Saturday, October 20, 2012

Gospel Humility

It's amazing how many accusations Christians have to learn to defend against.  Some require lots of study and detailed attention.  But then there are others that should be dismissed on the face of it.  I've heard so many times that Christians are "arrogant" or "prideful" or "bigoted".  To be sure, this mostly comes up in reference to our claims about Christ (His claims about Himself, really).  So if you haven't been accused of it, maybe it's a function of what you're not doing, rather than evidence of your good character.  I'm just saying...

In those moments when/if so accused, I always ask my accuser something like this, "Is there any other religion you know of where the first condition of belief includes the admission that they are so sinful and so unable to please God that their only hope is that God has to pay their sin-debt Himself?"  Well, that usually makes my point.  But I'm interested in a passage that definitely encourages/reminds Christians to not only tell others of humility, but to walk in it as well.

For the message of the cross is foolishness to those who are perishing, but to us who are being saved it is the power of God.
1st Corinthians 1:18

If a supremely powerful king had subjects who routinely attempted to usurp his authority, denounce his ordinances and messengers, went so far as to even deny their king's existence and even be so envious of the king's son to point of murdering him... could you really believe that this son of the king could come back to life declaring royal forgiveness and conferring life, honor, and future glory to those who follow him?  Following a dead man?  Oh yeah... he died but literally came back to life. 

I've taken a chance at offending for the sake of reminding ourselves of the truly outrageous claim that is presented in the gospel.  Distilled as a story about a king and his son, I think it's plain to see why the natural mind is repelled and unbelieving of this foolish message.  Perhaps this is why so many are quick to re-define the gospel as "God loves you and has a wonderful plan for your life".  The gospel puts us in a posture that calls for humility.  Sinful man with a high opinion of himself and a low standard for "living right" doesn't find God's love "foolish".  But the Cross?  That's some foolishness right there.

Jews demand miraculous signs and Greeks look for wisdom, but we preach Christ crucified: a stumbling block to Jews and foolishness to Gentiles...
1st Corinthians 1:22-23

Even more foolishness.  You know what the people are asking for-- if you want to reach them, don't you have to give them what they want to hear?  If they are already resistant to your message, shouldn't you find ways to introduce it that is more desirable for them?  What if they don't listen?  After all, why would they want to hear the old story- haven't they heard it before?  Spice it up, dress it up!  Get some video!  The people love crowds, so build a mega church and since they love sports, why not have church in an arena every Sunday? 

Let's face it fellow Christian, preaching is foolishness.  If God really wants to get His message across, I mean, c'mon!  He has the whole sky!  Sky writing is cool when planes do it- imagine a FLOCK of Eagles (I know they don't flock- that's part of the miracle!) spelling Ephesians 2:4-5 in every language.  Or if He arranged for sunbeams to appear in different colors and used them to write, "My son is Jesus- so scrap all the other religions.  I am God and I approve this message.  Thank you."  Of course, this message could also appear at night with stars and occasional comets (for accent).  Why am I reading books and attending conferences on apologetics when God has the sky?!?  But according to His wisdom, He has ordained ordinary human words to get this very foolish (to natural man) but divine message across.

Brothers, think of what you were when you were called.  Not many of you were wise by human standards; not many were influential; not many were of noble birth.  But God chose the foolish things of the world to shame the wise; God chose the weak things of the world to shame the strong.  He chose the lowly things of this world and the despised things...
1st Corinthians 1:26-28

If any believer is beginning to "think more highly of himself than he ought", the above passage will bring him/her back to reality.  The scripture couldn't be more clear: when God went searching for recipients of grace, He wasn't looking for an all-star team.  In fact, He purposely by-passed those who appeared qualified in order to guarantee that all would know the root and fruit of amazing things done in His name were established by Him and not our experience, exercises, and exploits in the faith.  As it is written,"Let him who boasts, boast in the Lord."

So, if you are a Christian but have forgotten that God's grace is the only reason you do anything right, come back to reality.  If you are a Christian overwhelmed with the scope, volume, and weight of your walk and work in Christ because you are acutely aware of your inadequacies, be encouraged: God set it up this way for your good and for His glory. 


