Monday, May 30, 2011

How Do We Know the Past Existed?

I was asked recently if it was possible for God to have created everything one second ago and have simultaneously created in us memories of a past that wasn’t there. The idea is that the physical evidences of aging and the subjective and communal memories of the past might have been created only a moment ago but done in such a way as to cause us to assume that there was a long history where none actually existed. This may seem like a ridiculous question but it needs to be answered because if is true that God might possibly have created everything one second ago it would have profound implications for our view of God and truth.

Let me begin by saying that God certainly has the power to have done this. Considered in isolation from His other attributes we could say that God is capable with regard to his authority and power to have created the universe already infused with the memories and evidences of a past history. I would also say that had He done so there would be no way for any of us to tell that this had happened. There is no way for us to get outside of the natural world and our own mind and experience to evaluate such things apart from the revelation of God. If, therefore, God intended for us to live in this kind of illusion then we would not be able to escape it.

It would, however, be a big mistake to consider a question like this solely on the basis of God’s power and authority. Though His power isn’t limited God is limited in what He can do on the basis of who He is. God would not be God if there were anything outside of Himself that limited Him but in this case it is what is within Himself that creates the limitation. We know God cannot decree something contrary to His own nature. We see two examples of this in the letter to the Hebrews:

“Now when God made his promise to Abraham, since he could swear by no one greater, he swore by himself, saying, “Surely I will bless you greatly and multiply your descendants abundantly.” And so by persevering, Abraham inherited the promise. For people swear by something greater than themselves, and the oath serves as a confirmation to end all dispute. In the same way God wanted to demonstrate more clearly to the heirs of the promise that his purpose was unchangeable, and so he intervened with an oath, so that we who have found refuge in him may find strong encouragement to hold fast to the hope set before us through two unchangeable things, since it is impossible for God to lie.”
(Hebrews 6:13-18 NET Bible emphasis mine)

There are, therefore things that God cannot do as a result of His own nature. He cannot be other than He is and since He is sovereign and since He is truth he cannot swear by one greater and He cannot lie. This becomes an important consideration for our answer to the question about God creating this world with constructed memories.

God has revealed Himself to us in His word and that revelation contains the record of historical events. Since God is Truth and cannot tell a lie those events must correspond to actual states of affairs. If God had created everything one second ago then His word would not correlate to an actual state of affairs and therefore the propositions contained in the scripture would be false. It would mean that Jesus did not actually die on Calvary; it would mean that our sins were not actually atoned for by His death; it would mean that the promises to the Church were never actually given to the Apostles. The bible would be a false record.

Even if God planned to work everything out in the end based upon this illusionary history the fact would remain that He would have given us a record of events that is different than He knows it to be. Since His own character prevents this (He cannot lie) we can say with confidence that it is impossible that the Christian God could have created the universe one second ago and given us memories/evidences of a past that never existed. To do so would be to bear false witness. If it is true that the world was created a moment ago then the biblical God by definition could not exist and if the biblical God exists then the world could not have been created one second ago.  

Let us lift up praise that we worship our God not simply because of how powerful He is (though His power is unlimited) but because of who He is. We can sing of His love, His loving-kindness, His graciousness, His longsuffering, and His unchanging nature. We worship a God who is worthy to be praised! He has attained for us victory over sin through the Lamb who was actually slain and who is coming again. We can count on these things because He has told us so,  we know Him, and He is trustworthy.

Praise God!

Thursday, May 26, 2011

Velleity: A Dangerous Spiritual Condition

According to research done at Gordon-Conwell College an average of 171,000 Christians are martyred every year. There are untold thousands of Christians all over the world who do not have access to proper sanitation, medical resources, or food. There are places where entire congregations share a single bible and divide it up among themselves so they can read it.

