Agonizomai: June 2008

Monday, June 30, 2008

1Cor 11:2-3 - Creation Order

2-3 Now I commend you because you remember me in everything and maintain the traditions even as I delivered them to you. 3 But I want you to understand that the head of every man is Christ, the head of a wife {Greek gune. This term may refer to a woman or a wife, according to the context} is her husband, and the head of Christ is God.

Starting a new line of thought, but still dealing with the lack of submission to God through self-control and obedience, Paul begins to deal with the conduct of men and women in the church. They have heard and received instruction ("traditions" does not mean historic customs) from Paul on many things but for this next instruction he wants to be sure they start at square one. He starts with the underlying Biblical principle upon which his practical instruction will be based.

This is not going to be about establishing rules for veils and hats for women in church. Rather, it is going to be about the order of creation that God established and maintains in human relationships - specifically between husband and wife.

Everybody who ever entered the creation, up to and including Jesus Christ - God in the flesh and second Person of the Holy Trinity - is under authority. The buck stops at God, who is self-existent and answers to no one. How Jesus could be both unanswerable God and submitted to the Father at the same time I leave to the theologians. It had something to do with His office and purpose - but I am not the one to extrapolate it all.

And so we will try to avoid getting caught up in the twin errors of the feminist/male chauvinist and the cultural conformity/separation debates. It is not about rights but about duties. It is not about culture, but the order of creation reapplied and reinforced to the church. The guiding principle in avoiding all that emotion and in generating more light than heat is to step back and ask what Paul is telling us in the text.

What concept is being communicated by the word "head"? The context clearly refers to lordship and the honour due to the hierarchy established by God Himself. True, in Corinth the immediate context does indeed refer to the custom, or the cultural practice of women covering themselves as a sign of respect and submission to their husbands. But the important thing is not the outward means by which respect and submission are shown so much as the conformity in heart to the order that God has ordained. A woman in our culture may indeed go hatless and without a veil - even hairless - and still have the attitude of heart that worships and obeys God through a proper assumption of the role God ordained for her, which is to respect, obey and support her husband.

Again, the means of the observance are, in and of themselves, nothing. It is the underlying belief and the intent of the heart that God is concerned with - and that Paul is always emphasizing in matters "indifferent". Clothing and hairstyles are indifferent. Respect and submission as God ordained them are not.

Saturday, June 28, 2008

1Cor 11:1 - Following the Right Person

1 Be imitators of me, as I am of Christ.

This looks like one of those instances where the chapter division is out of whack. It seems like this statement is simply the summary of the thought that Paul was developing in the last chapter, doing all to the glory of God and trying to please all by not seeking his own advantage and for the purpose of not putting any unnecessary obstacles in the way of the gospel. In this, Paul desires people to imitate him as he strives to imitate Christ.

Paul is not the example - Christ is. We are to imitate Paul’s striving and his sensitivity to the gospel for Christ’s sake, but Paul would be the last person to propagate the idea that he was something worth following in his own right. Christ is the perfect example and we are all but pale reflections of Him, even when we get things right.

Thomas A Kempis wrote a little book, which I read and enjoyed, called "The Imitation of Christ." Yet I have always been uncomfortable at any hint of the modern resurgence of the idea that we can conform ourselves to the image of Christ as a matter of simply striving to achieve some sort of human self-improvement. Such an attitude does, I believe, misunderstand the real meaning of grace. To go down that road would be to fall into the Romish error of making grace something that is piecemeal, renewable and in constant need of being topped up through various sacraments and ordinances. It seems to lean too heavily on the need for human ability at the expense of simple faith in the power and will of God to accomplish in us the good work that He started.

John Owen penned this idea that touches upon the same thought:
"To suppose that whatever God requireth of us that we have power of ourselves to do, is to make the cross and grace of Jesus Christ of none effect."
What he meant by this was that all that the Christian is and has finds its source in God through Jesus Christ by the Holy Spirit. The Christian does not look to himself for anything. When he progresses, when he accomplishes, when he strives, when he believes, when he obeys - all that is worthy and worthwhile that is manifested in his being is in and to and from the Lord Jesus Christ alone. This is God’s way of producing in us a conscious and willing submission to Him as the God Who is above all - the God from Whom all created things exist and are upheld, both now and for eternity.

For even in eternity we shall still be eternally upheld by God. Our righteousness and place in His realm will always be, and will always be acknowledged to be, on account of Him - and not in any way whatsoever on our own account. In fact, this is joy - to be eternally trusting in the God Who is eternally trustworthy to keep us eternally.

Thursday, June 26, 2008

How to Be a Perfect Christian Without Mr. Libertine

Be ye therefore perfect, even as your Father which is in heaven is perfect. {Matthew 5:48}

If our perfection in Christ is manifested by our abiding in Him through the obedience of faith we cannot say, as some might, “If we are already perfect, why should we not live as we please? If Christ has done it all and I cannot add a thing to what He has done, if I am perfect in Him, if God has already determined all that I shall be in Christ then why need I do anything at all?”

A similar question attributed to some people in Romans is not even dignified with an answer by Paul. Aside from being fatalistic and denying human responsibility, it blasphemes God by portraying Him as winking at sins subsequent to salvation.

This kind of thinking is a trap. It is the sort of thinking that only the unconverted enter into. It betrays a heart that has never truly agreed with God that in our flesh dwells no good thing, and that we must truly repent of all that we are and do in Adam. It misses the point that we died with Christ and were raised to newness of life in Him.

A heart that God has purchased with the precious blood of Jesus Christ and has sealed with the Holy Spirit is patently incapable of habitually thinking in terms of carnal licence, even though it may stumble in practice –sometimes grievously. Yet it is ultimately incapable of it because God Himself has put a new heart into all of His children – a heart which cries “Abba, Father!” where once there was only corruption, rebellion, hatred and fear.

From the moment of our entering into Christ and He into us, we are beyond the wrath of God and have entered into His rest. It is by faith, yes, that we came and by faith we abide in this rest – but we have peace with God forever. The mistake comes in thinking that our peace with God came by what we did, and is therefore maintained by our deeds. It is as if we try to separate faith from the life we now live in Christ, and He in us, when they are both of a piece. Our faith exercised is God’s righteousness metabolized. Our faith is given for the doing of His will. If we have faith we will do His will – but if we do not truly have saving faith then we will serve our own flesh.

Now, the process of living out our salvation is not referred to in God’s Word as living out our “potential” salvation – but our actual one. “…work out your own salvation with fear and trembling. For it is God which worketh in you both to will and to do of his good pleasure.” {Ph 2:12-13} “(God) is now the source of our life in Christ Jesus, whom God made our wisdom, our righteousness and sanctification and redemption.” {1Cor 1:30-31}

We must look at the means that God, in His wisdom, has ordained by which we are kept in the narrow way, and brought to the measure of the fullness of the stature of Christ. And what are they? They are the preaching and study of the Word of God, the witness of the Holy Spirit guiding us into all truth, and the walk that results from our obedience to them. We might add prayer, fellowship, communion and corporate worship.

So, our perfection in Christ does not sit inaccessibly in a remote place towards which we are struggling in a daily grind of morbid introspection and self-denial. That is carnality speaking. That is carnal perfectionism. Our perfection lies in the Person of Christ, Whom we have now, through the presence of the Holy Spirit. Abiding in Him produces much fruit - His, not ours. When we obey, we are the proof of the glories of His righteousness.

Christians who do not yet grasp the completeness of Christ’s work, and our own completeness in Him, will inevitably fall prey to the fear that this doctrine will lead to lawlessness and a cheap view of grace. That is because they themselves have a legalistic rather than a spiritual understanding of the truth. The carnal mind is still stuck in the idea that we ourselves can do something to cause, or to add to, what God has already done in Christ. Worse still, some think that God demands that we perform or else we will be lost. It is subtle re-submission to legalism.

