Faith to Move Mountains

By its very definition, faith is mysterious and beyond full comprehension. It speaks of a form of trust that, though it is built on what is reasonable and knowledgeable, it goes beyond what can be understood.

For most Christians, faith emphasizes the active belief in Jesus as Lord and Savior. That is certainly true, however, faith is often referred to in the Bible where there is little or no understanding of Jesus at that moment. As a result, in order to understand this faith that that God says is required in order to please him, it might be worth a more detailed look at a surprising revelation.

When Peter and John passed the blind beggar, the text says that all the man wanted was money. There is no reference to any knowledge about Jesus, let alone any faith in being able to be healed by him, nor any idea that Peter and John were even Christian. However, after he was healed, and all the people where amazed, the Apostles stated that, “It is in Jesus’ name and the faith that comes through him that has given this complete healing to him, as you can all see.” In this case, the faith to be healed was not in the disabled man, but in those who gave the healing.

However, there is an important distinction that needs to be recognized here. Peter, with his faith in Jesus’ ability to heal, had likely passed lots of other beggars who wanted money, but only this one received the healing. Notice what it says: “Look at us!” There is something significant implied in this, for those with ears to hear.

When Paul and Barnabas began preaching the good news in Lystra, the response of the crowds indicate that the teaching about Jesus had not yet been conveyed when the crippled man suddenly was healed. There is no mention of Jesus and no reference to this man’s faith in being able to be healed. The people thought that their pagan gods had come in human form.

Notice, however, the hint in the text. In the middle of Paul’s speech, he stopped what he was doing, even though there were lots of people in the crowd, and likely other people in need of healing. We are simply told, “Paul looked directly at him, saw that he had faith to be healed and called out, ‘Stand up on your feet!’” What kind of faith is this that would think a physical healing was more important than teaching truth? And, why did Paul look intently at this man? There is something significant here, for those with ears to hear.

When the crippled man was let down by his friends through the roof to be healed by Jesus, the text implies that it was the faith of this man’s friends to which Jesus attributes the healing. But their apparent faith could only have been in Jesus’ ability and willingness to heal, and not a matter of faith in him being their Savior. In contrast, when the disabled man by the wading pool was asked by Jesus if he wanted to be healed, he never even said yes. In fact, the text says that he didn’t even know who healed him; so where was the required faith? There is something significant here, for those with ears to hear.

When Jesus returned to Galilee, the Bible records that he could do few miracles because of the lack of faith in the people. Certainly Jesus had enough faith to heal others, but he didn’t this time. And, the text says that these people had been in Jerusalem and saw all the miracles he did, so they certainly had the knowledge that his man was fully capable of healing. But their lack of faith prevented healing. Why, when it worked at other times? There is a significant reason, for those willing to hear.

There are many other examples that could be highlighted, but these should be sufficient to demonstrate the complexity of faith as it might apply to receiving from God. To start the whole thing, faith is presented in Scripture as a gift that God simply gives in grace to those he wants to experience his goodness. At the end of the Book, it is those who endure in faith to their final breath, that God promises to bless. Sometimes living out our faith in Jesus as Lord of our new lives, is what Scripture requires. In other passages, it is an open profession of faith in Jesus as Savior, confirmed at the start of our walk through baptism. At other times it is about faith in God and what he promises. In some cases, it is faith in the possibility of being healed or blessed, without anything eternal in the mix. In other circumstances it is some kind of faith, without any reference to Jesus or salvation. Again, there are occurrences of faith of others that turns into blessings for us; and, there are instances where it all hinges on the faith of the person who seems intent on helping us in our plight. Of course, there are many examples where the lack of faith, in any of the above aspects, prevents experiencing the grace of God.

What is this faith?

Faith cannot be understood through extensive study or observation, like most all of what comes from God. It must be received from God as well as be revealed to us.

The first is a pure act of grace. Faith must be received; it cannot be earned, defined, or controlled by human effort. However, it is also something that ought to grow and mature in a believer. That requires our participation.

These distinctions help explain why there are so many different references to faith. The secret is not that there are different types of faith, but rather that God is doing something different at that moment.

In every recorded passage, the key to understanding what faith is required for God to intervene, is to identify what God intends to do, rather than try to assess the grasp of faith in a person. It is a matter of focus. The focus is not about the extent of faith in a person, but on the activity of God.

Consider the above passages. In Lystra, Paul healed the man in the crowd right in the middle of his sermon, because he saw something special going on. As he was preaching, he saw the Holy Spirit revealing something through the expressions of that disabled man, and it suddenly stopped his speaking so that he could respond. As he stared more intensely, he concluded that the Spirit was revealing to him that God was about to do something miraculous—what the Bible calls faith. In other words, it was faith in this man, most likely through his spirit having been suddenly opened and receptive to the work of God, that is defined as faith.

When Peter was accosted for money, he sensed something different than from all the other beggars he had passed. He not only stopped, even though he didn’t have what the man wanted, he specifically told the man to look at him. As Jesus taught, the eyes are a lamp into the soul. Peter looked more carefully to verify whether his initial sense that had stopped him was really of God, and saw God about to do something. That is the faith Peter spoke about later. The healing happened because Peter had responded in faith to what he sensed, through the request and eyes of this man, that God wanted to act.

When Jesus healed the man let down through the roof, it was not recorded as something do to that man’s faith in Jesus as Savior, but rather that Jesus recognized that this effort to put this man before him, was something from God. Faith is a gift, remember. God had given his grace to this man, and through this man’s friends, so that God could bring glory to himself through Jesus. Jesus recognized this. That is the faith being referenced.

The event when Jesus healed the crippled man at the pool, who didn’t know him or even acknowledge belief in God, when hundreds of other people there wanted to be healed, could only be explained as something Jesus sensed was of God. Like when he turned around in a crowd and asked who touched him, Jesus was demonstrating his human sensitivity to the activity of the Holy Spirit. Jesus was constantly looking for evidence of the Spirit to direct his words, choices, and activities.

That is what faith should look like in a believer. It is also what it means to see faith in another person—it is when we sense that God is showing us that he is about to act and is inviting us to participate. In this way, faith is more about the evidence of God in a person, than about the person’s view towards God.

The sad part of the revelation is that even when Jesus longs to bless us, the testing for faith sometimes prevents it. When the Lord traveled on this earth, he was limited in doing miracles, because the people were not showing the necessary faith. Although faith comes to a person as a gift, it must thereafter be something that person engages with and develops in submission to the activity of God. In truth, some receive faith, but don’t ever produce the demanded fruit, which limits Christ from blessing them. Even though Jesus healed and did amazing miracles some times in those with no personal faith, when people didn’t show any faith that God was intending to act in them, Jesus withheld his power to bless.

The key, once again, is to look for the revealed activity of the Spirit in that moment, circumstance, person, or need. Is God about to do something? The prophets record that God does nothing without first revealing what he is about to do to his servants. That is significant to understanding what it means to respond to faith.

Think about this in terms of Jesus’ teaching on the level of faith necessary to move mountains. Many have tried to strain their goodness glands into some amount of powerful faith, but what if we were to shift our focus away from trying to measure whether or not we have enough personal faith that something could happen, and toward trying to exercise the faith to recognize the activity of God that is about to happen. Looking toward self will always be limited; but, developing the eyes of the Spirit to see what God is about to do, and to alter our activity to participate, will have unlimited power—enough to toss a mountain into the sea, if that is what God is about to do.

Life goes on. People do whatever they want. All looks usual and expected, but then something catches our attention. It could be just our own desire or personal agenda, but no, this is something more. This looks very different. Could this be God breaking through our human shield of ignorance and inviting me to draw near to the burning bush?

Faithful and mature Christians live by the promptings of the Spirit rather than by the observations and preferences of the flesh. That is not just a suggestion. It is a description of the consuming orientation of those who have died to self and live entirely for the work of the Lord. The Holy Spirit doesn’t always reveal himself, however, so we go about our God-honoring business, while we are constantly on the watch for divine intervention. When we sense that, we drop everything in order to participate in what God intends to do, so that he will receive glory at our hand.

Then it happens. Subtle at first. Perhaps a gentle whisper or nudge. We turn to check it out; changing our course; pausing our activity mid-stream. We look intently with our spirit, to see if this unusual indication is truly an invitation from God. If we make it up, it isn’t faith, and we will come under judgment. If we sense it rightly, faith invites us to expose ourselves and declare what only God has the right to say:

“Be healed!”

“Stand up and walk!”

“Your sins are forgiven!”

“Receive Eternal Life in Jesus name!”

It is all a matter of faith.

Posted in Christian Gospel | Tagged , , , , | Leave a comment

Believing in Fake Scripture

What we claim to believe about Scripture directly reflects what we believe about God. Scripture is the word of God. It is not simply a regurgitation that resembles what God thinks; Scripture is the very breath of God.

“All Scripture is God-breathed” (2 Tim 3:16).

That is an amazing statement that unfortunately is not commonly accepted by many Christians. Consider the wording found in many published statements of faith:

“We believe in the holy Scriptures as the full and accurate word of God in their original form”.

It is that last clarification that is most concerning. The reason many conservative groups add that phrase, is that it is well known and accepted that all existing translations of the Bible have difficulties. Many, if not all, have errors. In fact, the very nature of translation, which uses different words from other languages to try and reflect the original words, cannot ever contain the complete and exact meaning of those words in that original. That’s why they are a different language. It might get close, but it can’t be exact.

As a result, it is only the original documents that can present the exact words as recorded at that moment of inspiration by the writers of Scripture. Therein lies the problem. There are NO known copies of any original documents for any part of the Bible. Everything we have today is a copy of a translation, with who-knows-how-many iterations.

Of course, another approach that many churches take in dealing with this issue, is to claim to accept Scripture in its intended references and not specifically as something that is completely accurate and trustworthy. That is much too literal and constraining to them, so they swing along the pendulum to the other end and claim to appreciate the literature of Scripture and not get embroiled in the messy inaccuracies of the details.

So, should we accept that the Bible is completely accurate and trustworthy, if no original documents exist, and all translations have issues? This is why many faith statements claim to believe in the accuracy of Scripture only in their original form.

The glaring problem, that few seem to want to admit, is that such original Scripture doesn’t exist, so their belief in the trustworthiness of the existing Bible is invalid. They are claiming to believe in a myth.

Think about it. Does it make any sense at all to say that you believe and trust in God’s holy words in a form that doesn’t exist. What does such a statement reveal about what these groups actually believe about the book that sits in their lap on a Sunday morning?

They don’t actually trust it!

The problem here is not with the reliability of Scripture, but with the scholarly philosophy that demands material proofs. It is an evolutionary error of judgment that claims to believe in origins that can’t be proven by any existing physical evidence. Many Christians have been suckered into this lie.

The Bible that we have today can and should be trusted!

Consider the opening quote above, that God has breathed all Scripture. When the Apostle Paul wrote this statement to the minister Timothy, the existing Scripture that he had at that time, and that he was speaking about, was NOT an original. All of it was from translated copies.

