Light In A Dark Place—A Reprise


Particularly memorable for me is a scene in C. S. Lewis’s The Last Battle. A group of dwarfs have followed the band of Aslan-followers into a rundown shed.

Inside Lucy, Peter, and the other Aslan-followers find sunlight and growing things. It’s like Narnia of old. The dwarfs, however, huddle in a corner, afraid and wary.

The children try to coax the dwarfs out of the huddle they’re in with some fresh fruit. However, the dwarfs grouse and complain about the dark, about the smelly hay Lucy is trying to force on them. In the end, they remain blind to the beauty around them while the children who follow Aslan move further up and further in. The walls of the cottage are simply gone. All of Narnia, newer and better, is before them.

Whatever C. S. Lewis intended with that scene, I think it accurately portrays the difference between those of us whose spiritual eyes have been opened and those still blinded—by sin, and doubt, the world, riches, worries, the idol of self-effort, what have you.

The thing is, none of us can do a single thing to restore sight. We can plead with God to restore sight, but we can’t do it. Not for ourselves and not for anyone else.

So, do we pray for the blind and walk away?

Not if we take seriously what Jesus said.

You are the light of the world. A city set on a hill cannot be hidden; nor does anyone light a lamp and put it under a basket, but on the lampstand, and it gives light to all who are in the house. Let your light shine before men in such a way that they may see your good works, and glorify your Father who is in heaven (Matt. 5:14-16).

It seems to me our job is to shine our light—not in a closet, but out in the open where people are looking.

I think that makes some of us uncomfortable. Maybe we mix up what Jesus said about praying in secret and giving in secret with doing good works. Our prayers and our alms-giving are not supposed to be done in a way that has people noticing what we’re doing.

But when you give to the poor, do not let your left hand know what your right hand is doing, so that your giving will be in secret; and your Father who sees what is done in secret will reward you.

When you pray, you are not to be like the hypocrites; for they love to stand and pray in the synagogues and on the street corners so that they may be seen by men Truly I say to you, they have their reward in full.

But you, when you pray, go into your inner room, close your door and pray to your Father who is in secret, and your Father who sees what is done in secret will reward you (Matt. 6:3-6).

So prayer and giving—in secret. Good works—out in the open.

But there’s another key. When our good works get attention, they ought not earn us applause. Our good works should spur others to give God glory.

That’s the other part that makes us uncomfortable, I think. How do we get people to credit God, not us, for something we do for His kingdom?

The “ah, shucks, it wasn’t much” approach comes across as false humility and in the end belittles the good work and consequently the one receiving it and God who should receive the glory.

The Apostle Paul didn’t seem to have this problem. When he healed a lame man in Lystra, the people started calling him and Barnabas gods. Their response?

When the apostles Barnabas and Paul heard of it, they tore their robes and rushed out into the crowd, crying out and saying, “Men, why are you doing these things? We are also men of the same nature as you, and preach the gospel to you that you should turn from these vain things to a living God (Acts 14:14-15a, emphasis added).

Perhaps we get confused about who’s light we’re shining, and that’s why it feels uncomfortable to us to deflect praise to God.

If someone handed me the keys to someone else’s car, should I stand around hemming and hawing as if somehow to refuse to take the keys that don’t belong to me is an embarrassment? Why would it be embarrassing? They don’t belong to me. It’s just a straight, matter of fact. “Oh, perhaps you misunderstood,” I’d say. “Those keys aren’t mine. They belong to someone else.”

So with praise that belongs to God.

The source of the light in this dark world is God Himself which is why the praise should be His.

This article is a revised version of one that first appeared here in May, 2011.

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We’re Going About It Backwards


california_academy_of_sciences_san_francisco_2013_-_16Like so many other things, the Church swings and sways on a pendulum, shifting from one extreme to the next in our effort to follow the path of truth our God set down for us in His word. The Reformation, for example, was a correction that brought the pendulum swinging back to the belief in grace and forgiveness, not law and rule keeping.

Another clear shift came in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries when the social gospel replaced the fire-and-brimstone emphases of the Great Awakening preachers.

