Tag Archives: sin

Letter 49: “Do This In Memory of Bruce Barton”

 

The message this Sunday, as it often is, was about identity.  We ended by reciting a lengthy list of attributes that should describe us, each starting with the proclamation, “I am….”  Each “I am” had a Bible verse attached, and it was somehow linked, in some way, to something God had done, but it was all about me.

 

After the first few “I am’s” I fell silent.  I couldn’t join in.  God does not always want our ease, or our power.  Actually, much of the Christian tradition is about learning to suborn our will to His, to accept what He wants, and not infrequently, that involves suffering.  Milton went blind, William Cowper went mad, and the martyrs went home.  Being uniquely loved by God doesn’t begin to scratch the surface of this.

 

We seem much too obsessed with our identity, and too little with God’s.  It’s a fine distinction I know, but much of our preaching and teaching sounds like sanctified self-help, with a concordance attached.  We miss the point of Ephesians 2:5-11.  Christ was so sure of His identity that He didn’t think about it at all.  He was about His Father’s business, and so should we.

 

Such messages look Christian, feel Christian, but somehow fall short.  There is quite a history to such messages in this country.

 

In 1925, Bruce Barton, a son of the manse, wrote The Man Nobody Knows, the best-selling non-fiction book in America of that decade.  Barton was very clear about why he wrote the book.  He took issue with the image of Jesus presented to him in Sunday School and from the pulpit.  As Barton told it, Jesus was a man’s man.  He was a winner, and by following Him, we could become winners too.

 

This marked a subtle shift.  Yes, the Gospel was about serving God and helping others, but as a component of self-fulfillment.  The Gospel becomes just another miracle cure.  One that just happens to be 50% more effective, and without a nasty aftertaste.  Who wouldn’t want that?

 

All of this begs a question, what is the purpose of our lives?  The Bible is rich in words of comfort and assurance, because we need them.  It is also filled with admonitions to self-denial and sacrifice.  We are told to take up our Cross and follow Him who did see equality with God as something to be clutched like a miser, but was willing to die.

 

A gnawing disconnect gripped me, especially after we received Communion.  It didn’t feel quite right.  When confronted with the reality of Jesus, John the Baptist told his followers, “He must become greater; I must become less.”  John 3:30.

 

May it be so, O Lord, may it be so.

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Freedom From the Tyranny of Hyper-Spirituality:

The tyranny of hyper-spirituality our church culture had foisted on us set us up for disappointment because it held up religious experiences as the means of God’s grace, rather than the finished work of the cross.

Source: Freedom From the Tyranny of Hyper-Spirituality:

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Letter 38: Ripped from Today’s Headlines?

Last week I decided to start listening to an audio recording of St. Augustine’s The City of God.  I had read excerpts in college, and an abridged version while in law school.  Augustine was prompted to write The City of God by the sack of Rome by Alaric the Goth in AD 410.  He reflects on society, Roman history, the nature of Man, government, and of course the Christian’s true home.

I haven’t made it very far, but I was seized by the applicability of his comments on the Roman people.  He could have written those words today.  How easily we wish to be cosseted and amused.

I was also appreciative of a traditional liberal education, where I was able to read such things.  In our rush to a more job-focused, or culturally driven education, we often forget the value of ancient wisdom that has no direct benefit one’s chance of getting a job.  We seem to have forgotten that one of the original purposes of higher education was teaching us how to live.

“But the worshippers and admirers of these gods delight in imitating their scandalous iniquities, and are nowise concerned that the republic be less depraved and licentious. Only let it remain undefeated, they say, only let it flourish and abound in resources; let it be glorious by its victories, or still better, secure in peace; and what matters it to us? This is our concern, that every man be able to increase his wealth so as to supply his daily prodigalities, and so that the powerful may subject the weak for their own purposes. Let the poor court the rich for a living, and that under their protection they may enjoy a sluggish tranquillity; and let the rich abuse the poor as their dependants, to minister to their pride. Let the people applaud not those who protect their interests, but those who provide them with pleasure. Let no severe duty be commanded, no impurity forbidden. Let kings estimate their prosperity, not by the righteousness, but by the servility of their subjects. Let the provinces stand loyal to the kings, not as moral guides, but as lords of their possessions and purveyors of their pleasures; not with a hearty reverence, but a crooked and servile fear. Let the laws take cognizance rather of the injury done to another man’s property, than of that done to one’s own person. If a man be a nuisance to his neighbor, or injure his property, family, or person, let him be actionable; but in his own affairs let everyone with impunity do what he will in company with his own family, and with those who willingly join him. Let there be a plentiful supply of public prostitutes for every one who wishes to use them, but specially for those who are too poor to keep one for their private use. Let there be erected houses of the largest and most ornate description: in these let there be provided the most sumptuous banquets, where every one who pleases may, by day or night, play, drink, vomit,[1] dissipate. Let there be everywhere heard the rustling of dancers, the loud, immodest laughter of the theatre; let a succession of the most cruel and the most voluptuous pleasures maintain a perpetual excitement. If such happiness is distasteful to any, let him be branded as a public enemy; and if any attempt to modify or put an end to it let him be silenced, banished, put an end to.”

