Thursday, April 29, 2010

The Power of God

I am not ashamed of the gospel,
because it is the power of God for the salvation of everyone who believes:
first for the Jew, then for the Gentile.
(Romans 1:16)

I am finishing up an excellent book which I received at Together for the Gospel in Louisville, KY, The Plight of Man and the Power of God, by Dr. Martyn Lloyd-Jones. In fact, I am having LaDonna (our church secretary) look into obtaining large quantities for give away as an evangelism outreach. The first 4 chapters deal with the plight of man from Romans 1:18-32. The last chapter addresses, “The Only Solution.” This chapter is rooted in Romans 1:16 (cited above).

What follows is an extensive excerpt from that chapter.1

Rome was after all the great metropolis of the world at that time. She was the seat of the Imperial Government, which governed the whole of the world that counted then, and she, therefore, attracted unto herself everything that was prized and valued most of all. ... She was thus a proud city—the proudest city of the world. She boasted of her wealth and power, her learning and her culture, her religions and her polity; and her great buildings were famous everywhere. She seemed to be the perfect city, and in her human culture and progress seemed to have reached their very zenith. She was indeed the very embodiment of pride in human greatness and achievement, in a sense that scarcely any other city has ever been since then. ...To her nothing could be so ludicrous as the claim of the Gospel. To suggest that a small, insignificant sect of people, who belonged mainly to one of the poorest of their colonies and conquered territories, should possess the message that the whole of mankind needed was ridiculous. And the utter folly of such an idea was further demonstrated when it became clear that the very essence of that message was to believe that a man who belonged to one of the most despised towns, even of that country, and who, far from being a great scholar or philosopher, was just a common carpenter, was the unique Son of God. But what finally made such a claim sheer madness was the fact that He, far from being a great powerful conqueror who had subdued nations to Himself by His might and power, was actually crucified in utter weakness and helplessness between two thieves. This entire claim of the despised sect called Christian was folly to the Greeks, with their ideas of philosophy; to the Romans it was even worse. Its sheer weakness was an offense, apart from anything else.

Now, it was to people who lived in an atmosphere of that kind that Paul utters these words. To the proud, cultured, self-satisfied metropolis of the world, with all its wealth and power, he is prepared to preach his Gospel—nay, he longs to do so. He knows what Rome thinks of it and that she regards all who believe and preach it as being beneath contempt. But that does not worry him nor affect him. And when he gets there he will not feel crestfallen, or deem it necessary to apologize for himself or his message. For he is proud of it, he glories in it, he boasts of it and exults in it. To him it is something compared with which all that Rome is, and can boast of, pales into insignificance. Rome would try to pour ridicule, contempt, and shame upon any who believed it. She had done so and would continue to do so. But, knowing all about her and her proud claim, Paul is not ashamed, for he knows that what he preaches is needed by Rome as by every other place, and that it infinitely transcends in worth all they have and all they believe.

Now, it must be quite clear to all that the situation which confronts the Gospel and its preaching at the present time, in this and most other countries, is strangely similar to that which we have been describing.... From being recognised as right and true, it went through a phase when it was patronised and ignored. But by today it is being actively attacked and opposed. Indeed, we have even reached a stage beyond that: it is being ridiculed and dismissed. The claim today is that it is something which no educated, reasonable person can possibly accept and believe. It is placed in the category of folklore and superstition, and regarded as a mere survival of the days when men, in their ignorance, were the slaves of various fears and phobias. All this can be proved, it is contended, by the advance of knowledge, the result of scientific discovery, and the light which psychology has thrown on human nature and its strange behaviour. Certain aspects of the moral teaching of the Gospel are accepted and praised, though some would even reject that, but as for the central claims of the Gospel namely, the unique deity of Christ, the miracles He worked while on earth, His atoning death and literal physical resurrection, the Person of the Holy Spirit and the claims of the early chapters of the Book of Acts--all these things are rejected with contempt and sarcasm....

Salvation is to be found, according to the modem man, in the full use of the human capacities and powers which can he trained by knowledge and education. Man must save himself; man can save himself. He has it within him to do so. That is the essence of the modem creed. And if any one ventures to mention the Gospel of Christ, with its offer of a miraculous salvation, he is regarded as being so hopelessly behind the times as to be almost an idiot... And were he to go further and to say that the Gospel is the only hope for mankind, individually and collectively, he would be roared at as a lunatic or a fool.