The Social Gospel movement emerged among Protestant Christians to improve the economic, moral and social conditions of the urban working class. (“The Social Gospel Movement: Definition and Goals of Urban Reform Movements”)

And much needed to be improved in both America and other western civilizations. The Industrial Revolution was in full swing, and the urban poor were a growing population. How did the Church respond? First, there was no unified approach to the changes in society. Protestants didn’t even agree with one another, let alone with Catholics. Two factions formed among Protestants, the one

focused on saving individual souls; in revivals in the rapidly expanding cities, they attempted to get people to turn away from their own sins and to embrace personal salvation. The [other] party focused on the sins of society, such as poverty and inequality, and asked people to seek salvation through building “the Kingdom of God on this earth.” Through the 1880s and 1890s, the [former] raced ahead of the [latter] in popularity and public appeal.

Each of the groups was evangelical, meaning that they drew their message from the Bible, and each of them focused on redemption. But their objects of concern were very different. (“The Social Gospel And The Progressive Era”)

Around the turn of the century the pendulum swung toward those focused on correcting the sins of society. Organizations arose and articles were written.

But two world wars and a Great Depression doused the hope that society was self-correcting and the injustices of capitalism were stemmed. The pendulum swung again, back toward personal salvation.

Now we find ourselves in another shift. The pendulum is moving again toward the remedy for societal ills. We are to love our neighbors as ourselves, we’re reminded. And we are the “hands and feet of Jesus,” we’re informed. In the past we aimed to carry the gospel to foreign lands but neglected our own urban poor.

These are all true, and the swinging pendulum does, perhaps, need to move back toward the center. But there’s one major problem. We seem to be leaving out the most important component, the first and greatest command, Jesus called it: we are to love the Lord our God with our whole being.

Before we are to take the gospel across the ocean or across the street, before we are to volunteer at the homeless shelter or donate to the fund for Haiti, we are to love God.

Deuteronomy expands the response we’re to have to God by adding “fear Him”—that is, have an awe, a reverence for Him. Throughout the book, God’s people, newly escaped from Egypt, were instructed in God’s ways. They repeatedly received instruction to pay attention to their relationship with God, and then to go about serving and obeying.

They weren’t to serve and to obey first. They were to love and to fear first. But here’s the key:

Loving God and obeying His commandments don’t happen because we try harder. Loving God is a response to His first loving us. Obeying God is a demonstration of our love for Him. The elements are entwined, and we confuse the issue when we try to separate one strand from the others.

Or if we forget which is the greatest command. (“The FIRST Commandment Is To Love God”)

In other words, loving God isn’t something we can isolate from obeying Him. Obeying God isn’t something we can isolate from loving Him. Or that we can put ahead of loving Him.

In short, there ought not be a swinging pendulum. We should not over emphasize personal salvation more than serving our neighbors. Unfortunately we’re in a period of time that threatens to de-emphasize salvation in favor of caring for the physical needs of those less fortunate than we are.

One ought not exclude the other. Neither should be emphasized at the expense of the other. Both are necessary to fulfill God’s commandments. We love God and then we serve Him. We fear God and then we obey Him.

How can we love God, fear Him, serve Him, obey Him, without telling others about Him? How can we love God, fear Him, serve Him, obey Him, without caring for the less fortunate?

God’s heart is for the most vulnerable—for the orphans and widows and poor and strangers.

He has told you, O man, what is good.
And what does the LORD require of you
But to do justice, to love kindness,
And to walk humbly with your God. (Micah 6:8)

But that’s not first.

Loving God is first.

Today I fear we’re going about things backwards. We are focused on programs and events, we’re challenged to do and to go, we’re encouraged to work and to serve. But where are the sermons about loving God?

Maybe more churches have pastors helping worshipers fall in love with God and His word. Maybe there’s a renewed interest in prayer groups. Maybe Bible studies are gaining traction again. Maybe Sunday evening church services are taking place in other parts of the country. I don’t know.

All I know is, if the greatest commandment is to love God with all of our being, why don’t we spend more time focused on loving God than on doing good works?

Published in: on October 28, 2016 at 7:10 pm  Comments (3)  
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Cleaning The Cup


1194095_wine_glass_dark_fieldIn recent years a fairly popular criticism of Christians in Western society is that those in traditional churches are playing the part today of the “religious leaders,” also called the Pharisees, who clashed with Jesus in the first century.

I maintain that this position compares avocados and watermelons. The Pharisees were trying to work their way into God’s good graces, even as they rejected Jesus. Christians—if they are actual followers of Christ—have understood that our best efforts fall short of God’s glory and have instead accepted the work of Jesus at the cross.

Does the fact that Christians follow Jesus mean we can then live as we please and do as we wish? Certainly not.

