Friday, August 30, 2013

The Spirit of God Fulfills Righteousness in Us

But the fruit of the Spirit is love, joy, peace, longsuffering, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness, self-control. Against such there is no law. (Galatians 5:22-23)
Earlier in his letter to the Jesus believers in Galatia, Paul has argued that it is not by doing the works of the law of Moses that we are justified — declared to be in right relationship with God and His people — but by faith in the Lord Jesus Christ (Galatians 2:16). Though the terminology of justification comes from the law-court, the declaration Paul speaks of is not a hollow determination or “legal fiction.” In Galatians 5, Paul shows how the reality of this right relationship plays out, and it has to do with the Holy Spirit and with love.
You have become estranged from Christ, you who attempt to be justified by law; you have fallen from grace. For we through the Spirit eagerly wait for the hope of righteousness by faith. For in Christ Jesus neither circumcision nor uncircumcision avails anything, but faith working through love. (Galatians 5:4-6)
No one could ever have been justified by the law, because the law could never impart the ability to do what the law required. “For if there had been a law given which could have given life, truly righteousness would have been by the law” (Galatians 3:21). However, for those who are in Christ, who belong to Him through faith in Him, there is indeed life — His life. As Paul said, “I have been crucified with Christ; it is no longer I who live, but Christ lives in me; and the life which I now live in the flesh I live by faith in the Son of God, who loved me and gave Himself for me” (Galatians 2:20).

This life is mediated to us by the Holy Spirit. Through the Spirit, we “eagerly wait for the hope of righteousness.” Hope is about expectation, and righteousness is about justification. We have an eager anticipation (not an anxious one) that on that day when we stand before God, He will count us among the righteous, because of the life of Christ in us and the work of the Holy Spirit.

The law that we could never keep on our own will be fulfilled. How? By love. “For all the law is fulfilled in one word, even in this: ‘You shall love your neighbor as yourself’” (Galatians 5:14). And where does this love come from? It is the fruit of the Spirit. “But the fruit of the Spirit is love, joy, peace, longsuffering, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness, self-control. Against such there is no law.” This fruit displays the very character of the Lord Jesus Christ.

The law of Moses is certainly not against this. Indeed, the fruit of the Spirit, which is love, is what actually fulfills the law. But what the law was unable to work in us, the Spirit of God is in us to produce in our lives. So Paul can say, at the end of his letter, that those who sow to the Spirit will reap everlasting life.
Do not be deceived, God is not mocked; for whatever a man sows, that he will also reap. For he who sows to his flesh will of the flesh reap corruption, but he who sows to the Spirit will of the Spirit reap everlasting life. And let us not grow weary while doing good, for in due season we shall reap if we do not lose heart. Therefore, as we have opportunity, let us do good to all, especially to those who are of the household of faith. (Galatians 6:7-10)
The work of the Holy Spirit, and the fruit He manifests in and through us, demonstrates that eternal life is at work in us, which is the life of the age to come, the life of Him who is Life itself — the Lord Jesus Christ. His life in us, and our life in Him, fulfills all that righteousness requires. And when we stand before God on that final day, He will see that righteousness, that it is very real, and will be pleased with what He has done in us.

Tuesday, August 27, 2013

The Washing of Rebirth and Renewal by the Holy Spirit

But when the kindness and love of God our Savior appeared, He saved us, not because of righteous things we had done, but because of His mercy. He saved us through the washing of rebirth and renewal by the Holy Spirit, whom He poured out on us generously through Jesus Christ our Savior, so that, having been justified by his grace, we might become heirs having the hope of eternal life. This is a trustworthy saying. And I want you to stress these things, so that those who have trusted in God may be careful to devote themselves to doing what is good. These things are excellent and profitable for everyone. (Titus 3:4-8 NIV)
This passage from Titus was recently brought once again to my attention, and though I have studied it a number of times in the past, I was captured by a few new realizations. That’s the way it often is with reflecting on Scripture. No matter how many times I have gone over a passage, there always seem to be new things unfolding from it.

There is an old saying that no man ever steps into the same river twice. The water is ever flowing and the man is ever changing, and though he steps in again at the exact same place, it is not the exact same water that flowed by previously and he is no longer exactly the same as he was before. That is what has happened to me again with these verses. My perspective has changed some since last I visited them and I now recognize a few currents I had missed earlier.

