HELPING IN TODAY’S CULTURAL CLIMATE

Helping people in need is imminently biblical. This is not even open for any rational discussion. Nevertheless, at the risk of being completely misunderstood, I want to address a matter of priority that seems to need clarification. I enter this post with caution, trepidation, and uneasiness, yet enter I will.

Though I am usually well behind most folks when trends dawn on me, eventually awareness makes its way into my head. Of late, a shift towards what was once styled the “Social Gospel” strikes me as an emphasis making a comeback. In the company of this return, I also sense a growing ascetic spirit floating around.

I get it that our culture in America is significantly materialistic and I also realize the need to do regular self-analyses to discover if I have become possessed by my possessions. As a Christian, these are not small matters. The Bible has much to say in this area. However, I think I see a baby headed out the window with its bath water in this one.

Maybe I am simply justifying that I have stuff. I have not sold my stuff to feed and house the unfortunate, though I have spent considerable time and money helping people in need. Not only that, I do not believe such a virtual total divesting of my stuff is supposed to be the defining mark of my Christianity. I do not believe Jesus came primarily to feed people and make them well. He could have done both of these things to every person in Judea, Samaria, and Galilee, but He did not. What He did do was preach and teach as many people as He could about matters tied to eternity.

Yes, we should share our blessings. A lack of compassion cannot walk in fellowship with the Good News about Jesus. Yet, the Great Commission is about salvation. Granted, compassion can and will open doors, but only the Gospel can open the doors of Hades to free its captives (Rev. 1:18). Well fed and housed lost people eventually die without Jesus (cf. Jn. 6:49).

I don’t intend to be guilted into a quick fix “Christianity” that either substitutes being kind for speaking a good word for Jesus or liquidating my possessions for proclaiming truth. I reiterate; Jesus saves! Churches are groups of people primarily in the business of growing in Christ-likeness so they may help the lost become saved.

I appreciate congregations, such as the one I attend, which have very well thought out assistance initiatives. But, pardon what may seem to some as mere self-justification, let Christians in their compassionate sharing be known without apology for talking to people about the Christ.

 

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LABELING IN THE RELIGIOUS CONVERSATION

Labels are an interesting way to categorise things into groups. They are particularly interesting when used to define groups of people in religion. Some of the more common broad-brush terms are: liberal, legalist, and conservative. Like it or not, and some just refuse to acknowledge any proper use of labels, they are not without value. Religious labels may certainly be misused, but religious people are not homogenous, they are different and their differences mean some have more in common with some folks than with others.
Essentially, once a biblical center is discovered, religious people tend to either over do, under do, or do. They bind where God has not, loose where God has not, or adhere to what God has revealed. I realise the trick is to find the biblical center and that everyone seems feel they are there, nevertheless, beliefs differ and the Bible does not necessarily teach what any particular person thinks is right.
With the acknowledgement that labeling takes us into hazardous and often rancorous territory, we need to venture into its risky environs. However, I want to venture into an aspect of the discussion not often entertained. Believing there to be a biblical center, I propose that both liberalism and legalism exist for one or more of the following reasons: pride, selfishness, loving the praise of men, or ignorance. Walking with Jesus, on the other hand, is the result of loving Him more than self, caring more what He thinks than what others think, and knowing Him as a friend.
I’m not a fan of labels myself. They are commonly misunderstood, misused, and all too easily employed. Yet, they do have a place in religious discussion. If we will remember what they really mean and why those characterized by them fall into the groups they do, we can begin to have more honest discussions. The only question then is, can we handle the truth (Jn. 17:17)?

THE WAY OF THE CROSS

It has been observed by many that Christianity involves the united concepts of Cross and Kingdom. N. T. Wright, in particular, has had many useful things to say about this inseparable combination. Church history, however,  has often severed the two, much to the detriment of Christianity.