The word Scripture, up to that time, was understood to mean those accepted books from Genesis to Malachi, as recorded in two primary versions: a Hebrew and a Greek. The Greek Septuagint was clearly an old and accepted translation from the original Hebrew, and one that both Jesus and the apostles quoted from (as they also did from the Hebrew version). That means that the Lord didn’t have a problem with this translation, even though it is very different in various details from the contemporary Hebrew at that time.

The reason scholars know that many New Testament quotes from the Old come from the Septuagint and not the Hebrew text is because the Hebrew wording says and means some things differently. If the living Word of God, known as Jesus, chose to quote from the Greek translation rather than from the Hebrew, then we are compelled, out of respect for his sovereign judgment as the Son of God who originally spoke those words, to accept the Greek meanings over the Hebrew ones especially in those passages, and in turn to embrace the Hebrew quoted passages over the Greek when chosen.

The Hebrew Scriptures were also in many ways a translation. When the Kingdom of Judah was taken captive to Babylon some 600 years previous to Paul’s writing, the Jews who were able to return to the land of Israel had effectively lost their native language. What they still had were Hebrew words on biblical scrolls, but few if any other writings to preserve that language or to ensure the ability to accurately define what all those words meant. You may have noticed in the footnotes of your Bible, when reading in the Old Testament, that “the meaning of this phrase or word is unknown”. That is because, for the most part, Hebrew had been lost. [There are other reason too, like Hebrew words passed down in Scripture that do not match the original due to scribal errors, but those are irrelevant to the point being made here.]

This was the time frame when devout Jews feared to speak the name of God, because the written letters of YHWH had no accompanying reference to how to rightly pronounce the holy name of God. To mis-speak and butcher God’s name was tantamount to blasphemy.

Modern Hebrew, for those who don’t know, didn’t come into existence until after WWII. The new nation of modern Israel needed their own language and Hebrew didn’t exist. Jews were coming together with a potpourri of languages from the nations where they had been scattered many generations before. Old Hebrew was a dead language.

What they did was take words from Scripture that had familiar meanings and combined them into made-up words for new things, and effectively created an entirely new language from the ashes of pieces of ancient Hebrew.

By the time of Jesus life on earth, the primary language of the Jews had long been Aramaic. The educated spoke Greek. The business and governmental groups spoke Roman. Hebrew was used as a liturgy when reading from the biblical scrolls in a synagogue or the Temple.

All this means that the Hebrew language at the time of Jesus, and at the moment that Paul wrote about Scripture being God-breathed, was effectively a translation and not an original. Paul had no qualms, however, about confirming that these Jews in his day continued to faithfully sustain God’s words, for:

“they have been entrusted with the very words of God”. (Rom 3:2)

This is the historical context within which we are supposed to accept Scripture as God-breathed. It is those translations that continue to reflect the breath of God. Notice that Paul does not qualify his statement by saying that God’s breath was somewhere in there, or gave life to those words back in ancient past, or is some kind of symbolic reference. He simply declares that the Scripture translations were, continue to be, and forever will remain the breath of God–including Old and New Testament books–right down to today, as that special book sits in your lap!

This breath cannot be verified by human study, document verification, or original proofs. No Scripture can be rightly understood absent of the Holy Spirit. This amazing truth is how a translation, by the nature of language differences, cannot be an exact, and yet can still be accepted as conveying the trustworthy and accurate truth of God.

If there is an error, or a divergent word used to translate some part of Scripture, then the Holy Spirit will heal it in the mind of the faithful and ensure the truth of God is fully conveyed. If there is a wrong translation or teaching, then the Holy Spirit will deafen ears, or in turn open ears, so that God’s very breath remains complete and life-giving. If one translation gets it wrong, the Spirit can direct a student, who strives to show themselves approved by rightly diving the word of truth, to another translation that does preserve the truth in that passage. Truth is primarily a function of the active working of the Holy Spirit in a faithful believer, and not so much a discipline of academic scholars.

Details still matter. Careful attention to what the text actually states is still very important. Accepting and obeying what it commands, even in literal terms where the context supports it, is of paramount importance. The Spirit will not guide the casual, indifferent, or flippant revisionist. The point here, is that the original details, though important, are not the key; the work of the Spirit is the most important detail in preserving and instructing through those details, even when filtered through successive layers of culture, language translations, and traditions.

Perhaps a slight modification of Paul’s words that give a general truth could help apply to this specific issue:

“In the same way no one knows Scripture, in its original or translated forms, except the Spirit of God. We have not received the spirit of the world but the Spirit who is from God, that we may completely and accurately understand the Bible that God has freely preserved for us.” (1 Cor 2:11)

You don’t need an original document to trust what God says in his Bible. You need to submit to and trust the leading of the Master Teacher, the Spirit of God, that dwells within a faithful believer in Jesus.

Perhaps a more careful statement of faith could include the belief:

“We believe in the holy Scriptures as the full and accurate word of God as preserved, revealed, and taught by the Holy Spirit.”

Posted in Approaching Scripture | Tagged , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

Mysterious Humility

Of all the qualities of virtue, few are cloaked in as much mystery as humility. Like anything rare, the true nature of humility is not easily measured or known.

It is simply impossible to gather enough humble subjects to effectively conduct any reasonable group study. Genuine humility rarely reveals itself. It exists out there, but like some snow leopard, it strives to do its thing out of sight. To most, it is a mystery that few find worth the effort to pursue.

We speak of it with respect. We admire it when the strong appear to express it. Outside of training centers or religious fellowships, where the subject is often given a nod, we find that self-promotion is far more attractive and practiced.

Historically, the humble don’t get ahead in life. They tend to die early, lose more often, and receive more hurts. The humble are not viewed as the strong. They are easy targets that are known for giving ground and walking away from fights.

Governments don’t rule for long without a strong military or aggressive politicians. Companies can’t compete and survive by stepping out of the way of the competition. Death cannot be overcome with humility, so what is the point?

Like some misunderstood appendix that physicians prefer to cut out of patients, there simply is no worldly use for humility…unless one understands the mystery.

Per popular definition, humility is “a modest or low view of one’s own importance”.

Therein is the key problem. The educated pundits think that humility is about the person who expresses it, when in truth it is exactly the opposite. Humility is not about one’s self. It has nothing to do with how a person views them self, whether low, modestly, or high. It is other focused.

Humility is a social reality, not a private quality. It doesn’t even exist outside of relationships. Humility is about others, not self. That is the key to the mystery. In order to understand what God says, this distinction must be recognized.

A quality like love may be defined in the context of being “other focused”, but humility is more precise than that. It does focus on others, but it does so for a specific purpose. To grasp the real significance and power of humility, a person needs to recognize what humility tries to accomplish and why.

Rather than some expression of self-abasement, perhaps to combat some unwanted trait like pride, humility is principally about giving honor. That is its primary reason for existing. A humble person thinks and acts for the main goal of giving honor to another person. The humble always act in the best interest of another, not for anything about themselves.

In negative terms, the humble do not put themselves down, have low self-esteem, think less of themselves, distain what they have, let others abuse them, avoid pleasure, or reject praise from others. Such expressions that appear humble are fake replicas. That is not what humility is about, as we shall see shortly.

In positive terms, the humble give credit where due, including to themselves. They are not afraid of speaking about their accomplishments, positions of responsibility, received blessings, or developed skills. They are appreciative when others give them appropriate credit and respect.

Like all great qualities, there is no better source to study than the Lord Jesus. It is his humility that Christians are encouraged to imitate, so reviewing what humility is in him, and why he did what he did, will help confirm the insight to the mystery of humility.

“Do nothing out of selfish ambition or vain conceit, but in humility consider others better than yourselves. Each of you should look not only to your own interests, but also to the interests of others. Your attitude should be the same as that of Christ Jesus: Who, being in very nature God, did not consider equality with God something to be grasped, but made himself nothing, taking the very nature of a servant, being made in human likeness. And being found in appearance as a man, he humbled himself and became obedient to death—even death on a cross! Therefore God exalted him to the highest place and gave him the name that is above every name, that at the name of Jesus every knee should bow, in heaven and on earth and under the earth, and every tongue confess that Jesus Christ is Lord, to the glory of God the Father.” (Phi 2:3-11)

The biblical idea of considering others ahead of self is not about lowering self, though that may often be the observed expression. It is done for the purpose of actually elevating another. That is an important difference. It is what Jesus focused on in doing everything to bring glory to his Father. That purpose of bringing glory is what is meant by giving honor.

The secret here is that Jesus did not take glory away from himself. Rather he stepped aside from receiving the full extent of what rightly could have come to him, for the reason of ensuring the fullest expression of glory could be given to his Father during that season. The humble don’t go around in sackcloth and ashes, claiming they are unworthy. A sinner might do that, but a humble person, alters the attention toward self whenever doing so could bring greater honor to another.

The reason Jesus set aside his unlimited prerogatives as the Son of God and limited himself for a time in the fleshly existence as a man under the subtle direction of the Holy Spirit, was to bring greater attention to God. He let the full attention that rightly was due him, be resisted but not rejected.

He resisted the moments of glory so that his humanity could be demonstrated per the plan of God, that he give himself as the human atonement to pay the penalty of death for mankind’s sin. He did not, however, deny the attention his followers gave him, nor refuse the worship of those who put their faith in him, nor claim that he was nothing when in fact he knew full well who he was, where he had come from, and where he was returning (as recorded in the Gospel of John).

The humility of Jesus shows restraint of self for the purpose of elevating the will of God. That same humility remains in Jesus, even as the exalted One. Self-attention has its place, but it is only rightly upheld in the context of honoring others.

Jesus didn’t reject his “equality with God”, or think it of less value, but willingly set it aside for a season in order to do the will of God. He deserved glory and honor and worship before he came to earth. In spite of his expressions of humility, he continued to rightly deserve the same worship as a human; and, as the above text states, he clearly has been exalted to that full extent of glory.

His current state of exalted position does not mean that he has stopped being humble. Accepting worship is rightly due to him and humility does not mean that he needs to lower his view of himself. The reason for lowering his radiance, was to take on a role of sacrificial lamb in human form, in keeping with the Father’s will. Doing so brought his Father glory. It also brought us salvation. He humbled himself to honor God and to share his glorious honor with us.

In order to honor God in becoming our Savior, Jesus needed to restrain what was due to him, until it had been accomplished. His humility demonstrated the social interplay between resistance and promotion. The reason for his recognized humility was to promote another. The method came through resistance of self-attention.

Observing the method, without understanding the purpose, is what leads to distorted views of humility. It is what it is because of what it seeks, not because of how it accomplishes its desire. Humility is about elevating others, through stepping out of demanding our due, while still appreciating our positions, abilities, and rights.

What looks like weakness, feels worthless, and often appears to end just like the Cross–in disappointing death at the violent hands of the prideful–is not what it seems. Humility allows self-benefit to be donated at times to lift up another, who is either in need or is worthy of honor, with the full belief that what we sow will come back to us in overflowing measure.

The humble are fully convinced that the momentary experience of loss is worth it even to self. Godly humility exists in the belief in promised glory. It never ends with loss. That is all the ignorant can see. Humility can give up self, even to death, for the benefit of another, because it believes in the resurrection. Humility can give the unthinkable, because it has a hope in experiencing the glory of the Lord which far, far outshines any and all things that may have been given up.