One thing that strikes me this time around is how Trinitarian it is in its soteriology (doctrine of salvation). It is out of the kindness and love of the Father — God our Savior — that He has saved us. In the words of that famous verse, “God so loved the world that He gave His one and only Son” (John 3:16 NIV). This salvation is also a renewal by the Holy Spirit (more on that in a moment). And the Holy Spirit is poured out on us abundantly through Jesus Christ, the Son. As I have learned to meditate more on the rich relationship of the Father, Son and Holy Spirit that is the Trinity, the more I have learned to recognize it in Scripture.

Another thing that particularly stands out for me now is how much this fulfills what God promised through the prophet Ezekiel:
Then I will sprinkle clean water on you, and you shall be clean; I will cleanse you from all your filthiness and from all your idols. I will give you a new heart and put a new spirit within you; I will take the heart of stone out of your flesh and give you a heart of flesh. I will put My Spirit within you and cause you to walk in My statutes, and you will keep My judgments and do them. (Ezekiel 36:25-27)
Here is the “washing of rebirth,” the sprinkling of water that cleanses us from all impurity and idolatry. We are given the new heart and new spirit — which can be called the new birth — that God has for us. This “washing” is beautifully portrayed in the sign of baptism.

The “renewal” Paul speaks of is by the Holy Spirit, God’s own Spirit, who comes to dwell within us. The fulfillment of this promise in Ezekiel turned out to be what God would do not just for the Jews but for all the nations of the earth. In fact, Paul writes this letter to Titus, who he appointed to oversee the largely non-Jewish church at Crete.

Finally, I have recently been considering the relationship between justification and final judgment, and this passage speaks to that. Paul says that God has saved us and Christ has generously poured out the Holy Spirit on us so that, “having been justified by His grace, we might become heirs having the hope of eternal life.” The first part, “having been justified,” speaks of what has already been accomplished — through Christ we have been declared righteous, fit for fellowship with God and His people. “The hope of eternal life” is about our future expectation — the life of the age to come.

Paul solemnly affirms that this is “trustworthy,” and he stresses these things “so that those who have trusted in God may be careful to devote themselves to doing what is good.” The new birth and renewal by the Holy Spirit that we receive by faith in God (through Jesus Christ) brings us into a life of good works that honors God. And that is exactly what God promised in Ezekiel, that He would put His own Spirit within us who would cause us to walk in His ways. We also find this same line of thought expressed earlier in Paul’s letter.
For the grace of God that brings salvation has appeared to all men, teaching us that, denying ungodliness and worldly lusts, we should live soberly, righteously, and godly in the present age, looking for the blessed hope and glorious appearing of our great God and Savior Jesus Christ, who gave Himself for us, that He might redeem us from every lawless deed and purify for Himself His own special people, zealous for good works. (Titus 2:11-14)
The grace of God that teaches us and the Holy Spirit whom God has given to live in us begins to transform us in this present age so that, when the Lord Jesus comes and we stand before Him, the work of God will be revealed in us. And God will be satisfied with what He has done.

Wednesday, August 21, 2013

How I Learned to Pray in Tongues

He who speaks in a tongue does not speak to men but to God. (1 Corinthians 14:2)
Recently, a friend from my Bible college days (back in the 70s) asked about my experience of praying in tongues, how I first entered into it, whether it was something that happened unexpectedly or something I worked to attain.

It’s been so long now that I needed to take a little time to remember how it came about. It was not some sort of frenzy, or some big emotional experience. Quite the opposite. I had for a long time believed in the validity of speaking in tongues and that God was still doing today what He had done in the early days of the Church. Speaking in tongues was part of the heritage of the church I had grown up in (Christian and Missionary Alliance), and having been convinced of the biblical legitimacy of the gift, I was open to it. I didn’t do anything about it for many years, but I was open to it.

It was back in the late 80s, when I began learning to pray the Psalms, that things began to change. Up until then, I had always only prayed spontaneously, but now I was learning to pray words that were not my own extemporaneous ones. They were other people’s words — the words of David and the psalm writers. Holy Spirit inspired words, no doubt, but still the words that were not my own (not yet my own, anyway).

