Wednesday, July 9, 2014

Reading Scripture With the Church


The body of Christ, though it has many parts, is one. So we never really read the Scriptures on our own but with the rest of the Church. We read with the Church as it has existed through the centuries, as well as with local church community we are part of today. If we think of ourselves as though we were alone on some little desert island, reading the Scriptures by ourselves, we are in danger of becoming our own little cult. But reading the Scriptures together with the Church, as it is found in all times and places throughout history, can keep us from falling into that trap.

How the Church has read and understood and talked about Scripture is actually what Church tradition is about. When Jude wrote his letter to warn believers about false teachers, he appealed to the faith that had been “delivered to the saints.”
Beloved, while I was very diligent to write to you concerning our common salvation, I found it necessary to write to you exhorting you to contend earnestly for the faith which was once for all delivered to the saints. (Jude 3)
The Greek word for “delivered” is paradidomi and refers to what has been given into the hands of another — that is, handed down. That is exactly what tradition is, something that has been handed down. The Latin translation of paradidomi in Jude 3 is traditae, which is where we get our English word “tradition.” The faith that Jude had in mind was the teaching that was handed down from the apostles. That tradition of apostolic teaching is preserved for us in the Scriptures.

Over time, the Church’s understanding of that tradition developed as Christians continued to explore what it means and how to explain it for their generations. In the first few centuries, for example, the Church was not altogether clear about how to talk about the relationship of the Father, Son and Holy Spirit, or about how the humanity of the Lord Jesus relates to His divinity. It was not until the AD 4th century that the Church came together and articulated some important understandings about these things. These conclusions were based on the Scriptures but also on the tradition of how the Church understood the Scriptures from the beginning.

This means that, although the elements concerning the Trinity have always been present in Scripture, we can now identify them more easily and see how Scripture supports the doctrine of the Trinity, because the early Church Fathers labored diligently to help us understand what was handed down from the beginning. Could we have figured it all out on our own? Perhaps. However, I am not confident that we would have. So I am thankful for the tradition that has brought it out clearly for us.

We should each read the Scriptures for ourselves, of course, but the truth is that we never read the them by ourselves. First, we have the Holy Spirit with us to illuminate the Scriptures to us. But God has also given us the rest of the body of Christ, to read the Scriptures together with us. That body, the Church, has been reading the Scriptures for the past 2,000 years — long before you and I arrived on the scene — and our own reading of the Scriptures today has largely been shaped by how the Church has understood them from the beginning.

Of course, we are each bound to follow our conscience and convictions. That, too, has been always been an important value in the Church. However, it is not only individual conscience and conviction that is important but also the sensus fidelium, the “sense of the faithful” — how the body of Christ as a whole has read the Scriptures and understood the Christian faith.

Though it is possible that God may use the conscience and convictions of one to correct the understanding of everyone else, it is more likely that God uses the sensus fidelium, the convictions of the body of Christ as a whole, to help guide the understanding of the individual. Each individual believer has the Holy Spirit who teaches us, but the Holy Spirit often works through means, and one of those means is the gift of teachers He has given to the Church.

So, although we are obliged to follow what we believe to be the leading and enlightenment of the Holy Spirit, we do well to pay attention to how the rest of the body of Christ has understood the Scriptures and the Christian faith. It is wisdom to consider carefully how the Church in the early centuries read and understood and talked about the Word in its own context, as well as how later generations read and understood and talked about the Word in their own contexts. It is all part of the larger conversation that has brought the Church, and us with it, to where we are today in our little piece of the conversation, and it will help us understand and talk about the Word in our own contexts.

When we, as part of the body of Christ, do theology or read and interpret the Scriptures, we are always in conversation with tradition. It is not a question of whether we need tradition. The truth is that we cannot get away from it. And I am very thankful for that — I have more confidence in the tradition of the Church that has gone before me for 2,000 years than in my own ability to figure the Christian faith out for myself. If I stray very from what the historic Christian church has long considered orthodox, I should think I had taken a wrong turn somewhere.