The instruction in the New Testament is for Christians, which I think we American believers sometimes lose sight of. Rather than concerning ourselves with all that the Bible says to Christians, we work to bring all of society into a godly lifestyle.

To an extent, this is not a bad thing. Christ’s teaching is life-changing and all of society would be better off doing what He says, but the truth is, it’s possible to clean up the outside of the cup and leave the inside disgustingly dirty.

Jesus didn’t advocate scouring the outside and leaving the inside filthy. Just the opposite. He said, essentially, clean the inside and the outside will take care of itself: “You blind Pharisee, first clean the inside of the cup and of the dish, so that the outside of it may become clean also” (Matt. 23:26).

Here’s what Jesus was really getting to:

“So you, too, outwardly appear righteous to men, but inwardly you are full of hypocrisy and lawlessness.” (Matt. 24:28)

In other words, He was talking to pretend Christians, or to religious people in other faiths who think doing a bunch of good deeds will put them in right standing with god or the universe or whatever it is they worship.

To be honest, a lot of those people clean up well. Their outside can look all spiffy and clean. One reason Christians team up with Mormons in political matters, I believe, is that Mormons are so very moral. They are pro-life and pro-marriage, don’t drink or smoke or gamble, go to church, give to charities, and generally present a face of kindness.

Clean cups, at least on the outside.

Honestly, moderate Muslims are right there beside them. The women dress modestly, all are law-abiding, they worship regularly, they oppose homosexuality, drinking, and abortion.

I could say the same about any number of people of religion—they do many, many right things because in their belief system, they have to. The doing is their ticket to “God’s” good graces—whether that means enlightenment, nirvana, heaven, or another planet where they will rule.

Shockingly, atheists can fall into this category, too. Their list of “right things” will differ from Mormons, Muslims, Hindus, Buddhists, and pretend Christians, but they still have their list. Be tolerant of people who hold a different belief system than traditional Western culture, take care of the environment, avoid even the appearance of prejudice, speak only in a politically correct way, support gender equality, gay marriage, and labor unions.

The gods that the atheists are trying to please, of course, are themselves. They talk much about doing something meaningful for society and leaving a legacy. This is their nirvana, but to get there, they must clean the outside until it shines.

Jesus said he didn’t come for the people who have these spiffed up outsides. Those folk see no need for Him because they believe it’s up to them.

For the religionists God expects them to measure up, and for the humanists, they have to measure up to the standard they’ve set for themselves. So both groups busy themselves cleaning the outside of the cup, and when drink splatters, which it always does, they hurriedly wipe it away. When greasy fingers leave a smear, they wash and polish, until the outside shines again.

All the while, germs roam free on the inside. They can hate and lust and covet to their heart’s content. They can doubt God and rail at Him, they can be disappointed and think He’s let them down or doesn’t really care or isn’t really there. Just so long as on the outside, no one knows.

Jesus said He came to heal, but only sick people need healing. The well send physicians away. Services not needed here—only healthy people on site.

But that attitude is indicative of the spiritually blind. All people have fallen short of God’s glory—His righteous standard, and the only standard that matters.

Children run races and win trophies, but how silly if they strutted around claiming to be the fastest runner in the world. They have measured themselves against themselves and decided they are the best. But if they were to measure themselves against the world record holder, they would clearly, consistently, and always fall short.

So too with Man’s efforts, as soon as we measure ourselves against God’s holiness.

We might shine the outside of our cup in an effort to fool ourselves and others that it is clean, but to kill the germs crawling around inside takes the touch of the Master, the work of Jesus, the healing of the One who came to save.

This post first appeared here in June 2013.

Published in: on April 13, 2016 at 6:24 pm  Comments Off on Cleaning The Cup  
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Do Christians Need To Obey The Mosaic Law?


The_Crucifixion011If you spend much time around Bible-believing Christians, you’ll undoubtedly hear something about grace. We’re saved by grace, not by works. And yet in any number of conversations, these same Christians will bring up something found in the Mosaic Law. Just this week I referenced a verse in the Law in regard to capital punishment.

So are Christians “cherry picking” when we say we’re to keep the Ten Commandments, but don’t have to worry about the dietary laws or about stoning people for breaking the Sabbath?

The notion that believers under grace are picking and choosing the parts of the Bible they want to follow is easy to understand. From the outside, it certainly looks inconsistent. But the truth is, there are passages of Scripture that are game changers.

