Tribulation Saint

Historic Christianity in the Twenty First Century

Category: Christian Life

THE BELIEVER’S RULE OF CONDUCT – III

 

 

As we have seen then what God requires of us is that we love Him with whole heart, soul and mind, and our neighbors as ourselves.  How, then, does a Christian determine whether a given action is right or wrong?  First of all through the imitation of Christ.  We should imitate Him and His example of self-sacrificing love.  “Let this mind be in you which was also in Christ Jesus . . .” (Phil. 2:5; NKJV, cf. Eph. 4:32-5:1; Col. 3:13).  What would Jesus do in a given situation?  How would He react to the other person?

Secondly, we should follow the leading of the Holy Spirit.  “If we live in the Spirit, let us also walk in the Spirit” (Gal. 5:25).  There will not be a written instruction to cover every possible situation.  But a genuine concern for the other person, arising from a proper attitude of heart produced by the Holy Spirit, will lead us to do the right thing.  Our lives should manifest the fruit of the Spirit.

Everything, of course, should be consistent with the teachings of the New Testament.  “As you therefore have received Christ Jesus the Lord, so walk in Him, rooted and built up in Him, abounding in it with thanksgiving” (Col. 2:6,7).  “Finally then, brethren, we urge and exhort in the Lord Jesus that you should abound more and more, just as you received from us how you ought to walk and please God: for you know what commandments we gave you through the Lord Jesus” (I Thess. 4:1,2)/  Jesus and the apostles have given us general instructions on how to live a life that is pleasing to God.  These instructions are contained in the New Testament and ought always to be observed.

What all of this requires is that we “test” or “prove” what the will of God is.  The apostle Paul tells us to “be transformed by the renewing of your mind, that you may prove what is that good and acceptable and perfect will of God” (Rom. 12:2), or as it might more literally be translated, “that you might test and prove what the will of God is, the good and the well-pleasing, and the complete or perfect.”  The implication is that in each situation that we encounter we should ask, “Is it good? – does it have a beneficial effect?”  “Is it well-pleasing to God – in accordance with His moral attributes?”  “Is it complete or perfect? – Does it fully meet the need?”  We should apply the general principles of God’s Word to a given situation to see what course of action would be acceptable to Him (cf. Eph. 5:10; Phil. 1:9-11; I Thess. 5:21,22).

An example will illustrate the difference between being under the law and being under grace.  Consider the biblical teaching on marriage.  The 7th Commandment states “You shall not commit adultery,” and the Old Testament then goes on to condemn various sexual practices: incest, homosexual behavior (Lev. 18:22; 20:13), bestiality and prostitution.  It gives various regulations on how to handle cases of sex outside of marriage, female captives taken in war, polygamy and spouses who die without offspring.  And there is a provision on how to handle divorce (Dt. 24:1-4).  Marriage is looked at as a civil institution enforceable by law.  But the Torah (Pentateuch) is largely silent on how spouses are to treat each other.  (There are passages in Psalms, Proverbs and the Song of Solomon that talk about the pleasures and pains of marriage.)

But when we turn to the New Testament a somewhat different picture emerges.  Jesus begins by quoting the 7th Commandment, but then goes on to say, “But I say to you that whoever looks on a woman to lust for her has already committed adultery with her in his heart” (Matt. 5:28).  Here the focus shifts from the outward act to the inward thought, and it is the thought that makes one guilty in the sight of God.

But just as revealing is Jesus’ teaching concerning divorce.  He began by going to the creation account in Genesis 1 and 2 (“and the two shall become one flesh” – Matt. 19:5) and then said, “Therefore what God has joined together, let not man separate” (v. 6).  He then went on to say that “Moses, because of the hardness of your hearts, permitted you to divorce your wives, but from the beginning it was not so” (v. 8).  The implication is that Moses had made certain concessions to human weakness, and the Mosaic legislation did not perfectly reflect what God actually requires of us as human beings.

And when we turn to the epistles we get an even fuller picture of what God actually requires of us.  “Husbands, love your wives, just as Christ also loved the church and gave Himself for her” (Eph. 5:25).  And “just as the church is subject to Christ, so let the wives be to their own husbands in everything” (v. 24).  It is not enough merely to avoid an act of open adultery.  Husbands are to love their wives.  And how?  “. . . just as Christ love the church.”  What is required is more than just bare compliance with the letter of the law.  What is required is genuine and active concern for others, a self-sacrificing love; and Christ is our supreme example of that. (Interestingly the Westminster Larger Catechism, in its treatment of the 7th Commandment, does not mention husbands loving their wives, other than “conjugal love” and “cohabitation” ).

The New Testament, then, gives us a fuller revelation of the will of God than does the Old, and the Old Testament should be interpreted in the light of the New.  And sanctification is not so much a matter of following a detailed list of rules and regulations as it is manifesting the fruit of the Spirit in our lives.

The goal, then, is not just an external conformity to the letter of the law.  What God requires of us as human beings is love; but love cannot be reduced to a set of written rules and regulations.  Love avoids harming others, and thus fulfills the law.  But it goes beyond the law to seek the positive good of others.  And true Christian love springs from an active principle produced within the heart by the Holy Spirit.  Let us make it our aim. Then, in life, to be conformed to the image of Christ (Rom. 8:29; II Cor. 3:18; Col. 3:10).  May Jesus Christ be praised!

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THE BELIEVER’S RULE OF CONDUCT – II

 

As we saw in our last blog post when the Apostle Paul said that we are not under law but under grace he was not saying that there is no moral law, but that the only way to fulfill that law is not by keeping the letter of the old covenant but by following the guidance of the Holy Spirit.  Basically there are two major issues here.  The first has to do with the content of the moral law – how do we know what God really requires of us?  The Torah (The Five Books of Moses or the Pentateuch) generally does not make a distinction between the “moral,” the “civil,” and the “ceremonial” law.  It was initially given to meet an immediate need for a set of laws to govern the Israelite community, and Israel was bound to obey all of it.  The majority of the laws are phrased negatively and have penalties attached.  Instructions are given on how judges are to decide cases.