Friday, July 4, 2014

Random Thoughts


Some thoughts culled from my random file. Some have occurred to me in moments of quiet reflection, some in interaction with others. Some are aphoristic and avuncular. I didn’t know what else to do with them, so I put them here. For your edification, inspiration and/or motivation — or your money cheerfully refunded.
  • Paul tells us to speak the truth in love (Ephesians 4:15). He did not leave us the option of just one or the other, truth or love. We must do both. We must speak the truth, but we must do it in love. Truth and love are, first and most importantly, personal — that is, they are about a person. For God is love and Jesus is the Truth (1 John 4:9; John 14:6). So if our communication fails to reflect truth or love, it fails to reflect the Lord Jesus, and we come short of the glory of God.
  • Because we’ve been given the sword of the Spirit (the Word of God), the temptation is for us to think that we are supposed to hack away at people with it.
  • God is love. He who abandons love abandons God.
  • God is love. He who has faith in God has faith in love.
  • Jesus saves us with a salvation that truly changes us.
  • The cross is the intersection of heaven and earth, of time and eternity, of creation and the Creator.
  • When Jacob wrestled with God, who prevailed? Jacob won a blessing … but that was always what God wanted to do for him.
  • The world looks for someone to exercise authority and be the “tie-breaker.” Christ looks for those who will submit to each other. Big difference.
  • The way of Christ always turns the world on its head. And the world always fights hard against it. Christians often do, too.
  • The closer we know the Lord, the more guidance will take care of itself. The better we know His heart, the more we will know what to do.
  • We tend to know what we like and like what we know are. Then we are uncomfortable with what we don’t know, and fearful of anyone who knows something we don’t.
  • I learned about Christ from the Church and from the Book. But it is because I have met Christ that I have realized that the Church and the Book are true.
  • Everyone is a heretic to someone.
  • Salvation by grace through faith is a relationship, not a contract. Which means no loopholes, just friendship.
More random thoughts …

Wednesday, June 25, 2014

The Emotions of God


Is God able to suffer, to be grieved, to experience emotions? He cannot be manipulated, overwhelmed or unexpectedly overcome by emotion, nor is emotion something to which He is involuntarily subject. However, God is fully able to enter into personal relationship with humanity. And in His sovereignty, He is fully able to allow Himself to be emotionally moved — to experience joy, anger, grief, suffering, etc. — by those with whom He is in relationship.

As people who have been created in the image of God, our emotional capacities reflect our likeness to God. So the emotions of God are very real and not merely anthropopathic projections. This is different from speaking of God in anthropomorphic ways (the “hand,” “arm,” “finger,” “eyes” of God, etc.). God is not physical, so to speak of God in terms of physical forms is purely by analogy. However, God is spirit, and the emotions are immaterial qualities (even though they may also have physical manifestations in the human body). So, although we cannot speak of an immaterial being in terms of material characteristics, except by analogy, we can speak directly of an immaterial being in terms of immaterial qualities such as love, joy, grief, etc.

Human emotions are out of whack. They have been affected by the Fall, humanity’s rebellion against God. So they are as much in need of redemption as are human minds — and God’s purpose is not to eliminate our emotions but to renew them, bringing them into line with His own.

God’s emotions are in perfect harmony, perfect alignment, and His work in us is to conform us to the image of the Son, Jesus Christ, in whom the divine emotions are perfectly expressed. That includes our emotions as much as anything else. God has given us the Holy Spirit to bring forth His fruit in us — love, joy, peace, longsuffering, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness, self-control (Galatians 5:22-23). All these reflect the character and qualities of Christ and can be summed up in one word: love.

Within the Trinity of Father, Son and Holy Spirit, the emotions of God are perfectly balanced and expressed, even apart from God’s relationship to creation and humanity. We can sum up that relationship as love, for God is love. In creating the world, God also chose to love the world — how could He create anything and not extend His love toward it?

