Sunday, September 25, 2011

Am I Any Better?

As we read the scriptures it is often easy for us to be frustrated with the foolishness, faithlessness, and general sinfulness of the people whose stories are told there. We are tempted to cry out “what the heck are you thinking!” at the Hebrews making a golden calf as Moses is up on the mountain after they had been miraculously delivered from Egypt. We can be frustrated as time and time again the kings of Judah and Israel fail to honor God and bring punishment to their land. We want to reach out to Peter as he is denying the Lord that fateful night. It is easy for us, from our historical distance, to pass judgment upon them for their lack of faith.

Where does the confidence to judge those who have come before us come from? I want to specifically speak to those who are believers. To those who know the Lord and who depend upon Him for their salvation. To those who have a desire to glorify Him in all that they do. We have to be very careful that we do not think ourselves better than we ought when looking at the weaknesses of those bible characters. After all, we are often too blind to our own faithlessness.

To highlight this I would like to focus on the very first example of a human sinful decision from the scripture and one that we are often tempted (incorrectly I think) to wonder if we might have handled better.

“Now the serpent was more crafty than any other beast of the field that the LORD God had made. He said to the woman, “Did God actually say, ‘You shall not eat of any tree in the garden’?” And the woman said to the serpent, “We may eat of the fruit of the trees in the garden, but God said, ‘You shall not eat of the fruit of the tree that is in the midst of the garden, neither shall you touch it, lest you die.’” But the serpent said to the woman, “You will not surely die. For God knows that when you eat of it your eyes will be opened, and you will be like God, knowing good and evil.” So when the woman saw that the tree was good for food, and that it was a delight to the eyes, and that the tree was to be desired to make one wise, she took of its fruit and ate, and she also gave some to her husband who was with her, and he ate.”       (Genesis 3:1-6 ESV)

We might be tempted to wonder how two people who experienced the fellowship of God and walked with Him, who had been given everything and only had a single restriction could make such a poor choice. If, however, we look carefully at the thought process behind their choice we will notice something that is both interesting and unsettling.

Notice that the sinful choice was a reasoned choice. It was not simply some kind of emotional reaction. There was a progression of thought that led to this choice and that progression involved certain basic assumptions. First, there is the assumption that God does not (or has not) revealed the truth. Satan attacks the integrity of God’s word and attempts to create doubt about what God had said. Second, God is not the sole reliable source of information about reality. Satan is giving arguments that would indicate that there are other perspectives on what is actual or real. When Adam and Eve sin they are assuming that they are not dependent solely upon God to reveal what is ultimately real and what is the actual state of affairs. Finally, the sin involved the assumption that human reason was the final arbiter of truth and action. Once they accepted that God might not have a monopoly on the truth and that there were other perspectives, they then logically moved to the conclusion that they themselves would determine which perspective they would accept and act upon.

All of this involves a rejection of God’s sovereign authority and an usurpation of that authority thus placing them above God in their own minds. What should be disturbing to us about those premises is that they are the same ones that we have a propensity to accept as well. In reality they are the starting points of anyone who disregards God’s word and thereby also His authority.

Every time we choose to sin or disobey God we are revealing a lack or weakness of faith and are accepting those same foundational premises in our thought patterns. Whenever we sin we are showing that our desire to do serve ourselves is greater than our desire to serve God. In so doing, just like Adam and Eve, we are rejecting His word, accepting into our thoughts some other view of reality, and are elevating our own reason above His as our authority.

We have one example of Adam and Eve doing this… but how often can we think of times where we have done this? We should certainly know better and yet we continue to struggle with this. We therefore have no basis for thinking that we would have done better than they did. When we look at the repeated failures of faith in the bible and see the longsuffering of God in working through all of that weakness to bring about the salvation of His people we should praise Him. Not because we are better than those people but because we are just like them and yet by His grace He has saved us. The failures of faith in the bible are there to show us the weakness of humanity and the faithfulness of God.

Once we recognize that our salvation is only through the grace of God all pride should be stamped out. After all it took Satan himself to tempt Eve but we are often led away by our own failings. Perhaps it is the case that Adam and Eve held out much longer than we would have. We would do well to avoid any spiritual hubris whatsoever. If we are to be confident then it is only in our confidence in Christ. Our only victory over sin is Christ’s victory. Our only righteousness is Christ’s righteousness. From start to finish whatever blessings come to us are all of grace. Praise God that He has saved us despite ourselves! 