Nevertheless, that is precisely and exactly what we assert today, as Paul did so long ago. And we do so without any sense of shame or apology. ... We need but point to the state of the world today, which is nothing but an appalling monument to human failure. We might add a request that those who reject the Gospel, in a manner which is so reminiscent of the attitude of ancient Rome, should acquaint themselves further with the subsequent history of that proud cultured and powerful city, and of other cities and countries that have maintained a similar attitude.

No! We do not hesitate to state that the only hope for men is to believe the Gospel of Christ. We say so knowing full well all the talk about science and learning and culture. We say so knowing that, at the end of this war, the world, in exactly the same way as at the end of the last war, will announce with confidence its plans and schemes for a new world, without taking any account of what the Gospel has to say. Why do we say so? For precisely the same reasons adduced by St. Paul in the words of our text. He states them quite clearly:

(i) First and foremost, he is proud of the Gospel because it is God's way of salvation. Herein it differs from all else that has ever been offered to mankind as a view of life and a way of life; and therein lies always the main and chief reason why we should boast of it and exult in it....

Some made their boast in Aristotle, others in Plato, others in Socrates, others in Zeno. But all the systems ultimately ended on a query. Each displayed great learning and much understanding, and each had its system. But there was another fact in the ancient world which proved how inadequate all the schools were finally. And that was the endless number of religions that were to be found. Thought alone was known to be insufficient. There was something behind the world; there were unseen powers and agencies. Life could not be explained without invoking the gods. And the Roman Empire was full of the various religions devoted to the worshiping of these gods and their corresponding temples....But Paul had something essentially different to offer and to preach. He knew of the other systems. But he also knew their limits and their inability to solve the problems. He could not make his boast in men and their systems. Before he could boast of a system it must have authority; it must have certainty.

It must not be a mere approximation to the truth, but the Truth itself. Speculations could not save, but the Gospel Paul preached was not speculation; it was a revelation from God Himself....

(ii) But a second reason for glorying in it and boasting of it is that it works it is "the power of God unto salvation." It is not surprising that Paul uses the word "power" in writing to Rome. That was their great word. And they tended to judge everything in terms of power. Rome was the great Imperial City, and power was to Rome what wisdom was to Athens. They would not consider anything unless it worked and had power....The Romans were essentially pragmatic and utilitarian in their outlook. That was their test and their standard. ...What had all their learning and culture and their multitude of religions really produced? If they were interested in results—well, let them produce them. What was the type of life lived by the citizens of the Roman Empire? What was the level of their morality? And he proceeds to answer his own question in the words found from verse 18 to the end of the chapter. That was the kind of life the people lived. Is that success? Is that civilisation and culture? Is that something of which to boast? What is the point and the value of all the philosophies if they cannot deal with the problems of life? They appear to be intellectual and are extremely interesting, but the business of a philosophy is not to raise problems, but to solve them. He, Paul himself, had once boasted of the Jewish Law and of his success in keeping it. But he came to see that all of which he had boasted was merely something external; when he came to see the real inner spiritual meaning of the law, he discovered that he was an utter failure....

Wednesday, April 28, 2010

Let Go and Let God?

