Monday, January 30, 2012

Paul's Definition of Spiritual Warfare!

Reading: Romans 12  
In Romans 12:9-21, Paul almost sounds like he is recapping the Sermon on the Mount. We are doing a Sunday morning series at Gulf Coast in the Beatitudes, and Paul is calling us here to live much the same as the Beatitudes do. From Romans 12 we can learn something about the importance of our works. And the importance of our works, our good works, is not in meriting God's grace (otherwise grace would no longer be grace—Romans 11:6); the importance of our good works might be likened to the importance of weapons and ammunition to the military.
Every translation seems to get this one right. I read this text this morning in the Holman Christian Standard Bible:
9Love must be without hypocrisy. Detest evil; cling to what is good. 10Show family affection to one another with brotherly love. Outdo one another in showing honor. 11Do not lack diligence; be fervent in spirit; serve the Lord. 12Rejoice in hope; be patient in affliction; be persistent in prayer. 13Share with the saints in their needs; pursue hospitality. 14Bless those who persecute you; bless and do not curse. 15Rejoice with those who rejoice; weep with those who weep. 16Be in agreement with one another. Do not be proud; instead, associate with the humble. Do not be wise in your own estimation. 17Do not repay anyone evil for evil. Try to do what is honorable in everyone’s eyes. 18If possible, on your part, live at peace with everyone. 19Friends, do not avenge yourselves; instead, leave room for His wrath. For it is written: Vengeance belongs to Me; I will repay,says the Lord. 20But If your enemy is hungry, feed him. If he is thirsty, give him something to drink. For in so doing you will be heaping fiery coals on his head. 21Do not be conquered by evil, but conquer evil with good. (Romans 12:9-21 HCSB)
Paul lays out the kind of righteousness to which the believer is called to live in view of the depth of the riches of God's mercy to us in the Gospel (Romans 11:33-12:2). Then toward the end of this description warfare language is incorporated. We are to live with this love and righteousness, and not avenge ourselves. As we do this, we will be “heaping fiery coals on his [our enemies] head,” and, “conquer evil with good.” So, in not avenging ourselves, but loving our enemies and feeding him, we will be “heaping fiery coals on his head,” and “conquering evil”. Not many verses later, Paul describes this kind of living as putting “on the armor of light.” (Romans 13:12) Again this is warfare language; these are implements of war.
The above quoted verses are the Biblical description of how we are to engage in spiritual warfare. As we begin to live in the Sermon on the Mount, while we are not earning grace, we are battling the enemy. Just as Christ came doing good, and by His doing good He was engaging in warfare with the powers of darkness, we too are called to live such good lives, that the enemy is experiencing an onslaught of warfare against his dark kingdom. Hence, this is how we put on the armor of light.
Reread the passage above and consider the impact of living this grace-drenched-life for the glory of God and the trampling of the powers of darkness. Take up the weapons of righteousness in your right hand and your left (2 Corinthians 6:7), for though these “are not the weapons of the world...they have divine power to demolish strongholds.” (2 Corinthians 10:4) I approached this subject from a different angle previously (Fight! You Have an Inheritance to Take).
May we as a church family do some serious damage to the fortress of darkness that exists where we live. And may we do so in the way the Gospel teaches us to as we are conformed to the image of Christ.
Love the Gospel, Live the Gospel, Advance the Gospel,