There is no question that we in this country are enormously blessed and that we should be more aware and more engaged with the challenges facing our brothers and sisters around the world. We need to pray that the Lord would cause us to be sensitive to these issues. Consider quickly the following commands:

“Remember those who are in prison, as though in prison with them, and those who are mistreated, since you also are in the body.”
(Hebrews 13:3 ESV)

“…Whoever has two tunics is to share with him who has none, and whoever has food is to do likewise.”
(Luke 3:11 ESV)

Obviously many more similar statements by our Lord and His apostles could have been brought forth. With such clear teaching why do so many of our brothers and sisters face suffering and neglect while so many of our own churches are contented and comfortable and seem to not be moved by the disparity?

One brother has suggested to me that the problem is that the American church is overcome with apathy. Many of our churches, he says, are so inwardly focused that there is simply no room for a feeling of empathy for others who are “out of immediate sight”. In fact, he says, often even the sight of those in our own communities who we may pass on the way to work or church that are suffering or in need do not trigger any feeling of care and concern.

I agree that this brother has hit upon a major problem in our churches but I must disagree a bit with his diagnosis. I don’t think it is accurate to say that most American Christians or churches are apathetic. Apathy indicates a complete lack of care, passion, concern, or motivation about the situation. I believe that what ails us is more subtle, more complicated, and more dangerous than that. When I speak with people about the suffering and want of the church around the world I almost never get an apathetic reaction. In fact, quite often the response is one of concern and care. People are troubled when they are confronted by the drastic gap between their experience of working out their faith here and that of their brothers and sisters in many other places. The problem is not apathy, but rather it is velleity.

The Oxford English Dictionary defines velleity as “The fact or quality of merely willing, wishing, or desiring, without any effort or advance towards action or realization.” It is the state of caring but not enough to do anything about it. There are many things that we find concerning but we simply make a mental note of our concern and then move on to other things. I think that this is closer to the problem we face in our churches. It isn’t that people do not care it is simply that a great many of us care but not enough to do anything about it.

This is a dangerous spiritual condition because we cannot even plead ignorance. Not only are we aware of the needs, we also recognize it in our spirit as a need. We therefore testify against ourselves if we are not moved to respond. James makes it clear in his epistle that we are responsible for both the deeds we commit and those that we omit when he says:

“If a brother or sister is poorly clothed and lacking in daily food, and one of you says to them, “Go in peace, be warmed and filled,” without giving them the things needed for the body, what good is that? So also faith by itself, if it does not have works, is dead.”
(James 2:15-17 ESV)

And more explicitly a couple chapters later…

“So whoever knows the right thing to do and fails to do it, for him it is sin.”
(James 4:17 ESV)

Our Lord also makes repeated reference to those who are unproductive:

“…Every tree therefore that does not bear good fruit is cut down and thrown into the fire.”
(Luke 3:9 ESV)

“You are the salt of the earth, but if salt has lost its taste, how shall its saltiness be restored? It is no longer good for anything except to be thrown out and trampled under people's feet.”
(Matthew 5:13)

‘I know your works: you are neither cold nor hot. Would that you were either cold or hot! So, because you are lukewarm, and neither hot nor cold, I will spit you out of my mouth. For you say, I am rich, I have prospered, and I need nothing, not realizing that you are wretched, pitiable, poor, blind, and naked.”
(Revelation 3:15-17 ESV)

We must pray for the grace of God that we not only care but that we care enough to take action. This doesn’t just apply to the highly emotional issues such as martyrdom but in all things. Let us pray to God that we care enough to be moved to share the Gospel with those who do not know, let us be moved to share in the sufferings of our fellow brothers and sisters, let us care enough to give, and let us be moved to comfort, to teach, and to pray incessantly. Would that the Lord God be a fire burning within us so that our concern overflows from our heart to our hands and let us pray that the Spirit of God would work in us to be a blessing to others making our lives a testament to the glory of the God who has saved us.

Monday, May 23, 2011

Romans 4:5 -The Gospel in a Sentence

“And to the one who does not work but believes in him who justifies the ungodly, his faith is counted as righteousness”
(Romans 4:5 ESV)

There are many worthwhile truths for us to study in the scripture but it is good that we never lose sight of the fundamentals of the Gospel. In this verse the apostle Paul captures in amazing brevity the very heartbeat of the Gospel. In this section of the letter to the Romans Paul is arguing from Old Testament examples (Abraham & David) that righteousness is accredited to men from God by faith. After discussing the example of Abraham he makes the profound statement above.