If we are in Christ we are free from law, free from its demands, free from condemnation, free from the obligation of guilt – and free to be slaves of righteousness. The proper understanding of freedom in Christ is not licence, but willing slavery. Just as the Hebrew slave of a Hebrew was utterly free after 7 years and could go out and do his own thing, yet the true child of God is that former indentured slave who so loves his master that he chooses to stay and serve him as a slave forever, having his ear pierced through upon the doorpost as a sign.

But the true lawless one, the one who loves himself and not his master, will take his freedom and go back to making his own way in the world. Some believe that Christians can choose either of these options and still be in Christ. They can take the freedom of Christ and live as they please, serving their own will and pleasure in the world, just as they did before they were “saved”. But these are the ones in peril of our Saviour saying to them in that Day, “I never ever (emphatic) knew you; depart from me, you workers of iniquity.”

You see, the one who despises his freedom to be a slave of Christ is not a Christian at all. He is not even a so-called “carnal Christian”. He is a person who has rejected the gospel altogether by treading the grace of God underfoot. God has held out true freedom, which is only in Christ, and that person has willingly chosen to be enslaved to the world. The blood of Christ is sufficient for all, but is efficient only for those that believe, trusting Christ for all things, as a slave trusts his loving master.

Surely he whose soul is truly converted, who has seen the exceeding sinfulness of his own sin, and who has freely received the grace which pardons that sin – surely that person is incapable of the attitude that seeks to go back and serve the very lusts that brought his original demise.

Wednesday, June 25, 2008

How to Be a Perfect Christian Without Mr. Legalism

Be ye therefore perfect, even as your Father which is in heaven is perfect. {Matthew 5:48}

Many a Christian has pondered this verse, wondering how it can be possible to be perfect, knowing so well how much we fall short in even the smallest of things. No lesser lights than Francois Fenelon, John Wesley, Andrew Murray and Watchman Nee have come out for the possibility of Christian perfection, believing that God would never command us to do something that He had not given us the means to perform.

To be perfect in a human sense would be hard enough, but the text commands us to be perfect in something far beyond that – it commands us to be as perfect as God Himself. This means we must be perfect in the sense of “wanting nothing necessary for completeness”, just as God lacks nothing necessary for completeness.

In the past, some Christian bulwarks have gone a long way down the road in contemplating this doctrine before being rebuked and drawn up short by their contemporaries. Wesley, for example, had to repudiate some of his own thinking, and retract much of what he had taught, in the area of Christian perfection. It is so easy to get on the wrong track. It is so easy to confuse perfectionism with the doctrine of being perfect.

First of all, let’s deal with perfectionism. Whenever we wander into an area in which we must do something in order to attain righteousness, holiness or acceptance with God then we have nullified the gospel of Jesus Christ and slipped back into the same sort of error as the Galatians. Christian perfectionism is nothing less than the concept of works invading the sanctification process. If Satan cannot get you to make the error of justifying yourself by works – and thereby keeping you from true repentance and absolute reliance upon Christ alone for salvation – then he will try to spoil your walk by introducing the same poison later. Perfectionism is the doctrine of demons.

Perfectionism will lead you into striving to earn or to be something based upon your own efforts. It will make you link what you do to the results of what you do in an unbiblical way. It will lead you into thinking that you can, in fact, attain to perfection through your own efforts – whether by keeping rules or avoiding certain things. The Bible everywhere teaches the precise opposite of this. Nowhere is the teaching clearer than when we are told in Romans and in Galatians (but originally from Habakkuk) that “the just shall live by his faith.”

Through faith and faith alone is our entire salvation to be found. Not in the faith itself, of course – but in the object of that faith, which is Christ. But the governing principle of abiding in the righteousness of God is that it must be through faith, entirely apart from any sort of work whatsoever. The smallest inclusion of any contribution from us instantly spoils the whole. Either God alone saves us, or we cannot be saved at all. That is what the Bible teaches.

Where so many run into difficulty is by separating the justification we receive by faith at the moment of salvation from the sanctification that God performs in us until the moment He calls us home. Yet they are aspects of the same salvation. “It is finished!” was the Lord’s cry when He gave up the ghost. Salvation in its entirety was finished upon the cross. Christ didn’t just open a door for us to walk through – by His resurrection He became the very means by which we are perfected in Him.

This brings us to the doctrine of Christian perfection. God commands it. We cannot weasel out by manipulating the words or by violating their sense. “Lack nothing necessary for completeness, just as I lack nothing!” is the sense of the command. Well, if God commands it then He must expect us to do something – to strive, to work in some way in order to come to the thing He commands, right? Wrong! The only work God requires of us is that we believe in the One Whom He has sent (John 6:28-29). Faith. The same faith through which we are justified is the faith in which we are made perfect in Christ. This is because we already are perfect in Christ, and this perfection is simply manifested through the obedience of our faith.

Note I say “the obedience of our faith”. Faith is not some tenuous wishful thinking, detached from the life we actually live. It is our very means of life. It is how we live. Faith is the channel through which the Spirit pumps the blood stream of the life of Christ into our as yet mortal bodies. When we believe that we are already perfect in Christ – seated in the heavenly places in Him – it is then that He is in us doing His perfect righteousness. We believe in Him, He performs in us. We believe in Him performing in us when we believe we are in Him. It is so simple it eludes our fallen thinking most of the time.

So we come to see that perfection is not a goal to be attained, but a condition to be rested in. Not something we do, but something we believe Christ has done. This makes sense when we go back to the original command … How can we be perfect in the same way that God is? Well, God is perfect Being. He is not perfect because of what He does, but because of Who He is. Perfect deeds spring from His perfect nature.

Applying this to ourselves, we immediately see that we must be perfect in exactly the same way – not by what we do, but by who we are in Christ. In Christ we are perfect. Therefore, as we abide in Him, and He in us, then perfect deeds will spring from us – not because of what we do, but because of Who it is that is in us to do them. Christian perfection! Christian because it is the perfection of Christ, the true vine in Whom we abide.

Then what is sanctification? Are we not being perfected through this process? How can we already be what we must still live through? Why do we need to be changed if we are already perfect? The answer is so that we will believe that in Christ we are perfect. The unfolding of our sanctification is for us, not for God – it is so that we will know what He has done for us in Christ, and will believe it and walk in it with increasing confidence, trust, gratitude and obedience.

Monday, June 23, 2008

1Cor 10:29-33 - The Main Objective

29-33 I do not mean your conscience, but his. For why should my liberty be determined by someone else’s conscience? 30 If I partake with thankfulness, why am I denounced because of that for which I give thanks? 31 So, whether you eat or drink, or whatever you do, do all to the glory of God. 32 Give no offense to Jews or to Greeks or to the church of God, 33 just as I try to please everyone in everything I do, not seeking my own advantage, but that of many, that they may be saved.

The logic of verse 29 may be difficult to follow. In verse 28 we "asked no questions" for conscience sake about what was about to be eaten under pagan hospitality. If I asked then my conscience might be aroused and then I would have to abstain from what is otherwise no problem for me and my conscience under God. So I don’t ask. By asking unnecessarily I not only run the danger of offending my conscience, but I immediately complicate my own walk. In a way, I put someone else in charge of my conscience because I amend my behaviour to their dictates. I willingly do this in love, but I shouldn’t be the cause myself.

Paul again confirms - to the mature Christian all foods are clean. All he does he does as unto the Lord, receiving with thanks from the Lord what the Lord Himself has declared to be clean. But, he is aware that he should give no offence to unconverted Jews or pagans; nor even to believing Jews or Christian ex-pagans, any of whom might be weaker brothers.