Humility never rejects what is good, but it is very willing to set aside experiencing the good to self whenever there is a chance to elevate the good of another. Amazing mystery.

In this way, our humility is not about denouncing self, demeaning ourselves, putting ourselves down, rejecting any attention to ourselves, or avoiding any references toward our accomplishments, abilities, or experiences.

Seeking a job is a good place to promote our perception of personal qualifications. Looking to attract a mate, when marriage is desired, is a great time for appropriate self-promotion. Sharing our testimony of faith is another time that is often fitting for speaking positively about ourselves. Admitting to our skill at a sport, a topic, or in solving certain types of problems, is often useful in developing social relationships and contributing to the mental potluck with others. Even in a teaching situation or parenting, personal experience or wisdom, is a very appropriate expression that directly translates into the benefit of those less experienced.

That said, all the above, and many other situations can equally be distorted into pride, mixed with inappropriate agendas, and simply masked for selfish gain. That is our natural tendency. As shown in Jesus, such self-attention in a Christian is kept in check when we bring it into the primary subjection of his will. That means that we need to restrain such references to self in ways that ensure that our relationship to God is kept as the primary focus for both ourselves and those with whom we are interacting.

Whenever a circumstance indicates that it would be better to hold ourselves back, so that “he can become greater”, as John the Baptist taught, then that is humility without twisting it into self-abuse. Whenever our own desires seem to be swelling up for our own private benefit, then that would be a good time to discipline ourselves by restraining our pride, so that Jesus would be honored inside ourselves. Whenever an opportunity presents itself to elevate solutions toward the God-revealed needs of others, that is a prime time to set aside our private preferences, so that we can honor God by blessing those around us.

The mystery of humility is about striving to give honor to others by getting ourselves out of the way.

Posted in Christian Gospel | Tagged , , , , | Leave a comment

More Blessed than Mary the Mother of Jesus

The disciples of Jesus were reprimanded for discussing who among them would be the greatest in the Lord’s Kingdom. However, Jesus himself taught about those whom God calls the greatest, and it may not be what you’d expect.

The Bible highlights two people who stand head-and-shoulders above all others as blessed by God: Mary the mother of Jesus, and John the Baptist. But they are no where near the top of God’s blessed list. Take a look at what Scripture teaches.

An angel from the throne of God came to Mary and informed her that she was “highly favored”. This declaration was not about her goodness or anything regarding her effort (for “all have sinned”), but because what would occur through her would be unique, holy, and of immense blessing for her and for all mankind. She was called blessed because she was the recipient of God’s incredible grace.

Such a status of being called “blessed” had nothing to do with her own righteousness. Much like when God told Moses to take off his sandals when at the Burning Bush, it had nothing to do with the specialness of that ground, but purely because God touched it. That truth–that her blessedness was due to God’s gracious choice to use her–was confirmed, however, by her amazing response of faith.

“‘I am the Lord’s servant,’ Mary answered, ‘May it be to me as you have said'” (Lu 1:38)

The Holy Spirit spoke directly through the mother of John the Baptist about both reasons for her being declared blessed:

“Elizabeth was filled with the Holy Spirit. In a loud voice she exclaimed: ‘Blessed are you among women, and blessed is the child you will bear”…

“Blessed is she who has believed that what the Lord has said to her will be accomplished!” (Lu 1:41-45)

Yes, Mary is blessed beyond any other person because God chose her to birth and raise Jesus the savior of all mankind. She is additionally considered blessed, because she responded with such amazing faith and submission to what likely was beyond her comprehension and could have stirred up a great deal of fear. Mary ought to be recognized as amazingly blessed by God, but this truth does not give any reason for her to be worshiped, prayed to, nor viewed as above others in God’s Kingdom.

Consider what Jesus had to say about clarifying this very issue.

As Jesus was saying these things, a woman in the crowd called out, ‘Blessed is the mother who gave you birth and nursed you.’ He replied, ‘Blessed rather are those who hear the word of God and obey it.'” (Lu 11:27-28)

Jesus makes a direct contrast to the belief that Mary should be called blessed. He does not refute that she is blessed, but makes a startling confrontation to the assumption that she is somehow to be viewed as blessed above others. He makes it very clear, that he (and thus God) views those who put faith in Jesus as to be considered “blessed rather”, or of greater blessed status than Mary.

The truth that Mary is considered blessed because of what God did in her, as well as because of how she responded in trusting submission to what was said, does nothing toward ensuring her status for eternity! Don’t miss this distinction. Her status as blessed for these reasons are earthly and limited. Notice why Jesus confronts her about her own view of what rights she has over him:

“Then Jesus’ mother and brothers arrived. Standing outside, they sent someone in to call him…’Who are my mother and my brothers?’ he asked. Then he looked at those seated around him and said, ‘Here are my mother and my brothers! Whoever does God’s will is my brother and sister and mother.'” (Mk 3:31-35)”

Once again, the Lord confronts Mary’s view of herself toward Jesus, as well as the crowds view toward Mary. Jesus is not casting doubt on Mary being his biological mother, but rather that such a position does not automatically qualify her to be viewed as part of his eternal family. That greater blessed status belongs only to those who put submissive faith in Jesus as their Lord and Savior.

Notice what the Bible reveals about why Mary was confronted in the above passage about her blessed position as mother of Jesus:

“Then Jesus entered a house, and again a crowd gathered, so that he and his disciples were not even able to eat. When his family heard about this, they went to take charge of him, for they said, ‘He is out of his mind.'” (Mk 3:20-21)

Mary thought that Jesus, the Son of God, the eternally existent Word of God who created her and allowed himself to be impregnated into her by the power of the Holy Spirit, the one who was perfect and sinless, was not doing what he ought to be doing and needed a mother to intervene and take control over him. Sounds like what Eve did in leading Adam into sin, doesn’t it? This second Adam was not going to fail by “listening to your wife”, or in this case, allowing his physical mother to exert dominance over the one whom she should have viewed as her Lord and Master.

Mary was being put on notice, that if she wanted to truly be blessed, to be blessed beyond this life and into eternity, she would have to submit to Jesus in faith for her salvation and let him lead her and not the other way around.

Like the Apostle Paul recognized about himself, that “whatever was to my profit, I now consider loss for the sake of Christ”, so Mary would have to come to view her blessed status as Jesus’ earthly mother as loss compared to becoming a Christian who puts their faith in Jesus solely for what he has done for them.

This shocking truth is repeated about John the Baptist. You can’t find another physical human who is considered greater than him. Per the Lord’s own words:

“I tell you the truth: Among those born of women there has not risen anyone greater than John the Baptist; yet he who is least in the kingdom of heaven is greater than he.” (Mt 11:11-12)

John is being honored here, not as a believer in Jesus, but as one “born of women”. In other words, it is his blessedness as part of his earthly life, as one specially chosen by God, infused with the Spirit of God from within the womb, and who also faithfully did what he was called to do in preparing the way for people to accept Jesus. Such status, as the greatest human ever, still does not qualify him for eternity.

John himself, acknowledges that even though he knew by the Spirit who to point to as the Messiah, that in personal terms “I did not know him”. In fact, while in prison and just prior to his horrible death, he sends his followers to ask Jesus if he is actually the Messiah. His own faith may have been a death-bed conversion.

Eternal salvation can only apply to those who set aside relying upon their worldly status, rights, abilities, gifts, resources, wealth, power, positions, titles, race, membership, personal confession, goodness and blessedness, to rather do God’s will by obediently submitting to Jesus as Savior and Lord. The least in the kingdom should be viewed as greater and more blessed than the greatest and most blessed on this earth.

This is not to suggest that John the Baptist will not be in the Kingdom of God, but rather than such an eternal blessing applies only to Christians.

Such faith, as taught in Scripture, involves accepting Jesus as well as thereafter participating. Mary needed to choose Jesus as her Lord. John the Baptist had to show that he accepted what he taught about the Messiah by personally submitting to Jesus as his own Lord and Master. The Lord requires that those “who believe him” must “hold to my teachings” to remain viewed by God as “really my disciples” (Jn 8:31-32). Each believer must “become like a little child, or you will not enter the kingdom”. Salvation is not simply imposed, like impregnation in Mary, or Spirit-led-life-and-ministry in John. Jesus requires that believers freely and willingly respond in faith for the rest of their lives.

“Dear brothers, take not of this:…humbly accept the word planted in you, which can save you…not forgetting what he has heard, but doing it–he will be blessed in what he does.” (Jms 1:19-25)

Do you hear the word of God? If you have put faith in Jesus to forgive your sins by what he accomplished on the Cross, and now submissively choose to live the rest of your life, not by elevating whatever might normally be to your benefit (even if caused by God), but rather to obediently serve Jesus as Lord, then the salvation you have been promised will be confirmed in you when Christ returns to gather his own. You will also be considered before God as more blessed than Mary, and greater than John the Baptist.

This gospel truth has already been announced upon Christians, just as if the angel Gabriel had shown up face-to-face with such a glorious promise of what God intends to do, but will you respond like Mary initially did? Will you demand proof, like Zachariah, the father of John the Baptist, who still received the promised son, but was rebuked for his lack of faith? Do you think, like Mary later did, that what Jesus is doing and allowing in your life is because he is “out of his mind?”

If God accepts you as a Christian, you are greatly blessed, beyond anyone or any reason for being blessed on this earth. Do you believe it, and does your living response demonstrate such humble and blessed faith?

Posted in Christian Gospel | Tagged , , , , , , | Leave a comment

Work: The Blessed Curse

In many respects, work is a necessary evil. It demands participation by nearly every person throughout history, permanently deforms many backs and hands, distorts relationships and divides families, returns less monetary value than the blood and sweat equity most pour into it, and especially in our Western mindset is something to be retired from and replaced with a life of reward and ease, whereas in many other parts of the world is the hated act of survival that escorts most into an early grave.

There is something about work that is not right. It shouldn’t be like this. This is where we come to the theology of work.

Work itself is a good thing. God is always at his work. The problem being highlighted here, is not work itself, but the reason that work has become such a pain in our back sides. It needs to be noted that work can be viewed in both general terms as well as in more specific intent. Just as there is a biblical difference between general grace and salvific grace (like rain which generally benefits everyone versus selective revelation of Jesus as Lord to a certain person), so there is a similar distinction with work.

If a woman strives to plant and nurture a bush, and later enjoys the fruit that it produces, she is rightly the beneficiary of God’s general blessing. It truly is a blessing to eat tasty fruit gleaned from our own efforts, but that is only a general blessing. The time something becomes a specific blessing, is when it moves a person toward Christ. Such faith is not the typical result of eating strawberries. This reality applies equally to understanding God’s design for work.

Eating healthy food and enjoying pleasure purchased from our harvesting are general blessings from work that can apply to anyone. This is not the type of blessing being addressed here. Such a person remains under the curse and ultimately their work will do them no lasting good.

