Who’s Doing The Work?


One day at church I overheard an older man giving his testimony to a group of friends.

In short, he came to Christ when he was ten, but then he got involved with people who weren’t the best influence on him. Until he married his wife, he led a life that was far from God. He stated emphatically, though, that he believes he was a Christian during that time. He’d made that profession of faith that was genuine. How can you undo being born again, he asked. Never mind that his life showed no evidence of a relationship with Jesus Christ.

Some people call this “easy believe-ism” and don’t think such a person is saved.

Christians know that nobody is made right with God by what we do. No work of ours can erase the sin in our heart. Through Jesus alone can we be brought into relationship with God. What we must do is confess with our mouth and believe in our heart:

that if you confess with your mouth Jesus as Lord, and believe in your heart that God raised Him from the dead, you will be saved; for with the heart a person believes, resulting in righteousness, and with the mouth he confesses, resulting in salvation. (Rom 10:9-10)

This believing issue is the one that gets a little sticky. James says the demons also believe (that God is One) and they shudder (James 2:19). They are, however, not saved. He uses them to illustrate that the person with genuine faith is the person who by his actions demonstrates what he believes.

A tangential issue has to do with how we can possibly do works of righteousness, which seem to be the evidence of faith.

Are the works ours? Or do they come from the Spirit within us?

Paul seems to indicate in Colossians 2 that, as we began in faith, we are to live by faith: “Therefore as you have received Christ Jesus the Lord [by faith], so walk in Him [by faith] (Col. 2:6).”

Yet he also says we are to “walk in a manner worthy of the Lord [action], to please Him in all respects” (Col. 1:10b).

So which is it, God’s saving work in us and our faith in what He’s done, or our works demonstrating the faith we profess?

The Holy Spirit gives gifts and He also supplies fruit:

But the fruit of the Spirit is love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness, self-control; against such things there is no law. (Gal 5:22-23)

Yet the Christian is commanded not to quench the Spirit or to grieve Him, which seems to indicate we can stifle His influence in our life (and so not show His fruit or use His gifts). Are we then, not Christians?

Not at all. Too many verses in Scripture indicate that God does not lose those who are His own. So either the wayward person was never a Christian or he will change his behavior in due time, like the mouthy brother who said he wouldn’t obey his father, only to end up doing what he was told after all (see Matt 21:28-29).

Still, there is the question about our works. My former pastor was constantly reminding us that we live by grace. Alistair Begg, who I listen to on the radio, is also diligent to explain that we don’t go to church to get a pep talk, to learn what it is we’re supposed to do, then go out, pull up our socks, and try harder.

Rather, “it is God Who is at work in you both to will and to work for His good pleasure” (Phil 2:13).

Do we have no responsibility, then?

Peter seems to say we do. “Like the Holy One who called you, be holy yourselves also in all your behavior because it is written, ‘You shall be holy for I am holy’ ” (1 Peter 1:15-16).

This is one of those issues, I think, where a great case can be made for living by grace—a “let go and let God” approach when taken to the extreme. But at the same time, an equally good case with supporting verses can be made for working out our salvation.

In such instances, I think the best approach is a both/and acceptance. Somehow God does work in the life of the Christian and at the same time expect the Christian to obey. Not by his own strength (“strengthened with all power according to His glorious might,” Paul says in Colossians). Nevertheless, somehow—volitionally, perhaps—we’re involved. We don’t (or ought not) sit around waiting for God to pull our wallet out of our pocket and give to our needy neighbor. We already have His command to love our neighbor as ourselves, so we don’t need another, personal, individual invitation to do what God has already told us to do.

What about the flip side of the coin, those disobedient things like lust or greed or anger? We have clear directions about those issues already, so are we to obey or are we to wait for God to make us obey?

Both.

It’s a both/and issue, remember. We first pray, confess our sin and our inability in our own flesh to deal with the issue. Then we thank God that we don’t have to, that He’s already given us the Holy Spirit to empower us to do the very thing He has asked us to do. Then we take a step in the right direction. One after another, trusting that God will give us the strength each time to lift our foot and keep going where He’s shown us we should go.

I think learning to live in God’s strength is harder than it sounds. It is for me anyway. But at the same time, I don’t feel so defeated as I once did. I’ve mentioned in the past, I’m the one who doesn’t make New Year’s resolutions because I was so tired of trying to do the same things over and over, year after year! It gets … discouraging. But God’s promise of strength and provision of His Spirit gives hope.

On that note, Happy New Year!

– – – – –

This post, with minor editorial changes, first appeared here at A Christian Worldview of Fiction in March, 2012.

Advertisements
Published in: on December 31, 2014 at 4:42 pm  Comments (3)  
Tags: , , , , ,

Yep! It’s God


A_courtroom_scene_with_a_judge,_a_pregnant_woman,_a_guilty_l_Wellcome_V0039186

At the end of “The Great Divide,” I asked

Is Man righteous or is God? We can’t have it both ways because God has said Man is not righteous. So if God lies, He’s not righteous. It’s one or the other, Man or God. And there is the great divide.

So the answer is, God is righteous.

Of course, the great complaint against God—by atheists and Progressives alike—is that God is not righteous. In fact, I’ve heard from people in both camps say that God is a tyrant. Some claim He orders genocide and that His wrath, if it were true about Him, would be in direct contradiction to His love.