Wednesday, January 18, 2012

Abraham's Worshiping Faith

Reading: Genesis 12–15
The faith of Abraham was a faith that worshiped. Those who are of the faith of Abraham are a people with a faith that worships. I believe this is a central aspect of Biblical faith, yet may well be an aspect of faith that is most often neglected. Maybe it is the effect of our western culture, but faith in evangelical churches is often strong in reason, but weak in worship. Of course, we are all aware of those whose faith has been strong in worship but weak in reason. Should we have to choose? Is your faith worshiping?
Abraham was a worshiper. We see evidence of this regularly.
The LORD appeared to Abram and said, "To your offspring I will give this land." So he built an altar there to the LORD, who had appeared to him. 8From there he went on toward the hills east of Bethel and pitched his tent, with Bethel on the west and Ai on the east. There he built an altar to the LORD and called on the name of the LORD. (Genesis 12:7-8)
At the beginning of the account of Abram, even before his name change, we find two immediate references to his building an altar. The second clarifies the purpose of these altars: “and called on the name of the Lord.” It is this calling on the name of the Lord that makes it plain that Abram's faith was a faith that worshiped. It was more than a faith that believed certain things to be true; it was a faith that had a God-ward orientation, a verbal, active calling. The Hebrew word, according to the BDB Lexicon means to call, cry, or utter a loud sound—for help; like that of pleading in court. In other words, we might say Abraham was a man who was desperately dependent on God.
This pattern of worship continues through the story of Abraham (see Genesis 13:3-4; 13:18). God is seeking worshipers (John 4:23-24). In fact, a life of dependence on God—a life spent seeking and trusting in God—is one that God will reward and respond to by being strong on their behalf (Hebrews 11:6). This truth can be seen in Abraham's life.
In Genesis 14 we read of four powerful kings that squelched a rebellion from their vassal kings. Five of these vassal kings came to fight against Chedorlaomer who was banded together with three other kings. Five kings and their armies were doing battle against the four kings and their armies. The five lost to the four! In the plunder, Lot, his family, and possessions are taken. Oops! Lot is Abram's nephew. God is on Abram's side, and a survivor gets away to tell Abram what happened. And so we read,
When Abram heard that his relative had been taken captive, he called out the 318 trained men born in his household and went in pursuit as far as Dan. (Genesis 14:14)
Five kings and their armies couldn't do anything against Chedorlaomer and his band of four kingdoms. But Abram and his household army are going after him. This looks like disaster in the making. How could Abram possibly survive? Because, as we read later in Israel's history, “the eyes of the LORD range throughout the earth to strengthen those whose hearts are fully committed to him.” (2 Chronicles 16:9) God was going to be there for Abram! God will reward Abram's seeking!
Following this victory (Genesis 14:15-16), and the return of Lot and his household along with the rest of Sodom—the people and goods, we find Abram's God-ward response again.
18Then Melchizedek king of Salem brought out bread and wine. He was priest of God Most High, 19and he blessed Abram, saying, "Blessed be Abram by God Most High, Creator of heaven and earth. 20And blessed be God Most High, who delivered your enemies into your hand." Then Abram gave him a tenth of everything. (Genesis 14:18-20)
Abram was a worshiper. This time it isn't an altar, it is his tithe. Interestingly, it seems he didn't keep anything for himself, but still gave God the tenth that belonged to Him.
There is one more altar Abraham builds in Genesis. This is on Mount Moriah, where God sent him, telling him to sacrifice His son (Genesis 22:9). This time He was going in obedience to God (which is quite frankly amazing!). It is here, at this altar, that we learn something which has everything to do with our worship. As they traveled to this place, Isaac asks where the sacrifice is going to come from (not realizing he was the sacrifice). Abraham answered, 'God himself will provide the lamb for the burnt offering, my son.'” (Genesis 22:8) The sacrifice needed to please Yahweh would be provided for by Yahweh Himself.
Hence, when the story is done, we read the “moral to the story,” or the punch-line as it were:
So Abraham called that place The LORD Will Provide. And to this day it is said, On the mountain of the LORD it will be provided. (Genesis 22:14)
The Lord has provided the sacrifice necessary so that all who worship God, calling on His name through Christ, will be accepted by Him. (For more on this, see What Kind of God Would Tell Abraham to Sacrifice His Son?)
Abraham's faith was reflected in a life of worship—a worship that was actively calling on God. In a discussion about the present state of our souls, a friend of mine was telling me last week that he found real refreshing in just spending time singing to the Lord and worshiping. Seems simple. Today as I read Psalm 9:1-4 HCSB, instead of just reading it, I paused and read it aloud, and instead of just saying, “I will thank Yahweh with all my heart,” I began to thank Him with all my heart. And instead of saying, “I will declare all Your wonderful works. 2I will rejoice and boast about You; I will sing about Your name, Most High,” I began to declare His works aloud and rejoice in Him and boast about Him, even committing to boast of Him to others today. I sang to Him. This is where our faith moves from mere reason to a faith that worships.
Love the Gospel, Live the Gospel, Advance the Gospel,