St. Augustine of Hippo, The City of God, Book 2, Chapter 20

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Letter 37: What Does Scripture Say?

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“Philip ran up and heard him reading Isaiah the prophet, and said, “Do you understand what you are reading?” And he said, ‘Well, how could I, unless someone guides me?’” Acts 8:30-31a NASB

  1. The authority of the Holy Scripture, for which it ought to be believed, and obeyed, depends not upon the testimony of any man, or Church; but wholly upon God (who is truth itself) the author thereof: and therefore it is to be received, because it is the Word of God.
  2. The whole counsel of God concerning all things necessary for His own glory, man’s salvation, faith and life, is either expressly set down in Scripture, or by good and necessary consequence may be deduced from Scripture: unto which nothing at any time is to be added, whether by new revelations of the Spirit, or traditions of men. Nevertheless, we acknowledge the inward illumination of the Spirit of God to be necessary for the saving understanding of such things as are revealed in the Word: and that there are some circumstances concerning the worship of God, and government of the Church, common to human actions and societies, which are to be ordered by the light of nature, and Christian prudence, according to the general rules of the Word, which are always to be observed.

VII. All things in Scripture are not alike plain in themselves, nor alike clear unto all: yet those things which are necessary to be known, believed, and observed for salvation are so clearly propounded, and opened in some place of Scripture or other, that not only the learned, but the unlearned, in a due use of the ordinary means, may attain unto a sufficient understanding of them.

VIII. The Old Testament in Hebrew (which was the native language of the people of God of old), and the New Testament in Greek (which, at the time of the writing of it, was most generally known to the nations), being immediately inspired by God, and, by His singular care and providence, kept pure in all ages, are therefore authentical; so as, in all controversies of religion, the Church is finally to appeal unto them.

  1. The infallible rule of interpretation of Scripture is the Scripture itself: and therefore, when there is a question about the true and full sense of any Scripture (which is not manifold, but one), it must be searched and known by other places that speak more clearly.
  2. The supreme judge by which all controversies of religion are to be determined … can be no other but the Holy Spirit speaking in the Scripture.

– Westminster Confession of Faith, Chapter 1 (emphasis added)

We have been engaged in a heated discussion at church that I won’t bore you with.  However the argument behind the arguments has been fascinating.  A few have even brought it to the forefront:  What do the Scriptures say?  This question lies at the heart of Protestantism.  We all say that we are guided by Scripture and Scripture only, if we are true to the tradition of sola scriptura.  But that seems to only beg questions that we do not wish to address, hiding, as it were, behind the big book.

To help illustrate this, I want to step outside of a strictly religious context and venture into another world I am familiar with, the world of Law.  Reading judicial opinions it is always fascinating.  You are presented with a particular factual situation, and the judges choose what laws apply to that situation.  Where this gets truly fascinating is when the judges agree on what laws apply, but disagree on how.  This is exactly what we do when it comes to Scripture.  We have a text that we agree is authoritative, but we can read the same text and come to opposite conclusions.  “A government of laws, not of men,” we proudly proclaim, but of course, it is judges who decide what law governs and how.  We keep trying to remove human input to establish absolute authority, but we never can.

When Luther laid out the standard of sola scriptura, he did so with the expectation that he going to an authority that was authentic, unencumbered with decades of human detritus, utterly unassailable, and one that would be clearly understood by all.  While he never explicitly stated it, he also believed that anyone reading Scripture would come to the same conclusions as to its meaning and application, namely his.  He was surprised, hurt, and angry when things didn’t turn out that way, with the Anabaptists getting the worst of it.

Because we are dealing with what we deem Holy Writ, it is simultaneously important that we get it right and that its application and understanding be universal.  It makes disagreements tricky.  Presumably, someone must be wrong, and the consequences can be eternal.  But who?

The supreme judge by which all controversies of religion are to be determined … can be no other but the Holy Spirit speaking in the Scripture…”

We certainly hope that this is true.  Some go so far as to formally ask for the Spirit’s guidance as they read or listen to Scripture.  I’m not sure if God is so interested in the formalities, but certainly we should enter into the Bible with the expectation that God will be there with us, impressing upon us what He wishes us to understand.