Wednesday, October 17, 2012

Gospel Basics in the Book of Acts

Consider the diverse majors offered in our colleges.  Think of all the various professions.  Imagine whatever skills, specialties, and talents a person may have or hope to master.  Whatever you come up with, you will not escape the bottom line necessity to master three skills: "reading, 'riting, and 'rithmatic".  If a person only learns to read pictures/signs, write by tracing/drawing valuable symbols, and count their own money, they will at least have done the minimum to prove my statement true.

In many ways, the same can be said of the gospel.  There are certain things that we cannot avoid if we want to share the message of the cross.  Likewise, if we are serious about evangelism, there are topics we will naturally become fluent in and discipline will make us comfortable talking about (even though most won't want to hear you).  In the book of Acts, there are three such topics ("there's always three") that I will call the Three R's for the book of Acts due to how readily they reoccur.

Resurrection...  It's inescapable.  Anyone just casually reading through Acts can't help but recognize how often Peter, John, Paul, etc. refer back to the resurrection.  On one level, Christ being raised serves as the seal of approval of the Father upon Him.  A risen Jesus, as Peter would argue, is proof positive that Psalm 110:1 has been fulfilled and that Jesus is in fact, both Lord and Christ.

And at a more raw and gut level, the resurrection serves as a divine rebuke.  Think of it- when the question is asked how a lame man stands healed, here is the answer given:

It is by the name of Jesus Christ of Nazareth, whom you crucified but whom God raised from the dead, that this man stands before you healed.  
Acts 4:10 (emphasis added)

The earliest recording of apostolic preaching includes using the resurrection as a hammer.  It jolts the listeners to recognize the terrible wrath of God against their sin: the crucifixion of Christ.  It also informs them that their work of putting Him to death has been undone by the One Who raised Jesus: none other than God.  This sets up the need for the next R.

Repentance...  The flow from resurrection to repentance is most clearly seen in Peter's address from Acts 2.  Upon pronouncing Jesus as "both Lord and Christ" by evidence of the resurrection we read this response from those in attendance:

"When the people heard this, they were cut to the heart and said to Peter and the other apostles, "Brothers, what shall we do?"  Peter replied, "Repent and be baptized, every one of you, in the name of Jesus Christ for the forgiveness of your sins..."
Acts 2:37-38

The call to repentance is all through the book.  And while Peter is busy prosecuting the Jews for their sins, Paul isn't letting Gentiles off the hook.  In the context of their idolatry, Paul explains to the crowd in Athens,

"In the past God overlooked such ignorance, but now he commands all people everywhere to repent."
Acts 17:30

But today, repentance is a dirty word in many pulpits.  "Why beat people up and remind them of their sins?  They already know their not perfect" many say.  And while that may make sense to some, we have to continually demand an honest answer from ourselves to this question:  am I making this up as I go along or am I taking my marching orders from the Word of God?

Think about it-  once commissioned to spread the gospel to all the world, the tiny band of the faithful Jesus left behind adopted the most ridiculous strategy ever:  tell people how bad they are... they're sure to come running.  It's not exactly a strategy for church growth (numerically) but it is the truth because there's no need to repent unless you're a sinner.  It's totally counter-intuitive, but then again, do we still believe that God's ways are not our ways or are we forcing our way and calling it "Spirit-led"?

Relentless Resilience... In chapter 4 they were warned.  The fifth chapter records the flogging of the apostles.    Stephen became the first martyr in chapter 7.  In chapter 8, the church leadership stays in Jerusalem while vast numbers of believers are forced from their homes due to persecution.  Peter is called on the carpet and has to manage a near schism of believers in chapter 11 and is soon imprisoned in chapter 12.  Paul is dragged out of the city of Iconium and left for dead in chapter 14.  The very next day, he and Barnabus leave for the city of Derbe and preach there.  I've barely covered half of the book!

How did they overcome all these odds?  Why did they persevere and persist in their faithfulness to Christ and to the gospel of God?  The Holy Spirit had convinced them of the truth and meaning of the Resurrection and had been transforming them through a lifestyle of repentance.  The external reality of Jesus' life and the internal change that is brought through repentance gave them the incentive and immutable impulse to keep going despite the trials before them.