Is Paul a people pleaser and in what sense does he imply that in verse 33? Paul is not really seeking to please people in the sense of compromising or diluting the gospel, or of assuaging pagan beliefs. He says it right in the same sentence - that it is precisely for the gospel’s sake and the objective of the salvation of many that he seeks, not to please by appeasing, but
to not be the source or cause of any impediment to getting the main message of the gospel out.

Sunday, June 22, 2008

1Cor 10:23-29 - Law and License

23-29 "All things are lawful," but not all things are helpful. "All things are lawful," but not all things build up. 24 Let no one seek his own good, but the good of his neighbor. 25 Eat whatever is sold in the meat market without raising any question on the ground of conscience. 26 For "the earth is the Lord’s, and the fullness thereof." 27 If one of the unbelievers invites you to dinner and you are disposed to go, eat whatever is set before you without raising any question on the ground of conscience. 28 But if someone says to you, “This has been offered in sacrifice,” then do not eat it, for the sake of the one who informed you, and for the sake of conscience— 29 I do not mean your conscience, but his. For why should my liberty be determined by someone else’s conscience?

So Paul is dealing with two things here. License and liberty are considered in the context of love and grace. This is a sort of practical summary specific to a problem in the first century Corinthian church, but which contains principles that are timeless.

"All things are lawful," does not mean that nothing is off limits to the Christian. The Christian liberty contained in this statement is subject to the much, the infinitely, higher standard of the law of love. The law of love is far, far more exacting than the laws of "Thou shalt not..." - or even of "Thou shalt..." Such laws can deal only with the externalized treatment of either great general truths, or specific cases in all of the variety and minutiae of every day life. That is Exodus and Leviticus. And they are correct. The law itself is good and perfect and nothing can take away from it.

But Christians serve a higher law. What the law could not do comes to the Christian by faith through Jesus Christ. The Christian has a heart that desires to obey, even though (due to the weakness of the flesh) he often falls short. So, we may indeed have freedom from the ceremonial details because what they represented has now come; soteriologically speaking the perfect has replaced the imperfect. By this I mean that the law could condemn, but it could not save. It had a righteousness that was perfect but it lacked the power to bring that righteousness about in its subjects. Christ changed all that.

Now, what the letter of the law asks we must obey in the spirit of the law. It is internalized because the Law Giver Himself is in us to guide and to instruct us - to sanctify and to grow us. Therefore we no longer look at a circumstance and only ask if a thing is permitted; we now ask if it brings honour to the Christ that saves us, if it is helpful to another, if it builds up or destroys those for whom Christ died, if it honours before lost men the Name above all names.

We have internalized the dos and don’ts. They are etched in our hearts. They are brought to mind by the Spirit so that, in the deepest part of our being, idolatry and covetousness - instead of being our constant friends - are now our inveterate enemies. Sometimes we may let them into the camp, but even then they are seen as opportunistic enemies. To the Christian all things belong to God and were originally created "good". It is what we make of the things God has made that is important; they are to be enjoyed and used unto God, as from God, for the good of others and ourselves, in love.

Since all things are just "things" and have no intrinsic evil, then Christians can indeed eat meats offered to idols if it does not offend their conscience - and, because of this, have no need to even ask what they are eating. Their ignorance in such a case is no sin, and can actually be helpful. If the pagan host isn’t bothered the Christian ought not to bring it up and create an obstacle to the gospel itself. But if the pagan host thinks that meat offered to idols is taboo and he is either being gracious in asking, or thinks he is testing or tricking you, then for his sake the visitor ought not to eat. And by, "for his sake" is meant that it ought not to hinder or cloud the real issues of the gospel, which are much more basic than the externals.

What does that mean for today? It means that in the case of foods and things going into the body we should accept what is put before us. In the case of other things we can see if the principle of conscience applies.

The fact that the Apostles in Acts 15:29 had enjoined that the Gentiles abstain from things sacrificed to idols, and from blood, and from immorality seems to contradict some of Paul’s teaching here. But the decision of the Jerusalem Council was given for the peace of the churches as they struggled to integrate Jews and Gentiles. Here, Paul is, in part, dealing with witnessing to pagan outsiders - an entirely different matter.

Friday, June 20, 2008

1Cor 10:15-22 - Relativity and Reality

15-22 I speak as to sensible people; judge for yourselves what I say. 16 The cup of blessing that we bless, is it not a participation in the blood of Christ? The bread that we break, is it not a participation in the body of Christ? 17 Because there is one bread, we who are many are one body, for we all partake of the one bread. 18 Consider the people of Israel: are not those who eat the sacrifices participants in the altar? 19 What do I imply then? That food offered to idols is anything, or that an idol is anything? 20 No, I imply that what pagans sacrifice they offer to demons and not to God. I do not want you to be participants with demons. 21 You cannot drink the cup of the Lord and the cup of demons. You cannot partake of the table of the Lord and the table of demons. 22 Shall we provoke the Lord to jealousy? Are we stronger than he?

Now idols were indeed the cause of some misunderstandings between church members in Corinth. But Paul, like all mature believers, knows that the idols themselves are nothing. But when men worship them or make offering to them, then they are really serving the demons behind the idol. Any bowing down to anything or any one other than God is idolatry. That includes the self - which Paul goes on to illustrate by their own inquiry, and by the behaviour of some in the congregation.

Perhaps some in the congregation, coming from an idolatrous background desired to evangelize their pagan friends. Perhaps they sat at table with them. Maybe the meals were the leftover portion of their sacrifice of the day to the pagan god of the day. It may have been a sort of Purpose-Driven/Willow Creek kind of a question. Should the sensitivity of the so-called seekers take precedence over reverence for the One True God? Well, the answer is not formulaic. Care must be taken to understand the mindset of the parties involved. Circumstances differ. The same action might be correct in one situation and wrong in a similar situation at another time.

This is not relative truth, such as the postmoderns follow after. It is a deeper truth - the truth that is applied through love. And the governing principle of this loving practicality (not pragmatism, but practicality) is laid out in the next section where Paul says in verse 24, "Let no one seek his own good, but the good of his neighbour."

When Paul says, "I do not want you to be participants with demons," he cannot be referring to the meat itself, nor to the physical nature of the idol it was sacrificed to. If that were the case then the prior references make no sense. Paul has called the idols "nothing". They have no reality or substance in and of themselves. But they represent something to some people. Some outsiders may consider them to actually be gods; and because many in the Corinthian church used to be idol worshipers their consciences may be offended at the very idea of eating meat sacrificed to such idols. Yes, they now believe in the One True God - Maker of heaven and earth - but they have not yet attained to the fullness of their freedom in Christ.

They are like some people I have met who believe that certain objects are invested with demons or with demonic influence. African masks and spears and religious paraphernalia must be thrown out; rooms in which they are found can be entered only in fear and with great caution - and sometimes only with the protection of "holy" water or anointing oil. I’ve seen it in evangelical churches. Romish and pagan nonsense perpetrated in the Name of Christ. It is immaturity that allows such practices to usurp faith in Christ alone and to rest in Him in mind, spirit and body. Nothing more is needed if this is but done.

But the reality of the matter is that we all come into the kingdom as babies and we all grow at different rates. It can take a long time for us to shed the vestiges of our superstitions, prejudices, quirks and misunderstandings. Paul is affirming that we should be gentle in dealing with brethren who have, as yet, not fully entered into their Sabbath rest. To one degree or another this is true of all of us.

This sort of prudence and care ought not to become the substitute for preaching and teaching the truth - for then we should inevitably fall into some sort of relativistic religion where what’s OK for you is OK by me, because there is not underlying absolute Truth that can be known. But neither should the certainty that God has spoken be mistaken for light in the soul of the hearer. We proclaim the Word in and out of season, but it is always God alone Who enlightens the soul. We are light bearers, not light givers. And we are witnesses, not lawyers. As such we hold fast to what we know and trust God to be at work through our faithful obedience.