The atheist uses these charges as evidence that the God of those who claim to believe the Bible simply does not exist. The Progressives use these charges as an excuse to dump the Old Testament and the wrathful God it reveals in favor of the New Testament and the loving God they see in Jesus.

In truth, I believe atheists have more intellectual honesty here than do the Progressives, though they are unfortunately just as incorrect in their conclusions.

Because the atheist starts from a Man-is-good position, it is logical to conclude that a god who would order the destruction of a race of people (the Amalekites) or nearly an entire generation (Noah’s contemporaries), must be evil—who else would destroy so many good people?

That position is intellectually honest but wrong because of the starting place.

Progressives make the mistake of hanging their belief about God on an erroneous view of Jesus. Apparently they also start with a Man-is-good view and dismiss the wrathful god of the Old Testament for similar reasons as atheists do. However, they choose to embrace Jesus as the god of love.

This is not intellectually honest. Rather, it demonstrates a shameful lack of knowledge about the one they claim to worship—both what he did and what he said.

Jesus was no pushover, acting as a pacifist who would simply love, love, love and never correct anyone. His decision—twice—to cleanse the temple by chasing out the people who didn’t belong and who were conducting business which they shouldn’t have done, involved turning over tables and chasing people out and taking a whip to move them along.

Time and again Jesus, knowing full well what He was doing, healed people on the Sabbath—almost as if He were baiting the Pharisees who He knew wouldn’t approve.

In His direct confrontations with the sect, He called them names—vipers, whitewashed tombs, hypocrites—and used scathing language in accusing them of breaking God’s law. At one point He even told them Satan was their father.

I doubt very much if a single Pharisee would have thought “loving” when they looked at Jesus.

In addition, no one talked more above hell than did Jesus. He told parables in which the ungodly were thrown out into outer darkness, or into eternal fire or unquenchable fire or a furnace of fire. He also talked about praise for the righteous and punishment for the wicked, about choosing a narrow gate versus a broad gate, about separating goats and sheep. In other words, Jesus was not an advocate for some kind of universal happily ever after which His love would provide.

Both these two camps—atheists and Progressives—are mistaken. God is righteous.

First, God’s nature puts things into perspective. He is, among other traits, holy. Think of a surgeon who is masked, gowned, scrubbed, and gloved. He must not pick up any instrument that has not also been sterilized and made pure. To do so would contaminate him. In a similar way, God’s purity does not allow for relationship with those stained by sin. All of humanity, in other words.

The only hope for relationship, humans with God, is for us to become pure—something we have no way of accomplishing. Enter God into the world in human flesh to do for us what we cannot do for ourselves.

In addition, God is omniscient. He knows the heart of each person—the hidden thoughts of selfishness or hatred or lust or greed or jealousy or pride or covetousness or whatever other sin resides inside us. We can clean up on the outside and we can pretend, even to ourselves, but God knows the truth about us.

Then, too, God will judge between the afflicted and the oppressor. Granted, He provides a refuge in time of trouble. He hides and helps and delivers. But the oppressor isn’t the one receiving God’s protection and care. The oppressor is receiving God’s judgment.

This passage from Psalm 11 spells out God’s role as judge:

The LORD tests the righteous and the wicked,
And the one who loves violence His soul hates.
Upon the wicked He will rain snares;
Fire and brimstone and burning wind will be the portion of their cup.
For the LORD is righteous, He loves righteousness;
The upright will behold His face. (vv 5-7)

Clearly His authority to test the righteous and the wicked is connected to His righteousness. No profit comes from pleading before a corrupt judge or one who disregards truth or loves evil instead of good. Judgment only brings justice if the judge is unbiased and adheres to the law.

That’s God. He is righteous. We, on the other hand, are not.

Published in: on December 30, 2014 at 6:27 pm  Comments (2)  
Tags: , , , ,

The Great Divide


256px-East_rift_zone_kilaueaAs divided as the United States is politically between red states (conservative) and blue states (liberal), the great divide has nothing to do with politics. Nor is it about racial issues or gender. The thing that divides all humankind, not just Americans, is whether God is righteous or Man is righteous.

The people in the latter camp outnumber the former by a wide margin and fall into one of a number of categories. First there are the atheists who simply do not believe God exists. Consequently, by default, Man is the righteous one.

Even though there really is no choice from an atheist’s perspective, I don’t think many who hold to this position are unhappy with the idea that humans are righteous—or we might say, good. In fact, I suspect most agree with the atheists who argue that any “not good” or unrighteous behavior we observe in children or in adults, for that matter, is simply a matter of proper education and eventual acculturation. Good will prevail, according to this view, if given a chance.

Another group in this Man-is-righteous camp consists of people who shape god into the image they want him in. These people say things like, My god wouldn’t do such a thing. They determine what they want from a god and dismiss any revelation to the contrary. Consequently they dismiss large passages of the Bible because they do not conform to the image they created for their god. Some dismiss the Bible altogether and simply decide without the benefit of any “restrictive” book, what they think god is like. Others mythologize the Bible and take from it principles they want their god to stand behind.

At first blush, this group may not appear to believe that Man is righteous, not God, but because Man is shaping God, any righteousness God may have is actually the righteousness of the one shaping Him.