The first of these is Matthew 5:17: “Do not think that I came to abolish the Law or the Prophets; I did not come to abolish but to fulfill.” Jesus fulfilled the Law. Peter explains it a bit more: “For Christ also died for sins once for all, the just for the unjust, so that He might bring us to God, having been put to death in the flesh, but made alive in the spirit” (1 Peter 3:18).

How does Jesus’s death fulfill the Law? On our own, we cannot fulfill the requirements of the Law. Jesus basically said as much in the Sermon on the Mount. Not just what we do falls under the law, but what we think—the anger or lust or covetousness in our hearts. Sin requires sacrifice. Christ’s death was the sacrifice “once for all” that fulfills the requirements of the Law. Paul fleshed this out in several of his letters. In Galatians he said,

nevertheless knowing that a man is not justified by the works of the Law but through faith in Christ Jesus, even we have believed in Christ Jesus, so that we may be justified by faith in Christ and not by the works of the Law; since by the works of the Law no flesh will be justified. (2:16)

Paul explained that it is Christ’s work on the cross that saved us from the Law and its requirements.

Christ redeemed us from the curse of the Law, having become a curse for us—for it is written, “CURSED IS EVERYONE WHO HANGS ON A TREE”—

Another game changer is the establishment of the Church. In the Old Testament God chose Israel to represent Him to the rest of the world, but after Christ came, His followers are God’s representatives on earth. The verses are 1 Peter 2:9-10.

But you are A CHOSEN RACE, A royal PRIESTHOOD, A HOLY NATION, A PEOPLE FOR God’s OWN POSSESSION, so that you may proclaim the excellencies of Him who has called you out of darkness into His marvelous light; for you once were NOT A PEOPLE, but now you are THE PEOPLE OF GOD; you had NOT RECEIVED MERCY, but now you have RECEIVED MERCY.

The Church, made up of peoples of every tribe and tongue and nation, isn’t under a single government as Israel was. Their national law was to be God’s Law. But not so the Church.

Then why do Christians go on about the Bible, including the books of the Law?

Game changer number three: 2 Timothy 3:16-17:

All Scripture is inspired by God and profitable for teaching, for reproof, for correction, for training in righteousness; so that the man of God may be adequate, equipped for every good work.

The Old Testament, just like the New is to teach, reprove, correct, train—not so that we can work our way into God’s good graces. Rather, Scripture equips us for every good work.

Paul, in Philippians, calls this the “righteousness which comes from God on the basis of faith.” We are saved in order that we might do good. We don’t do good in order that we might be saved.

It’s an important distinction.

The Bible, then, from cover to cover, reveals God: His character, His qualities, His work, His plan. It’s not a list of rules. It’s a revelation.

We who have been saved by grace ought logically to be about God’s business, doing and living the way He wants us to. In fact, game changer number four shows us that “faith” isn’t alive unless it translates into a changed life that cares about what God cares about:

You believe that God is one. You do well; the demons also believe, and shudder. But are you willing to recognize, you foolish fellow, that faith without works is useless? (James 2:19-20)

So what about those dietary laws? Mark addressed this issue when he explained something Jesus said about the legalistic Pharisees:

And He said to them, “Are you so lacking in understanding also? Do you not understand that whatever goes into the man from outside cannot defile him, 19 because it does not go into his heart, but into his stomach, and is eliminated?” (Thus He declared all foods clean.) [Mark 7:18-19]

The issue came up later in the book of Acts, this time in the context of God making it clear that He was including Gentiles in the Church. Here’s the part of the passage that deals with the dietary laws:

Peter went up on the housetop about the sixth hour to pray. But he became hungry and was desiring to eat; but while they were making preparations, he fell into a trance; and he *saw the sky opened up, and an object like a great sheet coming down, lowered by four corners to the ground, and there were in it all kinds of four-footed animals and crawling creatures of the earth and birds of the air.

A voice came to him, “Get up, Peter, kill and eat!”

But Peter said, “By no means, Lord, for I have never eaten anything unholy and unclean.” 1

Again a voice came to him a second time, “What God has cleansed, no longer consider unholy.” (Acts 10:9b-15)

God wasn’t just talking about food, as the rest of the story reveals, but He was nevertheless also talking about food.

The short answer to the question is this: God revealed His heart throughout the Bible, including through the Law. We aren’t under the Law, but it can and should inform our good works which we do as a reflection of the faith we have in Christ. Jesus summed the law up by saying we are to love God and love our neighbors.