If the Cross becomes a virtual “stand alone,” the life Jesus so powerfully exhibited in the Gospels becomes largely lost to the arena of everyday life. A reductionism sounding something like, “Jesus died and was resurrected and I am saved, hurry up Heaven,” results. People enter a holding-pattern just trying to wait out life so they can get out of here. A life Jesus intended to reflect both His values and the salvation/hope He won come to be hidden to those who most need to see them (Matt. 5:14-16; Jn. 13:34-35; Rom. 8:29).

Conversely, when , for all practical purposes, the Kingdom’s agenda for daily living pushes aside the atonement of the Cross, a form of social gospel develops separated from the power of Christ’s death, burial, and resurrection. Right living as a virtual end in itself then isolates itself from the only true validation for a sanctified life (Rom. 6:20-22; Lk. 17:5-10).

By combining Cross and Kingdom, the full story is revealed. Then, both Jesus’ life and death/resurrection are released to cover the earth with  an influential example of Christ-like values and a manifestation of the power of God for salvation.

Currently, in the culture of the United States, many of those seeking to represent the Christ have, often with an apparent unawareness, fallen into an incomplete portrayal of the fullness of Christianity. Wagons are circled by some as they eagerly examine world events hoping they will testify that the end is near. Such positions often come to make the world an enemy to be avoided more than a group of people wandering like lost sheep in need of rescue. Others who, in principle, develop a similar distorted Kingdom view, largely ignore the world and take comfort in their fortresses of sacraments and religious lists, hoping bad things will somehow just go away if they behave like good people.

Alongside this inadequate, virtual escapism is an equally troubling, unbalanced engagement in repairing our world through primarily temporal “fixes” doomed to gain, at best, limited, inadequate results. The Cross, though mentioned in such expressions, comes to play a secondary role to human involvement. As a for-instance, politics, while an unavoidable aspect of American culture and political involvement certainly being a potentially useful exercise, at the end of the day, politics is not attached to a cross. Kingdom culture can and has thrived amid grossly immoral and unjust political systems. The power of the Kingdom is that, being tied to the Cross, it can triumph even in death. Our light must not be darkened by passions that appear to burn brighter over things destined to perish in the end.

The solution is a Cross-centered, Kingdom life. The Bible instructs and history confirms, when Cross and Kingdom unite in their mutually complimentary, divine partnership, the world has the opportunity to see what is vital to its victory (Jn. 13:34-35; 17:21-23; Gal. 6:14). In  seeing this, there is both a greater hope for more changed hearts in the decisions affecting this life as well as a greater expectation for more souls won for eternity.

CIVILITY IN THE CONVERSATION

GETTING A GRIP ON OUR WORDS

Being from olden days, Modernity often seems strange if not disconcerting. An example would be how we speak. Once upon a time, there were silently agreed upon boundaries that preserved a certain sense of public civility. Times have changed. Today, insensitive remarks, crude words or phrases, and irreverent expressions have invaded the space once held by a less inflammatory conversation.

Presently, the idea of, “because I can” seems to be understood as an insistence to opt for, “therefore I will.” Many seem to think their entitlement to free speech gives license to use words without proper forethought. This seems very immature. Surely, the stream of “bleeps” commonly inserted into the media is not a sign of intelligent, mature discourse! Or for that matter, is the increasingly “non-bleeped,” coarse language often heard and seen actually a sign of enlightened liberation taking hold of a better way?
It appears to me that autonomous freedom, paradoxically, leads to an enslavement to selfishness. Additionally, me-centered positions certainly seem to bring about endless clashes between those determined to be tolerated and others equally determined not to tolerate.

Our choices in speech are indeed ours to make. We can say whatever we jolly well please. Nevertheless, we should not think our choices carry no consequences. We can easily incite and inflame, but we can also choose a course of peace and common courtesy. We can also opt to dismantle all vestiges of difference between words of carefully considered respect and words of thoughtless utterance. The proper choices seem obvious. Is it then possible to agree to disagree in such a way as to preserve our personal convictions and integrity without becoming disagreeable, coarse, and rude?

