Wednesday, April 25, 2007

Blurring the Lines between Law and Gospel

There are some ways in which the lines between Law and Gospel seem a bit blurry. For example, with the case of the rich young ruler in Mark 10, was Jesus only trying to point out that the man could not justify himself by the Law? To me, I can see how Jesus was also giving him a serious answer. To inherit eternal life, you must follow me, and you must value me as your greatest treasure.

This sounds almost like Law. It sounds almost like Jesus is demanding a kind of obedience in order to be saved. The answer, I believe, comes in understanding what true faith is. As men like John Piper vociferously argue, faith has, as one of its core elements, an apprehension of and treasuring of Jesus Christ. It sees His glory and savors it. This is one of the key elements of faith, and it is an element which make it supernatural, distinguishing it from natural inclinations of self-preservation, for example.

Faith, in this sense, is good and virtuous. Andrew Fuller argued that faith did contain virtue. At this point we must be careful. First, this does not mean that our faith can ever justify us. It is still imperfect, tainted with sin, wavering, weak, etc. If we were to stand upon it, we would be condemned every single time. Second, faith never is supposed to be the basis of our justification. Never. Jesus is. Faith is a gift of God which leads us to embrace Him as the glorious Bread of heaven we need, brings us to savor Him more and more as the light brightens, and leads us to display that valuing of Jesus Christ through love and obedience.

In other words, I think Jesus both showed this man that he was an idolater, and therefore needed a Savior, and that he also needed to embrace and treasure Him above all things. There is a sort of connection between faith and not being an idolater. I think it was Luther, in his larger catechism, who made the connection between believing in Jesus and obeying the first commandment. Tim Keller expanded upon it a bit. Basically, faith, which has Jesus as the foundation for our life and identity, places Christ as God, where He belongs, and sin, which is idolatry, is building your life upon things other than God. If Jesus is not your righteousness, for example, but your religion is, then you are an idolater. To the extent that any of us do not value Jesus as our supreme treasure, we are guilty of idolatry, which here amounts to imperfect and weak faith. That is us. God help us.

Of course, the faith we have, no matter how weak or tenuous or near-sighted it is, is a gift of God -not something we mustter, and it connects us to the objective merits of a perfect Savior with perfect righteousness and atonement. That is good news.

Food for thought...

Friday, April 13, 2007

World and Worldliness

Do not be conformed to this world, but be transformed by the renewal of your mind, that by testing you may discern what is the will of God, what is good and acceptable and perfect.
(Rom 12:2)

What is meant by "the world" or, as we commonly say, "wordliness?" I think a fair definition is that "this world" is the current, fallen, prevailing system of values and emphases which is in rebellion against God. It is a term which contrasts one system to the system of God's kingdom. It might also have an eschatological import -"this world" versus "the age to come."

Examples of Values:
1. Autonomy - American culture, especially, values "freedom." We value "tolerance" and personal autonomy. We don't like the idea of accountability. We want to be our own man/woman. It is, in many ways, the golden calf of our society. God says that what we ought to value is being a slave to Christ, who is Lord and King. This is what our faith mandates and tells us is infinitely more joyful and good than self-rule.

2. Self-esteem - Things like guilt are seen as distasteful or destructive. It is essential to see, it is imagined, that all societal and relational problems result from a fractured self-esteem. However, when is the last time you read a pop-psychology self-help manual on esteeming others? The Bible says we gain our "self value" in God, having Him as the basis for our identity, but even that "self value" is all about serving Him and serving others. There is a direct conflict between the value of self-esteem and the value of other-esteem.

Examples of Emphases:
1. Family - Family is good. However, it is of the world to place family where God belongs. I have heard it said even from people I grew up with that, "All that matters is family." Well, family is important, but no... not true. God takes the center. Family finds its rightful place only through that lens.

2. Fitness - Taking care of your body is good. It is a gift of God. We don't want to be destructive with God's gifts. However, television shows and commercials, for example, want us to fear "fat people hell" above all costs. What is promoted is building your life upon your fitness, your vitality, your looks, your youth, your waiste-line. Again, this is making a good thing an ultimate thing -an idol.