And underlying moral code is implied, however.  Part of it is rooted in the character of God himself – His own moral attributes.  “But You, O Lord, are a God full of compassion, and gracious, / Longsuffering and abundant in mercy and truth” (Ps. 86:15, echoing the words of Ex. 34:6).  This, in turn, means that there are certain things God hates: “There are six things the Lord hates, / Yes, seven are an abomination to Him: / A proud look; / A lying tongue, / Hands that shed innocent blood . . .” etc. (Prov. 6:16-19.  God judged the entire world at the time of the Flood because He “saw that the wickedness of man was great in the earth, and that every intent of the thoughts of his heart was only evil continually” (Gen. 6:5).  He destroyed Sodom and Gomorrah “because their sin was very grave” (Gen. 18:20).  Likewise the Canaanites were to be destroyed “for they commit all these things and therefore I abhor them” (Lev. 20:23).  Therefore David could say, “Lord, who may abide in Your tabernacle? / Who may dwell in Your holy hill? / He who walks uprightly, / And works righteousness, / And speaks the truth in his heart . . .” (Ps. 15).

Jesus himself made it clear that the moral law is not done away.  “Do not think that I came to destroy the Law or the Prophets.  I did not come to destroy but to fulfill.  For assuredly, I say to you, till heaven and earth pass away, one jot or tittle will by no means pass from the law till all is fulfilled” (Matt. 5:17,18).

On the other hand it is probably not true that “The moral law is summarily comprehended in the ten commandments.”  Strictly speaking, the Ten Commandments (literally, the “Ten Words” or “Sayings”) were “the words of the covenant” (Ex. 34:27,28; Dt. 4:13), a summary of the terms and conditions of God’s covenant with Israel.  While they obviously reflect basic moral principles, it would be a mistake to say that they “continue to be a perfect rule of righteousness.”

But how, then, do we know what the true moral law requires?  To know that we must turn to the teachings of Christ and the apostles in the New Testament.  We must interpret the Old Testament in the light of the New.

And according to the New Testament what is really required from us as human beings and as Christians is that we love the Lord with all of our heart and soul and mind, and lover our neighbors as ourselves, as Jesus said (Matt. 22:34-40, quoting Dt. 6:5 and Lev. 19:18).  Or to put it another way, the essence of the moral law can be summed up in the Golden Rule: “Therefore, whatever you want men to do to you, do also to them, for this is the Law and the Prophets” (Matt. 7:12).  Significantly Jesus said that “this is the Law and the Prophets.”  The mandate to love was always there – it was just buried under a mass of civil and ceremonial regulations.

Love does not do away with the law; it goes beyond it.  If you love someone, if you genuinely care about him, you will not harm him.  In this sense love fulfills the law (Rom. 13:8-10; Gal. 5:13-15).  But at the same time what love requires cannot be reduced to a set of rules and regulations – “thou shalt not do this” or “thou shalt not do that.”  Strictly speaking the purpose of the written law is to show us what we have done wrong (I Tim. 1:8-10).  But genuine love actively seeks the wellbeing of the other person and is not content merely to meet the minimum requirement of the law.  And meeting the needs of others cannot be prescribed in detail by a written law code.  Love actively looks for opportunities to help and to serve.  It does not have to be told to do so.

Which brings us to the second consideration, which is the motive of obedience.  Why do we do what we do?  Is it a matter of pride?  Or fear of punishment?  Do we simply go the life doing the bare minimum that is required of us in order to please someone else?

A genuinely righteous person does what is right because he wants to do what is right.  He genuinely cares about others and actively seeks their good.  The question is not, what do I have to do?  Rather the question is, what can I do to further God’s glory and help others?  The Holy Spirit produces His fruit in the heart of the believer, giving him the proper desires and motives.  As a result the believer does not have to be told what to do under threat of punishment; he does it instinctively and spontaneously.

C.I. Scofield, who was originally trained as a lawyer, used an interesting example to illustrate the point.  “The law of the commonwealth requires parents to care for their offspring, and pronounces penalties for the willful neglect of them; but the land is full of happy mothers who tenderly care for their children in perfect ignorance of the existence of such a statute.   The law is in their hearts. (“Rightly Dividing the Word of Truth,” p. 41).

THE BELIEVER’S RULE OF CONDUCT – I

 

How do we determine right and wrong?  In a rapidly changing society, a society which has legalized abortion and same-sex marriage, the question becomes more pressing than ever.  And even among professing Christians questions arise over various particular ethical norms – is it ever right to take a drink, or to go dancing?  What exactly does God expect from us?

For many years the answer was that “the moral law is summarily comprehended in the ten commandments” (Westminster Shorter Catechism, Question 41).  The Catechism then goes on to give an exposition of each commandment, stating that something is required in each and something forbidden.  Together they constituted “a perfect rule of righteousness” (Westminster Confession of Faith, XIX,ii), and “doth for ever bind all, as well justified persons as others” (Section v).

More recently that view has been challenged by some, primarily Dispensationalist theologians.  A footnote in the Scofield Reference Bible on “The Christian doctrine of the law” states that “Law is in contrast with grace,” that Christ “redeemed the believer both from the curse and from the dominion of the law,” that “law neither justifies a sinner nor sanctifies a believer,” “The believer is both dead to the law and redeemed from it, so that he is ‘not under the law, but under grace,’” and that “Under the new covenant of grace the principle of obedience to the divine will is inwrought” (pp. 1244-1245).  There are scriptural references for each assertion but little in the way of explanation, and it is not exactly clear what the editors of the Scofield Bible meant by “redeemed from the dominion of the law,” “dead to the law,” and “not under the law.”