Maybe such concerns have become mere archaic remnants of foolish attempts to rise above the lowest human common denominator? If so, I believe, we are the poorer for the “progress” such a conclusion would create. However, with regard to civility and courtesy being anachronistic, I think not. Our minds allow us to create social constructs capable of giving a greater quality to everyday exchanges. Though I view such possibilities from a Christ-centered perspetive, choosing a higher ground is open to all. We can do better!

The Torah of Moses

The Torah of Moses

A Closer Look at the Law of Moses

Deuteronomy 1:5; 4:5-8

            Most tend to view the Bible more as a book of independent truths or facts – a rulebook consulted for the appropriate answer. While the Bible certainly does have rules, its message is designed to be understood as a complete, connected, holistic revelation concerning God, His will, and His plan. With this in mind, we will have a look at some “connect-the-dots” understandings relative to the Torah of Moses.

It is the “Torah,” not the “Pentateuch”

  •        “Torah” is the proper Hebrew word for this section of Hebrew                 Scripture.
  •        The Torah of Moses refers to the first five books of the Old Covenant.
  •         The word “torah” should be defined as “instruction” or “teaching” rather than“law.”

The Torah of Moses served as the law library for Israel.

  •           Priests taught and made decisions based on its teachings (Lev. 10:8-11; Deut.  17:8-10; 31:24-36)
  •          Kings, likewise, were to know Torah and rule under its authority (Deut.

           17:19-20; II Kgs. 22:8-13; 23:1-3).

  •       Prophets were Torah-centered covenant lawyers (Jer. 6:16).
  •       The people of Israel were to affirm and live by Torah (Deut. 30:15-16; cf. I I Kgs. 23:1-3; Neh. 8:1-8).
  •       Wisdom Literature is based on its principles.
  •       Biblical narratives in the Old Covenant illustrate Torah as it is lived out

                   among the people.

  •          The Writing Prophets present God’s Torah cases and speak of His fidelity to covenant and ultimate Torah promises.

Torah Breakdown

  •           Genesis 1-11, Universal Beginnings.
  •           Genesis 12-50, Israel’s Beginnings.
  •           Exodus 1-14, Release from Egyptian Slavery.
  •           Exodus 15- Leviticus, Laws for the Nation
  •           Numbers, The Wilderness Wandering.
  •           Deuteronomy, Making Things Clear.

Levels of Torah Instruction

  •           Management of the nation by civil law (note Gal. 3:24; 4:1-2).
  •           Religious “types” for Israel and pointing to Jesus (Heb. 8:4-6; 10:1-            2).
  •           Principles grounded in God’s nature (Lev. 19:18; Deut. 6:4-8).

                  o     Faith was always the key (Deut. 30:11-14).

                  o     Law alone led to death (Rom. 5:20-21; Jas. 2:10).

                  o     Paul put the pieces together (Rom. 10:5-8; Rom. 2:28-29).

Torah and Atonement

  •           There were limitations.

                   o     An altar 7 1/2 by 7 ½ in surface area (Ex. 27:1).

                   o     The blood of the altar could not remove sin (Heb. 10:4).

                   o     There was only one acceptable place for the Bronze Altar (Deut.               12:5, 11; I Kgs. 8:27-30).

  •           Nevertheless, there were additional factors to consider.

                   o     The Day of Atonement for the nation (Lev. 16).

                   o     Praying toward Jerusalem (I Kgs.8:27-30; cf. Dan. 6:10).

                   o     A Covenant People (Gen. 17:17; II Sam. 12:13; Ps. 51; remember the thief on the cross, Lk. 23:39-43).

                   o     Forgiveness was promised by God in the Old Covenant (Lev. 4:20, 26, 31, 35;5:10, 13, 16, 18).

                   o     Paul, again, explains (Rom. 3:21-31).

  •           Interesting Considerations

                   o     Aliens had a place at the Bronze Altar (Lev. 17:8-9).

                   o     Women could also approach the Bronze Altar (Lev. 12:1-8; 15:25-30; Lk.  2:21-38).

                   o     Jesus’ cleansing the temple reacted to the Jews creation of a Court of the Gentiles, not found in the Old

                             Covenant, to keep them distant from the temple and then corrupting that area with merchandising (Mk. 1  1:17-18; Isa. 56:6-8; Jer. 7:11; Eph. 2:11-22).