A third group most likely would claim to have little in common with the first two. These folk believe in the literal meaning and authoritative place of the Bible—so much so that they say God is required by His very Words to act in a certain way. He must bless those who follow Him and curse those who turn from Him.

This is the position of Job’s friends. Here’s a sample of their conversation with the man who had lost his flocks and herds, his children, and his health:

“Behold, how happy is the man whom God reproves,
So do not despise the discipline of the Almighty.
“For He inflicts pain, and gives relief;
He wounds, and His hands also heal.
“From six troubles He will deliver you,
Even in seven evil will not touch you.
“In famine He will redeem you from death,
And in war from the power of the sword.
“You will be hidden from the scourge of the tongue,
And you will not be afraid of violence when it comes.
“You will laugh at violence and famine,
And you will not be afraid of wild beasts.
“For you will be in league with the stones of the field,
And the beasts of the field will be at peace with you.
“You will know that your tent is secure,
For you will visit your abode and fear no loss.
“You will know also that your descendants will be many,
And your offspring as the grass of the earth. (Job 5:17-25)

This passage says the person who “does not despise the discipline of the Almighty” will find an end to suffering and hardship and trouble. Man simply has to do the right thing, and God will respond with unwavering provision and protection.

Another of Job’s friends, Bildad, spelled out this position clearly:

“If you would seek God
And implore the compassion of the Almighty,
If you are pure and upright,
Surely now He would rouse Himself for you
And restore your righteous estate. (Job 8:5-6)

In this view, though it’s unlikely any who believe this way would word it so, Man is pulling the strings, and God is simply reacting to Man’s actions. Who is really in control, then, is Man. God is the puppet, not the sovereign, and if the puppet, not the righteous one but rather, the manipulated one. Which leaves Man as righteous, though not all men.

In contrast to the camp that views Man as righteous and god as either nonexistent, made in the image of the ones who admit he exists, or manipulated by those who believe in Him, those on the other side of the divide accept the fact that God is righteous.

Because God is righteous, He does not lie. Consequently His self-revelation is reliable as is what He says about the rest of creation, including humans.

In a nutshell, what He says about humans is this:
* we are made in God’s image
* we are fearfully and wonderfully made
* we are made lower than Elohim—lower than God
BUT
* we have all sinned and all fall short of the glory of God
* we are deceived in our thoughts
* we are not righteous, no not one

Here’s one passage in Scripture that declares the last of these facts:

The fool has said in his heart, “There is no God,”
They are corrupt, and have committed abominable injustice;
There is no one who does good.
God has looked down from heaven upon the sons of men
To see if there is anyone who understands,
Who seeks after God.
Every one of them has turned aside; together they have become corrupt;
There is no one who does good, not even one. (Ps. 53:1-3)

“No one does good” does not mean there aren’t kind atheists or Hindus who work against slave trafficking or Muslims who stand against abortion. Rather, the “no one does good” aspect refers to the condition of our hearts, not the individual acts we perform. It refers to seeking God rather than turning aside.

The truth is, our hearts are bent toward self-interest, not the interest of others. We are proud, not humble; greedy, not generous; hateful, not loving; rebellious, not obedient. Those are our natural tendencies—which we may work to change, but which remain the state of our heart.

Not only do we have the numerous passages of Scripture that show us what we are, we have a world filled with evidence about mankind. Shall we consider crime or terrorism? Wars? Sex trafficking or perhaps child pornography? Prostitution? Corporate greed or government corruption? What areas of society are immune to the unrighteousness of the human heart? Are marriages free of self-interest? Schools? Churches?

Despite the evidence, the world will continue to be divided along the line of righteousness: Is Man righteous or is God? We can’t have it both ways because God has said Man is not righteous. So if God lies, He’s not righteous. It’s one or the other, Man or God. And there is the great divide.

Published in: on December 29, 2014 at 6:44 pm  Comments (8)  
Tags: , , , , ,

For Unto Us A Child Is Born


christmas-tree-ornament-911705-m

Merry

Christmas!

May God’s grace and peace rest on you today and always.

Published in: on December 25, 2014 at 12:00 pm  Comments (1)  
Tags:

What Mary Didn’t Know


nativity-926289-mIt’s kind of interesting that in a pre-ultrasound society, Mary knew she was having a boy. No other pregnant women of her day knew the sex of the child, but Mary knew. She even knew her son’s name before his birth. She also knew, though undoubtedly many in her community suspected otherwise, that she was still a virgin—the impending birth of her son notwithstanding.

And finally, Mary knew what the angel had told her: she was blessed, her conception would be miraculous, the Child would be known as the Son of the Most High, He’d be King. If she and Joseph compared notes about their separate angelic visitations, she may also have known that He’d be called Immanuel—God with us.

That leaves a lot of unknown. Mary didn’t know, for example, when precisely she’d give birth. In other words, she didn’t know Christmas Eve was Christmas Eve. She most likely gratefully lay down that night in the animal stall, simply glad the long trip from Nazareth was over and she could ease the pain in her back.

When did her contractions begin? Was her labor long? Hard? Did Joseph rush to a relative and ask for a midwife to attend her?

When at last her son arrived, had been cleaned up, the umbilical cord cut, and she’d delivered the afterbirth, did she feed him, then place him in the only safe place at hand—one of the feeding troughs—so she could finally get a little sleep? Because she didn’t know she and her little family were about to have visitors.