In ignorance, some people who think they are sinning, or who are tempted to wrongly judge us as sinning, on account of some food, ceremony, rite, custom - whatever - are likely to actually be committing sin when they go against their own conscience in the matter. The reasoning is this (and it does seem to be relativistic on the face of it) - that if a thing is sin to you, then it is sin. If you think a thing is wrong and you do it anyway then it is wrong for you. But this has nothing to do with right and wrong in the absolute sense. God has made plain what is right and wrong in certain areas of life. Against these things there is no argument and none should be attempted by any true believer. No blasphemy, no adultery, no theft, murder or coveting and so on. These are absolutes because God has spoken plainly.

But there are myriads of situations in life throughout the ages where various cultures meet Christianity. In this instance, pagan idolatry meets Christianity. That idolatry is forbidden is one of those plain things that God has revealed. But what constitutes idolatry is not always so clear. It can be both more and less than what we think, because it is a heart matter. As pagan unbelievers we externalized everything because we had no real life in us. As Christians we now understand that all depends upon the inner man, no matter what the outer appearance may at first look like to the unenlightened.

So Paul can say that idols are nothing, but that we must look behind the idols to the demons that they represent. If our conscience is not clear before God we cannot know that we are not serving demons if we go against it; in fact, I would argue that we are serving demons whenever we violate our conscience. We are serving the master demon, Satan Himself, which is an offence to our jealous God. Pagans are blind to these implications, but Christians ought never to be. And Paul is also pointing to this inner reality, to the inner struggle, to the unseen battle and the kingdom in the midst of us that is invisible to the world.

Now, is it actually possible to be a partaker both in God and in demons? At first sight it seems to be implied in what Paul is saying. But one must be careful to understand what is meant by "partake" in the actual context. It does not mean that people indwelt by the Holy Spirit can be indwelt by demons. It might mean that Christian sometimes seem to aid (actually aid) the enemy through their disobedience; perhaps even by their ignorance.

There is also an element of witness here. Christians must hold a consistent witness in the world. Whenever they either go against a directive of God or violate their own consciences - and when they behave in ways that are insensitive to weaker brethren - Christians are failing to abide in Christ and, not being "for" Him in that instance, are by definition against Him. And if they are against Him they are for the enemy.

But this is the wonder of the finished work of Christ - there is forgiveness and the absence of condemnation whenever they repent. Christ paid even for the sins that believers commit in the light. This is grace upon grace. The world sins with lesser light and greater ignorance than we. We were once as they now are. But the grace of God in Jesus Christ is so vast and infinite towards those whom He chose in Christ that He forgives in us what are actually greater trespasses then the ones we committed before we believed. Only because He paid the price to the very last drop of His blood are the very last dregs of our sin covered.

The world slays Christ in relative ignorance every day, but when we saints sin and bow down to our idols - whatever they may be - we actually give ourselves the more to His crucifixion. The more we sin, the more grace abounds BUT - and this is a big BUT - if we are truly His this causes us great distress and we come to Him for the grace not to keep on offending.

Most assuredly the words of God through Paul are the very means by which the life of Christ is imparted to our inner man. The command NOT to partake of demons is the fuel for the believer’s soul to fight, to stand, to pray, to supplicate and, casting His true children upon Him, become part of the very means by which the saint is renewed in the image of His Saviour. The Bread of Life is the Word of life remembered to us in the Bible and in the ordinance of the Lord’s Supper. It is what we have been brought to love and to desire, to crave and to seek.

Thursday, June 19, 2008


Alrighty then. I have posts prepared until October 12th, when this study of Corinthians will come to an end. At my age, you never know whether you're going to be in shape for any given period of time. If I'm called home, at least I'll go on posting for a few months post-humously - har... har...

But, in case I get to carry on, I'm thinking of one of these four things to succeed 1Corinthians. They are as follows:
1) Romans Chapters 1 to 3 on sin and the universal need for the gospel

2) Malachi

3) Revelation Chapters 2 to 3, letters to the seven churches

4) Philippians (all 4 chapters)
My own preference would be to do the Romans, just because I like hammering on the depravity of man (because it's hardly mentioned in many churches today). But I like the fact that, in order for there to be good news, we must first understand the bad news that makes the good news both necessary and good news to us.

I know there are a few readers/listeners out there. Why not let your voice be heard, either by e-mail, or in the comments section. The way I work, preparation for the next series must start about mid-August, so a decision will be made by then.

In any event, you can expect more of my strongly held understanding of the sovereignty of God and the depravity of man.

Wednesday, June 18, 2008

1Cor 10:11-14 - Look Mom - No Hands!

11-14 Now these things happened to them as an example, but they were written down for our instruction, on whom the end of the ages has come. 12 Therefore let anyone who thinks that he stands take heed lest he fall. 13 No temptation has overtaken you that is not common to man. God is faithful, and he will not let you be tempted beyond your ability, but with the temptation he will also provide the way of escape, that you may be able to endure it. 14 Therefore, my beloved, flee from idolatry.

There is no need to repeat the comments on the deliberateness of the example provided in the history of Israel. The lesson is found in verse 12 here.

Therefore (that is - on account of the clear unfaithfulness of those upon whom God’s lovingkindness had been shown), let anyone who thinks that he stands take heed lest he fall. There is a sense in which we do not stand at all. In this sense, as soon as we think that it is we who are doing the standing rather than God Who is doing the holding up, we have already fallen. God is able to make us stand {Ro 14:4} . Yet God makes us to stand through the obedience of our faith. We must obey but we must never think that it is our obedience that makes us stand as if we had done God a favour or helped ourselves in any way. There is no room for the sustaining grace of God in such a scenario.

Also, when we find ourselves seemingly walking the Christian life and, like the boy riding the bike and showing off to his parents saying, "Look, Mom - no hands..." we are instantly confident in the wrong thing (our standing and not God’s upholding) - then we are going to come a cropper. Worse - if such an attitude overtakes our heart and finds root there, we are in danger of, at the best misunderstanding the gospel, and at the worst discovering that Christ is not truly in us because we live and stand unto ourselves, relying upon our own goodness and power.

Indeed, there are millions who do just this and who are ignoring the exhortation here and in 2Corinthians 13:5 to take stock of who it is that is producing the life and deeds in us, and to draw the appropriate conclusion. While we are not the judge of any one else’s heart we have a duty to warn appropriately. God is the judge, but He has spoken in His word, and it is the light and the standard by which we are to see what God adjudges right and wrong - firstly in ourselves, but also in the church.

Tonight I caught a glimpse of a television program in which the hosts find a needy and "deserving" family whose lives have been messed up by tragedy - and then build or rebuild a home for them and provide a cup running over with blessings. In this episode they enlisted what looked like the entire congregation of a church. Massively good deeds were done. There was great empathy and much crying and obvious giving. There were warm fuzzies all over the place - and there’s nothing intrinsically wrong with any of that. I rejoice at the goodness of God and the joy of both recipients and givers. I was both moved and convicted.

But absolutely none of this going on in them or in me necessarily has any bearing upon the state of the souls that are involved. It may be fruit of the Spirit in some and it may be mere human good works in others. Which is why I rejoice first and foremost in God for His goodness, and not in men for theirs. I would render thanks to whom thanks is due on the human level, but I would look to God who is the only good in existence - the ultimate Good - the Source of all that is good.

But there are Bible verses that warn about doing good to be seen of men, and about not letting the left hand know what the right hand is doing, and not blowing trumpets and wearing broad phylacteries etc, etc. Again, I am not the judge - God is the judge by His Word - but the Truth itself must be brought to the attention of all who would seek to do good. If it is not wrought in Christ, through faith in Christ, out of love for Christ, then it is of no avail in God’s eyes. It will not justify the unsaved, nor will it add to the salvation or the rewards of the redeemed.