Deuteronomy

  •          A Special role (29;1).
  •           Less than 50% of previous legislation.
  •           A “key” to understanding the focus and implementation of the law (1:5).
  •           A greater emphasis on love, faith, and the heart.
  •           Emphasis and Function.

                   o     Israel’s Potential (4:5-8; cf. Rom. 2:24).

                   o     Israel’s Loyalty (6:4-9, 20-25)

                   o     Israel’s Holiness (7:6; 14:2; I Pet. 2:9; Matt. 5:48).

            The Torah of Moses is an amazing testimony to God’s holiness, wisdom, and love. The Torah managed rebellious Israel as a civil state, constructed their religion to point forward to the fullness of Christ, and gave a holy model of spiritual conduct as high and unchangeable as God Himself!

THE CROSS

The Word of the Cross

The grace of God and the cross of Christ are inseparable. The cross is the power behind grace, the bank account necessary for God to cancel the debt of sin (I Cor. 1:18; Col. 2:14). These truths are commonly affirmed, however, are their implications commonly applied to our understandings of Christianity? Do these truths regularly make it to the “streets” or to the “marketplace of ideas”? How practical are we with the word of the cross?

While it is certainly true that an essential aspect of God’s character is “love” (I Jn. 4:8), equally true is the fact that He is just. His justice will, therefore, be served (Rom. 3:26). The combination of these two innate characteristics of the Father insists that grace cannot be cheap. The unearned nature of grace is, as with many other gifts, paid for in full before appropriated without cost. There can be no incongruity within the nature of God. No cross; no grace!

With regard to our salvation, sinful men and women have created a problem. How, therefore, could there be salvation without first having an accounting for this disturbance in God’s creation? A correction is needed. The scales of justice ultimately cannot be imbalanced; they must somehow maintain equilibrium.

Jesus dying on the cross is the balancing factor needed in a world dangerously tilting away from God. Jesus made right what otherwise could never have been brought to stability (I Pet. 1:17-19; Heb. 9:11-14, 10:4, 19-23).

This solution required the death of a perfectly sinless human being. The cross is tied to blood, totally innocent blood. This thought, however, has caused many to recoil at what they consider to be a “barbaric” concept. William Paul Young, author of The Shack, recently voiced this belief in an interview,

 He is the God who exacts the last drop of blood from His Son, so that His just anger, evoked by sin, may be appeased. This God whose moods alternate between graciousness and fierce anger — a God who is still all too familiar to many Christians — is a caricature of the true God. This God does not exist. (Shannon, Silence on Fire, p. 110, also see Manning who stated the very same thing in Above All, pp. 58-59)

The cross with all its so-called “barbarity” must be seen through God’s eyes to make sense. Men have rejected the cross because it does not fit their notions of justice. It does not fit because it is based on man’s limited understanding of the “sin problem” (I Cor. 1:18-2:2).

Consider the nature of the “sin problem” as seen from a biblical point of view. The biblical mix of ingredients must be complete before an adequate solution can be developed and understood. In such a view, the cross not only makes sense, it is indispensable. Consider the implications of the following Scriptures (I Jn. 4:8; Rom. 3:21-31; Gen. 3:1-7; Gen. 3:15; Job 9:30-35; Rom. 8:29; I Pet. 2:24; Psa. 22; Matt. 27:46; Matt. 26:39; Rom. 6:23; Rev. 5:9-14; Jn. 1:14).

1.         God is a God of love.

2.         God is a God of justice.

3.         Humans have rebelled against God.

4.         Humans are, therefore, part of the problem.

5.         Humans cannot, however, deliver themselves from their dilemma.

6.         Yet, humans must have participation since they are the cause of the problem.

7.         God, as the creator, must also be part of the solution since His nature would not allow Him to create humans

              knowing they would sin and yet give them no hope of salvation.