Mary didn’t know that while she brought this new precious life into the world, an angel had appeared to a handful of shepherds to announce her son’s birth. She didn’t know about the multitude of the heavenly beings who would join in to praise God and to deliver a blessing to humankind.

Days later, when she and Joseph took Jesus to the temple, she didn’t know about Simeon or about Anna waiting their whole lives for her son who they recognized as the Messiah.

Throughout Jesus’s life, there was so much Mary didn’t know or understand. In fact, “Mary, Did You Know?” a fairly recent Christmas song with lyrics and music written by Mark Lowry and Buddy Greene, addresses this point.

The song asks rhetorically if Mary knew “her Baby Boy” would walk on water, give sight to the blind, calm the storm with His hand, and ultimately, that He was the Creator, the King who would one day rule the nations, the perfect Lamb, the Great I Am.

The fact is, she didn’t know any of the miraculous things Jesus would do, and when she asked Him to help at the wedding when they’d run out of wine, it appears from what Jesus said to her that her asking was more indicative of her not knowing who He was than her knowing.

He was special—that fact was undeniable. But after an angelic visitation, an impossible conception that led to an incredible birth, shepherds bowing to her son, prophetic words spoken over Him in the temple, wisemen traveling from some far off country to give him expensive gifts, Mary still didn’t know who Jesus was.

She knew what she’d seen and heard. She stored it all up to think about later. But not until Jesus died, not until He rose again, not until—most likely—she, along with around 500 others, saw Him ascend into heaven did she get it. We know she did because she was in the upper room when the Holy Spirit came upon the group of Jesus’s faithful followers (Acts 1:14).

In the end, what Mary didn’t know, she would learn. Praise God that He gives us a lifetime to get it right—to respond to His call, to accept what He’s told us about Himself.

Proof, atheists always say. Where is the proof, the evidence that your God exists? Mary had all the evidence in the world—she was part of that evidence—and still she didn’t believe. Until she did.

May this Christmas be the day when more blind eyes will open, when more broken and contrite hearts will believe and know what previously they couldn’t understand: Jesus, Messiah, has come to rescue and to save!

Published in: on December 24, 2014 at 6:15 pm  Comments Off on What Mary Didn’t Know  
Tags: , , , , ,

The Love Of God


christmas-gifts-2-1121740-mIsaiah 7:14
“Therefore the Lord Himself will give you a sign: Behold, a virgin will be with child and bear a son, and she will call His name Immanuel.”

Isaiah 9:6
“For a child will be born to us, a son will be given to us;
And the government will rest on His shoulders;
And His name will be called Wonderful Counselor, Mighty God, Eternal Father, Prince of Peace.”

A child born, not a son born. The Son is preexistent, the I AM, and did not come into being that day when Mary gave birth. God gave us His Son. He left heaven, emptied Himself, took the form of a bondservant, and was found in the likeness of Man.

He who fashioned Man in His image, took the likeness of the one He had fashioned. And as a child, He was born—the humble relinquishing of His place at the right hand of the Father in order to secure for us a place at His heavenly banquet table.

I can’t conceive of a greater example of love. The Father giving His beloved Son. The Son obeying the Father and leaving His heavenly home to come to earth. The Triune God expressed His love for us in giving Jesus and in His coming in the form of Man.

In that one act God showed His generosity, His self-sacrifice. But He also showed what His love means: it’s not sentimentality or warm, fuzzy feelings. It’s not tit for tat or “I’ll scratch your back if you scratch mine.” It has no limits and is freely given. Further, God’s love “has legs”—it’s not just an emotional expression but it has action to back it up.

God’s love is not about God spoiling us. He doesn’t treat us like a sugar daddy. His love has our best in mind—a spiritual and eternal best. Consequently, God doesn’t hesitate to correct us as part of His love for us. He will not withhold discipline for fear that we might not like Him as well any more. He’s also not concerned about people concluding that they might be nicer than He is. He knows the truth and His love doesn’t compromise the truth.

In fact, God’s love is an extension of His character. He can no more stop loving than He can stop being God.

What did it mean for Emmanuel, God with us, to take up residence outside of glory? He was subject to all the stuff of Mankind—the passions and joys and hopes and successes, but also the dreams cut short, the sadnesses, the temptations.

Indeed, the temptations. Scripture says He was tempted in every way we are, yet without sin:

For we do not have a high priest who cannot sympathize with our weaknesses, but One who has been tempted in all things as we are, yet without sin. (Heb. 4:15)

Impossible, some may think. How could He be tempted to OD on computer games or look at dirty pictures?

We know He lived life among us for over thirty years. At different junctures during His public ministry, the religious leaders laid traps for Him, trying to trip Him up so they could catch Him in an offense they could prosecute by law.

But what about those years before He began preaching and healing? Isn’t it likely that the strains of His blended family created temptations? Perhaps He also faced noisy neighbors during those years or the abuse of a bully. Because of the wedding in Cana, we know He had to deal with the expectations of His mother. Perhaps He also dealt with jealous brothers.

Later He may have had to deal with the temptation to abandon His life work to fit in with the role His family likely expected Him to fill—that of elder brother, settling down, marrying, and caring for their widowed mother.