Notice that this verse says nothing about the death, substitutionary atonement, and resurrection of Jesus Christ. These of course are foundational to the Gospel but as we read verse 5 we must understand that these elements are in the background and are the means upon which the statement stands. If we, like Paul, understand it this way we can see that in just a few words Paul has summarized what lesser theologians spend hundreds of pages saying. Namely, that we are justified by faith alone. This is, in one sentence, the great doctrine of Sola Fide.

Paul emphasizes that it is faith that is counted as righteousness. Notice also that it is the faith of the “one who does not work but believes”.  Paul leaves no room here for a synergistic justification that includes both faith and works because specifically and purposefully the one who believes in this example is the one who does NOT work. What is more, the implication is that the one who believes here not only doesn’t work but he/she is in fact ungodly! The faith demonstrated is the faith in the one who justifies the ungodly and this faith is what is credited as righteousness.

This one simple verse captures for us the need to recognize our own inability to live up to God’s standard and our own inability to work for our own salvation. It is only through faith in the one, Jesus Christ, who justifies the ungodly that we can hope to be justified. How precious it is to recognize that we are sinners for it is sinners that our Lord came to save. Until we come to see that it is only through our trust and absolute dependence, in faith, in the work of Christ we not only will not be saved but cannot be.

If history is any guide many will see this as a dangerous teaching and an encouragement to godlessness. We must ask, however, what kind of people would see it this way. Certainly not those who see themselves as rescued from the very pit of hell. Those who have been rescued do not presume upon the Grace of their savior. By asserting that we are justified by faith we do not proclaim a dead or workless faith but rather assert along with Calvin and others that although faith alone justifies, the faith that justifies is never alone. I pray that our pulpits would have a passion for the proclamation of justification by faith, and faith alone because that is the essence of the Gospel itself. Some will twist this to their own destruction but to those who are being saved it will be the most precious truth that they ever hear.

Saturday, May 21, 2011

Book Review: Sidney Greidanus, Preaching Christ from the Old Testament

844499: Preaching Christ From the Old Testament Preaching Christ From the Old Testament: A Contemporary Hermeneutical Method

By Sidney Greidanus / Wm. B. Eerdmans Publishing Co.

Christ-centered preaching from the Old Testament has been largely overlooked by contemporary scholars, but Greidanus's landmark study remedies this situation. Emphasizing the necessity of preaching Christ from the Old Testament, Greidanus traces the history of Christological preaching; interacts with contemporary hermeneutical discussions; and offers concrete steps to help you move from Old Testament text to Christian sermon. 365 pages, softcover from Eerdmans.

It seems obvious that the purpose of a Christian sermon is either to point the congregation to or to strengthen them in the knowledge of Jesus Christ. The central themes of our worship service should always be related to the cross. Dr. Greidanus asks us to consider carefully if our preaching from the Old Testament does this. He asks the question “could our sermons on Old Testament texts have been given by a rabbi in a synagogue?” This is an amazingly insightful and relevant question for us to ask. Are we ignoring the central theme of the Old Testament when we use it in our church services? If so, we are left either with moralizing sermons that lack the power of the revelation of God’s grace or we are simply preaching Old Testament sermons.

Dr. Greidanus does not stop there. If we are indeed preaching Christ from the Old Testament he asks us to consider how it is being done. Throughout church history there have been a number of approaches, such as allegorical interpretation, that ignore the grammatical historical teaching of particular Old Testament texts and leapfrog artificially to the New Testament revelation. Dr. Greidanus rightly points out that this is not appropriate because it is not really preaching the passage but relies primarily upon the creativity of the preacher rather than the message of the Word. Rather than simply critique these trends Dr. Greidanus offers detailed explanations and examples of how to develop Christ centered messages from Old Testament texts that do not twist the historical-grammatical meaning of the Old Testament text but use that as the foundation for preaching its fulfillment in Christ.