8.         Someone must serve as an adequate mediator for God and man to worktogether in a solution.

9.         Sin demands death.

10.       The Incarnation led to a worthy human/God sacrifice.

Many other Scriptures could be used to support the points listed above. Clearly, if we let the Bible speak for itself, the entirety of Scripture fits together perfectly to show a plan perfectly in harmony with all salient factors. No cross; no grace.

Now that God has acted to offer correction to an unbalanced creation, how are we to take advantage of the gift? To answer this question, we are taken to “the word of the cross” (I Cor. 1:18).

The word of the cross is good news—the gospel. The first sermon presenting the gospel is found in Acts 2:14-41. Its development shows the pattern for all subsequent presentations and responses.

1.         God developed and delivered the message to be preached.

2.         The message was in keeping with God’s intentions as revealed to the prophets.

3.         Jesus was preached.

4.         His resurrection validated God’s plan.

5.         Sinners were convicted by preaching and wanted to know how to find relief from their sins

6.         They were told to change their lives and be immersed into Christ for the remission of their sins

7.         Through their faithful obedience they would receive the long awaited “promise.”

The preaching of the cross reveals God’s plan and presents how sinners are to respond. The two aspects of the plan must then be well understood. The word of the cross is too important to misunderstand.

The word of the cross contains both essential primary and secondary components. The primary side of the equation is the part God has provided in a crucified, resurrected Savior. Without God’s plan being realized in Jesus, we would not need to speak any further about salvation (I Cor. 15:3; Heb. 9:28). No cross; no salvation.

The secondary elements of the plan involve our response. As sinners we are helpless to solve our problem (Rom. 3:23, 27a). This being the case, we must understand that the “law of Christ” with all its instructions cannot save us in the primary sense any more than could the “law of Moses” save a Jew. Neither the things Christians do nor the things Jews did to access a relationship with God have the power to bring about salvation by themselves (Gal. 3:21).

Our understanding the lack of efficacy found in secondary items standing alone is of greatest importance. The Jews serve as a stark reminder to us that trusting in our works is a damning error of judgment (Rom. 2:17-29; 9:30-33). Similarly, if Christians glory in their response to God rather than in the God who made possible the response, we too fall short (Eph. 1:6, 12, 14). No cross; no salvation.

To illustrate, a window shade raised during the day can bring light to a dark room. The same shade raised during the night cannot allow sunlight to light the room. The necessity of the secondary act of raising the shade in daylight only worked because the primary factor of the sun was present. In a similar manner, all the commandment keeping in the world cannot make any contribution to our salvation if there is no cross. As Paul so powerfully put it, “But may it never be that I would boast, except in the cross of our Lord Jesus Christ, through which the world has been crucified to me, and I to the world” (Gal. 6:14).

We must understand this clearly or we will misunderstand verses teaching that secondary matters of response save us. I Peter 3:21 is a classic example. This verse tells us “baptism now saves you.” The question here is not “if” but “how.” If baptism saves in a primary sense, we need no cross. However, the verse itself explains how baptism saves. It saves “through the resurrection of Jesus Christ.” Baptism occupies the place of the window shade in our earlier illustration. It accesses something only because something is there to access.

Examining this concept in reverse, let us have a look at Hebrews 10:4. In the primary sense, animal blood could not take sins from a Jew.  It could, however, allow access to forgiveness later to be realized in Christ (Lev. 4:20; Rom. 3:23-25). In much the same manner as baptism, animal sacrifices allowed access into God’s salvation, but neither baptism nor an animal sacrifice has the power to take away sins apart from the cross of Christ. No cross; no salvation.

Our discussion of primary and secondary aspects of salvation leads to a practical evaluation of our teaching and preaching. What is the proper proportion each aspect is due in our presentations? In recent times accusations have been made that grace has not been preached sufficiently. It has been said that we dwell more on our response than on God’s initiative. I don’t doubt that this has been true in some cases, but certainly not in all. Additionally, at times, when the above accusations have been leveled, the desired response calls for our preaching to unduly minimize the biblical place of obedience of faith (Rom.1:5; 16:26). Secondary matters of response are necessary.