So, "the world" is basically a system of idolatry which takes God out of His rightful place in our lives. It is the prevailing system of thought, maybe even the big umbrella worldview of all the worldviews in opposition to the one God imposes through His Word and coming Kingdom.

What ought our response to be to "the world" or "worldliness?" That seems pretty clear from Scripture, but sometimes I think we may become imbalanced with it. We are to not be "friends" with it. We are to not be "conformed" to it. I take this to mean that we are not to be a) accepting of it and b) emulating it. We are called to a "narrow path." This is simply to say that we are to not engage in or approve of idolatry.

So far so good. What I think becomes problematic, though, is when two things happen. First, Christians assume it is as simple as "Christian" versus "non-Christian." We get suck on labels, external categories. As Mark Driscoll basically asked in his book "Radical Reformission," why exactly is Bible-man so much better than Spiderman? We must remember that "the world" is defined by values and emphases. If we do, we will realize that there is plenty of "worldliness" even in Christian circles. We tend to overlook these things, though, because they take place within the four-walls of the Church. An example might be gluttony at those yummy pot-lucks or self-righteousness in dealing with others, especially unbelievers. Self-righteousness seems to assume that we have a special standing that is our own, which others lack, and neglects that any standing, such as our justification, is purely a gift of grace.

Second, as a result of this, Christians may forget the major calling to be salt and light in the world, to love our neighbors, and to not be lights set under a basket. We withdraw from the "non-Christians," thinking that we are doing well in abstaining from worldliness. Don't get me wrong, there are aspects of the unbelieving culture around us that we certainly should avoid because they would tempt us and lead us to sin. I'm not going to try to minister to someone about Jesus while sitting in a strip club. However, at times I wonder if we gain the false impression that not conforming to the world (system) means withdrawing from the world (other people) and not caring about them. That isn't what Jesus did, from what I see.

"All we do is bad"

I was reminded again of this painful truth when listening to the Paul Washer message -as if my own life wasn't testimony enough. When dialoguing with people about Jesus, it is easy to get caught in the trap of, "But we're basically good. We just make mistakes." Not true. God says something quite different. As those who are true rebels, we do nothing that is not from a heart of rebellion. No one seeks after Him. No one does good. Our hearts are wicked and deceitful. Our mind is enmity against Him -unable to submit to Him.

We aren't just people who make some bad mistakes here and there. God's Word doesn't leave any room for that. Ultimately, it is the cross of Christ, itself, that is the proof of our true condition.

This was what got me. If Jesus had to die, and if He is the only way, then even my "goodness" is bad. If it was necessary for Jesus to die so that men would be reconciled to God, and it is by His blood and righteousness alone, then that automatically means both that a) I do not have peace with God. I need to be reconciled to Him somehow, and b) My "goodness" isn't really "good enough" at all since such seemingly extreme measures by the Son of God were necessary. In fact, it is wicked. It is self-aggrandizing, self-promoting, self-saving dirt.

I thought I was generally a good person. I never did drugs or smoked. I never drank. I tried to be nice to people. I tried not to lie. I used to make fun of those people who pretended to be all "religious" but were "hypocrites." I thought God would be silly to not accept me and overlook my "very minor" mistakes and imperfections. However, I was blind to the fact that even my goodness was filthy. In my flesh is found all manner of self-exaltation, pride, deception, lust, bitterness, envy, and idolatry.

You might be tempted to think differently, but as Jonathan Edwards wrote, "He who trusts his own heart is a fool."

Wednesday, April 11, 2007

Narrow is the Gate and Narrow is the path

I was reminded by a great message by Paul Washer about this sobering truth.

Many who profess to know Jesus are not truly saved. It is a sad fact. Unless they are truly converted, they will hear those horrible words when Christ returns, "Depart from me, you workers of lawlessness, for I never knew you."

We know the statistics show this fact. Forget the statistics for a minute. Statistics have a way of showing us a problem but keeping it just far enough away for us to really get the sense of it. It isn't personal when it is a statistic. So, look around you. Look at those who profess to know God around you. Look at those who name the name of Jesus. Look at your friends, neighbors, fellow church-members, spouses, brothers, sisters, children, even yourself, and consider that some, maybe even many of them are deceived. They will, on that fateful day, cry, "Lord, Lord..." but He will say He does not know them.