And the question always starts with, "Is what I do wrought in Christ and do I run in vain?" But Luther’s horse has two sides and we must not be paralyzed by the fear of falling off the other flank after we have mounted. We must not hide our light under a bushel or bury our talent in the ground out of fear of making a mistake. We shall all be beaten with stripes - the only question is whether it will be few or many. {Heb 12:6} So what we do must be wrought in Christ but we must not be found doing nothing because we want to first be sure of our motives. There is a place for this. But it is only as we live out our lives in faith that anything at all is wrought in Christ.

Going back to the small child and the bicycle - imagine the first time the training wheels come off and you must launch out seemingly unsupported in order to be found actually riding. No amount of instruction will do then riding for you. But if you know and believe that daddy will catch you if you begin to fall, then you might muster up the courage to push off and go. Imperfect analogy, of course - but helpful.

So again I affirm that to do good out of any other resource and for any other motive than abiding in the grace of God in Jesus Christ abiding under the shadow of the Almighty - necessarily brings a self-satisfaction that defeats the whole object of the glory of God. God has made this plain in His Word. It is not about us and what we do, but about God and what He has done in Jesus Christ. All things are from and to and through and for Him. If we do good then we must point to Christ and thank God. If we do evil we must point to ourselves, confess to God and repent of our evil, trusting in the gracious and undeserved mercy held forth in 1John 1:9. Either way God is glorified in Jesus Christ.

The support for this God-centred view comes immediately in the context from the description of how God permits temptation and tribulation in order to build our trust and confidence - not in ourselves, but in Him, for Christ’s sake - who is able to provide the way of escape in all circumstances howsoever difficult. So long as we do not take the overly simplistic view that a "way of escape" means the utter avoidance of all tribulation and suffering we shall understand what is being said. It is through suffering that we are made "perfect" and God is in charge of when and how much we must suffer. In fact, it is by trusting Him in the midst of the storm that we endure whatever His loving hand ordains for us at the profit of our souls, to the glory of God. The ultimate escape may be death during torture. Or it may be something substantially less. God knows and He has a perfect plan for us.

Who is faithful? Is it us, according to the text here? Or is it God? God both brings (or allows) the trouble and He gauges it according to what He (but not necessarily we) knows we can bear. Our bearing is not - repeat not - related in any way to our strength, but to weakness. Only insofar as we believe and are trusting in God on account of Jesus Christ can we stand. Faith itself does not even make us stand. God makes us stand in the fullness of our weakness in Him, through faith.

Now, there are indeed brave, courageous, strong people who have endured great hardship and tribulation in their own strength, out of their own grace and nobility. Christianity does not deny these things. But Christianity says that if these noble men and women did not stand in the grace of Jesus Christ, by the power of God, through faith in Him, then they are not glorifying Him as they should - but are ultimately glorifying themselves, no matter how altruistic their actions may appear. Any lesser view ultimately fails the Biblical test of what the Christian view is. Outwardly there may be no difference to see, but on the inside, where God’s eye sees, one stands to himself and the other, in his weakness, stands unto the Lord.

Why else would Paul logically make reference to idolatry here? "Therefore," he says, "Flee from idolatry." What’s the "therefore" there for? It’s not simply because there are external idols to tempt the Corinthians (though there are) - but because the greatest idol of all is the self - and this is what Christ came to save us from. We are being saved from the arrogant and ridiculous notion that we can do anything of ourselves. We are being brought back not to self-sufficiency, but to God-dependency in all things. Not that we ever escaped real dependency, but that we distorted reality, experience, history and our pitiful lives by thinking ourselves independent, self-sustaining - and therefore worthy of our worship and service, and then we acted accordingly.

Let it be said of us as it was said of the Lord Jesus Christ mockingly - "He trusts in God, let Him deliver Him now, if He will have Him." {Mt 27:43} And this was spoken while He hung on the cross at the height of His torment.

Monday, June 16, 2008

1Cor 10:6-10 - Preserved Thru Perseverance

6-10 Now these things took place as examples for us, that we might not desire evil as they did. 7 Do not be idolaters as some of them were; as it is written, "The people sat down to eat and drink and rose up to play." 8 We must not indulge in sexual immorality as some of them did, and twenty-three thousand fell in a single day. 9 We must not put Christ to the test, as some of them did and were destroyed by serpents, 10 nor grumble, as some of them did and were destroyed by the Destroyer.

It is a frightening thing to realize that it was the will of God that the deliberate disobedience of prior generations was ordained as a lesson for us. They were permitted to rebel. In fact there is a sense in which, though they were responsible for their rebellion, God marshaled, steered, over arched, guided and destined their rebellion, all for the greater good of His true people. In Romans, Paul brings this hard truth into focus concerning Jacob and Esau. {Ro 9:10-16}

For some believers these sorts of things as hard to receive, even though the Bible is clear on the matter. Yet in the end there are limited interpretive choices. If God is sovereign and omniscient He must necessarily have ordained all things from the beginning. If there are some things that He left outside of His control - things to which His will had to adapt over time - then He has abdicated (or never had) these attributes. A God who is not sovereign over all things, including the will of His creatures, is no longer God.

Where some people get stuck is in being unable to accept that God’s absolute sovereignty does not destroy or interfere with human responsibility. For them it must be "either/or," whereas it is actually "both". The Bible is also clear on this. God ordains - men are responsible. Who are we to say to God, "Why have you made us thus," even though we cannot resist His will? And, in any event, do we not make choices according to our own desires arising from our natures? Is not every human being twice condemned - once for his nature received from Adam and once for the willing sins he commits and loves that arise from that nature?

Does any person ever born, apart from the Eternal Son taking on human flesh, love God with all his heart and soul and mind and strength? For starters all are born spiritually dead with no knowledge of the God they are commanded to love. They grow up not loving Him as they ought, because they don’t know him. And when they are grown they continue - even the very best of them - to fall woefully short of the divine standard. All this when even the slightest momentary failure deserves eternal death.

This is precisely the condition of those Israelites who failed to persevere. They loved their sin, as all men love their sin - unless God Himself reaches down into their hearts and regenerates them in Christ. The outward observances do not necessarily evidence an inward reality. Form does not guarantee substance. There must be a new heart "put within them". It is not that they must get a new heart for themselves - nor that, with the old and rebellious heart they must somehow summon the will to accept a new heart when offered. Why would they do that when the old one is so pleasing and satisfying to them?

The Holy Spirit must first do a work to change the heart so that it is willing to embrace the things of Christ. Repentance and faith are included in the gift of God in Jesus Christ. They were bought, secured and fashioned by Him Who is both the author and Perfecter of our faith. God grants repentance. God gives faith. And He does these things to those whom He regenerates. Where there is no fruit of regeneration there is no spirit of Christ and whoever does not have the spirit of Christ does not belong to Him. {Ro 8:9}

But listen - it was through the preaching of Christ that anyone at all came to faith. Faith comes by hearing and hearing by the preaching of Christ. {Ro 10:17} All those who came out of Egypt received the same law, witnessed the same miracles, heard the same commandments. All who did not truly believe had only themselves to blame for their ultimate demise. And all who persevered did so through the exercise of their believing wills. There were no robots. There was no forced overruling of the desires of their hearts. In the immortal words of that great ditty from Ernest Reisinger:


When the Canaanites hardened their hearts against God,
And Grieved Him because of their sin,
God sent along hornets to bring them to terms,
and to help His own people to win.


God does not compel us to go, oh, no!
He never compels us to go.
God does not compel us to go against our will,
But He just makes us willing to go.

If a nest of live hornets were brought to this room,
and the creatures allowed to go free,
You would not need urging to make yourself scarce,
You’d want to get out, don’t you see!
They would not lay hold
and by force of their strength,
throw you out of the window, oh, no!
But they would just make you willing to go.