A common reaction against those who accuse others of not preaching grace has been to cite examples of sermons preached in the past that dealt with grace. Impressive lists have been developed to “prove” we have preached grace in the “mainstream.” The fact is, we have all heard sermons and read articles that emphasized grace. There is, however, more to the story.

In both cases, could it be true that when a person in opposition goes “over the top” in their broadsides others dismiss their entire argument because they have gone too far with the point? I suspect there have been at least some cases when taking a realistic evaluation of our present practices has been torpedoed by extreme reactions to extreme positions.

Biblically speaking, there are times when more pressing lesser matters must rise to the top of our discussions due to the concerns of the moment (Jude 3). These are judgment calls. However, like Jude, we should get more delight in speaking of our common salvation than in condemning error. We do not want to become like the church at Ephesus (Rev. 2:1-4).Conversely, we do not want to be like the church at Thyatira and allow open sin to go unopposed (Rev. 2:18-23).

There must be balance. A sense of proper proportion is not a small thing (Matt. 23:23-24). Leeway must be given in matters of judgment. Local autonomy is to be respected.

Life comes at us in unexpected ways that may well call for momentary disproportions in the subjects we speak or write about. Both primary and secondary matters of necessity must be preached! It is not always easy to know the best judgment to make when we face problems. Nevertheless, we must always keep this in mind, no cross; no salvation!

THE BALANCE OF GRACE IN AN UNBALANCED WORLD

THE BALANCE OF GRACE IN AN UNBALANCED WORLD

            Some subjects that are supposed to bring peace and comfort wind up being twisted into controversy. One such subject is grace. There is one extreme involving a hyper-grace predestination that informs God about the limits of His sovereignty. In this humans are but pawns in a predetermined game. I find this lacking in biblical reason and ultimately self-defeating. At the other end of the discussion is a checklist proudly paraded while grace becomes but a perfunctory whisper.  In this the attention comes to be focused on our actions rather than on God’s goodness. This, too, has no Scriptural support.

            I seriously suspect an unbiased Bible student would find neither of these extreme positions a fair representation of the complete discussion. Extremes are easy; they demand little thinking and require a closed mind. Unbiased searchers would find such prerequisites insulting and unsatisfying.

Consider the following combination of grace, faith and works as a balanced alternative to the extremes just mentioned. A seasonal illustration may help.

            Your shopping has finally located the much sought after gift. The gift, wrapping paper, tag, ribbon, and stickers have all been purchased. The gift is positioned under the tree until the day for unwrapping arrives. But, what if the gift remains unwrapped? The answer is simple; the gift cannot be enjoyed.

Now consider a variation of the story. All the details remain the same, but this time the gift is opened and enjoyed. Did the person who unwrapped the gift supply a penny of its cost? This also allows for an easy answer, no.

             Another illustration may also contribute to the point I wish to make. Blinds are opened in a dark room on a sunny day. The room is filled with light. The same blinds are opened at midnight. The room remains dark.

            In both illustrations, the work of enjoying either the present or the light did in no way purchase or create the thing enjoyed. Presents unopened are not enjoyed. Light blocked does not light a room. For that matter, opening the blinds if there is no light is useless. The sun gives the light, not the blinds.

            I suggest a balanced, biblical view allows for the gift of grace apart from any human merit while providing a place for human reception. Therefore, any work that seeks to earn salvation cannot succeed. Grace is a gift. However, a work of faith is to be understood in a different context. The positive, biblical context of works is merely receptive in nature, never deserving.

            Therefore, rather than seeing Romans 4 and James 2 in conflict or developing convoluted “harmonizations” may we not see them as expressing different aspects or contexts of the place of faith and works. The faith that saves puts no trust in the purchasing power of our works. The faith that does not act, however, is dead.

            Let us glory in grace, God’s incomprehensible gift! Let us also appreciate that the obedience of faith, though always flawed and never deserving, is nevertheless part of the conversation (Rom. 1:5; 16:26; I Jn. 1:7).