Love means protecting some against predators. Are we also loving the predators when we do so? I think so. People who get away with murder don’t realize they are sinners in need of a Savior. They think they are the gods of their own world and can do whatever they want. God’s judgment reveals the truth: He is God and we are not. If we love our neighbor who is facing God’s judgment, we ought not be silent. (We also ought not be strident and mean spirited, but that’s another issue for another day.)

To Please Or To Become Pleasing, That Is The Question


Three CrossesThe distinction I am making is between doing good works to become pleasing to God (works done because of law) and doing good works to please God (works done because of grace).

There’s nothing I can do to become pleasing to God. Not only would my motives be wrong in doing good, my efforts would be futile. My nature is sinful, and all the cleaning up I do amounts to rearranging dirt, not genuine washing.

For the person who believes, the work Christ did on the cross changes everything. Before, as Romans 7 says, the wanting to do good was in me, but the doing ended up being that which I hated—and that which God hated, I might add.

Because of the new nature God gave me, because of the Holy Spirit in me, and because of the strength Christ provides me, I can now do the good I want to do. And why do I want to do good? To earn points with God? Get jewels for my future crown? Earn a spot closer to the throne?

No. The issue is still not about be becoming good or better or pleasing. Who I am in Christ is fixed. But because of what Christ has done, my response, as is true in any love relationship, is to want to give in return for what has been given me.

In one of the most amazing aspects of God’s love for us, He who needs nothing from us, asks something of us so that we can joyously give to Him as an expression of our love. Hence, my desire—a growing desire, not a fully mature thing—is to please Jesus.

Here are some of those favorite verses that touch on pleasing God:

I Thessalonians 4:1 – “Finally then, brethren, we request and exhort you in the Lord Jesus, that as you received from us instruction as to how you ought to walk and please God (just as you actually do walk), that you excel still more.”

II Corinthians 5:9 – “Therefore we also have as our ambition, whether at home or absent, to be pleasing to Him.”

Colossians 1:10 – “so that you will walk in a manner worthy of the Lord, to please Him in all respects, bearing fruit in every good work and increasing in the knowledge of God.”

Ephesians 5:8-10 – “for you were formerly darkness, but now you are Light in the Lord; walk as children of Light (for the fruit of the Light consists in all goodness and righteousness and truth), trying to learn what is pleasing to the Lord.”

Pleasing God, as I see it, is all about getting to know Him.

Young people in love do this same thing. Does he like his coffee black or with cream, pie for dessert or cake, the beach or the mountains, football or golf, Hondas or Chevys, and on and on.

Why learn all these things? In order to provide him with what he wants, in order to choose his preferences, in order to please him as often as possible.

When I stand before God washed of my sins, that should spark in me a response—more and more I should like what He likes, do what He does, speak as He speaks. When I do, I am not more pleasing to God, but He is pleased.

Photo: Three Crosses © Mellow Rapp | Dreamstime Stock Photos

Published in: on August 11, 2015 at 6:00 pm  Comments (3)  
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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.

Published in: on December 31, 2014 at 4:42 pm  Comments (3)  
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Be Holy Because God Is Holy


One of the early surprises I received when I first stepped into the world of the Internet was that not all people who identified themselves as Christians believed what I believed. Oh, I knew there were differences, one denomination to another. I knew there were liberals and there were conservatives. But I thought people who believed the Bible would have a shared understanding, more or less.

I suppose that’s true. The Bible does seem to be a line of demarcation. But apparently so is holiness.

As I’ve shared here at A Christian Worldview of Fiction in a previous discussion about holiness, before I started blogging, I joined a writing discussion board. At one point I brought up the topic of holiness, with the intent of discussing how a writer can show the holiness side of edgy. Instead I got an inordinate amount of discussion about legalism. Legalism!

Color me still surprised. Legalism has as much to do with holiness as prostitution does.

How is it that a Christian can mistake a works theology for holiness?

Judaism is based on works. Keep the law, observe the holy days, offer the sacrifices. Do, do, do.

Hinduism is based on works. Everything is geared toward doing better in order to move up the reincarnation chain into a better life.

Islam is based on works. Much like Judaism, Islamic law is the guide for daily living, and failure has consequences here and in the after life.

Buddhism is based on works. Walking the path of ethical conduct, wisdom, and discipline is the way to freedom from suffering — nirvana.