Thursday, September 15, 2011

Circles & Crosses

Circular arguments are usually an indication of sloppy thinking. As believers we are to be people of truth and should do our best to give honest and proper reasons for our conclusions and using fallacious arguments such as circular reasoning should be avoided. Not every situation, however, is the same. One of the areas where we are most likely to be accused of using circular logic is in our acceptance of Scripture as God’s word. A simplified exchange between a Christian and a non-Christian might go something like this:

Christian:         I believe the bible is God’s word.
Non-Christian: Why do you believe that?
Christian:         The bible claims that it is God’s word.
Non-Christian: That is circular reasoning!

Of course the non-Christian is absolutely correct, this is circular reasoning. That does not mean, however, that in this case the Christian is engaged in sloppy thinking. There is an important difference between this example and most others where circular logic would be unacceptable. The difference is that the Scripture is the authority or basis of reasoning that is the foundation of the Christian system of thought. It is, as Gordon Clark used to say, the axiom or starting point for all subsequent reasoning for believers. The old time theologians used to say that the scripture was norma normans non normata which is Latin for “the norm that norms but is not normed”. It means that the scripture establishes itself and does not rely upon anything else for its authority or legitimacy. It is the standard by which everything is judged and it is not itself judged.

Therefore within the framework of Christian faith an appeal to the truth of the bible to support the conclusion that the bible is true is an appeal to the foundational authority of Christianity itself. It is not simply an argument resulting from a logical progression but is rather a question of presuppositions. While those who reject the authority of scripture will not accept that the truth of the bible stands on its own, in fact, all systems of thought eventually must make a similar circular appeal to some unproven authority. There is no such thing as a purely objective approach to ideas.

If someone rejects the proposition that the bible is God’s word they are then forced to accept one of two alternative propositions; that the bible is not God’s word, or that the bible might not be God’s word. The first alternative suggests that the person has tested the scripture by some other authority and found it to fall short. The second alternative implies that it needs to be tested by some other authority so that a conclusion can be formed. This creates an interesting dilemma, however, because ultimately they are arguing that another authority be accepted in the place of the scripture but cannot demonstrate the superiority of that authority without appealing to it just as the Christian has done with the bible.

If the person appeals to some other alleged divine revelation such as the Koran, the mystical experience of a Buddhist monk, or the Bhagavad-Gita then they must show why their starting point is superior to that of the Christian. Of course they cannot do this without a circular appeal to their own chosen authority.

Perhaps, others would say that we need to evaluate the scriptural claim scientifically. Unfortunately this does not solve the problem because science has its own authoritative starting point. Scientific observations and judgments are built upon the authority of materialistic and empirical assumptions. Unfortunately for those who make an ultimate appeal to science, the primacy of empirical data cannot itself be demonstrated empirically so it is ultimately accepted by faith. Like the Christian and his or her bible it is an appeal to an assumed authority.

Ultimately any other historical or philosophical standard that is set up to evaluate the truth claim of the bible is elevating some other arbitrary authority above the word of God. There are plenty of other reasons to believe the teaching of the bible than its own claims about itself but it is its self-testimony (that we come to understand and believe through the enlightening work of The Spirit) that establishes it. It does not rely upon anything outside itself for its authority.

As believers we have a responsibility to think clearly and sloppy and circular logic should be avoided. Our acceptance of the bible as the true word of God, however, is not a conclusion based upon our reasoning from some other authority. When we reason backward from various conclusions to our dependence upon the truth of the bible we have arrived at the fountainhead. We cannot, and need not, go back any further. This is the foundation for all knowledge and truth. As Christians we do not have to feel intellectually inferior for our reliance on the bible. All systems choose their own starting points. We should boldly proclaim that God’s word stands in judgment over us and not us over it. We know that is true because the bible tells us so.

Monday, September 5, 2011

Spirit vs Flesh- How Can We Tell?

Every true believer has a desire to overcome the sin that is in their lives. It is part of the experience of every regenerate person to struggle against what the bible calls “the flesh”. As we grow in our understanding of God’s holiness and begin to understand the depths of our own sinfulness we become aware of the fact that we are incapable of approaching spiritual perfection while in this life. We are therefore left with a command to be holy as God is holy while recognizing that it is beyond our ability to accomplish this. When understood properly this should lead us to rely solely upon God’s grace and mercy not only for our salvation but also in order for us to have any hope of honoring Him with our lives. Both our being declared holy on the basis of what Christ has done and the actual development of the fruits of holiness in our actual lives are based upon grace.