What underlies both positions are distinctive systems of theology.  The Westminster Divines held to a system of Covenant Theology, which argues that God made a Covenant of Grace with Adam after the Fall, and that we are still under that same Covenant of Grace today.  The result is a tendency to minimize the difference between the Old and New Testaments, between law and grace.  There is no mention in Scripture, however, of any such covenant with Adam.

The Dispensational position, on the other hand, tries to draw a sharp distinction between “the Dispensation of Law” and “the Dispensation of Grace.”  But is a Christian still obligated to keep the Ten Commandments?  Now that we are “under grace” is it alright to commit adultery?  The editors of the Scofield Bible say that we are not “under the law,” but that we are not free to sin either.  But apart from the law how do we determine what is sin?  Is there not some sense in which we are still “under the law”?

The apostle Paul did, in fact, say that we are “not under the law but under grace” (Rom. 6:14,15; cf. Gal. 5:18).  But what exactly did he mean by that?  The context in both Romans and Galatians is the controversy surrounding Paul’s ministry to the Gentiles, and his conviction that Gentile converts are not required to be circumcised or to keep the Mosaic law.  What undoubtedly lies in the background here is the Pharisees’ conception of the Mosaic law as a collection of 613 individual commandments, and that sanctification involved stringent rule keeping.  This, however, misses the point of what God really requires, which is that we “do justly, love mercy, and walk humbly with our God” (Mic. 6:8; NKJV).

When Paul draws a contrast between “law” and “grace” he does not intend to say that the believer is free to sin.  Far from it.  “What then?  Shall we sin because we are not under law but under grace?  Certainly not!” (Rom. 6:14).  But what does he mean?  He goes on in the next chapter to say that “You also have become dead to the law through the body of Christ, that you may be married to another – to Him who was raised from the dead, that we should bear fruit to God (Rom. 7:4).  He then says that “we have been delivered from the law, having died to what we were held by, so that we could serve in newness of the Spirit and not in the oldness of the letter” (7:6).

What Paul is saying here is that the written law, per se, is powerless to change us or make us holy.  Only Christ working through the Holy Spirit can do that.  Hence the contrast between “the newness of the Spirit” and “the oldness of the letter.”  He then goes on in chapter 8 to say “what the law could not do in that it was weak through the flesh, God did by sending His own Son . . . that the righteous requirement of the law might be fulfilled in us who do not walk according to the flesh but according to the Spirit” (Rom. 8:4,5).  The “righteous requirement of the law” must still be fulfilled.  But what does it mean to “walk according to the Spirit”?  It means to “live according to the Spirit” and to “set their minds on the things of the Spirit” and “to be spiritually minded” (vv. 5,6).  Paul, then, is not saying that there is no moral law, but that the only way to fulfill the law is not by keeping the letter of the old covenant but by following the guidance of the Holy Spirit as He produces His fruit in us.

PAUL THE CALVINIST; PAUL THE ANABAPTIST

 

One of the great scandals of the modern church, at least in America, is the sectarian rivalries that divide it.  The church is divided into warring camps, each taking great pains to disavow the theology of the others.  Lutheranism, Anglicanism, the Reformed Faith, Anabaptism, Dispensationalism and Pentecostalism are all seen as distinct species of religion, with barely anything in common.  Even the variety of Restoriationist movements (Plymouth Brethren, Church of Christ) display an extreme sectarian mentality.

And so it is that advocates of “the Reformed Faith” and the “Anabaptist Heritage” often eye each other with the deepest suspicion.  The one is thoroughly Calvinistic in theology; the other just as thoroughly Arminian.  Could both groups possibly be reading the same Bible?

They might both be surprised at what the Bible actually says.  For example, when we look at the writings of Paul in particular and try to describe him in modern terms, we find that he was both a “Calvinist” and an “Anabaptist” at the same time.

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John Calvin

Consider Paul’s Epistle to the Ephesians.  In the first half of the epistle Paul characteristically discusses doctrine; in the second, practice.  The one flows from the other.  There is no such thing as theology without practical implications; and there is no such thing as a Christian lifestyle that is not rooted in a Christian worldview.  The two go hand-in-hand.  And in Paul’s case the theology is thoroughly “Calvinistic,” if we can impose such an anachronistic term on a first century apostle.  He begins in Chapter One, verses 3-14 with a breathtaking overview of the plan of redemption, ascribing everything to God’s grace.  He mentions election and predestination, and repeatedly stressed that salvation was “according to the good pleasure of His will” (vv. 5,9; NKJV), and “to the praise of the glory of His grace” (vv. 6,12,14).  He then prays that the Ephesian believers will come to understand the greatness of God’s power toward them (1:19,20).

In Chapter Two he goes on to describe human depravity (2:1-3) and salvation by grace through faith (2:8-10).  He then goes on in Chapter Three to ascribe all to God’s eternal plan, which Paul describes as a mystery which has now been revealed.  He finally concludes the doctrinal section of the book with a benediction (3:20,21) in which he exalts the power of God and gives all glory to Him.  Thus the first half of the epistle is a veritable wellspring of Reformed theology.

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Menno Simons

But in the second half of the epistle one would have thought that Paul had changed denominations.  He describes the church as a community of believers united to each other by a spiritual bond (4:1-16).  This, in turn, requires a life lived in non-conformity to the world (4:17-24), and the practice of brotherly love (4:2,3; 4:29-5:2).  It is, in fact, a thoroughly Anabaptist view of the church and the Christian life.

Significantly Paul begins the practical section of the epistle with the word “therefore.” The word signifies that what follows is the logical conclusion to what went before.  This means that the Anabaptist ethics that Paul described in the second half of the book follows logically from the Calvinistic theology of the first half.  Paul sums up his argument in 4:1: “I, therefore . ..beseech you to walk worthy of the calling with which you have been called.”  The “calling” is the plan of redemption described in Chapters 1-3.  It is effectual calling, a calling which has the actual effect of drawing the sinner to Christ.  The gist of Paul’s argument is that the “calling” should result in the kind of changed life that he describes in Chapters 4-6.

