Sunday, August 29, 2010

Sunday Salt: Martin Luther Takes Aim at Anxiety

Just about everyone knows something about Martin Luther, but there are so many common ideas about him that they sometimes distort or obscure his real work and his real character. A good introduction to his life can be found here, and a short overview (albeit with typos) is available here. Many of his works can be read for free online, thanks to resources like Project Wittenberg.

One of Luther's great gifts - and great stumbling blocks - was his passion and boldness. The following quote from a letter he wrote to Philip Melanchthon in 1530 shows how he pulled no punches and cut straight through all the anxieties and cares that were preoccupying Melanchthon. Luther reminds him that the best way to defeat anxiety (instead of being defeated by it) is to take our eyes off our cares and fix them on God Himself (see Matthew 6:33).

"What good do you expect to accomplish by these vain worries of yours? What can the devil do more than slay us? What? I beg you, who are so pugnacious in everything else, fight against yourself, your own worst enemy, for you furnish Satan with too many weapons against yourself. Christ died once for our sins. He will not die again for truth and justice, but will live and reign. If this be true, and if He reigns, why should you be afraid for the truth? Perhaps you are afraid that it will be destroyed by God's wrath. Even if we should ourselves be destroyed, let it not be by our own hands. He who is Our Father will also be the Father of our children. I pray for you very earnestly, and I am deeply pained that you keep sucking up cares like a leech and thus rendering my prayers vain. Christ knows whether it comes from stupidity or the Spirit, but I for my part am not very much troubled about our cause. Indeed, I am more hopeful than I expected to be. God who is able to raise the dead is also able to uphold His cause when it is falling or to raise it up again when it has fallen or to move it forward when it is standing. If we are not worthy instruments to accomplish His purpose, He will find others. If we are not strengthened by His promises, where in all the world are the people to whom these promises apply?"

I came across this quote in a message from Dr. Al Mohler on courage in Christian ministry, and I recommend the three-part series as a good way to check whether we have true courage based on faith in the God who can do all things, or whether we are lowering our expectations and being too timid because we aren't trusting deeply enough in God's ability to overcome ever obstacle. Dr. Mohler recommended Luther's Letters of Spiritual Counsel as a great place to find encouragement from Luther's words. Many of the pages are available online at Google books.

Sunday, August 15, 2010

Sunday Salt: C.S. Lewis Exposes Our Legalistic Thinking

After this week's discussion of legalism, this quote from C.S. Lewis seems appropriate. Lewis hardly needs an introduction to many, but his life and his conversion are fascinating and well worth examining. A brief overview can be found here. Also, John Piper delivered this winter a thought-provoking and insightful analysis of the tremendous value of Lewis's thought as well as some important cautions about how we allow it to influence us. Piper's tribute to Lewis and his observations on some of the weak points in the way Lewis went about his work struck me as incredibly brilliant in the way they summed up the works of Lewis I have cherished over the past 14 years. The message will make you love Lewis more but also think more clearly about him.

Now, Lewis himself on how people go astray over setting up rules of behavior that go beyond the actual commandments about sin (although it is good for us to make personal decisions to stay away from some things if they tend to undermine our faith - see this earlier Sunday Salt):

"One of the marks of a certain type of bad man is that he cannot give up a thing himself without wanting every one else to give it up. That is not the Christian way. An individual Christian may see fit to give up all sorts of things for special reasons - marriage, or meat, or beer, or the cinema; but the moment he starts saying the things are bad in themselves, or looking down his nose at other people who do use them, he has taken the wrong turning."
- Mere Christianity, p. 76 (Touchstone edition; 1996).

Romans 14:1-6:
"As for the one who is weak in faith, welcome him, but not to quarrel over opinions. One person believes he may eat anything, while the weak person eats only vegetables. Let not the one who eats despise the one who abstains, and let not the one who abstains pass judgment on the one who eats, for God has welcomed him. Who are you to pass judgment on the servant of another? It is before his own master that he stands or falls. And he will be upheld, for the Lord is able to make him stand. One person esteems one day as better than another, while another esteems all days alike. Each one should be fully convinced in his own mind. The one who observes the day, observes it in honor of the Lord. The one who eats, eats in honor of the Lord, since he gives thanks to God, while the one who abstains, abstains in honor of the Lord and gives thanks to God."