Is your life in Christ lacking the fervor and passion resembling the relentless resilience of the early believers in Acts?  If so, you'll do yourself a service by revisiting the doctrine of the resurrection and seeking the grace of God to repent from sin and turn toward Him.

Friday, October 12, 2012

A Question of Focus

"O Sovereign LORD, what can you give me since I remain childless and the one who will inherit my estate is Eliezer of Damascus?"  And Abram said, "You have given me no children; so a servant in my household will be my heir."
-Genesis 15:2-3

Haven't we all been there?  We move in faith, taking God at His word so we walk in obedience as best as we can.  As far as we can tell, we have dotted our I's and crossed our T's but God's promise(s) seem so far out of reach.  Abram had left his father, his city, and all he knew because he believed God.  He had a reasonable expectation for God's blessing- in this case, a son- and land to boot.  But the circumstances of life didn't seem to justify the trust he had placed in El Shaddai.

Abram (aka Abraham) is known to most by his venerable title, "Father of the Faith".  As such, many of our biblical and non-biblical definitions of faith are brought to light when we consider his life as Moses records it.  Anyone reading Genesis 15, especially the first 7 verses, will have to come to terms with a practical truth of the Christian life: Questions do not indicate an absence of faith, but usually lead lead to deeper trust in God.

Let's be real.  Abram was an old man at 75 when he left Ur.  And he didn't move south to retire- in moving southwest to Canaan, he was taking on the greatest challenge he had ever undertaken.  Honestly, how does a man, his barren wife, and his nephew take possession of a vast land in such a fashion that he actually secures it for his (non-existent) descendants?

Thousands of years removed from the man and his struggle, many Christians glibly reply, "by faith, of course".  Such persons discredit themselves and Abram.  The truth is, God didn't give Abram the details of when/how he would take the land.  He didn't tell Abram about the Canaanites living in the land.  He didn't warn Abram that there'd soon be a famine in the "promised land" after arriving.  He didn't mention that Lot would become a POW, requiring an octogenarian Abraham to become a warrior and lead a rescue party to execute a prison break.

If Genesis 15 is any indication, Abram didn't endure all this without asking questions.  His faith wasn't defined by an ability to avoid the facts.  He wasn't living life pretending that the bad stuff didn't matter.  Abram wasn't afraid to respectfully ask God questions that really mattered:  Where's the son you promised?  What assurances can you give me that this great plan of Yours will come to pass?  An honest reading of the chapter will reveal that God didn't scold Abram for asking questions, but gave him answers that encouraged him to keep trusting.

For this reason, I have consistently encouraged my friends, partners, and students to consider the distinction between asking God questions and questioning God.  In the first case, we give due honor to Him Who has all the answers.  In the second, we exalt ourselves in thinking that God owes us an answer for who He is and what He has done.  Whoever has ears to hear, let him hear.

I sign off with a parting word of encouragement.  Genesis 15:1 says,

The word of the LORD came to Abram in a vision:  "Do not be afraid, Abram.  I am your shield, your very great reward."

The renderings from the NIV and KJV suggest an awesome thought: the reward for faith and obedience is God Himself.  While it's true that God promised a son, land, descendants beyond measure, etc, the true blessing and reward is knowing God.  Therefore, when we can't see the temporal promise we had hoped for, we must turn our eyes to the eternally secure blessing that comes from relationship with the Almighty, Omniscient, ever-righteous, ever-loving Maker of all.

Monday, October 8, 2012

The Gospel's Triple Conjunction

"Abram believed the LORD and He credited it to him as righteousness."  Genesis 15:6

One of the greatest comforts I experience as a Christian is the unity of the Holy Scriptures.  The Bible, despite it's having 40 or so authors, being written over multiple centuries, penned in different languages, still reflects a unified thought.  It presents a holy God, dealing with sinful man graciously, and ensuring a route to salvation by grace through faith.  In both Old and New Testaments man's right-standing with God depends on God's mercy and not man's efforts.