Reading:  Joshua 23  
Sorry for the corny title, but whatever the form, how often have you or people you know struggled trying to comprehend how to not “work in the flesh,” but to “let God do it”? People often seem perplexed by the idea somehow we have to do things in life, but we aren't to do it in our own strength, but “in the strength that God provides” (1 Peter 4:11). At the end of the day many try to find the “mystical middle” between the two extremes, while it ever seems to elude us. Every so often in this discussion someone comes along and offers the old cliché, “let go and let God,” and we are confused again about whether we should be doing anything, and if we do, if that some hinders God.
This morning as I read in Joshua, I was reminded of another passage in Philippians. These two verses may help us get our arms around this issue. In the first text, Joshua is speaking to Israel after they have gone into the promised land, driven out the inhabitants of the land, and taken their inheritance.
The LORD has driven out before you great and powerful nations; to this day no one has been able to withstand you. One of you routs a thousand, because the LORD your God fights for you, just as he promised. So be very careful to love the LORD your God. (Joshua 23:9-11)
Why was Israel successful in taking the promise land? Well, if you looked merely on the external issues you might say, “because they got up and went and fought.” There is something they did. Of course, if you read the book of Joshua you realize that when the Lord wasn't fighting for them, they failed miserably (reference the story of Achan in chapter 6). But when they weren't in active rebellion against the Lord, they got up and did what they needed to do each day and the Lord was behind the scenes, invisible, fighting for them. They fought, but one routed a thousand. This was faith: walking in the knowledge that God would do what He promised.
As I read this, I was reminded of a familiar verse.
Therefore, my dear friends, as you have always obeyed—not only in my presence, but now much more in my absence—continue to work out your salvation with fear and trembling, for it is God who works in you to will and to act according to his good purpose. (Philippians 2:12-13)
How do I obey God, but not in my own strength? How do I pray, but not in my own strength? How do I serve my brothers and sisters in Christ, but not in my own strength? How do I prepare a sermon, but not in my own strength? Does that mean that I simply pray and trust the Lord to lead me as I preach, but don't spend hours breaking down the text, looking up background information, and don't bring any written notes with me into the pulpit? Of course I need to do all those things, but I need to do them realizing that it is God who will open the text up to me, according to his good purpose, as I study hard. Even more importantly, realizing that I am dependent on God to open the hearts of the hearers in order for the message to have effect. And of course I pray and serve others, but I don't do this thinking that I have the strength myself, or discouraged at what at times appears to be the pathetic results, but knowing that God is working through my weakness to accomplish His glorious good.
At the end of a day or two of study, I often feel like I've accomplished nothing. At the end of prayer, I often feel that nothing has happened. When serving others, I usually feel like I've done nothing... the least I could do (literally). I can imagine that an Israelite going up against a thousand felt insignificant and useless. But it was God who worked (fought) in them. But, fight they did; and pray, or study, or serve, you will. Yet, God has promised to work in you. Don't be discouraged with the appearance of things. Don't go prayerless into things, but go knowing God has promised to answer your prayer and will strengthen you in what you do. This is walking by faith: walking in the knowledge that God will do just what He promised. “I believe, Lord, help my unbelief.”
Love the Gospel, Live the Gospel, Advance the Gospel

Wednesday, April 21, 2010

Angelic Swordsman and Buried Treasures

When Joshua was leading Israel into the promise land, He and all Israel had a lesson to learn in the Holiness of God. It begins with this encounter:
13 Now when Joshua was near Jericho, he looked up and saw a man standing in front of him with a drawn sword in his hand. Joshua went up to him and asked, "Are you for us or for our enemies?"
14 "Neither," he replied, "but as commander of the army of the LORD I have now come."
Then Joshua fell facedown to the ground in reverence, and asked him, "What message does my Lord have for his servant?"
15 The commander of the LORD's army replied, "Take off your sandals, for the place where you are standing is holy." And Joshua did so. (Joshua 5:13-15)
This angelic messenger (I don't know what else to call him), doesn't respond as we might expect. Joshua's question, "Are you for us or for our enemies?" seems to warrant the answer, “Of course I am for you, because God is going to deliver the inhabitants of the land into your hands, just as He promised.” Instead he essentially says, “Neither... I am not here for your interests, or your enemies interests, but to protect the interests of the Lord.”
The last time I remember such a sword drawn messenger of the Lord was when Balaam and his donkey were on their way to, presumably, curse Israel. This messenger stood in front of the donkey such that the donkey kept changing course and getting beat by Balaam. Finally, the Lord opened the donkey's mouth to explain to Balaam what was happening. The Lord was protecting His inheritance.
The first time we see such a sword drawn messenger is at the east entrance of the garden of God, Eden. He is put there to protect the garden from any who would enter and eat from the tree of life. Adam and Eve had already eaten from the tree they were forbidden to eat, so a sword drawn messenger protects God's interests in that garden.
In Joshua 5, Israel has just entered the east entrance of the promise land, the garden of God, the land of milk and honey, and, lo and behold, our sword drawn messenger is there again, protecting the interest of God. It seems that it is this messenger in 6:2ff that gives instructions to Joshua regarding how to take the city of Jericho. And, we are led to believe this messenger is the one who told Joshua that everything in the city was to be devoted to the Lord (6:17), which means they could not partake of the spoils. It belonged to God. The idea was the same as that applied to the firstfruits. It was holy and therefore wholly devoted to the Lord.
But the Israelites acted unfaithfully in regard to the devoted things; Achan son of Carmi...took some of them. So the LORD's anger burned against Israel. (Joshua 7:1)
In Joshua 7 we find how Achan's sin effected the whole community (an interesting lesson in itself in our self-oriented culture), and how Achan was discovered. But it is Achan's confession we find a description of his sin, and a description of sin we often find in ourselves.
20 Achan replied, "It is true! I have sinned against the LORD, the God of Israel. This is what I have done: 21 When I saw in the plunder a beautiful robe from Babylonia, two hundred shekels of silver and a wedge of gold weighing fifty shekels, I coveted them and took them. They are hidden in the ground inside my tent, with the silver underneath."
We are also prone to taking what belongs to the Lord and using it for our own pleasures and purposes. How does it start? I suggest much the same as with Achan. We see something just like his beautiful robe from Babylonia, two hundred shekels of silver and a wedge of gold weighing fifty shekels,” and we covet it. We want it more than we want to glorify God with what belongs to Him. Then, we bury it in the ground, the earth, by laying up our treasure in the earth rather than storing up treasure in heaven (see Matthew 6:19-21). And just like Achan, it brings trouble on the whole community.
By God's grace, unlike Achan, we aren't stoned to death, for Christ has already born our punishment. But that truth of the love of Christ, should all the more compel the Christian to “no longer live for themselves but for him who died for them and was raised again.”