But…..

How are we to make sense of this process, and how do we know we’ve got it right?  More importantly, if we wish to engage our neighbor, how do they know we’ve got it right?

Entire books are written on this subject, and I hardly think I can add anything to them.  But even these texts falter on the question of handling differing understandings.

My first fight with my wife faced this problem squarely.  It was out first Christmas together.  I was driving down to her parents, and tuned in the most wonderful live performance of Handel’s Messiah by an early music ensemble from Montreal.  It was spellbinding, and I couldn’t wait to share the experience with my then girlfriend.  Meanwhile, she was preparing for my arrival by playing Christmas carols on her piano to greet me when I arrived.  I came in, greeted her, and started telling her about the Messiah performance, that she just had to hear.  She got upset, repaired to her room and slammed the door.  I was left staring at the dog, both of us wondering what had just happened.

Slowly, all too slowly, the idea dawned on me.  Maybe she was upset because she wanted me to listen to her playing, and took my enthusiasm for Handel as a criticism of her playing.  At almost the same time, I think the thought struck her that maybe I wasn’t thinking of her piano playing at all.  We talked.  I explained that I didn’t realize that she had planned a special “concert” for me, and that I was just looking to share an experience with her.  Two totally different understandings of the same experience, and each one valid, but so far apart in reaching mutual understanding….

So I conclude with some observations.

First, we are all selective in our use and understanding of Scripture.  Traditional Protestant teaching separates the Old Testament into the moral and the ceremonial Law.  We are to uphold the Ten Commandments, but pass lightly over the directive about preparing sacrifices.  Some wish to restrict themselves to only those things Jesus taught in the Gospels.  Traditional Christian readings of the Song of Songs treat the book as an allegory of God’s love of the Church, yet at the time it was written, there was no church.

Second, we must confess to our own limited understanding.  We “see through a glass but darkly,” and bear the stain of sin everywhere.  We can see this in the obtuseness of the Disciples, in Peter’s comment about the difficulty in understanding Paul’s letter, and indeed, in our own struggles.  If it were easy, we would have no need of the Spirit’s help.

Third, it can be very difficult to fully grasp what God may be saying to other people.   We can, and should go back to Scripture, but we must bear in mind that everything filters through our own understanding.  In practical experience, only rarely do we hear the same thing at the same time.  I am still called upon to evaluate what you report as coming from God, but I must admit that I cannot live inside your head or your heart.

No matter what we do, everything must pass through our minds.  There is no getting around this.  We can claim that Scripture is self-explanatory, but even then, it must pass through our understanding to become self-explanatory.  God promises to one day write the law in our hearts, and certainly we aspire to so unite our wills with God’s that we will will what He wills, without having to think about it.  But for now, I, at least am not there, and I am suspicious of anyone who claims to have achieved that union.

So, approach Scripture with expectation, and humility.  Trust that God will guide you, but keep in mind that we may not understand Him aright.  Until we know as we are known, our understanding is provisional and imperfect.  Be respectful of others, and realize that they labor under the same limitations as you.  Pray, pray, pray, for understanding, wisdom and peace.  The good news is that God is more than able to look out for Himself.  Be patient, and let Him do His work.  “‘Tis grace has brought me safe thus far, and grace will lead  me home.”

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Letter 30: Preaching Angry

I am preaching tomorrow from John 11. I’m not supposed to say anything about it, les people decide to stay home because Pastor’s not preaching. But I’d be reticent to say much of anything even if it had no bearing on attendance. I’m preaching angry Sunday.

It’s not typical for me, and certainly anything but typical for our church. But the words need to be said, and it scares me. They’ve been pounding about in my head and my heart ever since I first read them two weeks ago. I’ve thought twice about delivering them, and then thought about them some more. But they will not go away.

I’m scared that the people will not understand, or worse, that they will go sailing past the congregation, who will smile nicely, nod their heads, tell me how powerful the Word was this Sunday, and continue as if I hadn’t said a word.

On only two other occasions have I felt something in me struggling to come out, that I had to get out, lie I had to speak before the force shook me off my feet. It was painful. Just getting the word out was terrifying. But I had to. I think this is what some of the Old Testament prophets must have experienced, only I’m not prophet. Far from it.

This time, though, I am confronting a congregation I wish to call to task. Many times over the past months, people have told me that they want to see signs and wonders, that we should be seeking these things. Something in me recoils at hearing this. We misplace our emphasis from the giver to the gifts.

But this is not easy to say, especially given some of things I am told we will be doing during the service. So I am nervous.