And the one does logically flow from the other.  If the lost are totally depraved and in bondage to sin, and if the saved have been inwardly renewed by irresistible grace, the saved will live differently from the lost.  Salvation is a change which makes a real difference, and it is a change which results from something that God has done inside of us.  It is the result of God’s grace and power.

Paul was consistent with himself; his modern interpreters are not.  Today we tend to think of Calvinism and Anabaptism as two separate and distinct belief systems, mutually opposed to each other.  But this is largely because of the conflicts that arose during the Reformation.  But in the context of the First Century church they were not.  They are merely two different sides of the same New Testament Christianity.

The problem with Luther and Calvin is that, while they recovered the doctrine of justification by faith, they did so in the context of state churches.  What they could not see was that if we are justified by faith, then we must have faith in order to be saved.  Only believers are true Christians.  But if this is true then only a church which is made up of believers can function like a true Christian church.  The state cannot make someone a Christian; only the Holy Spirit can.  By trying to reform state churches Luther and Calvin missed the clear implications of their own theology.  On the doctrine of justification they were biblical and evangelical.  On their doctrine of the church they were medieval.

The problem with the Anabaptists is that they had a natural tendency to react against the magisterial Reformers who were persecuting them, and thus we have the divisions that are typical today.  But no such division existed in the First Century.  It was all one and the same Christianity.  Paul was both a “Calvinist” and an “Anabaptist”!

WHY CHURCH?

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Many readers would undoubtedly agree with most of what we have said so far.  But in the minds of many younger people there remains an important question.  Granted the necessity of having a personal relationship with Christ, why bother going to church?  Cannot someone worship God and have a relationship with Christ without going to church?

For many people the question arises because of bad church experiences they have had in the past.  Some pastors are domineering and tyrannical; some church members are judgmental and self-righteous.  Some churches are too commercialized.  There have been ugly church splits.  There have been sex scandals and financial impropriety.  And in all too many cases there is very little that is genuinely spiritual about the typical modern institutionalized church.  It is understandable, therefore, that many would want Christ but not the church.

The biblical answer to this is found in Hebrews 10:24,25: “And let us consider one another in order to stir up love and good works, not forsaking the assembling of ourselves together, as is the manner of some, but exhorting one another, and so much the more as you see the Day approaching” (NKJV).  Why should we not “forsake the assembling of yourselves together”?  So that we can “stir up love and good works” and “exhort one another.”  And none of this can take place unless we have regular interaction with each other.

To understand what exactly this passage is getting at it is important to realize that the First Century church did not operate the way most modern churches do today.  In the First Century there were few, if any, church buildings, nor was there a professionally trained clergy.  Nor were there separate denominations.  Rather, the entire Christian community in a given city was considered a single church, so that it was possible to speak of the “church at Ephesus” or the “church of the Thessalonians.”  Each of these large metropolitan churches was governed by a board of elders (Acts 20:17) who were chosen from within the local church based on their spiritual gifts and maturity.  There was no “senior pastor.”  On certain occasions the entire, large, city-wide church would hold a meeting in some open, public place (Acts 5:12).

Within these large, city-wide churches there were smaller groups that met in private homes (Acts 2:46; Rom. 16:5; Phln. 2).  It was in these smaller house churches that the Lord’s Table would be observed.  We have a description of one of these gatherings in Acts 20:6-12.  The believers were meeting in an upper room on a Sunday evening and Paul preached long into the night, after which they broke bread.  It would have been in these smaller gatherings that the believers would have had the opportunity to interact with each other.

In this context, then, it is easier to see how a church is supposed to function.  It is assumed that all baptized church members have been genuinely born again and have the Holy Spirit dwelling within them.  They are each given spiritual gifts (I Cor. 12:4-11) and they are to use these gifts to edify one another and build up the body of Christ (Eph. 4:7-13).  We do this by exhorting one another (Heb. 3:13), confessing our sins to each other (Jas. 5:16) and bearing one another’s burdens (Gal. 6:2).  All of this necessitates some form of regular, small-group interaction, which is why the author of the Letter to the Hebrews tells us not to forsake the assembling of ourselves together.  It is the means by which we “stir up to love and good works” and “exhort one another.”

The Christian life cannot be lived in isolation from other Christians.  The basic ethical requirement of the Christian life is that we love one another, and that means that we must actually care for each other (I John 3:16-18).  And that cannot be done unless we are an active part of a local church body.  The question should not be, “what can the church do for me?”; but rather “what can I contribute to the church?”

The church has long since departed from the apostolic model.  During the Middle Ages it developed into an elaborate hierarchy supported by the state.  Worship became formal and ritualistic.  During the Reformation improvements were made, but they mainly involved taking existing state-sponsored institutional churches and “reforming” them.  The priest was replaced by the pastor whose chief function was to teach the congregation, but it was still largely a one-man ministry.  During times of revival, however, when there were real spiritual awakenings, small group interactions would often reappear – Sunday afternoon conferences, prayer bands and class meetings.  Where there is genuine spiritual life it must express itself, and express itself it did.

So what about today?  Where can one find a church like that? – one that is genuinely spiritual?  No church is perfect – we are all human and fall short of what God expects from us, and that includes churches as well as individuals.   The truly amazing thing about church history is that a God who is infinite, holy, all-wise and all-powerful would choose to use clay vessels like ourselves to accomplish His purposes on earth.  And so there is no such thing as a perfect church, but some are better than others.  Is the pastor a godly man?  Does he possess the biblical qualifications for an elder?  Are his sermons biblically sound?  Are they practical?  Does prayer play an important part in the life of the congregation?  Does the church exercise church discipline?