As I continued, I began to see the value of praying the words of the psalm writers and the prayers of others who had gone before me in the faith. My own words were so limited, and so also my prayers. But now my prayers began to be enlarged and my prayer life expanded in new directions.

After a while, it began to occur to me that praying in tongues was, likewise, not about my own words but words that somehow come from the Holy Spirit, who dwells in everyone who has been born again of the Spirit. And I started to understand some of the benefits of praying in tongues (see below). So now I was not just open to it, I began to desire it, and I started talking to the Lord about it. “Lord, if You’re willing, I’m willing.”

And I believed He indeed was willing — but I had no idea how to begin. After a while, it occurred to me to just start praying out some syllables and giving those to the Lord. I’m reminded of the story of the little girl whose mother came into her room one night and found her kneeling beside her bed, reciting the alphabet. The mother asked what she was doing and the little girl answered that she did not know how to pray, so she was giving all the letters to God for Him to make a prayer with. Well, I want God to be Lord not just over all the words of mouth and the meditations of my heart, but over all my syllables, too. So I started praying some out and giving them to God to do with whatever He wanted.

Was that just me, “priming the pump”? Perhaps. But I kept coming back to that every few days and, after a while, there began to be something of a flow to those syllables/words that was not coming from my conscious mind. I wasn’t quite sure what to make of it. For a while I would ask, “Is that You, Lord, or is that me?” I went on for months like that, wondering, but after a while I began to relax about it — whatever it was, I was giving it to God.

So I was praying in tongues. As I continued, I began to experience some wonderful benefits. For one thing, it is a way of speaking to God. The apostle Paul said, “He who speaks in a tongue does not speak to men but to God” (1 Corinthians 14:2). So it is a way of prayer and/or praise.

Paul also said that, in that same verse, that a person who speaks in tongues “speaks mysteries.” When I pray in tongues, I often have no idea of what I am praying about. But sometimes I do, especially when I have asked the Holy Spirit to help me pray about some person or situation. And sometimes I have a sense of what I am praying about because of what comes to my understanding as or afterwards. Praying in tongues is then, in a sense, something like “downloading” in the Spirit.
For if I pray in a tongue, my spirit prays, but my understanding is unfruitful. What is the conclusion then? I will pray with the spirit, and I will also pray with the understanding. I will sing with the spirit, and I will also sing with the understanding. (1 Corinthians 14:14-15)
Like Paul, I am happy to pray with the Spirit, and also to pray with the understanding. Sometimes there is an overlap between the two that I can discern. Sometimes not. If I have no understanding or particular sense about what I am praying, I do not let that bother me; I expect that God is speaking mysteries to me at a level of my spirit that goes beyond my understanding. And I expect that it will eventually trickle down to my understanding as needed.

My belief is that the Holy Spirit is always active in believers, working in us in ways that we do not necessarily understand. So I often pray and/or sing in tongues as a way of focusing on the Lord and welcoming the Spirit to do His work in me, whatever that work may be and whether or not I understand what He is doing at that moment.

I also correlate my experience of praying in tongues to Paul’s teaching in Romans 8:26. Not so much the “groanings that cannot be uttered” part, although I believe tongues can well be a part of that. But more in that the Holy Spirit “helps” us when we pray — because we do not know what or how we should pray! Sometimes I am moved to pray for some person or situation, but I have no idea how to approach it in prayer, and I find praying in tongues to be of particular benefit. I start praying in tongues, and then out of that I usually begin to know how to pray the matter with my understanding. What a coincidence!

(See also How Praying in the Spirit Helps Me)

Tuesday, August 20, 2013

How Wide is God’s Mercy?

The whole world is in need of salvation. Everyone is subject to the corruption of sin and mortality, and even creation itself is waiting for its own redemption (Romans 8:19-21). But there is no salvation for anyone apart from the Lord Jesus Christ, His cross and His resurrection. His atoning work is sufficient for the sins of the whole world, in all times and places, and He is the only way to salvation for everyone who has lived.

The witness of the apostles in the New Testament is that whoever believes on Him is saved, born again, receives eternal life, inherits the kingdom of God. But that raises questions about infants and people who are mentally incompetent to believe — what about them? There is also the question about the “heathen” and people who have never heard of Jesus. And what about people who existed before Jesus came and who therefore never heard of him?