When Jonah was sent to the work of the Lord,
The outlook was not very bright.
He never had done such a hard thing before,
so he backed and ran off from the fright.
Now the Lord sent a great fish to swallow him up,
The story I am sure you all know.
God did not compel him to go against his will,
But He just made him willing to go.


The obedient Israelites were not constrained as men would constrain. They were made willing through regeneration. Their nature - their heart - was changed so that they willed what God willed. And it was the Lord Jesus Christ who wrought it all. For Israel it was future, but assured through a faith that looked forward. For us it is past (in a sense) and is assured by what has been done already. There is a wonderful symmetry to all of this - a beauty that is part of the beauty of Christ Himself.

So let us be clear that this "taking place of events as examples for us" is not happenstance; it is not serendipitous; it is not God going with the flow and making something out of whole cloth on the fly. It is God writing in history with His finger those things that, through Christ, are part of the very means by which His church is edified. It is, in and to and from and for the Lord Jesus Christ and, through the election of God from eternity is consequently for all those who are, or will inevitably be, in Him.

And, in this context, the specific point of God ordaining/permitting the apostasy in the wilderness is? That we might not desire evil as they did; that we might not be idolaters as some of them were. How? By the dire warning that such things end in death, yes - and more than death they end in destruction, as far worse fate than mere death. "Fear not those that kill the body but not the soul, but rather fear Him who can destroy both body and soul in hell," the Lord Jesus Christ said. {Mt 10:28} The Biblical meaning of destruction in a soteriological context is eternal conscious torment under the unappealable, final and settled wrath of God.

Now, there may be some kind-hearted and sensitive souls that see all this destruction of the disobedient in Israel as mere discipline. The individuals themselves were saved, but as if by fire. God mercifully cut them off so that they would not lose their salvation.

On the other hand, some might think that salvation itself can be lost, once experienced, so that their salvation was conditional upon their performance.

To these two objections I say the following:

Do you remember those destroyed by serpents? Could they not have been saved if they only looked upon the brass serpent on the pole and believed God? Why, then, did so many perish when the promise was there and the evidence of their fellows being saved was all around them? Is this not a metaphor for the lost condition and its ultimate end? Unbelief is the ground of remaining under sentence of death. Without faith it is impossible to please God. But I tell you most earnestly that if you think that, of yourself, you would have been one of those looking and believing you do not know your own heart. You would have done many things, including complain and scoff at the idea that looking at a brass idol on a stick could negate the effects of deadly snake venom. This was not discipline, but the judgment of God upon sin and unbelief, which two terms are virtually synonymous.

As to the idea that these souls, having been delivered out of Egypt, were actually saved - and then lost their salvation through disobedience in the wilderness... I trow not. As I said before, many are called, but few are chosen. Hearing the gospel does not save, but believing it does. Hearing the gospel is the necessary means of communicating faith, but not all who hear believe. The deliverance prefigured by the exodus is like the sufficiency of the blood of Christ - it must be mingled with faith for it to be effective, even though it is sufficient for all. There were always many in Israel who never believed God. They went along for the ride, for the freedom, for the deliverance from earthly problems, for relief - for any number of reasons. But when the going got tough the goats began to show their genetic makeup. They were never regenerated. They had all the benefits but one – salvation, because they did not mix it all with faith.

Those that persevered to the end were those who were saved. They persevered because they were saved - not in order to be saved. They believed God with the faith they had been given. They obeyed with the will that sprang from their regenerate nature. And the means by which that obedience was aroused was in the very commands that God gave to them. Faith coming by hearing and hearing by the Word of God.

Immorality, unbelief and ingratitude are the sins mentioned here and manifested in the wilderness. All the guilty and unrepentant ones were destroyed. For the Spirit of God at work in His true people overcomes immorality, produces faith and humbles to gratitude those who know Him.

Friday, June 13, 2008

1Cor 10:1-5 - Threshing Wheat and Chaff

1-5 I want you to know, brothers, that our fathers were all under the cloud, and all passed through the sea, 2 and all were baptized into Moses in the cloud and in the sea, 3 and all ate the same spiritual food, 4 and all drank the same spiritual drink. For they drank from the spiritual Rock that followed them, and the Rock was Christ. 5 Nevertheless, with most of them God was not pleased, for they were overthrown in the wilderness.

This is a continuation of Paul’s thread from the last chapter. There he was exhorting the saints at Corinth to press in and to take the kingdom by force. He indicated that it was not enough just to have a profession of faith based on deliverance from ultimate evil. All men, if asked, would like to be delivered from hell and all would profess faith in order to acquire such a deliverance. The real question is "is such a belief evidence of real saving faith"? Paul seems to doubt this.

He uses the illustration of Israel’s deliverance from bondage in Egypt. The whole nation came out of Egypt and into the wilderness. They all underwent and they witnessed the very same experiences and manifestations. They were a precise allegory or "type" of the church, with its tares growing up with the wheat. Not all in the visible church are saved, even though they have followed a leader, been baptized - even tasted of the heavenly things and been sharers in the Holy Spirit. {Heb 6:4-6} For such people can fall away so as not to be renewed again unto repentance, whereas the true sheep can never be snatched from the hand of their Saviour.

But see how many of those leaving bondage were actually pleasing to God. A few. Not many. Does this not remind us of the Lord’s own words in Matthew? {Mt 7:13-14} Indeed, is it not a principle that we see everywhere - the principle of the remnant preserved out of a great mass? And has God Himself not left us examples in nature that also illustrate this point? Are not many seeds sown by a tree, or many eggs laid by a turtle and yet how many of these are brought all the way to adulthood?

The plain historic truth is that most of Israel did not savingly believe. God always preserved for Himself a remnant, but most of the people fell short of saving faith. It was not only among that first generation that came out of bondage that false profession and apostasy were rife, but also in all the succeeding generations on a progressively degenerative scale. There were revivals, but the trend was always down, down, down...and eventually God, who had been faithful all along, simply ceased speaking to the nation for 400 years, until the advent of Christ.

Indeed, the whole exodus and the whole history of the church catholic illustrates the teaching that "many are called, but few are chosen." Not only are not "all called," but only "many" - but not even all those who are called are ultimately saved - but only those who were chosen from eternity in Christ. Which is why we must examine ourselves to see if we are truly in the faith {2Co 13:5} and also why we must be diligent to make our calling and election sure {2Pe 1:10} by manifesting those things that are fruit and evidence of the regenerative, indwelling, sanctifying work of God.

As saints we are in the same wilderness with both the false professors and the lost. The adversities we find there are God’s chosen means of testing and proving our faith. The true children will be sanctified through suffering and tribulation - but the goats will be offended and will begin to complain, to become bitter and, ultimately, to fall away. Will we endure, trusting and believing in God no matter the circumstances He brings to us? Yes, we shall, if indeed He is at work in us, bringing us to completion on the Day. And it is through belief in God our Saviour to actually save us that we shall endure with the faith he purchased for us upon the cross.

Note, then, that most of those delivered out of Egypt were not delivered unto saving faith. They were called, but only the chosen persevered until the end. All in the Exodus heard the message(s) and received the same common grace - but only some were found faithful. All were called to repentance and faith and to obedience but most of them were overthrown. Saving faith is more than following the herd. Saving faith is more than mere profession. Saving faith perseveres to the end through trusting in God alone.

Wednesday, June 11, 2008

My Life as a Football Field

My Life
I'm not an avid football fan. The Superbowl doesn't even pique my interest. There was a time when, if men (or women) played it and it was on TV, then I was right there - in my armchair - with my housecoat on. Football, baseball, lacrosse, hockey, golf, soccer, darts, snooker, bowling - paint drying - you name it and I watched it. Almost always when I ought to have been doing something else, and always from the comfort of my own sofa. But that's another story.