But more importantly, is there meaningful small group interaction?  This can take several forms, including small home group Bible studies, an active midweek prayer meeting, or adult Sunday School classes.

But the question is, do the believers actively work to build each other up spiritually?  Only then can the church accomplish what Christ intended for it.

“And you will seek Me and find Me, when you search for Me with

All your heart.”        (Jer. 29:13; cf. Dt. 4:29)

THE CHRISTIAN VIEW OF SEX

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Anthony Van Dyck: Family Portrait

 

 

America, in recent decades, has seen a tremendous revolution in sexual mores, and this has placed the more conservative religious groups in an uncomfortable position.  Most younger people today have engaged in sexual activity outside of marriage, and the Supreme Court decision legalizing same sex marriage has made homosexual activity acceptable to much of society.  Now conservative churches are in the position of being labelled prudish, intolerant, and even “homophobic” and hateful.  What should churches do in such a situation?  Accept the sexual revolution as an accomplished fact?  Or remain faithful to the basic moral principles that have guided them for thousands of years?

In a situation like this it must never be forgotten that as human beings we are all ultimately accountable to a Supreme Being, and that it is our Creator who is the final arbiter of right and wrong.  And sex, like everything else in life, must be understood in terms of God’s creative purposes.

The opening chapters of Genesis describe what those purposes are.  “So God created man in His own image; in the image of “God He created him; male and female He created them.  Then God blessed them, and God said to them, ‘Be fruitful and multiply; fill the earth and subdue it; have dominion over the fish of the sea, over the birds of the air, and over every living thing that moves on the earth” (Gen. 1:27,28; NKJV).  The implication here is that the world has a certain natural order to it, an order that placed there by our Creator.  Gender distinctions are a part of that order (“male and female He created them”), and the primary purpose of sex is procreation (“be fruitful and multiply”), and that presupposes a heterosexual relationship.

The next chapter in Genesis goes on specifically to describe the creation of woman.  “And the Lord God said, ‘It is not good that man should be alone; I will make a helper comparable to him’” (Gen. 2:18).  God then goes on to create Eve, and the passage describes the rationale behind marriage: “Therefore a man shall leave his father and mother and be joined to his wife, and they shall become one flesh” (Gen. 2:24).

In line with God’s creative purpose, then, there are a number of sexual practices that are condemned in the Bible.  The Old Testament condemns incest (Lev. 18:6-18), adultery (Lev. 18:20; Dt. 22:22), homosexuality (Lev. 18:22), bestiality (Ex. 22:19; Lev. 18:23) and cross dressing (Dt. 22:5).

Some have imagined that Jesus took a more tolerant view of such matters, but the opposite is true.  The Old Testament allowed for divorce, but Jesus condemned it (Matt. 19:1-12), and at one point actually went so far as to say “But I say to you that whoever looks as a woman to lust for her has already committed adultery with her in his heart” (Matt. 5:27-30).  And so the apostle Paul could write “But fornication and all uncleanness or covetousness, let it not even be named among you, as is fitting for saints” (Eph. 5:3); and Heb. 13:4 tells us “Marriage is honorable among all, and the bed undefiled; but fornicators and adulterers God will judge.”

Does this mean that Christians are being “hateful” and “intolerant” by upholding God’s standards of sexual conduct?  Not at all!  Marriage was created for our good, and it serves our best interests if done the way God intended it.  “For in the resurrection they neither marry nor or given in marriage, but are like angels of God in heaven” (Matt. 22:30); but in this life “He who finds a wife finds a good thing, / And obtains favor from the Lord” (Prov. 18:22).

What the biblical standards of morality do is to create a stable family life.  Children are brought into the world by parents who are in a permanent, binding relationship with each other.  The husband and wife naturally complement each other.  In a successful marriage there is real love and devotion towards each other and towards the children that spring from the union.

But what has the sexual revolution done for America?  One out of every two marriages ends in divorce, many children are born out of wedlock, and a large number of children are growing up in single parent families.  Poverty is pandemic, along with a hose of other social problems, and many of these problems can be traced directly back to the unstable family structure.

It all comes down to man’s fallen sinful nature.  There is a difference between lust and love.  Love sacrificially gives of itself to the other person; lust uses the other person for its own selfish ends.  Love builds relationships; lust destroys them.

Are Christians, then, being hateful and intolerant?  Not at all.  If we have a genuine concern for our neighbor’s well-being we will want to promote his best interests.  And sin is never in anyone’s best interest.  Would you buy a bottle of whiskey for an alcoholic?  Or even sell him a pack of cigarettes?   Why then would you help a pair of homosexuals sin by catering their wedding reception?  In each of these cases you would be contributing to the other person’s downfall and ruin.  That is not love.  That is being complicit with the crime, and no one’s genuine best interest is served that way.

Some may argue that the times have changed and that the church must change with the times – that we cannot live in the past.  But as we said before we must never forget that we are ultimately accountable to a Supreme Being, and that He never changes.  In the end His opinion is the only one that matters.

THE NATURE OF TRUE VIRTUE

 

 

It is striking that even among professed Bible-believing Christians there is a poor understanding of what the Christian life is all about.  One tendency is to think that because salvation is a free gift it does not matter how we live (“God loves you and has a wonderful plan for your life”).  Another tendency is to think that Christian ethics consists mainly of avoiding certain sinful practices (smoking, drinking, dancing, card-playing, etc.).  And even in Reformed circles there is a tendency to a form of dead orthodoxy.

What the Bible actually says about the subject, however, is quite different, and the apostle Paul gives us a snapshot of what that is in Colossians 3:12-15.  He begins by describing the favored positions that Christians enjoy in Christ: “Therefore, as the elect of God, holy and beloved, put on tender mercies . . .” (v. 12; NKJV).  Here he uses three adjectives to describe the Colossian believers: “elect,” “holy,” and “beloved.”  “Elect” points to fact that believers become Christians because they are first chosen by God.  The second adjective, “holy,” points to the fact that they were set apart from the rest of humanity and enjoyed a special relationship with God.  The third adjective, “beloved,” points to the fact that they had become the special objects of God’s love.  Together the three adjectives underscore God’s grace in our salvation.  We were poor, underserving sinners whom He rescued in His grace and mercy.