This is a very helpful book that demonstrates first rate scholarship and yet is still readily accessible for those with an interest in the subject. I highly recommend this book to preachers, teachers, and anyone else with an interest in applying Old Testament teaching to the Church.

Things Unsaid

"Answer not a fool according to his folly, lest you be like him yourself."
                                                                                                                   -Proverbs 26:4

I was asked today why I haven't put anything up about Harold Camping's false prophesy that the world was to end today. The answer is that I try to avoid discussing people like Camping, Terry Jones, and others like them because they are media creations. If it were not for the 24 hour news cycle and the unprecedented access to information on the internet they would not be significant stories. They are the equivalent in my mind to viral YouTube videos that become insanely popular simply because of their oddity. By posting something on these kind of things I would only be perpetuating the nonsense so I try to avoid it. The more attention these kind of guys get the more it encourages them and the more it gives the media an opportunity to make our faith a caraciture rather than coming to terms with the true message of the Gospel.

Wednesday, May 18, 2011

What Bible are They Reading?

One of the most pernicious heretical teachings that have infected the Church is the prosperity gospel. It distorts the Gospel of God into a crass self-centered message that turns God into a type of cosmic butler whose primary concern is the comfort and success of the believer. It is a shame that most of this cancer originates in our country and that it is infecting the world with a godless hedonism veiled in the clothes of the Gospel. This evening I came across the following quote from well known prosperity peddler Kenneth Copeland:

“Here's some good news: When the Word says we are to be partakers of Christ's suffering, it means we are to enter into the victory Jesus bore for us on the cross. The only suffering we encounter in sharing His victory is spiritual. That's what the Word is talking about when it says we are to be partakers of Christ's suffering. In other words, the only suffering for a believer is the spiritual discomfort brought by resisting the pressures of the flesh, not a physical or mental suffering. Jesus has already borne for us all the suffering in the natural and mental realms.” (emphasis mine)

This is such a distortion of the Gospel message on so many levels that it would be impossible to respond thoroughly in a blog post. I can, however, point out a couple of very simple and direct passages from scripture that stand in such stark contrast to this view of God and the suffering of believers that I think the point will be sufficiently made.

First, anyone who is at all familiar with the life of apostle Paul will recognize that he endured much physical suffering in his ministry. Consider his own words in his second letter to the Corinthians:

“Are they servants of Christ? I am a better one—I am talking like a madman—with far greater labors, far more imprisonments, with countless beatings, and often near death. Five times I received at the hands of the Jews the forty lashes less one. Three times I was beaten with rods. Once I was stoned. Three times I was shipwrecked; a night and a day I was adrift at sea; on frequent journeys, in danger from rivers, danger from robbers, danger from my own people, danger from Gentiles, danger in the city, danger in the wilderness, danger at sea, danger from false brothers; in toil and hardship, through many a sleepless night, in hunger and thirst, often without food, in cold and exposure.” (2 Corinthians 11:23-27)

Notice that not only did he suffer much but he also connects his suffering with his identity as a servant of Christ. It also isn’t as though God would have preferred that Paul would have avoided these sufferings. In fact, as the conversion of Paul is recorded in Acts chapter 9 God explains to Ananias (who he was sending to Saul) God Himself says about Paul “But the Lord said to him, “Go, for he is a chosen instrument of mine to carry my name before the Gentiles and kings and the children of Israel. For I will show him how much he must suffer for the sake of my name.”

Paul is not alone. Peter also explains to the believers in his first letter that their suffering is glorifying to God in this remarkable passage:

“Servants, be subject to your masters with all respect, not only to the good and gentle but also to the unjust. For this is a gracious thing, when, mindful of God, one endures sorrows while suffering unjustly. For what credit is it if, when you sin and are beaten for it, you endure? But if when you do good and suffer for it you endure, this is a gracious thing in the sight of God. For to this you have been called, because Christ also suffered for you, leaving you an example, so that you might follow in his steps.”
(1 Peter 2:18-21 ESV)