Unfortunately we too often reduce Jesus’s temptations to three—the notorious ones recorded in the gospels for us where Satan entices Him to made bread from stones, to swap worship for power, and to test God’s promise. Lots of people have lots to say about these temptations—the kinds, the depth, the significance. Meanwhile, we’re overlooking a little clause in Mark 1:13.

And He was in the wilderness forty days being tempted by Satan; and He was with the wild beasts, and the angels were ministering to Him. (Emphasis mine)

So on top of the thirty years of temptations Jesus encountered by living life among us, he also had an intense forty days of Satan throwing whatever he could at Jesus. Whatever we face today, Jesus faced a comparable temptation.

But His coming among us served two greater purposes than offering us an understanding heart to turn to when temptations crowd in upon us.

First, He showed us God. If you’ve seen me, you’ve seen the Father, He told His disciples. Paul said, “He is the image of the invisible God,” and “In Him all the fullness of deity dwells in bodily form.” We look at Jesus, we see God—which makes sense, of course, because He IS God.

However, without the second reason, His coming would have amounted to cruel taunting. Here’s God, a-ha-ha-ha-hah, you can see but you can’t approach. Jesus came precisely for the reason that we needed what only a perfect man could give—His blood, for the remission of sins. Not for His own sins, because He had none. He poured out His life’s blood so that our sins could be forgiven.

In so doing, He opened up the way for us to be reconciled to God:

For God so loved the world, that He gave His only begotten Son, that whoever believes in Him shall not perish, but have eternal life. (John 3:16, emphasis added)

Published in: on December 23, 2014 at 6:00 pm  Comments (2)  
Tags: , , ,

He Started It


Nativity_Scenes004When I was growing up, my brother, sister, and I had . . . disagreements from time to time. We squabbled about silly things—whose turn it was to do the dishes, who got to sit in the front seat of the car (or if Mom and Dad said we all had to sit in the back, who got the window seats), what TV program to watch, who got the Sunday funnies first, who got to sit where at the dinner table—silly things.

Inevitably our disagreements would escalate, and Mom or Dad would intervene, scolding whoever had caught their attention. Just as sure was the response from whichever one of us was in the hot seat: But he started it! Or she. We were not the instigator. Ever. At least as we saw things.

In truth, there is one time when in fact that line is true. When it comes to our relating to God, He started it.

In the grandest scheme of things, of course, He started it because He started everything! But specifically in relating to Humankind after the first man and the first woman turned away from Him, He started it. And on a personal level, with me, He started it.

The grand scheme refers to the cosmos. God created. The specific dealing with humanity refers to God’s plan of salvation—sending His Son as the sacrifice to expiate our sins. The personal refers to His work to bring me to Himself.

At no time did I or anyone else initiate with God.

He started everything by making Man in His image, after His likeness. Like any child, Adam was helpless when it came to deciding what color hair he’d have or how tall he’d be or how smart he was. He didn’t decide to be like God, with a will and emotions, with the capacity to create and to communicate. It was God who wanted us to be like Him, and so He made us.

It was also God who loved the world, who determined to love us while we were yet sinners, who chose to express His love by His actions. He gave His Son, and His Son died that He might cancel out the certificate of debt we each owed.

And speaking of “each,” God chose me, called me, rescued me. It’s very personal—not some generic salvation, as if he tossed his net into the sea of humanity and scooped up the ones who couldn’t get away, so I was caught along with a myriad of others.

The point is, I wouldn’t be here, there wouldn’t be a Church of which I am a part, and I wouldn’t be His child if it weren’t for the fact that God started it. John said it plainly in his first letter: “We love Him, because He first loved us” (KJV, 1 John 4:19).

Paul spelled out God’s initiating activity more fully. First our condition:

And you were dead in your trespasses and sins, in which you formerly walked according to the course of this world, according to the prince of the power of the air, of the spirit that is now working in the sons of disobedience. Among them we too all formerly lived in the lusts of our flesh, indulging the desires of the flesh and of the mind, and were by nature children of wrath, even as the rest. (Eph. 2:1-3)

Pretty hopeless—if God didn’t enter the picture. There was no way for dead people to be made alive without a miracle. There’s no way for sons of disobedience to become righteous and holy, apart from God transforming our lives. There was no way for children of wrath to become children of peace and reconciliation except by the power of God to cause us to be born again.

But God, being rich in mercy, because of His great love with which He loved us, even when we were dead in our transgressions, made us alive together with Christ (by grace you have been saved), and raised us up with Him, and seated us with Him in the heavenly places in Christ Jesus, so that in the ages to come He might show the surpassing riches of His grace in kindness toward us in Christ Jesus. For by grace you have been saved through faith; and that not of yourselves, it is the gift of God; not as a result of works, so that no one may boast. For we are His workmanship, created in Christ Jesus for good works, which God prepared beforehand so that we would walk in them. (Eph. 2:4-10, emphasis added)

Love is the fourth and final quality our church is emphasizing as part of the Advent season, and certainly love seems to be a part of Christmas. We are reminded of the love of our families—some traveling many miles in order to have a few days together with loved ones; most spend hundreds of dollars and precious hours shopping in order to give gifts to those we love.

We even include a “love” tradition—the hanging of mistletoe—as part of our Christmas celebration. And the holidays aren’t complete without at least one Christmas romantic comedy or classic story with romance.