When we love others, we are opening ourselves up to them, allowing ourselves to be affected by them. Likewise, in choosing to create and love the world, God opened Himself up to us and allowed Himself to be affected by us. Through the redemption we have in Jesus Christ, and by the power of the Holy Spirit at work in us, God is bringing our fallen human emotions into alignment with His own divine emotions, so that, as God is love, we may be love, too.

Sunday, June 22, 2014

Friendship With God

For by grace you have been saved through faith, and that not of yourselves; it is the gift of God. (Ephesians 2:8)
In the Greco-Roman culture of Paul’s day, the language of “grace” and “faith” indicated a particular relationship, the friendship between a patron, or benefactor, and a client, or beneficiary. The patron freely extended his favor and friendship to an individual or a group. Those who trusted him and welcomed his gift entered freely into friendship with him. He became their friend and they became his. Their concerns became his concerns and his concerns became theirs, because they were now friends.

Through Jesus Christ, God freely extends His favor to us, inviting us into friendship with Him. We enter into this friendship through faith in the Lord Jesus, entrusting ourselves into His hands. Now we belong to Him and He belongs to us. Our concerns become His concerns and His concerns become ours. “Therefore humble yourselves under the mighty hand of God, that He may exalt you in due time,” Peter says, “casting all your care upon Him, for He cares for you” (1 Peter 5:6-7).

This friendship we have with God through Jesus Christ is a participation in the life of God. It is the life of the age to come. It begins for us in this present age but also transcends this age. It is life that is both now and forever, just as God is both now and forever. In a word, this friendship with God is salvation.

“For by grace you have been saved through faith,” Paul says. This salvation is not a contract or an obligation but a relationship with God, a divine friendship that lasts forever. No loopholes, just love.

Friday, June 20, 2014

Not Ashamed to Call Us His Own

For it was fitting for Him, for whom are all things and by whom are all things, in bringing many sons to glory, to make the captain of their salvation perfect through sufferings. For both He who sanctifies and those who are being sanctified are all of one, for which reason He is not ashamed to call them brethren. (Hebrews 2:11)

But now they desire a better, that is, a heavenly country. Therefore God is not ashamed to be called their God, for He has prepared a city for them. (Hebrews 11:16)
God is not ashamed of those who belong to Him by faith. Even as messed up as we are, God is not ashamed to call us His people. And Jesus is not ashamed to claim us as His brothers and sisters. For we are being sanctified by Him. Notice the tense, “are being sanctified.” That indicates that this process of being sanctified, being transformed as God’s own people, is ongoing. We are a work in progress.

Paul tells us that “it is God who works in you both to will and to do for His good pleasure” (Philippians 2:12-13). In other words, God is not only enabling us to do what pleases Him, He is even creating in us the desire to do what pleases Him. God has no doubt about what the end result will be. As Paul said earlier in his letter to the Jesus believers at Philippi, “He who has begun a good work in you will complete it until the day of Jesus Christ” (Philippians 1:6). And God knows exactly what that end result will look like — it will look like Jesus. “For whom He foreknew, He also predestined to be conformed to the image of His Son, that He might be the firstborn among many brethren” (Romans 8:29).

God is currently in the business of shaping us into the image of the Lord Jesus Christ, so that we may forever be like Him. And God, who sees the end from the beginning, is happy with that, because He is happy with Jesus. Jesus is happy with that too, which is why He is not ashamed to be “the firstborn among many brethren” and to call us His brothers and sister.

Monday, June 16, 2014

Alive to God, Dead to Sin

Now if we died with Christ, we believe that we shall also live with Him, knowing that Christ, having been raised from the dead, dies no more. Death no longer has dominion over Him. For the death that He died, He died to sin once for all; but the life that He lives, He lives to God. Likewise you also, reckon yourselves to be dead indeed to sin, but alive to God in Christ Jesus our Lord. (Romans 6:8-11)

But now having been set free from sin, and having become slaves of God, you have your fruit to holiness, and the end, everlasting life. For the wages of sin is death, but the gift of God is eternal life in Christ Jesus our Lord. (Romans 6:22-23)
The death Jesus died on the cross has become my death, and the life Jesus lives by the resurrection has become my life (Romans 6:8-10). This life of Christ that is now in me is eternal life, the life of the age to come, and it has already begun in me. Even now, in this present age, I am alive to God and dead to sin. And that is how I should always reckon myself (v. 11).