Saturday, January 14, 2012

Living in Scandalous Grace

Reading: Romans 5, 6   
In Romans 4, we have the glorious promise that the Lord will never charge you with sin (Romans 4:8 HCSB). What joy the truth of this glorious grace is intended to bring (See How Joyful Are You?). Romans 5 begins with, “therefore,” pointing back to this glorious grace of righteousness being credited to the one who believes in the Lord Jesus (Romans 4:24-25).
Therefore, since we have been justified through faith, we have peace with God through our Lord Jesus Christ, 2through whom we have gained access by faith into this grace in which we now stand. (Romans 5:1-2)
We now stand in grace. What does it mean that we have “access to this grace in which we stand”? In what sense do we stand in grace? How do we access that grace?
To say we stand in grace may be restated in Romans 5:5 as “God has poured out his love into our hearts by the Holy Spirit...”. This is the love from which we cannot be separated (Romans 8:39). Romans 5:12-21 speak of how death reigned over all because of Adam's sin, and that now, grace reigns for all who believe because of Jesus Christ! So just as we stood condemned and were dead in our sins and destined to perish, now we stand in grace and are alive in Christ and are destined to eternal life! We are now loved by God and cannot be separated from that love.
So how does this reign of grace, this standing and living in the grace of God, filled with the love of God by the Spirit of God in our hearts, effect our lives? How does it transform how I live? How does it produce sanctification (actual righteous living) in me? How do I access this grace? This seems to be the discussion of Romans 6. Paul's answer seems so ridiculously good that it almost appears to just allow people to go on sinning. Paul acknowledges that opponents may bring that very objection (Romans 6:1,15).
As Paul begins Romans 6, he reminds us of the truth that since we believe in Christ we died with Christ, at the cross. Therefore, we are dead to sin. Baptism is where we make this identification by symbolically being buried with Christ in death (as we go down into the water). You only bury dead men. To be dead to sin is to say that sin no longer has dominion over us, and that we are now being made into the likeness of Christ's resurrection (Romans 6:2-11). In other words, we too are being raised into a new life.
But how does all this propose to actually produce a changed life in us? Paul, in Romans 6 is arguing that grace will actually produce changed, righteous lives. For the opponents who think we need a good dose of the law, in Romans 7:5-24 Paul demonstrates how powerless the law was to produce changed, righteous lives. But how does grace actually produce a changed life? If I am reading Romans 6 right, the answer to that question is almost so simple it is hard to catch.
12Therefore do not let sin reign in your mortal body so that you obey its evil desires. 13Do not offer the parts of your body to sin, as instruments of wickedness, but rather offer yourselves to God, as those who have been brought from death to life; and offer the parts of your body to him as instruments of righteousness. 14For sin shall not be your master, because you are not under law, but under grace. (Romans 6:12-14)
Don't let sin reign (even though you still have evil desires)... don't offer the part of your body to sin...instead, offer yourselves to God, because you are not under law, but under grace! Romans 6:14 HCSB says it, “For sin will not rule over you, because you are not under law but under grace.” It appears Paul is saying, “since your sins aren't counted against you (you are not under law, but under grace) it can't rule over you. So stop fretting sin, and start living for God.” You stand in grace. God's love is shed abroad in your heart (because Christ's righteousness has been credited to you). Now instead of sin reigning in death, grace reigns in righteousness (Romans 5:21).
Paul goes on to say, that just as we once offered our bodies as slaves to impurity which led to greater lawlessness, now we can offer our bodies, our members, as slaves to righteousness which will result in sanctification (our being made righteous in actual living) (Romans 6:20 HCSB). Why will offering our bodies to do righteousness, to obey Christ, actually produce sanctification under grace when it didn't under the law? Because sin was reigning then, no matter how much we tried, sin triumphed. Now that grace reigns, no matter how much we fail, grace triumphs, and so we will indeed have our deeds sanctified through that grace. We access this grace by simply believing it and acting accordingly. “There is therefore now no condemnation for those who are in Christ Jesus.” (Romans 8:1)
Now, having been freed from sin, and become slaves of God (and joyfully so), our efforts actually produce fruit, the fruit of holiness, or sanctification (Romans 6:22). How can this be? Because now, our sins are not charged against us; now, we are animated, or empowered by the Spirit of God who lives in us; now, we stand in grace at all times before God. Now, our works can actually be good, even though at times our desires are not!
This is grace at seemingly scandalous levels. This is grace that transforms. Maybe Paul recognizes that when we grasp just how stunning this grace is, it will capture our affection with a power stronger than sins power, and that this will be the ground in which grace takes root, grows, and bears the fruit of holiness.
Love the Gospel, Live the Gospel, Advance the Gospel,

Wednesday, January 4, 2012

No Dogs in the Kingdom!