Genesis 15 lays down the principle of faith and the priority of a divine promise.  When the Creator speaks, His creatures ought to believe.  Try to understand Abraham and you will probably come the same conclusion as me: I've never been called to believe something more unbelievable in my own life.  And yet, it's not the actual promise that holds weight.  It's the One Who makes the promise- He is the one who matters.  Whether God promised children to a barren couple or a child to perfectly healthy parents, what makes the saying trustworthy is the trustworthiness of the speaker.  Yes, we ought to believe God.

In John 6:28-29, we find the following exchange,

Then they asked Him, "What must we do to do the works God requires?"  Jesus answered, "The work of God is this: to believe in the one He has sent."

It's simply amazing.  One would imagine that God's major issue with His people was their lack of obedience. Either they did what He commanded them not to do, or they failed to do what He commanded of them.  For sure, God is always displeased with disobedience.  Looking at the question and answer, however, we find that man's emphasis is not shared by God, Who has always maintained that His people's problem has been faith.  Ultimately, disobedience is rooted in unbelief.

Notice how the question reveals the principle concern of man: "what shall we do..."  The pride of fallen humanity is to do enough to earn one's keep.  Sin-craving, self-serving man says, "If it is to be, it is up to me".  But notice that Jesus' answer begins with the Prime Mover: "the work of God".  What is required for man to be acceptable to his Maker?  God must work on him.  How is the man to believe in God?  That is God's work, not the work of the believer.  The religions of men begin with men, but relationship with God begins with God.

Finally, let's consider a few verses from Romans 4.

"Now, when a man works, his wages are not credited to him as a gift, but as an obligation.  However, to the man who does not work but trusts God who justifies the wicked, his faith is credited as righteousness."
-Romans 4:4-5

Here is the crux of the matter: God, by definition and due to His holiness, cannot be a debtor to sinful man.  When men desire to do enough to be seen as worthy in God's sight, they have an aim that they would never overtly admit to: they want square and even dealings with the Immortal, Invisible, Only Wise God whereby they look Him eye-to-eye and demand rewards as a worker on payday.  While that is blasphemous and impossible, it is amazing how God's glorious grace is able to penetrate sinful hearts and cause the seed of faith to grow and bear fruits of righteousness.

Moses is the one through whom God gave us the law.  Jesus is the Son of God and the chief dispenser of God's grace through the cross and resurrection.  Paul is among the chief interpreters/expounders of Jesus' teaching.  The Bible accurately maintains their witness as a spectacular, brilliant, obvious testimony of the gospel-- a triple conjunction if you will-- that God justifies sinners by grace alone, through faith alone, in Christ alone, according to the scriptures alone, to the glory of God-- alone!

Wednesday, October 3, 2012

Truth > Experience

9/11.  It's just two numbers with a slash between them.  But you will seldom find two numbers, if spoken in that order, that will have a greater emotional impact on a person.  After all, who gets emotional about numbers?  But 9/11 has been used as a trigger for fear, revenge, nationalism, xenophobia, a rationale for war and enduring military presence in hostile nations... and all this is just how 9/11 is viewed in the U.S. let alone the world at large.

For all the things that 9/11 has come to represent, one must always remember that it's actually nothing more than an event.  As the very structure of the numbers themselves indicate, two great skyscrapers (and a lesser building) in NYC came tumbling down by the work of terrorists, the Pentagon was attacked, and a plane crashed somewhere in PA.  These are historical facts.  The effects of 9/11 on citizens in the U.S. and elsewhere, while related, are NOT the same thing as the event itself.  This is a crucial distinction that must always be remembered: the actual account is not the same as those things that resulted from it's occurrence.