Team sports make for great analogies. Motivational meetings abound with sporting metaphors. "Teamwork in the huddle", "tackling the opposition", "cheering for your side", "coming out on top". Who was it that said, "Winning isn't everything - it's the only thing"? Knute Rockne? Bear Bryant? Ara Parseghian? It sort of proves to you that I'm not a real fan when I can't think of the answer to that one.

We, the beloved, know that the maxim "winning is the only thing" is a wrong attitude for us. At least, it's wrong if we understand it to mean "win at any one else's expense." However, if we understand it to mean "give your all for the goal" there can be a certain merit in it, as Paul expressed.

In some minds I suppose that Christ might be compared to the quarterback, bringing plays to the field, communicating them to the players, dictating the play, passing the ball and getting the most out of the team. In many ways I can go along with that picture. The spiritual imagery evokes the Lord working out a predetermined plan by delegating various tasks to His people; He executes the plan through others in order to defeat His enemy, to elicit applause from onlookers and create additional fans. Nice picture!

But, like all analogies, football in general falls far short of the picture of the Christian life. Anything in which we ourselves are compared to battlers, tacklers, rushers and scorers cooperating with each other and the quarterback misses the point for me. The closest any football position comes to my understanding of the spiritual life is that of "receiver".

That is why I feel compelled to pick at this analogy a little a little bit. Football is an American game, and striving through hard work to achieve a goal is the American way. In the world striving is commendable. In spiritual things the wrong kind of striving can be deplorable. Like those who are perishing, when I walk according to the flesh rather than the Spirit, I will, find in this analogy ample encouragement towards belief in the need to earn something, to merit something, and to accomplish something for God. But such is not God's way.

Football it is a game of power, and power is perhaps one of the chief bones of contention between God and the fallen angels, and between God and man. Coming to the understanding that all power (as well as all glory and honour) must ever and always belong to the One Who alone can wield it wisely is the aim of our surrender. In scripture, power never really belongs to any one but God. When we receive power from above it is of absolutely no use to us whatsoever. But it is of immense use to God. We are not able to wield His power but we are able to be channels of it. We may not hold onto His power but we may experience Him working through us.

From time to time, most of us want to be the quarterback, even in spiritual matters. We want veto rights on the playbook. We want to be able to call audibles, give advice to the coach and to bring in our own plays. Sometimes we are tempted to feel pride in the power of our legs as they burst through the opposing line - to rejoice in our own strength and our ascendancy over our foes. Sometimes we want to get pleasure from the power of outsmarting the other team; we want the rush of the subtle head feint, the fake field goal or calling our own number in the huddle. But that's not God's way either.

If you ask where I would see myself in the football picture (besides being in my armchair) I would be obliged to say "groundskeeper." If my life is a game of football and Jesus is the quarterback, then I am the groundskeeper. I see the field as my eternal soul and my duty as watering, mowing, fertilizing and grooming the playing field upon which my Lord does what He came to do; to apply His Own work to the mayhem that surrounds and fills me. He is both quarterback and receiver; He is coach and trainer; He is referee and owner. It's His game and He cannot lose - but if I try to get my self in there then the game will unravel.

But even as groundskeeper I want to remember that I rely upon Him to select the fertilizer and to show me where, when and how to apply it; I need Him to turn on the tap and direct the placement of the sprinklers; He must tell me where to cut, how much to cut and when to go about it.

My joy and reward will be when, at some point, I look up and see that the floodlights are bathing the field intensely, the Heavenly Quarterback is rightly highlighted at centre-field, the crowd is standing and applauding Him wildly, and the game is a flawless 50-0 blow-out. He will hold up his hands to hush the crowd, point to me and say before the quieted host of euphoric fans, "Well done, you good and faithful groundskeeper!" and I will say, "What did I do, Lord - it was all you?" And it will be true!

[**In order to avoid write-ins, or even GBH at the hands of irate Cheeseheads, I will admit to finding out that it was actually Vince Lombardi who coined the phrase.]

Monday, June 09, 2008

1Cor 9:24-27 - The Nature of Competition

24-27 Do you not know that in a race all the runners compete, but only one receives the prize? So run that you may obtain it. 25 Every athlete exercises self-control in all things. They do it to receive a perishable wreath, but we an imperishable. 26 So I do not run aimlessly; I do not box as one beating the air. 27 But I discipline my body and keep it under control, lest after preaching to others I myself should be disqualified.

I must confess to having a very uncompetitive mindset. Whether this is because of a fear of failure I cannot completely tell. But it is on account of this personality trait - this mindset - that I am uncomfortable with this sort of imagery. And I think there is good reason to be uncomfortable if the competitive allegory here is understood in the way that the world sees competition.

Christians, for example, do not compete against each other. They do not vie for God’s favouritism at the expense of other believers. We do not outdo each other in the worldly sense, even though we are to spur each other on to good works. We race not against each other, but against ourselves. We do not fight each other, but we do fight against our own indwelling sinful tendencies. We pummel not each other, but our own carnality. And this is just the sort of fervour that an athlete summons as he aims for the prize. He trains. He practices. He subdues the natural dissipation of his body and his natural tendencies to take it easy and to coast.

I suppose that, if golf were a known sport during Paul’s lifetime, he would have found that game to be best suited to his point. In golf you play against the course. Others play the course, too, but it is how well you do against the standard of par that is the true goal. The more under par the better. It’s not a perfect analogy, but it serves as well as any.

Our "playing the course" - it must always be remembered - is not so that God will save us in the end, though the implication is always there that a refusal to play may result in our disqualification. Our "playing the course" is what we do in the response of faith to what we believe God has already accomplished for us as His children - and, yes, as His elect children! The finished work of Christ must always be the ground upon which we stand and move through the exercise of faith in those facts.

So we run, but not in order to become accepted; we run because we have been accepted. And to run we must practice and train daily so that we not only maintain our edge, but so that we actually improve it. This practice and training of putting to death the deeds of the body, of dying to carnal lusts and passions, of shunning worldliness - this itself is the very means by which God works in us as we work out our salvation. It is fruit. Good works are the fruit of the Spirit of Holiness. Love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, gentleness and self-control are fruit of the Spirit of Holiness, and lead to acts of lovingkindness.

It is important not to take this passage to imply that a person can lose his salvation by not training enough, by not practicing and exercising enough. What is enough? Enough for what? It cannot be "enough to earn or to secure our salvation." But it does mean "enough to demonstrate to us and to others that we are truly saved." And this is an enormous distinction. To believe incorrectly about such matters imperils the soul - for if there is any sense in us of clinging to something that we do as a precursor to our justification, or as a condition of ultimate salvation we shall perish. We must trust in Christ alone from start to finish. True children of God are equipped, furnished, endowed with all that is necessary for the course to be finished. They have received the right to become children of God through believing in and receiving Jesus Christ.

But once having received that birthright, true believers must press into the kingdom and take it by force to one degree or another. Accepting the idea of salvation but being happy never to show its fruits is always a good indication that real salvation - a true profession of faith - is absent.

What then is the prize for which we must run? What is the prize for which we discipline our carnal tendencies? It is to attain to that which we were elected unto from eternity. We struggle to lay hold of that for which we were laid hold of. This apparent paradox of God’s sovereignty and our responsibility creates a knife-edge dividing keenly the separation between utter darkness and infinite light. It is the axis, the fulcrum upon which our eternal destiny turns. When we first start out we may not see it. But which side of the divide we lay our foot upon determines which side of the mountain we end up at. And God, I believe, has deliberately ordained this tension between what He has done and what we must do in response - and the importance of getting the order correct - so that we keep moving into the infinity of His sovereignty in all things.