But this has definite implications for the way we should live.  And so Paul tells the Colossian believers to “put on” certain virtues, in much the same way that someone night put on a coat or jacket.  It involves a conscious decision to live a certain way.

He begins by listing several virtues: “tender mercies, kindness, humility, meekness, longsuffering” (v. 12).  These all involve the way we feel and act toward others.  The “tender mercies” (or “bowels of mercies,” as the old King James Version has it) refers to a tender compassion that we ought to feel toward others.  “Meekness” might better be translated “gentleness.”  “Longsuffering” literally means “slow to anger.”

Paul then goes on to describe how these virtues work out in actual practice.  He says “bearing with one another, and forgiving one another, if anyone has a complaint against another . . .” (v. 13).  The implication here, of course, is that as Christians we are still less than perfect, and that from time to time conflict will arise even in the best of churches.  How, then, are we to deal with such conflict?  First of all, by “bearing with one another.”  We must make allowances for differences of personality and background.  Some things are not worth making an issue over.  And so if someone else’s action or behavior does not amount to actual sin, we should try to overlook it even if it rubs us the wrong way.

But some situations may require us to go to the other brother and confront him about the problem; and if he repents we should forgive him and restore fellowship.  Christians should not hold grudges against each other.

But, one may ask, why should we do this?  What is wrong with defending our rights?  Paul goes on to explain why: “even as Christ forgave you, so you also must do” (. 13).  Look at what Christ has done for us.  Here was the sinless Son of God who came into this sin-cursed world, and offered up His life on the cross in order to save us.  We were hell-deserving sinners, completely unworthy of the least of God’s favors.  And yet in spite of our guilt we are now forgiven.  “Amazing grace, how sweet the sound that saved a wretch like me”!  But if Christ was willing to do that for us, should now we be willing to do the same for others?  Should we not imitate Christ’s example?  And if we were hell-deserving sinners saved by grace we are really no different from the brother who sinned against us.  If Christ forgave us our sins then we should forgive others.

Paul then adds, “But above all these things put on love, which is the bond of perfection” (v. 14).  Love, according to Scripture, is the preeminent virtue.  It is not enough merely to be kind, humble or patient.  These are largely passive virtues.  All of this must arise from a heart filled with love, an active concern for others, a positive desire to do good to them.  The commentators disagree over exactly what Paul meant by “the bond of perfection,” with some arguing that love is what underlies all Christian virtue, while others take it to mean that love is what binds Christians together.  In other case love is the preeminent Christian virtue, the virtue from which all other virtues arise.

And then Paul says, “And let the peace of God rule in your hearts, to which you were called in one body . . .” (v. 15).  In the Bible peace is more than just the absence of conflict.  It the sense of well-being that comes when everything is in order.  And so to this we are “called in one body.”  Every genuine believer is a member of the universal church, the mystical body of Christ.  And that universal church is to be marked by peace – a harmonious unity of the entire body.  That is the peace that we should let rule in our hearts.

And then Paul adds, “and be thankful” (v. 15).  If it is true that God is our sovereign Lord and Creator; if He has saved us by His grace alone, and guides us and protects us through His providence, then we owe everything to Him.  And that, in turn, should be reflected in a spirit of genuine gratitude in our hearts.  We can claim nothing for ourselves; we owe everything to Him.  That should draw out our hearts in praise and adoration to Him.

These, then, are the basic qualities of character that a Christian ought to “put on.”  It is significant that many of them, “kindness,” “meekness,” “longsuffering,” “love” and “peace” are listed among the fruit of the Spirit (Gal. 5:22,23).  They are the marks of a work of God’s grace in the heart.

It will be noted that Christian ethics largely concerns how we treat others.  “Love does no harm to a neighbor; therefore love is the fulfillment of the law,” Paul says elsewhere (Rom. 13:10).  It will also be seen that God is concerned not just with the outward action but with the inward motive.  God looks on the heart, and what He sees are the thoughts and feelings that drive our outward actions.  True Christian virtue stems from a heart that has been renewed by the Holy Spirt, and arises from a genuine desire to please God and help our neighbor.  Anything short of that misses the whole point of biblical morality.

This, then, is what the Christian life should look like.  May God grant each one of us the grace to live a life that is pleasing to Him!

WITHOUT HOPE AND WITHOUT GOD

 

 

 

 

Edvard Munch

Edvard Munch, The Scream, 1893

One of the most tragic comments ever written about a group of people is found in Paul’s Epistle to the Ephesians.  There, writing to a church made up largely of Gentile converts, Paul reminded them “that at that time you were without Christ, being aliens from the commonwealth of Israel and strangers from the covenants of promise, having no hope and without God in the world” (Eph. 2:12; NKJV).  It is a vivid description of the world without Christ.

It must be remembered that before the coming of the gospel this was the condition in which most of the human race found itself.  God’s dealings with the human race were largely confined to one small group of people – the nation of Israel.  Thus Israel was uniquely in a position to know something about God and about His purposes in history.  He had made a promise to their ancestor Abraham, and that promise gave them hope – hope for a better tomorrow.

But where did that leave the rest of the human race?  They were “strangers from the covenants of promise, having no hope and without God in the world.”  The “covenants of promise” refers to the various covenants that God had made to Abraham and his descendants the Israelites.  The covenants included promises from God, and the promises gave Israel hope – the confident expectation that God would make things better in the future.  But the Gentiles had none of this.  Theirs was a dark and unpromising world, filled with toil and hardship, strife and conflict, with no hope for a better future.  What you so was pretty much what you got.