Then when we look at the events of that first Christmas, we’re aware of Mary’s love for her newborn child, of Joseph’s love for his little family, of the wisemen’s love and devotion that took them far from home to worship the king.

But none of it would have happened if God hadn’t started it. He formulated the plan before the foundations of the earth, Peter said:

you were not redeemed with perishable things like silver or gold from your futile way of life inherited from your forefathers, but with precious blood, as of a lamb unblemished and spotless, the blood of Christ. For He was foreknown before the foundation of the world, but has appeared in these last times for the sake of you who through Him are believers in God, who raised Him from the dead and gave Him glory, so that your faith and hope are in God. (1 Peter 1:18b-20)

And Paul verifies the plan:

But when the kindness of God our Savior and His love for mankind appeared, He saved us, not on the basis of deeds which we have done in righteousness, but according to His mercy, by the washing of regeneration and renewing by the Holy Spirit, whom He poured out upon us richly through Jesus Christ our Savior (Titus 3:4-6).

There was no salvation until the kindness of God and His love for mankind appeared. There were no deeds we could do to earn a righteous standing with God. The great change from dead men walking to alive in Christ came because God started it. And He did so as an expression of His great love.

Published in: on December 22, 2014 at 6:18 pm  Comments Off on He Started It  
Tags: , , , , , ,

The Joy Of The Lord, Or The Joy Of Our Stuff


Christmas_candles_wk_3In this third week of the Advent season, my church is focusing on joy. It’s a fairly common practice now for pastors to explain how joy is different from happiness. And it is. I’m glad for the good reminder.

But the reality is, many of us, while looking for joy instead of happiness, are looking for it in all the wrong places. Someone might look for her joy in owning the latest, chicest, most stylish dress or necklace or handbag. Someone else might look for her joy in creating the perfect home, with perfect landscaping, perfect decor, perfect meals. A third someone might expect her joy to come from her awesome family relationships—her academically strong, emotionally well-balanced, spiritually minded, socially accepted children; her best-friend, sexually-fulfilled monogamous husband; her pleased and proud parents and in-laws; her supportive and/or adoring siblings and their families; add in the grandparents, and her world is made!

Note that these “wrong places” aren’t wrong in and of themselves. If someone looks for her joy in her job, it’s not a bad thing that she works to be the best she can at what she loves.

The thing is, success or relationships or stuff or power or fame or influence or beauty or talent or accomplishment—none of it—is the source of joy, not the kind that lasts, not the kind that gives us strength.

Strength? I mention strength because the passage I quoted from Nehemiah in “Hilarious Joy” includes, “Do not be grieved, for the joy of the LORD is your strength.”

It seems to me all other joys are weakness. The latest stuff will be outdated tomorrow, so where’s the joy then? The perfect yard gets weeds, the perfect house gets dirty, the perfect food gets eaten—or worse, gets turned into garbage! Relationships are constantly in flux as children grow and relatives die. Job fulfillment is as tenuous as the economy. The joy in all these things is fleeting and may actually be the source of much effort and worry.

In reality, then, all our stuff, even our relationships with friends as well as family, are dissipation rather than strength. We either have and want to hold on or we don’t have and want to gain more to reach that level where joy sets in.

It would seem joy’s companion, when sought in the wrong places, is contentment. When we have what we want, we’ll have contentment and joy sets in.

So when is this great contentment going to fall on us—somewhere around 2034? Maybe 2031 if we do things right. But possibly not until 2037 when the kids are grown, out of school, settled in their own jobs, making a good living, having their own perfect kids . . .

The joy of the Lord is our strength, not the joy of our stuff.

This truth was perfectly illustrated by today’s guest blogger at Spec Faith, Timothy Stone. Here’s the pertinent part of his article:

[Those in my army unit deployed in Iraq] had been told that the flights home would not happen until the evening of Christmas Day, and we had to spend Christmas Eve and Christmas morning in Kuwait on the base. There had been this air of excitement in the building as we all (those of us who got to have leave at this time) awaited the details of our impending flight home in the early morning hours of the 24th. Then the sad news was given to us, that we could not make it home until the day after Christmas. The general feeling of dejection was palpable. We grumbled amongst ourselves, and at the travel staff. Our behavior was quite lousy, to say the least. Most of the day was spent in sadness, until the evening, when a surprising thing happened.

There were several services that evening, including one at midnight. As each service passed, it seemed that everyone’s mood – including my own – improved drastically, until finally the midnight service came. There, in that small Air Force chapel in Kuwait, we shut off the lights, took lit candles, and passed them around. In hushed tones, we began to sing “The First Noel.”

I remember looking around as I sang, looking at everyone’s faces faintly illuminated by the candles that we all held. So many different denominations, believers and lost alike, and countries of origin, were represented. Yet here we were, on Christmas Eve, thousands of miles from home, and we were all happy. Most people would wonder at that, that joy that we all seemed to feel that night, given where we were, but I know it was really what was in our hearts . . .

In that moment, no one seemed to be contemplating gifts, food, decorations, or any of the usual “holiday cheer”. We appeared to focus on the miracle that occurred a little over two thousand years ago in a stable a couple of hundred miles away in Bethlehem. God came to save us from our sins. He did so much for us, when we were His enemies. Not because He had to do so, but because He chose to do so.