Notice that Peter (just like Paul) is talking about physical suffering even saying that it is a glorifying thing for them to be beaten unjustly if they suffer with Christ likeness. There are so many passages like these that clearly demonstrate that suffering in the bible isn’t just a metaphor and that to take up ones cross is intended to be a literal commitment. If there remains any question that God’s primary concern is not the unending comfort of believers while in this life I would like to consider for a moment the implications of the following passage from the book of Revelation:

“When he opened the fifth seal, I saw under the altar the souls of those who had been slain for the word of God and for the witness they had borne. They cried out with a loud voice, “O Sovereign Lord, holy and true, how long before you will judge and avenge our blood on those who dwell on the earth?” Then they were each given a white robe and told to rest a little longer, until the number of their fellow servants and their brothers should be complete, who were to be killed as they themselves had been.”
(Revelation 6:9-11 ESV)

This has to be one of the most amazing passages in all of the scripture. Here we have a vision of Heaven and the saints who had been murdered for their faith are crying out to the Lord “how long?” They are waiting in anticipation of the day when their sacrifice will be avenged. The response of the Lord in this passage is amazing, particularly in light of the kind of picture that teachers like Copeland paint. The Lord tells them to rest a little longer because there are others who must still be killed! These saints were called to martyrdom and these events are part of the unfolding sovereign plan of God.

I don’t intend to ignore the fact that we have great promises in Christ. Indeed we are promised that all things work together for the good of those who love God and are called according to His purpose. This “all things” includes our own suffering and possibly even our death. This is difficult and I don’t expect those who are outside of the faith to understand it but for those in Christ we must understand that Christ is far more valuable than anything else… even our own lives.

When people like Copeland push God aside in order to put us at the center of the universe it is very dangerous because we all have the temptation to want to believe it is true. Our depravity is such that we find such a worldview enticing. It gives us a sense of value without having to sacrifice or question our own priorities. I pray that there would be a revival among people in this country where our comfortable Christianity is challenged and we begin to deal with the reality of what our brothers and sisters around the world face daily. A good first step would be to turn off TBN and to open our bibles.

Monday, May 16, 2011

Book Review: D.A. Carson, Scandalous

511250: Scandalous: The Cross and Resurrection of Jesus Scandalous: The Cross and Resurrection of Jesus

By D.A. Carson / Crossway Books & Bibles

D.A. Carson introduces the irony, scandal, and greatness of the work done on the cross. How are Christians to approach the central gospel teachings concerning the death and resurrection of Jesus? The Bible firmly establishes the historicity of these events and doesn't leave their meanings ambiguous or open to interpretation. Even so, there is an irony and surprising strangeness to the cross. Carson shows that this strange irony has deep implications for our lives as he examines the history and theology of Jesus's crucifixion and resurrection.

Scandalous is the latest addition to the Re:Lit series, which highlights important theological truths in accessible and applicable ways. Both amateur theologians and general readers will appreciate how Carson deftly preserves weighty theology while simultaneously noting the broader themes of Jesus' death and resurrection. Through exposition of five primary passages of Scripture, Carson helps us to more fully understand and appreciate the scandal of the cross. This book, by the world's leading NT scholar, will be an amazing resource for challenging and education in colleges, and in churches.

One of the scholars that I have come to respect most is D.A. Carson. I am often amazed at his perceptiveness as he approaches various biblical texts. He has such a gift for illustrating observations that strengthen and reinforce either the meaning or the gravity of scriptural passages. Many scholars spend a great deal of time with their own language and analysis whereas Dr. Carson quite often spends much of his pointing out things in the biblical text itself so that the reader is left to encounter the power of the Word itself. Needless to say I had high expectations for this book and he didn’t disappoint.

Carson walks the reader through his exposition of 5 passages of scripture that highlight different elements of the work of Christ on the cross. His selection of texts is superb and he is able to zero in on core issues related to both the theology and the application of the work of Christ in His death and resurrection. As always we must encourage one another to read the word of God directly but if you know someone who is looking for supplementary Christian reading that is Christ focused I highly recommend this little book (168 pgs).