Christianity on the other hand declares rather boldly, all our works get us nothing. We can’t do enough or be enough. We can’t be the kind of person we should, we can’t think pure enough thoughts or purge our desires of self. In short, we aren‘t holy and we can’t be holy by our human efforts.

Legalism, then, is antithetical to Christianity.

And yet 1 Peter 1:15-16 says,

Like the Holy One who called you, be holy yourselves in all your behavior because it is written, “You shall be holy, for I am holy.”

A couple things stand out to me. In the same way that God is love, He is holy. How have we lost sight of that, I wonder. So often we hear pastors giving as the rationale for a person to love the unlovely, the fact that God is love and we are to be like Him. But where do we hear the sermons about not lying to our kids or not stealing from our employer.

Enough, we say. That borders on works and we are all about grace.

Salvation is by grace, certainly. Except we are to grow up in respect to salvation (see 1 Peter 2:1-5).

Life in Christ is life — starting with a new birth but not ending with a new birth. We are then to grow by feeding on the word of God.

Ironically, there are some people who believe holiness is conferred instantaneously upon a Christian and that the sure sign a person is in the family of God is that he no longer sins. I say “ironically” because this belief seems to bring us right back to legalism.

A person can proudly congratulate himself that he has not sinned for years and years, missing the fact that his prideful attitude is in fact a sin.

Such a “holiness” doctrine seems to stifle all chance for growth as completely as someone who thinks all holiness is tantamount to legalism.

The bottom line is that we are commanded to be holy. That’s the second thing that stands out to me in the passage from 1 Peter 1. It’s not just an Old Testament thing that Christians can ignore.

At the same time, reality and Scripture tell us we cannot be holy. Only Christ lived a holy life. So what we who have newness of life are to do is to be imitators of Him, submit to God’s work of remolding us into the image of His Son, feed on the pure milk of the Word. And grow.

Published in: on April 5, 2012 at 6:18 pm  Comments (3)  
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Who’s Doing The Work?


I overheard an interesting conversation at church yesterday. (I was dying to jump in and give my two cents but decided that would be rude. 😳 ) One older man was essentially giving his testimony.

In short, he came to Christ when he was ten, but then he got involved with friends 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. He’d made that profession of faith that was genuine. How can you undo being born again, he asked.

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 reconciled to 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?

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. 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.

What about the flip side of the coin, those things like lust or greed or anger (the topics those in the pulpit at my church are tackling these next few weeks)? 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. In case you missed my post at the beginning of the year, 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.

Published in: on March 5, 2012 at 7:10 pm  Comments (6)  
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Light In A Dark Place


Particularly memorable for me is a scene in C. S. Lewis’s The Last Battle. A group of dwarfs have followed the band of Aslan-followers into a rundown shed.

Inside Lucy, Peter, and the rest find sunlight and growing things. It’s like Narnia of old.

They try to coax the dwarfs out of the huddle they’re in with some fresh fruit, but they grouse and complain about the dark, about the smelly hay Lucy is trying to force on them. In the end, the dwarfs remain blind to the beauty around them while the Aslan-followers move further up and further in.

Whatever C. S. Lewis intended with that scene, I think it accurately portrays the difference between those of us whose spiritual eyes have been opened and those still blinded — by sin, the world, riches, worries, the idol of self-effort, what have you.

The thing is, none of us can do a single thing to restore sight. We can plead with God to restore sight, but we can’t do it. Not for ourselves and not for anyone else.

So, do we pray and walk away?

Not if we take seriously what Jesus said.

You are the light of the world. A city set on a hill cannot be hidden; nor does anyone light a lamp and put it under a basket, but on the lampstand, and it gives light to all who are in the house. Let your light shine before men in such a way that they may see your good works, and glorify your Father who is in heaven (Matt. 5:14-16).

It seems to me our job is to shine our light — not in a closet, but out in the open where people are looking.

I think that makes some of us uncomfortable. Maybe we mix up what Jesus said about praying in secret and giving in secret with doing good works. Our prayers and our alms-giving are not supposed to be done in a way that has people noticing what we’re doing.

But when you give to the poor, do not let your left hand know what your right hand is doing, so that your giving will be in secret; and your Father who sees what is done in secret will reward you.

When you pray, you are not to be like the hypocrites; for they love to stand and pray in the synagogues and on the street corners so that they may be seen by men Truly I say to you, they have their reward in full.