That day we had spent sulking about not being home for Christmas, about “missing Christmas”. We (including myself and other Christians) didn’t seem to have Jesus or God’s gift of salvation on our hearts. We truly needed a wake-up call. The Lord had no reason to give us one, or to bring us comfort, as we showed nothing but ingratitude and lack of joy. Nevertheless, He chose to give us said comfort. He chose to bring us the joy of Christmas, and show us the true meaning.

Timothy and the soldiers with him were looking for joy in returning home, in being with their family for Christmas. What they found was the joy of the Lord—the true joy which comes when we look at the Savior instead of what we have or what we don’t have.

They were surprised by joy, as C. S. Lewis liked to phrase it, because they actually forgot about looking for joy and simply enjoyed worshiping the Messiah. Suddenly the joy of the Lord was theirs.

Therein lies the strength to face the loss of a loved one, the fear of an upcoming doctor’s appointment, being laid off at work, the unknown of a child’s illness, or whatever uncertain circumstances we might face.

Emmanuel, God with us, makes all the difference.

Published in: on December 19, 2014 at 6:13 pm  Comments (3)  
Tags: , , , ,

Hilarious Joy


Advent Wk 3Chuck Swindoll, my first pastor as an adult, liked to use the word “hilarity” or “hilarious.” It fit. I never knew a pastor could have so much fun preaching. But as I recall, he used the word more in connection with things like giving and worship.

I remember one sermon in particular which he preached about David bringing the ark of the covenant to Jerusalem. As the procession moved forward, David stripped off his outer garment and was leaping and dancing before the ark. He was worshiping with hilarity.

Another sermon along these lines which I remember was from Nehemiah. The people gathered to hear the reading of God’s word, but when they did they started weeping—their sins and the sins of their nation down through the years weighed on their hearts. Nehemiah told them to stop mourning, though. “This day is holy to the Lord your God,” he said. Then he added,

“Go, eat of the fat, drink of the sweet, and send portions to him who has nothing prepared; for this day is holy to our Lord. Do not be grieved, for the joy of the LORD is your strength.”

So the Levites calmed all the people, saying, “Be still, for the day is holy; do not be grieved.”

All the people went away to eat, to drink, to send portions and to celebrate a great festival, because they understood the words which had been made known to them. (Nehemiah 8:9b, 10b-12)

Their mourning turned into feasting and hilarious celebration. They ate, they drank, they gave to others, and they celebrated.

Sound like anything we might also experience, oh, say every December 25? We undoubtedly have the eating and drinking and giving parts down pat, though our giving is more often than not to those who also give to us. We aren’t perhaps quite as proficient at giving to those who have “nothing prepared.” But I also wonder if we have the motive behind the celebrating sorted out.

The people Nehemiah led were taking part in a holy day, set apart to the Lord. Christmas, as some have pointed out, is a tangled holiday—part with religious underpinnings and part with secular, though even these have godly men (St. Nicholas) and/or godly purposes at the heart of their traditions. Still, might we not experience more of the hilarious joy of celebration if we saw the day as holy to the Lord?

Too often, I think Christians equate worship with quiet reverence, not hilarious celebration. But what did the Psalmist mean when he said, “Make a joyful noise to the Lord”?

The snatches of heaven we glimpse in the books of prophecy seem anything but solemn and sedate. For instance, the four living creatures shout, “Holy, Holy Holy is the Lord God the Almighty, who was and who is and who is to come.” (Rev. 4:8b) Further, crowds surround God’s throne, and they’re giving God praise too.

After these things I looked, and behold, a great multitude which no one could count, from every nation and all tribes and peoples and tongues, standing before the throne and before the Lamb, clothed in white robes, and palm branches were in their hands; and they cry out with a loud voice, saying, “Salvation to our God who sits on the throne, and to the Lamb.” And all the angels were standing around the throne and around the elders and the four living creatures; and they fell on their faces before the throne and worshiped God, saying, “Amen, blessing and glory and wisdom and thanksgiving and honor and power and might, be to our God forever and ever. Amen.” (Rev. 7:9-12)

When I read that passage, I don’t get the impression that there was a leader saying, OK, time to fall on our faces before the throne. Rather, it seems as if this is a spontaneous reaction to seeing God.

So maybe that’s the key. Maybe we need to spend some of our day looking at God.

I know, I know. He’s a Spirit and we can’t really see Him. I’m not saying we need to dig out some icon or a picture in a Bible or something. Horrors! No!

We “see” God by reading what He’s said about Himself and then thinking about it deeply. The more familiar the passage, the more we need to think about it, to let questions come to our mind and to dig into Scripture to see if we can’t answer those questions.

Then after we see God, let the hilarity begin!

Published in: on December 18, 2014 at 5:43 pm  Comments (3)  
Tags: , , , , ,

The Fatal Tree by Stephen Lawhead – CSFF Blog Tour, Day 3


thefataltree_coverAnd so, with the turn of the final page of The Fatal Tree, the Bright Empires series, the five-book epic Christian science fantasy by Stephen Lawhead, has come to an end. It’s hard for me to put into words the last installment of such an ambitious project. Part of me wants to give a series review, but I’m inadequate to do so since I read the five books as they released. What details have I forgotten?