There can be only one ultimate will in the universe. There can be only one God. Surely this has much to do with why God ordained evil, the fall, the redemption and glorification of His church. This has much to do with why He sent the eternal Son to reconcile all things to Himself. There came a great divide - a separation - between God and man and this divide is bridged by Christ for all who believe. Obviously God’s creatures can only be right with Him and content of themselves when their will is to perfectly and willingly do His will forever. This they could never have done unless they had been regenerated by God. Because of Christ the eternal state of every member of mankind will be forever fixed as either bliss or torment.

Christ is solely responsible for those who enter into bliss, but those who are left in the state of their own willing rebellion to willingly continue opposing, denying and disobeying the will of God have no one but themselves to blame. So, again, though I press into the kingdom by force, yet my pressing in finds its source in the saving, sanctifying, completed work of the Lord Jesus Christ - and not in me of myself.

Sunday, June 08, 2008

1Cor 9:19-23 - Classic Abuse of the Text

19-23 For though I am free from all, I have made myself a servant to all, that I might win more of them. 20 To the Jews I became as a Jew, in order to win Jews. To those under the law I became as one under the law (though not being myself under the law) that I might win those under the law. 21 To those outside the law I became as one outside the law (not being outside the law of God but under the law of Christ) that I might win those outside the law. 22 To the weak I became weak, that I might win the weak. I have become all things to all people, that by all means I might save some. 23 I do it all for the sake of the gospel, that I may share with them in its blessings.

And now we come to one of the most tortured and abused texts in all of scripture. This passage has been used to justify all manner of worldliness and cultural compromise in the name of preaching the gospel. Arguments abound, even today, in movements like the Emerging/Emergent movement, just as they did over the last 75 years in the liberal movement and its child, the social gospel. These are often arguments condoning compromise in the name of relevance. They make culture the defining factor in making the gospel clear instead of the Spirit of God at work in the faithful preaching of Christ.

"I have become all things to all people, that by all means I might save some."

This "benchmark phrase" needs to be seen in two contexts, namely: a) the whole of scripture and what it says about how men are saved - and b) the particular context that Paul is addressing here in Corinthians, and in this section of Corinthians in particular. This is how we interpret scripture. We don’t jump on the words in any given verse as if they are unrelated to everything else God has said - or as if this a truth unrelated to THE Truth in the larger - one might say "ultimate" - context.

Foremost in my own mind when I read this is what Paul has already spoken in this very epistle about Who it is that saves and how. Do we remember the teaching that "the natural man does not receive the things of the Spirit of God, neither can he, for they are spiritually discerned"? Of himself, Paul can actually save no one, even though he uses language that his objective is to "save some." Paul has spent time describing himself as an instrument, a tool, a slave - as being dead to himself, as the living Christ being in him by the Spirit to will and to do of God’s good pleasure. It is through submission to God, through obedience to the Word, and by means of the faith that springs from regeneration by God that he becomes (by enactment) the will of God in the world. He does not necessarily understand that will in the fullest sense. He does not know what God will do with his own work in exhaustive detail. He cannot see the future.

God alone knows all things and God’s plan, including the life of Paul, is unfolding as it should, according to God’s purpose. But God’s plan includes that Paul must live by faith. He must believe God. He must act upon that belief. And when he acts it will be revealed to him what the good and acceptable will of God is. Is it success? Is it failure? Is it apparent indifference? Is it a call to further patience and hope?

All of this is included in the simple assertion that Paul wants to save people. It is not largely found in the surrounding text, but is readily gleaned from other things - inspired things - that Paul wrote to this and to other congregations.

But why is it important? It is important because this text must be approached with the idea in mind that it is God alone Who saves - and that He does it through the faithful preaching of Christ by people who are speaking the truth in love, having themselves been delivered from darkness, regenerated by the Spirit of God and living a life that trusts God to be at work for His glory in their believing, obedient and submissive proactivity.

That said, the immediate context must reflect this truth, even though it is not necessarily spelled out clearly here. Is Paul giving carte blanche to people to evangelize by any means available, including mimicking the culture? Is this what Paul has done? Or is the context much more limited and specific than that?

I submit that it is limited. The key to the limitation is that Paul is acting under the law of Christ and not without any law whatsoever. The law of Christ is not "works justification" but holiness in all things and a desire to honour and obey God because of what He has done in Christ. This is true witnessing. It is not "save people by all means and at any cost" but "God has already paid the price for the salvation of all His people, and they must be brought into the fold by holy means".

"Holy means" are the obedience of faith. They are bringing Christ to the culture without mimicking or partaking in the sinful aspects of it. They are loving those who are different while being different ourselves. They are "not seeking to give offence for any other reason than that the gospel itself is an offence to the natural man." The offence cannot be taken out of the gospel and no compromise must ever be entertained that would do so. But neither should anything be introduced with the gospel presentation that offends because we ourselves are offensive.

In all this God must be both trusted and obeyed. It is no use to trust God unless we are obedient. It is no use to trust means that clearly compromise holiness.

What has Paul done? In his own words, he has complied with certain observances when among Jews so as not to make himself a stumbling block to his audience. He has not let their adherence to moral and ceremonial law as a means of acceptance before God keep him from bringing the good news of Christ. To do this he did not feign a belief in their error, but neither did he shy away from his Jewish heritage. Central to his evangelism of Jews was, in fact, that their whole trust in law for justification with God was wrong and that they needed to trust in this (seemingly) accursed, criminal, "dead" peasant as the Messiah they were waiting for. It was the message that was offensive and not Paul himself. Paul went to great lengths to ensure that when they rejected the gospel they were not simply rejecting him - and whenever they accepted the gospel it was because the word of Truth was made alive in their hearts by the Holy Spirit.

By saying that he has become all things to all people Paul is simply asserting and testifying to his desire not to be the stumbling block by which people reject the gospel. He will bring the gospel in a Jewish context to Jews; he will bring it in a pagan context to pagans; he will not make a show of either his great heritage or his great learning so as to put people off from listening to the message. But he never changes the message itself because all else is merely an attempt to bring that message without baggage or distraction to men of all cultures and nations. And the message is that men are lost, hell-bound sinners unless they trust God in Jesus Christ to be their only justification before Him.

I know of a woman who ministers to the underculture on the streets of Amsterdam. She has tattoos and visible body piercings and she preaches Christ to them. Does she look that way in order to be relevant when the Bible clearly frowns on tattoos and body piercing? Or is she a person saved from the idolatry that lies behind these things and to whom they have no more importance or power than meat sacrificed to idols did to truly delivered pagans? Does she look this way so as not to offend - or is it a secret desire to enjoy a freedom she does not truly have? She must give an answer to God, as we all must.

Note that the question never, ever turns upon whether a thing "works." That is the lamest, most ignorant and least god-fearing excuse for an evangelistic behaviour that there could be. It betrays an ignorance of how God works and what grace really is. The measure of all things in the kingdom of God is not "do they work" but are they pleasing to God. If we today applied the "do they work" paradigm to Jesus’ methods in His earthly lifetime he would be hounded out of the church and condemned as a failure. He always did what was pleasing to His Father, even when it flew in the face of, angered or puzzled men. And we should look no different whenever we are walking in Him.

Finally, Paul is careful to couch his attitude of mind as that of a servant to all. He serves mankind for Christ’s sake and in Christ’s way. He serves unbelievers by bringing the gospel to them. He serves believers by guiding and exhorting them in the ways of God. As God’s servant to humanity, in the mold of Jesus Christ who came to serve and not to be served, Paul is absolutely free from ritualistic and cultural observances. He is under no compulsion in such matters as long as his conscience is not offended. But he is under compulsion to preach the gospel. It is not a compulsion arising from the despotic tyranny of a law he cannot keep, but a freely given response to the grace of God by which he has been regenerated and is being sanctified.

No mere man’s "ought" can compel Paul. And no mere man’s invention can deter him. Only in all things that he pleases God by fulfilling his commission in God’s way.