But you, when you pray, go into your inner room, close your door and pray to your Father who is in secret, and your Father who sees what is done in secret will reward you (Matt. 6:3-6).

Good works, then, must be different if they are to be done to attract attention.

But there’s another key. When our good works get attention, they ought not earn us applause. Our good works should spur others to give God glory.

That’s the other part that makes us uncomfortable, I think. How do we get people to credit God, not us, for something we do for His kingdom?

The “ah, shucks, it wasn’t much” approach comes across as false humility and in the end belittles the good work and consequently the one receiving it and God who should receive the glory.

The Apostle Paul didn’t seem to have this problem. When he healed a lame man in Lystra, the people started calling him and Barnabas gods. They’re response?

When the apostles Barnabas and Paul heard of it, they tore their robes and rushed out into the crowd, crying out and saying, “Men, why are you doing these things? We are also men of the same nature as you, and preach the gospel to you that you should turn from these vain things to a living God (Acts 14:14-15a, emphasis added).

Perhaps we get confused about who’s light we’re shining, and that’s why it feels uncomfortable to us to deflect praise to God.

If someone handed me the keys to someone else’s car, I wouldn’t stand around hemming and hawing as if somehow to refuse to take the keys that didn’t belong to me was an embarrassment.

Light in this dark world — may I always remember the light source is God Himself which is why the praise should be His.

Published in: on May 24, 2011 at 2:19 pm  Comments (1)  
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Good Works and Self-Help in Fiction


I read a couple blog posts this morning that put me off what I’d intended to write (about promoting books without compromising the principle of contentment). One was Karen Hancock’s post connected to a comment I made during the recent blog tour for her book The Enclave, and the second was a post by agent Rachelle Gardner about truth.

Karen focuses on human good as actually being a part of evil.

Rachelle talks about finding truth in secular sources. She deals particularly with secular entertainment and the TV show “Desperate Housewives.” The thing is, the “truth” she writes about seems to me to be a description of human good. Here are two telling quotes:

[The show] explores human truth at its essence, and is constantly pointing out how we all have so much good inside, but we all have a dark side too.

Then this one:

Even though Desperate Housewives has a reputation for being raunchy (and parts of it definitely are), the themes are solidly on the side of good morals.

I can’t help but think that both these posts, though they seem diametrically opposed, say something significant.

Karen Hancock backs her views about the vanity of Man’s goodness with Scripture. Irrefutable (though I disagree with other parts of the post).

Rachelle Gardner applauds a secular work for upholding Biblical concepts of right and wrong, for seeing the good in Man as well as the evil.

So the question is this: Does a work of literature, secular or Christian, that points to a moral good apart from God harm or help?

I asked in “More Thoughts about Worldview,” part of my recent Christian worldview posts,

Should our stories reinforce God’s Law? Or point to Him? Or to His grace? Or do we need a healthy mix of them all?

I think of the book of Judges in the Bible—all about Man doing what was right in his own eyes. And the consequences that came from such. Or the life of Daniel and his three friends, living as captives, yet holding to their faith no matter what.

These and many others in Scripture don’t connect the dots. There is no note in Judges to believe in Jesus for the forgiveness of sins. There is no note in Daniel saying he was hoping in the coming Messiah.

In many regards, these stories can be misconstrued. Sunday school teachers can tell their little charges they should dare to be a Daniel or flee immorality. And they wouldn’t be wrong. Just incomplete.

Yet there are people out there trying to do good as part of a self-help program to reach God because they see good more often results in good things and bad, in bad.

So should Christian writers stop writing stories about moral living because their readers might mistake moral living as the answer? Or should we write more such stories because they will create a longing while simultaneously exposing the impossibility of living the good we know we should.

My thinking is, stories cannot tell the whole truth, even ones pointing to Christ (do they show He is both God and man? that He is a person in the trinity? that He is coming again? that He is prophet, priest, and king? I haven’t read a single story that shows Jesus completely the way the Bible does). Why do we think they should try?

Christians should write the story we believe God wants us to write, just as we should live all of our lives the way we believe God wants us to live—consistent with Scripture, guided by the Holy Spirit.

That my story looks different from someone else’s is probably a good thing. It means God can reach more people rather than the same audience over and over.

Published in: on July 29, 2009 at 11:06 am  Comments Off on Good Works and Self-Help in Fiction  
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