"The core of the gospel, the historical facts of what God did in Christ, is often down-graded today in favor of a more mystical emphasis on the private spiritual experience of the individual.  Whereas faith in the gospel is essentially acceptance of, and commitment to the declarations that God acted in Christ some two thousand years ago on our behalf, saving faith is often portrayed nowadays more as trust in what God is doing in us now... [The gospel] is the good news about Jesus, before it can become good news for sinful men and women.  Indeed, it is only as the objective facts are grasped that the subjective experience of the individual Christian can be understood."   --quoted from Graeme Goldsworthy, The Goldsworthy Trilogy, pp.20-21

So there you have it.  One of the major mistakes made when presenting the gospel is confusing what Goldsworthy calls "the fruits of the gospel" with the gospel itself.  In other words, many are guilty of presenting "peace of mind", "joy in my heart", "the excitement of ministry", etc. as the gospel.  We ask people, "Don't you want to experience the love of God?".  Or we invite our neighbors to "try Jesus" and know "the peace that passes all understanding".  There are many variations of this approach.  The bottom line is, so often we are inviting people to the RESULTS of Christ's work on the cross and in His resurrection, but we are not giving sufficient emphasis to the cross nor the empty tomb itself.

For all the things that Christ has won for us- fill in the blank with whatever promise is now ours in Him- none of it is true unless first He lived a sinless life, died on a cross for our sins, was buried, and then was raised bodily from the dead.  Jesus and His work is the focus of the gospel- not us, nor our blessings.  So in all our efforts to evangelize and fulfill the Great Commission, I propose this maxim: Lead with the Promiser, not the promises.

Monday, October 1, 2012

The Ark of Safety

By faith, Noah, being divinely warned of things not yet seen, moved with godly fear, prepared an ark for the saving of his household, by which he condemned the world and became heir of the righteousness which is according to faith.
Hebrews 11:8

The idea of Jesus in a disguise has some humor in it.  But then again, the 2nd Person of the Trinity was in a disguise for 33 years appearing as a mere human.  One more day of concealing His glory while talking to two disciples on the road to Emmaus wouldn't hurt.  Luke 24 records that instance and leaves a challenge that is no laughing matter.  The following verse calls us towards a Christocentric or Christ-centered interpretation of the Old Testament.

And beginning with Moses and all the Prophets, he interpreted to them in all the Scriptures the things concerning Himself.
Luke 24:27

So today's question is, what can we discover of Christ and the gospel in the story of Noah?

1.  The heart of Christ.  The heart of God is broken over sin (Gen. 6:5-6).  But we cannot imagine this to be a paralyzing disappointment that renders the Almighty an emotional basket-case.  When sin grieves His heart, we can expect the Triune God to do two things:  execute justice against sinners but also give grace to some.  Which leads to our second point--

2.  Grace leads to righteousness.  Some in my Sunday School class had a hard time accepting this biblical truth.  When I asked, "Why was Noah spared over and against others?" they strangely read right past verse 8 and focused on verse 9.  Yes, Noah was a righteous man in his generation, but the grace of the LORD precedes that reality.  By way of parallel, the Christian (on his/her own merit) is no better than the pagan.  But practical holiness is a result of positional holiness-- I am found in Christ by grace, then I am found holy.  It's never been the other way around- Old and New Testament saints all have the same testimony.

3.  True faith leads to works.  The writer of Hebrews tells us that Noah built the Ark by faith.  So, let's put it together: Noah receives grace, he then believes God, Who commanded him to build an ark.  It sounds like a LOT Ephesians 2:8-10.  Once again, New Testament doctrine sheds light on Old Testament stories.  Also, while we always distinguish between works as the fruit and faith as the root, we know that the whole plant itself is meant to be one indivisible life.

4.  God's salvation is perfect.  The specification of the Ark have been a matter of intense scrutiny and curiosity for centuries.  How could four men build such a vessel?  Could any such construction truly be sea worthy?  But we respond simply: if God supplies what He commands, then they most certainly could build it.  And if they built it to God's satisfaction, it is secure for its purpose.  The Ark, while keeping all those inside of it safe, had to endure the elements which represented and carried out the awesome judgement of God.  Isn't that what Christ does for those of us "in Him"?

5.  New world, new covenant, new covenant sign.  Quite literally, Noah and his family stepped off of the Ark into a new world.  Nothing was the same before the rains.  God established a covenant of peace and the rainbow became the sign of the covenant's confirmation and God's promise.  Similarly, the gospel announcement points to the peace between God and man that Christ purchased on the Cross.  The new covenant sign of communion commands us to proclaim His death now, in memory of the past, and in anticipation of His future return.  And for sure, He will make all things new.