Tuesday, August 10, 2010

Our Hope Is Not In Who We Are, But In Who God Is

Here is the antidote to the problem of legalism I described in the last post: Our identity does not come from our being good people. It comes from God being so gracious and full of love that He accepts us and forgives us, cleaning us off and making us able to stand before Him. And He did that by allowing Jesus to suffer in our place and take every ounce of our punishment - past, present, and future - for every wrong, hurtful, selfish, prideful, insensitive, or otherwise sinful thing we ever did or ever will do. It's done. And part of the implicit promise in Christ's death and resurrection is that God will make us like Christ one day - without sin. It doesn't depend on us; it depends only on Him and His faithfulness to keep the promises He has made to us. It's part of the package when you believe in Christ through faith.

This is where Scripture tells us to focus our hope for purity and obedience:

"Now may the God of peace himself sanctify you completely, and may your whole spirit and soul and body be kept blameless at the coming of our Lord Jesus Christ. He who calls you is faithful; he will surely do it." 1 Thessalonians 5:23-24

"And I am sure of this, that he who began a good work in you will bring it to completion at the day of Jesus Christ." Philippians 1:6

"Now to him who is able to keep you from stumbling and to present you blameless before the presence of his glory with great joy, to the only God, our Savior, through Jesus Christ our Lord, be glory, majesty, dominion, and authority, before all time and now and forever. Amen." Jude 24-25

"Therefore, my beloved, as you have always obeyed, so now, not only as in my presence but much more in my absence, work out your own salvation with fear and trembling, for it is God who works in you, both to will and to work for his good pleasure." Philippians 2:12-13

"But by the grace of God I am what I am, and his grace toward me was not in vain. On the contrary, I worked harder than any of them, though it was not I, but the grace of God that is with me." 1 Corinthians 15:10

"...that you may learn by us not to go beyond what is written, that none of you may be puffed up in favor of one against another. For who sees anything different in you? What do you have that you did not receive? If then you received it, why do you boast as if you did not receive it?" 1 Corinthians 4:6-7

One of the key reasons that people act like legalists is that they are holding on tightly to a self-image that is based in thinking that, deep down, they really are good people. And in order to believe that you really are good, you have to believe you're capable of doing good things naturally and all on your own initiative. People cling to that because they fear the idea that they aren't really good inside. They think they can never have any hope or joy if that is true. But denying that you have a dishonest heart that desires sin and stubbornly trying to fight temptation on your own is only going to lead to the despair and hopelessness I described in the last post. You will end up with a bad self-image anyway, because you will feel that you must be a very lousy and wretched sort of person if you can't succeed in keeping God's commands.

The joy and freedom of Christianity is found in the realization that God knows you are sinful inside, and He still loves you anyway and still surrendered Christ to death on the cross to spare you any punishment. He loves you so much that He has taken upon Himself not only the punishment for your sin, but also the responsibility for keeping you from sin and teaching you to walk in the way of righteousness and life. Freedom is knowing that you don't have to strive and push yourself and shame yourself anymore to try to be good - you can just put your trust and hope entirely in God's power to work inside of you the right desires and the right actions.

This Message That I'm Not Good Is Discouraging

I described in a recent post our desire to think of ourselves as good and our resistance to accepting that we really aren't good. I summed it up this way: "One of the most subtle deceptions that keep us trapped in a pattern of sin is the idea that our hearts and minds are basically good and capable of doing the right thing if we just try hard enough. Too many people cling to this idea as a self-image, not wanting to accept that they are not good by nature." The result of this mindset is that we are ineffective in resisting sin. We try to do it with our will, and we end up stumbling over and over again.

Many people resist the idea that they are incapable of doing the right thing on their own, because it makes them feel discouraged and devalued. We don't like being told we're not "good." But I've found that what really fuels discouragement in me is not the knowledge that I have a deceitful heart that can't be trusted (Jeremiah 17:9), but instead the repeated failures of trying to be a "good person" by following rules. When you fall short - which you always will - you feel depressed and shameful. This is what Christians call legalism. It is one of the chief enemies of joy in the life of a believer.

You may think you already know about legalism, but it is much more subtle and hard to detect than many people realize. People often describe legalism as trying to "earn your salvation" - essentially, thinking that "if I obey well enough, God will accept me." And because of this definition, people can easily think they aren't being affected by legalism because they are putting their faith in Christ alone to save them. "I know I can't earn my salvation," they may think, "and I am trusting in Christ's death on the cross as the payment for my sins. So I'm safe from legalism."