The combination of this already/not yet perspective on holiness as a result of God’s gracious work combined with the fact that we are commanded to strive against sin can raise some troubling questions for believers. It is easy to say that we need to actively strive against sin in our lives while recognizing that we must rely upon God in order to do so. Actually applying this theological distinction in our lives can sometimes be difficult though. The tension arises from the very important question “how do we know if we are striving in the spirit or in the flesh?” How do we know if we are properly balancing the two halves of the equation of the biblical doctrine of sanctification?

If we attempt to overcome sinfulness solely through willpower or discipline we run the risk of developing a pharisaical view that sees holiness as conformity to a legalistic standard that governs outward acts. The danger here is that we begin to think that it is our own will and self-effort that makes us holy. On the other extreme, however, is the equally dangerous view that we should not actively strive against the sin in our lives and that we should remain passive, simply allowing (and waiting) for God to work. One of the primary dangers of this type of quietist approach is that it drastically underestimates the power of sin and can leave the believer in a shell shocked doubt. This doubt often leads to the conclusion that they did not have sufficient faith to “allow” God to bring about victory. Both of these extremes are a deviation from the biblical teaching on how the believer is changed.

The bible teaches that we must pursue holiness and that we are to actively tend to the means of grace provided to us for that end (bible study, prayer, etc.). The scripture also teaches that it is God who is working in us to transform us into the likeness of our savior Jesus Christ. Although justification is an instantaneous monergistic act our sanctification is a process that involves the cooperation of the regenerate person with the work of God in their life. Although we are sanctified wholly by grace, through that grace we are made alive and active by the spirit so that we may participate in the battle against our sinful nature. As John Calvin famously remarked, “we are justified by faith alone but the faith that justifies is never alone”.  John Murray explains further saying, “God’s working in us is not suspended because we work, nor our working suspended because God works. Neither is the relation strictly one of co-operation as if God did his part and we did ours so that the conjunction or coordination of both produced the required result. God works in us and we also work. But the relation is that because God works we work.”

The question remains, however, how we who know that we need to actively work against sin as well as depend upon the work of Christ in us in order for this to happen evaluate ourselves to ensure that we are not falling into one of the dangerous extremes described above?

First, it is clear that we must make conscious attempts to mortify the sin in our lives. We cannot assume a passive role in our spiritual development. If, however, we are actively pursuing holiness how can we be sure that we are not falling into a prideful pharisaic self-delusion? How can we tell if the disciplines we are pursuing are the result of our cooperation with the Sprit of God in us or simply our own fleshly pursuit?

I do not know that there is a single all encompassing perfect answer. I do think, however, that there are some important indicators that we can look at. First, we must evaluate the means that we are employing to bring about the changes. If we are using something other than the means that are emphasized in the scripture then we might be in dangerous territory. Our culture (including the Christian culture) is saturated with psychological and philosophical approaches to self-improvement that masquerade as Christian though they are not. The bible focuses on bible study, fellowship, worship, prayer, and sacrificial service as the marks and means of spiritual maturity so those would be what we would expect to characterize the life of one who is being transformed by the spirit.

It is, of course, possible for a person to engage in these activities as a means of prideful self-sanctification as well. This is why I think that an evaluation of our private prayer life is perhaps one of the most important indicators of our spiritual condition. Prayer is fundamentally an expression of dependence upon God. A self righteous person may pray often but the emphasis in their prayer would tend to be on being seen or known to be praying. People who are relying upon God rather than themselves have a private prayer life characterized by sincere and honest prayer. If we want to have a good evaluation of our spiritual lives we would do well to examine our private prayers in light of the scripture. How often do we pray?  How do we pray? What do we pray for? How do our prayers compare to the prayers of the faithful that are recorded in the bible? Do they reflect a character of dependence?

The bible tells us that we are to fight the good fight while relying upon the power of God to bring victory. Within each of us is a tendency to drift from the biblical balance and either try to work out our own holiness or remain passive, neglecting the exhortations and means provided to us. We must pray and study and be ever vigilant about our walk remembering Paul’s words to the Philippians.

Therefore, my beloved, as you have always obeyed, so now, not only as in my presence but much more in my absence, 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.
(Philippians 2:12-13 ESV)

And so we must work with the knowledge that we work because God works. We can tell if indeed God is working by the fruit in our lives. Not just outward works, but the spiritual fruit that accompanies a changed life.