Further, believe it or not, I am no longer a slave to sin but have been set free from it. And now, in Christ, I have become a slave to God, wholly His servant, and alive to Him.

To be clear, this was not my doing but God’s. The work is fully His. The fruit of that work in me is sanctification (holiness) and the result is eternal life, the life of the age to come. It is this very life that changes me, because it is the life of Christ Himself. It is the gift of God that I have in Christ, through faith in Him.

Now, also to be clear, when I speak about no longer being a slave to sin, I mean that sin no longer has any right or power or authority over me. For not only has the penalty of sin been paid but also the power of sin has been broken by the Lord Jesus Christ at the cross. This does not mean that I am no longer able to sin, however, but it does means that I am now able to not sin.
And do not present your members as instruments of unrighteousness to sin, but present yourselves to God as being alive from the dead, and your members as instruments of righteousness to God. For sin shall not have dominion over you, for you are not under law but under grace. (Romans 6:13-14)
Being dead to sin means that I am no longer bound to yield myself as an instrument of unrighteousness. I am now alive to God and can now yield myself to Him as an instrument of righteousness. Sin no longer has “dominion” (Greek, kyrieuo) over me. That is, sin is no longer “lord” (kyrios) over me. God has delivered me from the dominion of darkness and brought me into the kingdom of His Son (Colossians 1:13), and now Christ has dominion over me. Through Him I am now dead to sin and alive to God. And that changes everything.

Wednesday, June 4, 2014

Chief of Sinners?

This is a faithful saying and worthy of all acceptance, that Christ Jesus came into the world to save sinners, of whom I am chief. (1 Timothy 1:15)
In this letter to his protégé, Timothy, Paul refers to himself as the “chief” of sinners. He even uses the present tense — he does not say, “of whom I was chief,” but “of whom I am chief.” But does he mean that he was still sinning in the worst way? Was “chief of sinners” still his condition, even though he was now redeemed and in Christ? Let’s look at this verse in context:
And I thank Christ Jesus our Lord who has enabled me, because He counted me faithful, putting me into the ministry, although I was formerly a blasphemer, a persecutor, and an insolent man; but I obtained mercy because I did it ignorantly in unbelief. And the grace of our Lord was exceedingly abundant, with faith and love which are in Christ Jesus. This is a faithful saying and worthy of all acceptance, that Christ Jesus came into the world to save sinners, of whom I am chief. (1 Timothy 1:12-15)
Notice that Paul speaks of what he was formerly. A blasphemer, a persecutor and an insolent opponent of Christ is what he used to be before he came to Christ. But is that what he still was now as he wrote this letter to Timothy? Was he still blaspheming God? Still persecuting Christians? Still insolently opposing Christ? Of course not!

Or was he still tempted to blaspheme? Still struggling to refrain from persecuting Christians? Still desiring to oppose Christ? Again, of course not! He is speaking about his old ways, his old behaviors, what he was before he came to faith in Christ.