But it is very possible - and surprisingly common - for those who have put their faith in Christ to end up acting like legalists afterwards. Paul had to address this in the Galatian church. After they believed in Christ by faith, he still had to correct them: "Let me ask you only this: Did you receive the Spirit by works of the law or by hearing with faith? Are you so foolish? Having begun by the Spirit, are you now being perfected by the flesh?" (See Galatians 3:2-3.) What often happens to Christians is that they believe in Christ as their sole Savior and the sole source of their forgiveness, but then they think that now that they have faith and are filled with the Holy Spirit, it is their job to work hard to obey God's commandments and to keep themselves pure. And so they start with faith, but end up trying to finish sanctification (the process of shedding old sinful ways and learning to walk in obedience to God) on their own strength through sheer willpower. This is something every Christian has to vigilantly watch out for, because it is a trap you can slip into even when you think you're very mature in your faith and thinking. In the next post I'll describe the antidote.

Sunday, August 8, 2010

Sunday Salt: Charles Simeon's Comfort in Suffering

Charles Simeon was the pastor of Trinity Church in Cambridge, England for 54 years (from 1782 until his death in 1836). John Piper has a very good biographical message about him that you can read, listen to, or download the audio for here. This quote is taken from Piper's message. It made a large impact on me when I read it, and the impact grew the more I learned about the kind of suffering and opposition Simeon faced during his 54 years of preaching and ministry. These words would not have nearly the same weight if they came from someone who had not experienced great struggle and suffering and difficulty. The encouragement in these words is that they come from a man who faced challenges and discouragements at least as difficult as anything most of us ever will, and he could still be content in the knowledge that His soul was secure in Christ. Piper's message has many more examples of how Simeon's faith and practices of devotion to God's Word and prayer kept him encouraged, and I commend it as very worthwhile reading.

A friend had asked Simeon how he had endured the opposition and strife in all his years of ministry. Simeon's reply:

"My dear brother, we must not mind a little suffering for Christ's sake. When I am getting through a hedge, if my head and shoulders are safely through, I can bear the pricking of my legs. Let us rejoice in the remembrance that our holy Head has surmounted all His suffering and triumphed over death. Let us follow Him patiently; we shall soon be partakers of His victory" (H.C.G. Moule, Charles Simeon, London: InterVarsity, 1948, 155f.).

Scriptures that come to mind: 2 Corinthians 4:16-18; Romans 8:16-18.

Monday, August 2, 2010

Sunday Salt: What John Wesley's Mother Taught Him

Sin likes to hide. That's one reason I believe it is so important to examine ourselves in order to discover where sin is lurking in our hearts. One of the chief enemies of our joy and our faith is the subtle desire for sin that our hearts hold on to and try to sneak around with. Our hearts disguise it with all sorts of seemingly innocent justifications, which is why it takes some self-examination and some scrutiny to root it out.

This is one of my favorite quotes on that process of identifying hidden sin and spotting habits that lead us away from God. Although I will likely post something from John Wesley, founder of the Methodist movement, in the future, today's quote is from his mother Susanna:

"Take this rule: whatever weakens your reason, impairs the tenderness of your conscience, obscures your sense of God, or takes off your relish of spiritual things; in short, whatever increases the strength and authority of your body over your mind, that thing is sin to you, however innocent it may be in itself."
-- Susanna Wesley (Letter, June 8, 1725)

Wesley himself also has a very interesting story of conversion that fits with what I am going to post about this week, so I'll link to it here: on the main page, click the Testimony tab right under the title "John Wesley". Wesley practiced fasting, prayer, and many works of charity in an ascetic or self-depriving way, preached, traveled to America to evangelize the Indians, and established many of his spiritual ideas about Christian life all before he experienced what was probably his true conversion. It was not until 1738 that he experienced real faith in Christ alone to forgive his sins, and he confesses it was only then that he knew the peace of being assured he was cleansed and forgiven. Wesley's testimony is a good example of how long we can be led astray and deceived in thinking we are living the life of faith when we are only trying to follow rules and be "religious." This is why it is so important to listen to the Gospel and apply it.

For this reason, I am also careful to examine and test the ideas that Wesley promoted. I find many valuable things in what Wesley taught, but the way he developed his ideas and the rigid discipline he approached religion with before he really experienced the freedom of the Gospel mean that some of his thoughts and teachings are unreliable. It's always a good idea to test anything a person says against Scripture, no matter how respected and beloved he may be.