In truth, work involves both a curse and a blessing. In the beginning God placed humanity in a special garden to “work the ground” (Gen 2:5). The pleasure of tending a divinely established garden without damaging thorn or weed is practically incomprehensible to us today. We are the unfortunate descendants of many generations struggling through painful toil as a result of rebellion.

From Adam’s sin, we each have proved our family heritage by continuously repeating that hateful tendency toward doing our own thing our own way. From that fateful day, when the snake twisted his tale, God cursed the ground and work has never been the same since.

“Cursed is the ground because of you; through painful toil you will eat of it all the days of your life. It will produce thorns and thistles for you, and you will eat the plants of the field. By the sweat of your brow you will eat your food until you return to the ground, since from it you were taken; for dust you are and to dust you will return.” (Gen 3:17-19)

Work has been cursed. It doesn’t matter whether you like your job, or whether or not you make a good living—the ground from which you and I have been formed has fallen under a divine curse. No human can even eat without “painful toil”. The imagery is more than just about contaminated soil; it is about a contaminated heritage. All work, even the white-collar office job that avoids getting hands dirty, and even that penthouse job that collects millions off the backs of the poor, reeks from the stench of sin, abuse, greed, treachery, back-stabbing, loss, devaluation, and slavery. That is a lot of thorns to combat just for a morning bagel with coffee.

Work is designed to remind us of our sin through dealing with constant pain through what we labor at. Christians are the only ones capable of grasping this truth. For everyone else, work is simply the means to becoming a person of means.

However, work is more than a curse. It is at the same moment, intended to be a blessing. That ought to make your forehead crease. The two are not compatible, but they do play a simultaneous role.

To understand this extraordinary truth, it is important to reflect on an amazing revelation about our Creator. He actually likes us. Believe it or not, God wants us to still succeed. The following truism applies just as fully to Christians as to Adam when he was being sentenced with hard labor:

“My son, do not despise the Lord’s discipline and do not resent his rebuke, because the Lord disciplines those he loves, as a father the son he delights in.” (Pro 3:11-12)

God may have cursed the ground, turned work into a painful struggle, and subjected all humanity unto the final paycheck of death, but he did so with a blessing in mind. To grasp how this is all possible, one must accept Jesus as Lord and Savior, believing and obeying all that he said, and put all their trust in what he accomplished upon the Cross and in his promised resurrection from their pending death. That is about accepting the Christian gospel.

But here, we are looking more specifically at how to understand work through Christian eyes. For the vast majority of people who have little interest in Jesus, work has a few temporary perks but ultimately ends in getting fired for eternity. That special blessing that God intentionally included along with the curse is a specific, salvific blessing that is offered to the discerning few who have been given the ability to see it and reach for it. Work may have its thorns, but those who allow work to “train” them, are capable of receiving the hidden blessings.

“No discipline seems pleasant at the time, but painful. Later on, however, it produces a harvest of righteousness and peace for those who have been trained by it.” (Heb 12: 11)

Not everyone is trained by their work. Most assume they must be first trained in order to do their work. However, God does things differently.

Work cannot be approached in normal fashion, or it will perpetuate the curse. Our jobs and service tasks will produce diseased crops, if we do whatever we are trained to do for the purposes common to this world. Doing work to eat, is short-sighted. Doing work to benefit the company is worthless. Doing work to support a family is honorable but remains under crushing debt. Doing work to gain a sense of identity and self-worth is empty. Doing work to avoid idleness, misses the point. Doing work to live a good life, dons the mask of deception. Doing work because it is religious or because God says so, has a form of godliness, but denies the power. That is not what work (which has been cursed) is designed by God to accomplish.

Adam and Eve approached their work in the garden as something they thought they could do any-old-way-they-wanted, but it back-fired in their face. The same will be true for every person who thinks they too can approach their God-given command to work for their food on their own terms, in their own personal style, to whatever degree of effort suits their fancy. Approaching work like that is no different than the snake-oil which suggested that if you do your jobs the way you want to, by reaching out and taking what is ripe for the taking, then you will be like God, knowing how to discern good from evil in all your business ventures.

As a Christian, if you want to do your work in a manner reflective of God’s intent, which will transform everything you do, and even the very soil of your eternal heritage, into something glorious, then consider what the Lord has to say about work.

If your work can be done with routine effort that checks-the-box enough to get paid, look for how you can shift gears and “do it with all your might”. This is not to burn yourself out, or become the super-employee, or strain your limits, but rather to press against the natural tendency to go easy, to cut corners, to just get by, to only do what is required. Do what you do with the best of your ability, rather than per what comes easiest. The curse within work must be attacked by rejected the human nature approach and replacing it with devoted commitment. Of course, such commitment is first of all toward God, and as a result toward what you do and why, not principally about company loyalty.

If your job requires you to go a mile, look for what you can do to go two miles. This is not about making more money, or working longer hours, or trying to out-do everyone else, but rather about doing the extra for the benefit of others without measuring for personal gain. That disciplines the natural human tendency to work for personal gain, and allows work to train Christ-like character into what you do. Going above-and-beyond reflects Jesus’ instruction to “be perfect as your heavenly Father is perfect”, and we can implement that belief toward work as an antidote against the curse of doing-for-self.

If you work to please the one who pays your salary, what about the one who paid your Debt? “You cannot serve two masters.” You may continue to serve under a boss, but how are you demonstrating that your eternal Lord supersedes the conflicting authority and godless rules imposed by your company? Does your work promote the work of God or do you save that for Sunday’s masquerade?

Do you do what you do to keep you job or to please God? Whose eyes are you laboring to impress? Believers honor authority, but “not to please men”. Rather, they do their job principally and without compromise “as working for the Lord”. If you believe that, then take a look at your desk, your car, your room, your outfit, your storage, your computer screen—would Jesus be pleased with what he sees?

Is your job so important, so necessary to your survival, that you are willing to compromise your beliefs to keep in the doe? Your next check may show 666, unless you are willing to put your job at risk, or even walk away from a good job, in order to put the honor and morality of Jesus as your priority. Work that rightly trains a Christian can only occur if the efforts remain submissive to his word and honors his name. Anything else is work for the Beast.

If your personal needs demand a high paying job and long hours, perhaps you should reconsider your lifestyle choices. Living like the world, and chasing what it values, can never produce the life that God designed for you. Specific and eternal blessings come to those who work as for the Lord and not for Lincolns. The two pursuits are incompatible, and though work remains a requirement on all, the reasons, pursuits, types, and costs will reveal whether you are eating forbidden fruit or fasting for faith.

If your work succeeds, is that determined by stock value, ROI, and promotions, or by upholding the will of God? Did you pick weeds per the will of God today? Did you make that call, write that brief, or dig that hole to honor what God wanted of you today, or did you even bother to ask God what he wanted? Your job operates under a curse and there is only one way to turn that bad omen into a blessing, but it will never happen if you keep feeding the vulture with what is natural. Success is not a function of momentary pleasure or increasing pay, but rather by surviving into eternity through surrender to the will of God.

What is the by-product of your work? Waste is often the tell-tale sign of a well designed process. Is the discarded leftovers of your work a blessing or a curse? Is the impact you leave on others received as a blessing or a curse? Is the use of your money a cause of blessing for others? The rich who were judged by Jesus as unworthy of his kingdom wanted to do good within their means, to offer help out of the excess of their abundance. What the wealthy refuse to do is put their hard-earned riches at risk or even at sacrificial loss for the benefit of others and the self-disciplining act of restraining the natural greed to eat their own desired fruit off the forbidden tree. Our remains may be cursed ashes or nurturing sustenance for those less fortunate. Work can train this in you and me, or it can cling to the slime.

This listing could go on near endlessly. There are so many ways to work the curse. Under the Old Covenant, blessings were promised and measured by material wealth; not so for the Christian. Our sights ought to be set on our promised inheritance stored up in heaven with the expectation of finding satisfaction now in the “harvest of peace and righteousness”. Whether you get it or not will be shown by how you approach work.

There are so few who realize that such cursed work can be done with eternal blessing. The curse of work should drive us toward God in humble acknowledgment of his discipline of every child he loves. The offered blessing of work should equally drive us toward expending our effort selectively toward what honors God and restrains our natural tendencies which incline toward cursed territory.

The one who benefits from such training by viewing work for what it should do and for why we are often so pained in the process, are positioned to receive from Christ the hidden manna which can be had without labor or struggle. To those who rebuke your Christian view and approach toward work, you may enjoy Jesus’ response as your own: “I have work to do that you know nothing about”.

To those who chased him down after having been fed without having to do any work, Jesus rebuked and invited with the words: “Work for what lasts”!

Posted in Christian Living | Tagged , , , , , , | Leave a comment

Refined By Fire

Uncontrolled heat consumes everything in its flame. That is the fate of all material in this universe. However, when controlled, fire can purify certain elements. It can separate incompatible materials and allow what is of great value to be set free for glorious display and use.

Gold is one of those special elements. So are Christians.

Suffering is the fire pot—the crucible of refinement—through which every human must pass. No one gets a free pass around suffering. We all struggle. We all hurt. We all must face the many faces of death.

Suffering is the mirror of sin. It reflects the fires of wrath for sin in people who all exist in natural defiance against a holy God. For the degenerate and wicked, pain and suffering are biological preambles—songs of death—that announce the pending destruction of a life that cannot and will not be refined. For the redeemed, suffering is the humbling drum beat of refinement—the pounding pain that announces the removal of what dishonors God, while preserving what is of eternal value.

Nobody likes to suffer. Pain hurts. But it has a useful purpose for those who discover its secret.

Everybody experiences suffering. Death comes to all men, as does all the elements of decomposition upon a temporal body. However, for those who come to truly know Jesus as Lord and Savior, suffering can produce something extraordinary, although most seem to miss it.

When we struggle, we naturally try to find relief. Pain forces us to make a choice. Humanly, that choice is to focus on self, on finding a solution, on getting out from under what weighs us down, on fixing our problem. Money, power, intelligence, and other natural resources provide ways out, but they all lead to dead ends. What is natural to mankind, what is normal in how to deal with suffering, will always lead to the remains of a campfire pit.

Christians are instructed to face suffering with a very different approach. We are called to deal with pain in a shocking and unnatural way. To be refined, rather than consumed with fire, believers are expected to deal with all their struggles in a manner reflective of Jesus as he faced the Cross.

It is preferable to profess faith in Jesus, grateful for what he did on the Cross, but avoid taking up our own personal reflection of that extremely unnatural approach toward life. Unfortunately, it is to the Church that the apostle Paul spoke when writing specifically about how to face suffering, when he said:

“For, as I have often told you before and now say again even with tears, many live as enemies of the cross of Christ.” (Phi 3:18)

When faced with pain, it is not normal to go “as a lamb to the slaughter”, but that is the approach our Lord took. When persecuted, it is not natural to remain silent and go without defending ourselves, but that is what Jesus did. When under pain, it is unthinkable to submit to the point of death, and allow ourselves to repeatedly experience the cross, but that is our daily call.

Suffering does something very unexpected in a faithful Christian. When loss, pain, grief, struggle, rejection, betrayal, or abuse are pushed on us—by others, by Satan, or even by circumstance (like famine or cancer)—there are only two ways through the fire: focus on self or focus on others.