So when Paul identifies himself in verse 15 as the chief of sinners, he is not talking about his current state in Christ — that would mean that Christ had made no difference in his life, in his behavior or in his desires. What an ineffectual salvation that would be. It would also be contradictory to his teaching elsewhere about the transforming power of God in the life of believers. For example:
  • In Romans 12:2, Paul speaks of being not conformed to this present age but being transformed by the renewing of the mind. Shall we suppose that God utterly failed in transforming Paul and renewing his mind?
  • In Galatians 5:16, Paul speaks of “walking in the Spirit,” which results in not fulfilling the “lusts of the flesh.” Did Paul miserably fail in that?
  • In Galatians 5:22-23, Paul speaks of the “fruit of the Spirit”: love, joy, peace, longsuffering, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness, self-control. Was the Holy Spirit completely unable to bring forth any of that divine fruit in Paul? Was Paul completely barren of it?
  • In Philippians 2:13, Paul reminds the Jesus believers at Philippi, “It is God who works in you both to will and to do for His good pleasure” (Philippians 2:13). In other words, God is at work in us enabling us to do what pleases Him. Not only that, but God’s work in us also creates in us the desire to do what pleases Him. Was God thoroughly ineffectual in creating such desire in Paul’s heart, or in giving Paul the power for fulfill it?
The answer to those questions is, of course, No! God did not fail to change Paul. Quite the opposite, the testimony of Acts and the letters of Paul demonstrate that his life was revolutionized by Jesus Christ.
So when Paul speaks of himself as chief of sinners, he is speaking of what he was in his former life. He is not describing his present condition — even though he uses the present tense verb, “am.” But when he identifies himself as chief of sinners, he is saying that nobody is worse than he had been. It is as if he was saying, “I am the record-holder for sinfulness.”

During the recent Olympics, there were a number of records set. Each of the athletes who set them can rightfully boast, “I am the best at ...” But that does not mean that they are each still out on the field performing those record-setting feats. It simply means that no one has surpassed what they have done and broken those records. Likewise, Paul is not saying that he is still sinful in the worst of ways but, rather, that he still holds the record — that nobody is worse than he had been.

Was Paul still capable of sinning? Of course he was, just as all Christians are. But he was not still sinning in the worst of ways, the ways in which he formerly did as a blasphemer, a persecutor of Christians and insolent opponent of Christ. Nor did he struggle with a desire to return to those things. God had done a wonderful work in him, so that as he neared the end of his life he could say, “I have fought the good fight, I have finished the race, I have kept the faith” (2 Timothy 4:7).

Sunday, June 1, 2014

Random Thoughts


Some thoughts culled from my random file. Some have occurred to me in moments of quiet reflection, some in discussion with others. Some are aphoristic and avuncular. I didn’t know what else to do with them, so I put them here. For your edification, inspiration and/or motivation — or your money cheerfully refunded.
  • If we delight ourselves in the Lord, we will end up with the desires of our heart. If we delight ourselves in the desires of our heart, we will end up with nothing.
  • If we get things right in the small moments, we will be alright when the big moments come.
  • Discipleship is a process. So is salvation. The invitation to one is the invitation to the other. The life of the age to come is lived out as discipleship in this present age.
  • God is love. All the fullness of God dwells in Jesus. Which means that all the fullness of love dwells in Jesus.
  • In the Parable of the Prodigal, the extravagant love and grace of the Father was just as much for the elder brother as for the younger, prodigal one … and both were in desperate need of it.
  • Good theology leads to wonderful doxology. Isn’t that what we are really supposed to mean by “orthodoxy”?
  • When we offer great praise to a great God, we develop great expectation.
  • Every little moment of decision is a moment for repentance and conversion. Will I turn to God and yield to the change He wants to work in me? Or will I turn away from God and remain as I am? And every day brings those little moments. So every day is a good day to repent and be converted again.
  • Both pride and shame tell us lies.
  • The problem I see with both the old “turn or burn” gospel and the new “lovey-dovey, feel good” gospel is that they are both focused on us — on me. But the gospel of the Bible always focuses us on the Lord Jesus Christ. It is Christ-centered, not us-centered, and that makes all the difference.
  • Grace is God holding out His hand to you. Faith is taking hold of God’s hand.
  • The Trinity means that the Father is present to us through the Son by the Holy Spirit. By faith, we partake of His life, now and forever.
  • The Father sends the Spirit, the Spirit shows us the Son, the Son reveals the Father.
  • Sanctification, to put it in Trinitarian terms, is the work of God in me, through the life of Christ in me, by the power of the Holy Spirit in me. Which is also what salvation is.
  • The Christian faith in five seconds: We have union with the Father through the Son by the Holy Spirit.
More random thoughts …