Tuesday, April 20, 2010

Putting Off Sin and Putting On the Church

Reading:  Colossians 3   
Sin demands to have a man by himself. It withdraws him from the community. The more isolated a person is, the more destructive will be the power of sin over him, and the more deeply he becomes involved in it, the more disastrous is his isolation. Sin wants to remain unknown. It shuns the light.” Dietrich Bonhoeffer
As I read this quote I was reminded of the text in Colossians 3:1-11 which we covered in our series in Colossians in January of this year (Living Life Hidden Away in Christ (Part 1) - Colossians 3:1-11). In vs. 5-9, Paul has what is commonly referred to as a “put-off” list of sins. This is not a complete list of the sins we are to put off, but a representative list. Beginning in vs. 10, he talks about what we are to put on: the new self, which is Christ. Therefore, we are to clothe ourselves in Christ (3:12-14). We have died, and we are now to live our lives hidden in Christ. Therefore, we are to put off living as if we haven't died, and start living hidden in Christ... clothed in Christ.
So while vs. 10 and following describe life in the body of Christ, vs. 5-9 describe sin that is contrary to that life as the body of Christ. The sins of vs. 5-9 can only be lived in if we still think and act as if we are in the old man, in self, isolated from community. They are put off as we come into the light and live in light of community.
Paul placed these sins into two groupings which could be described this way:
1)vs. 5 Hidden Sins of Shame that Die as We Walk in the Light: list of shameful thoughts and actions, which people do in hiding from each other. Therefore, as we live in light with each other, we put these off.
2)vs. 8-9 Sins of Relationship which Divide: a list of sins and attitudes which divide the church and relationships instead of unite. So we must put them off in pursuit of unity. The list of clothes we are to put on as we clothe ourselves in Christ (vs. 12-14), is a description of the nature of Christ that will bring us together and hold us together as we put them on.
One of the greatest cures to sin is to realize that we are no longer living life unto ourselves. We are part of a body. When we come into this world we are born into a family. When we come into the kingdom of God, we are born into His family, the church. A Christian cannot put-off the sins of Colossians 3:5-9 living by himself, in isolation. It is the very isolation and self-life which perpetrates those sins. Neither can a Christian put-off those sins by merely trying harder, by somehow taking an axe of private-effort to them. Rather, he puts them off by living in the light and pursuing the fellowship of the church—pursuing compassion, kindness, humility, gentleness and patience; embracing opportunities to bear with each other and forgive whatever grievances we may have against one another; forgiving as the Lord forgave us.
Living in the light” includes confessing our sin to one another. As Bonhoeffer says, “Sin wants to remain unknown. It shuns the light.” Expose it. There is freedom from the bondage of sin when it is confessed and brought into the light. When we confess our sin to one another, we are confessing to the fellowship of forgiven sinners, and that sin can no longer separate us from one another.
Bonhoeffer continues, “The root of all sin is pride... I want to be my own law, I have a right to my self, my hatred and my desires, my life and my death.” Living in the Christ-centered community, the church, puts sin to death because it places the axe right at the root of sin.