The natural response to suffering is to concentrate our thoughts and resources on ourselves until we can escape the pain. The godly response to pain is to concentrate our thoughts and resources outside of ourselves, like modeled by Jesus. It is abnormal to focus on others, and doubly so when we are in need ourselves.

Godly suffering produces a greater focus and interest on others than on self. That is what separates the gold from the dross. Maturing Christians will shift their focus away from a primary emphasis on self-relief toward a principle concentration on the “interests of others”. The time when that shift is most significant and most tested is when that person is under strain. It is when a person is struggling in pain that their true, deep, heart’s-desire focus is brought into the light. That is when their cross becomes visible.

When you are hurting, is that when you show an increasing focus on others or on self?

It was to deceived believers that the prophet quoted God’s rebuke about the typical response to suffering, even self-imposed religious suffering, which would seem like the most godly:

“For day after day they seek me out; they seem eager to know my ways…Yet on the day of your fasting, you do as you please…your fasting ends in quarreling and strife, and in striking each other with wicked fists. You cannot fast as you do today and expect your voice to be heard on high.” (Isa 58:2-5)

When we are hurting, whatever the cause, it is natural to have a short fuse—to lash out at others like a wounded animal. But that is not of God.

The secret to godly suffering is to intentionally shift our focus away from being consumed with finding relief and put our thoughts and efforts increasingly toward the benefit of others.

“For it has been granted to you on behalf of Christ not only to believe on him, but also to suffer for him, since you are going through the same struggle…Each of you should look not only to your own interests [when suffering], but also to the interests of others. Your attitude should be the same as that of Christ Jesus” (Phi 1:29, 2:4-5)

You may recall, that while hanging in intense pain on the Cross, our Lord thought and acted with interest toward others, saying: “Father forgive them. They don’t know what they are doing.” He thought of his mother, Mary, and arranged for her future care, while he was struggling to catch his own breath. He allowed himself to be unjustly rejected, abused, and mistreated, in order that you and I could be refined and rescued from the impending fires.

So, when you are struggling, think of Jesus more than yourself. Think of his promises and his plan, and rejoice inside, while the body suffers outside. Put your hope in his salvation, more than in pursuing a solution to what hurts. If you can find relief, great, but don’t allow it to consume your attention or distract you from intentionally allowing suffering as a daily walk of identification with his cross.

Think also of those around you. Push the pain down and elevate the thoughts and expressions of grace toward those you see in need. This doesn’t mean to think of others and never of self, but rather to put a priority on blessing others even to the loss of self-satisfaction and temporary relief. This does not also mean that God expects believers to always allow abuse, for Jesus often hid himself until he believed it was God’s timing for him to expose himself. We don’t honor God by simply being a whipping post. In Jesus’ time on earth, many others died on crosses without any eternal benefit. Godly suffering is about revealing our focus and primary interests away from self and more toward the will of God and the benefit of others. It is when under such strain that the life of Christ is most evident.

There is no greater love, and no greater way for that love to be shown, than to express yourself for the benefit of others at the very moment that your own needs are crying out for relief. Humans are capable of giving and helping others out of excess resources, but it is only through the indwelling of God that a Christian can give away the very relief they need.

It takes amazing grace and a godly faith, like the widow with Elijah, to share your last loaf of bread that might hasten your own end.

It takes great trust in God to “give out of their intense poverty”.

It takes a greater hope in what is promised than holding on to what is here, to rejoice when others take away what we own, or when we refuse to sue others to get our rights.

It takes a biblical Christian to turn the other cheek, when our own lives are being threatened.

It takes a more powerful vision than the American dream, to let go of collecting wealth for the sake of sharing the kingdom of God.

It takes suffering to produce and reveal the truth about God in you.

When under such trials, will you put more effort toward the interests and relief of others than in grasping your own?

“Therefore, since Christ suffered in his body, arm yourselves also with the same attitude, because he who has suffered in his body is done with sin. As a result, he does not live the rest of his earthly life for evil human desires, but rather for the will of God…Above all, love each other deeply…Each one should use whatever gift he has received to serve others” (1 Pet 4:1-10)

What does your approach to dealing with your suffering say about what is most important to you? Saving self and concentrating on escaping pain will only fuel the fires. Shifting your attention to the benefit of others for the honor of God will control the flames to purify your eternal value in the glorious presence of Almighty God.

May he give you the strength and faith to endure, fixing your eyes on him and the prize for which he has called you near, and may you trust that all your resources are meant for his use rather than your own satisfaction. To God be all glory, and to you be all that you need!

Posted in Christian Living | Tagged , , , , , , | Leave a comment

Church Membership Fulfills Prophecy

Club membership has its benefits. That is the point, of course, to provide members with attractive value-add features and opportunities that outsiders don’t receive. If your “in”, then you are in the good stuff; if your “out”, then you are missing out.

To respond to the gracious invitation of God through belief in Jesus as Lord, transfers a person’s membership from death to life, from wrath to forgiveness, from hopelessness to radiant glory. The benefits for membership in Christ are immense, immeasurable, and incomparably greater than anything offered through any other form of group identification.

But apparently that is not enough for many Christians. Many seem intent on demanding something more immediate and identifiable. Whether from a geographic relocation or some other reason, most who try to attend some new church congregation will experience the pressure heat up to join that group’s private membership.

Identification with Christ is typically not enough. Most congregations of believers expect new attendees to subscribe to their uniquely defined membership list, or stand ostracized along the fringes of acceptance. This coercive expectation has plagued the Church for the past two thousand years.

Chances are you are a signed-up member of your local congregation. Is that a biblical expectation or a worldly pattern? And more importantly, what does that say about your membership in Christ? Can you double-sign; once with Christ and all believers, and then again with a separate list of expectations different from others? Is membership in Christ divided, or defined by your church leaders?

In the days of ancient Israel, godly membership was a birthright belonging to every racial descendant. As the New Covenant teaches, that has shifted through Christ to include only those who are descended from Abraham through faith (Heb 2:16, Gal 4:28-31). Those who believe in Jesus become members of God’s family.

“He came to that which was his own, but his own did not receive him. Yet to all who received him, to those who believed in his name, he gave the right to become children of God—children born not of natural descent, nor of human decision or a husband’s will, but born of God.” (Jn 1:12-13)

“Understand then, that those who believe are children of Abraham…So those who have faith are blessed along with Abraham, the man of faith.” (Gal 3:7-9)

Nor is membership in Christ accomplished by the will of elders or pastors or priests. The marker of that belief is demonstrated through water baptism and the subsequent indwelling of the Holy Spirit:

“Whoever believes and is baptized will be saved, but whoever does not believe will be condemned.” (Mk 16:16)

“Repent and be baptized, every one of you, in the name of Jesus Christ for the forgiveness of your sins. And you will receive the gift of the Holy Spirit.” (Act 2:38)

It is through this personal profession of faith in Jesus, in accepting his sacrifice in our place to remove our sins, and devoting ourselves to living for him, that we are granted eternal membership as believing Christians. The vast majority of churches, however, do not accept such an easy and uncontrollable list of members and require further promises to a script that they write. If you don’t participate, you can’t join or teach or enjoy the benefits of membership. Members of Christ must become additional members under their leader’s locally defined authority and definition of doctrines rather than submit to the Lord and his word.

“A horrible and shocking thing has happened in the land: The prophets prophesy lies, and the priests rule by their own authority, and my people love it this way. But what will you do in the end?” (Jer 5:30-31)

That kind of membership is not from God. Such membership requirement is a stumbling-block humans dump in the path of believers in order to manipulate and control those who are looking to find shelter and connection. Local church membership, as often promoted, violates the word of God. It causes believers to separate from other Christians who are different, who have different backgrounds and different levels of understanding, and isolates groups in cliques and denominations and local churches, over which such leaders can exercise dominion and private authority.

“Those people are zealous to win you over, but for no good. What they want is to alienate you from us [from remaining unified with the Church], so that you may be zealous for them.” (Gal 4:17)

It is a sad state of affairs that many churches put greater emphasis on local membership, than on professions of faith. Entire classes are taught and required before a Christian will be accepted as a Christian, often with dramatic titles like “fundamentals of the faith”. Seldom do new attendees ever get asked to share their faith and become accepted by faith on such an open declaration. Making a good confession, as the Bible calls it, is not appreciated by those with their own agenda. The focus is local indoctrination, not celebration of faith in Christ.

Notice the prophecy for the end times, and what it implies about efforts toward group exclusiveness:

“For a time will come when men will not put up with sound doctrine. Instead, to suit their own desires, they will gather around them a great number of teachers to say what their itching ears want to hear. They will turn their ears away from the truth and turn aside to myths.” (2 Tim 4:3-4)

Jesus taught that such end times began with the generation that stood before him two millennia ago. Since the start of the Church, many local congregations have gathered members around them who formally agree to only teach and support the specific beliefs of those leaders. Only those who sign on the dotted line are allowed to teach or participate in an influential way, and thereby fulfill this prophecy of forcing a new and exclusive membership based on their myths rather than remaining submissive to the Spirit-established membership of all those who believe in Jesus.

Scripture declares of such leaders, who insist on membership allegiance to what they teach, that they want to boast in your flesh—they want to brag about numbers and give the impression of agreement, by screening out all who might shed light on their ungodly actions. They want to “alienate” you from other believers in neighboring churches, so that you may be more zealous for those in your own self-selected group. They are gate-keepers of private doctrines, rather than shepherds of biblical truth.

Membership is a statement of submission. That is why God restricts believers to joining under one Master. “You cannot serve two masters.” We are told that God simply will not allow or support a person or group that tries to promote dual membership by submitting under masters that are not in complete alignment with God. As much as every church wants to say they are following God, there cannot be a separately identifiable method of membership from that Spirit-caused identification with Jesus through a personal profession of faith declared openly by baptism.

Here is Jesus’ command regarding how believers are to approach accepting others who show up as fellow worshipers:

“I tell you the truth, whoever accepts anyone I send accepts me; and whoever accepts me accepts the one who sent me.” (Jn 13:20)

Recognizing differences is perfectly normal and acceptable. Believers can be studied and spoken of in groupings, like by age, gender, race, backgrounds, traditions, etc. However, those distinctions are never to contribute to differences in depressing how a person is treated, accepted, loved, or allowed to participate. Sin, on the other hand, is to be resisted and eventually separated out, which may well require breaking off fellowship and personal association from those who persist in rebellion. Such division is about obedience to the word of God and submission to the Lord’s standard of behavior, and never a factor used to justify private group selection, as if any group could be formed that represented sinless perfection.

Immediately following an extraordinary discourse on how God views membership in him, the Apostle states, “I don’t want you to be ignorant of this mystery, brothers, so that you may not be conceited”, thinking that you as a believer have a better identity connection to God than others around you (Rom 11:25). He then continues with a very important instruction to church leaders about church membership that apparently many miss.