The Gospel of John sheds some light on this, I believe. For Jesus is the True Light who gives light to every one who comes into the world (John 1:9). I think this is not just true concerning after Jesus came into the world but that it extends even to those who lived before His incarnation. For He is the creator of the world (John 1:3), the source of life: “In Him was life, and the life was the light of men” (John 1:4). Even before John reveals that the “Word became flesh and dwelt among us” (John 1:14, a statement about the incarnation), we learn the Jesus is the Light and that he gives light to everyone who comes into the world. So I believe that applies to every person who has ever existed and ever will. The light that Jesus gives is a manifestation of God’s grace, without which, no one is able to turn to Him and be saved.

I am also reminded of the passage in Ecclesiastes 3, where The Preacher says, “He has put eternity in our hearts, except that no man can find out the work that God does from beginning to end” (v.11). This seems to me to speak of a witness that God has given to every person. And, of course, Paul says that “what may be known of God is manifest in them, for God has shown it to them. For since the creation of the world His invisible attributes are clearly seen, being understood by the things that are made, even His eternal power and Godhead, so that they are without excuse” (Romans 1:19-20). The problem has never been that nobody knew what was necessary to know but that “although they knew God, they did not glorify Him as God, nor were thankful, but became futile in their thoughts, and their foolish hearts were darkened” (Romans 1:21). In other words, the problem is not that they did not receive light, but that when they received light, they rejected it, so their foolish, unbelieving hearts were darkened.

Surely God holds everyone accountable only for the light He has given each one — no more and no less. And there is a point where each person becomes accountable for whatever light that has been given them. That is, there comes a point in their development when they able to choose whether to receive it or reject it. If a person never reaches that point of accountability, say, an infant or child who dies before they reach that stage, or a person who has otherwise never developed to sufficient competency to respond, I believe that God does not hold them accountable but graciously receives them — but only the basis of Messiah’s saving work.

For those who have never heard of Jesus the Messiah, I believe God does nonetheless give them light and holds them accountable for whatever light He has given. If they respond to that light in faith, then if more light is necessary, I believe God will give it to them and will continue to do so until they have sufficient light. However much light is necessary, God will give it.

I think this has always been so. How much light did people have before Jesus came? Surely there were people who were saved in the Old Testament, even though they were not of Israel. What faith was Adam accountable for? Or Seth? Or Enoch? Or Melchizedek? Or Job? We know that Abraham believed God and it was accounted to Him as righteousness, but it was a budding light, not like the fuller revelation of Jesus the Messiah we have received in the New Testament. Or how about Nebuchadnezzar, who said, “And at the end of the time I, Nebuchadnezzar, lifted my eyes to heaven, and my understanding returned to me; and I blessed the Most High and praised and honored Him who lives forever: For His dominion is an everlasting dominion, and His kingdom is from generation to generation” (Daniel 4:34). Was Nebuchadnezzar saved?

Jesus gives light to every one who comes into the world, and I believe it is sufficient light, if anyone will respond to it in faith. I don’t know where the dividing line is on that or exactly how much light God requires, but I believe the God supplies whatever light is needed and does not hold anyone accountable for any more light than He has given them. However, I do know what message God holds me accountable to preach: the message of King Jesus the Messiah and salvation through faith in Him.

Ultimately, all these other questions I leave to God to deal with in His goodness and mercy, but I do believe His mercy may well be wider than we expect.

Friday, August 16, 2013

The Verdict on Judgment Day

Knowing that a man is not justified by the works of the law but by faith in Jesus Christ, even we have believed in Christ Jesus, that we might be justified by faith in Christ and not by the works of the law; for by the works of the law no flesh shall be justified. (Galatians 2:16)
“Justification” is law-court terminology. It is a verdict, a judicial finding that is made by the judge. It is a pronouncement that is made in regard to the law. If the judge finds you “justified” (or “righteous”) it means that you have not broken the law but have kept it.

In the Old Testament, God made covenant with the children of Israel. He became their God and they became His people. And He gave His covenant people the law of Moses. Righteousness was spoken of in terms of that law and that covenant. If you kept the law, you were considered “righteous,” which was to say, in good standing with God and with the rest of the covenant community. If you broke the law, well, then there was a problem that needed to be resolved, because it was a break in covenant and the fellowship of the community. So justification has implications regarding God’s covenant and the rest of the community that stands in covenant with Him.