O Lord, speak through my words to Your People. Speak clearly, speak directly. May they hear what you have pressed so firmly upon me. May I not get in the way. May the words of my mouth, and the meditations of our hearts be acceptable in your sight o Lord, our Rock and our Redeemer.HW1872P1024B130

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Letter 25: The Sign of Jonah

In recent weeks, I’ve been feeling a lot like the prophet Jonah.  You may remember him chiefly for being held captive inside a large fish for three days.  That’s certainly the part I remember from Sunday School all those years ago.  But that’s not the part I’m thinking about.

If you remember the story, God instructs Jonah to go to Nineveh to declare God’s punishment on them.  Nineveh was the capital of Assyria, which had subdued Israel, and now ruled them as a client state.  We can think of it today in terms of being asked by God to travel to an ISIS camp to declare God’s judgment upon them.  Jonah, of course, wants nothing to do with this, and so he takes a ship bound in the opposite direction.  Why?

We have to wait for the end of the book to find out.  In Jonah 4:2-3, the prophet explains himself.  While the mission would seem to be an Israelite’s dream, Jonah knows better.  God isn’t going to smite the Assyrians, He is going to have mercy on them.  And Jonah won’t abide that.  He pouts indignantly.  It’s not clear what he hates more, God’s mercy itself, or his own role as an agent of that mercy.

God is nothing if not patient.  Previously, He had Jonah swallowed by a great fish in the face of a terrific storm.  Jonah was saved from certain drowning, and after repenting of his desire to flee God’s call, Jonah was released to obey that call.  He could appear before the Ninevites as living proof of God’s mercy.  Since Jonah remained recalcitrant, God tried yet again.

While Jonah kept his watch over the city, God caused a gourd vine to rise up to shelter Jonah from the fierceness of the sun (4:6).  The next day, God took the vine away, sending a worm to eat it.  As if that were not enough, God then sent a hot wind off the desert and a blazing sun.  Jonah was scorched, so he pouted, again.

At this point, God chooses to confront Jonah directly.  Why is Jonah so upset?  He has done nothing to help the vine grow or preserve it from pests.  Yet Jonah is so distressed about its fate that he wants to die.  But what, then, of the city of Nineveh, teeming with humans made in the image of God, or the many animals within its limits?  Does God not have the right to be upset about their fate?  Does He not have the right to show mercy?

For the past several years, I have felt increasingly out of touch with the church I attend.  Most of the people I have known, and consider friends, have left.  I do not have much in common with those who remain.  I would much rather be somewhere else, and yet there I remain, and Elder of the church.

Is my discomfort a sign that I should leave, or a sign that God wishes stretch me?

Jonah was clearly stretched.  It amazes me that having received such an extraordinary demonstration of God’s mercy, he could not extend that grace to others.  But am I all that different?  I struggle to extend grace.  I get hung up on others’ sinfulness.  I don’t want to be seen condoning it.  So how do you hate the sin, yet love the sinner?

If I am to serve them, I must love them.  But if that does not come naturally, what then?  Only God’s love and love them, and He can only love pour that love through me if I yield to it.  We make it sound the simplest thing to do, yet I am finding it so hard.  It’s the funny thing, we all yearn to be used of God, but we rarely give a thought as to how He might choose to use us.

Pray for me.jonah

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Letter 22: How Would Jesus Drive

Chesterton once observed that, “The only Christian doctrine for which there is empirical evidence is that of original sin.” One needed only to pick up the newspaper and read. Of course, these days, very few people actually read a physical newspaper, but you can readily substitute television or news-feeds. Or, you can simply go for a drive during rush hour.

Over the years I have heard a number of discussions on Christianity, all attempting to answer the question, “What would Jesus drive?” That is not my concern. My question is much more practical and relevant: “How would Jesus drive?”

Driving to work last week, I was reminded of a passage from Ezekiel:

The Lord God says to you, My flock: I am going to judge between one sheep and another, between the rams and male goats. Isn’t it enough for you to feed on the good pasture? Must you also trample the rest of the pasture with your feet? Or isn’t it enough that you drink the clear water? Must you also muddy the rest with your feet? Yet My flock has to feed on what your feet have trampled, and drink what your feet have muddied. Ezekiel 34:17-19 (HCSB)

Do you see rush hour traffic in this description?

I could offer an answer to the question I posed, but I think it better to leave you to answer it.

“Therefore, thus says the Lord God to them: Behold, I, I myself will judge between the fat sheep and the lean sheep. Because you push with side and shoulder, and thrust at all the weak with your horns, till you have scattered them abroad, I will rescue my flock; they shall no longer be a prey.” Ezekiel 34:20-22a (ESV)china-traffic_2356349b

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