“For by the grace given me I say to every one of you: Do not think of yourself more highly than you ought [remember, this self-view that he is warning against is in the context of thinking that one group of believers in God is better than another],

“but rather think of yourself with sober judgment, in accordance with the measure of faith God has given you. Just as each of us has one body with many members, and these members do not all have the same function, so in Christ we who are many form one body, and each member belongs to all the others. [Notice membership is already connecting as intended, without any need for additional layers of membership]

“We have different gifts, according to the grace given us. If a man’s gift is prophesying, let him use it in proportion to his faith. [Notice who is being told to “let him”] If it is serving, let him serve; if it is teaching, let him teach; if it is encouraging, let him encourage; if it is contributing to the needs of others, let him give generously; if it is leadership, let him govern diligently; if it is showing mercy, let him do it cheerfully.” (Rom 12:3-8)

Did you catch who is being taught here? It is the leaders who hold the authority in the local church. This is not an instruction to the person with the gift. It is a command to the leader who is deciding on whether or not to allow a person gifted by the Spirit to teach, serve, lead, or preach.

The command is “LET HIM”. In other words, Get your high-view of self out of the way, and let the members of Christ participate in every part of the local church as God has gifted them and not as you leader might want to control them. It states that the limitation is not to be measured per the leader’s faith, but rather to allow them to contribute according to that person’s faith. Of course, the Bible has a great deal to instruct, beyond just faith as highlighted in this passage, on guiding such participation in orderly, godly, and obedient ways that uphold the Truth. Church preaching, worship, and participation is not a free-for-all, but the boundaries are defined by Scripture and not by club membership. The text eventually culminates this instruction to church leaders who tend to stand in the way of letting other members do what God wants, by saying,

“So then, each of us will give an account of himself to God. Therefore let us stop passing judgment on one another. Instead, make up your mind not to put any stumbling block or obstacle in your brother’s way.” (Rom 14:12-13)

Local church membership is very often an obstacle to Christians being allowed to contribute within a congregation as fully accepted members of Christ. It seems many ministers don’t trust the Holy Spirit as capable of maintaining control over a diverse membership. This is why Diotrephes was cited as a dangerous pastor who was restricting church membership, so that he could be first in the minds of his members (3 Jn).

The early church in Corinth had a similar dysfunction and wanted to split membership into denominations of Paul, Peter, Apollos, or Christ. It was in this context that they were corrected:

“For all things belong to you…and you belong to Christ” (1 Cor 3:21-23)

“For we were all baptized by one Spirit into one body…and we were all given one Spirit to drink.” (1 Cor 12:13)

That drink confirms our membership, without further layers of requirement to connect to the Lord’s body, the Church. It is to such divisive leaders, that the text continues to rebuke the tendency to think that our local congregation doesn’t need the participation of others who are clearly different—that the hand doesn’t need the foot, or the eye doesn’t need the ear.

If you resist signing up as a local church member, you are guaranteed to hear the mouth tell the ear: “I don’t need you”. As one pastor stated about his demand for allegiance, “perhaps you should look for a different tribe”. According to God’s word, membership comes as a Spirit placement, and not from signing a man-made document.

“But in fact God has arranged the parts in the body, every one of them, just as he wanted them to be.” (1 Cor 12:18)

“Now you are the body of Christ, and each of you is a part [member] of it.” (v.27)

Perhaps the most damning aspect, to the practice of requiring Christians to also make a local profession of allegiance, is the violation of Jesus’ command against making oaths of extra commitment. This is not about avoiding swear words, but about avoiding any form of extra declaration to be more committed, or more obedient, or more honest, or more supportive because of what we sign or declare. Under the expectation of letting our Yes be yes, without further declarations of promises, believers are to practice and profess according to their character of always upholding truth (Mt 5:33-37). We are not to add to our participation in Church further oaths of commitment beyond that which we have already devoted to Jesus, by somehow declaring oaths of obedience to uphold a local church culture or set of defined doctrines. “Signing up”, other than a public declaration of faith through baptism, is adding an oath of joining a church that violates Jesus’ teaching.

We are to live by God’s word, no matter where we attend and worship, and not by man’s interpretation and local certificate.

Don’t be deceived by demands for restrictive and exclusive church membership, thinking that it is a small issue. Remember the Lord’s warning about the Beast and those who submit to such required membership:

“He also forced everyone, small and great, rich and poor, free and slave, to receive a mark [of membership]…so that no one could buy or sell unless he had the mark…for it is man’s number” (Rev 13:16-18).

Demands for exclusive membership to leaders that restrict participation or benefits against those who don’t join-up, do not come from God. Allowing yourself to be numbered as devoted to a local church follows a very dangerous pattern. Identification with God is based on the indwelling presence of God in a believer, not based on being numbered by a man-made certificate of exclusive membership. Come out of the world’s ways and be separate.

This double-devotion is what led to the organized deception faced by the early church, where “some of the believers who belonged to the party of the Pharisees” tried to promote their exclusive brand of belief as required upon all other believers. Their extra-biblical membership was used to try and force other Christians to follow their ways rather than live together according to the Lord’s gospel. Every church that pushes local membership perpetuates this distorted practice.

Membership-plus theories were aggressively promoted by many early Jewish Christians who could not accept that God was calling Gentile believers as his people simply through faith in Christ. They demanded faith plus devotion to their views, like circumcision or the seventh-day sabbath, or obedience to the ten commandments. That Jewish lie continues through a similar form by those who insist on local membership in addition to faith in Jesus.

“You are all sons of God through faith in Christ Jesus, for all of you  who were baptized into Christ have clothed yourselves with Christ. There is neither Jew nor Greek, slave nor free, male nor female [this church or that church, this denomination or that tradition]. If you belong to Christ, then you are Abraham’s seed, and heirs according to the promise.” (Gal 3:26-29)

The importance of circumcision if often lost on modern Christians. It was the God-required sign of membership through Abraham that every male believer in God must accept in order to belong to God. The teaching that such a mark of membership has changed to an invisible work of the Spirit in circumcising our internal commitment to Jesus is still not acceptable to many church leaders who seem more intent on imposing practices that they can measure and control. They want to see your name under theirs–they want to see your flesh with the removed foreskin–they do not want to rely upon the invisible work of the Holy Spirit which is beyond their personal stimulation.

The former fleshly ritual has been replaced with a new private church membership list, and is just as damaging, by separating those who are locally signed up from those who are not. Both are outward signs of required declarations that replace acceptance of a Christian as a full-rights-member of Christ purely on the combination of open declaration of faith and the primarily hidden act of the Holy Spirit inside a person.

Because the biblical point is addressing the same membership-I.D. problem–believers are warned against the same kind of sinful acts that contribute toward “discord, jealousy… dissensions, factions, and envy… and the like” (Gal 5:19-21)–it would appear that submitting to exclusive outward membership markings, by signing up as a local church member, destroys Christ in a person!

“Mark my words! I, Paul, tell you that if you let yourselves be circumcised, Christ will be of no value to you at all.” (Gal 5:2)

“Those who live like this [by promoting discord, like through exclusive membership] will not inherit the kingdom of God” (Gal 5:21)

The above warning of being prevented from entering the Kingdom is not just against leaders who promote such local separation of believers from other Christians outside of their group, but it also applies toward attendees to tolerate such abuse. If you sign up for local membership or you do nothing to resist such division within the Body of Christ, then “I warn you, as I did before” that you may well receive the same condemnation as those who imposed it. Come out and be separate!

If you believe in Jesus, as Scripture declares, then you are a member of his body without any need for some ministerial review. Members already enjoy all the benefits of belonging to God. They also are already bound under the expectations of a holy God, which means each of us had best take our membership serious and carefully maintain our connection to our Lord as his word instructs.

This truth in no way suggests that believers can walk alone without need for active connection and devotion to other members of Christ. The church is the “ecclesia” Church as two-or-more gather together in doing the will of God. Those who avoid devotion to what is known as the Body of Christ, the active gathering and work of the Church, may claim Christ, “but by their actions they deny him”. We must seek to work, serve, and love together in active fellowship, but membership in Christ is only defined by evidence of a Spirit-transformed life in a professing believer in Jesus. Many will claim such evidence–but we are told that the weeds will worship alongside the wheat, the sheep mixed with the goats, the wolves blending with the lambs–with no one capable of distinguishing who belongs and who doesn’t. Such belonging is defined only by the Lord, known exclusively by God, and will show up listed only in the divine Book of Life.

Those who reject God’s method of open acceptance of belonging simply per an honest declaration of faith in Jesus, without need for more strict methods of identification, will often claim that governments require membership for tax purposes, or in order for the church to maintain its non-profit status, or for other legal protections to apply. All such excuses are a matter of submitting to the world’s ways and can only be sustained in defiance of Scripture, which already provides instructions for orderly participation.

“Obey your leaders and submit to their authority. They keep watch over you as men who must give an account. Obey them so that their work will be a joy, not a burden, for that would be of no advantage to you.” (Heb 13:17)

Members of Christ are already bound by biblical commands to submit to their leaders “as they follow Christ”. There is a biblical mandate for members to submit to church authority, but that is determined based on “holding to” Jesus teachings and what was originally taught by the eye-witness apostles, and not according to a privately defined list of beliefs or rules. Such leaders already hold God-given power to both ordain as well as restrict member activity, but it must always be exercised according to what God’s word actually says and not by how later scholars interpret. We are expected to uphold truth, not impose tradition.

Would it not make more sense to look for identifying markers for membership in how the believer professes their faith, in how the word of God is upheld by each and all, in how the Spirit is manifesting himself through each believer, in how we show submission to the Lord’s ability to join his bride together, in recognition of an increasing pattern of godly fruitfulness, and in how we love one another in Christ-like ways?

Instead of demanding local church membership, what ought leaders do to lead without man-made methods of control? Try reading the next chapter that immediately follows the above biblical instructions on membership from 1 Cor 12.

“And now I will show you the most excellent way” to lead a church, to participate as accepted members, and to dwell together in godly unity….

Posted in Christian Gospel, Christian Living | Tagged , , , , , , | Leave a comment

Grand Omniscience vs Mutant Determinant

It sounds like a war of artificial intelligence: A.I. meets pre-programmed rebel-Robot. Rather it is the dark discussion about defining what it means for God to be All-Knowing.

In all seriousness, this doctrine has spawned many, very real, human wars. It is not a small issue. What does it really mean for God to be Omniscient, to know all?

The founder of Protestantism, believed that there was no such thing as human choice, because in order for God to know everything, that must mean that he also knows every choice we will make. In that way, there are no real choices, just determined results. Such a philosophy predated Luther and can be found promoted by many pagan scholars as well. That view has been labeled as “hard determinism” and in various forms is a bed-rock of belief by a majority of Christians.

To be All-Knowing, does that require that God must also pre-determine? Many will prefer to quote the interpretive opinions of famous luminaries (smart dead people), but let’s consider what the Bible actually presents.