Saturday, May 14, 2011

Fellowship in the Gospel 2011

I just arrived home from the Fellowship in the Gospel men’s conference hosted by Berean Baptist Church in Livonia Michigan. The theme of this year’s conference was Recovering the Gospel: The Ancient Message of Hope. This conference was developed because men of Berean Baptist were so blessed by their trip to the T4G conference in 2006. The T4G conferences are biannual so the men thought it would be a good idea to have a regional men’s conference in the intervening years. The format is similar to T4G where there are plenary and breakout sessions, free resources, discounted books, and panel discussions. It was a great time of fellowship and learning for both me and a few other men from my church who participated. The conference was a great experience and I would like to thank Berean Baptist for hosting the event.

There were two elements of the conference that I felt were particularly good. First, were the sessions by Dr. Sidney Greidanus, Former Pastor, Emeritus Professor at Calvin Theological Seminary, and author of many books including Preaching Christ from the Old Testament. Dr. Greidanus demonstrated how to prepare sermons and teaching material on Old Testament passages in ways that illustrate the person, work, or teaching of Jesus Christ. He explained that if a Jewish Rabbi could preach the same message that we have given in our sermons or classes on Old Testament texts then we have failed to preach the Gospel and have thus missed the most important biblical theme, namely Jesus. He also cautioned that we must remain true to the context and purpose of the Old Testament and be careful not to allegorize or twist scriptures to make them leapfrog to Christ. To do so is not necessary because as Christ showed His disciples on the Emmaus road the pinnacle and central theme of all scripture is Christ. We should therefore ensure when we are teaching and preaching from the Old Testament that we highlight the elements in it that are pointers to Jesus. The material that Dr. Greidanus presented was very helpful in demonstrating how to do this while remaining faithful to a commitment to historical-grammatical interpretation and I can see a number of areas in my teaching and preaching where I can be more Christ focussed using these tools.

The second element that I thought was particularly good were the plenary sessions by Rico Tice, minister of evangelism as All Souls Church in London England. As a result of his passion for evangelism he helped to develop the Christianity Explored materials I am generally nervous about canned evangelism programs or tools because I believe that it is the Gospel itself and not techniques that get people saved. I recognize the need to take certain fundamentals of communication into consideration but I do not like the “packaging” of the Gospel as if it were laundry detergent or a time-share in Florida. I told Rico this when I met him and after a few seconds of conversation it became obvious to me that he shared a passion and commitment to the power of the Word of God in his approach to evangelism.

From what I have been able to see (have not had a chance to fully review all the material yet) this is a program that combines a fervent desire to see souls saved with complete confidence that it is God who saves. His “technique” for getting people to a place where he can share the Gospel with them is simply to ask “would you like to read the bible with me?” They either say yes or no so there isn’t any marketing agenda just an explicit desire to discuss the things of God. If they say yes he suggests walking through the Gospel of Mark focusing on four basic themes. By reading the Gospel itself together with someone and asking them about what the text is saying about the identity, mission, and call of Christ contrasted with the blindness of those around Him you can allow the Holy Spirit using the Word to work in the heart of the person. His approach is to let the Gospel tell the Gospel. He also equipped us with some basic organizational and communication tools but the foundation of what he does is to focus on Gospel itself. He also reassured us that even those who are not gifted as teachers could nevertheless be Gospel "sharers". Rico is a very focused and entertaining speaker. His questions are convicting and caused me to realize that evangelism needs to be a more important focus of my own walk and ministry. If you or your church are looking to develop your evangelism programs but want to do so in a Christ centered/bible centered way I recommend that you visit their website linked above and check out their material.

In addition to these speakers there were other speakers handling a series of topics in breakout sessions, wonderful worship music, prayer time, and fellowship opportunities. It is truly a blessing to have such good and Gospel focused speakers and leaders at a local conference. In addition to the human resources they also gave away some free books and there were many others at a good discount in the conference bookstore. This was my first year attending but I am planning on coming back for the next one and if you are a man, or know one, who is looking for conservative Christian teaching and fellowship I recommend that you consider attending the next one in 2013.

May the Lord bless all those who attended and also all those who helped put the conference together and worked to support it. 