It is very sobering to seriously consider this. Sometimes we look at people and start to think that salvation is a bit broader than we imagine. We are blinded by appearances. If the way is narrow to life but broad is the path to destruction, my impression is that we will generally be shocked on that day. People we might have expected or hoped to belong to Jesus will be lost forever.

It is not always easy to recognize it in others, but we can, and should, look at ourselves. If we do not walk the narrow way, if we walk the broad path, then we are deceived. If we do not care deeply for the will of the Father and endeavor for it, but are instead caught up with the loves of the world, then we are either receiving or about to receive the Father's stern correction... or... we just don't know Him.

Self-examination isn't bad. It is necessary. Some might think that the reality of self-deception means we can't know if we are truly saved. That is not true. If we are truly believers, we will see evidence. It may be dim and dull at times. We will stumble. We will sin. We will always see our need for Jesus. We may be crawling, or we may even be stopped, but we will be facing the same direction -along the narrow path. We will be aware that we daily depend on Jesus as our righteousness and pardon and Shepherd, and we will see the fruit of a new heart that God has given us.

Do you know God? Do you know Him to be a holy fire? If you do not desire to follow the will of the Father, then you have great reason to be very afraid. If obeying Him is not a primary aspect or descriptor of your lifestyle, then you should soberly consider the thread you dangle from. It has been God's will, up to now, that you have been spared from meeting Him. If this is you, be warned and repent while there is still time.

Some may ask, "But you are talking about works. Are you a legalist? I thought we weren't saved by works." Not to obtain God's favor, no. As Piper said, we are not saying this is how one becomes justified before God. However, it is how a justified person becomes. Make no mistake about it. If no good fruit, then no good tree, no new heart, no conversion. If we are not being conformed into the image of Jesus, then we aren't His. It really is that simple, and frightening.

See the video by Paul Washer here.

Sunday, April 08, 2007

A Faithless Leader

I've been a husband and father for a little over eight years, now. I've learned lots of things, becoming a husband scarcely months after becoming a believer, a father to a 5-year-old, a head of my household, all at the age of 23. I've learned, first, that I often have no clue what I'm doing, and second, that being a leader to my wife and children takes faith -often much more than I have.

It takes faith to not break down and get discouraged when it seems like nobody follows your lead. It takes faith to not resort to anger or emotional power-plays to try and control others so that you feel like you are doing your job (after all, if they do what you want, you are leading, right? wrong). It takes faith to implement things you have learned about the roles God has called you to, and to stick to it, even when it looks like it isn't working or nobody cares. It takes faith to walk into battle and say, "My God will triumph," and press ahead, doing what you know you need to do, not despairing of hope and falling apart at the seams.

Maybe some of you guys out there have been blessed to always have a family that is fully on board with everything you want to do and every way you try to lead them spiritually. They are never disinterested. They are never thinking about what else they would rather be doing. They are never consumed by other things. They never leave you thinking, "God, what am I doing?"

I realize, for me, that I have been faithless in many, many ways, and am weak beyond measure. I find it hard, sometimes, not to envy others who seem to have it so put together. Sometimes it makes me want to strangle them or throw up on them. These things, for me, are a constant struggle. Faith, itself, is a constant struggle. I spend most of my days either in blindness or in a dim twilight.

I have exasperated my children (my son, mostly). I have failed to lead my wife spiritually. I have failed to be an initiator with her on many levels. All I can truly say is, "Help my unbelief!" I long so deeply for a day when the cross is daily powerful to me, when the resurrection is full of life to me, when joy and hope overcomes my soul and becomes the constant pulse of my life. I can't even express how badly I want these things.

My God, let me not be angry with you because I struggle so badly and others do not. I realize, now, that there is much of that in me. I think I envy others, but I am really angry with you. I am angry that you have made their struggles in these areas, especially faith, less than mine (or, rather, mine more than theirs -I wouldn't wish mine on another). I am a dull and dry stick. Have mercy. I make this sin known to you. I am full, to the brim, with unbelief -no trust, no vision, just powerlessness, dryness, deadness.

To think that I have ever hoped to be some kind of leader in the Church -ridiculous! What a sad, deluded person I am.