Here are biblical statements about God as Omniscient:

  1. “Great is our Lord and mighty in power; his understanding has no limit” (Psa 147:5)
  2. “Now we can see that you know all things” (Jn 16:30)
  3. “Lord, you know all things” (Jn 21:17)
  4. “Lord, you know everyone’s heart” (Act 1:24)
  5. “in whom are hidden all the treasures of wisdom and knowledge” (Col 2:3)
  6. “Nothing in all creation is hidden from God’s sight” (Heb 4:13)
  7. “For God is greater than our hearts, and he knows everything” (1 Jn 3:20)

The first is clearly a praise of God as magnificent, such that his understanding is limitless. He has no deficiencies or anything lacking to his knowledge. Consider carefully what this says: he has no limits to his understanding, but that does not require that he must therefore predetermine all events. That assumption is a by-product of random human reasoning and not something declared in Scripture. More on this later.

The second is a praise of Jesus by his followers as one who just proved that he was beyond the level of a student. The context shows that his disciples recognized that he didn’t need any Rabbi or master teacher to continue to question him like someone still in need of training. It is not a specific revelation by God about his omniscience.

The third above is a phrase of honor and again not a specific teaching on the omniscience of God. Peter was simply saying that Jesus knows the answer to his question far better than Peter himself ever could. Yes, it is also true that Peter may well have recognized the omniscience of Jesus as Lord God, but he is not suggesting here that Jesus thus already knew what Peter would answer, so that is why he didn’t need to answer the Lord’s question. That kind of determinism is not found in these statements about this all-knowing attribute of God.

The fourth speaks about how God knows the underlying motives of how and why our desires are what they are, but it is not teaching that God knows because he has already programmed our desires to always select a pre-determined outcome. That is something added to Scripture by over-zealous reasoning on the meaning of all-knowing that somehow must progress to also be all-determining.

The fifth reveals that all wisdom and knowledge have their source in the Lord. Knowledge comes from God, but that doesn’t force the assumption that therefore choice is pre-forced also by God.

The sixth passage above says that God sits supreme over everything so that nothing escapes either his notice or his allowance. Reality happens only within what God has established and never outside of his divine authority. Once again, that does not subsequently mean then that God must choose every outcome, but rather that every outcome must exist and submit to his Sovereignty.

The seventh, perhaps is the clearest statement on establishing the specific doctrine of the Omniscience of God, by simply saying, God knows everything. However, in context, the writer is not actually teaching specifically on this doctrine; rather, he is stating the comforting truth that God is established as sovereign over everything, so that not even our own feelings or reasonings, that might lead us to despair when self-reflecting, can prevent God from being able to override our failures with his saving grace.

You may have noticed above, as consistent throughout Scripture, it doesn’t say that God knows our every choice. He may, but it doesn’t actually say that. That idea that has become a fundamental doctrine is what is called extra-biblical, if not also dangerously additive. Rather, the preponderance of Scripture states that people will be judged according to their choices and actions and not per a pre-determined script.

God is omniscient! He does know everything. He created everything, so that nothing exists beyond or outside of what he knowingly established. In this sense, he knows every detail of substance as well as every possible outcome of existing options. He knows every single possible chess move to the entire game of life he created. He is all knowing.

However, he never states that this omniscience means that he must determine every option in order to remain all-knowing. That is a human reasoned issue. Think-tanks are fascinated by the confusion resulting from questions on whether or not God can be all-knowing if a speck of pollen lands somewhere other than where God knew it would land. He is certainly capable of knowing such detail, just as he knows every bird that falls from its nest. However, the biblical text doesn’t extend that statement about his level of awareness to the point that supposedly God knew the bird’s plight because he intentionally and specifically set up the chain of events that would push the baby to its death.

In other words, the Bible doesn’t interpret the meaning of all-knowing as knowing all outcomes. This distinction presents all-knowing as a matter of objective-substance, rather than necessarily a matter of subjective-occurrence. God knows what he created, how it all works, how every option unfolds, and what it takes to fulfill his will. That is a knowledge of substance. A later human choice is not new information that alters knowledge; rather, choices select from available options as a function of time.

God’s complete knowledge established laws of nature with cause-and-effect impacts that always culminate in his overall intended will. At times, he directly intervenes in that natural course to address his will and respond toward human activity. However, within those boundaries, he appears content to allow free will to actually operate freely and without insisting on determining momentary fate. His absolute knowledge is not threatened by our varied selections, nor is his sovereignty presented as reduced in any way by not pre-programming every eventuality. There is no question, however, that his ultimate intended purpose will always occur exactly as he designed.

This philosophical conundrum is why—even though God states about himself that he is the God of the past, present and future, as well as the God of the beginning and the end, and that his words are spoken in the past and are not always present-tense—that scholars try to take him out of time. Determinists need to create a God that sees every human choice as already unfolded, so that he can be all-knowing to the extent of also being all-determining. As logical as that may sound, the Bible doesn’t present God that way. A time is coming when God will reveal the educated reasonings of man to be futile and lacking in the very knowledge that it claims to be explaining.

Scripture tells us that Jesus set aside aspects of his God-nature in order to take on the limits of humanity, but even then he remained fully the Son of God (Phi 2). His choice to set aside dependence on his innate ability to know all things did not reduce his Sovereignty or his Divinity. So it is with God being omniscient.

For him to say that he has set before mankind the choice between life and death, such that our individual selections will result in eternal blessings or cursings, and that our choices will impact our salvation, in no way reduces his sovereignty or omniscience. God is not threatened by our free and uncoerced ability to make choices.

That lie, that God’s omniscient sovereignty is somehow undermined by free will in humans, is the same reasoned distortion that Jesus was somehow less divine while in the flesh. Setting aside rights and abilities to allow humanity to freely choose to worship him or reject him does not reduce God from being God.

In truth, God may well know what you are going to have for lunch. But, if he chooses to allow you to select from any of the conceivable options he created without forcing or pre-determining chicken salad, he remains the All-knowing God. It likely makes little difference to him what you choose. He can and will direct your ultimate outcome to remain in line with his over-all will, while still allowing complete freedom to reject chicken salad in favor of a juicy burger with mushrooms and bacon.

God’s plans cannot be undermined, but don’t make the mistake of assuming God planned what you would eat for lunch. All knowledge remains in him, even if he knowingly chooses to allow you to pick from his menu. There is no option that could surprise the Lord or change his knowledge.

God cannot be changed from who he is by your choices. He repeatedly records how he alters what he said he would do, to deal with choices people have made, and in every case he remains God and remains omniscient and sovereign. According to his own word, he has chosen to allow you and me to make significant life-choices that can have a direct and lasting impact on our eternity.

Here is how Scripture presents the “knowing” of God regarding human interaction. Notice that God is said to know the inclination and tendency, rather than the actual choice; and that he tests and searches our inner desires and thoughts to know what we are likely disposed to do. Scripture simply never presents the knowing of God as predetermined outcomes or choices.

“The Lord saw how great man’s wickedness on the earth had become, and that every inclination of the thoughts of his heart was only evil all the time. The Lord was grieved that he had made man on the earth, and his heart was filled with pain. So the Lord said, ‘I will wipe mankind, whom I have created, from the face of the earth…but Noah found favor in the eyes of the Lord.” (Gen 6:5-8)

“…even though every inclination of his heart is evil from childhood.” (Gen 8:21)

“The Lord heard you when you spoke to me and the Lord said to me, ‘I have heard what this people said to you. Everything they said was good. Oh, that their hearts would be inclined to fear me and keep all my commands always, so that it might go well with them and their children forever!'” (Dt 5:28-29)

“Remember how the Lord your God led you all the way in the desert these forty years, to humble you and to test you in order to know what was in your heart, whether or not you would keep his commands.” (Dt 8:2)

“I know what they are disposed to do, even before I bring them into the land I promised them on oath.” (Dt 31:21)

“then heart from heaven, your dwelling place. Forgive and act; deal with each man according to all he does, since you know his heart (for you alone know the hearts of all men), so that they will fear you all the time they live in the land you gave our fathers.” (1 Kg 8:39-40)

“I know, my God, that you test the heart and are pleased with integrity.” (1 Chr 29:17)

“But when envoys were sent by the rulers of Babylon to ask him about the miraculous sign that had occurred in the land, God left him to test him and to know everything that was in his heart.” (2 Chr 32:31)

“would not God have discovered it, since he knows the secrets of the heart?” (Psa 44:21)

“O Lord, you have searched me and you know me. You know when I sit and when I rise; you perceive my thoughts from afar. You discern my going out and my lying down; you are familiar with all my ways. Before a word is on my tongue you know it completely, O Lord.” (Psa 139:1-4)

“Search me, O God, and know my heart; test me and know my anxious thoughts. See if there is any offensive way in me, and lead me in the way everlasting.” (Psa 139:23)

“Rescue those being led away to death; hold back those staggering toward slaughter. If you say, ‘But we knew nothing about this,’ does not he who weighs the heart perceive it? Does not he who guards your life know it? Will he not repay each person according to what he has done?” (Pro 24:11-12)

“Yet you know me, O Lord; you see me and test my thoughts about you.” (Jer 12:3)

“Knowing their thoughts, Jesus said, ‘Why do you entertain evil thoughts in your hearts?'” (Mt 9:4)

“You are the ones who justify yourselves in the eyes of men, but God knows your hearts. What is highly valued among men is detestable in God’s sight.” (Lu 16:15)

“Then they prayed, ‘Lord, you know everyone’s heart. Show us which of these two you have chosen to take over this apostolic ministry, which Judas left to go where he belongs.'” (Act 1:24-25)

“And he who searches our hearts knows the mind of the Spirit, because the Spirit intercedes for the saints in accordance with God’s will.” (Rom 8:27)

God tested Israel while wondering in the desert for 40 years to know whether or not they would obey. The Bible does not state that God already knew every eventuality and that the testing was only so that the people would know. Whether or not we are comfortable with the truth, the text says it was so that God would know. Skeptics will suggest that this kind of God then doesn’t actually show that he knows every choice, but defining knowledge is not the right of ignorant men. God says he knows everything, and that must mean that he knows without requiring the predetermined selection of every occurrence.

The real marvel is not how can God remain all-knowing while humans exercise free will, but rather how phenomenal God is to have all knowledge and power but to restrain the tempting intervention to force every choice to be a good one. As a loving parent, that is what I often wish I could do (but try not to do)—to manipulate the choices of my children to think they are making their own choice, but in actuality to only allow them to pick from what I know would be best for them. That disability is yet another reason why God is God and I am not.

He knows all details of how life and reality can be what they are, but he chooses to restrain his manipulation and allow me to pick freely within the system he has created. He could force the choice and determine every outcome. Many think that is what he must do. But his word says otherwise, and he remains omniscient.

Amazing. Lord, help me to make choices that honor you. You know everything. You know every conceivable option, and I want to pick that which is absolutely best, not just completely free. I freely choose You. I choose to follow your lead and I trust that you will repair and heal me from my bumbling past choices. I know I don’t earn salvation by anything I do, but by your Son’s glorious sacrifice, and I freely respond to your invitation to accept him as my Lord and Savior.

I recognize from your own words that you don’t force me, nor do you pre-program my selections, in spite of what religious philosophers say. You offer yourself in a lineup of lesser options and draw me to yourself without forcing the outcome.