Moreover, the Gentiles were “without God in the world.”  They worshipped gods, of course; they were polytheistic.  But their “gods” were very much like themselves – only they lived longer.  What the pagan Gentiles had no concept of was a single, all-powerful Supreme Being, the Creator and Sustainer of the universe.  And this affected them psychologically.  Without God it is nearly impossible to find meaning and purpose in life.  We simply exist as an accident of nature, left to struggle to survive on our own.  For a while we might convince ourselves that we are doing well – we have jobs and houses and cars and boats.  But does anyone else really care about us?  Does it really matter in the long run?  And what happens when things turn bad?  What do we have then?  We are left with nothing.

You can see it on people’s faces.  Some look sad and depressed; some look bitter and cynical; others are just plain angry.  Few smile and few look happy.  They have eaten the bitter herbs of life without God.

As human beings we can find meaning and purpose, happiness and fulfillment, only by returning to our Creator.  We were created by Him for His purposes, and life was meant to function a certain way – His way.

Our sins stand as a barrier between us and God, and we must find forgiveness on the basis of Christ’s atoning death on the cross.  We must go to God in repentance and faith, and then we can find a meaningful relationship with our Creator.  In his letter to the Ephesians could go on to refer to Isa. 57:19: “And He came and preached peace to you who were afar off and to those who were near”; and went on to say, “For through Him [i.e., Christ] we both have access by one Spirit to the Father” (Eph. 2:17,18).

Does the Christian experience difficulties in life?  He most certainly does.  But he takes his burdens to God in prayer; he comes in complete submission to the Father’s will, and he trusts in God’s unfailing providence.  He finds fulfillment in life by serving God and helping others.  And in the end he dies in the hope of eternal life.  It is a hope worth living for.

THE CHRISTIAN IN THE WORLD

 

4.2.7

Van Gogh: Man Reading the Bible

 

In our blog post of June 11 we saw that the Christian’s aim should not be the preservation of America’s civil religion.  But what should its aim be?  How is the Christian to relate to the surrounding world?

In Titus 2:11-14 the apostle Paul gives us a brief summary of what the Christian life is supposed to look like.  It is a different kind of life-style based on a distinctively Christian worldview.

It begins with a historical fact: “For the grace of God that brings salvation has appeared to all men . . .” (v. 11; NKJV).  Here Paul is undoubtedly referring back to the first advent of Christ and His death on the cross that opened up to all mankind the offer of salvation.  This was the great turning point in history.

But what effect does this have on us?  Paul goes on to say that salvation is “teaching us that, denying ungodliness and worldly lusts, we should live soberly, righteously, and godly in the present age . . .” (v. 12).  Here it will be seen that there is both a negative and a positive side to the Christian life.  On the negative side we are to “deny ungodliness and worldly lusts.”  The word “ungodliness” might better be translated “impiety” – it is the lack of devotion to or reverence for God.  A good modern term would be “secularism,” the absence of God in our thinking.  “Worldly lusts” are self-centered desires that drive most of human behavior – the lust for pleasure, wealth, fame or power.  We sometimes dress it up as “enlightened self-interest” or “the profit motive.”  These are the things which typically mark human behavior outside of Christ, and the Christian must turn his back on all of this, leaving it all behind.  He has been called to a higher life.

On the positive side we are to “live soberly, righteously, and godly.”  To live soberly means to exercise sound judgment in all of the decisions we make.  It means that we do not go through life pursuing pleasure with reckless abandon, but we carefully weigh the consequences of the actions we take.  We look to promote the glory of God and the well-being of our fellow man.

But we are also called to live “righteously,” which means to live in accordance with God’s law.  God is our Creator, our Lawgiver and Judge.  We can find happiness and fulfillment in life only when we live in accordance with His will and purposes.

And then we are to live “godly” or “piously,” as the word might be better translated.  We are to give God His proper place in our lives, to have a genuine and heartfelt devotion towards Him, and to acknowledge Him in all of our ways.

All of this we are to do “in the present age,” the time in which we are now living.  The Bible often contrasts “the present age” with “the age which is to come”: and the “the present age” is marked by sin and evil.  Nevertheless the Christian is expected to live a godly life now, in the present age.  This will inevitably mean a life of non-conformity to the world.

But why would we want to do this?  Why would we run the risk of social ostracism and financial failure by refusing to conform?  The answer is because we are “looking for the blessed hope and glorious appearing of our great God and Savior Jesus Christ” (v. 13).  The Christian looks forward to the future, and what he sees is “the glorious appearing” of Christ, His visible return at the end of the age when He comes to establish a new order of things here on earth.  The Christian is conscious that what we experience now will not last forever.  Christ will return and things will be entirely different.  The Christian lives for tomorrow and not for today.

It should be kept in mind that God’s whole purpose in our salvation is to free us, not just from the guilt of sin, but also from its power.  Christ “gave Himself for us, that He might redeem us from every lawless deed and purify for Himself His own special people, zealous for good works” (v. 14).  The word “redeem” means to pay a ransom and thereby secure the release of a slave or prisoner.  We were once under the power and guilt of sin.  Christ paid the penalty for that sin by dying on the cross and thereby secured our salvation.  And He did this at enormous cost to Himself: He “gave Himself for us.”

But why did He do this?  What was His aim and objective?  It was not just to forgive us but also to sanctify us: “ . . .that He might redeem from every lawless deed and purify for Himself his own special people, zealous for good works.”  It was sin that got us into trouble; Christ freed us from that condition.  Now we are “His own special people, a people of His own possession; we now belong to Him.  And we are to be “zealous for good works” – we are not to conform half-heartedly to an external set of rules; we are to desire sincerely to do good to others.

