’t disqualify you from the grace of the one who saves; instead, continual need alone qualifies you. Or to borrow a verse from an old hymn: 

“Let not conscience make you linger, nor of fitness fondly dream;

All the fitness He requireth is to feel your need of Him.” 


So come. Immanuel saves so that we can stay. And He has more grace than you have need.



*Note, he lives to make intercession for them. One of the main reasons He’s in heaven now is so that sinners can have confidence that God receives them because of Jesus.