Friday, May 6, 2011

"Take up your Cross and Follow Me"

“Then Jesus told his disciples, “If anyone would come after me, let him deny himself and take up his cross and follow me.”                                             (Matthew 16:24 ESV)
Our speech is prone to exaggeration. We often speak of things being awesome, miraculous, and amazing even though they are not. We tell people that we are doing great, marvelous, and wonderful, when we are not. Generally we understand these to be overstatements and do not take them too seriously. When we experience situations where the literal meaning of those terms is appropriate we may need to clarify that we actually do mean that something was awesome or amazing. In addition to this English is filled with all sorts of idiomatic phrases that employ other kinds of overstatements. For example, someone may say that there were 100 people in line at the store, or that they had to walk five miles to their parking spot etc.

Most of these phrases are useful expressions that help us to communicate in vivid ways. Sometimes, however, these phrases can be trivializing with regard to their metaphorical reference. For example, the idiomatic phrase “we all have our crosses to bear” uses a very serious event to express something that is many orders of magnitude inferior to it in scope and scale. Christ bore the sins of the world and it was a burden that only he could bear. Today we speak of difficult circumstances, onerous responsibilities, and other burdens as “crosses that we must bear”. Of course we all do willingly bear various types of burdens and sufferings but it is perhaps even blasphemous for us to apply the imagery of Christ’s willing suffering for sin to any burden we bear in the flesh.

It is true that Christ used this Cross imagery with His disciples on more than one occasion. In the verse above He instructs His followers that they must take up their crosses and follow Him. We must be careful, however, to understand what He is saying. At the time this statement was made there was not the long sweep of history between His sacrifice and his hearers. Indeed, He Himself was not yet crucified. This would have been a terribly jarring statement to make at the time He said it. The Roman crucifixion was a shameful execution reserved for the worst criminals and rebels. It was a torturous symbol of oppression and of the power of Rome over those against whom it was used. In America today we really do not have anything analogous to it. Our executions are expressions of the power of the state but they are not designed to publicly humiliate and torture the prisoners. Crucifixion was not only a matter of carrying out a sentence it was a social and political expression. Perhaps the prisons at Andersonville and Camp Douglas where Civil War prisoners were exploited, starved, and worked to death might have had something approaching the same level of hideousness and reputation in their time.

Christ is not instructing His followers to merely endure setbacks and burdens. He is literally telling them to take upon themselves a death sentence. He is telling them to set aside their self-pride and self-dignity and take up shame, scorn, and condemnation in the eyes of the world. He is not instructing them that the Christian life is inconvenient or distracting. Rather He is telling them that the Christian life is in fact death. It is a death to self, death to the world, a forsaking of all that is dear to them in exchange for the promise of heaven. We need not fear shame and death because we have all we need in Christ and it is impossible to follow Him and hang onto any sense of worldly dignity because the two are mutually exclusive. Those who save their lives by denying Him will lose their lives and those who give up their lives for Him will gain eternal life.

I pray today that the Lord would grant to us all the grace and faith to forsake all the world has and to take up our crosses and follow Him. We may not be faced with physical death as so many of our brothers and sisters around the world now and in the past but we must be dead to the world with all hope in Christ. I pray that you and I never have to face physical death for our faith but I also pray that the gospel would be of such value to us that we would not hesitate should our lives be required for it. For us bearing a cross is no burden, it is an honor that we praise God for knowing that because of The Cross we have life though we die.

Sunday, May 1, 2011

Those Called Blessed and Saint

Earlier today in front of a huge crowd Pope Benedict XVI bestowed the status of “blessed” upon his predecessor John Paul II. This designation means that he is one step away from becoming an officially recognized saint in the Roman Catholic Church. The Catholic process for becoming a saint usually takes many years and involves a number of specific steps.