The Christian, then, is called to a life of non-conformity to the surrounding world.  He does not have the luxury of living the life of a nice, comfortable, middle-class existence.  He is conscious of answering to a Higher Authority; and that will eventually bring him into conflict with the values of the surrounding world.  This will require personal sacrifice on his part – the possible loss of job, family reputation.  It may even invite on occasion legal prosecution.  But faithful to God he must remain.  The sacrifice is temporary; the gain is eternal.   May God grant us all the grace to live for Him!

A RELATIONSHIP WITH CHRIST

 

 

 

We sometimes hear it said that what we need is not religion, but a relationship with Jesus.  The statement, however, is a bit disingenuous.  If “a relationship with Jesus” is not “religion,” then what is “religion”?  Jesus was, after all, a highly regarded religious teacher, and to most people’s minds a relationship with Jesus is certainly religion.  So when people make the statement, how exactly do they mean by the world “religion”?  Usually they leave it undefined.  Presumably it is whatever bad experience one may have had with a church in the past.

There is, however, an element of truth to the charge.  It is sad but true that much of what passes for religion these days in the typical, modern institutional church has very little genuinely spiritual content.  The typical church functions as a social club, the pastor is a trained professional who is paid to perform certain administrative duties, and the Sunday morning service is little more than a mere formality.  Ironically there is very little sense of the presence of Jesus.  What is lacking is a meaningful relationship with Christ.

But what, then, is a relationship with Christ?  What does one look like?  The apostle Paul gives us a picture in Philippians chapter 3 in which he describes his own relationship with Christ.

By almost any measure Paul led a remarkable life.  Called to be the apostle to the Gentiles he preached the gospel throughout Asia Minor and Greece.  But in so doing he encountered ferocious opposition along the way, and his path eventually took him to the city of Rome where he suffered martyrdom.  His letter to the Philippians was written from a prison.

But what led him to take such risks, and expose himself to such dangers?  Why would anyone in his right mind persist in such a hazardous course?  In Philippians chapter 3 pulls back the veil a bit to give us a glimpse into his own heart.

He begins by describing his own religious background as a devout Jew.  He was “circumcised the eighth day, of the stock of Israel, of the tribe of Benjamin, a Hebrew of the Hebrews, concerning the law, a Pharisee; concerning zeal, persecuting the church; concerning the righteousness which is in the law, blameless” (Phil. 3:5,6; NKJV).  In other words his religion consisted almost entirely in what he was what he did.

But when he became a Christian his whole perspective on life changed dramatically.  “But what things were gain to me, these I have counted loss for Christ.  Yes indeed I also count all things loss for the excellence of the knowledge of Christ Jesus my Lord for whom I have suffered the loss of all things, and count them as rubbish, that I may gain Christ” (vv. 7,8)

But why?  What is so special about Christ?  Paul goes on to explain.

Paul says that he wants to be “found in Him” (v. 9).  This is a reference to union with Christ.  When a person repents of his sin, puts his trust in Christ, and is baptized, he becomes one with Christ; he is “in Him.”  And this, in turn, has several implications.

The first of these is the forgiveness of one’s sins, or “justification by faith” as Paul puts it elsewhere.  Here Paul draws a contrast between “my own righteousness, which is from the law” and “that which is through faith in Christ, the righteousness which is from God by faith” (v. 9).  In other words we are made righteous in the sight of God (justification) by an imputed righteousness.  Having been united to Christ by faith we are counted as Christ Himself.  We are credited with His righteousness.

But does this mean that having been forgiven we can go out and live like the devil?  Not at all, because union with Christ means several other things as well.  For Paul goes on to say “that I may know Him and the power of His resurrection” (v. 10).  Note: Paul said that he wanted to “know Him,” not merely know about Him.  What he aimed at was a personal acquaintance with Christ, a meaningful relationship with Him.  This, in turn, means knowing something of “the power of His resurrection” – the life-giving power that transforms lives, the spiritual life within.

But Paul goes on.  He also says that he wants to know “the fellowship of His sufferings, being conformed to His death” (v. 10).  To follow Christ means to go where He went and experience what He experienced.  And Christ was eventually crucified.  And so too we are told that we must experience persecution.  “’A servant is not greater than his master.’  If they persecuted Me, they will also persecute you” (John 15:20).

Paul goes on to compare the Christian life to a foot race in which “forgetting the things which are behind and reaching forward to those things which are ahead, I press toward the prize of the upward call of God in Christ Jesus” (vv. 13,14).  It is a life of determined purpose and strenuous exertion in which we press on to the goal that lies ahead, and do not allow ourselves to be distracted by lesser things.

Paul goes on in the end of the chapter to lament the presence of certain false teachers who, he says, are “enemies of the cross of Christ” (v. 18).  He describes them as a bunch of hedonistic materialists (“whose god is their belly, and whose glory is in their shame – who set their mind on earthly things” – does this not sound like the typical, modern consumer oriented American?).

Christians, however, have a different perspective on life: “. . . our citizenship is in heaven” (v. 20).  We belong to a different realm or state; and we live for the future, not the present, viz., the Second Coming of Christ “from which we also eagerly wait for the Savior, the Lord Jesus,” who will release us from our present ills and inaugurate a glorious future.  In the words of the old gospel hymn,

“This world is not my home,

I’m just apassing through.

My treasures are laid up

Somewhere beyond the blue;

The angels beckon me

Through heaven’s open door,

And I can’t feel at home

In this world anymore.”

The problem with many churches today is that they have a “religion,” but it mainly consists in external observances.  There is very little real spirituality about it.  But God calls us to have a relationship with Christ.  Christ is supposed to be the focus of our attention, the object of our worship, the driving force in our lives.  A real relationship with Christ begins with a sound conversion – repentance, faith and the new birth; and it is fostered by a life of prayer and personal Bible study.  A relationship with Christ transforms us inwardly – gives us a new perspective, new values and new desires.  It leads to holy living and a life of non-conformity to the world.

May God send His church a revival!