Reading: Matthew 7  
Matthew 7 is full of verses that are well known and often used. I've heard it said that Matthew 7:1 is rivaling John 3:16 as one of the most well known verses in the Bible. I'm not sure if that is good, given that it often seems to be used in a way unintended. Additionally, verses calling us to ask, seek, knock...enter through the narrow gate... recognize them by their fruit...and to build our house on the rock, all come from this chapter. However, there is one verse in this chapter which is possibly the most misunderstood verse in scripture. (Okay, I made that statistic up, but if I am correct in what follows, it may well be an accurate statistic.)
Do not give dogs what is sacred; do not throw your pearls to pigs. If you do, they may trample them under their feet, and then turn and tear you to pieces.” (Matthew 7:6)
In my limited experience, I have never heard this verse used by someone in a way that exemplified any of the spirit of the Sermon on the Mount. Usually it is used in a way that, contextually we would have to assume it was from elsewhere. Something along the order of, “Well, I'm not going to try to help them anymore because I am casting pearls before swine.” Given the context of the sermon on the mount, it is difficult to square this or similar understandings with what surrounds the verse.
Blessed are the poor in spirit...If someone forces you to go one mile, go with him two miles...Love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you, that you may be sons of your Father in heaven. He causes his sun to rise on the evil and the good, and sends rain on the righteous and the unrighteous. If you love those who love you, what reward will you get? Are not even the tax collectors doing that?...Do not judge, or you too will be judged. For in the same way you judge others, you will be judged, and with the measure you use, it will be measured to you. Why do you look at the speck of sawdust in your brother's eye and pay no attention to the plank in your own eye? (Matthew 5:3, 41, 44-46; 7:1-3)
One commentary reads, “This enigmatic sayings stands alone...”. Another, “This verse appears to be a detached independent saying...unrelated to the preceding or following context.” Some do contextualize it and see it as a balancing statement to “do not judge”. Maybe something like, “Do not judge, however don't get too extreme, occasionally it is fine to think of them as pigs or dogs and ignore them.” (Pigs and dogs were very derogative terms in Judaism.) Is that balancing, or contradicting? Some say it is talking about not preaching to people who will not receive it or you will be persecuted. However, in light of “blessed are those who are persecuted” that hardly fits.
I have read dozens of treatments of this verse in commentaries, and while many are intriguing, I confess, I wasn't satisfied. And, the problem may be mine.1 I just don't buy the line of argument that assumes somebody (like Matthew in this case) just wanted to get this verse in, so he threw it in here... with little or no reasonable connection to its surroundings. So that rather than actually having, “The Sermon on the Mount,” we have, “Random Sayings of Jesus Collected.” I generally assume that if I don't see how something fits its context, the problem is mine, not the author's (or Author's).
The following outline of Matthew 7:1-6 may help bring clarity to Matthew 7:6 in its context.
A Do not judge,
B or you too will be judged. 2For in the same way you judge others, you will be judged, and with the measure you use, it will be measured to you.
C 3"Why do you look at the speck of sawdust in your brother's eye and pay no attention to the plank in your own eye? 4How can you say to your brother, 'Let me take the speck out of your eye,' when all the time there is a plank in your own eye?  5You hypocrite, first take the plank out of your own eye, and then you will see clearly to remove the speck from your brother's eye.
A1 6Do not, “give dogs what is sacred”; do not, “throw your pearls to pigs.”
B1 If you do, they may trample them under their feet, and then turn and tear you to pieces.
Don't let the A, A1, B, B1, confuse you. They are merely there to show corresponding parts. For instance, “Do not judge” corresponds to, “Do not, 'give dogs what is sacred', and, “do not 'throw your pearls to pigs.'” “Judge” is replaced by, “give dogs what is sacred”, and, “throw your pearls to pigs.” I am suggesting that “giving dogs what is sacred,” or “throwing pearls to pigs” would have been common phrases or attitudes that Jesus would have considered to be judgments, and Jesus is telling us to stop with that kind of non-sense. In other words, don't try to correct with Pharisaical self-righteous wisdom for sinners, seeing yourself as the one with sacred pearls, or holy meat to be offered, and the poor fools you are talking to as dogs and pigs.
Now on to the “B and B1”. If you do, the measure you use will be measured to you: they will trample your pearls underfoot, and turn and tear you to pieces. That isn't living in the kingdom of heaven. That isn't the love and peace this sermon speaks of, rather that is the results of judging others rather than loving them. Instead, we are called to see the plank in our own eye rather than the speck in our neighbor's eye. If anyone is a pig or a dog, it is me. And if I am the pig or the dog, then you are one I consider more highly than myself (Philippians 2:3). Applied ths way I may well discover that there are no dogs or pigs in the Kingdom. (This could really change how we view the people we live with or go to church with!)
I may or may not have it right on the understanding of that verse, but at least I offer something that is completely consistent with the context of the Sermon on the Mount. And if we apply it and live it this way, by God's grace we will be more conformed into the image of Christ.
Love the Gospel, Live the Gospel, Advance the Gospel,