The problem for all of us, Jew and Gentile alike, is that we have all “sinned.” We have all broken God’s law, and that was a big problem that needed to be resolved. For we will all stand before God one day in the final judgment. Who will be justified, receive a favorable verdict, be judged as righteous in that day? In that day, who will be pronounced a law-keeper, a member in good standing with the covenant people of God?

The answer Paul finds in the gospel is that all who believe on the Lord Jesus will be judged “righteous.” The good news about Jesus the Messiah is that we already know what that end time verdict will be. It has already been revealed ahead of time to us through Him: His death is reckoned as our death, and His righteous life is reckoned as ours. So shall it be reckoned on judgment day for all who belong to Him.

In the Old Testament, circumcision was a sign that marked out who the covenant people of God were. If you were one of God’s “chosen,” you were circumcised. Without it, you would not be considered a member in good standing. However, in Paul’s day, there were some Jewish Christians who were trying to carry that over into the new covenant we have in Jesus the Messiah: If a gentile believer in Christ wanted to be in good standing with God’s covenant people, then he must be circumcised. That would identify him as one of the “righteous,” the “justified,” who would receive a favorable verdict on the day of judgment.

Against that, Paul rendered an emphatic No! It is not circumcision or Sabbath keeping or any works of the law that indicates who will receive God’s favorable verdict on judgment day. Rather, it is faith in the Lord Jesus that now points us out as God’s covenant people — people of the new covenant God has cut in the blood of Jesus the Messiah — who will stand in the “congregation of the righteous” (Psalm 1:5)

What will the verdict be for us when we stand before God on judgment day? We already know, because it has already been revealed to us in Jesus the Messiah:
Justified — fit for fellowship with God and His people!
Righteous — in right relationship with God and His people!

Sunday, August 11, 2013

Praying with Zion

Sing praises to the LORD, who dwells in Zion! (Psalm 9:11)

Let the children of Zion be joyful in their King. (Psalm 149:2)
There are many psalms that speak of Zion. It is where the LORD establishes His anointed Son as King over Israel and the nations1. It is the where He has chosen to dwell2. It is the place of the help, strength and salvation that comes from the LORD3. It is where the LORD establishes justice for His people and the whole earth4. It is where the people of the LORD appear before Him5. It is where the LORD shows His mercy and favor6. It is where the LORD is revealed in His glory7. It is where the LORD commands His blessing8.

Zion is Jerusalem, the city of God. For the psalm writers, there is no other place like it. It is “the joy of the whole earth” (Psalm 48:2). There we find the temple, revealing the presence of the Lord and the place where God rules and reigns over His people.
As we have heard, so we have seen
In the city of the LORD of hosts,
In the city of our God:
God will establish it forever. Selah.
We have thought, O God, on Your lovingkindness,
In the midst of Your temple.
(Psalm 48:8-9)
After the divided kingdoms of Israel and Judah were carried off into exile, Jews began to believe that there must be a heavenly Jerusalem, just as the psalm writer spoke of a heavenly temple: “The LORD is in His holy temple, the LORD’s throne is in heaven” (Psalm 11:4). It is this heavenly city that endures forever and so fulfills the promise of Psalm 125:1, “Those who trust in the LORD are like Mount Zion, which cannot be moved, but abides forever.” So the prophets begin speaking of a new city and a glorious temple (for example, in Ezekiel 40-48, Isaiah 54:11-14 and Zechariah 2).

In the New Testament, we find this promise beginning to be fulfilled through King Jesus the Messiah and the new covenant He brings. By the end of the book, in Revelation 21, we see the New Jerusalem descending, joining heaven and earth together as one.
For these are the two covenants: the one from Mount Sinai which gives birth to bondage, which is Hagar — for this Hagar is Mount Sinai in Arabia, and corresponds to Jerusalem which now is, and is in bondage with her children — but the Jerusalem above is free, which is the mother of us all. (Galatians 4:24-26)

But you have come to Mount Zion and to the city of the living God, the heavenly Jerusalem, to an innumerable company of angels, to the general assembly and church of the firstborn who are registered in heaven, to God the Judge of all, to the spirits of just men made perfect, to Jesus the Mediator of the new covenant. (Hebrews 12:22-24)