Some will accept your gracious offer. Some “reject the grace that could have been theirs”. As you declare, Bible experts “rejected God’s purposes for themselves” (Lu 7:30).

Where else could we go, Lord, You have the words of truth!

Posted in Approaching Scripture, Christian Gospel | Tagged , , , , , | Leave a comment

Question: Systematic Theology

Students dare not question the logic of logic—it is considered illogical and deserving of rebuke. Philosophically, there is no greater foundation commonly accepted than that which can be reasoned. The rationalizations from the human mind are considered the bedrock of reality, knowledge, and belief.

Christian belief is summarized and explained as theology. Theology is the categorized study of God. In other words, it is the grouping of thoughts and various details of belief which can be labeled and defined. Systematic theology, then, is the rational step-by-step approach to explaining those categories of belief in God.

By one online definition, Systematic Theology is: “a form of theology in which the aim is to arrange religious truths in a self-consistent whole.”

It is a reasoned method of building the explanations of what Christians ought to believe and understand. However, Systematic Theology has an Achilles Heel–a fatal flaw—that scholars and professors often don’t want anyone to recognize, because it is likely the same fundamental basis that props up their own authority to teach what to believe.

The basis of any logical system of thought is human rationalization: human reason. Following our Greek and Romanesque roots, Westernized science and philosophy typically accept no greater foundation than that which can be reasoned in a linear, one-two-three pattern.

The fundamental problem with human reason is the limitation of the human. This by no means is a recommendation for unreasonableness, but people are biased actors on the world stage, trying to measure their own performance. Human reason is self-limited.

It is a mental-progression fallacy, which suggests that each generation is building upon and thus progressing beyond former generations like some kind of evolutionary advancement, because it is ignorant of the deforming impact of sin. This is a fundamental error of systematic theology that inherently assumes that our educated systems are more sophisticated as interpretations and study builds over time. In reality, errors are even more powerful in compounding over time, and it only takes a little leaven to deform the entire loaf.

When it comes to theology, to the study of God, we are encouraged to come and reason with God: to use our God-given abilities to seek him. However, such reasoning is meant to be subordinated to approaches that reflect godly truth.

Theology ought to begin with and strive to be based upon forms that depend more on what comes from God than on what can be mustered up through mankind.

For example, why don’t God-professing institutions of higher learning promote classes on Faith Theology? Or how about Revelation Theology? Or maybe Foundation Theology? All would still use human reason to navigate through such approaches, for we certainly are not expected be be mindless, but their basis would be on things that come from God rather than on man-made patterns.

Approaching theology from a faith perspective would give more emphasis on how the study of God finds formation through trusting in God and his words more like a little child. The entire package of what Christians believe would build and show a logical development, not principally because of a rationalized explanation, but because of layers of acceptance in the promises and evidences and words from God.

Approaching theology from a revelation perspective would establish the entire development of what believers believe on what God has revealed of himself. It would take each revelation and stack it on that which came earlier. It would connect to each ah-ha under the assumption that God never disagrees with himself, so each discovery would be received as a building together of our theology.

Approaching theology from a foundational view would put primary credence on what the first eye-witnesses taught, rather than on subsequent interpretations. Forming such a package of theology would develop from a basis on what Paul taught was a done-deal. “No other foundation can be laid, but that which has already been laid”.

Systematic Theology is a tangent approach that is worth considering, but it should not be relied upon to establish Christian belief or practice, because it depends upon human reasoning to justify itself. The subtle value of systematic approaches to defining theology is that it can be easily manipulated to defend and teach denominational distinctions without openly declaring such bias. It is impressive, thorough, and difficult to identify assumptions from absolutes.

Academically we like systematic approaches because we can control them with our own mind. The other suggested approaches all require dependence and submission to what God offers and expects. Intellectual humility goes against human nature and is why the systematic approach tends to dominate all other ways of trying to teach truth.

So the question. Is your belief in God founded on faith or formula? Is your preaching submissive or systematic based? Is your hope in life ultimately explainable or full-of-wonder?

As our Lord declares: “Trust me in this and see if I will not open the flood gates of heaven and pour out such a blessing that you will not have room enough to contain it all”.

Posted in Approaching Scripture | Tagged , , , , | Leave a comment

Straw-Man Tactics

One of the talents of a trained debater—be it a politician, public relations person, or a preacher—is to establish identifiable targets to knock down. Hidden and moving targets are difficult to confront. A stationary target, and especially one we ourselves have set up, is easiest to hit.

In the realm of language and philosophical arguments, this is what is known as “straw-man theory”. It likely comes from military training where recruits are handed a weapon and instructed to attack a straw-filled target dressed up like some enemy. A commander is far less likely to witness new troops going AWOL (fearfully running away and disappearing from duty) when fighting against a person made out of straw. Once the training is deeply embedded in the soldier, they typically can transfer their skills to a live target and it makes no difference whether that target is viewed as straw or flesh. The order from then on is attack and destroy.

To win at an argument or fight, it is far more effective to pin down the opposition in order to strike a fatal blow. If that can’t be easily accomplished in reality, then making up a straw man that looks similar, can give both the enemy as well as all onlookers the impression that we have tackled the great dragon and given it a licking (that means spanking, not a dog’s greeting).

The method is to create a caricature with similarities to the opposition, but that speaks words that you put in its mouth, and does things that you describe as wrong, and that can’t be argued against by others (because it doesn’t actually exist), and then prove them wrong. In order to combat a straw-man argument, the opponent is often forced to prove the error of this fictitious opponent rather than directly confront the fabricator, thus creating a protective buffer as well as a distraction.

This method is common in all arenas where conflict may occur, including in churches. The problem for Christians, however, is that straw is not our enemy and training against what is not real will deceive the recruit into approaching evil as if it is dressed in red, sporting a long tail, and holding a pitchfork.

The problem with straw-man theories is that they are made up targets that don’t actually fit reality. A Christian may be given milk rather than meat to start out, but they are to always be taught the truth, be that viewed as good or bad. Misrepresenting evil and sin is just as vile before our Lord as distorting his word or creating caricatures of God.

Teachers of Christians must instruct carefully in line with God’s revealed word and avoid the attractive tendency to pack straw around their theology and doctrines. Sadly, religious training camps have hired many officers who perpetuate their own straw-man training, from generation after generation, who are now convinced that they know what the enemy looks like as well as what God desires, but who have hay sticking out from their own teeth.

Sampson fell for a straw-man tactic, when his foreign bride complained “you hate me”. In her effort to pressure him to tell her his secret, she invented a viewpoint and applied it to him. In order to demonstrate that her concern was just straw, he spilled the beans and ultimately lost his life.

Proverbs speaks of those who come first to present their views, who often seem right, until the other side has a chance to confront the straw-fallacies in the first story. This is one of the dangers with surrounding ourselves with those who speak, think, act, and look like us. In this case, diversity is a protection against straw-man attacks from inside our own circle of preferences.

The Pharisees in Jesus’ day were absolutely convinced that they had everything figured out, but they couldn’t even recognize the Son of God when he stood before them and spoke to them. Their religion had morphed from stone into straw.

Religious leaders tried justifying their decision to find a way to kill Jesus by using a Straw-man reason. “If we let him go on like this, everyone will believe in him, and then the Romans will come and take away both our place and our nation.” The Romans were not under threat by what Jesus was doing, nor by Jews following him; it was the Jewish leadership that Jesus was replacing in the minds of the people. Those Jewish religious leaders, however, knew that the threat of Roman destruction was far more persuasive a reason to justify killing someone, so they made up a false-fear that would likely have a more significant impact on swaying others to join in on their jealous plot.

Crusaders were absolutely convinced that “God wills it”, as they attempted to slaughter Arabs and foreigners living in and around Jerusalem. Their ministers told them that was the enemy, and they brutalized others rather than bare the Cross like their Lamb who gave his life instead.

Proponents of robot-mentality fate, for the past 500 years, use Straw-man tactics to try and undermine acceptance of God-designed human choice and responsibility. As one pastor recently stated, “The idea that people can make any kind of choice [other than what God supposedly has predetermined must occur], undermines and reduces the sovereign glory of God.” It sounds horrible that Christians would accept anything that would threaten the greatness of God, but the Bible never suggests such a problem. Rather, the tactic is a powerful tool to manipulate crowds to denounce accepting the biblical teaching of “therefore choose”, and distract people away from thinking that they have any responsibility in what they choose to do because apparently every detail of their life was pre-ordained to occur.

Entire categories have been invented in order to teach straw-man doctrines, like suggesting that Jesus has abolished Jewish Rituals but not the stone-carved Old Covenant Commandments. Rather, if you break one, you have broken all, and there is no difference in obedience before God. Another grouping is to list doctrines as “core” versus “non-salvific”, but that is not taught in Scripture, because willful disobedience, no matter how trivial, is still rebellion.

Loved ones who have passed away are often said to be in a better place and smiling down from heaven on us now. It preaches well and the grieving understandably prefer to hear such encouraging words. However, that is a hollow straw-man theory that doesn’t find stable support in Scripture. The same straw is found in teachings on the Rapture doctrine.

Believers are coddled that they can never lose salvation, once they think they have it, because straw has been stuffed into a theory that says what people naturally want to hear rather than upholds what Scripture actually states.

Entire segments of the Church have replaced the authority of Scripture with the repetition of tradition, fulfilling the Lord’s prophecy that many have a horrible way of putting their straw-filled tradition ahead of the blood-stained words of God.

Christians are told to disregard entire passages, like warnings in Hebrews, or revelations about saints being judged for eternity according to their works, because enormous straw-man doctrines have replaced the truth and caused followers to embrace what is not real.

Santa Claus and his chimney-hopping reindeer with gifts are straw-stories attached to Christmas. For Christians, Easter bunnys and eggs have more straw in them than chocolate. The tooth fairy is yet another fabricated lie of straw, passed off as entertaining activity for kids. The distorted idea is it is ok to lie to children in the name of fun.

I recently heard a pastor state that baptism is not required for salvation, because if it was it would be salvation by works. His faith-alone theology, something made up out of straw by the founder of Protestantism, prevents him from admitting that God commands baptism for those who desire salvation.

Straw is useful to cows and to the military and in public debate, but it has no lasting place in upholding truth. If you don’t think you have scare-crows around you, you might want to check under the hats of all that you claim to believe. Those who surround themselves with reality and life, will avoid filling their minds or their ranks with straw-men.

Remember, God has promised to judge everything and everyone with fire. No matter how long it might have stood up or how well it is dressed or who you want to blame for setting it up, straw doesn’t stand a chance.

“By the grace God has given me, I laid a foundation…but each one should be careful how he builds. For no one can lay any foundation other than the one already laid…If any man builds on this foundation using…hay or straw, his work will be shown for what it is…It will be revealed with fire….” (1 Cor 3:10-15)

Build your faith with solid truth and don’t assume your respected teachers always know the difference. As the Spirit commands, “test the spirits [of your ministers] to see whether they are of God, for many false teachers have gone out”. We need each other to continually hold us closely and humbly to the actual words of God in order to avoid participating in the distortions of straw-man Christianity.

Posted in Christian Gospel, Christian Living | Tagged , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment