Tuesday, March 26, 2013

Love of the Word

I was recently reading sermons by Charles Spurgeon when I came to his sermon called The Blessing of Full Assurance on 1 John 5:13. Because of the title, I was expecting a comforting message of assurance. It does turn out to be a comforting message for believers but Spurgeon’s introduction caught me completely off guard. He says,

John wrote to believers—"These things have I written unto you that believe on the name of the Son of God." It is worthy of note that all the epistles are so written. They are not letters to everybody, they are letters to those who are called to be saints. It ought to strike some of you with awe when you open the Bible and think how large a part of it is not directed at you. You may read it, and God's Holy Spirit may graciously bless it to you, but it is not directed to you. You are reading another man's letter: thank God that you are permitted to read it, but long to be numbered with those to whom it is directed. Thank God much more if any part of it should be used of the Holy Ghost for your salvation. The fact that the Holy Spirit speaks to the churches and to believers in Christ should make you bow the knee and cry to God to put you among the children, that this Book may become your Book from beginning to end, that you may read its precious promises as made to you. This solemn thought may not have struck some of you: let it impress you now.

We do not wonder that certain men do not receive the epistles, for they were not written to them. Why should they cavil at words which are addressed to men of another sort from themselves? Yet we do not marvel, for we knew it would be so. Here is a will, and you begin to read it; but you do not find it interesting: it is full of words and terms which you do not take the trouble to understand, because they have no relation to yourself; but should you, in reading that will, come upon a clause in which an estate is left to you, I warrant you that the nature of the whole document will seem changed to you. You will be anxious now to understand the terms, and to make sure of the clauses, and you will even wish to remember every word of the clause which refers to yourself. O dear friends, may you read the Testament of our Lord Jesus Christ as a testament of love to yourselves, and then you will prize it beyond all the writings of the sages.

Is it any wonder that he is called the prince of preachers? His skillful use of this simple observation is both convicting and captivating. We may be comforted but he makes it plain that the comfort of assurance only belongs to those who are in Christ. Many believers struggle with assurance and fear that they may be self-deceived. The Bible gives many evidences that accompany true faith and we are frequently called to examine ourselves to be sure of our position in Christ.

Spurgeon’s introduction calls our attention to the way that faith in Christ changes our relationship to the Bible. As I read the sermon, I was reminded of Jonathan Edwards’ observations of the marks that accompany a true work of the Holy Spirit. In his famous work, TheDistinguishing Marks of a Work of The Spirit of God, Edwards argues there are five marks or evidences that always accompany a true work of the Holy Spirit. The five marks are:

  1. Love and confession of Christ
  2. Rejection of Sin and the World
  3. Love for the Word of God
  4. Growing Knowledge of the Truth
  5. Love for God and One Another

 Of all these “evidences”, it seems that number three and four are often least emphasized in modern Evangelicalism. Most everyone recognizes that we must love and confess Christ, turn from sin, and love God and one another. These are all accepted and encouraged as evidences of the work of the Spirit in a person or church. There are many, however, who are unconvinced that number 3 and 4 are necessary. In fact, some see a passion for truth or doctrine as evidence against a true work of The Spirit. Edwards, however, argued that where the Spirit of God is at work all five are present. He saw these both things as vitally necessary and closely linked together. One of his arguments for this is from 1 John 4:6 where the apostle says,

“We are from God. Whoever knows God listens to us; whoever is not from God does not listen to us. By this we know the Spirit of truth and the spirit of error.” (1 John 4:6)

Edwards points out that the pronouns “we” and “us” refer to the apostles. God sends them and those who know Him listen to them. Listening involves not only hearing the words but also accepting them as true. Those who are not from God do not listen. The apostle’s words (the Bible) are from God and receiving them separates God’s children from those who do not know Him. Notice that it is by “this” that we are able to exercise spiritual discernment. The Word of God is life (Phil. 2:16), truth (Jn. 17:17), and power (1 Cor. 1:18). It is the Word that creates the people of God (1 Peter 1:23), sustains them (Deut. 8:3), and defends them (Eph. 6:17). The Word is precious to those who love God and as The Spirit renews us, it becomes increasingly sweet to us.

I pray that those who struggle with assurance cling to the scriptures because it is through His Word that God brings us forth (Jas. 1:18) and through the Word that He changes us (Jn. 17:17). The Bible is both the instigation and confirmation of our faith. The Holy Spirit works through the Word to give and sustain life. The same gospel that initially saves us is what also sustains us. One measure of our relationship with God is our love of His Word because our love for the Word of God is an expression of our love for God Himself. Let us pray that this love matures in us so that we can sincerely pray the words of David in Psalm 119.

I have stored up your word in my heart,
that I might not sin against you.
Blessed are you, O Lord;
teach me your statutes!
With my lips I declare
all the rules of your mouth.
In the way of your testimonies I delight
as much as in all riches.
I will meditate on your precepts
and fix my eyes on your ways.
I will delight in your statutes;
I will not forget your word.

God Bless

Saturday, March 23, 2013

Defense of Marriage

On Tuesday, the U.S. Supreme Court will hear oral arguments to decide if they should overturn California’s proposition 8 ban on homosexual marriage. This is just the latest in a long series of incidents that highlight the shift of the broader culture away from traditional Judeo-Christian moral standards. The “homosexual” issue is probably the most significant challenge that Christian churches will face in the coming years with regard to cultural engagement. Those defending traditional Christian values have been steadily losing ground as the cultural battles over the legitimacy of homosexual marriage continue.

Over recent years, the victories won by those pushing an agenda to normalize homosexuality have been met with a series of efforts both inside and outside the church to “defend traditional marriage”. I think that all believers would agree that traditional marriage is something worth defending but a careful examination of the literature and rhetoric reveals that usually the primary interest is an opposition to homosexual marriage in particular. This seems to be true of both the religious and political elements of the movement.

Before we go further, I want to be clear. According to the Bible, homosexuality is a sin. Exegetical arguments to the contrary are textbook cases of eisegesis and rationalization. There is no question that to elevate homosexual unions to the same status as marriage is a distortion of God’s intent and is an appropriate concern for the Church. The secular public policy issues are also crucial because of the centrality of marriage to the structure of our society. Reducing marriage to a mere confirmation of the emotional attachments between adults and ignoring the broader function of marriage for the family and culture will have disastrous results. I am not questioning the legitimacy of churches rallying around this issue. Rather, I am pointing out that gay marriage is only one of many issues that must be dealt with if the goal is to defend marriage as a broader institution.

Unfortunately, the American church has little cultural authority on the wider issue of biblical marriage. Decades ago, the church in America all but abdicated its position as the defender of marriage. There have always been faithful congregations and pastors that have stood upon the Word but in general, the voice of the church has been functionally silent as no-fault divorce, pornography, and cohabitation have been eating away at the foundation of marriage as a cultural institution. The institution now under attack has already been substantially weakened both in the broader culture and within the church.

I do not want to oversimplify the problem, the erosion of marriage in the general culture has many complex implications for the pastoral ministry of the Church. Biblical churches are in the difficult position of speaking clearly on a range of sins such as divorce while also effectively bringing a ministry of grace to those who are bearing burdens associated with them. I have heard preachers deliver thundering and scathing rebukes of divorce and premarital sex with all the passion that Amos could muster while offering no grace or hope to those who needed it. I have also heard preachers who have skillfully avoided the subject so as not to offend anyone. Both of these are unbalanced approaches that fail to provide the kind of leadership the church is called to provide.

If the Church is to take an effective stand on issues of marriage it needs to do so consistently and with appropriate balance of law and grace. Before we can engage in the overall cultural discussion, we must first address the issues within the fellowship of believers. Many local churches have, but the typical report is discouraging. We recognize that marriage certificates are issued by the State. The Church, however, has no obligation to sanction a union simply because it is acceptable to the state. If we are to defend marriage in the culture, we must begin by defending it within our own communion.

There was a time when the culture was so distinct from the Church that Christian morality was exceptional and unique. Eventually, so many elements of Judeo-Christian morality were imported into the social mores and laws of Western Civilization that the accepted standards of morality became those of the Bible. We are fast approaching another age where that is no longer the case. Will we have the same courage of our convictions that our early fathers in the faith had? If so, we need to begin talking about a broader biblical view of marriage that goes beyond singling out a particular sin.

Those who wish to make a defense of marriage a focus of their ministry do well to take a stand on homosexual marriage but that by itself is not enough. It is just as important that a biblical perspective is cultivated with regard to divorce, cohabitation, neglect, abuse, and the dangers of pornography. Too many Christians have no theological framework for their understanding of marriage. Too many cannot explain the biblical teaching concerning what marriage is, why it is important, and what it looks like when practically lived out. The statistics indicate that there is little distinction in most American churches between the attitudes of the members about these things and those of their unbelieving neighbors. If our goal is to offer a biblical defense of marriage we must model it and teach in our own fellowships (1 Peter 2:11-12). This involves a comprehensive and positive teaching about marriage rather than a narrow reaction to one particular challenge. By all means, let us meet the challenge, but let us do it by ensuring that the culture cannot redefine our teaching on marriage by forcing a distortion of our doctrine by pushing us to only teach about what we oppose. Let us bring the gospel to bear on the entirety of the institution.

Saturday, March 9, 2013

Allow God?