He who overcomes, I will make him a pillar in the temple of My God, and he shall go out no more. I will write on him the name of My God and the name of the city of My God, the New Jerusalem, which comes down out of heaven from My God. (Revelation 3:12)

Then I, John, saw the holy city, New Jerusalem, coming down out of heaven from God, prepared as a bride adorned for her husband … And he carried me away in the Spirit to a great and high mountain, and showed me the great city, the holy Jerusalem, descending out of heaven from God, having the glory of God. (Revelation 21:2, 10-11)
All who believe on King Jesus the Messiah, who belong to Him by faith, are a colony of heaven, citizens of that city that is above. We are not waiting to be airlifted out of the world but for the New Jerusalem to come down. And we ourselves are now the temple, the dwelling place of God on earth (see 1 Corinthians 3:16 and 1 Peter 2:5).

So now when I pray the psalms and come to the ones about Zion, I recognize my place in the New Jerusalem, the Jerusalem that is above and will one day be fully revealed on earth. The city “whose builder and maker is God” (Hebrews 11:10), the “better” and “heavenly” city the Old Testament saints longed for (Hebrews 11:16), and which New Testament believers also earnestly desire and seek (Hebrews 13:14).

(1) Psalm 2; 149:2 (2) Psalm 9:11; 76:2; 132:13 (3) Psalm 14:7; 20:2; 53:6; 110:2 (4) Psalm 48:11; 50:1-4; 122:1-5 (5) Psalm 84:85-87 (6) Psalm 102:13 (7) Psalm 102:16 (8) Psalm 128:5; 133:3; 134:3

Thursday, August 1, 2013

Random Thoughts

Some thoughts culled from my random file. Some have occurred to me in moments of quiet reflection, some in discussion with others. For your edification, inspiration and/or amusement.
  • I give thanks for the waves the Father makes for me to ride, the wind of the Spirit to fill my sails, and the peace the Lord Jesus speaks over my life.
  • Prayer is not a business meeting, or placing an order with God’s customer service agent. It is part of a life-giving relationship with the one who made you.
  • “And we have known and believed the love that God has for us” (1 John 4:16). Yet, even if we have not believed it, God's love for us is greater than our unbelief ~ He loves us still. How great is our joy when we know and believe that love.
  • Important distinctions get lost when people react instead of respond. To react requires nothing more than emotion, but to respond requires careful thought.
  • There are two kinds of people I avoid: Those who want to be accountable to me ~ after all, who am I? And those who want me to be accountable to them ~ after all, who are they?
  • Accountability can quickly devolve into rules and regulations, no longer about relationship, but someone with a checklist by which to evaluate everyone around. When it is no longer about encouraging and building up the members but about controlling them, it becomes simply a means to power for the ego-driven.
  • The Epistles don’t negate the Gospels; the Gospels don’t negate the Epistles. If we ever think that one negates the other, it is only because we are reading one of them wrong.
  • When one’s interest in “social justice” becomes, as so often seems to be the case, a matter best left for the State to handle, then I think both “social justice” and the State have become forms of idolatry.
  • “Social justice” is not a matter only for individuals. There are many forms of interconnectedness, including family and local community, as well as the Church. To whatever extent the State may represent interconnectedness, I do not think it is the highest form or the most efficient or effective form.
  • One thing we have to ask is who gets to define “social justice,” and how and by whom it is to be implemented. The State? A political party or movement? A denominational structure? Individual conscience?
  • The Christian faith teaches us to give of ourselves for the sake of others; it does not teach us to take what belongs to someone else in order to give it to another. Christian charity gives and serves; it does not commandeer others for the sake of our own agenda, however good we may think our agenda is. When we take from others what they have not offered, that is called stealing, something about which God says, “Thou shalt not.”
  • The tithe Abraham offered Melchizedek was a voluntary one, and one God honored — Abraham received a blessing. I would not go so far as to call it a “norm,” but it is certainly a worthy example for Christian giving. I believe God still honors the tithe today, even as He did back then, quite apart from the Law.
  • Tithing is based on increase, what comes into your hand. If you have not experienced increase, there is nothing to tithe on. But it is still possible to give. There are a lot of ways we can give of ourselves for the sake of others. For example, through acts of service, through our prayers for others, through kind words to others. If our heart is to give and serve, God blesses.