First a person must be dead for at least five years and then a local bishop must perform an investigation to verify that the person lived an exceptional life. The investigation involves a review of the person’s life, writings, and works. Then the information is sent to the Vatican for review and the person is declared a “servant of God”. A group of theologians led by an official postulator then evaluate the candidate’s life along with Cardinals from The Congregation for the Causes of Saints in Rome. The postulator and committee must prove that the person is worthy of consideration. If the candidate passes this hurdle the pope declares that the person is “venerable” and is therefore is an example of Catholic virtue. After this the person becomes a candidate for beatification which if attained would allow them to be officially honored. In order to be beatified the person must either have died a martyr or there must be evidence that a miracle was performed because of their posthumous intercession on behalf of someone. If such an occurrence can be demonstrated to the satisfaction of the Church the person is declared “blessed”. This is the step that was taken today by the pope for John Paul II. At this point, however, the person is still not officially a saint. In order to become a Catholic saint a second miracle must be documented and authenticated by the Catholic Church after beatification. Once the Catholic Church verifies that a second posthumous miracle has occurred the pope declares the person a “saint”.

The word saint comes from the Old English word sanct, which came into English through French from the Latin word sanctus which is the Latin word for the Hebrew kadesh and the Greek hagios which are the biblical words meaning set apart or holy. The biblical process for becoming a saint is at once much simpler and much more profound than the procedure used by the Catholic Church.

The bible refers to all who are believers in Jesus Christ as saints. Everyone who has a true and abiding love for God is set apart and holy which is why most of the letters of the New Testament spend a great deal of time exhorting  believers to live according to their calling. We are to offer spiritual sacrifices to the Lord having been called out from among the world. Peter explains it this way in his first epistle:

“But you are a chosen race, a royal priesthood, a holy nation, a people of his own, so that you may proclaim the virtues of the one who called you out of darkness into his marvelous light. You  once were not a people, but now you are God’s people. You were shown no mercy, but now you have received mercy.”

We do not seek signs or evidence of intercession because the bible tells us in 1 Timothy 2:5 that “there is one God, and there is one mediator between God and men, the man Christ Jesus”. He alone is righteous and He alone can intercede on behalf of people, all of whom have fallen under the power of sin. Biblically the only way that a person can attain holiness is if they have died in Christ and been reborn. The bible teaches that the holiness of the saints is actually the holiness of Christ Himself who has cleaned them of unrighteousness through His sacrifice. They obtain His righteousness by uniting to Him in faith. According to the bible it is only this perfect righteousness that can please God and that the righteousness of men is like filthy rags in His sight. We can never obtain the holiness required for sainthood in the eyes of God so He acquired it for us and offers it to us by His grace through faith alone. All that follows are works wrought in God through His spirit. Since we are all sinners what a blessing the words of the Apostle John are as he reminds us that “…if anyone does sin, we have an advocate with the Father, Jesus Christ the righteous.” How marvelous it is that there is no separation between us and our savior. We need no priesthood and no earthly intercessor because Christ Himself is our advocate before the Father.

We are a most blessed people and our Savior taught us what was becoming of those who are to inherit heaven. Our Lord Himself declared that His people are blessed but not because they had any great spiritual powers or credentials but rather because they walked as He walked. He taught us:

Blessed are the poor in spirit, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven.
Blessed are those who mourn, for they shall be comforted.
Blessed are the meek, for they shall inherit the earth.
Blessed are those who hunger and thirst for righteousness, for they shall be satisfied.
Blessed are the merciful, for they shall receive mercy.
Blessed are the pure in heart, for they shall see God.
Blessed are the peacemakers, for they shall be called sons of God.
Blessed are those who are persecuted for righteousness' sake, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven.
Blessed are you when others revile you and persecute you and utter all kinds of evil against you falsely on my account. Rejoice and be glad, for your reward is great in heaven, for so they persecuted the prophets who were before you. (Matt 5)

The only miracle the bible records as necessary to sainthood is the miracle of the new birth. I pray today that if you have not known this miracle that the Lord would open your eyes, give you a heart to love Him and that you would, by faith become one of His saints set apart for Him. If you are a believer I pray that you would be encouraged and would continue to “work out your own salvation with fear and trembling, for it is God who works in you, both to will and to work for his good pleasure. Do all things without grumbling or questioning, that you may be blameless and innocent, children of God without blemish in the midst of a crooked and twisted generation, among whom you shine as lights in the world”. (Philippians 2:12-15)