I was looking for something on the internet recently and came across the following statement on a Christian website, “He will use you, but you must allow Him to work through your heart.” There is nothing surprising or unique about finding this kind of statement on a Christian site. In fact, many believers say this kind of thing all the time. It is not a quotation of any particular biblical text but those who say these kinds of things are clearly trying to communicate something that they believe is central to the teaching of the Bible. What is it exactly that they are trying to say? Is it biblical?

To begin unpacking this we must understand what is meant by the term “allow” in this context. Generally when these kinds of statements are made no definition is given. The speaker or writer typically assumes that a particular understanding is conveyed, but like most English words, the verb “allow” has a range of meanings. It is not at all clear that everyone who makes these statements intends to communicate the same thing. There are at least four common definitions for “allow” and each would suggest a different interpretation.

The first definition given in most English dictionaries is “to grant permission”. Taken this way, the phrase suggests that humans must grant permission to God in order for Him to use them or work in their hearts. This implies that human beings have authority over the acts of God in at least some areas. Probably most who use these phrases do not intend to say this, but some certainly do. The problem with this view is that it stands in opposition to every explicit statement in scripture about God’s authority and His relationship to humanity. In every case in the Bible where the concepts of authority and permission are in view it is God who is granting or denying. It never goes the other way.

The second definition is “to make possible or to provide an opportunity”. This seems to be what is meant by most who talk about our need to “allow” God to work in us. The idea is that although God has the authority to act He will not do so unless we cooperate with Him. His character is such that He waits for us to invite Him to work in our lives. The idea is that God woos us and draws us but we must yield to Him if we are to be used by Him. There are no explicit verses in the Bible teaching that God respects our freedom so much that He refrains from working in us until invited. The concept is developed from various passages that indicate that humans have the ability to resist God and His Spirit (Rom. 6:16, 19; Eph. 4:30, Acts 7:51, etc.). Of course, the Bible does teach that humans can resist God. In fact, it teaches that all humans resist God. The question is if there is some point, at which God will act unilaterally to overcome that resistance. This is essentially the issue involved in the debate about the doctrine of irresistible grace. We all resist God and in sin none of us seeks to cooperate with Him or submit to him (Rom. 3:23-24). This is the essence of grace, that it is God who overcomes our resistance and makes us alive spiritually (Eph. 2:4-6, John 6:44, 63-65, etc.). If it is true that God takes the initiative to overcome our resistance and continues to work in us to sanctify us and give us the power to live the Christian life (Phil. 2:12-13, John 3:21, Eph. 2:10) then He is not limited by or waiting for us to grant Him permission to work. Indeed, we are spiritually incapable of initiating the process (1 Cor. 2:14, 2 Cor. 3:5, Rom. 8:7-8). In the end we recognize that far from responding to us, His work to save us and work in us began long before we were even born (Eph. 1:3-5).

The third definition is “to grant that a piece of information has legal standing”. Since it is God who judges and we who are to be judged this does not seem to be the meaning intended. We certainly have no standing by which to render judgment over the criteria that God would use in His heavenly court (1 Tim. 6:15).

The final common definition is “to admit or accept the truth of a proposition”. I doubt that most people intend anything like this meaning when they talk about “allowing God to work” but in a sense this is the definition that would be the most biblical in its application. The definition is speaking of intellectual assent but if we truly believe something then our desire will be to act in accordance with that belief. In this way, this definition is consistent with the way Paul and the other Apostles generally encouraged the churches. In each of his letters, Paul begins by laying the doctrinal foundation of what God has done through Christ for those who believe. Paul then builds upon that doctrinal foundation by encouraging the believers to live and work in a way that is consistent with those truths. The life of the believer is an acknowledgment of the truth of what God has done and is doing. The Christian life is an act of worship and is a reasonable expression of gratefulness for the work of God and a testimony to it (Rom. 12:1-2). The apostles repeatedly encourage the saints to live consistently with who they actually are.

In this way to speak of “allowing” God to work in our lives is simply another way of saying that we must submit to God in recognition of the Truth. If we will be productive and faithful servants we must be transformed by that truth or else we testify that we are not His. Our great privilege is that God has chosen to work in us and through us. We should therefore submit to Him, listen to His word, and honor Him. If that is what is meant by “allowing” God to work in our lives then I add my Amen.

We have no authority to exercise power over God in any way, neither does He require our permission should He choose to work in our lives. We do not influence how He judges and works (Job 40:2). If any of this is what is intended by “allow” then I think it is a boldness that we should be cautious about because I do not find it in the Bible. Salvation from start to finish is of the Lord (Heb. 12:2).