1Subsequent to presenting this understanding in our church, one of our members mentioned a commentary on Matthew by Daniel Doriani that presents a similar understanding. I don't yet possess that one, but undoubtedly will.    

Tuesday, January 3, 2012

How Joyful Are You?

Reading: Romans 4  
To understand the Gospel is to be filled with joy. No, I'm not talking about that head-in-the-sand, not-able-to-face-reality, enthusiasm that borders on madness. I'm talking about a joy that, although it may well encounter and experience all sorts of difficulties and griefs in life, endures through and beyond those experiences because of the truth it is anchored in. When we understand the Gospel, we understand a truth that produces this kind of joy. Are you a joyful person? If not, maybe you have a fundamental miss-understanding of the Gospel, or there is something you've forgotten.
Having just laid out the glorious truth of justification by faith alone in Romans 3:21-26, followed by an explanation that this way of justifying us automatically excludes all boasting in Romans 3:27-30, now Paul begins to illustrate further these truths in Romans 4. He begins by showing that Abraham himself had nothing to boast about because it was his faith, his trusting in God, that was credited for righteousness (Romans 4:1-3). He then goes on to explain that this is true for all who believe: their faith is credited for righteousness (Romans 4:4-5). Then Paul digresses from Abraham to illustrate with David the same principle.
6Likewise, David also speaks of the blessing of the man God credits righteousness to apart from works: 7How joyful are those whose lawless acts are forgiven and whose sins are covered! 8How joyful is the man the Lord will never charge with sin! (Romans 4:6-8 HCSB)
This year I am reading through the Bible in the Holman Christian Standard Bible (which appears to be an excellent translation to add to your study collection). I could not help but be struck by the language of these verses. Did you get the impact of what this says?
David speaks of a blessing that belongs to all whom God credits righteousness apart from works. In other words, this blessing is for all who trust God and not their deeds, since their deeds fall woefully short! And here is the blessing:
  • Joy because their lawless acts are forgiven; their sins are covered. Do you trust Christ to be your means of salvation? Then your lawless acts are forgiven. All too often, we are prone to think our lawless acts are what keeps us from being blessed. Yet, the blessing David, and now Paul, speaks of is for those who have lawless acts that need forgiving... and they are!
  • Joy because the Lord will never charge you with sin! What a promise! If you have trusted in Christ, God will never charge you with sin. That is good news. That is Gospel news. And knowing and recalling that truth will bring joy to your soul.
Do we really believe that? The Lord will never charge the believer with sin. Some would argue, “Well, if that is true, then just go on sinning.” Some charged Paul with saying that (Romans 3:8; 6:15). Paul understood the glorious power of grace to transform. (In fact, Paul seems to turn the argument on his opposers in Romans 7 and essentially argues, “Oh, so you think the law is better than grace at teaching people not to sin...let's see, how effective was the law? That's right, the law came and I kept on sinning! The law didn't actually have any effect at stopping sin.)
How joyful is the man that believes that His lawless acts are forgiven. We tend to think our not-so-lawless acts are forgiven (as if there were such a thing). But we go on living under the guilt of our lawless acts. How joyful is the man or woman who, trusting in Christ, understands that the Lord will never charge him with sin. I'm not sure if you (or I) get the impact of that statement—will never charge with sin. Never! Ever!
And to what does Paul credit this glorious assurance? Our faith—our trusting in Christ as the propitiation for our sins, as satisfying the wrath of God against us (Romans 3:23-25). Our faith in the free grace of God to save us though we fall woefully short of the glory for which He made us. He doesn't credit this joy to the man whose life demonstrates that is really a Christian because of the fruit that is born. No, to the man who has simply stopped trusting in his works which fail and started trusting in the free grace of Christ. [For more on this, see the my blog entry, The Proper Ground of Assurance.]
May your new year be filled with this joy that comes from knowing these Gospel truths.
Love the Gospel, Live the Gospel, Advance the Gospel,