And yet, merely reviewing The Fatal Tree feels inadequate. I wouldn’t expect anyone to start with this book, so a review of it as if it were a stand alone seems disingenuous. I think the best way to approach this daunting assignment is for me to give my random thoughts . . . randomly, as opposed to writing a formal review.

With that decided, here goes.

The Fatal Tree continues the story where The Shadow Lamp left off. The ley travelers suspect something serious has happened in the omniverse to upset the way things work. In fact, they believe that in all probability, an anomaly has taken place which has caused the omniverse to slow, leading ultimately to contraction, or the complete destruction of everything.

The main character, Kit, thinks he knows what this anomaly is—an event he witnessed at the Spirit Well. The problem is that a giant yew tree is growing over the place that would give him and his fellow questers access to the Well. Their job is to find a way to the Well and reverse the event in hope that they will also reverse contraction. The yew tree, however, emits huge amounts of energy, enough to kill anyone who touches it.

Some bloggers have mentioned that the quest for the Spirit Well is a shift from the original series quest—to find the Skin Map. The shift took place in book three, however, so from my perspective it would be odd to once again take up the search for the Skin Map. In The Spirit Well the focus becomes the object to which the map led and not the map itself. That Kit found the Well, saw it, and believes he can lead others to it, is a game changer. But problems of one kind or another continue to block him and the others.

Some bloggers also felt as if the high stakes didn’t ring true. I’d have to agree with this thought. The fact that I’m reading a book about the possibility of the end of everything obviously means (were it true and not fiction—a sensation novelists try to create) that the questers were successful which reduces the tension of the story.

Some CSFF tour participants felt the characters weren’t particularly deep or developed. I didn’t think so. Rather, I thought some of the minor characters like Lady Fayth made great changes; others showed their true colors more clearly; several relationships were furthered; but most importantly, an unlikely character changed and an unlikely character took heroic action.

I have to think that Mr. Lawhead’s use of the omniscient point of view may have been the reason some readers didn’t feel the story showed great character development. Without a doubt, it is a writing technique that doesn’t bring readers as close as first person or even close third person.

I was probably more aware of the omniscient voice in The Fatal Tree than I had been in the previous books. With this book wrapping up the many strands of an epic tale, omniscient voice may have been the only way to move from one set of characters in various locations and times to another. Perhaps all the movement drew more attention to the voice, however.

I did wonder from time to time if all the characters and all the movement were necessary. For instance, a good amount of time was spent on one character looking for another. When at last the connection was made, nothing came of it—that is, the encounter ended quickly and badly, and the questers were no closer to finding a way to the Spirit Well.

Along that line, there seemed to be a couple threads for which I saw no purpose. For example, at one point Mina, in trying to reach a certain spot by traveling along the ever less-stable ley lines, landed in a blizzard—with the Burly men’s wild cat. The animal ends up running off, dragging its chain, and nothing is heard about it again. At the same time, Mina sees a pool that doesn’t freeze over, though everything else is ice and snow. She steps into it and is transported to a different place and time.

A pool, I think. And they are looking for the Spirit Well. Might this be connected? A prehistoric version of what they’re looking for? Or a form of it before the yew tree grew? We never visited that pool again, and it didn’t have any apparent connection with the over all quest.

Another subplot had to do with one of Arthur Flinders-Petrie’s descendants, Douglas. He had stolen a book which was supposed to be important in the quest for the Skin Map. The book never factors into the resolution and Douglas has little to do with the main plot line.

In the same way the secret ley travelers organization, the Zetetic Society, which seemed so important in The Shadow Lamp, fades in importance in The Fatal Tree, receiving only a mention from time to time.

All this to say, I liked this final book of the series better for paring down the cast to the most significant characters. And still there was, what felt like to me, an utterly useless thread with Tony Carter and the scientists back in the US who were trying to corroborate that the omniverse was indeed about to contract. These scenes felt by and large, superfluous to me though I understand some found them of great interest and thought they gave the book a greater science fiction feel.

Well, yes, probably. Since I’m not a big science fiction reader, you can see why I felt those sections could have been left out!

I could go on. There’s so much to say about this book, and I haven’t touched upon the key theme—in fact, I don’t recall any of the tour participants discussing this theme either, which is a little disturbing.

Here’s the end before the Epilogue and the author essay in which this theme comes forward again:

“It looks like we’re just in time,” observed Cass, tapping the pewter carapace [of the Shadow Lamp].

“You know there’s no such thing as coincidence,” Kit replied lightly. “Right?”

“Yeah, right,” said Cass. “Let’s go home.”

No such thing as coincidence is a repeated phrase in this book, and it’s not by coincidence! 😉

This book also contained the greatest spiritual content of the five, and yet it left me wondering. What I had taken in earlier books to be symbols of new birth or of redemption were not. What they were, I’d like to think about some more. And I’d like to understand better what actually happened in the climax. I’ll be re-reading that chapter, most certainly.

All in all, I highly recommend the Bright Empires series to readers who love epic stories and appreciate the writing style made possible by the omniscient voice—Mr. Lawhead has full command of the language and is able to provide rich description of the varied places and eras about which he writes. This series is a unique blend of speculative and historical fiction. Readers who enjoy either genre or both will be swept up in the expansive tale.

In conjunction with the CSFF Blog Tour, I received a gratis copy of The Fatal Tree so that I could write my thoughts about the book in this post.