Sunday, March 3, 2013

The Preaching and Teaching of Jesus: A Real Example

Jesus Christ was a preacher and a teacher. His ministry was primarily one of proclaiming and explaining the Word of God. Jesus is also an example for us to follow. He is the perfect expression of the God honoring life and it is our desire as Christians to become increasing like Christ in all that we are and do. We often think of this example in relation to our moral behavior and our devotional acts such as prayer but the example should extend beyond this. His handling of the Word of God and His submission to its authority is also an example to all Christians and particularly to teachers and preachers. Many of us are tempted, however, to think that since Jesus was the incarnate Son of God that it is unrealistic to aspire to the example that He set as a preacher or teacher. I would, however, like to draw attention to a few things that often are overlooked in our evaluation of Jesus as a preacher and teacher that demonstrate the way His ministry is a real example for preachers and teachers today.

It is true nobody can preach or teach with the authority that Jesus possesses. He is perfect in knowledge and power, He is the Word of God incarnate, and not only did He preach the truth He IS the truth. No other teacher or preacher can make those claims. While it is important that we not underestimate the degree to which the ministry of Jesus was unique, it is also important to bring the entirety of the doctrine of the incarnation to bear on our assessment of His ministry. Jesus is God, but He is also fully man and the relationship between His human and divine natures in His teaching and preaching ministry has implications for us today.

Jesus was not omniscient in His human nature. The scripture records that He learned things as He grew (Luke 2:52) and there were even certain facts that He did not know (Mark 13:32). This raises the question of how His teaching could be infallible and authoritative. Jesus, however, provides the answer Himself and does so in a way that lays a foundation for the ministry of the Church.

We know that Jesus was brilliant. Even as a 12 year old boy his insight into the Word of God amazed the teachers at the temple (Luke 2:46-47). His teaching and preaching, however, was not the result of the insights or perceptions of His human intellect. The message that Christ preached was revealed to His human nature from His divine nature. The source of this message is divine and Jesus, the God-man, communicates it perfectly. This is most clear in John’s Gospel. In His last public statement, Jesus explains that the very words He speaks are from the Father.

For I have not spoken on my own authority, but the Father who sent me has himself given me a commandment—what to say and what to speak. And I know that his commandment is eternal life. What I say, therefore, I say as the Father has told me.” (John 12:49-50 ESV)

Later, in response to Philip asking to see the Father, Jesus again explains that the Father authorizes the words He speaks.

“Do you not believe that I am in the Father and the Father is in me? The words that I say to you I do not speak on my own authority, but the Father who dwells in me does his works.” (John 14:10 ESV)

That the preaching and teaching of Jesus comes from divine revelation rather than being the product of His perfect insight is important because it is a model showing how the ministers of the Church in all their weakness can also teach and preach an authoritative message. In His high priestly prayer just before His crucifixion Jesus, speaking of the apostles, says, “…I have given them the words that you gave me, and they have received them ...” (John 17:6-8 ESV)

The Church has received the actual Word of God through the teaching of Jesus. This communication of divine propositions continues through the ministry of the Holy Spirit working through the Apostles as they recorded the balance of Holy Scripture (John 14:26, 16:12-13; 2 Timothy 3:16). Our message is also not to be the result of human insight or perception. We are also to only teach and preach the message that God has given us. This is why Jude can refer to the message of the Church as the “Faith that was once for all delivered”. This is why John in his first letter sees no contradiction when he teaches the Church that they have no need for anyone to teach them because they have the anointing of the Holy Spirit. When the Word of God is faithfully and accurately preached and taught, it is God Himself who does is doing the teaching. It is an authoritative communication from God to humans.

Someone may still object pointing out that unlike Jesus, we do not have a perfect communion of a divine and human nature within ourselves. To this, I would like to add two points that I unfortunately do not have space to develop here. First, we have a check against the need for any sort of subjective apprehension of the divine message because we have an objective revelation in the Word of God. Any claim of authority by a preacher or teacher today is easily verified. Jesus, as God, possessed all authority but the authority of any minister today extends only as far as the extent to which they are in agreement with the Bible. The accuracy of the “communication” of the divine message is therefore to be objectively evaluated. Second, we have received a new nature and the Holy Spirit Himself applies the message of God to our understanding. Although we do not possess a divine nature as part of our inherent individual make-up, we do receive the gift of the Holy Spirit. Jesus promised us that we would be in Him as He is in the Father. Although we do not yet experience perfect communion we nevertheless recognize that it is the Holy Spirit working in us so that we may understand, believe, and share the Word of God.

The result of all of this is that the teaching and preaching of Jesus is a real example to us. By God’s grace, we are able to become partakers in His ministry. If we teach and preach the Bible, we continue to have an authoritative message. It remains the Word of God in every sense. The example of Christ shows us the seriousness and confidence with which we must handle it. We are to preach and teach just as He did, under the authority of the Word of God.